David Bowie’s passing is a few years behind us, and it still somehow feels shocking. His catalog, though, remains as relevant and influential as ever, so choosing his greatest songs was difficult.
We opened the parameters a bit, including songs that he wrote for other artists (Iggy Pop and Mott the Hoople); Tin Machine was fair game, as were remixes of his songs and so were collaborations. And as always, it was difficult to cut the list off at 40, so some of our favorites just missed the cut.
A cover of a song by a guy named Ron Davies (Three Dog Night covered it, too), it feels a bit out of place on ‘Ziggy,’ but what a rocking jam. Guitarist Mick Ronson really shines here.
After two albums with edgy rock band Tin Machine, Bowie made the R&B/jazz album ‘Black Tie White Noise’ in 1993, which reunited him with ‘Let’s Dance’ producer Nile Rodgers. But for the follow-up, he got weirder and more electronic when he reunited with “Berlin trilogy” collaborator Brian Eno. As it happened, Nine Inch Nails were a big influence on Bowie at the time, and NIN’s leader Trent Reznor was a huge Bowie disciple. This remix brought Bowie to a much younger audience (as did the tour, which saw Bowie and NIN co-headlining).
The opening track from Bowie’s hugely successful comeback album. Producer Nile Rodgers thought that Bowie wanted to make an album like his 1980 record ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” and was surprised that Bowie wanted something a bit more commercial. It turned out to be Bowie’s biggest album ever.
Bowie took a hard right turn from rock to soul music on the ‘Young Americans’ album, and the title track gave him his first top 40 hit in the U.S.
Bowie’s last straight-ahead glam-rock hit before moving into a soul direction on the subsequent tour (captured on 1974’s ‘David Live’) and album, 1975’s ‘Young Americans,’ it features one of the best riffs on a Bowie jam. Mick Ronson had left Bowie by this time; Bowie played the riff himself.
After two albums that tried unsuccessfully to replicate the success of ‘Let’s Dance’ -- 1984’s ‘Tonight’ and 1987’s ‘Never Let Me Down’ -- Bowie was fed up with shooting for the pop charts. He announced that his solo career was over and his new band, Tin Machine, was his future. Nobody (probably not even his bandmates) believed that, but he definitely got his mojo back on Tin Machine’s self-titled debut. “Under The God” was the first song that most people heard from the album and it moved him out of the adult contemporary lane and into a lane with heavier -- and younger -- acts like Soundgarden, Living Colour and Faith No More.
For years, Bowie had been singing the praises of the Pixies, and on ‘Heathen,’ he finally sang one of their songs. It was the clear highlight from the album.
One of Bowie’s most straight-ahead blues rockers features a character inspired by Stooges frontman Iggy Pop, a huge influence on Bowie (and a future collaborator). Like much of the ‘Aladdin Sane’ album, there’s a huge Stones influence.
From Iggy Pop’s second solo album, which was produced by Bowie. Bowie co-wrote this song, sang very distinctive backing vocals and played guitar and keyboards. Iggy and Bowie’s fascination with eastern European dance music is all over this song.
It’s surely one of the greatest collaborations/duets in rock history, and the lyrics “Can't we give ourselves one more chance? Why can't we give love that one more chance?” is as resonant today as it ever was.
One of the most accessible songs from the “Berlin trilogy” of albums that he made with producer (and former Roxy Music member) Brian Eno. it’s one of the best, and funkiest, songs about having nothing to do. “Nothing to do, nothing to say/Blue, blue/I will sit right down/Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.”
A proto-metal song with lyrics that seem inspired by Dylan’s early era. “I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree./And I looked and frowned and the monster was me/Well, I said ‘hello’ and I said ‘hello’/And I asked ‘Why not?’ and I replied ‘I don't know’/So we asked a simple black bird, who was happy as can be/And he laughed insane and quipped ‘KAHLIL GIBRAN,’” a reference to a Lebanese poet.
Like “ “Heroes,”” it’s assisted by the amazing guitar of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, and like many of Bowie’s songs, it’s about madness: “When I looked in her eyes they were blue but nobody home ... Now she's stupid in the street and she can't socialize.”
A hard rock jam featuring Bowie on the harmonica about an aging star having sex with a prostitute. Hey, it’s only rock and roll.
This remix was Bowie’s second collaboration with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor (who was one of the most popular and prestigious rock artists of the era). Renzor has gone on to perform the song on Nine Inch Nails’ tours.
Originally recorded by Bowie with a band called Arnold Corns in 1971, the better version was clearly the one with the Spiders From Mars, who he name drops in the later version (“Well, the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar/You're the blessed, we're the Spiders From Mars”).
The final song on the final show of the 1973 “Ziggy Stardust” tour, Bowie prefaced the song by saying “Not only is it the last show on the tour, but it’s the last show we’ll ever do.” The crowd screamed “Noooo!” It wouldn’t be the last time Bowie “retired,” though. Still, it was a great performance to end that phase of his career on.
A croony ballad that became Bowie’s second hit, a few years after his first (“Space Oddity”). Bowie’s legendary performance of this on the U.K. show ‘Top of the Pops’ apparently made a huge impact on future rock and pop stars including Bono, Robert Smith of the Cure and Boy George.
A song allegedly based on stories about Detroit that Iggy Pop told Bowie, over a very Bo Diddley-esque beat, played by Mike “Woody” Woodmansey on drums and future Journey and Whitesnake member Aynsley Dunbar on percussion.
Bowie’s cover of the Velvet Underground’s classic. It’s been said that the Velvets didn’t sell many records, but everyone who did buy one started a band, and Bowie is certainly one of the most famous Velvet disciples. He’d later produce VU frontman Lou Reed’s classic ‘Transformer’ album.
A doo-wop song about a future where people somehow forgot how to have sex, so they listen to the Rolling Stones and watch old porn videos to figure it out. Not a bad plan! “And try to get it on like once before/When people starred in Jagger's eyes and scored/Like the video films we saw!”
Originally lasting more than eleven minutes, Bowie cut it down to 9:58 when he learned that the iTunes store wouldn’t sell singles if they were more than ten minutes. One of Bowie’s weirdest and least commercial songs, which makes sense. He seemed to know that he didn’t have much time left while he was working on the album, so he probably wanted his final work to be something he was happy with, as his final bow.
Featuring one of the greatest performances by piano player Rick Wakeman (later of Yes), according to the BBC, “In 1968, Bowie had written English lyrics for a French song called ‘Comme, D’Habitude,’ calling his version ‘Even A Fool Learns To Love.’ It was never released, but soon afterwards Paul Anka heard the original version, bought the rights and rewrote it as ‘My Way.’ Bowie recorded ‘Life On Mars?’ as a Sinatra parody in anger at having missed out on a fortune, although the ‘Hunky Dory’ liner notes state that the song was merely ‘inspired by Frankie.’” It’s tough to imagine Ol’ Blue Eyes singing “Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow,” though.
Talk about setting the scene: the opening track from ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ kicks things off by notifying earth that it only has five years left before being destroyed by some kind of disaster.
The lead single from his comeback album, “Let’s Dance” topped the pop charts, but also had some great guitar playing, courtesy of a young up-and-coming guy named Stevie Ray Vaughan.
As Bowie’s guitarist and collaborator Reeves Gabrels once revealed in an interview that Bowie decided that for his 1999 album, “I want to make music for my generation,” and that he wanted the R&B group TLC to sing backing vocals on this criminally-overlooked ballad. “I was David's friend, and his guitar player, musical director, co-producer, but I was also a fan,” Gabrels said. “I felt like I was protecting his 'thing.' I wanted to make sure he stayed cool and stayed connected. He was a voracious chaser of new things. But not every new thing [should be chased].” Holly Palmer ended up doing the backing vocals on the song.
The final single released during Bowie’s life was one of his best; the video, like the ‘Blackstar’ album, came out just days before his passing and the song seems written with his impending death in mind. It was haunting when we first heard it, and it’s even more chilling now.
1977 was an incredibly prolific year for Bowie; besides releasing his classic ‘Low’ album, he also produced former Stooges singer Iggy Pop’s first two solo albums, ‘Lust For Life’ and ‘The Idiot.’ The former kicked off with the title track, which is probably Iggy’s most popular solo jam. Bowie co-wrote the song (on a ukulele, according to some stories) and played piano on it; the distinctive Motown-like beat was played by Hunt Sales, Bowie’s future Tin Machine bandmate. Nearly two decades after its release, it got a second life when it was used to great effect in ‘Trainspotting.’ And then it made it to an even wider crowd when it was used in Royal Carribean’s commercials.
The ‘Station To Station’ album marked one of Bowie’s stylistic turns: coming off of the soul/R&B sounds of ‘Young Americans,’ here he was more influenced by electronic music like German acts Kraftwerk and Can. “Station To Station” is one of his most experimental songs and his longest, clocking in at over 10 minutes.
In the early ‘70s, Bowie was obsessed with the Rolling Stones. That’s apparent on ‘Aladdin Sane,’ which features a cover of “Let’s Spend The Night Together.” But even that doesn’t sound as Stonesy as “Watch That Man.”
One of Bowie’s best hard-rock jams, it should have been a radio hit on par with “Suffragette City” and “Ziggy Stardust.” But even if it didn’t get on the airwaves in the ‘70s, it did make it to the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ soundtrack (when our heroes are approaching the “Knowhere” mining colony).
Inspired by ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (the term “droogie” and the line “wham, bam, thank you, ma’am” both came from ‘Clockwork’), it combined the hard rock sounds that were dominating the ‘70s with throwback Little Richard-esque piano and futuristic sounding ARP keyboards.
It’s hard to imagine that a band would turn down “Suffragette City” if David Bowie offered it to them, but that’s what Mott The Hoople did. As crazy as that might seem, they got a better song (or at least one that suited them better) when Bowie came back with “All The Young Dudes,” which was, by far, their biggest hit. While Bowie performed the song at his concerts over the years, the song fits Mott’s frontman Ian Hunter better than it did Bowie.
Was it about Bowie or was it about us? Both, really. On one of his first singles, he was letting us know that he wouldn’t stay in a groove for long and indeed, over the years, he would change his visual and musical style every few albums, challenging us up until the very end. But “And these children that you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/Are immune to your consultations/They're quite aware of what they're goin' through” applied to every new generation, as did “Look out, you rock and rollers.”
The man who made ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ just a few years earlier was clearly a guy who was pursuing stardom, even if it was under the Ziggy alias. But by 1975, Bowie was tired of the tribulations of fame, not the least of which was a legal battle with an ex-manager. That was something that John Lennon -- who Bowie and guitarist Carlos Almoar co-wrote the song -- knew something about. One of the funkiest jams recorded by either Bowie or (especially) Lennon, it was Bowie’s first U.S. #1 hit.
One of a handful of Bowie songs that didn’t make a huge chart impact, but took on greater weight in the years after its release. In this case, it was Nirvana’s cover from their episode of “MTV Unplugged” that finally put the song in front of millions; at the time, it could have been referred to as obscure. Now, it’s iconic.
Starring Major Tom, a character who he revisited in 1980’s “Ashes To Ashes,” 1995’s “Hallo Spaceboy” and possibly in Bowie’s final bow, the 2015 video for “Blackstar.” Inspired by the film 2001: A Space Oddity, the song was as much about isolation and madness as it was about science fiction. The song’s eerie vibe was enhanced by the mellotron, played by future Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman.
Bowie was the quintessential rock star, but on this song he -- and his character, Ziggy Stardust -- shares the spotlight with Mick Ronson’s iconic guitar riff. Indeed, that riff may have distracted some programmers from the “well-hung” bisexual alien rock star with the “snow-white tan” and “screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo,” who “could lick 'em by smiling.”
Bowie was never a nostalgic guy, leaving musical and visual styles (and band members) in the dust as he progressed throughout his career. So it was a bit of a surprise when he revisited “Major Tom” from his first big hit, “Space Oddity” on “Ashes To Ashes,” noting that his story didn’t end well.
It was never a hit, and yet it’s regarded as an anthem and that’s fitting: Bowie never seemed to care to pander to the pop charts of the moment, even as he always seemed to strive for iconic status. And even if you don’t agree that it’s his finest moment, it’s surely one of Bowie’s greatest songs. Co-written with producer Brian Eno and powered by King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp’s distinctive guitar line, the song is something of a rorschach: the lyrics are vague enough to mean whatever you want them to. As such, it’s been hailed as a gay anthem, but the National Review named it one of the greatest conservative rock songs of all time. By the way, the quotes are part of the spelling of the song’s title; they were, apparently, to point out irony. But whatever Bowie’s punctuation motivation, fans all over the world take the song seriously.