I don’t really cotton to the idea that moving from “100” to “99” in the next entry has any major significance. My “landmarks” while ranking songs tend to be specific songs that I think of as dividing groups of songs. For example, “Crystal Japan” (#137) was my landmark separating the unlistenable from the forgettable and I’ve been using “Rebel Never Gets Old” (#111) as the landmark for “songs I at least occasionally skip over” to “songs I don’t skip over.”
This means we’re in the realm of the pretty good now.
Bowie released a whole bunch of alternate versions of his songs as singles – including live versions, remixes, re-imaginings and demos. Sometimes, the better known version of any given song was the re-recording (such as the Ziggy Stardust re-recordings of his work with his Arnold Corns project) and not the original single. Anyhow, in addition to songs that I just feel belong here, this chunk of the list includes several songs that fall into that category – lesser versions of better Bowie songs.
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.
110. Tin Machine (as part of Tin Machine)
Second single from Tin Machine (1989), Released as a double A-Side with “Maggie’s Farm (live)” (#143) in 1989
“Tin Machine” by Tin Machine is from the album Tin Machine, something that makes me pretty happy because I’m always amused when songs, albums and bands all share the same name (Bo Diddly3, Bad Company3, Iron Maiden3, etc.) The band is named after the song – they recorded the record before they had a name. “Tin Machine” the song may have been Bowie and his bandmates’ attempt to emulate punk. The song is a break-neck spew of words and images with Big Country-esque guitar work from Reeves Gabrels (i.e. – it sounds like bagpipes).
What I Like: (we can officially start this again now) I really dig the bridge, particularly how Bowie builds to “hell” and the track feels like its going to break down. I also like the false ending which sounds like it catches everyone in the band off guard. Maybe it did.
109. Heathen (The Rays) (Live)
iTunes single (2003) of a track from Heathen (2001)
The title track from Heathen is a bit of a beautiful muddle on the album to my ear – this live version (released as a single on iTunes) is considerably more interesting. O’Leary (at the Pushing Ahead of the Dame blog) does a particularly admirable job of dissecting this song and its parent album in context of Bowie’s whole career. The album was Bowie’s first produced by Tony Visconti since Scary Monsters (Visconti would continue producing his work through Bowie’s death) and the first since Tin Machine to not feature Reeves Gabrels on guitar – he replaced here by the versatile David Torn (who would continue to work with Bowie on his next two records). Heathen is widely considered one of Bowie’s finest albums and is worth a bit of your time if you have it to give.
The live band here features one of Bowie’s finest touring rhythm sections – Sterling Campbell on drums – he also played with Duran Duran (c.f. #30) and The B-52’s (c.f #5) – and long-time collaborator Gale Ann Dorsey on bass. It also features returning Bowie sideman Earl Slick and Jerry Leonard on guitar and keyboardist/vocalist Catherine Russell. The band is hot, man.
What I like: On the live version and in the hands of Leonard and Slick, the guitar hook sings. Also, the bleak lyric – which confronts death as an end with no afterlife – has some real power.
108. Telling Lies
First single from Earthling (1997), released as a single in 1996
I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a tenuous relationship with the music of the late 90’s. After I stopped DJing around 1993 and until the rise of digital music effected me (around the early ’00’s), I lost track of most then-contemporary music. When I encounter music from that period now, it’s often with the same sort of detachment with which I’d approach music from before I was born. Its like I have an intellectual understanding of where it fits into the history of pop music but I don’t necessarily have much of a gut feeling about how it fits in.
I first heard “Telling Lies” and the other tracks from Earthling literally years after the album was released. I had no idea that Bowie was experimenting with Drum ‘n’ Bass or Jungle. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to explain how those genres are different from any other late-90’s electronica. My first reaction to “Telling Lies” was “oh, Bowie was still in his Trent Reznor/industrial phase.” Furthermore, its only today as I write this that I’ve learned that he released – in fact – three different version of “Telling Lies” as singles from his website. For the record, here they are. The first (The Feelgood mix by Mark Plati) sounds like a Prodigy track to my ear. The second (the Paradox mix by A Guy Called Gerald) is a cold, stripped down ambient version. The third (the Adam F remix) features a vocal mixed back far enough that it sometimes sound subliminal. Bowie was – in 1996 – the first major artist to release a single on the Internet and he accrued a significant number of downloads.
So, the version I’ve been listening to and ranking is not any one of these actual singles but is the album version of the song. In the interest of not adding three more tracks to this list (and possibly having to rewrite the first few chunks), I’m going to count the album version as the single and place it here, at least partly out of frustration. This is what happens when you don’t pay attention to music in the 1990’s.
Anyhow, “Telling Lies” is a reasonably successful foray into what I hear as 90’s electronica, but which is apparently drum ‘n’ bass and/or jungle.
What I like: I dig the part of the lyrics where he sings about feet because its reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland. I really dig the “Oh Ah Visionary” backing vocals on the chorus. I love the sample or altered guitar part or keyboard bit or whatever that sounds a bit like a siren.
107. Ziggy Stardust (Live)
Single from Live Santa Monica ’72 (1994), released as a single in 1994
I adore the title track from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars. Here it is in its original glory. If you recall from the lyric, Ziggy “really sang” but Ziggy also “played guitar.” Hence, on album, Ziggy was part Bowie but also part Mick Ronson. It is an outrageous travesty of history that Ronson died in 1993. Here’s Bowie announcing the news of his death. Bowie furthermore said:
Mick was the perfect foil for the Ziggy character. He was very much a salt-of-the-earth type, the blunt northerner with a defiantly masculine personality, so that what you got was the old-fashioned Yin and Yang thing. As a rock duo, I thought we were every bit as good as Mick and Keith or Axl and Slash. Ziggy and Mick were the personification of that rock n roll dualism.
So when you listen to that original track with the original Spiders from Mars featuring Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass and Mick Woodsmansey on drums, you’re listening to one of the great rock bands of all time playing one of Bowie’s best songs from one of Bowie’s best albums. And, of course, the production on that album – by Bowie and Ken Scott – is tight, crisp and clean.
This live version – which was released as a single in 1994 from a 1972 live performance to promote the album Live Santa Monica ’72 – features that band plus Bowie’s longest long-term collaborator, keyboardist Mike Garson. The band sounds great (particularly Ronson) but without the production of Scott and Bowie (this was basically a live radio broadcast of Bowie that was bootlegged for years) the song loses something essential. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great song, but it’s no substitute for the original. I don’t skip over it, but I don’t especially seek it out either.
What I like: It reminds me of the album version.
106. Holy Holy
Stand-alone single released in 1971
Presented in glorious mono. Between the success of “Space Oddity” in 1969 and “Starman” in 1972, Bowie released 6 songs (including “Changes”) that failed to reach the top 40 in the UK. To a casual fan of Bowie, the difference between the late 60’s psychedelic folk of “Space Oddity” and the full embrace of glam on “Starman” might seem like a huge leap, but if you track his progress through his work between these two points there’s a clear progression of sound. “Holy Holy” is a could-have-been-huge single that flopped for whatever reasons. Indeed, if you’ve never heard it, you’re in for a bit of a treat. It’s a very good “forgotten” Bowie track. However, if you want a REAL treat, listen to this version that he recorded later with Mick Ronson during the Ziggy Stardust sessions. That version wasn’t released until several year later and is at least 12 times better than the original single, particularly when Ronson’s ringing guitar kicks in.
What I like: It reminds me of the Mick Ronson version. Also, I love the “let me lie lie lie lie lie” business.
105. You Belong in Rock ‘n’ Roll (as part of Tin Machine)
First single from Tin Machine II (1991), released as a single in 1991
On this track, Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels plays his guitar with a vibrator because… well… I mean… just read O’Leary’s account.
What I Like: I’m a fan of big dumb rock songs and this is a big dumb rock song.
104. Hang On to Yourself (as part of Arnold Corns)
Stand-alone single by Arnold Corns released in 1971
Bowie would re-record this song with The Spiders from Mars on Ziggy Stardust. While its slower than the better known version, has different lyrics and lacks Mick Ronson, the Arnold Corns version of “Hang On To Yourself” is not without its own charm, particularly the Marc Bolan “inspired” grunting at the end. Still, it barely holds a candle to the original.
What I Like: That grunting. I like how Bowie force’s the rhyme of “come on” and “going.” Also, it reminds me of the original (weak sauce, I know).
Single from Stage (1978), released as a single in 1978
Original version from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)
OK, confession time, here’s what I got, when I was researching this list, I ran across a Discogs listing for a 1978 release of “Star” and assumed it was the version from Ziggy Stardust just released late. Thus, I ranked it in my top 40 because its one of my all time favorites. OK, so, I then noted that I couldn’t find any mention of this single in any of the entries related to Ziggy Stardust anywhere else. I worked on the first eleven entries in this series and then came to this segment. In preparing to write about this segment, I read the Pushing Ahead of The Dame entry on “Star” and realized this was the inferior live version of the song from Stage.
So, I would likely have ranked this one much, much lower (Edit: and, in fact, now have).
Were it not that I’ve already written about over 100 Bowie songs by now, I would drop this down, shuffle everything else up a position and then weep like a child. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I dropped this to 40 (as low as I can drop it now) and am going to cop to having made an error. Many apologies. I’ve double checked everything else on this list and it won’t happen again. In the meantime, this song is here now.
What I Like: Well, I mean, it’s still a great song. This version just isn’t anywhere near as great as the original.
102. Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me (live)
First U.S. single from David Live (1974), released as a single in 1974
Originally recorded for Diamond Dogs, I agree with O’Leary that it sounds specifically written to be a possible single. Diamond Dogs had much more interesting tracks on it – notably the “Sweet Thing/Candidate” suite and, of course, the three official singles. It was ultimately released as a single from David Live and it sounds like a decent crowd pleaser. Perhaps he was hoping to create another song that was kind of transcendent live in the vein of “Rock n Roll Suicide” but this one is a little too self-conscious. Still pretty good though.
What I like: I like to imagine Meatloaf singing this song whenever I hear it. Go ahead, try it.
101. Let’s Dance (Demo)
Stand-alone single released in 2018
This is Bowie’s most recent posthumous single as of this writing. Producer Nile Rodgers shared out this version of the tune just this month on Bowie’s birthday. Indeed, its release delayed this list a bit as I tried to absorb it and figure out where to place it. While I think this is an interesting process piece and it’s still catchy as all get out, I think the fully developed version is far, far superior. My wife’s response to this version was “do you really like this?” She’s a much tougher critic than I.
What I like: Bowie excitedly saying “That’s it! That’s it! Got it!” at the end.
Coming Soon: “how could he rank that one so low? And that one? And THAT one?”