We’re almost (but quite) halfway into what I’ve identified as Bowie’s single catalog. We’re already into the realm of “songs I rather like and the comparably low numbers on these songs are testament to how many songs Bowie recorded that I really, really like.
One song that Bowie never released as a single was “Oh You Pretty Things.” It was, however, a top 20 UK hit (before Bowie recorded his version) for Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. Presented here for your edification:
Moving right along…
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.
90. You’ve Been Around
Video from Black Tie White Noise (1993)
Bowie sings “you’ve been around, but you’ve changed me…. ch-ch-ch-change…” at one point on “You’ve Been Around,” referencing one of his signature songs. Having just come off Tin Machine, Bowie reunited with Nile Rodgers to record an album that, perhaps, would have a better critical and commercial reception. He took a song that started its life as a Tin Machine tune (never recorded in a studio and only performed live once) and stripped away everything, including Reeves Gabrels guitar work. Gabrels later released a reworked version of this song himself, featuring Bowie and Gary Oldman. I don’t know that Black Tie White Noise would necessarily find a place on the top half of my ranking of Bowie albums, but it was the sound of him emerging from the 80’s with his talent intact (if his pride was a little tattered) and is probably his most enjoyable listen (back to front) since Scary Monsters (a common refrain about every Bowie album post-80’s). I suppose I could make an album ranking list…
What I like: I love Lester Bowie’s (no relation) trumpet part. Like really love it.
89. Be My Wife
Second single from Low (1977), released as a single in 1977
When I first picked up The Singles Collection, I said “hey, there is a song on this album that I don’t know at all.” See, I’d listened to Low at some point in the 80’s but never owned it (until much later). I was not all that interested in Berlin Period Bowie (Low, “Heroes,” Lodger) beyond the “hits” from those albums until I grew the heck up.
Side note: The cover of Low is a great visual pun. Bowie is in profile. The word “Low” is above him. Hence, the actual title of the album could be…
“Be My Wife” was not a hit, but I think that was by design. It sounds like it should be a love song, but his delivery makes it clear that he has very little enthusiasm for romance. He’s lonely and just wants somebody around to, I guess, share the loneliness – the word “love” is never used or really even implied. I’m reminded of how many people think “Every Breath You Take” (#13) is a love song. I would feel sort of awful for anyone who actual used this song to propose or at their wedding or what have you unless they did it with an especially dry sense of irony.
What I Like: Every note of Roy Young’s piano performance – in context of the rest of the song – screams “doom” to me. In fact, the fact that the band’s energetic (and even joyous) playing seems to transform into an entirely different song because of how Bowie sings the song is kind of awesome.
88. The Laughing Gnome
Stand-alone single released in 1967
I encourage you to listen to Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” before (or after) you listen to “The Laughing Gnome” so that you too can imagine the mash-up of “Can’t Laugh You Out of my Gnome” that I’ve always dreamed of.
This is a popularly despised Bowie single that I find to be rather fun. It was never intended as a “serious” song and Bowie himself lampooned it a couple of times later in his career, notably here. I’ve got to say, I used to hate it because it punctured my impression of Bowie as a deep, serious artist. I’ve come to love it because it punctured my impression of Bowie as a deep, serious artist. Bowie grew into his comedy (like he grew into his music). I’ve already commented that I thought he sort of laughed a bit too much at his own jokes (#120) and thus undermined his humor. That is not the case here because:
1) The laughing part is built into the song title
2) The really funny joke is totally sly
The really funny joke is a wink a double gnome pun constructed around Mick Jagger who was, of course, a Rolling Stone (Gnome) who went to the London School of Economics (Eco-gnome-ics). I’m not saying Bowie is calling Jagger a gnome, but I’m not saying he’s not calling Jagger a gnome. The rest of the gnome puns are on a continuum from awful to dad joke amazing. Somebody make me a bunch of Carl/Dad from The Walking Dead memes using lyrics from this song.
What I Like: Seriously, if this weren’t a novelty song, I think this would be a celebrated early Bowie song if only for that amazing beat. Also, I love the bassoon.
Third single from Aladdin Sane (1973), released as a single in 1973
All right, the lyric for “Time” is, at best, weak. Long-time Bowie friend and pianist Mike Garson is featured on this song and his contributions (and, of course, Mick Ronson’s guitar) overshadow the problematic lyrics. Whenever I hear this song, I assume it’s from Hunky Dory since the piano style seems more in keeping with that album but, no, it’s from Aladdin Sane, perhaps signaling to the world that Bowie was already growing restless with glam rock.
What I Like: Everything but the lyric.
86. No Plan
First single from Lazarus (Original Cast Recording) (2016), released as a single in 2017
Bowie’s final original single (that has thus far been released), “No Plan” may or may not have been intended to have seemed like Bowie’s message from the afterlife, but boy it sure reads like it. Not so, perhaps. In The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg writes that the lyrics is “an existentialist plea for living life moment by self-determining moment.” (200) In context of Lazurus the musical, it is sung by the main character’s muse – had it been sung by the dying main character, it would change the meaning significantly.
Intention aside, when an artist releases as a song into the wild (as I’ve written many times before) they lose the ability to control what the song means – double so when the artist has died before the song is released. One can’t help but hear the age in Bowie’s voice on this track – a weariness that might have been real or might have been a character choice on his part. He sounds weary, but he also sounds like he’s finally found some semblance of peace. Even if one believes he’s painting a picture of an afterlife defined by his own absence, it sounds like a reassuring song by somebody who has come to grips with his own mortality.
What I Like: It’s hard to put the nostalgia aside here but when I do, there’s still that lovely saxophone solo.
85. Real Cool World
First single from Song from the Cool World (1992), released as a single in 1992
“Cool World” is an awful movie about Gabriel Byrne having sex with a cartoon character. Young cool Brad Pitt is in the film also. Both of them are great actors or, rather, were in future films. I think they were going for an R-Rated Roger Rabbit but what the genuinely gifted Ralph Bakshi created instead was, at its best moments, forgettable. On the positive side, Bowie recorded the title track for the movie and its rather good. “Real Cool World” was sort of Nile Rodgers and David Bowie figuring out if they still had whatever magic they had found together during Let’s Dance. This was also Bowie’s first single release post-Tin Machine, his first post-EMI records and his first as Iman’s husband. Basically, he’d going through some major changes and he sounds happy and relaxed on the track. Who doesn’t like happy and relaxed?
What I Like: Doo. Doo. Doo. Doo doo doo doo doo. Doo. Doo. Doo. Doodoodoo doo.
84. I’d Rather Be High (Venetian Mix)
Video from The Next Day Extra (2013), released in 2013
While I rather prefer the somewhat more straight-forward rock and roll of the original album version of “I’d Rather Be High,” The Venetian Mix of the song (featuring prominent harpsichord) is rather good as well (despite a clunky bridge). I assumed that the harpsichord on this remix of the track was sort of a sly nod to the concept of “classic rock” – you know, a classical instrument being played in a rock song? Classic rock, right? Hello?
Turns out it was likely because it was intended for use in a Louis Vuitton ad. Now go buy something that Louis Vuitton made. I think he makes cars or donuts or something.
Bowie surprised pretty much everyone when he suddenly came out of what we all assumed was retirement and released The Next Day, followed by the mini album The Next Day Extra. It was hard for me to judge at the time if I loved the album just because it was new Bowie or if I really liked the album. I write with confidence now that I really like the album.
What I Like: I dig the guitar riff but I also dig Bowie’s lyric and vocal here which (in a literal sense) paint a picture of a young soldier whose realized he’d rather be anywhere than at war.
83. Without You
Fourth single from Let’s Dance (1983), released as a single in 1983
Let’s Dance was both Bowie’s huge commercial breakthrough in the US and also the start of his downward slide in the 80’s. Bowie’s previous album – Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) – had been one of the finest of his career; a culminating artistic statement of so much of what Bowie had been creating in the late 70’s. Restless again, he paired with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and put together an enormous hit album that further established Rodgers as one of the première producers of the 20th century. The first side of Let’s Dance is four back to back hit singles, the second is something else entirely. I rather like the remake of “Cat People” and the cover of Metro’s “Criminal World,” but the other two songs sound like filler to me. Honestly, all these years later, it sounds to me like Bowie was struggling to find songs.
“Without You” (which is not “Without You I’m Nothing” – #121 – or “Within You”) is the least of his “Let’s Dance” singles but it’s still a precious thing of a song. Bernard Edwards (bass) and Tony Thompson (drums) of Chic join their bandmate, producer Rodgers, on the track so if you subbed out Bowie’s vocal (and erased Stevie Ray Vaughn’s work) this would practically be a Chic song. That’s truly not a bad thing.
What I Like: Stevie Ray Vaughn’s contribution is brief but excellent. I also like the little “deet deet deet” sound that runs through the song.
82. Look Back in Anger
Fourth single from Lodger (1979), released as a single in 1979
Lodger was the last of Bowie’s so-called Berlin trilogy. “Look Back in Anger” (no relation beyond the title to the play) was released as a single in the US instead of “Boys Keep Swinging” (presumably because the record label figured we couldn’t handle the homoeroticism of that track). The highlight of the track, at least to my ear, is Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar solo (O’Leary discusses how Alomar and Nile Rodgers seem to have influenced each other at length in his entry on this song). Brian Eno layers in some typically Eno-esque soundscapes and producer Tony Visconti provides backing vocals (full musical credits here). “Look Back in Anger” is a powerful, full-throated piece of work by Bowie that is both musically challenging and lyrically brilliant. What it lacks in obvious hooks it makes up for everywhere else and if I’ve not ranked it higher, well, that’s just because there’s other songs (even objectively less musically stunning songs) that I enjoy more. Curse my taste!
What I Like: I could listen to Alomar’s guitar work on this one over and over and over.
81. All The Madmen
Promo single from The Main Who Sold The World (1970), released as a single in 1970
Technically, there weren’t any public singles released from The Man Who Sold The World but this one was released in the U.S. as a promo single at least (those are the singles that are sent directly to radio stations). The lyric to “All The Madmen” is built around the fact that society often institutionalizes people who don’t conform. It almost seems like a cliché in 2017, the idea that one would rather stay in an asylum than live with the squares in the mainstream, but in 1970 the song reflected some uncomfortable truths. The lyric, at any rate, isn’t the thing that impresses me about this song. What I dig – really dig – is when Mick Ronson’s guitar kicks in. “All The Madman” is arguably prog rock more than glam due to its epic nature, but the recorder and keyboards also suggest prog. I. Love. Prog.
What I Like: PROG!
Coming Soon: Really there’s no way that there won’t be at least two songs per section that somebody thinks are too low or too high from this point out.