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Monthly Mixtape: January 2016

Monthly Mixtape: January 2016

David Bowie’s Greatest Non-Greatest Hits

R.I.P. David Bowie

1. “Love You Till Tuesday” (1967)

David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, was just another south Londoner trying to cash in on the British explosion when his self-titled album hit on Deram Records in 1967. However, hidden on that record were the beginnings of the superstardom he would find in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Amid crooner songs, love songs and joke songs, this cut stands apart for its hummable melody. It’s a silly song, with lyrics about meeting a girl on Sunday and loving her only as long as the title. Although a seemingly conventional narrative, it also showcases the young Bowie’s taste for the bizarre, with lines about watching girls from trees. Those voyeuristic lyrics are delivered on an irresistibly catchy tune that is quite Bowiesque. “Love You Till Tuesday” wasn’t a hit, but this early gem gives us a peek into the sensibility that characterized his entire ground-breaking career. – Nicodemus Nicoludis

2. “In the Heat of the Morning” (1968)

Bowie’s Deram recordings are mostly characterized by catchy if corny songs with mannered vocals that make his fondness for Anthony Newly abundantly clear. But one of his last recordings for the label points to a harder rocking star, a harbinger of changes to come. Intended to be part of a second album that never materialized, “In the Heat of the Morning” was rejected as a single not long before Bowie simply left the label that didn’t know what to do with him. It was clearly Deram’s loss; this catchy psych-baroque-pop is perfectly put together from parts as diverse as a lush string arrangement and a toy glockenspiel called the pixiphone. And if you squint, the chorus sounds like the kernel of “Ziggy Stardust.” Bowie would revisit the song for the unreleased album Toy, but this early track should get more props from anyone who thinks he had not nearly hit his stride yet. – Pat Padua

3. “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” (1969)

There’s a moment nearly halfway through this track on David Bowie (aka Space Oddity aka Man of Words, Man of Music) where the lyrics have emerged at such a breakneck pace that the singer needs a brief respite; as the long preceding breath leaves his lungs, he’s left with a breathless, wordless vocalization. A mix of relief and satisfaction, it is imbued with a knowing confidence: he knows this is his true opening artistic salvo, not the zeitgeist-capturing hit single. Here is where he lays out the next decade or so of his career. Left-of-center, full of surreal, impressionistic lyrics and ultimately a more musically interesting song than the album’s iconic lead track, “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” offers a near-perfect distillation of Bowie at the end of the ‘60s, his sights already cast well into the ensuing decade. In just under seven minutes, he moves from gently affecting pastoral folk to searing proto-glam to horn-drenched rock ‘n’ soul, all cut through with his idiosyncratic, inimitable vocal flourishes and all iterations of musical personae he would explore in earnest over the course of his next dozen or so albums. He was always ahead of his time, and these early recordings sound unlike anything else released at the time, existing in a world all their own; a world Bowie would look to expand and explore to its fullest extent over the next 40-plus years. – John Paul

4. “The Prettiest Star” (1970)

It’s hard to imagine that a major label-released single that featured on the popular album Aladdin Sane can be underrated. But the initial release of this unsung and rarely anthologized gem, the follow-up to his defining hit “Space Oddity,” sold only 800 copies. Written for his first wife Angela Barnett as part of his marriage proposal, “The Prettiest Star” is a masterpiece of passion. Hardly a power ballad, it’s a remembrance of a loved one deeply missed. Bowie’s sighing lyrics, “How you move is all it takes” demonstrate the singer’s deep longing for his subject as does the wistfully whispered title “the prettiest star” just as he seems to be at his most lonely. The brilliant guitar work (by Marc Bolan on the single and Mick Ronson on the album version) helps make this dreamy, surreal glam ballad a classic, but it is Bowie’s emotional lyrics and impassioned delivery that make it an underrated masterpiece. – JC Macek

5. “John, I’m Only Dancing” (1972)

Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust vocal style is essentially his Hunky Dory vocal style in cursive – nay, in medieval lettering, with flowers blooming from it and shooting pollen everywhere. On this Ziggy-era single, he perfects it. Listen to that little vocal upturn as he sings “me” in “don’t get me wrong”; he sounds genuinely turned on. The horn dog rock stars Bowie shared airtime with in the early ‘70s – Bon Scott, Steven Tyler, even Jimi Hendrix – made sex seem scary and alienating. Bowie made it sound like the best thing in the world, and that’s easier said than done. Too often, Ziggy Stardust felt like a dour outsider narrating the story of a queer, messianic rock star much cooler than himself. The man who sings “John, I’m Only Dancing” sounds every bit like a queer, messianic rock star. It’s a shame it didn’t quite fit into the conceptual warp of that album; had it been included, it would surely have been canonized alongside “Starman” and “Suffragette City.” This standalone single is one of the best encapsulations of what made the Ziggy era so great. – Daniel Bromfield

6. “Win” (1975)

It took Chic’s Nile Rodgers to catapult Bowie to pop superstardom with Let‘s Dance, but Bowie’s love for R&B found its purest and perhaps best form on “Fame” (its funk riff so good James Brown ripped it off) and the title track of Young Americans. On the other hand, this deep cut is a soul ballad as only Bowie could imagine it, with a painfully twisted melody, mannered vocals and lyrics like “you’ve never seen me hanging naked and wired” that no other soul singer would have dared. Having Luther Vandross as one of his background vocalists helps sell this as soul music. But even as Bowie grounded himself in seemingly earth-bound music, it still sounded like it came from outer space. – Pat Padua

7. “Station to Station” (1976)

The title track of Station to Station may not be a buried treasure, but it’s never mentioned among his greatest songs, and it should be. Let’s break down its brilliance. A wave of fuzz filters from one speaker to the other. Then a noise that sounds like a far-off shriek is masqueraded by the static as it grows increasingly louder for a full minute before lodging itself into the rear of the left speaker. Guitar, bass, keys and drum kick in, a rigid sound that trudges forward in lockstep, nothing like the Philly soul of Young Americans or the wham-bam-sloppy glam of the Ziggy years. The groove continues, guitar shrieking, the music of automatons playing instruments, an advancing dirge by an army not human. Nearly three and a half minutes in, Bowie finally sings, “The return of the Thin White Duke/ Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes,” announcing the birth of a new character, a dapper and well-dressed yet amoral and vacant incarnation eaten away by the excess of fame and cocaine.

The Thin White Duke could even be a euphemism for cocaine itself. Next comes an incantation, dropping names like Kether and Malkuth, the top and bottom enumerations of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, evoking the Hindu tantric circle as well as the Crowley poetry collection “White Stains.” We barely have time to think, because at five and a half minutes, the song breaks down into a bastard of Young Americans’ neo-soul, building and building until finally Bowie claims, “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine/ I’m thinking that it must be love.” But what are these side effects? A throbbing erection that lasts all night replaced by something that remotely feels human again for the Duke, a shade robbed of his ability to feel? As the music moves from mechanical to organic, is the crack already showing in the veneer of Bowie’s newest persona? “Station to Station” continues for more than 10 glorious minutes kicking off what may be his greatest album, one that bridges the soul he copped on Young Americans and the much vaunted Berlin Trilogy. Station to Station‘s six tracks live on a miraculous album that not only ushered in the end of one era, but foretold the greatness of another yet to come. — David Harris

8. “Word on a Wing” (1976)

Station to Station was long ago reclaimed from its initially chilly, even baffled reception and now rightly stands as one of his most open-hearted, revealing works. No song on the album is as direct as “Word on a Wing.” Borne aloft on a gently soaring guitar line, it’s Bowie’s simultaneous act of contrition and self-apologia to baffled fans, to God, to himself. “I’m trying hard to fit among/ Your scheme of things” he sings to the cosmos, but one can hear even Bowie’s usual state of thinly veiled introversion crumbling from the stress of succeeding in becoming an icon. His warble sounds more fragile than usual, less a theatrical flourish than a genuine crack, and the fluid tone of the lyrics—punchy, supplicant, frightened, euphoric—is one of the artist’s subtlest feats of ingenuity. Station to Station is dominated by coke-hollowed zombie disco as well as the nightmarish sound and vision of its title track, but it is best exemplified by this lilting, multivalent hymn, one of the few times you can look Bowie straight in the face and see everything, not just what he wanted you to glimpse. – Jake Cole

9. “A New Career in A New Town” (1977)

The instrumental half of Low is often spoken of in almost mythic terms, many seeming to regard it from a distance as a daring gambit (which it was) without taking the time to really engage with it. In truth, Bowie’s instrumental work on the album is some of his most personal and affecting, and this cut implies a rebirth stemming from Bowie’s own second chance in Berlin following years of decadence. Coming away from the paranoid, deliberately soulless work that preceded it, “A New Career” brims with optimism, however cautious it may be. It slowly builds from an eerie synth drone into something jubilant as the band comes in. Only Bowie’s harmonica–slightly out of place yet absolutely perfect for the song–gives any air of uneasiness, but it’s not enough to hold him back. For him, in Berlin, the future had plenty to offer. – Kevin Korber

10. “V-2 Schneider” (1977)

Try as they might to disguise themselves as experimental ambient artistes, the Thin White Duke and Brian Eno were (at least in the ‘70s, for Eno) two men with extraordinary pop sensibilities. This B-side to “Heroes” was one of the most maddeningly hooky songs Bowie ever put his name on, despite the lack of any singing beyond a few chanted title refrains at the end. Bowie’s first instrument, the sax, carries the track with an alarm-like, see-sawing figure, and phasered guitar provides layered hooks underneath his honking. The whole thing sounds like melodic elements extracted from a rocket launch—perhaps no coincidence, since the title is in part a reference to a German WWII missile—allowing Bowie, as was his wont, to exit the stratosphere and float up blissfully into space. — Jeremy Winograd

11. “Under the God” (1989)

At the end of a decade in which Bowie’s pop stardom had hit its height, the erstwhile Ziggy decided to scrap it all to start his own… heavy metal band. With suits and ties, facial stubble and aggressive political lyrics, Tin Machine stood out in Bowie’s career as much as they stood out against their heavy metal contemporaries. The band’s first single is a captivating and furious indictment of racism in a United States that does nothing to fix the problem. In his unmistakable voice, the singer rages against “white trash picking up Nazi flags”, “skinheads getting to school,” “Washington heads in the toilet bowl” and “Right wing dicks in their boiler suits” with equal fury. “Under the God” was promoted with a brilliant music video showcasing the band’s heavy rock and screaming guitars against an apocalyptic concert scape. The song had the potential to propel the band to the top of the charts and to change that era’s heavy metal sound for the better. Alas, very few listened to what Bowie and band had to say, and the Tin Machine era may be Bowie’s most underrated. — JC Macek

12. “Hallo Spaceboy” (1995)

This thunderous, epic track from Outside, Bowie’s reunion with Berlin collaborator Brian Eno, is more about coming out of the closet than the space-station. He was always the voice of the future, and 20 years later, this song still feels relevant. When Bowie went on tour with Nine Inch Nails in 1995, it spawned a collaboration for his next album, Earthling. But this was the song that both bands played together as their set transitioned from NIN to Bowie. It was a dazzling moment in music I feel lucky to have witnessed. — Cedric Justice

13. “Little Wonder” (1997)

Bowie is called a musical chameleon for a reason, changing his music as well as his appearance to suit the musical climate. While this short-changes Bowie’s own innovations, it is a fitting description for what he does on the drum-and-bass influenced, Trent Reznor-assisted Earthling. Through all Bowie’s mutations, he never started an album off as startlingly as with “Little Wonder,” an industrial grind accompanied by a drum machine and what sounds like shrieking metal. It’s a giant leap even for Bowie, and the first lyrics, “stinky weather fat, shaky hands/ Dopey morning doc, grumpy gnomes/ Little wonder then, little wonder” are absurdist to the point that Bowie might be playing up our confusion. The lyrics begin to make more sense in their own strange way, but the song’s first bridge requires further recalibration. His production on the “so far away” refrain, which features bass lines, synths and elements of the industrial soundscape, borders on the ethereal, a testament to Bowie’s talent for re-shaping ideas, sounds and textures as he sees fit (a tendency perhaps best exemplified on the Berlin trilogy). But as the song continues, it pulls off one new trick after another within a structure that would be called improvisatory if the sounds and instruments did not make that impossible. Bowie inspired shock and awe for nearly 40 years and had an acutely attuned sense of humor, so it couldn’t have been a coincidence that the first song on an album called Earthling sounds like it was beamed in from the stratosphere. – Forrest Cardamenis

14. “Slow Burn” (2001)

In what may have been his best song since “Ashes to Ashes,” Bowie reunited with producer Tony Visconti for the first time since Scary Monsters. “Slow Burn” boasts muscular guitar chops from Pete Townshend, and Visconti bolsters the single with a buoyant bass line and a mélange of horns that wouldn’t sound out of place on Young Americans. The song takes place in a “terrible town/ Where the price for our eyes/ Shall squeeze them tight like a fist.” Released on the heels of 9/11, it speaks of a place where the “walls shall have eyes/ And the doors shall have ears,” a prophetic allusion to the paranoia that would grip the world and the liberties ripped away by the Patriot Act and the fear of suicide bombings, pestilence and airplanes falling from the sky. Perhaps the most visionary stanza predicts: “Oh, these are the days/ These are the strangest of all/ These are the nights/ These are the darkest to fall.” It is quite possible that Bowie wrote this song before that dark day in late 2001 and foresaw the horrors to come, making the tune even more chilling. Beyond the paranoia of the lyrics and the addictive melody, “Slow Burn” features one of Bowie’s finest vocals. His aged tremolo works as well as ever, and when he pushes into the upper registers it is without the melodramatic quaver that made some of his ’80s songs approach self-parody. Bowie was always at his best when convincing you the end of the world is nigh, yet gently rocking you as the brink approaches. – David Harris

15. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (2013)

Throughout his magnificent career, Bowie remained obsessed with the sweep of the cosmos and the particulars of celebrity. Happily for Bowie, his two favorite themes share a common noun. This uproarious cut from The Next Day is more concerned with fame than the night sky, but his stars are not cool and detached Hollywood demigods — they’re otherworldly and vampiric. “They’re waiting to make their moves on us,” Bowie sings with great verve and sighing detachment at once. Tellingly, he includes himself in that plural pronoun, as if he were a nobody. This cut drips with disdain, crackles with paranoia and bursts with melody. It also soars atop a glorious swirl of horn-honking and swooning strings as hands clap in celebration and Bowie’s woo-hoo-hoo-hoos weave through the onward rush. Not only is this one of the finest songs of Bowie’s late-career rebirth, it’s a legitimate entry into his rich pantheon. “We will never be rid of these stars,” he says, “but I hope they live forever.” The sentiment is a contradiction, much like Bowie himself, and it’s delivered with urgency, much like his best work. – Peter Tabakis

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