David Bowie Singles Ranked, 71-80

There’s 147 songs in this list and, thus, the halfway point is halfway between 73 and 74. I’m just going to call 74-174 as the bottom half and 1-73 the top half. Of course, this is an artificial distinction (aren’t they all?) because in my heart, we passed into the top half a few list sections ago. My top half just happens to be a lot more than half of these songs because my heart doesn’t do math.

Two major hits on this section of the list. Sorry.

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.

80. Tis a Pity She Was a Whore

Stand-alone digital single released in 2014

Bowie re-recorded this track with his Blackstar band for that album but this single release is the only of his singles that features him playing every instrument. Bowie frequently did this on his demos but it was unusual for one of his demos to be officially released as a single, albeit a digital one. O’Leary points out that Bowie actually based two songs on John Ford’s tragedy Tis Pity She Was A Whore – this one and “Sue (In A Season of Crime).” I’m going to echo something O’Leary writes here and say you have got to read Nicholas Pegg’s interpretation of the lyric of this song. Sharing here would spoil it. Its worth seeking out.

What I Like – At the time this song came out, my reaction was “Bowie has discovered something new and is really enjoying experimenting again.” I thought this song presaged some amazing new work and I was correct (Blackstar) which makes his death even more upsetting. Bowie was heading into new artistic territory and I would have loved to have heard where that took him.

79. Kingdom Come

Record day single from Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980), released as a single in 2015
Cover of a song originally written and recorded by Tom Verlaine

Scary Monsters is either my favorite Bowie album or close to it. I resisted this feeling for two decades because being a Bowie fan and loving this particular album is almost as big a cliché as feeling like Station to Station is your favorite album (it’s also near the top of my hypothetical best Bowie album list). “Kingdom Come” is an outstanding album track that was released as a single in 2015 as part of Record Store Day. Bowie was really dug covering songs that he loved (this list bears testament to this truth) and sometimes he rocks them and sometimes he doesn’t. O’Leary argues that Bowie bobbles this song sloppily while Pegg feels like it’s an album highlight. I confess to not being aware until tonight that this song was even a cover so I don’t have the benefit of musing over how Bowie changed the song. All I can tell you is its of a piece with the rest of Scary Monsters and if I don’t think its an album highlight, well, I mean, it’s because its hard to identify a highlight on an album that is so entirely excellent.

What I Like: Robert Fripp’s lead guitar and those great backing vocals.

78. Beauty and the Beast

Second single from “Heroes” (1978), released as a single in 1979

I think the only times I’ve ever heard this song were when I was playing it. I’ve never heard it on the radio, I’ve never talked about this song with anyone. Indeed, I’ve not really invested much (if any) brain power on this song. It’s really an excellent, dark tune and one of the highlights of its parent album. “Heroes” (the album) was the second in Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy and is one of his most highly regarded albums. Bowie had traveled to Berlin in part to kick his cocaine habit (one interpretation of this song is that the title characters represent Bowie’s cocaine fueled mood swings) but he also entered a period of great creativity while he was there. Bowie assembled a team of great musicians led by himself and co-producer Tony Visconti including his long-term band members Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar), Dennis Davis (drums) and George Murray as well as synth and keyboard master Brian Eno (Talking Heads #7, U2 #16 among others and referenced all over my lists), former (and future) King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and German cabaret singer Antonia Maass on backing vocals (she’ll also be important when we reach the song “‘Heroes'”). Bowie, Alomar, Davis and Murray had been playing together for several years at this point and, man, they are tight on every song they play. Eno does his Eno thing, but its Fripp who has the stand-out musical contribution to this track. According to legend, Fripp got off the plane, came to the studio and laid down this guitar track on the first take in exactly that order. Both O’Leary and Nicolas Pegg draw attention to the fact that the “Someone fetch a priest” lyric is a PG version of producer Visconti’s favorite expletive during the recording of this album – which I like because it suggests that Bowie incorporated ‘found sound’ that enhanced the lyric. It is both an in-joke and an appropriate image for a song about a person who turn into a beast.

What I Like: The Maass’ backing vocals; Fripp’s guitar; Eno’s Eno stuff.

77. The Prettiest Star

Stand-alone single released in 1970

Bowie recut a somewhat inferior remake of “The Prettiest Star” with Mick Ronson on guitar for Aladdin Sane, but the original single featured all-time great glam rock musician T-Rex’s Marc Bolan on guitar. This is probably the only time where adding Mick Ronson to the mix didn’t improve an earlier Bowie song. This song sounds less like a David Bowie song with Marc Bolan on guitar than it does a Marc Bolan guitar song with some incidental singing by David Bowie. Bolan and Bowie were friends, rivals and colleagues until Bolan’s tragic death in 1977. Here’s Bowie singing “‘Heroes'” on Bolan’s TV Show in 1977 with Bolan on guitar (and here’s a weird bit from the end of show). Anyhow, Bowie wrote “The Prettiest Star” for Angela Barnett – soon to be Angela Bowie. It was the follow-up single to “Space Oddity” and, true to Tony Visconti’ fears that that song was going to make Bowie a novelty act, “The Prettiest Star” was an enormous flop. A real shame because it’s a great song.

What I Like: Well, I mean, if it isn’t clear, Marc Bolan.

76. When the Wind Blows

First single from the soundtrack to the 1986 film When The Wind Blows

There were a bunch of 80’s films that tried to educate my generation about the genuine horrific reality of a nuclear war. In the U.S., we had The Day After and the especially horrifying Special Bulletin. The UK had the even more horrifying and depressing Threads and the slash-your-wrists heartbreaking animated When The Wind Blows. I say all the time that if there is a bomb launched at Hawaii, I’ll do my best to be where the bomb strikes and its entirely because of these films. I’d much rather be evaporated than die slowly and horribly. Thanks 80’s television!

The film (an adaptation of a Raymond Briggs book) is about a middle-aged, suburban British couple and their slow demise post-nuclear strike as they cling to the increasingly unlikely hope that the government is going to swoop in and rescue them. It’s just the most depressing thing ever. Bowie’s song for the piece is one of his best 80’s tracks – its cold, frightening and tuneful. All the instruments are played by Erdal Kizilcay, who would later collaborate with Bowie in the 90’s on the splendid Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack. Those of us in the U.S. didn’t really get to encounter this song at the time, which is a shame because Bowie’s other 1986 musical work was Labyrinth (#141, #127 and one more coming up). This would have been a nice salve to those tracks.

What I Like: Bowie’s vocal is masterful on this one. I also agree with Pushing Ahead of the Dame author O’Leary that Bowie’s lyrical work here – which makes some normally innocent things sound foreboding – is outstanding.

75. Miracle Goodnight

Third Single from Black Tie White Noise (1993), released as a single in 1993

Another song from Black Tie White Noise? Seriously? There’s been a lot of them (#124 #102 and #92), and more still to come.

There are certain songs that take something deliberately annoying or incongruous (like the siren in “Leave” by R.E.M. or the cowbell in “Kangaroo” by Big Star) and make it palatable. In this case, there’s this cloying, repetitive keyboard line that would make me berserk in another context but actually kind of enhances this piece. Bowie wrote “Miracle Tonight” for new wife Iman (and, indeed, dedicated the whole album to her).

What I like: The thing that really makes this song is this brief little guitar solo by Nile Rodger. O’Leary calls it “a last burst of pure elation” and I agree entirely.

74. Up the Hill Backwards

Fourth single from Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980), released as a single in 1981

Robert Fripp made several very important contribution to Bowie’s work in the late 70’s. His solos on “Up The Hill Backwards” are among his best for Bowie. The rhythm section of Davis and Murray and producer Tony Visconti (here on rhythm guitar and co-lead vocal) are also typically outstanding on this track. A third lead vocalist – Lynn Maitland – means that Bowie’s voice is “a flavor” rather than the focus of the tune. Musically, this is one of my favorite Scary Monsters tracks and I’ve spent many good hours pondering the lyric (which O’Leary describes as “a cryptic anti-self-help manual”). I was surprised to discover that this was released as a single because as much as I like the song, I always assumed it was more of an outstanding album track than a pop chart friendly unit shifter. Indeed, it only shifted enough units to just break the UK Top 40.

What I Like: This will become a common refrain, but Fripp’s guitar work. I also love the three person choral chant.

73. Fame

Second single from Young Americans (1975), released as a single in 1975

“Fame” is almost certainly the first David Bowie song I ever heard. The song was a huge radio hit in the USA when I was 8 and I’m guessing that I wasn’t even aware he had other songs until maybe like 1979 or 1980 (at the earliest). I remember being in my fourth grade music class and singing along with this and with “Rock On” by David Essex. Apparently, the music teacher in the 70’s at Fawn Hollow Elementary School in Monroe, Connecticut was pretty “with it.” Unrelated, I also remember that in gym class at that school, they brought in a bona-fide disco dance to teach us all how to do The Hustle. That was sort of fun break from square dancing in gym class. Public school in Connecticut, people.

This song is so huge in my memory that its very difficult for me to grasp its importance in the development of Bowie as an artist. It almost seems apart from everything else he ever did. When I was little and was still grappling with concepts like time and age, I think I imagined all music was made more or less before I was born and I was just discovering it now. Thus, as I gradually became aware of other Bowie songs (mostly from I-95, Danbury’s mainstream rock radio station), I had no concept that “Suffragette City” or “Space Oddity” or “Rebel Rebel” or “Fame” existed on different albums. They were all part of some ur-collection of Bowie songs on the glam plane of ideals. By the time I owned Changesonebowie, I was old enough to realize that new music existed but I still hadn’t quite put the order of Bowie’s songs or albums together in my head.

Anyhow, John Lennon famously played on this song under the name “Dr. Winston O’Boogie.” Carlos Alomar developed the main guitar lick that drives the whole song. Bowie allegedly was inspired to write the terrifically cynical lyric because he thought Lennon was saying “fame” to the beat at one point. Anyhow, wiser people than I have written extensively about the jam that birthed this track. It’s a great jam and I still enjoy it (especially the “Laughing Gnome”-esque descending “fame, fame fame fame” thing), but it stopped being a top favorite song on the day that I heard a second David Bowie song.

What I Like: You never forget your first, I suppose, and often romanticize it a bit. I still like the groove. Heck, James Brown liked it enough to literally rip it off.

72. Jump They Say

First single from Black Tie White Noise (1993), released as a single in 1993

Our collection of songs from Black Tie White Noise continues to grow! It might have been faster to just write about the songs he didn’t release in some form from that album. “Jump They Say” was the world’ reintroduction to Bowie as a solo artist after a couple of Tin Machine albums. As I’ve written, he paired up with producer Nile Rodgers again and made an attempt to break back onto the charts. However, he’d also just married Iman and (perhaps because he was deliriously happy in his personal life) sort of decided he’d rather start experimenting again than record Let’s Dance II. Furthermore, Bowie fans (like me) had become suspicious of him after Never Let Me Down and the soundtrack from Labirynth and, thus, he had an uphill climb to win many of us back. “Jump They Say,” however, was a very good start. An angry, moody song that is ostensibly a reflection on Bowie’s feelings about his step-brother Terry Burn’s death by suicide eight years earlier, the song sounds a bit like what I imagine Low would have sounded like had Nile Rodgers produced it. I remember being pretty excited about the song at the time and – if I didn’t go and buy the album at the time – I certainly started thinking much more fondly of Bowie again.

What I Like: Two different Bowie’s – David and Lester (no relation) – provide some great brass work on this song.

71. China Girl

Second single from Let’s Dance (1983), released as a single in 1983

So, I imagine it went down like this:

EMI EXEC: Hello?
BOWIE: Hello, I’m David Bowie.
EMI: David! how can I help you?
BOWIE: I’ve decided to make a new album.
EMI: Great!
BOWIE: And I want it to have hits. I have an idea of how to have huge hits.
EMI: Even better!
BOWIE: I’m going to work with Nile Rodgers from Chic.
EMI: Dance music! I like it. You had a big hit with that “Fame” dance song you did.
BOWIE: And I’m going to have Stevie Ray Vaugn play lead guitar.
EMI: The Blues guy? Wait, what?
BOWIE: And the second single is going to be an Iggy Pop song about western invasion and exploitation
EMI: …

“China Girl” is a great song and also a seriously problematic song. Nile Rodgers “Chinese” guitar riff at the start? The fact that Iggy Pop wrote it about his Vietnamese lover with whom he didn’t share a language? The moment in the video where Bowie flirts by stretching out his eyes? I like this song musically enough to rank it much, much higher, but seriously the lyric just…

Look, Bowie wanted to do a song about invasion and exploitation. He’s criticizing the western world for war mongering and cultural imperialism. His heart is in the right place here. Pop’s lyric just doesn’t do what he thinks it does in my opinion.

What I Like: Nile Rodgers’ guitar (except for the “Chinese” part), Stevie Ray Vaugn’s guitar, and Carmen Rojas’ bass are all fantastic. Omar Hakim’s drums? Phenomenal. Bowie’s delivery of the lyric? Maybe his best delivery of a cover. I wish I could enjoy it all without twisting my fact up in a knot.

Coming Soon: Another collaboration with a 60’s contemporary and the last Tin Machine song on the list.

David Bowie Singles Ranked – 141-147131-140121-130111-120101-11091-10081-9071-8061-7051-6041-5031-4021-3011-201-10

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