If I can just get through four more of these… pant pant pant…
Here’s your regular reminder that this list is based entirely on the concept of “I like each song more than the previous song.”
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.
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. 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.
40. Heaven’s in Here (as part of Tin Machine)
Promotional single for Tin Machine (1989), released as a single in 1989
Lots of “best of the album” in this run. This is my favorite song from Tin Machine and also, in my opinion, the best song by Tin Machine. By 1989, people wanted 1980 Bowie back and they weren’t going to get him. I don’t know that there’s really much of anything he could have done to please his pre-Let’s Dance fans and he shed many of his post-Let’s Dance fans with Never Let Me Down. Ultimately, the way he reclaimed his spot in the firmament during this period was via the Sound + Vision greatest hits tour in 1990. So Tin Machine was not The Spiders from Mars. Bowie wanted to play in a band, to kick the self-consciousness that was making song writing difficult and to maybe be a little on the outside again. Tin Machine gave him the ability to do that alongside three top notch (and, for Bowie at this stage in his career, appropriately disrespectful) musicians. If the last two minutes descend into some sort of belligerent skirmish between guitar and drums, the the minutes that precede that constitute a fine performance by the whole band, particularly Bowie.
What I Like: Bowie’s vocal announces he’s back and confident. The band doesn’t sound like they care if you like them or not. It works.
39. The Buddha of Suburbia (with Lenny Kravitz)
First single from The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), released as a single in 1993
If you’ve never listened to the songs from the soundtrack of The Buddha of Suburbia and you’re a Bowie fan, do yourself a favor and listen to them. I kid you not, this is Bowie’s best album from the 90’s and among his best ever. We never got to hear it much in the USA because… reasons? O’Leary details the story of this song and album in an especially excellent entry at Pushing Ahead of the Dame – indeed, it was thanks to that entry that I discovered the song and album at all. I listened to it, slack-jawed and stunned that such a great record by one of our generation’s seminal artists has gone more or less unheard since its release. The title track – an excellently written homage to 60’s and 70’s London that reflects both Bowie’s life and the life of the main character in the story – is not even the best track on the album (just the only one released as a single). Lenny Kravitz contributes the glam guitar solo, but Bowie and Erdal Kızılçay provide most of the rest of the music.
What I Like: Anyone who doubts that Bowie was capable of writing great hook-filled music post-Scary Monsters need only listen to this song to be proven wrong. I love the “Englishmen going insane” bits and Bowie’s sax solo. Really, I love most everything about the song.
38. Thursday’s Child
First single from ‘hours…’ (1999), released as a single in 1999
Our final song from ‘hours…’ is really quite lovely. Apparently inspired by Eartha Kitt’s biography, “Thursday’s Child” almost featured TLC on backing vocals but Reeves Gabrels managed to veto that idea. I agree with the writers of The Venture Bros that “‘hours…’ is a totally underrated album.” I feel like this was the album where Bowie started to really embrace exploring what it meant to be an aging rock star and songs like this that were a little quirky, a little adult contemporary and gorgeously crafted were the fruit of that exploration.
What I Like: Holly Palmer’s backing vocal is just perfect the entire way through.
37. Hallo Spaceboy (with Pet Shop Boys)
Remix single of a song originally from Outside (1995), single released in 1996
The Pet Shop Boys are on my list of bands that I want to eventually write about. I love them so much – one of my all time favorite bands. They were invited to remix “Hallo Spaceboy” and chose to almost re-imagine it. They created a counter vocal using a chopped up pastiche of the lyrics of “Space Oddity” (#93) thereby turning this into the third linked song (after “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes”) in the continuing thematic journey of Major Tom. Furthermore, they apparently did this in a way that vexed and irked Bowie. The remix became one of Bowie’s biggest hits of the 90’s and it’s no wonder – it’s a genuinely compelling reinvention of the song.
What I Like: Neil Tennant’s vocals are always spot on and he and Bowie compliment each other nicely.
Fourth single from Station to Station (1975), released as a single in 1976
Station to Station is either my favorite Bowie album or close to it. We’re not ranking albums, though, so we’re not going to have that conversation. “Stay” is a remarkable, funky showcase for his band – Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar, Dennis Davis on drums, George Murray on bass, Earl Slick on lead guitar and Warren Peace on vocals and percussion. According to O’Leary, Bowie would often just stand to the side and enjoy watching his band play the last few minutes of this song. Take away everything but the rhythm track and you still have a fantastic piece of music here.
What I Like: Besides the rhythm section, besides the solo work and guitar interplay, there’s this great jazzy vocal, especially on the “Because you can never really tell/When somebody wants something you want too.”
Acetate single from Hunky Dory (1971), extremely limited released in 1971
David Bowie was doing music for old people before he was doing glam rock. Hunky Dory – a fine album – features a number of songs that would have maybe worked just as well musically on the vaudeville or music hall stages. Maybe he was playing adult contemporary music in the late 90’s, but he was playing stuff that Grandma and Grandpa might have enjoyed (if they didn’t listen to closely to the lyrics) in the early 70’s (and in the late 60’s). Bowie contained multitudes. The lyric for “Quicksand” comes across as a stream of consciousness set of images that O’Leary describes as nihilistic. Sure, I agree with that pretty much completely. I find the song to be effecting without being forced – by 1971, Bowie stopped sounding like he was putting on a character or an attitude and really came across as sincere (or at least committed) on his songs.
What I Like: That chorus slays me every time.
34. Absolute Beginners
First single from Absolute Beginners: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1986), released as a single in 1986
According to Nicholas Pegg – in his fabulous book The Complete David Bowie – “A group of session musician working with Thomas Dolby at Abbey Road” in 1985 received mysterious invitations to work with one Mr. X (who, of course, was Bowie). O’Leary doesn’t mention the Dolby connection but confirms this account. Perhaps the were working with Dolby on the soundtrack to Howard the Duck (#26)? Not to get too off on a Dolby sidetrack, but Dolby was Bowie’s musical director for his great Live Aid performance. Live Aid, you might recall, was also where his cover of “Dancing in the Streets” (#147) was debuted and it featured more or less the same band as on this track. What I’m saying is, you can’t blame the studio musicians for the quality of “Dancing in the Street.”
What I Love: The “wha wha wha-ooooo,” the saxophone solo and Bowie’s shift into his higher register. Also, Rick Wakeman on piano and Steve Nieve on keyboard. Remarkable.
33. Boys Keep Swinging
First single from Lodger (1979), released as a single in 1979
This is our third of four songs from Lodger on this list. Back in the early 80’s, NBC New York was experimenting with running different comedy shows after Saturday Night Live. One of them was the UK’s The Kenny Everett Video Show, which was where I first heard this song (warning homophobia). Everett was a complicated figure and one worth reading about. I’d like to note that NBC New York also showed The Uncle Floyd Show after Saturday Night Live one year and Bowie wrote a fantastic song (Indeed, I love it so much that this is at least the second time I’ve linked it) about that show.
Oh! “Boys Keep Swinging!” Bowie is a complicated figure and his sexuality has been the subject of much discussion – often initiated by Bowie himself early in his career. For a time, he was out as bisexual, even gay, but ultimately he went back into the closet (possibly to help secure hits in the more homophobic United States in the 80’s?) and, once there, married Iman and remained (to our knowledge) heterosexual and monogamous for the rest of his life. In 1979, though, his sexuality was very much a thing and this song sort of trades on that (as does the performance on Everett’s show linked above).
Bowie used a strategy suggested by producer Brian Eno to get the rough sound on this one – “use unqualified musicians.” Great guitarist Alomar is thus – for example – on drums on this song and most of the musicians present are playing something other than their main instrument. “Boys Keep Swinging” is a great piece of experimental art pop that also was a big success in the UK. It was not released in the US (see homophobia), though Bowie gave a splendid puppet performance of the song on Saturday Night Live (“Boys Keep Swinging” starts at 3:40).
What I Love: Bowie has some serious swagger on this song, but what really makes this tune amazing is Tony Visconti’s bass playing.
32. The Jean Genie
First single from Aladdin Sane (1972), released as a single in 1972
This is one of Bowie’s all time classic songs. Should it be higher on the list? I don’t know – I had it down like around 85 a month ago but I sort of fell in love with it all over again while working on this list. Many of Bowie’s classic 70’s tracks were played to death on our local classic rock radio station in Connecticut – I-95 FM. Our cool bus driver blasted rock music while he dropped us off in high school, so “The Jean Genie” and Bowie’s other stone cold classic were forced into my ears ad nauseum from 1981-85. Plus, as I’ve documented a couple of times, the first Bowie album I owned was the greatest hits package Changesonebowie. The vast majority of songs from that album made my top 40.
“The Jean Genie” was inspired by Bo Diddly (music) and Iggy Pop (the lyrics are about a guy like him). I’m not going to go into more detail here. Read that link.
What I Love: This is a tight, hella-catchy tune that Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Mick “Woody” Woodmansey make sound appropriately grungy. Glam rarely sounded so working class.
31. TVC 15
Third single from Station to Station (1975), released as a single in 1976
The lyrics are apparently about a man whose girlfriend gets sucked into his new TV. I’ve made it to age 50 without knowing that until now. I think I first heard “TVC 15” because one of my college friends (Lars? Jess?) spoke about how much they loved this song and I pretended I’d heard it. I played it on my next radio show and thought “well, hot darn, this really is a great tune.” And it is!
What I Love: The “Oh oh oh oh oh” bit is one of the all time great nonsense word hooks, but really its just the way the whole song feels like a 50’s tune played by the a great funk band.
Coming Soon: One of Bowie’s biggest hits and the last song on this list from Never Let Me Down.