From this point out, we’re in the top half of the list and we’re starting to get to the really good stuff to be followed by the great, amazing, outstanding and all-time greatest of all-time (sic) stuff.
As always, these are ranked based on “do I like each song more than the previous song?” and I’m in no way claiming that this is objective or even especially accurate.
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.
70. Memory of a Free Festival
Second single from David Bowie (1969), released as a single in 1970
The single version of “Memory of a Free Festival” features Mick Ronson and, this, is de facto better than the (still quite good) the album version. Tony Visconti worked with Bowie to re-record it (at his record labels’ request) with a faster tempo. Like “The Prettiest Star” before it, “Memory of a Free Festival” failed to follow up on the success of “Space Oddity.”
What I Like: Ronson, of course.
69. Everyone Says ‘Hi’
Second single from Heathen (2002), released as a single in 2002.
This song break my heart. Bowie’s lyric is a reflection on the death of his father (coincidentally, in terms of this list, he passed shortly before the festival that Bowie celebrates in “Memory of a Free Festival”). I knew this before I heard it (because I heard it years after it was released) and thus had the benefit of reading it for what it is. Apparently, when it was released, many theorized it was addressed to Bowie’s son and was a sort of spiritual successor to “Kooks.” (not a single) The thing that makes me want to cry is the little 1950’s doo-wop backing vocal (by Bowie and Tony Visconti) which hearkens back to the 1950’s when elder Bowie and David were still both alive. When people die, we revert to saying all the mundane things because we don’t know what to say and what to do. There’s kind of nothing we can say or do. All we can do it be there and muddle on somehow.
What I Like: This is a perfectly polished pop single.
68. Wild Is the Wind
From Station to Station (1976), released as a single from Changestwobowie (1981)
Cover of a song originally performed by Johnny Mathis from the movie of the same name (1957)
This is the first song on this list that was originally released on Station to Station (and five of the album’s six tracks were released as singles, only “Word on A Wing” was not). I’ve been listening to it for how many years now and its only this week that I learned it was a cover of a Johnny Mathis tune. In retrospect, that makes perfect sense. Bowie’s vocal performance on “Wild is the Wind” is one of his finest (and, indeed, was so good that no less an authority than Frank Sinatra praised it). I was shocked at what a little nothing of a song the original is (though Mathis always sounds great). Bowie and his classic mid-70’s band (Carlos Alomar, guitar; Roy Bittan, piano; Dennis Davis, drums; George Murray, bass; Warren Peace, backing vocals; Earl Slick, guitar) along with co-producer Henry Maslin turned the tune into this rich, moving number suitable for the closing credits of a particularly heartbreaking film*. It lacks the lyrical punch of the rest of Station to Station, but wow Bowie sounds great.
*Or to quote my friend Bruddah Sam, “It reminds me of those cheesy samurai movie scenes where the hero finds out he has cancer and has to face the forty ninjas of death.”
What I Like: This is the same voice who sang “Love You ‘Til Tuesday.” (#120) Wow, Bowie’s voice improved so much.
67. Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)
First single from Nothing Has Changed (2014), released as a single in 2014
If you’ve only heard Bowie’s second version of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” from Blackstar, you’re in for a treat here. Bowie always had a passion for jazz but apparently felt his saxophone playing wasn’t up to snuff. After the success of The Next Day, he apparently figured he’d go for it and teamed up with jazz bandleader and composer Maria Schneider. I’ve only just started poking around her work and its honestly pretty exhilarating. Jazz still sort of baffles me but I’m coming around. Anyhow, the lyric is sort of related to the actual story of the play that gave its title to “Tis a Pity She Was A Whore” (#82) in that it’s about a man discovering his wife’s infidelity and murdering her (there is a whole level of incest in the play that is absent in the song). Bowie’s voice occasionally floats on top of the orchestration and occasionally blends in with it but never sounds out-of-place. After The Next Day, I heard this and thought “Oh wow, Bowie brought himself back from retirement and now is starting to experiment again.” It was a really exciting moment.
What I Like: Saxophonist Donny McCaslin is a force of nature, man.
66. Arnold Layne (David Gilmour with David Bowie)
Stand-alone single by David Gilmour (2006)
How strange the world is! Back in 1967, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett – one of young David Bowie’s heroes – reviewed “The Laughing Gnome” (#90) in a manner that could be interpreted as whimsically critical or perhaps sarcastically positive. Flash forward nearly 40 years and here’s David Gilmour – the man who replaced Barrett in Pink Floyd – performing “Arnold Layne” on his tour. Most nights, original Pink Floyd organist Richard Wright sang the lead during this tour, but one night, up on stage walks David Bowie. Bowie, of course, named one of his early bands (Arnold Corns) after this song. Surely he must have reflected how strange it was that his life had come around to this moment. He sings the song perfectly and (ever polite) thanks David Gilmour for the opportunity. The “thank you” sounds genuine and excited. Bowie had been more or less retired from touring for a couple of years and the crowd is absolutely thrilled to have him there. Its a fine performance of a classic Pink Floyd track. It was David Bowie’s final performance in the UK.
What I Like: Bowie sings in “mockney” here it’s so great that (to quote the kids from a few years ago) I can’t even. No, seriously. I. Can’t. Even.
65. Slow Burn
First single from Heathen (2002), released as a single in 2002
The important thing to keep in mind contextually about Heathen is that it was Bowie’s follow-up to Toy – an album that his then-label (Virgin-EMI) opted not to release. Bowie soon left that label and started his own imprint under the Columbia label. Toy became a (according to Nicholas Pegg in The Complete David Bowie) a “reservoir of b-sides.” The bootleg of Toy that I’ve heard is rather excellent (the ur-version of Heathen‘s “Slip Away,” titled “Uncle Floyd” on Toy, is particularly moving) but I think Virgin-EMI’s rejection might have left Bowie feeling he had something to prove. Both Heathen and its follow-up, Reality, were excellent records and had Bowie never recorded another note, he could have gone to the end confident that he’d ended strong (as it happens, he ended much, much stronger). Anyhow, “Slow Burn” was the first single from Heathen and it features a fabulous late-career guitar performance by Pete Townshend. Townshend, you may recall, was a specific influence on at least one of Bowie’s early songs (#128) and (like Syd Barrett) was one of Bowie’s slightly older contemporaries who were much bigger than he at the start of Bowie’s career. What strange turns life takes!
What I Like: This is a churning, apocalyptic single with some great vocals from Bowie, but Townshend’s guitar solo lifts this song up to another level.
64. The London Boys
French stand-alone single released in 1966
There are many contenders for the title of “Bowie’s first great song.” I propose that “The London Boys” deserves that distinction. The drug content prevented the song from being released as a single in the UK (or anywhere but France) but it did secure him a record contract with the Deram label. The song comes from a point where Bowie sounds like he’s abandoning his attempts to sound like a British invasion knock-off and starts to explore cabaret and other styles of music. The lyric is about a young man moving to London and struggling to fit in until he meets the titular boys. Clothes and drugs begin to dominate his life and the ending of the song suggests that even though he’s been accepted by the crowd, he’s kind of lost too. The gender of the character is somewhat ambiguous which also, of course, becomes a regular part of Bowie’s work. Anyhow, you can hear a big leap forward in Bowie’s song writing here and, though it might be a few years before he really becomes “David Bowie,” the song sits well with his later better known catalog.
What I Like: Bowie’s histrionics as he builds to the end of the song are a thing to savor.
63. Seven Years in Tibet
Fourth single from Earthling (1997), released as a single in 1997
Apparently, Bowie had a life-long – what? Flirtation? Involvement? – something with Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism. “Seven Years In Tibet” is sort of spiritually (sic) related to the Heinrich Harrer memoir in that its about the Chinese occupation of Tibet but you wouldn’t necessarily know that it was about if you weren’t familiar with the source material. You might not even be able to tell that if you were familiar with the source material. Fortunately, Bowie reported that it was a protest song (or at least a song intended to draw more attention to the Tibetan occupation).
Reeves Gabrels was Bowie’s main collaborator through the 90’s and this is basically his song with Bowie’s lyrics. O’Leary’s entry on this tune at Pushing Ahead of the Dame describes how he kept working at it until Bowie came around and decided he loved the song. Gabrels doesn’t always get the credit that Bowie’s other sidemen and collaborators have gotten over the years but he really kept the engine going, so to speak, for ten years.
What I Like: The contrast between the distant vocals on the verses and the more urgent vocals on the chorus.
62. Under the God (as part of Tin Machine)
First single from Tin Machine (1989), released as a single in 1989
“Under the God” was the first 45rpm single released from Tin Machine but it was not technically the first single (that song is still coming up). O’Leary refers to this one as “a secret Billy Idol track,” which I think sums things up nicely. Indeed, I rather like Billy Idol because I like big dumb songs.
Bowie had toyed around with fascist and Nazi imagery in the 70’s as his Thin White Duke character (while under the influence of a pile of cocaine the size of Smaug’s gold stash) but makes it absolutely, no-questions asked clear on this track that those things disgust him. Maybe he was already detecting the seeds of the return of fascism that we’re seeing in our world today. It never completely goes away.
What I Like: I think Tin Machine sounds like an actual four person band of equals on this track. They rock the heck out of the song and if the lyric is blunt and direct, so is the music.
61. Valentine’s Day
Fourth single from The Next Day (2013), released as a single in 2013
This is a song about a school shooting. There was one today in Florida. There’s been one half the days so far in 2018. My hometown was the site of one of the worst shootings. One of the charities I encourage people to support is Sandy Hook Promise which lobbies for sane gun control laws. I despair that our leaders are never ever going to do anything to address this disgusting national nightmare because too many of them are too cowardly to go against the NRA.
Today is also Valentine’s Day, but that is a coincidence.
O’Leary writes about the song here.
What I Like: It’s one of the harder rocking songs on The Next Day and Bowie sounds determined to make it clear that Valentine is appalling.
Coming Soon: Three big 80’s hits.