David Bowie is dead, at least in the traditional sense. It seems impossible, not just because he released a new album a few days before he died, but because he always carried with him an air of the otherworldly, even when he wasn’t dressed as a Goblin King. It’s probably a cliché to say so by this point, but it’s no less true: David Bowie seemed immortal, and because of that, and all of the great work he left behind, he actually is.
But the man himself is gone, and we’re still dealing with the surprising waves of grief. When he passed away early last week, it the founders of SportsAlcohol.com hard – and we soon found out from the outpouring of love and sadness on social media that we were far from alone. It should go without saying that Bowie amassed a great number of both devotees and casual fans during his time on this earth, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen such widespread appreciation of a musician who we were all so lucky to share a planet with, if only for a handful of decades.
If there’s a good thing about a beloved and galactically talented artist dying what seems like “before his time” (though Bowie’s 69 years surely counted for triple that in terms of accomplishments), it’s the feelings of both comfort and hurt that we can continue to take from his music. So: SportsAlcohol.com invited a bunch of Bowie fans to vote on the best of his many, many songs, with everyone submitting their votes via Top 20 lists. There was a surprising amount of consensus for a list like this. Maybe you can chalk that up to the hits – those inescapable, undeniable hits. But if many lists lacked a roster of fans-only deep cuts, maybe that’s because Bowie wrote and/or performed an unusual number of songs that are too universally beloved to be ignored. Consider also that many of these hits were not, as such, actual hits, at least not in the Hit Single sense. Many of their reputations grew with time, through their places on classic and endlessly replayable records; through transcendent moments in film; or just by being really fucking great.
Megan Burns is a Queens-based painter. One time her mom begged her to stop talking about David Bowie.
Vikram Murthi writes film and TV criticism for the A.V. Club and elsewhere.
Bryan Nies and President Obama both have mothers. Their mothers were born in the same hospital. Ahem, credentials.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance film and TV writer for the A.V. Club and elsewhere, and lives in Portland, Maine.
Jeff Prisco is a robotics engineer (non-evil variety). When not dad-ing, he enjoys watching bad sci-fi (evil robot variety).
Ashley Strosnider is a writer and editor who lives in Nebraska.
Commencing countdown, engines on:
The Top 32 Best David Bowie Songs
Bowie was engaged in his craft right up until the end; the whole of Blackstar offers heartbreaking proof of that. In fact, so many people included “Lazarus” on their lists that I felt it was necessary to turn the traditional Top 25 or Top 30 list into a Top 32 to get it on the master list. Talking with near-lifelong Bowie fan Chris about this decision, he described “Lazarus” as a “sad blanket,” a “tired retrospective,” and a “second-tier This is Hardcore cut” (that last one doesn’t truck with me; a song as good as Pulp’s “TV Movie” can make this list, easily) – and opined that the title track from Blackstar is really where it’s at. “Blackstar” did receive a few votes, sometimes even sharing spots with “Lazarus,” but “Lazarus” got more mentions and more points, and as someone who gave it a token #20 spot on my own list, I understand why. I’ll grant that it’s not as musically adventurous as “Blackstar”: it’s shorter, with less distorted vocals, and a more traditionally tasteful use of the saxophone that underscores a lot of the album.
But then remember: we are human beings, and we live in the world. Specifically, we live in a world where Bowie died shortly after releasing the album with “Lazarus” on it, from cancer that he had battled for eighteen months prior (including, then, during the making of this record), and the song begins with him singing: “Look up here, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” There’s some of that imagery on “Blackstar,” too, but “Lazarus” goes there more directly and, for me, more heartbreakingly. And it changes because he died. Because that’s what happens. – Jesse
I wasn’t walking around with this list in my head. For me, this is a list that I put together knowing that David Bowie has died. It’s impossible for me to say whether I would have rated “Lazarus” as highly as I did under other circumstances, but it’s equally impossible for me to imagine leaving it out now. I usually don’t go in for biographical criticism, but it’s hard to ignore how explicitly this song is about its creator’s impending death, and that’s before we even get to the video where Bowie sings from a hospital bed and then shuts himself inside a coffin-sized wardrobe. For all this, though, it’s not a morose song, and since I heard the news I’ve been thinking of its closing sentiment a lot: “Just like that bluebird/ Oh I’ll be free/ Ain’t that just like me.” He sings the hell out of the whole song, as if defying you to think he’s been weakened. Forget writing your own epitaph, David Bowie, faced with the certain knowledge that he was going to die, left us with a goodbye that ensured he was leaving the world exactly on his own terms. Ain’t that just like him? – Craig
31. “All the Young Dudes”
David Live, 1974
The story goes that Bowie met Peter Watts, bassist for Mott the Hoople, and heard that the band was struggling commercially and about to split up. He offered them the #11 song on this list, and after they turned him down, he went ahead and wrote “All the Young Dudes” for them. The obvious lesson here is that 1972 was a good time to be friends with David Bowie. He just gifted the band a hit song. And it turned out to be a glam rock anthem for a disaffected generation whose brothers might be back home with their Beatles and Stones, but they themselves couldn’t get it off on that revolution stuff. How could they be expected to, really? In an interview in the mid-70s, Bowie said that the “news” the young dudes in the song are carrying is the same news the newscaster is in “Five Years,” that the end of the world is a few short years away. Here, then, what sounded like an anthem of solidarity is revealed to be something of a funeral dirge. Or maybe it’s both. That’s another of Bowie’s many talents. His spoonful of sugar can be so relentlessly catchy that you won’t mind the medicine (in this case, straight up apocalyptic foreboding). Carry that news, dudes. – Nathaniel
30. “Magic Dance”
Jesse and I played “Magic Dance” at our wedding. I’d like to say it was my idea, but it was a suggestion from a reply card. We discarded many of the reply-card song suggestions. If anyone requested a coordinated line dance, for example, we tossed it aside. But when we saw “Magic Dance,” we said hell yes.
When it came on in the reception, the song went over. I’m not sure that’d be true at every wedding, but I bet it would be if the reception guests are from the generation that made Labyrinth a home-video staple. It certainly was a constant rental for my sister and me. She’s older than I am (despite what she may say), and growing up I was forever grateful that she never asked for the David Bowie as the Goblin King to come and take me away. Now, though, being raised by David Bowie as the Goblin King in a labyrinth of monsters seems like it might’ve been a cool adventure, like the kind laid out in the song “Kooks.”
As soon as “Magic Dance” came on at our reception, one of our guests raced up to us. “I’ve never heard this at a wedding before,” she said. “But I rented this movie so many times that the people at the video store would have it ready to go for me as soon as they saw me coming.” That guest was also an older sister; I don’t know if she ever asked, but her younger sister was not taken away by David Bowie as the Goblin King to be raised in “Kooks”-style situation in a labyrinth full of monsters. We nodded at our friend, but we couldn’t talk too long because, in the middle of the song, the unthinkable happened: a coordinated line dance broke out. (Or was it planned?) Specifically, the Electric Slide. I was horrified at first, but it’s actually amazing how well the Electric Slide and “Magic Dance” go together. I can’t say that I think David Bowie as the Goblin King would approve, but it happened, and it’s a happy memory from the wedding.
Now, Jesse and I sing “Magic Dance” to our daughter. Right now she’s an only, but, if we ever have another baby, she’d be a big sister. It’d be up to her to decide if she wants to call upon David Bowie as the Goblin King to take her sibling away to be raised in “Kooks”-style situation in a labyrinth full of monsters. She probably won’t play “Magic Dance” at her wedding. For now, though, she smiles at it. Jesse and I do all of the monster voices. After we say, “And baby says…” we look at her. Most of the time, she doesn’t respond. But, sometimes, she does. – Marisa
Countless tributes to Mr. Bowie refer to him as the chameleon changing into Ziggy Stardust (mis-remembering how silly this actually looked) and the Thin White Duke (grasping to remember when this actually was), but Bowie’s fruitful “Berlin Period,” lacking a notable hairdo and producing only one home run of a greatest hit, seems to be oft-regarded as fly-over country in the Bowie discography. However: this era of collaboration with Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Robert Fripp, Tony Visconti, and, um, Bing Crosby yielded a torrent of striking sounds and ideas of continuing influence. (None other than Philip Glass built his first and fourth symphonies from this source material.) And nothing of this period is as haunting and perfect as “Warszawa.” – Chris
28. “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), 1980
As mentioned in my sportsalcohol.com bio, I honestly don’t care for writing myself and don’t think I have much of a talent for it, which is fine. However, when I was asked to do a couple write-ups for this list, as a huge Bowie fan, I was pleased; I was also at a loss. I feel like nothing I have to say could appropriately describe how straight up amazing/talented/creative/visionary/all-of-the-adjectives David Bowie was. It feels impossible to fully articulate my thoughts on one of my favorite Bowie songs, so, here’s the first one (to best of my ability).
I feel like it’s an understatement to say there was almost nothing musically that David Bowie wasn’t outstanding at. If I hadn’t already loved Bowie before I heard it, “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” would have easily put me over the top. As a fan of The Cure, Bauhaus, Joy Division, etc. (and, generally, most things creepy – musically or otherwise), the semi-distorted/growly vocals, ominous lyrics, and somewhat frantic pacing are right on the mark. The line “she asked for my love and I gave her a dangerous mind” is my favorite; as with many other aspects of his musical career, his flair for the dramatic lends itself perfectly to this genre. David Bowie does goth – before goth is fully a thing – and does it better than most. What the world lost in David Bowie was a musician that experimented and adapted so successfully, that we would still be listening to whatever he put out with interest and anticipation years from now – when, at 99 years old, he’d most likely be releasing the first album ever recorded on the surface of Mars or something equally fantastic. – Sabrina
27. “I’m Afraid of Americans”
Because of its electronic tinge Earthling and songs like “I’m Afraid of Americans” have gotten a bad rap in the Bowie discography. Sure, “electronica” was the hot trend of the time but Bowie’s use of beats didn’t stop him from writing good songs. With “Afraid” he created an energetic song with real lyrics that you can sing (or yell) along to in the car (a much more enjoyable experience then just repeating a single techno sample-lyric). With each verse the intensity of Bowie’s fear grows until the mellow exit asks you to think about god’s nationality. The end results is a sorta-electronica song that I still go back to years after my interested that very ‘90s genre has faded. -Jeff
26. “Watch That Man”
Aladdin Sane, 1973
If you read anything about this song, it’s probably getting dinged for trying to take a bite of out of Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones. “Mick Ronson plays Chuck Berry licks via Keith Richard, Garson plays at being Nicky Hopkins, Bowie slurs his lines, and the female backup singers and horns make the appropriate noises,” Ben Gerson wrote in Rolling Stone. But did you ever notice that, whenever any tries to take on Exile on Main Street, they come up with something better than Exile on Main Street? “Watch That Man” has that whole mix of rock and blues going on, but Bowie makes the mix less down and dirty, glams it up a little more, and makes it something I also want to dance to. Plus, the imagery of being able to eat someone with a fork and spoon is a really quick, succinct, and dead-on accurate description of one of those people who are too charming for their own good. People usually say “they’ll be eating out of the palm of his hand,” but that’s nowhere near as descriptive. That Man doesn’t even need a knife to eat you up, and he’s the one who gets to do the eating. Legend has it that “Watch That Man” was written about David Johansen of the New York Dolls. He was born in the same borough of New York City I lived in until I was 6 years old. I’m psyched to no end about that detail. Next time you listen to “Watch That Man,” remember that the inspiration for it came from Staten Island. – Marisa
25. “The Jean Genie”
Aladdin Sane, 1973
This was my first introduction to Bowie’s vast web of literary and artistic influences, which led me by the hand from Catholic High School-approved reading to Jean Genet, Burroughs, Isherwood, Heinlein, and Warhol. With adult eyes I see the song is just a fun mishmash of vaguely American-sounding cool stuff (Cyrinda Foxe appears in the promo video, for extra credit). The song doesn’t even really reference Jean Genet, but it led me to his work all the same. 16 and Catholic, “The Jean Genie” and “Queen Bitch” called to me personally. Sneak off to the city. Scream out the window at some lover on the street. Throw their stuff down the hall. Bite some neon. Let yourself go. -Megan
24. “Little Wonder”
You’ll read over and over again in David Bowie reviews, profiles, and obituaries that he was a chameleon, a shapeshifter, a reinventor of self. That’s all true enough, but one of his most interesting shifts of the back stretch of his career doesn’t get much credit: in 1997, at the age of 50, dude released an album with its feet dipped in the waters of what used to be broadly called “techno” but my music consultant Rob insists is really “drum ‘n bass” (I still don’t know what “trap” is, you guys). At the time, I think it got pretty good notices, but as little as a couple of years later, as Jeff alludes over in #27, Earthling was derided as Bowie chasing a trend, rather than breaking new ground. I guess maybe that’s true enough, too, if not for the pesky and kind of strange caveat that Earthling is a far better and more enjoyable listen now than a lot of electronica-tinged records from 1997, steeped as it is in Bowie’s abilities as a songwriter, not a beatjacker (note: I’m not sure of a beatjacker is really a thing but I think you know what I mean). If anyone earned the right to help himself to a new style of electronic music, it’s Bowie, and “Little Wonder,” the song that kicks off Earthling, is one of his best — not just on Earthling, but full stop. The stuttery beat (which, on its own, yeah, could probably pass for The Prodigy) eventually gives way to a slower lament about “sending me so far away,” repeating “so far away” like its own rhythm section. I have no earthly idea what the song is about, precisely, but for me it’s always sounded like an alien struggling to express his feelings, which places it squarely within the Bowie tradition, even if it came out around the same time as The Fat of the Land. “I’m getting it,” Bowie mutters after the first verse. Yep. He was. – Jesse
23. ”Oh! You Pretty Things”
Hunky Dory, 1971
With its references to the coming of “homo superior” and the end of the human race, and the early Bowie’s penchant for spacey myth-making, the spooky sci-fi undertones to this initially spare piano number suggest all manner of heady (if not head-trippy) sources, from Nietzsche to Village Of The Damned. In its spare, tinny piano-and-vocal opening and homey imagery (making the coffee, starting the fire), however, the song, penned as Bowie was preparing for first-time fatherhood, sounds of nothing so much as a fanciful, somewhat fearful, and bleakly comic expression of the more mundanely terrifying coming of children into a life about to be rendered bafflingly unrecognizable. The contrast between the innocent endearment of the title to the description of the coming visitors as “nightmares,” and “strangers” keeps the unease coming, only for it to transform to something ineffably joyous (if still creepy) when the rolling, exuberant chorus chugs to life. It’s a hook Paul McCartney might have written on a good day, its plaintive “don’t you know you’re driving your Mamas and Papas insane?” subsumed into the fairground mix—like Bowie’s concocted the only diversion that’d entertain the invaders destined to sweep him away. – Dennis
22. “Station to Station”
Station to Station, 1976
Bowie reinvents himself yet again from the plastic soul of Young Americans into the era of the Thin White Duke. “Station to Station” takes its time getting started, slowly building up steam, as the minor second interval on the piano brings to mind the Jaws theme, released only a year before. But once this train gets up to speed, we can hear that signature Bowie influence blend with his new bleaker persona’s outlook. It’s a darker side of Bowie than we’ve heard before, but there’s still a great disco kick to be found more than halfway through the longest song of his career. Stay on this album until the next station, and you’ll arrive at Low, where Bowie fully embraces Brian Eno’s Euro-style production. -Jeremy
This is what I imagine David Bowie’s creative to do list was while making the Station to Station album:
- Move to LA. That’s never gone bad before, right?
- Do so much cocaine that Fleetwood Mac thinks maybe I should slow down.
- I’ll get, like, really into some German bands. You might not have heard of them.
- These German bands are cool, but everyone was totally cool with me doing soul music. Gotta work that in somehow.
- I know, make the songs longer.
Do not try this at home; you are not David Bowie. Most people, if they come out alive of such an ordeal, emerge at the other end with a Steely Dan record to show for it. -Rob
21. “Moonage Daydream”
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972
Behold! In 1972, the Mama-Papa Messiah descended to elevate our sorry asses. If Ziggy was going to save us all from the doom prophesied in “Five Years,” he was going to do it with a cosmic dose of glam and a brusque admonition to shut the hell up and listen. He took his place as our thick-skinned androgynous polestar, the center of mankind’s attention—all of it—our love, our derision, our designs for the future. His instructions were clear: follow his love-laden lead, and revel in the luminous prospects of a new age. Still, for all of the magnetic lyrical imagery, it’s the music that really makes this daydream. David Bowie wrote arresting musical intros, and this third cut on Ziggy Stardust testifies to that tendency. Mick Ronson’s heavy riff heralds emphatic, cocksure claims as Ziggy suddenly appears out of the vacuum of hyperspace. Bowie’s acoustic guitar then settles into seamless orbit around a pulsing bassline. The chanting hum of low-end background vocals evokes religious awe and space-age aural ambiance. The piano strides in concert with Ziggy as he alights into the presence of his audience. Freak Out! The ripping riff returns, the drums rumble. There’s majesty here, baby! Then, as before, the groove settles. An interlude of whimsy—bopping moonbeams delivered via flute and saxophone—precedes repeated rounds of the chorus. Each one increasingly warped under waves of heavy, then HEAVIER, reverb. Drugs! Cue the drugs, the latent kind. This is where they kick in. We are now spiraling, spiraling, spiraling, echoes before oblivion… something seizes us. It’s Mick Ronson with a tractor-beam solo. He lays on the whammy as the stars shriek by. The wobbling tremolo reaches out and envelops us. It brings us back into Earth’s familiar gravity and it is so goddamn good.– Bryan
20. “Ashes to Ashes”
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), 1980
A sad reckoning, a confession, and an unconvincing statement of happiness. “Ashes to Ashes,” while weirdly bouncy, is full of pleading and regrets. Major Tom is here, not as a fun callback to a character from a novelty hit, but as a symbol of Bowie’s failings and addictions. He sings one of the most endearing lines of his career “I’ve loved and I’ve needed love” then pushes us away with “sordid details following”. It’s also about life being polarized and cyclical, with high and low being one and the same. He admits he repeats the same mistakes over and over, even though “time and again I tell myself I’ll stay clean tonight”. Also I love it in the video when he keeps lip-syncing to the echo of “-owing -owing –owing”. – Megan
19. “The Man Who Sold the World”
The Man Who Sold the World, 1970
Like so many members of my generation, the first time I heard “The Man Who Sold the World,” it was being performed by Nirvana. Indeed, having come to Labyrinth late in life (I was a Dark Crystal kid) it’s possible that the first time I even heard of David Bowie was when Kurt Cobain mumbled “that was a David Bowie song” into the mic after finishing it on Unplugged in New York. In some ways, though, I feel that’s appropriate, because “The Man Who Sold the World” is just begging to be a Nirvana song. Of course, when Bowie does it it has a lot of psychedelic flourishes that would be out of place in ’90s grunge, but that guitar riff, man. That opening riff and the stair-step that gets played under the chorus are alone worth the price of admission, and it’s no surprise that Cobain decided he needed to perform them. That was a David Bowie song indeed. – Craig
Young Americans, 1975
Interesting history on this jam. Start by listening to the Flares’ “Foot Stomping.” You’d be hard pressed to make the connection to “Fame,” but the path becomes clearer when you watch Bowie’s cover of “Foot Stomping” on the Dick Cavett show in 1974. Sound familiar? Yep, that’s the guitar riff from “Fame,” courtesy of Bowie guitarist and longtime collaborator Carlos Alomar. They decided the riff was too good for a cover, so they slowed it down, got a little help from no less than John Lennon, and turned it into Bowie’s very first #1 hit. However, James Brown once had a young man named Carlos Alomar in his band, who quit after being docked $50 for not hitting the Godfather of Soul when he requested a hit and Alomar failed to deliver (true story!). Brown must’ve liked the sound of Alomar’s riff too, which is how we come to Brown’s (shockingly) less funky “Hot (I Need To Be Loved).” Apparently if the song charted higher, Bowie and Alomar were ready to sue, but when it failed to crack the Top 30, the suit became a non-issue. Alomar worked with Bowie for years after “Fame,” and his songwriting credit with Bowie & Lennon was just the first taste of things to come. -Jeremy
17. “Sound and Vision”
Produced by Bowie and long-time collaborator Tony Visconti, “Sound and Vision” was originally recorded as an instrumental track, with the funky, stirring guitar and synthesizer taking center stage along with Mary Hopkin’s lilting backing vocals. It was only after his band left the studio that Bowie recorded his track and trimmed the lyrics to its essentials. Though Bowie and Visconti keep focus on the instrumentals as they maintain the song’s sunny tone, when Bowie’s voice appears halfway through, it throws “Sound and Vision” into a different register. “Don’t you wonder sometimes/About sound and vision?” Bowie croons, effortlessly capturing the gratitude and awe he feels about the gift he has received. The result is minimalist perfection, a stunningly poignant single that operates entirely on an emotional wavelength. The combination of the uplift courtesy of the band and the painful reservation from Bowie continues to move and inspire in equal measure. – Vikram
16. “Let’s Dance”
Let’s Dance, 1983
David Bowie is the artist most similar to the Beatles in the sense that my opinions get a lot more insufferably hipster the deeper I get into the catalog. For example, I am got so into Bowie’s so-called “Berlin” Trilogy that after college, I actually consider it to be four albums and I’ll be quick to tell you he actually only recorded one of them fully in Berlin. This is to say I am a huge proponent of Bowie’s most critically acclaimed and difficult period (and I am sometimes a jerk about it). That being said, one of my favorite Bowie songs is “Let’s Dance,” his most commercially successful and accessible single. It reminds me of the krautrock-inspired work of his “Berlin” era in the sense that it’s a true collaboration between Bowie and his sidemen. While he switched out the personnel from the ‘70s, Bowie got the same level of craft from his new team. Instead of the esoteric guitar work of prog legends Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, Bowie turned to then-unknown Texas bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan’s traditional leads sounded anything but against the backdrop of Reagan-era pop. More importantly, Bowie took a huge risk replacing Brian Eno and Tony Visconti behind the boards with Chic’s Nile Rodgers. At the time, Rodgers was as unknown quantity. While revered as one of the few true artists (as well as a hitmaking producer) of the disco era, he had yet to find a place in the ‘80s. His production turned to be the secret sauce, as he reworked Bowie’s folky chords and filled out the sparse instrumentation with reverb and echo to make something funky yet modern. Bowie’s lyrics and vocal performance here are of course wonderful, even if the song is so well made you don’t notice that maybe the words are just about dancing. – Rob
15. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, 1972
The end of the album, the end of the character of Ziggy Stardust, this elegy to exhaustion, confusion, and possible redemption starts out, appropriately, with an unassuming, lonely acoustic guitar and Bowie’s resolutely human description of yet another cigarette, another lonely dawn watching the milkman’s rattling rounds, and the night’s shadows blasting apart in the dawn’s light that signals nothing like comfort. Bowie’s cited Baudelaire, and Jacques Brel as inspirations, and the song is steeped in the mythology he’s strung together about fame, and music, and madness, but when the song—gradually building with fat horns and swelling orchestra—finally bursts upon Bowie’s (or Ziggy’s) impassioned, naked “You’re not alone,” that’s all that registers. It’s not uncomplicated—this outside voice mixes promises of unconditional love and understanding (“No matter what or who you’ve been/No matter when or where you’ve seen/All the knives seem to lacerate your brain/I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain”) but seems to beckon with something smothering, like yet another addiction (“Just turn on with me and you’re not alone”). But the song, riding that promise (“You’re wonderful”) to a crescendo of shredding guitar, is, for all that, enduringly bracing, and thrilling. – Dennis
14. “Golden Years”
Station to Station, 1976
The sparkle almost obscures the darkness in Bowie’s “Golden Years.” The song is timeless, as so much of Bowie’s work is, perennially appropriate despite its dated sound, wrapped up as it is in a manic feel-good (like, cocaine good) ‘70s funk vibe. But the song’s narrative is suspended somehow outside of time. While the sound and its chorus celebrate a glitzy and glamorous notion of golden years as good, high-spirited times, the lyrics and verses resist mapping those years clearly into its protagonist’s own timeline. The opening dishes a distinctly good vibe, all funky bass and snazzy finger snaps, but the first line is an immediate contradiction: “Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere.” But how can such a desolate insistent emerge from such a happy jam? As much as it is a party, “Golden Years” is a pep talk with hard edges. “Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years,” it reassures her, and its exuberance for the present moment is clear in the rhythmic drive of its bass and its cinematic jangle, even while insisting she “run for the shadows, run for the shadows.” It is an almost Dickensian contradiction (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” after all), this duality that evokes a sharp and gleaming nostalgia for a moment even as it is happening—a trademark Bowie move, at its danciest, flashiest finest here. – Ashley
13. “Five Years”
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972
“Five Years” is the first track on David Bowie’s fifth album. In other words, he was well into his career at this point. Yet when Chris suggested writing about this perfect track one as the perfect track to one “to Bowie’s entire discography,” I knew what he meant, or at least, it made sense to me, regardless of what he meant. As immortal as “Space Oddity” is, and as perfect as Hunky Dory is, Ziggy Stardust feels like ground zero of something particularly Bowie-ish – the first day of the rest of his life, as it were. The song opens with characters finding out that the world is due to end in about five years’ time: “that’s all we got,” as the man sings. From this point, Bowie – despite seeming alien and immortal and magisterial and all of that great stuff – makes albums like he’s running out of time, to borrow a phrase from Hamilton. He’ll release eight more studio albums before the decade is out; strung together, he issues an astonishing thirteen records from 1969 through 1980. That feeling of growing awareness of his career’s acceleration spikes when Bowie switches to address an unnamed “you” halfway through the second verse, and turns meta: “[I] don’t think you knew you were in this song.” Do any of us, while it’s happening? And if we do, we’re lucky if it sounds this lovely. – Jesse
12. “Modern Love”
Let’s Dance, 1983
I was born in ’86 so I never had any real sense of the arc of David Bowie’s career growing up or that this, my number one favorite song of his, was from an album many of his fans considered a sell-out. We were a Paul Simon/Fleetwood Mac kind of family so my first exposure to his music would have been via the radio rather than at home, and while I could certainly have used the comfort he gave those who felt out of place in high school, I’m pretty sure I didn’t learn who Ziggy Stardust was until college. I just knew, from a very young age, that this song made me happy. It’s perhaps his most pure pop confection, 100% hook from start to finish; a writing teacher of mine used to talk about “pleasure bursts” in prose but the phrase could as easily apply to the composition here which keeps building on what came before in delightful, unexpected ways, from the spoken word intro to the juiced-up sax solo to the call-and-response chorus to the creeping desperation in Bowie’s voice as it all draws to a close. Like much of his work, it’s a mercurial song, as ecstatic as it is turbulent, which is why it’s a fitting soundtrack choice to both the heroine of Baumbach’s Frances Ha flying heedlessly down the Manhattan streets and Denis Lavant in Mauvais Sang, his tortured body bursting into movement almost despite itself, as if the music is something he’s trying to work out of his system. Indeed once you’ve heard “Modern Love,” it’s hard not to think of it as something that’s always been with you, a beacon of comfort in uncertain times. If there is no religion at least in Bowie we can trust. – Sara
11. “Suffragette City”
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, and the Spiders From Mars, 1972
I had to think a lot about which songs I was going to choose for this and what order I was going to put them in. Except for “Suffragette City.” “Suffragette City” was always going to go in the number one slot on my list of David Bowie songs, because “Suffragette City” is on my top five list of all songs by anyone. In fact, I like it so much that I’m having a little bit of trouble writing about why I like it; it’s like trying to write an explanation of why The Godfather is a good movie. But here goes. The reason that I love “Suffragette City” is that it’s fun as hell. It’s got a rockin’ piano line that doesn’t really let up at any point, and features exclamations like “hey man!” It’s perfectly positioned as the next to last song on Ziggy Stardust. After all the spacey weirdness of the rest of the album, we need something to bring us, if you’ll forgive me, back to Earth. Sometimes you just need a song about chicks, man (I am also prepared to write a future blurb about how “Fat Bottomed Girls” is my favorite Queen song). Actually, I could have just left it at this bit from the song’s Wikipedia entry that does a pretty good job of showing why it’s so great: “Recorded on 4 February 1972, towards the end of the Ziggy Stardust sessions, “Suffragette City” features a piano riff heavily influenced by Little Richard… and the sing-along hook “Wham bam thank you ma’am!” – Craig
10. “Under Pressure”
Is this a Bowie song or a Queen song? It seems not even the artists know: it appears on Best Of compilations for both. But that’s true to the collaborative spirit of the song, which came about during a jam session between the artists after Bowie recorded some backing vocals for Queen’s “Cool Cat.” Those were eventually scrapped but “Under Pressure” endures. You know how it starts; it has to be one of the most famous bass lines of all time, a movie trailer cue rivaled only by The Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” for instant mood setting. Such ubiquity could curdle the highs of a lesser song but there’s a sincerity to “Under Pressure” that keeps it electrifying, particularly in these jaded times, the pleas to love one another so nakedly earnest as to be overwhelming. While Freddie Mercury’s limber falsetto gets more of the showboat moments, it’s Bowie, oddly for a man who made his name by taking on otherworldly personas, who’s the grounding element of the song, getting arguably the most famous, and galvanizing, lyric: “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about/Watching some good friend scream, ‘Let me out.’” If Bowie was known primarily as a chameleonic artist he was also a generous one; he never performed “Under Pressure” live until after Mercury’s death, as if in tacit acknowledgment that it wouldn’t carry the same weight if he sang it alone (the first time he did, with Annie Lenox, was a doozy.) In the end though “Under Pressure” belongs to neither Bowie nor Queen (and certainly not sample-stealing Vanilla Ice), but the people on the streets they’re singing to. – Sara
9. “Queen Bitch”
Hunky Dory, 1971
This is my favorite David Bowie song. I’m not sure I could tell you why. I think Bryan, whose favorite Bowie song this also is, actually explains it better below. But I’ll say that relistening to a lot of Bowie’s stuff these past few weeks, both in the run-up to Blackstar and in the rundown from his death, I’ll say that as brilliant and genre-busting and inventive as the guy was, he was also a master of the simple, perfect riff. Memorable riffs power several more songs to come on this countdown, but I personally find the one from “Queen Bitch” most invigorating, most powerful – the control it exerts over the song is palpable, perfectly distilling the glam sound into something anyone could love. – Jesse
Glam swagger for miles! Bowie never sounds cooler than he does on this record. Even as I write this, I want to ascend to the 11th floor of a big-city building to watch the cruisers below. Fuck, he was rad. Also, you may accomplish much in this life, but you will never strut a more self-possessed strut than Bill Murray struts to the strains of “Queen Bitch” in Life Aquatic’s Buckaroo Banzai homage. – Bryan
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972
When I say (in the parlance of our times) that this song gets me right in the feels, I mean I don’t know how to accurately put how much I love “Starman” into words. It’s really more of a feeling. The verses feel as cool as Baby Boomers want you to think the ‘60s were, all slang and backbeat. The transition to the chorus with its phase-shifted-piano-morse-code-sound-thing sounds like nothing else happening in pop music in the early ‘70s. The sweep of the chorus, with its strings and melody stolen from “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” feels positively epic. Today, though, I mostly feel that “Starman” is more poignant than it did just a scant few weeks ago when David Bowie was still with us on Planet Earth. A common misconception is that Ziggy Stardust is this song’s titular character. In fact, Bowie revealed in an interview that Ziggy is the one telling the youth of our world about the man who’d “like to come and meet us/But he thinks he’d blow our minds“. Since Ziggy is an artifice of Bowie’s own creation, perhaps the Starman Ziggy is an emissary of is none other than Bowie himself, still waiting in the sky. One can only hope.– Rob
7. “Rebel Rebel”
Diamond Dogs, 1974
“Rebel Rebel” was the perfect end to Bowie’s glam rock era, an appropriate send off for Ziggy Stardust. Although I had been exposed to David Bowie years before, “Rebel Rebel” was one of the first of his songs I was full-on obsessed with. With its super catchy (for lack of a better term) guitar riff, and the sort of fuck-what-everyone-thinks-of-us lyrics, this song was just, well, cool. It’s one of those songs you feel the need to blast on your stereo, to dance and/or sing along to whenever possible; whether you wanted to be Bowie’s Rebel, or just love them, if you ever felt you were different and just embraced it, this song was for you. And if this was the end of something, he clearly had something phenomenal planned for his future ventures.
So, maybe it’s ok that I have gone, at best, one day so far without crying a little since he died, and that this is by far the most upset I’ve ever been about a celebrity death. There will never be another David Bowie, but the music (and the world in general) is so much better because of him. – Sabrina
Hunky Dory, 1971
Of all of Bowie’s pure pop songs, “Changes” is definitely the most representative of his modus operandi. Kicking off his first masterpiece album Hunky Dory, “Changes” employs an infectious drumbeat, a contemplative piano riff, and a beautiful string arrangement to create a song about how a fluid identity doesn’t negate a person’s core self. Though Bowie said that it was “a kind of throwaway” song, “Changes” endured because his crowds would keep requesting it at shows, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. It’s not just the upbeat tempo and the stuttering chorus, but also the powerfully earnest lyrics about the spit-upon children being aware of “what they’re going through.” Bowie would adopt many identities in his lifetime, but he only asked one request of his audience: Turn and face the strange. As the numerous tributes following his death illustrate, they did, time and time again. – Vikram
5. “Young Americans”
Young Americans, 1975
Jesse may not have consciously known that I was going to talk about Meat Loaf when he asked me to write about “Young Americans,” but you should all still hold him responsible. “Young Americans” was released in 1975 as a single off of Bowie’s ninth studio album. He was already a success in both the UK and USA, and was on his third or fourth performing persona. “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” was released in 1977 on Meat Loaf’s second album, Bat Out of Hell. The two songs don’t have a ton in common musically, beyond being hugely listenable. “Young Americans,” like the rest of the album, sees Bowie experimenting with funk and “plastic soul,” while “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” is eight minutes of rock bombast that could be parody if it wasn’t for Meat Loaf’s sweaty sincerity. As written by Jim Steinman, “Paradise” has a bizarre structure, with two distinct movements, an epilogue, and an interlude for a baseball play-by-play, while “Americans” sets Bowie up with a samba beat complemented by David Sanborn’s sax weaving in and out and backing vocals arranged by Luther Vandross. Bowie was thin and beautiful and alien, while Meat Loaf was decidedly not thin and very much of the earth. But both songs are about a young couple who begin their respective stories pulling over to fool around in a car.
To be clear, I love “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” and the rest of Bat Out of Hell. I had it on cassette and I bought the CD when I didn’t have much money to spare on music because I wanted a copy while I was at college. But we’re here to talk about David Bowie, so I can admit that Bowie dug deeper and found something richer telling the same story two years earlier. “Paradise” walks you through what the lovers are doing and feeling in a duet, sung by Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley. Meanwhile, in “Americans,” Bowie checks in with both lovers himself, and they’ve consummated their tryst by the end of the first verse. After eight minutes of buildup to the big moment, “Paradise” reveals what comes next by hitting you with a twist ending: flashing forward, Meat Loaf’s character prays for death to release him from the miserable relationship that resulted from that night in the car. It plays as a dark joke (unless Meat Loaf’s sincerity tips it over into mundane tragedy for you). “Americans” actually matches this development, with the two lovers placed in a distant and unhappy marriage, the wife musing, “We live for just these twenty years, do we have to die for the fifty more?” But perhaps as a Brit looking from more distance, with a mixture of affection and skepticism, at his Young Americans, Bowie doesn’t stop at using their unhappiness for gallows humor. As the song goes on, he expands his focus beyond just his two sad lovers to encompass America at large. By the end he’s touched on Richard Nixon and racial inequality, and it becomes clear that everyone, the lovers, the listener, and Bowie himself, all yearn for a Young American that may only exist in the imagination. Near the end, the song practically steps aside to let him ask in falsetto, “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me, break down and cry?” And for as joyful-sounding as it is, “Young Americans” might just do the trick. – Nathaniel
4. “Ziggy Stardust”
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972
Everyone knows Ziggy Stardust as an alter ego for Bowie himself, yet he sings the title track from the perspective of a band mate. It’s an out-of-body experience, which is what happened to me the first time I heard this song. I’m a sucker for concept albums, and though Ziggy’s “concept” was almost accidentally loose, I still ate up all the baffling, sorta-sci-fi elements. After years of struggling to really break through to fame, Ziggy, both the character and the album, made Bowie’s career. He tried killing the project by firing his crack band live at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973, because he couldn’t stand the idea of being limited to that character anymore. Looking back, it seemed inevitable. In 1973 it was an act of devastating courage. -Megan
3. “Space Oddity”
Space Oddity, 1969
I spent a lot of time in high school in the back of a downtown storefront called La Maison du Café—a city-funded youth hangout where the clean-teen crowd sipped gas station cappuccinos in the premade glory of their churn and hiss from Styrofoam cups for a fifty cent donation. (Those too straight-edge for caffeine drank Sprite from an RC-product fountain machine.) Mostly, we went to see our friends play guitar, including three Mormon brothers who usually played in separate bands. One night, they teamed up as the One Minute Senate. “Ground control to Major Tom,” sang Thomas, the youngest, on drums, while Arthur whispered a creepy countdown until the three of them broke into harmonies as the song split open. This trio of cool-against-all-odds eclectic weirdos was my first introduction to David Bowie, and the magnitude of displacement and disorientation and disaster bound up in the song was a more-than-apt anthem for a dark room of (sober, straight-A) misfit misanthropes, who all joined in with perfectly timed handclaps. By turns exuberant and devastating, dancy and drifting, the song embodies the tension at the heart of what is best about Bowie: it is always and at any strange moment for you (unless, maybe, you’re my mom who only shrugged when I confronted her about why she’d never played it for me)—and it is especially for you if you are all a bunch of oddities yourselves, floating, possibly doomed, miscommunicating left and right at intergalactic magnitudes. It confirms that the world is exactly as big and uncertain as we fear, hope, know. And if its threat of impending doom and its agonized interstellar navigation isn’t enough, as it unfolds its mythology across decades and albums (“Ashes to Ashes,” “Hallo Spaceboy,” and now, even “Blackstar”), its periodic resurgence into relevance is so wholly emblematic of reinvention, you couldn’t ask for more in an offbeat coming-of-age (any age! Each and every strange new age!) theme-song status. – Ashley
Having to write a blurb about “Heroes” is unfair; there’s far too much ground to cover in a few hundred words. This song truly contains multitudes. What is it even about? The truth, that it was obliquely inspired by “Heroes” producer Tony Visconti’s extramarital affair with a session musician, is a disservice to the legacy of the song. I could do my music nerd thing, writing about the different versions (single mix, the longer album version, and german language version “Helden”), how Visconti, Bowie, and Brian Eno basically tortured that iconic guitar part out of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, or how they comped the whole thing together. Who cares, really? “We could be heroes/Just for one day” is an ambiguous statement backed by a powerful song. A lot of huge Bowie fans argue that it’s actually a sad song, but the truth is it belongs to all of us to make of it what we will. – Rob
1. “Life on Mars?”
Hunky Dory, 1971
A big reason I love David Bowie is both his musical arrangements and his lyrical content are unique and memorable. “Life on Mars?” feels like he swung for the fences on both: big, lush orchestral sound that somehow still feels like a rock song, with lyrics that have rattled around in my mind for years. Apparently Bowie came up with “Life on Mars?” after a song he wrote set to the music from the French song “Comme d’habitude” was scrapped when Paul Anka bought the rights for a dollar and wrote “My Way” for Frank Sinatra to the tune instead. This, apparently, is his response; Bowie scribbled (INSPIRED BY FRANKIE) next to the title in the original liner notes for Hunky Dory.
The song might seem like “a godawful small affair” at first, but by the time we get to the titular line in the chorus, it’s as if a magic spell’s been cast. We start by following the girl with the mousy hair, then we’re in her head and seeing what she’s seeing at the movies, then we’re in the minds of the characters she’s watching, and then we’re wondering if the character in the movie is aware he’s being watched?! Except are we talking about the character (who shouldn’t be aware) or the actor portraying the character (who should be) and IS THERE LIFE ON MAAAAAAAARS?!?!?! Bowie’s ability to take you through these different perspectives so seamlessly with his lyrical acrobatics is nothing short of breathtaking.
The second verse also defies easy interpretation with its odd references and non sequiturs. But upon deeper listening, the way it moves right into the same bridge and chorus of the first verse makes us think, “Everything he just said was written before?” Possibly it’s Bowie’s commentary on the news of the day, which surely even before the advent of Fox News could feel cyclical and repetitive. But Bowie sings “it’s about to be writ again/as I ask you to focus on” – Bowie himself is the one bringing your attention back to these repetitions. He asks you continue riding the strange merry-go-round of perspectives again, and again, and again, until it all becomes so dizzyingly unclear that you may indeed wonder whether there’s life on Mars.
The song is also rife with bleak images, with “Take a look at the lawman / Beating up the wrong guy” being a prime example. And yet it’s set to one of the most triumphant melodies Bowie ever wrote. The juxtaposition of nihilism and joy, of the obvious confusion of the lyrics inside of Bowie’s confident, powerful delivery of them: these create not only tension in the classic musical sense of the word, but also within the mind as you try to reconcile all of the seemingly unconnected ideas that are combining so naturally in the music. How is he doing this?, you wonder. And why?
“Life on Mars?” is so beautifully constructed to be hard to understand that it ends up as a giant puzzle box of a song. It also happens to have a perfectly-produced delayed drum track and probably the finest string arranging work by Mick Ronson in his entire time with Bowie. But its enduring legacy seems to be that like a kaleidoscope, the longer you examine it, the more it changes. The more it seems to reveal, the more there is below the surface to be revealed. How a twenty-four year old David Bowie (!) wrote a song that people are still finding fresh meaning in 45 years later, I wonder if we’ll ever know. It’s the freakiest show. -Jeremy