Just a reminder that Bowie had a ton of great songs and we’re well into the “really great song” section of this list. In other words, if it’s ranked 58, it’s not because I think its lame, it’s because there’s 57 other singles that I like even more.
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.
60. Dead Man Walking
Third single from Earthling (1997), released as a single in 1997
As I’ve mentioned before, I encountered most of Bowie’s 90’s music a decade or more after he released it. The last album I was fully aware of at the time of its release was Black Tie White Noise, but I only really noticed three songs by Bowie (the singles “I’m Afraid of Americans” and the Pet Shop Boys remix of “Hallo Spaceboy” and the album cut “I’m Deranged”) between that album and my renewed interest in Bowie’s work in the mid-00’s. When I first listened to it (and indeed as I continue to listen to it) it sounds really rather excellent. I suspect my view would have been different if I’d been listening to it when it was new and it felt like Bowie was trying to jump on late 90’s dance music bandwagons. Bowie had always done that but the more I’ve read about him, the more I’ve learned that this was a little less about trying to remain relevant and a little more about his restlessness and his genuine love for new music technology and styles. I mean, of course there was some effort to stay relevant. “Dead Man Walking” was partially inspired by his admiration for Neil Young and Young’s continued 90’s success. It could also, without too much mental work, be heard as being about Bowie himself. Anyhow, its one of the stronger tracks on the problematic Earthling.
What I Like: I love the counter vocals on the chorus and, once again, Reeves Gabrels rocks it.
Third Single from Lodger (1979), released as a single in 1979 in Netherlands and Turkey
There were TV commercials for the album Lodger back in 1979. I am almost certain they used “DJ” and its accompanying video, but the last image in the commercial was Bowie in the pose from the album’s cover. I was really taken with this and I think Lodger might have been the third Bowie album I owned (on cassette). It was a bit of a mind-blowing album for me in part because I was expecting “Suffragette City” but at times I got Remain in Light by The Talking Heads. I didn’t realize it at the time, but “Yassassin” also sounds a lot like The Specials and other second wave UK ska acts (not that the song is ska – it uses a reggae beat – but Bowie’s vocal is very similar to something you might hear Terry Hall sing). I was initially put off by most songs on Lodger (I loved “DJ” and “Boys Keep Swinging” then and still do) but over the years I’ve grown to love the whole album. It’s a kind of raggedy album that sounds like Bowie is trying to scratch an itch he can’t quite reach (I think he reached it on his next album, Scary Monsters).
What I Like: Sincerely, Bowie’s vocal is unlike anything he ever did before or after.
58. I’ve Been Waiting for You
Third single from Heathen (2002). released as a single in 2002
Originally written and record by Neil Young (1968)
Bowie covered a lot of songs in his lifetime and, based on what I’ve read, he did this both because he liked the songs and because he liked to support them via royalties. In the case of Neil Young, odds are he covered this tune just because he admired Young (#62) and loved the song. In fact, he’d played it back in the Tin Machine days (though Reeves Gabrels was the vocalist when they performed it). Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana in case you didn’t know) plays the guitar part on this song and according to O’Leary (in the Pushing Ahead of the Dame review I just linked) describes how Bowie borrowed heavily from The Pixies’ arrangement of the song. Bowie also covered The Pixies’ “Cactus” on Heathen so, you know, circles within circles.
What I Like: This is simply a great cover of a great song.
57. I Can’t Give Everything Away
Third single from Blackstar (2016), released as a single in 2016
The last track on the last David Bowie album was released as his last single from that album. There have been three more singles since that time, though only “No Plan” (#88) was an original tune. Tony Visconti has related that Bowie thought he might have time for one more album after Blackstar – his death, which seemed so perfectly timed to correspond with the release of Blackstar, was sooner than anyone hoped. None-the-less, Bowie was aware his time was limited during Blackstar and many of the songs grapple with mortality. On this last track from his last album, the lyric is full of now-obvious references to imminent death. The harmonica sound at the start of the piece is taken from “A New Career in a New Town” from Low, with all the symbolism that suggests for a man on death’s door.
What I Like: The “skull designs upon my shoes” lyric gives me chills.
Another cover, this one from Pin Ups. Bowie was suddenly huge and in demand in 1973 and he recorded an album of covers to pay tribute to and thank some of his influences. “Sorrow” was originally recorded by The McCoys but the big hit version of the song was by The Merseys. Not to go into too much detail on this one, but I agree with O’Leary that “Sorrow” is a major improvement on the original and the hit and genuinely deserves its place among Bowie’s classic recordings.
What I Like: The best part of this song is the verse that begins “I tried to find her” that sounds like a couple of desperate suitors (both Bowie) are simultaneously despairing.
55. Modern Love
Third single from Let’s Dance (1983), released as a single in 1983
I am absolutely positive I danced to this song in high school. I know that I danced to it when he played it in concert in 1990 at Foxborough. It’s a cynical song at heart but you would be forgiven for not noticing that. The music is buoyant and the spoken word lines at the beginning of the song (which are also the first lyrics on Let’s Dance) about knowing when to go out and when to stay in to work come across like the album’s mission statement – Bowie is back in the office and (even if “it’s not really work, it’s just the power to charm”) we’re getting down to business. The business of getting down. And business is good.
What I Like: This is one of Bowie’s best choruses. The call and response is great.
54. Strangers When We Meet
Originally on The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), rerecorded and released as a single from Outside (1995)
There are a couple of albums that via for the title of “Bowie’s great forgotten album.” The Baal EP for one. Some would argue that The Man Who Sold The World doesn’t get enough love. For my money, The Buddha of Suburbia is Bowie’s best 90’s album and one that was almost entirely ignored. Indeed, I was unaware it exited until the mid-00’s. One of the best songs on that album – this one, in fact – was remade for Outside. I agree with O’Leary that the song didn’t fit especially well on either album but I’m glad it’s there in both cases. It’s a sad song about a failed love affair – Fiona Apple walked similar thematic ground with “Love Ridden” (not a single). There’s a strange time after you’ve been in a relationship with somebody where your feelings are adjusting to the change and there’s a point, years later, where you feel like you never real knew the person at all. Bowie captures that here.
What I Like: Bowie’s vocal captures the dull pain of lost love.
53. This Is Not America by The Pat Metheny Group with David Bowie)
From the soundtrack to the film The Falcon and The Snowman (1985)
In 1985, I was aware there was a band called The Pat Metheny Group because I would occasionally run across their albums while flipping through records at Record Town or Record World or whatever record store happened to be popular with me in the early 80’s. I did not know any of their songs then and “This is Not America” is the only one of their songs I’ve ever knowingly heard. Apparently, they’re a great jazz fusion group and are worth a few hours of m time. O’Leary’s history of the song suggests that it was mostly a marriage of soundtrack convenience and not something that either Bowie or Metheny actively sought out but it also seems like everyone involved was pretty pleased with the outcome. The song wasn’t a huge hit and I recall being baffled by it in 1985, but its grown on me over the years. I remember listening to it at a campground I was at with my parents while trying to track down American Top 40 (I was addicted to it, you see) on the radio. Years later, Bowie recorded a new vocal for P Diddy’s “American Dream” for the Training Day movie.
What I Like: There’s this great little harmony that develops on the latter Sha-La-La-La-Las that I love.
Fourth single from hours… (1999), released as a single in 2000
“Seven” is a lovely little song from hours… (that is sort of a thematic relative of “No Plan” – #88 – in the opinion of Nicholas Pegg in The Complete David Bowie). It is a song that emphasizes the importance of living in the now (not the future or the past). It features some lovely guitar work from Reeves Gabrels and a gentle, lilting melody that is one of the lovelier things Bowie wrote in the 90’s.
What I Like: I think the thing that gets me about this song is present focused theme. I first heard it a few years back at a time that I really needed to hear that. It’s easy to get stuck worrying about the future all the time, writes a person in 2017 under a renewed threat of nuclear annihilation.
51. Blue Jean
First single from Tonight (1984), released as a single in 1984
Hugh Padgham produced Tonight and it was a disappointing experience for him. Indeed, it was a disappointing experience for all of us who had to listen to it. Padgham’s next album after Tonight was Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required which sort of defined a chunk of how the 80’s sounded. Anyhow, Padgham can hardly be blamed for the generally low quality of song writing on Tonight. Bowie apparently recorded the album primarily to keep his new Let’s Dance fans engaged and the album sounds rushed (at best) and poorly conceived. “Blue Jean” was the single and I loved it back in 1984 and still rather like it, though I acknowledge it’s another Big Dumb Song (which is a thing I like). I owned the 45rpm on clear blue vinyl. That was a big deal back in the day. The full length video is a 20ish minute mini-movie by Julien Temple and is really rather great. The song is fine. Its fine.
What I Like: I like the herky jerky feeling that pervades the song. I also like the saxophone and the backing vocals. I jam when it comes on and feel a little bad about it after.
Coming Soon: We enter the top 50 with two different tracks released under a different name, a track from Labyrinth that you may not have been expecting and the best song from his second worst album.