Top 50! Top 50! Top 50!
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.
50. Pretty Pink Rose by Adrian Belew) and David Bowie
First single from Adrian Belew’s album Young Lions (1990), released as a single in 1990
I saw Belew playing guitar for Bowie on Bowie’s Sound + Vision tour in 1990 and this was the only new song they played. Written by Bowie and completely reworked by Belew for the latter’s Young Lions album, “Pretty Pink Rose” turned out to be one of Bowie’s best songs of the 81-90 decade. The lyric reflects both the contemporary excitement about the collapse of the Soviet Union and (sadly accurate) cynicism about what the future might hold. Belew’s guitar contributions are glorious up-tempo wank-fests that were even better live than on the single. I already dug Adrian Belew quite a bit and bought Young Lions almost immediately. Belew is a fascinating solo artist with a fantastic set up albums and songs that never received the attention they deserved. Ask me and I’ll tip you off on which songs of his you should check out in case you’re not familiar with his solo work.
What I Like: Bloody everything, but if I had to pick just one thing it would be Belew’s guitar.
49. The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
Second single from The Next Day (2013), released as a single in 2013
Bowie has a ton of songs that reference stars – “Starman,” “Star,” “Blackstar,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “The Prettiest Star,” “New Killer Star” among others. He often plays on the celestial body/famous person homonym (in fact, doesn’t Major Tom become both as he floats off into space?). “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” seems to be about the drudgery of fame (Not an unfamiliar topic for Bowie – #75). The song wasn’t exactly a huge hit, but that’s all right. Tastes had shifted by 2013 and as excited as everyone was to have Bowie back, he wasn’t necessarily going to chart in the year of Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke.
What I Like: There’s a sense of grim foreboding in the song (which is elevated in the video). Bowie sings like the stars are doomed. I mean, of course they are. We all are.
48. As The World Falls Down
Music video from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to Labyrinth (1986)
A video was prepared for this song and it was going to be released as a single but the slow sales of the prior two songs (#141 and #127) lead them to decide not to release it. A shame because it’s the best song from the movie, even if it sort of packs nearly everything I dislike about 80’s production into its 4m51s. Also, I’m willing to overlook that in the film it’s a super creepy love song from Goblin King Jareth to 14-year-old Jennifer Connelly. It’s a lovely melody and Bowie sings it with the new romantic baritone that had inspired the entire early 80’s.
What I Like: “But I’ll be there for you-ou-ou….” Also, the backing vocals are great.
47. Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich mix by James Murphy for the DFA)
Video Not Safe For Work
Single from The Next Day Extra (2013)
There is also a second excellent video for an edit of this remix that features Bowie and some creepy doppelgangers (Bowie shot the second video himself). Both of these are mixes of a song first released on The Next Day but remixed for The Next Day Extra by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. Bowie met Murphy when he came in to lay down some backing vocals on Arcade Fire’s song “Reflektor,” which was produced by Murphy. Murphy was also brought in to do some production work on Blackstar, though his contribution was allegedly minimal on that record. Bowie had a history of working with and supporting various artists that he admired, whether it was by covering their songs, producing work for them, or occasionally singing vocals on some of their tracks. Criticize him as you wish, but Bowie walked the walk when it came to helping out his fellow musicians and he was beloved for it – for example, Arcade Fire led a New Orleans funeral march for Bowie after he passed.
Murphy’s remix of “Love is Lost” features a rhythm sampled from Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” and the keyboard hook from “Ashes to Ashes” (played by Roy Bittan). I tend to like the original versions of songs more than their remixes but I have to admit Murphy makes this song considerably more anxiety-inducing.
What I Like: I still am pleasantly surprised to hear the Bittan keyboard work from “Ashes to Ashes” when it comes up, but what I really love is the lyric.
46. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Third single from Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980), released as a single in 1981
Apparently, the cowbell on this track owes a debt to Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” (#4) and I don’t think Ian Curtis ever got to hear it – he passed a few months before the album was released. What was it like to be Bowie in 1980? So many bands that were influenced by Bowie were breaking into the charts left and right and, while he was certainly successful, many of those bands were at the time more successful (or at least getting more sales and airplay). That’s not what this song is about, but I can’t help thinking about why this album is regarded by many as Bowie’s last great album (it’s not his last great album – that would be Blackstar) especially in light of the sharp commercial turn he took as of his next album, Let’s Dance. I moved this song all over my list as I’ve been working on it – for most of my life, I thought I disliked it but the more I’ve listened to it in the past couple of months, the more I’ve come to realize I rather love it.
What I Like: This is some of Robert Fripp’s best guitar work ever. Also, the lyric is right terrifying.
45. Let’s Spend the Night Together
Third single from Aladdin Sane (1973), released as a single in 1973
Originally written and recorded by The Rolling Stones (1967)
I’ve got to say, I like Bowie’s version just about as much as The Rolling Stones’ original. I get the criticism (that Bowie is confident where Jagger is charmingly unsure) but there’s something about the way Bowie’s Aladdin Sane era band (the Spiders from Mars – Ronson, Bolder, Woodmansey – plus Mike Garson on piano and David Sanborn on saxophone) rips joyously through the song that is irresistible to me.
What I Like: This is a top band in top form playing a song that they clearly love. What’s not to like?
44. The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell
Second single from hours… (1999), released as a single in 1999
Let me just start here by sending out major props to guitarist Reeves Gabrels, a brilliant guitarist, producer and songwriter in his own right who had the longest tenure of anyone as Bowie’s sideman. Starting with his work with Bowie on Tin Machine, Gabrels was Bowie’s main collaborator through hours… and if he was not Ronson or Fripp or Alomar or Belew or Vaughn or Slick, that’s fine because none of them are especially like each other either. Being Bowie’s sideman in the 90’s was akin to having to being the Seventh Doctor in Doctor Who – fabulous work, but perhaps overshadowed a bit by some of the inferior work that came before. I didn’t care for “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” the first thirty or forty times I heard it but while working on this project, it suddenly clicked for me. This, my friends, is Bowie’s biggest, dumbest single by design – as O’Leary writes, it’s stand-up. The title is a play on like seven different things related to Bowie’s career and the chorus features this great line about how “Life’s a bit and sometimes you die” (because when a stand-up’s set fails, they died). Furthermore, it’s a wry, funny commentary on who Bowie was in 1999. It’s really genuinely great. Gabrels was responsible for the sound, but Bowie tarted it up and made it awesome.
What I Like: Gabrels’ guitar hook.
43. Pallas Athena (as Tao Jones Index)
Stand-Alone single from 1997, original version on Black Tie White Noise (1993)
As O’Leary relates, being a Bowie fan in 1993 was thoroughly uncool. In an attempt to make him cool again, they pressed a bunch of copies of this song without Bowie’s name on it and released it to dance clubs where it became a club hit before anyone knew who recorded it. It was released again in a different form under the kind of hilarious name Tao Jones Index (Bowie’s birth name was, of course, Jones) in 1997. “Pallas Athena” is the seventh song on this list from Black Tie White Noise and its easily my favorite of the lot.
What I Like: That is Bowie jamming on the saxophone. He didn’t think much of his own instrumental musical ability, but he’s great on this track.
42. Cracked Actor
Eastern European released from Aladdin Sane (1973), released as a single in 1973
So this song is the reason I had to renumber the bottom of this list in early February, 2018. “Cracked Actor” is not listed as an official single here or at Discogs, but if you go to the Wikipedia listing for the song you’ll see that RCA released it as a single in Eastern Europe. These sorts of things keep me up at night.
What I Like: Bowie’s delivery is crude and sleazy and the music matches.
41. Loving the Alien
Third single from Tonight (1984), released as a single in 1985
On his 2003 Reality Tour, Bowie played this song close to the way I’ve always heard it in my head. Stripped of its 80’s production excesses, the song’s haunting, melancholy beauty shines out. I mean, I loved gated drums as much as anyone, but they just didn’t belong on this track. It’s the best song from Tonight and deserves to be included with his best tunes. I owned the 45 on purple vinyl. Even with the 80’s production, it’s a thing of beauty.
What I Like: The marimba. The lyric. The delivery, especially on the chorus and most especially on the final chorus.
Coming Soon: We’re finally due to have some more songs from Station to Station, but I mean everything from here on out is pretty amazing.