First of all, thank you so much for staying with me this long.
There are so many Bowie songs I love that weren’t released as singles by Bowie. “Oh You Pretty Things.” The American Psycho remix of “Something in the Air.” “Panic in Detroit.” “Uncle Floyd” (remade later as “Slip Away”). “Sweet Thing”/”Candidate”/”Sweet Thing (reprise).” “Sons of the Silent Age.” “Always Crashing in the Same Car.” “Bring Me The Disco King.” His cover of “It Ain’t Easy.” I could spend the rest of the evening just listing songs by Bowie that I love that weren’t released as singles. Let’s leave that there.
My top ten Bowie songs are not as in flux as I thought they might be. Looking back at how much I moved everything else around, the top ten has been remarkably stable for this whole process which suggests I really mean it this time. Let’s get to it and, again, thank you so much for sticking around.
10. Suffragette City
First single from the greatest hits collection Changesonebowie (1976), released as a single in 1976
Originally on the 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
I distinctly remember the first time I really became aware of this song. I know I’d heard it before this moment, but I was sitting in my art class and our cool visual arts teacher was letting us listen to the radio (as usually, I-95, the local rock station) and suddenly Mick Ronsen’s first guitar chords rang out. “I love this song,” I thought to myself. “Who sings this,” I asked the person at the table with me. “David Bowie.” “Do you know the song’s name?” “I Dunno. ‘Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am’ I think.” That.. is not the title (and it was stolen from Charles Mingus). It is a memorable moment in the song and probably the thing that made it popular among me and my peers who (after all) were the generation that inspired Beavis and Butthead. The lyrics are both hilarious and awesome – the singer is trying to ditch his friend (lover?) Henry because his girlfriend is coming over and she really likes to have sex. Indeed, she’s from the liberated titular city (apparently, Manchester) and she has the power in this relationship.
What I Love: I didn’t understand the lyrics at all back in – when? – probably 1982. I just realized I loved Mick Ronsen’s guitar riff, the driving melody, the fake horn section and the hapless “hey man” backing vocals. I can almost smell the art room.
9. Young Americans
First single from Young Americans (1975), released as a single in 1975
This is one of my go-to karaoke songs (the other is “Rio” – #10). When I saw Bowie perform this on the Sound + Vision tour, I remember very clearly that when it came time to hit the “break down and cry” note, Bowie instead took a knee as if he was breaking down and crying – he’d told us at the top of the set that his voice was recovering from a cold. It was a great dramatic moment and we all went nuts. He really milked this moment later on in the tour. The song sounds warm and soulful but it’s really just as critical of the superficiality – the disposability – of American culture as, say “I’m Afraid Of Americans” (#16). The musicians on this song are remarkable – David Sanborn on saxophone, Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar, Willie Weeks on bass (holy cats so good), Bowie-regular Mike Garson on piano (one of his best performances), Andy Newmark on drums, and Luther Vandross (!!!), Ava Cherry and Robin Clark on backing vocals.
What I Love: This song is a great example of how a singer can make you feel something strictly through delivery. The whole litany of random American things in the fourth verse sort of add up to nothing (the point!) but Bowie delivers that section with so much commitment and passion that when he reaches that glorious “ain’t there one damn song” moment, you’re ready to buy whatever he’s selling. It is, perhaps, not entirely surprising that his next character after the Young Americans album was Station to Stations fascist-leaning Thing White Duke. Bowie had believers believing him. That’s got to be a weird place to be.
First single from ★ (2016), released as a single in 2015
By the time Bowie released “★,” he’d already released two other songs that would be on that song’s parent album – “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” (#80) and “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” (#67) – albeit in different forms than on that record. I had an idea of what direction Bowie was going in and I was intrigued but nothing he’d released that year even remotely prepared me for “★.” Quite simply, its one of the best songs he ever recorded and it is absolutely remarkable that it came so late in his career – after the commercial success and collapse in the 80’s, after the time he spent rediscovering his groove in the 90’s, even after his “curating his own career” phase at the turn of the century. Here was David Bowie with his eyes firmly fixed on the future again – a future that was both exhilarating (musically) and grim (lyrically). Major Tom (in skeletal form) makes one last appearance in this video, decorated for Dios de Muertos and floating dead to a planet (Earth? Who knows?) as do three disturbingly familiar scarecrow (Elvis? Michael Jackson? Are they saving a place for Bowie?). Death is all around but really death has been all around Bowie’s songs from the start – isn’t “Space Oddity” (#91) itself about letting go of life and floating off into the heavens?
In hindsight (and at the moment of his death – “something happened on the day he died”), it seems like this song is Bowie’s grand final statement, or perhaps final puzzle. We were all pondering Elvis’ song “Black Star” and how black star is also a name for a cancer lesion and The Village of Ormen tumblr (there was some thought that Bowie made it, but that’s unlikely). The song and the video raised questions when it first came out and then became the subject of intense speculation after he died. To whit, his death transformed the song. Grim alchemy, that. Its going to be years before I’m going to be able to listen to this song (or “Lazarus” #17) with anything resembling the objectivity I could when it was first released.
What I love: Donny McCaslin’s sax work is once again remarkable. He’s just as major a player on this album as Mick Ronsen was on Bowie’s earlier records. It’s a nearly unbearable tragedy that we’ll never get to hear a second album from Bowie and McCaslin. I also love the multiact structure of this song which Bowie employed on several of his songs over the years, notable “Sweet Thing” etc and “Station to Station.” I dig suites.
First single from Hunky Dory (1971), released as a single in 1972
Do I need to write anything here? You all get it, right? Bowie singing mostly about himself, but in a way that reaches a sort of universal relevance? I’ll write more if you make me, but I feel like this is really all that’s necessary.
What I love: Seriously.
First single from “Heroes” (1977), released as a single in 1977
Gated. Vocals. There’s probably a thousand other ways to recreate the sound of Bowie’s voice on “‘Heroes'” now, but Tony Visconti did some pretty remarkable things to make Bowie’s anguished vocal really pop in 1977. I encourage you to watch Visconti’s discussion about constructing the song here. “‘Heroes'” isn’t of course about actually being heroes (hence the scare quotes around the title). It’s about the potential to be heroes that we almost never actually achieve because you’re mean and I drink all the time. Even the lovers who inspired the song (Bowie saw them kissing in front of the Berlin wall) were hardly doing something heroic – it was Visconti and his secret lover Antonia Maas (who sang on “Beauty and the Beast” – #78) canoodling behind the back of Visconti’s wife. We can be heroes – we’re just not heroes very often. “Heroes” indeed. But, you know, as Chris O’Leary shares at Pushing Ahead of the Dame, maybe just getting up out of bed and facing the horror of daily life is heroic. Or maybe we don’t need to just be heroes, maybe its enough just to be us for one day.
The single edit of the song is borderline lame once you’ve heard the full song so I’m being a little self-indulgent and considering the full version of the song. I remember this one getting a lot of airplay on I-95 in the early 80’s – even before Bowie’s performance of the song at Live Aid started it down the road to being a beloved standard and one worth of performance at the most solemn of events. At some point, the song lost its irony in the public perception and really did transform into a song celebrating actual heroes. Back in the early 80’s, I just remember it being one of those rare treats that we’d hear on the radio now and then (perhaps paired with “Jean Genie” on Two for Tuesday or Three for Thursday). I feel like I’ve loved it since I first heard it.
What I Love: “I…. I can remember….” (I remember) “standing…. by the wall…” (by the wall) …and then it gets to the “and the shame was on the other side” and I want to cry its just so perfect.
5. Under Pressure (with Queen)
First single from Queen’s Hot Space (1982), released as a single in 1981
Until 1982, Bowie’s former manager got a cut of whatever songs Bowie wrote so he was careful to write as few songs as possible (this is why Let’s Dance happened when it happened). One song that Bowie was involved in writing during this time was “Under Pressure.” I encourage you to read the back and forth about who created the piece’s iconic bass line (spoiler: Bowie said it was John Deacon, John Deacon said it was Bowie, but it seems like it was some combination of the two). The lyrics were partially improvised (hurray!), perhaps unfinished, largely ludicrous and as many have pointed out its only Freddie Mercury and Bowie’s singing that elevate them to something profound. There are several great live performance by Bowie and by Queen with Mercury but none of them singing it in public together – Queen at Wembley in ’86 – rehearsal with Bowie, Queen and Annie Lennox for a tribute to Mercury (watch George Michael reacting) – Bowie with the wonderful Gail Ann Dorsey. Take an afternoon and fall down the live version of “Under Pressure” rabbit hole sometime when you have a chance. Allegedly, Bowie and Queen were both somewhat dissatisfied with the song and it wasn’t an especially huge hit in the US (it hit #1 in the UK) at the time but its long since become a beloved standard whose bass line has been famously lifted for more successful singles.
I figure I first heard this song on my cassette of Queen’s Greatest Hits. I remember laying in bed in my grandparents’ summer house in Cape Cod (I had gone there that summer with my Aunt and cousin) listening to it somewhat reluctantly because I was too lazy to fast forward over this song I didn’t know to the next classic Queen track and suddenly going “hey wait, this is good.” I don’t recall it getting much airplay back in the day in my part of the world though, of course, everyone knew the song well enough by the time “Ice Ice Baby” came out that we were able to joke about Vanilla Ice’s feeble defense of the alleged originality of that song’s bass line.
What I Love: Deacon’s bass line is iconic, but so are both of the vocal performances. When Mercury comes in with “why don’t we give ourselves one more chance,” I’m willing to give myself one more chance.
4. Life on Mars?
Second single from Hunky Dory (1971), released as a single in 1973
While the 2016 mix might sound crisper (#95), it strips away pretty much everything but Rick Wakeman’s piano line. That’s great because Wakeman is great (trivia – the piano he plays is the same one used by Paul McCartney used on “Hey Jude”), but you know you lose so much of the songs drama without Ronsen, Bolder and Woodmansey. I came to this song pretty late – maybe as late as when I picked up The Singles Collection sometime after 1993. The song is a great pastiche of images that starts by describing a sad day in the life of a teenage girl and then transforms into a series of unrelated images. The film is a saddening bore but she (and later we) are still sucked into the “sailors fighting in the dance hall.” Glam rock was, by design, disposable and the lyrics were perhaps intended to wash away (like tears… in the rain) but sometimes if you write something empty the listeners fill it with whatever they happen to need at that moment.
What I Love: Ronsen’s string arrangement kicks ass. The glorious swirl into the chorus is one of the greatest things associated with Bowie.
3. Ashes to Ashes
First single from Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980), released as a single in 1980
My top three are probably not your top three.
Scary Monsters is (maybe) my favorite Bowie album and I’m not alone in this opinion. Indeed, the cliche review for a positive post-1980’s Bowie album was to include the phrase “his best since Scary Monsters.” Two of my top three songs (which are probably not your top three) are from that album. 16 years had passed from the time of his first single (“Liza Jane” from 1965 – #131) to the release of his second single. In that time, he’d had enormous professional success as a glam rocker, got married, had a kid, got divorced, had success in America with his “plastic soul” records, became massively addicted to cocaine, became paranoid, starred in some films, went through his Berlin period, produced a few iconic albums for other artists and had become an icon himself. And that’s just scratching the surface. Scary Monsters has always sounded – to me – like a man standing in the wreckage of his life and asking himself “what now?”
(Alfred Jarry’s great quote about how “we shall not have destroyed everything until we’ve destroyed the ruins as well, but the only way I can see to do that is to build a bunch of fine buildings with them” springs to mind)
O’Leary makes a convincing argument that “Ashes to Ashes” is Bowie’s actual final song – a funeral for Major Tom, for the 70’s and for everything Bowie had created up to that point. In my opinion, Bowie spent most of the 80’s trying to emerge from his own shadow by killing his past (his 1990 Sound + Vision Tour was ostensibly the last time he was going to play his greatest hits, for example; Tin Machine was where he tried to kill Bowie the solo artist; etc). In the 90’s, he attempted to do this by plowing forward into the then-new styles of music. He finally settled into a sort of curator role for his three turn-of-the-century albums, drawing from pieces of his rich career to make new music. Bowie worked with many great musicians over the years but his late 70’s rhythm section – Alomar, Davis and Murray – were arguably his best band.
I saw the video before I heard “Ashes for Ashes.” This was perfect for MTV but didn’t really have enough rock guitar to make it into rotation on the bus or in my art class. Still, when I first heard this song, I felt like I’d finally heard my aesthetic – if I was going to make music, this is what I wanted it to sound like. The complex rhythm, the angular keyboard work, the variety of vocal delivery. All these years later and this song still sounds like the music of the future to me. It’s just that the future ain’t what it used to be.
What I Love: The unfeeling backing vocals, the desperation in Bowie’s voice, the keyboard.
2. Station to Station
French single from Station to Station (1976), released as a single in 1976
Arguably Bowie’s greatest suite, “Station to Station” introduced the world to Bowie’s Thin White Duke Character, the yang to Ziggy Stardust’s yin. As described by O’Leary, Bowie was living in Hollywood, paranoid and coked out of his mind, reading books on the occult and Nazi symbolism, and emerged as this nasty character who was a minor royal with fascist leanings. He played it one stage and in public, going to far as to call Hitler the first rock star and suggest that a fascist ruler was coming to London. Once he cleared the coke, Hollywood, the paranoia and the Duke out of his system, he spent the rest of his life being entirely anti-fascist. Bowie was so wasted that he allegedly didn’t remember recording most of this song or its parent album. Ultimately, however, the character and the album reflect that a rock and roll figure can be both a messiah and a demagogue – it just depends on her or his intent. He got believers, after all, believing him.
There’s a lot to unpack in the lyrics. The titular stations could be interpreted as train stations (there’s those train whistles at the top of the song) or as the stations of the cross. The “thin white duke” can be interpreted as a description of a line of cocaine (O’Leary points out that almost every line in the song can be read as a metaphor for cocaine). He makes deliberate allusions to Prospero from The Tempest in exile – perhaps reflecting his own life in Hollywood, exiled (by choice) and isolated from his home country. As the song builds to a fast-paced, funky, almost-disco jam at the end, the lyrics become a litany of actions that are too late. Is that a good thing (we’re being swept up in something positive) or a horrific thing (we’re being swept away by something awful)? I guess it depends on how I’m feeling from day-to-day. Ultimately the lyric shows the dark
It took me years to click with this song but when it finally did click, I was blown away by everything about it. The band is one of his finest line-ups and Bowie’s voice does just about everything its capable of doing. If “Ashes to Ashes” consciously deconstructed Major Tom, “Station to Station” was a subconscious deconstruction of everything Bowie had been up to that point. In some ways it was a reaction to his “Fame” related success as much as his lousy work in the 80’s was a reaction to his “Let’s Dance” success. In this case, the reaction was infinitely more interesting than the thing he was reaction to.
What I Love: If I’m going to pick just one moment, it would be the one where the song changes from brooding art-rock to funk.
1. It’s No Game Part 1
Japanese single from Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980), released as a single in 1980
I am so happy this song was released as a single in Japan. If this were a list ranking every single Bowie song, this would almost certainly be in the top five, possibly even number one (“Uncle Floyd,” “Always Crashing in the Same Car” and almost all of the Ziggy Stardust songs that were released as live singles would give it a run for its money).
The female voice is Michi Hirota. She is reciting the lyrics translated to Japanese (translation back to English) but since the lyrics are in “male” Japanese, her delivery is strong and harsh. Bowie respond with the English version of the lyrics with theatrically huge outrage. He’s still in exile of sort (he’s sitting in his room responding to the television) and he is furious about pretty much everything (including the continued rise of fascism – one can only imagine what he’d think about the world even a year after his death). He even identifies the truth about his own place in the media landscape – that the main result of his death would be to move newspapers (“put a bullet in my brain/and it makes all the papers”). Its one of my favorite vocal performances by anyone ever.
In addition to being a great single, it’s a fantastic album opener – a mission statement for Scary Monsters. It and its deliberately weary reprise frame the record as from a man who starts full of piss and vinegar and ends facing all the same outrages but worn out by them (that is how I’ve felt in real life for months now). There’s only so long you can stay plugged into the awfulness in the world before you become numb to it (and that’s how the fascists make things normal). We – humans – are the scary monsters. We are the super creeps. Life is no game. The stakes are life and death. Screaming into the void wears you out, but sometimes you just have to scream.
What I Love: One last shout out to the greatest rock rhythm section of Bowie’s career – Alomomar, Murray and Davis. One last shout out to Robert Fripp. One big shout out to Tony Visconti, Bowie’s sonic architect. And, of course, ultimate shout-out to Bowie for a remarkable lyric and vocal.
Coming Soon: The Scissors Sisters are next.