This seems like a good place to remind everyone that the focus of this blog is how much I enjoy songs vis-a-vis other songs. It’s not meant to be an objective ranking of quality or song importance.
Also, pretty much every song from here on out is at least pretty darn good.
So, a note. As I was writing this section, I discovered that I’d missed a single (it wasn’t listed as a single at any of my source sites and it took accidentally reading the Wikipedia page about that song to discover that it was released as a single in Easter Europe in the 70’s). I have, thus, had to re-order some songs. #101 here was, at one time, #100. The “new” single is currently nesting in the top 50. I’ve also had to move around a bunch of entries in the earlier sections to accommodate this. I couldn’t leave this particular song off the list once I learned it had been a single but for future tracks, I’ll add an addendum or an apologia or something. This, here’s 101 with an “*.” I’ve also moved it into the previous list. I’ll also leave it here to forever memorialize my error.
And furthermore, to make thing even more confusing, that #101 (once “Never Let Me Down”) has now been moved up to #99, because:
Edit (March 4, 1018): I discovered that two singles that I assumed were late releases from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars and thus had initially ranked higher on this list were actually the inferior live versions from Stage. After much grumbling and moaning, I’ve reordered the list to reflect where I feel these two singles should actually be. Thus, “Soul Love” was moved from #6 to #115 and “Star” was moved from #40 to #103. This resulted in at least one and usually two songs from every section being moved up into the next sections. I’m not happy about this and probably I’m the only one who cares, but it would have bothered me if I didn’t fix it.
100. Nite Flights
Video from Black Tie White Noise (1993), released in 1993
Cover of a song written by Scott Walker and performed by The Walker Brothers (1978)
I am entirely unqualified to write a single word about Scott Walker. “Nite Flights” was originally recorded for The Walker Brothers’ final album. I’ve already now written about 30 words more than I’m qualified to write about Scott Walker.
Scott Walker was one of David Bowie’s idols and, according to my hasty research just now (I’m becoming more and more qualified to write-up to 100 words about Scott Walker), started a career as a pop artist and became progressively more avant garde as his career progressed. O’Leary’s account of the Walker and his dialogue-through-music with Bowie is an excellent primer on both men.
“Nite Flights” sounded pretty cutting edge for 1978, at least from my memories of experiencing the music of that year firsthand. Bowie recorded this strong cover of that song for his Nile Rodgers-produced Black Tie White Noise album. Bowie’s performance sounds inviting and tuneful to me (the Walker Brothers version is a bit darker) and its a nice little pleasure when it shuffles up through the morass of songs on my iPod.
What I like: I like the keyboard “wha wha wha” after he sings the phrase “nite flights.” Also, the beat is pretty groovy.
99. Never Let Me Down
Third single from Never Let Me Down (1987), released as a single in 1987
That’s really quite an excellent video right there.
I remember really disliking “Never Let Me Down” when it came out, particularly the harmonica bit. I misread an interview back then that left me thinking the song was about John Lennon (it was, in fact, sung in the style of John Lennon). The song’s actual subject is Coco Schwab, Bowie’s long time close friend and assistant. I initially had this one placed in the bottom ten but then I actually listened to it (really listened to it) for the first time since the 80’s and – once you get past the production that marred so much of Never Let Me Down – its a quite lovely little song, both hopeful and melancholy. Its notable for being the last songwriting collaboration between Bowie and another of his long time side-men, guitarist Carlos Alomar and for being Bowie’s last top 40 hit in the US until “Lazurus” in 2015. I still find the drums and harmonica a little painful and wish it was mixed a little differently, but Bowie had every reason to feel proud about this track and I hope Schwab gets a little joy from hearing it even to this day.
What I Like: The melody that starts with “Dance a little dance” and culminates in “Never let me down” is really quite lovely and Bowie’s Lennon-ish falsetto seems heartfelt.
98. Little Wonder
Second single from Earthling (1997), released as a single in 1997
Bowie deliberately included the names of all seven dwarves in the lyric to this song. My arguments for or against such a song would be futile.
What I like: Bowie included the names of all seven dwarves in the lyrics. Did you not read that?
97. Breaking Glass (live)
First single from Stage (1978), released as a single in 1978
This is a little petty of me, but the only reason I ranked this awesome song so low is that it’s not the album version, which is even better. Bowie released 11 live albums over his career. I can attest that seeing him live was a seminal event in my life (more on that in a few entries) so I get the attraction but I feel that, often, everything that is gained live in terms of artistry and energy can be lost when that live performance is transferred to vinyl. Or CD. Or digital files. You get where I’m going with this. I encourage you to read O’Leary’s description of the production process for this song, particular the parts about producer Tony Visconti hiding the amazing gated drum work of Dennis Davis from Bowie. There’s almost nothing to this song – indeed, one of the great things about Low (its original parent album) is that there’s hardly anything to any of the songs. This is a strength of this period – Bowie is embracing minimalism and the 30 or so words of this song conjure a harrowing story about a guy wrecking his girlfriend’s place and then gaslighting her into thinking she’s the one with problems.
What I like: Seriously, Dennis Davis’ drums are pretty fierce live (though I truly miss the gates). I don’t know whether Bowie or Roger Powell plays Brian Eno’s keyboard stings, but those still hit. And the lyric/vocal is excellent in this version as well.
Third single from Diamond Dogs (1974), released as a single in 1974
I’ve been a little torn about where to place this, but I think this is the right ranking. As with some of the other songs down at this end of the list, I find that I enjoy “1984” a little more in theory than in practice. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy it what with all its disco violins and chika wacka wacka guitar, but it’s just not the amazing classic Bowie track I hear in my head when I think about it. Both of my regular source – O’Leary and Nicolas Pegg – make excellent cases for why Bowie’s band at the time (Alan Parker, guitar; Mike Garson, piano; Herbie Flowers, bass; Tony Newman, drums; Warren Peace; backing vocals and producer Tony Visconti arranging the strings) was one of Bowie’s tighest (which this superior performance of “1984” on The Dick Cavett Show for proof – plus, I believe that Luther Vandross is on backing vocals here). Anyhow, I know I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about live versions of studio recordings, but in this case the song is a lot hotter live.
What I Like: I absolutely love how Bowie sings “beware the savage roar…. of 1984…” Bowie was exploring his vocal range and I feel like he discovered some things on this song that opened up whole new ways of approaching his singing on or around the time he recorded this song.
95. Life on Mars 2016 Remix
First single from Legacy (2016), released as a single in 2016
Original version released as a single in 1971
I’m going to write a ton about this song later so right now I’m not going to say a lot about it or, in fact, link anything. This version of the song – released to promote another in an endless stream of Bowie greatest hits albums – strips away all or almost all of the bass, guitar and drums putting the focus on the amazing Rick Wakeman’s piano and the equally amazing Mick Ronson’s string arrangements. Same vocal though. I mean, the song is of course lovely (obvious spoiler – the original is near the very top of this list) and its a treat getting to savor Wakeman’s performance, but you can savor it perfectly well on the original. I just like the original arrangement something like 24x better than this version.
What I like: Wakeman. Bowie. Ronson.
94. Alabama Song
Stand-alone single released in 1980
Cover of a song by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill from Little Mahagonny (1927)
I recently got to see a – what? – staging? Production? Concert? of the Brecht/Weill Mahagonny-Songspiel. Recently in that I saw it closer to my current age than to my birth, I suppose. It’s a typically Brechtian critique of capitalism. “Alabama Song” is a song sung by a prostitute about the place she’s going to work (a whiskey bar), the thing she’s going to work for (dollars) and the people who are going to pay her (little boys, here slang for men). Both The Doors and Bowie changed the “little boys” to “little girls” (which, of course, is profoundly creepy or, perhaps, a reflection of who they felt was buying their albums and concert tickets). There’s a sense in The Doors version that they’re endorsing this booze/money/sex lifestyle. Bowie seems a little more connected to the original intent of the song.
What I Like: The drumming on this track by Dennis Davis is nuts. Bowie nails the contrast between the off-kilter verses and the crooned choruses.
93. One Shot (as part of Tin Machine)
Third single from Tin Machine II (1991), released as a single in 1991
I think its safe to say that O’Leary despises “One Shot.” Really, go read that. Its one of the best take downs of Tin Machine in general and a Bowie song in specific on the whole blog. It’s a glorious piece of writing and I can’t really argue against it. The thing is, I think Reeves Gabrels guitar work here redeems the whole song while O’Leary thinks it merely “has a nice melodic arc to it.” Gabrels is a guitarist who is prone to noodling and sometimes this means he comes up with some great stuff and sometimes he seems like he wanders away from melody and gets lost in a thorny forest of random noise. I think “One Shot” offers evidence that Gabrels is – if not the best guitarist to work with Bowie – a great rock musician who deserves a lot more credit than I think he receives. On the other hand, Bowie’s lyric is genuinely misogynist dreck. His vocal is far enough back in the mix and garbled enough that you won’t notice it unless you really pay close attention, so that’s sort of a plus?
Tin Machine II is not available for legal download online and there are only used copies available on Amazon so far as I can tell. While Never Let Me Down isn’t exactly beloved, its available. Thus, I think an argument can be made that Tin Machine II is, in fact, Bowie’s least loved album. While I’d never argue that it is a classic, I think it is better than its availability and reviews suggest.
What I Like: Reeves Gabrels’ guitar work.
Third single from hours… (1999), released as a single in 2000
Speaking of underrated album, hours… contains several of my favorite 90’s Bowie songs. It feels to me like Bowie is settling into his skin a bit on this record (as opposed to sliding in to a character’s skin). O’Leary describes it as a sort of Lenten response to his “carnival phase in the mid-Nineties,” focused more on traditional, straightforward songwriting than on experimentation and boundry-pushing. His next two albums (Heathen and Reality) feel like extensions and further exploration of Bowie and his legacy as an artist. “Survive” features another fine piece of guitar work from co-composer Reeves Gabrels and a lyric that suggests (at least to me) a man letting go of his youth (in the form of a former flame). It’s really quite lovely and, for a while, I’d ranked it quite a bit higher but I just decided there were other songs I liked more.
What I Like: Really, Gabrels’ guitar work is the highlight of this piece for me, but Bowie’s singing style on this song sounds very honest and oddly normal in an appealing way.
91. Space Oddity
First single from David Bowie (UK) (1969), released as a single in 1969
Familiarity, indeed, breeds contempt.
Here’s a list of some random things. Bowie’s frequent producer Tony Visconti thought the song a “sell-out” and refused to have anything to do with it when it was first being recorded (he later called it a “classic track” and regretted listening to his “peacenik hippie ideals” as reported in Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie). It could easily have ended up a novelty single since its lyric is drawing on both the then-current Apollo program and simultaneous popularity of 2001: A Space Oddysey (and also a healthy dose of Ray Bradbury). It managed to be Bowie’s first UK top 10 hit but flopped in the US. After it came out, Bowie still struggled for a few years before released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and become a huge success. After Bowie because a big success, the song was released again in both the US and UK. It went Top 20 in the US and hit #1 in the UK. I propose that “Space Oddity” was, at least in part, reinterpreted by many US listeners as being a song that came after Bowie’s alien messiah, Ziggy. Also (and again, reported by Pegg), the song was inspired musically in part by The Bee Gee’s recent folk work, particularly “New York Mining Disaster 1941.”
When I saw Bowie on the Sound + Vision greatest hits tour in 1990, he played “Space Oddity,” because of course he did. I’ve never been a huge fan of the song, but really the moment was transcendent. A giant scrim descended that featured a fifty foot profile of Bowie’s looking sadly down at actual Bowie on stage. You can see what that looked like here. I assure you it was magical. While there were even better moments to come at that concert (which featured Yngwie Malmsteen wanking around for 45 minutes as an opener, perhaps so everything after automatically sounded better), the image of giant Bowie and little human Bowie has stayed with me all these years. Maybe he wanted to remind us right from the start that he’s just a guy not some floating giant.
There are things I like quite a bit about “Space Oddity.” I dig the Bowie-harmonizing-with-Bowie bits and the use of stereo in the call and response sections. I dig Rick Wakeman’s fantastic mellotron work. I like the moment after one of the bridges where Bowie comes in with “This is Major Tom to ground control.” I mean, there are things to like here. Oh, and I love how Bowie revisited the mythology of this song over the years making it more and more clear that he identified with Major Tom, a man floating slightly outside the world observing it (and probably on drugs). I mean, truly, Bowie should be rightfully proud both of this song and of its success – he wrote it to get a hit and he got a hit. How many musicians can claim that?
On the other hand, I think the song minus the lyrical mythology is bog-standard late 60’s folk rock (see #142). Its well-performed by all involved but, to my ear, I’ve occasionally found it to be dull as dirt. I find the lyrics to be a little embarrassing at times (it fits right in with some of his other early songs in this regard). You know what song from David Bowie (the second album of that name) aka Space Oddity (in the U.S.A.) actually does all of the things that “Space Oddity” purports to? “Cygnet Committee.” Go put that on and listen to an artist taking an enormous leap forward.
What I Like: See paragraph 2 and 3. This is not by any means a bad song (unless the lyric is changed to an Italian love song). It’s a very good song. It’s just not a song I love and Bowie wrote at least 92 singles that I like more.
Coming Soon: “How could he rank THAT one so high?”