At this point, I’ve Santa Claused the top 20 here. No more errors from here on out. Everyone of these songs is stellar.
20. Golden Years
First single from Stations to Station (1976), released as a single in 1975
“Golden Years” makes an entirely different kind of sense when you realize Bowie wrote it with the hope that Elvis would sing it. “Golden Years” was a hit in the U.S. and I’m certain I heard it as a child before my rock radio days. I might not have known it was Bowie – in fact, there’s a fairly good chance that I wasn’t really aware there was a guy named David Bowie, just that there was a song called “Fame” and another (to my young mind) totally unrelated song called “Golden Years.” Despite the fact that this song was a hit, I don’t recall hearing it especially often on the radio in high school. Basically, it was a hit, but not a smash hit. I’d like to thank Nicholas Pegg for directing me (in his book The Complete David Bowie) to this performance of “Golden Years” on the UK Children’s show Crackerjack. It’s important to remember that life is weird.
What I Love: The third verse (which begins “Some of these days, and it won’t be long”) is one of my favorite things to sing. The “whop whop whop” part of the backing vocals is also great fun to sing. Basically, the song is great fun to sing.
19. Diamond Dogs
Second single from Diamond Dogs (1974), released as a single in 1974
Bowie is his own guitarist on “Diamond Dogs” and he plays it with wonderfully artful gracelessness. After nearly two years with Mick Ronsen and the rest of the Spiders from Mars, Bowie recorded Diamond Dogs with a mostly new band – Herbie Flowers on bass, Aynsley Dunbar on drums and Mike Garson return on piano. Don’t get me wrong, Bowie is a very good guitarist but there’s a reason he liked to have a few virtuosos by his side. Bowie would have been a great punk rock guitarist but he was no Robert Fripp, you know? Anyhow, “Diamond Dogs” presages punk rock, describing the kind of young person who would eventually pick up a bass or a guitar she or he didn’t know how to play and bashing out a tune while dressed fabulously (and the punks did dress fabulously). The opening image of the song – somebody being pulled out of an oxygen tent and immediately asking “where’s the party” – captures the utter disregard for mortal danger of the titular gang of youth. The song is bonkers, Bowie knows it, he knows you know it, and you both know you’re bonkers enough to love it for that.
What I Love: Bowie’s guitar riff, the howl, the “I’m just gonna sing this like I’m not putting any effort into it all and still sound amazing” vocal, everything.
First single from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), released as a single in 1972
“Starman” had an entirely different impact in the UK than in the USA, primarily because of an iconic performance on Top of the Pops. That performance was one of those “everyone who saw it formed a band” moments in music history. For an idea of how important Bowie was in the 70’s to the misfits of the UK, check out this wonderful Boy George documentary. As O’Leary writes in the Pushing Ahead of the Dame entry I linked above, Bowie’s performance of this song birthed a community. It was really that important.
On this side of the Atlantic, the song wasn’t nearly as big a deal at the time. Oh, sure, it was a great album track from Ziggy Stardust, but the only song from that album that received a significant amount of airplay was “Suffragette City” and that only became a classic rock hit later (perhaps when it was released as a single from Changesonebowie). “Starman” being culturally relevant in a big way over here in the week after Bowie’s death when it was one of the songs many people chose to celebrate his life.
What I Love: Oh, that amazing octave jump into the chorus. Yes yes yes.
Second single from ★ (2016), released as a single in 2015
You release a song and video less than a month before you die that is about your impending death and nobody realizes how close you actually are. Then you die, the song becomes your first top 40 hit in years, your weird new jazz-art-rock album goes to number 1, and everyone in the world is left jaw agape at how perfectly you timed everything.
That was never the intent (or at least not all of the intent), but it felt like it was entirely the intent the week after Bowie died. The amazing creepy video with Bowie desperately writing before being pulled backwards into the closet – struggling against it but unable to stop it. The buttons for eyes as if he’s a doll or as if he’s not been given the proper fare to cross the river Styx. The lyrics. Donny McCaslin’s haunting sax work. The whole piece told us everything and because it had always been an act before, we assumed it was an act now. Maybe it was – acting out the process of his own unraveling.
It’s hard for me to mentally separate the powerful feelings I had associated with Bowie’s death with how I feel about this amazing song. The two are linked both by design and by Bowie’s sudden and somewhat unexpected (in the sense that he thought he had a few more months) death. I think I genuinely would have loved this song anyways – it’s an amazing song – but I might need a few more years to see if it’s still a song I seek out all the time. That’s exactly what I do now. At least once a week.
What I Love: Bowie sounds his age but he sounds great. He might be close to the grave but he’s not anything like defeated.
16. I’m Afraid of Americans
Fifth single from Earthling (1997), released as a single in 1997
A song about American culture snuffing out other cultures, but also a song about exactly what it says it’s about. Hey, it’s 2018 and I’m afraid of Americans now more than ever. Bowie knew of what he spoke, even if he was just being sardonic about McDonalds. I remember at the time thinking “its a little late for Bowie to be jumping on the Industrial wagon, but the song eventually won me over because it’s just so good.
What I love: The “da da da da da da da” machine gun (Morse code?) vocals; the industrial glarg into the chorus; the creepy and terrifying “God is an American” (which always reminds me of Concrete Blonde’s “God is a Bullet”)
15. Cat People (Putting Out Fire)
Stand-alone single from the soundtrack of the movie Cat People (1982)
Now, some record label stuff. Bowie didn’t want to record a new album for RCA and was waiting for his contract to expire in 1982. When that happened, he moved to EMI. The soundtrack to Cat People was on MCA, producer and co-writer Giorgio Moroder’s label. When Bowie went to record Let’s Dance for EMI, he wanted to include the original Moroder “Cat People.” MCA refused and, thus, he, Nile Rodger and Stevie Ray Vaughn re-recorded the song. The original didn’t get much play in my part of the world, so my first exposure to the song was the Let’s Dance version. As a result, when I finally heard the original, my first thought was “where is Stevie Ray Vaughn? This bites.” I was 16 or 17 and entirely wrong. The original blows the second version out of the water and maybe even out of the atmosphere, sending it hurtling (Major Tom-like) into deep space. Moroder wrote the music well before Bowie became involved but its a great showcase for his vocal range and Bowie commits to the song totally. This is one of his finest vocal performances ever – note the way he starts at the bottom of his range and doesn’t shoot up and out of it until that first “with gasoline.” The lyrics are nonsense but Bowie fills them with a sense of foreboding that elevates them all to poetry (they cease to be poetry in my brain if I merely read them – the poetry is in his performance). Stone cold classic.
What I Love: As I said, Bowie’s vocal, but the song is a master class in how to create a dramatic musical build. This is why Moroder got the big bucks.
14. Where Are We Now?
First single from The Next Day (2013), released as a single in 2013
O’Leary – shocked by the released of a new Bowie song in 2013 as much as the rest of us were – wrote a particularly outstanding essay about the recording of The Next Day and, particularly, “Where Are We Now?” He addresses the personnel involved in the recording, the cultural context of both 2013 and of Bowie’s time in Berlin (the song is about revisiting that storied city), about the context of the album in Bowie’s career and about how Bowie chose to release (as his first new single in years) a song that made him sound deliberately old and frail. Its worth ten minutes of your time. Go. No, go read ’em.
Bowie was not dying when he recorded The Next Day. He wasn’t even ailing. Weary old man Bowie looking back at his time in Berlin (and singing with a voice so fragile you worry he might shatter it if he reaches for a high note) was just another character Bowie was playing for our benefit. I bought it entirely and was thus both stunned (and pleasantly surprised) when the rest of the album rocked. But when the song first came out, I thought “wow, this is gorgeous and Bowie has aged so gracefully.” Well, I mean, he had aged gracefully but he was also ready to rock out and stir some stuff up. This song is like that moment in the Gene Wilder Willie Wonka movie when Wonka emerges from his factory with a cane, struggling to move, and then suddenly does a perfect forward roll. Well played, Bowie, well played.
What I Love: That gorgeous build at the end that begins with “As long as there’s sun” that builds to a lovely ascending guitar solo by Gerry Leonard. It hits me every time.
13. New Killer Star
First single from Reality (2003), released as a single in 2003
I just love this song and I know it’s somehow not right for a Bowie song released between 1981 and 2013 to be ranked so high. I first heard this song several years into Bowie’s retirement. I think I was vaguely aware that Reality had been released (I’d likely seen the cover at Borders while browsing through CDs – how I miss doing that sometimes) but I’d not sought it out. I’ll listen to it later. I only have a little money to spend on music and I have no idea if that record is any good or if it’s another Never Let Me Down. I’m not really here shopping for music anyways, I came in for a book. That Borders is a Bed, Bath and Beyond now because nothing matters and everything is awful. I’ll never be able to buy a copy of Reality there (though they do have a CD rack, the CDs there are more of the “stuff to listen to while you drink wine and cook something you saw Gordon Ramsey make once” nature). More than any other late Bowie song, I regret not already having spent more years with “New Killer Star.”
Bowie never claimed to be a political singer but as he was engaged with humanity, his politics often came out in his songs. Artists try to make sense of the world or reflect the world or say something about the world and you can’t really do that without recognizing that some pretty big stuff goes on all around us. I despise it when people are critical of artists (or athletes or anyone) for making their politics public – as if what you do for a living means you lose the right to critically engage the world around you. As if you shouldn’t use your albums or plays or you background as a crappy reality TV host as a platform to advocate for the things that matter to you. Bowie was part of the community of humanity and had opinions about the human condition and I’m glad he shared them.
“New Killer Star” is, in many ways, a reaction to 9/11 – or, more to the point, a reaction to the reactions to 9/11. The scar over Battery Park is the one left by the World Trade Center, but by the time this song was recorded it was a scar that was healing. Never going to go away, but not fresh. The USA had a president that pronounced the word “Nuclear” in a manner similar to the song title. We were in Iraq and Afghanistan and Bowie foresaw a potential Apocalypse (as he was wont to do from time to time) but instead of being down about it, he shifts into a major key and encourages us to dance and find a better way. Its a glorious, rollicking song and is currently one of the most played songs on my iPod.
What I Love: Long time Bowie stalwart Earl Slick’s guitar riff is divine. Or maybe it’s Leonard’s riff. Or maybe Bowie’s. The point is that riff is great. I also love the repetitive “ready ready ready” and “better better better” pre-chorus. The song is filled with hooks, all good.
12. Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide
Second single from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), released as a single in 1974
I’ve mentioned this but my friend Christy gifted me a copy of Ziggy Stardust in part to earn a respite from having to listen to my cassette of Changesonebowie ad nauseam whenever she was riding in my ’72 Plymouth Fury (released the same year as Ziggy). The car only had an AM radio so when I wanted to listen to something else, I brought out a cheap-o boom box (the smallest, cheapest one Caldors sold), stuck it on my passenger seat and played cassettes until the batteries died. The front seat was wide enough that I could have that boom box between me and the passenger and it would never touch either of us. Indeed, there was a seatbelt for a third person in the front seat. Not kidding. Or misremembering.
Even ten years after this songs release, it still made me feel like by being a Bowie fan, I was part of something larger than just what was happening between me and the boom box. Even today, 46 years after the album’s release, I feel that. The title might suggest the song is about suicide, but it’s really about holding on because there’s a community out there for you that loves you. That’s how Bowie makes me feel and this song epitomizes that.
What I Love: “Oh no love, you’re not alone.”
Second single from Lodger (1979), released as a single in 1979
I was a College DJ from 1985 through 1994. I loved every stupid minute of it. This song was released years before my DJing days and I rarely (if ever) played it on the radio, but this song captured something about who I was in that decade. The song is hardly a celebration of the craft – it suggests that there’s nothing more to the titular character than the music he’s choosing to play (or that is being chosen for him to play). He lost his job in the second line of the song and he’s still spinning records because without them he’s not even sure if he exists.
You know, I really did feel defined by music in my younger years – like somehow if you peeled away my skin, instead of blood an obscure song would wheeze out of my veins. But back in the 80’s, we grouped ourselves to some extent by our music choices – you had the metalheads and punks and the preppies (with their pop) and the Madonna girls and the new wave kids and a half-dozen other social groups largely built around your tunes. Sure, liking Judas Priest wasn’t a ticket to getting to hang out on the smoking patio at Newtown High School, but it meant you could have a reasonably decent conversation with a metalhead and they’d be cool with you. The kids I had problems with (or, I suppose, who had problems with me) were the ones who didn’t have a distinct musical affiliation. Somebody who liked the same songs as you in the 80’s wasn’t going to make trouble for you. So, yeah, I think I became the music I loved. I took it really personally when somebody insulted the music because that was me. Sometimes, I still feel that way – I’m just a collection of obscure Bjork tracks wrapped in flesh.
Is anyone listening? Do I have believers who believe in me? Is the reason I’m comfortable writing stuff online that I often suspect nobody reads because I got used to playing songs into the void of the airwaves at 2:30 in the morning suspecting that nobody was listening? I was ok with that because I was listening – in so much as the music was me – to myself and I felt pretty ok with that.
What I Love: See above, but also the bridge.
Coming Soon: It’s possible that number one will surprise you. Possible. No joke.