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Honestly, what is even going on here? How did I get myself into this predicament? Why? Why?
My favorite songs by David Bowie are not your favorite songs by David Bowie. I can promise you with near certainty that some of your absolute favorites aren’t even in the top 100. Furthermore, I am relatively certain that some songs you don’t care for or maybe even don’t know rank high on my list. Indeed, my choice for number one (not a spoiler) is a little off the beaten path. I suspect that there will be at least one “Cherish” (#84) moment* for somebody on almost every page. All I can say is I love you all and, as always, this list is based on the premise that I must like each song more than the one before it.
*Apparently, there are many people who love the song “Cherish.” This fact still astounds and baffles me.
For this list, I’ve tried to err on the side of inclusion. I’m including live versions of songs, official remixes, digital singles, songs for which a video was made even if it wasn’t released as a single, singles released only in one specific country, promotional singles, and songs where Bowie was a marquee artist. I have not included songs where he provided backing vocals or production, which means his performances with, for instance, Placebo and Queen are on this list but his performances with, for example, TV on the Radio and Scarlett Johansson are not. I’ve also not included songs he wrote or produced for other people, even if he later performed them himself – so no “All The Young Dudes” and no “Lust for Life.”
While I agree with Bowie’s central thesis that he was a rock god, I think of him as a small “g” god. He wasn’t infallible and, in fact, part of what makes him fascinating to me is his persistence in the face of failure, mountains of cocaine and whatever was going on with him for much of the 80’s (presumably extended withdrawal from mountains of cocaine). I don’t think Bowie was a chameleon so much as he was restless. He had a genuine passion for the new and avant-garde (and was a champion of many at-the-time cutting edge artists), a theatrical flare which took different forms over the course of his career and a genuine skill at surrounding himself with stellar musicians and artists. To whit, perhaps small-g god Bowie’s domain was impeccable artistic taste (even – and I’m swallowing hard as I type this – in the 80’s).
I am going to be sending you to visit the best Bowie site on the Internet, Pushing Ahead of the Dame, written by the remarkable Chris O’Leary, again and again. Honestly, I’ll just link to his entry on any given song in every single entry. His meticulously researched entries about every single song in Bowie’s catalog are one of the best rabbit holes on the Internet. In fact, skip my meanderings and just poke around there for a few months.
I’m also going to be referencing Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie. Eventually. See, we shipped it to here in Hawaii from Connecticut at book rate. I don’t know what I was thinking.
I was thinking it was cheaper to ship it that way and too bulky to carry on the flight.
Anyhow, since these tremendous information resources exist, I’m going to try and focus more on my reactions to Bowie’s songs and less on the nuts and bolts of their creation and history. I am eager to read your responses to these entries as well as to the songs I address in each one. I’m also eager to hear your thoughts on my 15 (!!!) MS Paint album covers. I didn’t do the really hard ones (Space Oddity, Station to Station) but I hope you’ll be pleased with my dreadful. Coloform-like recreations.
I genuinely don’t like these first six songs but I’m not going to put off writing about them for even one moment longer.
Ok, just for one moment longer so I can mention that when I was working on the 91-100 section, I discovered I’d missed a single and added it in higher up the list which required me to move around some of the rest of the songs on February 1, 2018.
Let’s do this.
147. Dancing in the Street (with Mick Jagger)
This is just the worst. “But it was recorded for charity.” No. “But it was recorded in one night – the video, too.” No. “But its such a classic song.” No. “But it was a huge hit.” No. Just. No. How bad is this song? This is a song so bad that it is made a thousand times better by removing the song from the video and just replacing it with ambient sound. I added it reluctantly to my library because I wanted it to be part of my David Bowie singles playlist but have scrupulously avoided listening to it since I determined it would be the very bottom of this list – which is to say, since I added it to my library. I had it on CD because I own the 2-CD Set The Singles Collection and its included on the same collection as “Life on Mars?” and “Rock and Roll Suicide” because the world is a frightening and baffling place.
There’s a dozen or so things to dislike about this song, but I want to focus on the opening ten seconds with that stupid slide whistle sound. In a song that screams “why do I even exist” from the depths of its horrified soul into the void of 80’s pop music, this stupid slide whistle sound is screaming that same thing into the void its parent song. That’s not even the thing that annoys me the most in the first ten seconds. Listen to Bowie and Jagger call out locations. I quote:
Tokyo, South America, Australia, France, Germany, UK, Africa
Why these place names? A city, a continent, a continent that is also a country, a country in Europe, a country in Europe, a country in Europe, a continent – Africa, in specific, and frankly wasn’t the whole point of Live Aid to help Africa? Hadn’t the people of Africa suffered enough without being name dropped in this song? I recognize they were going for a sort of inclusion here and most of the lyrics refer to U.S. cities, but what logic led them to select this specific set of place names? I can’t get by this to effectively despise the rest of the song. My loathing is so strong I turn it off as soon as Jagger intones “Af-ri-caaa.”
I’ve now spent like twenty minutes of my life writing about this turd. I’ve written more about it than I’ll write about most of the songs on this list. This song went to number one in the UK. It was Bowie’s last top ten song in the U.S. We have nowhere to go but up.
146. Too Dizzy
From Never Let Me Down (1987), single released in 1987
Bowie hated this song so much he deleted it from subsequent pressings of Never Let Me Down. Poking around the Internet recently, I found that the song has a few ardent defenders on various Bowie message board discussions. I’m not going to link those discussions. Let’s take a minute to note that Bowie despised this song enough to obliterate it but allowed “Dancing in the Streets” (presumably due to its chart success) to be placed on his some of his greatest hits collections. Is “Too Dizzy” genuinely any worse than most of the rest of Never Let Me Down? Bowie felt (correctly) that album (more specifically, response to the album) was a “bitter disappointment” so perhaps he was just taking out his frustrations on this poor nothing of a song? No, I think Bowie was right. This song is genuinely bad. It’s a labored, over-produced mess of a tune that sounds like Bowie and his band were trying to shove clunky hooks into it like stuffing into a turkey. Friends, to a large degree, this song is what the late 80’s actually sounded like. Don’t be fooled by the great music that escaped from the decade. I was there.
Bowie seems to have adored the work of Jacques Brel (who famously refused to meet a Bowie because Brel appears to have been a homophobe and a snob) and covered “Amsterdam” in concert for several years. I, on the other hand, don’t especially care for much of Brel’s work (nothing against Brel in specific or Belgium in general) and, thus, am not enamored of Bowie’s not-nearly-overwrought-enough cover of “Amsterdam.” The song is a seedy portrait of the port of Amsterdam which comes across as a proverbial hive of scum and villainy and I can hear why it would appeal to late 60’s era Bowie. I, on the other hand, hope to never hear it again.
144. Maggie’s Farm (Live) (as part of Tin Machine)
Tin Machine was Bowie’s post-Never Let Me Down attempt at forming a rock band. He gathered the Sales brothers (sons of Soupy, Tony on bass, Hunt on Drums) whom he’d worked with while recording with Iggy Pop in the 70’s (they are the amazing rhythm section on the song “Lust For Life” – almost everything we love about that song is due to them) and guitarist Reeves Gabrels (currently with The Cure, but he was Bowie’s sideman through 1999) and wanted to just be one of the gang. It was an interesting experiment that was not as musically successful as, perhaps, it could have been but it was also, perhaps, just what Bowie needed to get out of the 80’s with some fragments of dignity intact. This cover of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” was released as a double A-side with their titular song “Tin Machine.” I can understand Bowie wanting to sing a song that may have been about rejecting music industry expectations at this stage in his career. Bowie bobbles the lyrics, but the main thing that bothers me about this song is that he doesn’t seem to be able to summon the acid or sincerity necessary to make the song function. As a result, it sounds more like Bowie is doing Bob Dylan karaoke.
143. John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)
Stand-alone single recorded in 1974, Released as a Single in 1979
I love dance music and I even dig most disco (there, after all these years, I admitted it! I’m free! I’m free!). I rather like “John, I’m Only Dancing.” “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” on the other hand, is everything that I don’t like about disco and a considerable let-down if you dig the original. I know that many artists like to rework their songs (The Police, #28) but I also realize that – having hit big with the funky “Fame” a few years earlier – Bowie may have been trying to grab at the brass ring again by releasing this version of “John” in ’79. It kind of hurts to listen to.
142. Ragazzo solo, ragazza sola
Stand-alone single released in Italy only, 1970
Let me just come out and say it. The only thing I genuinely like about “Space Oddity” is the mythology surrounding the song and how it plays out over the course of his career. Otherwise, I’d just as soon avoid it whenever it comes up on random shuffle. I realize this is blasphemy, but that’s how I feel. I’ve ranked the classic version of the song considerably higher (but not that considerably higher) on this list (its sort of the dam separating the pleasantly mediocre from the genuinely good). This version – which is not about Major Tom – is Bowie singing a romantic love song in Italian to the tune of “Space Oddity,” allegedly in an attempt to compete with some Italian bands who were covering the song rather successfully at the time. The translation of the lyrics are part of the linked video. Stripped of its mythos, this song ceases to be of any importance and I can just comfortably dislike it.
First single from the soundtrack to the film Labyrinth (1986), Released as a Single in 1986
Before we get into everything that makes me crazy about this song, let’s follow Pushing Ahead of the Dame author Chris O’Leary’s advice and listen to a song that mixes pop and gospel right (#2). It’s only right we should revisit Madonna’s work while exploring a dreadful Bowie song from 1986 because she was just finding her voice at a time when Bowie seemed to be losing his.
“Underground,” as O’Leary points out, is a song that employs (among others) Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, and Cissy Houston and then buries them in the mix. Did you know the lead guitar on this song was played by blue great Albert Collins? Indeed, did you know there was a lead guitar on this song at all? 80’s era production swallows everything decent about a song and turns it into sewage flowing through pipes made of electric drums. This is my main issue: the producer (and, perhaps, Bowie) seem absolutely determined to prevent anything from saving this lousy song. If I can liken the song to Humpty Dumpty, it fell off the wall, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men appeared and said “aha! I know how to put him together again,” and producer Arif Martin announced “No, I think we’ll just leave him broken.” That tortured metaphor would make for a better son.
Labyrinth wanted to be like a new Wizard of Oz and perhaps it sort of succeeded. I know many people younger than me look at it with fond nostalgia. I will never understand why it made sense to make the main theme a gospel tinged pop song. Yes, I recognize that there had been some successful gospel tinged pop, but the song doesn’t fit the spirit of the movie at all – and despite my issues with some of the other songs from the film, they at least seem to fit the film’s spirit. Indeed, there’s one single that I have placed in the top 60, and not the one you probably like.
Coming Soon: We move from the hateful to the forgettable.