This time around we decided to pick the best of the legendary David Bowie. It wasn’t easy. Many of Bowie’s songs could easily be the best song. Classics such as “Ziggy Stardust” and “Station to Station” fought valiantly, but didn’t make the cut.
So once again, we got together, butted heads and hashed out this list. We hope it not only motivates you to dig into your Bowie collection again, but to come up with your own lists. PLAYLIST will be a recurring feature here on Spectrum Culture, so please tune in, check them out and share your thoughts. Enjoy! – David Harris
The woodsy folk spirit that Bowie inhabits on his eponymous solo debut might be considered his first persona, were it not so explicitly cobbled together from the sounds of the time – hints of Donovan’s pastoral twee, the Kinks nursery-rhyme humor, the Beatles creaky Edwardian fixations. He’s said that the sound here stemmed from his manager at the time, who pushed him away from rock ‘n’ roll into a more generically pleasing aesthetic. It didn’t work; David Bowie garnered absolutely no notice. Ever since it’s stood out as a weird, dissimilar spot, viewed as a preface to his proper work.
Yet most musicians guilty of early missteps would be lucky to have made one as slight as this. David Bowie is still a reasonably great album, and its blend of lush orchestral pop and psychedelic folk are perfectly summed up by “Love You Till Tuesday,” a song that straddles the line between intentional and accidental creepiness. Bowie offers a faux-rakish declaration of passion, perching himself in a tree outside his beloved’s house, wooing her with promises to remain true, at least for the first three days of the week. This message is delivered amid a bustle of cheery horns, cartoonish classical strings and playful vocal melodies. Off-key moments – breaking into laughter at the one minute mark, a hopelessly doofy bass line, the cheesy spoken-word closing passage – are hard to judge, standing out as either newcomer mistakes or products of a calculated stab at overall goofiness. It’s all very weird and mildly subversive, celebrating the pastoral while also mocking it, doing the same for himself and love songs in general. It was also recorded in German, although never officially released. Knowing send-up or lovable novice stumble, “Love You Till Tuesday” hearkens back to a time when the singer was less concerned with defining cool than recording songs about gnomes. – Jesse Caltado
David Bowie was doomed from the start; besides being released on the same day as (and therefore eclipsed by) the monolith known as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, its material portrayed an artist whose influences had yet to gel into anything beyond quaint music hall-eccentricities and Donovan-like whimsy. Two years passed before Bowie found a label that would take him on after his debut’s commercial failure. On the strength of new demos, one in particular being a song called “Space Oddity,” Mercury/Phillips signed him and together they’d attempted to hire George Martin to produce. Martin had bigger fish to fry and future Bowie-collaborator Tony Visconti was turned off by the single, thinking it gimmicky in light of NASA’s lunar landing drawing near. Gus Dudgeon was hired to man the boards, someone who seemed to embrace the gimmick to a degree that he’d go on to produce Elton John’s “Rocket Man” years later.
Honestly, the song is gimmicky. Space Oddity’s quick recording and its single’s release, concurrent with the lunar mission, ensured that this haunting tale of an AWOL astronaut would forever be linked in the minds of young people on both sides of the pond as sort of a soundtrack to the historic undertaking (the BBC would even use the song in its NASA coverage). Additionally, the otherworldly, synthesized bleating that takes place after the dramatic acoustic guitar chords and handclaps were played by Bowie himself on a Stylophone, a fad, novel-sized synthesizer taking England by storm at the time, which was played with an attached stylus; imagine a frizzy-haired Bowie in the studio, straining to capture the sounds of space with what looks to us today like a PDA. “Space Oddity” was used in television ads for the new toy, further pushing this rebooted, otherworldly persona of David Bowie into the commercial realm.
“Space Oddity” is arguably the one Bowie song known by folks who don’t have “the Berlin Trilogy” at all in their lexicons. Major Tom swallows his meals-in-pill-form, blasts off from Earth (signified by springy-sounding surf guitar), becomes a national hero and has his mind so blown from his spacewalk that he just decides to roll with it, telling the military men back on Earth, “I think my spaceship knows which way to go.” He cuts contact with the planet, screws over his country’s taxpayers by sabotaging this multi-million dollar technology, ultimately to pursue kind of spiritual journey, floating like a fetus in space, aided by the splendorous soundtrack of Rick Wakeman’s Mellotron. If this sounds bizarre to you, it should; from the jazzy guitar solo to Bowie’s “most-a peck-ulyoor” phrasing, “Space Oddity” is an oddity, a weird track taken for granted and begging to be heard with fresh ears. – Chris Middleman
The Man Who Sold the World is fondly remembered as the album that marked the debut of what would become the Spiders from Mars, one of the most perfect partnerships of artist and backing band rock history has ever seen. But The Man Who Sold the World is by no means just a practice round for Ziggy Stardust, it’s something far weirder- a world music-tinged heavy metal opus.
The album’s title track is where these two seeming opposites come together most fluidly, with bare bones Latin percussion joining an eerie organ to propel Mick Ronson’s iconic lead riffing beyond the realm of mere guitar heroics. In Ronson, Bowie had found the type of muse he wouldn’t see again until his legendary adventures with Brian Eno. Ronson was the rare ’70s guitarist who could be both technically masterful and well aware of pop’s need for hooks, his riffs at times deceptively simple and at other moments dazzlingly complex. More importantly, he had a flair for navigating genres that made him the perfect foil for Bowie’s own chameleon tendencies, allowing the guitarist and arranger to shadow Bowie and enable the songwriter to explore terrain he hadn’t been able to previously, or at least nowhere near as effectively.
Without Ronson, “The Man Who Sold the World” would have fallen prey to the same weaknesses as so many of Bowie’s songs from his first two albums shared: technically well-designed but lacking the muscle and flash to make them more than knockoffs. There’s a reason why Bowie stopped being a consistently album-oriented artist once he stopped working with Ronson- Ronson had enabled Bowie to have the confidence he needed to carve out perfect pop moments but without Ronson to make Bowie’s ideas truly come to life, he fell into the realm of a great singles artist whose albums were often bloated and unwieldy. “The Man Who Sold the World” is the Bowie-Ronson team at their finest: the guitars duel with the vocals, both equally dominating the spotlight. The arrangement is sparse for the majority of its length, the guitars never pushing the vocals out of the way, the vocals never hogging every possible inch of space. In a year, the duo had softened all their rough edges and started making masterpieces. In four years, it was all over and Bowie was never the same again. – Morgan Davis
The most theatrical song on one of Bowie’s most theatrical albums, “Life on Mars?” revels in the blurring of the border between fiction and realty, combining his matinee-idol fixations with dreary workaday characterization. The blending of these two spheres is seamless enough to grant the song the ‘confusing’ label, with some comparing it to a Salvador Dali painting, others calling its lyrics impenetrable. This reputation hasn’t harmed the song’s good standing, a fact made possibly mostly by its resolutely sturdy harmonies and some of Bowie’s best lyrics, which are slyly catchy even when their meaning is hard to pin down.
One interesting side note is the song’s convoluted back story, which is amazingly rich but rarely discussed. In 1968 Bowie recorded “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” with his lyrics set to the melody from Claude Francois’ French-language “Comme d’habitude,” released the year before. But before he could find a place for it, Paul Anka acquired exclusive rights to Francois’ song (for free!) and adapted the melody into “My Way,” which Frank Sinatra made famous in 1969. Bowie ripped part of the melody back for “Life on Mars?,” putting the finishing touches on a very complicated loop. It’s an interesting fact then that it and “My Way” sound very little alike. Much of this is thanks to Mick Ronson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who stretched their respective parts into splendid tangential larks, amping up the dramatic angle by continuously straying from the source.
In the end Bowie’s song runs circles around any other version of the melody. Overdiscussed as it may be, it’s still far from overrated and its individual parts – the weird synth blob in the second verse, the orchestral swoops, the hopscotch piano line, which gets progressively more antic as the chorus approaches – come together to form a rich and varied sonic palette. – Jesse Cataldo
Five years. That’s the time between David Bowie’s self-titled debut and his global breakthrough via the Ziggy Stardust identity. In those five years, Bowie went through guises like a prolific character actor, testing out the waters of folk, prog, metal and eventually the glam rock he’d perfect on Ziggy Stardust. Indeed, the template Hunky Dory’s “Queen Bitch” revealed was a natural fit for the partnership between Bowie and ace lead guitarist Mick Ronson. On Hunky Dory, the duo had proven they were more than capable of taking on any genre they wanted to but Ziggy Stardust was the album that confirmed they were just as capable at carving out new ones, in this case, the glam rock that was starting to come into maturity.
Five years. That’s the time between the release of Ziggy Stardust, with its story of Earth’s imminent death, and the year punk broke, itself the death of classic rock. In 1972, Bowie seemed to be aware of a massive change coming, one that would forever change the rules of pop culture: “Five years/ That’s all we got” he sang and he was right. By 1977, glam rock’s heroes were long gone or altered beyond recognition- Marc Bolan was dead, Roxy Music was on extended hiatus (they would reemerge years later as a neutered New Romantic machine) and Bowie’s own reinvention of Mott the Hoople had only kept the band alive for a few more years. But Bowie remained, as culturally dominant as ever.
Ziggy Stardust is an inarguable classic, filled with any number of timeless songs but on “Five Years” Bowie merged melancholic pop with prophecy. Its simple rhythms and endearing piano line make it stand out from the glam rock template the rest of the album utilizes but Bowie’s impassioned delivery and Ronson’s guitar squall towards its end nonetheless tie it to that template, allowing the haunting song to be both the perfect birthing process for the rest of the album and its inevitable epitath all at once. Five years was all they had but Bowie only needed one. – Morgan Davis
Aladdin Sane is the perfect album to give to a teenager. It conjures the feeling of hormonal overdrive, coupled with a sense of confusion born of how to best satisfy oneself. “Cracked Actor” goes to the core of that desire by observing the other side of the aging bell curve. In the 1970s, washed-up Hollywood stars were becoming something of a fascination in American culture and David Bowie wasn’t immune to the allure. Bowie narrates the song as a fading star who betrays his squeaky clean image by picking up a prostitute. He is, decidedly, not gentle with her.
Mick Ronson’s heavy thumping guitar is tight and non-theatrical in its depiction of Bowie’s Sunset and Vine monologue with a harsh blues bounce. There are a lot of great lyrics spit out flamboyantly, though they’d be nothing without Ronson to give them extra shots of whiskey. Only a few lyrics are needed in the first verse to summon the psycho-sexual thrust of Bowie’s Californian fairytale: “I’m stiff on my legend/ The films that I made/ Forget that I’m 50/ ‘Cause you just got paid.”
Ronson and Bowie could make a song appear easy at first blush while attempting something incredibly complex upon further review. Together they were clever and brutish without sacrificing any of the sleazy elegance of the actor’s encounter. Bowie’s euphoric and impromptu yelps in between Ronson’s part gives the song the same air of a sound check jam. The fact that Aladdin Sane was rushed into production during separate legs of the Ziggy Stardust American tour adds to the never-ending party atmosphere that the band seizes on. Each song depicts the decadent late night haunts of different cities across the U.S. “Cracked Actor” hits the record’s creative high point by taking them to the worst red light district of Uncle Sam’s Shangri-La.
While The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust chronicled that alien’s story, Aladdin Sane would have probably been the beloved album that character gave to the kids on “Starman.” It is the rawest rock ‘n’ roll record that Bowie would ever do and he would quit while he was ahead. This would be the last time that the Spiders from Mars and the production team that formed on Hunky Dory would record new material with Bowie. Together they had crafted a songbook of countless pop standards that are being covered to this day. By taking Ziggy to America on Aladdin Sane, they would end their era together with a rough, quick and powerful statement. – Neal Fersko
Unlike some musicians, David Bowie proudly wears his influences on his sleeve, covering precursors like the Velvet Underground and Jacques Brel in concert and going so far as to produce records by two of his idols, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Pin Ups is a transitional album for Bowie. It came out when he was still in his iconic glam-rock alien phase and was his second album in ’73, following Aladdin Sane. It would be the last album with his great backing band, the Spiders from Mars, although drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey was replaced by Aynsley Dunbar. The next year saw his pseudo-concept album, loosely based on Orwell’s 1984, Diamond Dogs, which may his least satisfying album of the ’70s. Pin Ups, an all-covers record, was a natural step for Bowie, who enthusiastically talked up his favorite bands. This has more unity than most covers albums; on the sleeve, Bowie wrote “These songs are among my favourites from the ’64-’67 period of London.” There are well-known songs by the Who and the Kinks alongside lesser known songs by the Pretty Things and Pink Floyd. Bowie was savvy about balancing the crowd-pleasing with the cooler obscurities.
“Here Comes the Night” was popularized by Van Morrison’s R&B garage band, Them but it was written by Bert Berns and first performed by Lulu (of To Sir, with Love fame) and the Luvvers. Bowie doesn’t have the same kind of grit or soul as Morrison, but he compensates with a more theatrical, more melodramatic version. The most significant difference is the horns on Bowie’s version, which make it a little more over-the-top and campy- in a good way. Whereas Morrison sees the night as devastating, Bowie’s take suggests it’ll be bad, but it won’t be the end, at least as long as the coke doesn’t run out. As with most of the covers on this album, he doesn’t exactly eclipse the originals, but he does make the tune his, as well as provide an opportunity for his band to play some of their most blistering and exuberant rock and roll. What’s clear in all the songs is that Bowie and his band, while respectful of the originals, are also having a blast.
In some ways, Pin Ups feels like a last hurrah for the glam rock that Bowie popularized and epitomized. It also feels like an unofficial canon and a bridge between the ’60s British revolution and the punk of the late ’70s. Bowie would have to shed several skins and styles before re-energizing himself artistically on the “Berlin” albums. – Lukas Sherman
Diamond Dogs is perhaps David Bowie’s most complete vision for a concept album, merging George Orwell’s 1984 with Bowie’s own post-apocalyptic vision of a youth movement turned into roving, violent, sexually rapacious gangs. While The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was equally ambitious, Bowie’s attempts to turn it into a stage musical gained little traction. This failure did little to dampen his spirits however, and after Ziggy was retired following 1973’s Pin Ups, Bowie’s fame was such that an elaborate stage show was developed for Diamond Dogs and performed during the first leg of the American tour. Unfortunately, this ultra-theatrical version lasted only a few shows, as Bowie’s fascination with American soul music quickly caused many of the numbers to be revised and the attempts at narrative abandoned. However, much of the album’s architecture reveals its theatrical intent and as such acts as an interesting bridge between the glam rock of Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane-era Bowie and the subsequent ‘Plastic Soul’ of Young Americans. Diamond Dogs also gives free rein to Bowie’s sprawling lyricism, causing Rolling Stone to call the songs “obscure tangles of perversion, degradation, fear and self-pity . . . masturbatory fantasies, guilt-ridden projections, terrified premonitions, or is it all merely Alice Cooper exploitation?”
“Rebel, Rebel” takes its cues and swagger from David Bowie’s fascination with the Rolling Stones. Indeed, the song was originally recorded in the wake of the similarly inspired Pin-Ups, intended for Bowie’s aborted Ziggy Stardust musical. It’s charged sexuality (“You want more and you want it fast/…/ Hot tramp, I love you so“) and signature guitar riff has allowed the song to become one of the most covered in Bowie’s repertoire. The ambiguity surrounding the protagonist’s identity in lines like “You’ve got your mother in a whirl/ She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl” has allowed subsequent generations of listeners to view it in line with Bowie’s gender ambiguity, and has since helped to make “Rebel, Rebel” a staple image of 1970s hedonism. Gone are the innocent flower children, their peace signs dropped for “a handful of ludes,” the open fields of Woodstock replaced with back alleys and bathroom stalls. Lines like “you’ve torn your dress” and “your face is a mess” present a gritty depiction of the emerging club scene, often viewed as a foreshadowing of the punk. – Sean Marchetto
In 1975, David Bowie, no stranger to reinvention, went through one of his most unique and musically fertile movements. Recognized mostly as a glam rocker, Bowie began a love affair with Philadelphia soul, and his album Young Americans is a lively and energetic pulpit for his tales of faith and disillusionment and of youth in revolt, embodying his much-publicized “Plastic Soul” period. The song, featuring vivacious horn and saxophone interludes, also grasps a lot of its power and message from the inclusion of a choir, featuring a young Luther Vandross.
Young Americans would give Bowie his first #1 song in the United States; although it was the eclectic “Fame.” “Young Americans” stands out as more conducive in a creative vein. It is more indicative of Bowie’s musicianship, and a showcase for his versatility. His voice, dulcet and enveloping as ever, perfectly synchs into the tune, grooving with the slick keyboards and brass. His lyrics have a hopefulness to them, but are underscored with a sympathetic ear for the struggles of society, as he asks, “Do you remember/ Your President Nixon? Do you remember the bills you have to pay?/ Or even yesterday?” As he explores the further setbacks, including lines of pimps and Cadillacs, the line “I got a suite and you got defeat” drives home the emotional point, as well as reflecting his earnest concerns for society.
Perhaps the most striking moment is the breakdown at song’s end, with Bowie directly cribbing a line from the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” This moment acts as both a smiling nod to that song’s similar content, and also reflects on Bowie’s sharp wit, acknowledging that in those turbulent times, although the songs might change, the words might stay the same. “Young Americans” would be followed up by the much edgier and darker Station to Station, which seems to indicate a defeated idealist, and a sharp contrast from the hope that the previous album worked hard to engender. Although Station to Station is also a significant moment in Bowie’s career, “Young Americans” is when Bowie truly captured his talent- proving his musical reach by delving into a sound that is notoriously difficult to attain, and managing to create a stirring musical portrait. – Rafael Gaitan
Where Aladdin Sane was, as described by Bowie, Ziggy Stardust’s journey through the United States and Young Americans saw that same Starman persona cast aside for a new “plastic” approximation of Black American music, Station to Station was also a record at a crossroads. Having just finished starring as an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie took the part to heart whilst living in Los Angeles (a city he later said should be “wiped off the face of the earth”), using enormous amounts of cocaine and studying the works of Edwardian-era boogeyman, Aleister Crowley. Thus, the Thin White Duke was born, an effete, well-dressed Bowie who’d take the stage during Station to Station’s tour to the self-referencing title track’s dramatic piano march. All sorts of apocryphal stories have crept out from that time spent in L.A. (a diet of peppers, rice and milk; worries that witches would try to procure his semen) and Bowie himself hasn’t much to say about the sessions, citing that he can’t remember very much at all from that period.
But before he took off for West Berlin to sober up and work with Brian Eno, Bowie would enlist the help of Harry Maslin, producer of the previous album’s “Fame,” the most clear-cut indication of where Station to Station was headed. The first song recorded would also be the first single, “Golden Years,” which Bowie claims he penned for an uninterested Elvis Presley. Whereas Station to Station’s five other songs exist as varying shades of the darkness that seemed to permeate Bowie’s psyche at the time, “Golden Years” stands as the one moment on the record when the Thin White Duke’s able to fucking get down. This isn’t to say that Bowie breaks character; the Duke still sounds like he’s above the tune, somewhat singing down his nose at an object of affection whom he suggests should live without regret and self-imposed limitation; in a cocaine-fueled lifestyle driving like a demon at the speed of light, nothing can touch her and she should, in fact, run for the shadows and exploit the fears encountered therein.
Bowie described the Duke as “ice masquerading as fire,” an unfeeling sociopath who, nevertheless, performed songs of emotional intensity. “Golden Years” reflects this to an extent; being the most accessible song on the record, it’s also unlike much else played on A.O.R. radio. Beginning with a gritty-sounding funk lick, there’s a fleeting harmonica bit before a chorus of backing Bowies provide their famous disconnected doo wop refrain. Carlos Alomar’s guitar enters, sounding impossibly flanged, its chords bending over and over again like a Moebius strip. Each line, beginning with the initial “Don’t let me hear you say life’s/ Taking you nowhere” is punctuated with something out of left field (an echoey falsetto of “Aaaangel,” the bass “Come get up my baby,” three authoritative handclaps). It’s a pop song through and through, each piece of the puzzle exquisitely locking into place, yet concurrently, its a dense electrical storm of sounds whose sum is just slightly off-funky. Somewhere inside that facade, the Thin White Duke was rockin’ out; to the rest of us, it’s R&B as played by an alien- even if, ultimately, alien in this case meant “white European eccentric.” – Chris Middleman
In the 1970s, there were few, if any, more intriguing figures in pop music than David Bowie. Following his career is a valuable index to myriad movements and shifts in music, from space-folk to cracked pop to alien glam to “plastic soul” to krautrock-inspired mood music. Low, the first of his so-called Berlin Trilogy (even though much of it was recorded in France), is one of the most influential, ambitious and daring albums in his catalog. Though punk broke wide in the same year, 1977, Low made most of that music sound hopelessly retrograde; early in his career, Bowie sounded like he was chasing trends and here he was, finally shaping them, showing rock where it could go. The fractured, icy coke epic “Station to Station” the previous year signaled a new direction, one that was keenly aware of pioneering German groups like Kraftwerk and Neu! After years of looking to America for inspiration, Bowie was turning towards Europe, where he decamped to record and clean-up from drugs. With its emphasis on soundscapes, textures and atmospheres over traditional songs, riffs and structures, Low found one of the most distinctive personalities of the decade letting go of his image, using his vocals as merely one aspect of the song, even including instrumentals. This was his Kid A, but without all the build-up.
“Always Crashing in the Same Car” is one of the album’s more “pop” songs,” and though it uses traditional instruments, Tony Visconti’s crystalline production and Brian Eno’s “treatments” of the instruments make it sound like little else. Both Visconti’s use of an Eventide Harmonizer on the drums and Eno’s EMS synth would be enormously influential. It’s a song that is deceptively simple and short, but the more you listen to it, the more there is to focus on: Bowie’s restrained vocals, the whooshing, sci-fi keyboards and Carlos Alomar’s fluid guitar solo that ends the song. The title implies an eternal replay of an accident, an almost Ballard-esque image, and it fits with Low’s themes of alienation, drift and inertia. Yet, despite the title, it’s not entirely bleak and both the electronics and Bowie’s voice have a warmth to them. Like many of the songs on the first side of the album, it feels both self-contained and like a fragment of something bigger; it can be difficult to isolate a song from Low because it is such a cohesive and unified album, one that creates a strong, vaguely unsettled atmosphere, underlined by the cover photo, taken from Bowie’s film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Joy Division/New Order drummer Steven Morris said, “When it came out, I thought Low was the sound of the future.” Even in 2009, bands are still catching up to its innovation. – Lukas Sherman
Despite the typically distanced quotation marks, “Heroes” stands as perhaps the grandest, most emotive song in David Bowie’s catalog. Bowie’s skill as a balladeer has always been overwhelmed by his ability to genre-shift and his experimental tendencies, but “Heroes” is the man at his most naked, his voice rawest and his romantic soul most bared- not bad for an album immersed in drone, synthesizers and Robert Fripp.
“Heroes” the album was recorded at Hansa Studio in 1977, the second of what would become known as “The Berlin Trilogy,” although it would be the only one primarily recorded in that (at the time) politically segregated city. At probably the apex of his creative powers, Bowie holed up in a studio near the Berlin Wall with two of his legendary collaborators, Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, and produced an album full of abrasive art-rock, vaguely Asian-influenced instrumentals and one of his very finest songs ever. Even in structure, “Heroes” is a massive song, repeating a sequence of major chords over and over until they seem nearly martial, while Eno’s EMS VCS3 synthesizer is so ethereal as to seem heavenly. Fripp, hired as a lead guitarist, is atypically warm and seamless, shorn of the usual trickery and technique that flavors so much of his other work. However, it’s truly Bowie’s voice that brings the song into its legendary status- recorded with a series of microphones supervised by Visconti, the singer grows gradually more and more desperate as the song slips by, recounting the tale of two lovers assuring themselves of both their longing and eventual destruction. Opening with a gentle “I, I will be king/ And you, you will be queen,” Bowie’s voice slowly becomes more ravaged and fierce, until he nearly screams the penultimate lines “We’re nothing/ And nothing will help us/ Maybe we’re lying/ Then you’d better not stay.” Truth be told, no matter how many times I listen to the song, I get a shiver down my back every single time he rages “I, I can remember/ Standing by the wall/ And the guns shot above our heads.”
And although those lines may contain the ultimate germ of the song, a clandestine embrace by Visconti and back-up singer beneath the Berlin Wall witnessed by Bowie, the origin is not the sum. “Heroes” is too majestic and universal a song to be relegated to a single story or doomed couple- anyone who’s ever felt a love too strong to last or to be revealed can understand what Bowie was singing. – Nathan Kamal
David Bowie has paradoxically always been both a trendsetter and an adopter. A key part of his decades-long spree of pop experimentation and exploitation has been his ability to sniff out the next big thing and to somehow also become a frontrunner. From the tripped-out alien glitter messiahs to plastic soul and even (largely unfortunate) forays in industrial electronica, Bowie’s willing to find what the people want to listen to.
That all sheds an interesting light of the second single from 1979’s Lodger, the last and most explicitly pop-oriented of the “Berlin Trilogy” collaboration of Bowie and Brian Eno. A uniquely stiff, creepy dance anthem from a man who knows a bit about dance music and supercreeps, “DJ” is a bitterly humorous and desperate take on the life of a disc jockey- far from being immersed in the sounds or the records, Bowie’s DJ is the music, the center of his own personal religion. From the opening salvo of “I’m home, lost my job, and incurably ill/ You think this is easy?” to his increasingly desperate assertion that “I’ve got believers,” Bowie sounds both lost in the sound and the lifestyle, a slave to his audience. Can there be any comparison in a disc jockey striving to keep his cult of followers together and a pop star continually prowling for the next musical wave? It’s not rocket science, Major Tom.
Musically, it’s the kind of song that only the dream team of Bowie, Eno and faithful guitarist Carlos Alomar could write- a deeply funky bassline, falsetto backing vocals and the jagged, almost violent guitar of King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew writhing under the singer’s multitracked voice. Never one to shy away from dubious experiments (even on a pop record), Bowie and Eno were nearing the end of their legendary collaboration, but touches like having Belew play his guitar parts isolated from the rest of the song, not even knowing the key he should be playing in, solidify what’s already a fascinating song. Sometimes people can be most honest when they speak in someone else’s voice- perhaps Bowie can only vent when he’s pretending to be someone so like himself. – Nathan Kamal
With his experimental “Berlin Trilogy,” Bowie found himself stretching the sonic limits of the art of the song. Yet despite their brilliance, the parade of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger proved quite challenging for some fans and Bowie’s foothold on the charts began to slip. While many consider 1980’s Scary Monsters to be Bowie’s last great album, it was also a calculated attempt to win back his audience. Eschewing the Berlin improvisational techniques, bringing back Robert Fripp and asking Pete Townshend to guest on a track were all premeditated decisions to make Scary Monsters push commercial boundaries outward in contrast to the inner voyage of his previous three albums. But most significantly: the album’s first single “Ashes to Ashes” brought back Bowie’s most indelible creation in Major Tom.
Designed to look just as much into the future as the past, “Ashes to Ashes” had been written as a catharsis to, according to Bowie, wrap “up the ’70s really for myself, and that seemed a good enough epitaph for it.” He should consider it mission accomplished. “Ashes to Ashes,” which immediately became a number one hit in the UK, perfectly crystallizes the sounds and themes of Bowie’s career thus far. While encapsulating glam stylings of his Ziggy years, “Ashes to Ashes” also manages to incorporate the plasticine soul of the decade’s midpoint and the spacey experimentation of late decade Berlin. But it’s the melancholy soulfulness found on earlier albums like Hunky Dory that rings true captured perfectly by its fragile synths that give the song an inorganic feel and Bowie’s almost mantra-like choruses.
“Ashes to Ashes” begins with a reference to “a guy that’s been in such an early song” who is obviously Major Tom when Bowie references “ground control” in the next line. Yet this version of Major Tom, not the Tom of the 1969, is no longer living the buoyant life in some otherworldly garden. No, the Major Tom of 1980 is a fatigued facsimile of a burned-out Bowie who is nothing now but a “junkie/ Strung out in heaven’s high/ Hitting an all- time low.” While it is not shocking to understand Bowie’s fatigue after a decade changing from androgynous folkie to alien glam rocker to soul man to expatriate, “Ashes to Ashes” features on the singer’s most nakedly honest performances, an emotionally drained examination of the excess that defined the past 10 years of his life.
More than any album since the Orwellian-leanings of Diamond Dogs, Scary Monsters featured some of the edgiest and darkest lyrics of his career. Yet, Bowie makes no apologies for his choices. “I’ve never done good things/ I’ve done bad things/ I’ve never done anything out of the blue” he claims in one of his most mournful vocal performances ever recorded. What Bowie did do, however, is record one of his best songs ever. – David Harris
David Bowie set the bar really high for himself with Ziggy Stardust. That may seem like a trite statement, or perhaps an obvious observation to those familiar with Bowie’s most famous album. Understatements aside, it’s crucial to understanding the disappointment listeners can find in Bowie’s mid-career output and the delighted surprise they find in its brightest moments, like “Modern Love.”
After Ziggy, fans expected albums loaded with single-fodder and instant classics; instead, they got Tonight and Tin Machine records. But the Chameleon also set a standard of sound and direction with that early masterpiece, one that he more frequently rejected or undermined as time went on. And a few of those changes, however different from breakout-Bowie they may be, proved to be essential to his discography.
Enter Let’s Dance. Pop forays and nightclub grooves aside, Let’s Dance is irresistibly fun and consistently enjoyable- two different attributes Bowie found difficult to achieve after the dawn of the ’80s. And the first track – “Modern Love” starts the album off right with sashaying rhythm, rising energy, witty lyrics and instrumental contrast. It also happens to be one of the few songs Bowie ever recorded that was bettered by his penchant for saxophone; its tenor is a snarling, spitting horn at times, soft crooner at others, and shrieking dancer by the end of the song. It also proves much-needed foil to the track’s jovial and steady piano part and the building chorus of voices exuberantly repeating “modern love.” Let’s Dance set Bowie off on a course of pop-culture identity, where each album he recorded after- good or bad- said as much about the present of popular music as what would be its future. “Modern Love” was the song that told the world what Let’s Dance was all about even more so than the album’s plea of a title; to this day it’s hard not to do exactly as it asks with each foot-tapping listen. – Michael Merline
Once Let’s Dance proved to be Bowie’s biggest hit, he decided to cash in with the similar-sounding but way-lazier Tonight, a rubbish album with some rubbish attempts at reggae renditions of songs he apparently only lent to Iggy Pop, a rubbish cover of “God Only Knows,” and some rubbish collaborations with Tina Turner and Mr. Pop himself. Bowie only wrote two songs for the album alone, one being the very, very rubbish “Blue Jean.” Ironically, on a glorified covers album, the actual cover of the record is pretty boss- one of his best.
Okay, the “Neighborhood Threat” cover is pretty good, too.
The other song Bowie wrote for the record, “Loving the Alien,” was a moody New Wave tune criticizing organized religion (“Believing the strangest things/ Loving the alien“). However, it’s the music, not the message, which keeps my vinyl of Tonight from ending up crushed in traffic. While the lyrics about religious conflict tend to get a bit lost in the totally ’80s production, the marimbas remain the hook of the song, sounding more like a weird synth than any kind of conventional instrument and ultimately add to the haunting, slinking feel of the song, making for a very dark New Wave tune.
Extra enjoyment can be had with the music video for “Loving the Alien,” and not just to laugh at Bowie’s decidedly uncool green pants and carpet blazer. Part weird student art film, part meta “making a music video” music video and part album cover recreation, the “Loving the Alien” video is a borderline nonsensical mishmash of images that seems to think it has a narrative thread. It doesn’t, though that’s no reason to complain. More annoying is that now it’s impossible to say that Tonight sucks without tagging at the end “except ‘Loving the Alien.'” – Danny Djeljosevic
Never Let Me Down is the most reviled entry in Bowie’s oeuvre (Bowie himself can’t stand it), but at least he wrote most of the songs on it. Its greatest offense is something Bowie was clearly headed for since “Modern Love:” overproduction. And not just the kind of overproduction that smooths over a Jimmy Eat World record into boring slickness, but the kind of frustratingly, indulgently expensive production where under all those needless instruments, backup singers and horn sections, you can almost hear a few decent songs asking to be stripped down into something proper and good. While something like Young Americans felt like shocking stylistic experimentation (that eventually helped to beget Station to Station), the album features songs that embody ’80s overindulgence, such as opener “Day-In Day-Out,” which sounds like the decade’s version of “Young Americans” (in a bad way), complete with backup singers and saxophones; did you know “Day-In Day-Out” was a message song? I couldn’t tell under all that sax.
“Time Will Crawl” isn’t quite immune from the same problems that sink the rest of the album, but many of them are downplayed (at least, there’s less sax on this one) in favor of a rockin’ disaster ditty with an incredibly catchy keyboard line like the tears of an evil Cold War supercomputer. It’s a bit like Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” but without the stigma of Phil Collins’ involvement.
Inspired by the Chernobyl disaster, Bowie writes with a streak of darkness and oblique apocalyptic imagery (“I saw a black black stream/ Full of white-eyed fish/ And a drowning man/ With no eyes at all“) that make it more fore-bearer to the Arcade Fire than another “99 Luftballons.” Like a few other tracks on the record (“Glass Spider,” for example), “Time Will Crawl” hinted at potential greatness to be found in late-’80s David Bowie–provided, of course, you’re able to sit through his excesses. – Danny Djeljosevic
Seemingly tired of critical disdain, Bowie decided to go anonymous for a few years by fronting a band called Tin Machine. Once that project fizzled, Bowie returned as a solo artist with 1993’s Black Tie White Noise, a record that delves into a blend of soul, dance, electronic and horrible ’90s adult contemporary, effectively bridging Bowie’s indulgent ’80s era with his electronic era- without the good bits. The worst offender is the overwrought title track, inspired by racial conflict during the LA riots. How bad is “Black Tie White Noise?” Hint: the song features unironic lyrical cribbing like “What’s goin’ on?” Jesus Christ, Bowie. Give us some credit. I went along with “I saw the news today, oh boy” in “Young Americans,” but I can’t follow you with “we are the world.”
Black Tie White Noise screams “out of touch” as much as it screams Peter Gabriel’s So–and not in a good way, and not just because of the similar album covers. We can speculate and point to a lot of reasons for this, such as his 1992 marriage to Iman and the rise of grunge, coupled with the fact that Bowie had become establishment music rather than the super-cool weirdo rocker he was pre-Let’s Dance. But because the next album had him reuniting with Brian Eno, we can forgive Bowie his errors.
Speaking of which, “Pallas Athena,” one of the better tracks on the record, recalls the Bowie/Eno “Berlin” era with the haunting ambient strings, but filtered through Bowie’s ’90s electronic interests, so it’s got a danceable beat and an audio loop of a preacher shouting stuff like “God is on top of it all,” making it (I guess) more commentary on religion. “Pallas Athena,” like most of Black Tie White Noise, is a product of its time, so it feels a bit Moby. -Danny Djeljosevic
Buried amidst David Bowie’s storied four decade-long recording career, The Buddha of Suburbia remains a forgotten, nearly unheard album. Originally conceived as the soundtrack for a BBC adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel of a young man of mixed race growing up alternately alienated and longing to belong in ’70s England, Bowie re-recorded the tracks used in miniseries, rewriting and recording the entire album in a mere six days. Despite Bowie’s own fondness for the record (once calling it his favorite of his own albums), The Buddha of Suburbia and its title single received little airplay and was quickly deleted from the Arista catalogue.
And it’s a pity, because the leading title track is a clear indicator of the kind of atmospheric, reverie-filled pop that he would soon begin to explore on 1999’s Hours… and finally perfect on 2002’s latter day classic, Heathen. Bowie notably takes the instrumental lead on the track, playing synthesizers, guitar and his first love, saxophone; dominated by a thumping, almost ominous synthesizer line and the singer’s own keening vocal, “The Buddha of Suburbia” is a wandering, wondering reverie on modern life and the inability to “tell the bullshit from the lies.” But is there really a point to either one, the narrator seems to ask- his mutterings of “Living in lies by the railway lines” and eternally waiting to find oneself sane, seems an impressionistic take on suburban dissatisfaction and squalor.
Of course, as an early indication of Bowie’s embrace of his own neo-classical sound, it’s not without its own nostalgia; the mellow drums and chiming guitars are as soothing and familiar in their own way as Bowie’s nodding inclusion of the famously staccato guitar break of his early hit “Space Oddity.” Just as a young man out of his quiet suburb streets in the big city may sometimes welcome memories of dull times, Bowie can’t help getting lost in his own history even while pushing forward. – Nathan Kamal
For the first time in his prolific, varied career, the ’80s and early ’90s found Bowie in a bit of an identity crisis. He spent much of the ’80s as more of a straightforward, bland pop star, did some pretty good acting (Labyrinth, The Hunger), then tried to be just one of the guys in the band with the ill-conceived Tin Machine, which at least paired him with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, with whom he would work with for over a decade. When the ’90s began, Bowie’s early albums were reissued, as was the lavish box set Sound + Vision, which he toured behind, and it looked as if he might be content to be an oldies act like the Rolling Stones. Thankfully, Bowie is a restless spirit with his finger on the pulse of new sounds and trends. Outside, his first collaboration with Brian Eno in years, is not a great album (it’s also over 70 minutes), but it at least shows Bowie trying something new. Described, somewhat pretentiously and obliquely, by Bowie as a “non-linear gothic drama hyper cycle,” it was meant to be the first of three concept albums, set in the not-too distant future and featuring a character called Nathan Adler, a vaguely Orwellian government and “art crimes.” As with a lot of Bowie, it was half-inspired, half-ridiculous.
“Hallo Spaceboy” found Bowie returning to one of his great themes: space. And for the first time since Scary Monsters, the music sounds futuristic, challenging and exciting. It was one of his most immediate and driving rock songs in years, with a lights-speeding-by-on-the-freeway tempo, industrial guitars, interesting background noises and textures redolent of Low. If Bowie wanted to keep with the trends of the decade, he could’ve made a Britpop album, a movement he had no small influence on, but instead he went darker and weirder, singing lines like “This chaos is killing me.” It was an indication of the quality of the song that the Pet Shop Boys did a remix/cover, which had more of a sleek, clubby feel and cleverly mixed in bits of his first great space song, “Space Oddity.” Even if Outside was an ambitious failure and he never competed the cycle, it led to a tour with Nine Inch Nails and it felt like it re-centered Bowie, putting him back where he should be, looking forward and staying slightly ahead of all his contemporaries. – Lukas Sherman
Earthling was released in time to help celebrate David Bowie’s fiftieth birthday. It features an odd collaboration with Brian Eno and Trent Reznor, while encouraging DJs such as Photek to remix many of the singles, marking Bowie’s successful return to the dance floor. It also saw Bowie offer the first single for digital download by a major artist in “Telling Lies.” While “I’m Afraid Of Americans” is a reflection on the unbridled growth of American consumer culture, Earthling as a whole has more to do with the resurgence of the United Kingdom as a cultural force; the cover image of David Bowie, standing alone, adorned in the Union Jack, places the album squarely in the midst of the ‘Cool Britannia’ phenomena. After spending decades looking to the United States as a source of musical trends and inspiration, Bowie turns his gaze “home” for Earthling (even if his real home was soon to be a loft on Broadway), to borrow heavily from the British drum and bass dance scene.
Having said that, “I’m Afraid of Americans” brings to fore all the aggressive guitar noise that one would expect of David Bowie having spent time on tour in 1995 with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. The sound is large and ominous; America is no longer the welcoming culture of excess it had been on earlier albums. It’s dark and foreboding. Bowie’s hero is not the soon-to-be out-of-this-world celebrity of Ziggy Stardust, but a plain, almost bureaucratic “Johnny,” who spends the length of the accompanying music video narrowly escaping the menacing pursuit of Reznor himself amidst the gun violence of New York.
Thus, “I’m Afraid of Americans” is something of a paradox, a complaint about the expansion of American culture, written by a British musician who has made a career out of re-exporting significant elements of that culture to the rest of the world, set amidst an album that celebrates the United Kingdom’s own cultural rebirth as the centre of global cool. – Sean Marchetto
In interviews, David Bowie stated that 1999’s ‘Hours…’ was intended to reflect the mid-life malaise and uncertainty of many of his generation. Lyrically, it’s a somewhat heavy album that dials down his usual sense of technical adventure to tell modest but fictitious short stories about male menopause. All the same, it would hard not to see “Thursday’s Child” as anything but autobiographical.
The title itself references that the child “has far to go” from the nursery rhyme, while also invoking the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Both images conjure Bowie’s media image as the forward-thinking genius that became warped and lonely once his youth and instincts faded. As Nico intoned in her own ageless croon, by the end of the ’80s Bowie had become “Sunday’s clown” and something of a washed-up party-goer.
Yet love redeems him. From a personal perspective, “Thursday’s Child” serves as directly as mea culpa and a love letter for his wife Iman. Confessing that he’s always felt out of place, Bowie goes on to intimate that meeting his companion has made all his decisions worthwhile. That’s a little sappy for a rock god, but it’s also hard not to be stirred by the line: “Only for you I don’t regret that I was Thursday’s Child.”
Most of ‘Hours…’ has a glittering late-’90s rock sound. A good amount of drum machines are looped under sincere-sounding electric guitars and even the odd folk acoustic guitar on “Seven.” Bowie’s former Tin Machine band-mate Reeves Gabrels acts as chief troubleshooter to enforce a particular style of ambient dance rock, a sound that hasn’t aged well by any means. “Thursday’s Child” itself sounds more like a European disco chill-out song played at 4:00 AM; it’s the type of sing-song music that would be played to end the night when a club owner is ushering people out. Or maybe just to wind down a long night of gaming, considering that four of the songs on this record were composed for the forgettable and blurry computer game Omikron: The Nomad Soul. When we take full stock of all these facts, this is a song that is somewhat shoehorned to many long defunct cultural trends. But the image of a serene David Bowie preparing to become a simple man who adores his wife has a poignancy to it that still manages to come through. – Neal Fersko
David Bowie’s Heathen bears a sticker that proclaims, “Classic David Bowie Circa 2002.” This ballsy claim is not entirely aloof- single “Slow Burn” may very well be Bowie’s best work since 1980’s Scary Monsters. Despite the fact that 1999’s ‘Hours…’ was a uniformly excellent album, Heathen would become Bowie’s highest charting record since Tonight. Rather than continue the tender and terrified examination of mortality that filled the gentle songs of ‘Hours…’, Heathen instead returned to Bowie’s favorite theme: the breakdown of society and its inward putrefaction from the inside out.
Reuniting for the first time with producer Tony Visconti since Scary Monsters, Heathen’s first single is also the album’s best song. Boasting muscular guitar chops from Pete Townshend, Visconti’s buoyant bass line and a mélange of horns that wouldn’t sound out of place on Young Americans, “Slow Burn” 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, a milieu Bowie would further explore on his next album with “New Killer Star,” the song speaks of a place where the “walls shall have eyes/ And the doors shall have ears,” a prophetic allusion not only to the paranoia that would grip the world but the liberties ripped away from us 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.” However, 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 immediately addictive melody, “Slow Burn” features one of Bowie’s finest vocals ever recorded. His aged tremolo works with the song and when Bowie pushes into the upper registers it is missing the contrary melodramatic quaver that made some of his ’80s songs point towards parody. In fact, “Slow Burn” would even net the singer a Grammy nod for Best Rock Male Vocal Performance, if that means anything.
Bowie is always at his best when convincing you the end of the world is nigh, yet gently rocking you the brink approaches. “Slow Burn” does just that, rightly deserving the designation of “Classic David Bowie Circa 2002,” especially now that 2002 has very steadily slipped away from view. – David Harris
If I were to coin an expression to describe “The Loneliest Guy,” the standout track off Bowie’s most recent, Reality, it would be ‘the Bowian Paradox.’ After shedding his attempts at folk being a mod dandy, Bowie began making an art out of infusing the creepy, disarming or unnerving into otherwise playful rock songs. Yet it’s awfully hard to pinpoint exactly how he achieves that effect; maybe its that rich voice that Bowie tugs between gravel and whine, perhaps the space-age glam stories or even the story-based context he builds around all of his work. It’s awfully challenging to figure out how a song seemingly uplifting in meaning (and downright memorable) can feel so unsettling. Of course that’s the sort of conundrum Bowie has made a career of.
Coming out of an era where Bowie achieved as much popularity for his acting as his lackluster music releases, Reality is a sort of return-to-form. It piggybacks on the creative momentum generated by ‘Hours…’ and Heathen but at the same time samples some of the more stable and successful elements of his sound via Scary Monsters and Low. And “The Loneliest Guy” is a mid-album highlight featuring both of those traits, an introspective meditation on man’s relation to the environment and unfaltering entropy around him sewn from the same musical feel and production style as Heathen.
“The Loneliest Guy” is one of those songs that burrows into your consciousness and refuses to let go. Its lyrics are simple, clean and jarringly effective. The setting is clear- civilization has decayed but this man has not. The track opens with a shifty arpeggio over ominous chords and refuses to break that structure until the two line refrain, “But I’m the luckiest guy/ Not the loneliest guy.” It’s an uncompromising song structure, built on a slim lyrical foundation of only three stanzas. But those words carry an album’s worth of meaning, allowing that lyrical brevity to work beautifully.
But “The Loneliest Guy” truly stands out from an album of otherwise descent tracks because Bowie’s voice takes front and center. Those chops have aged well and though not quite capable of a younger man’s range, he sounds dark and rugged in a way that nuances a song like this perfectly, making meditations on life and experience resonate stronger than they otherwise would. He sings, “All the pages that have turned/ All the errors left unlearned.” Will Bowie survive to see the end-of-days reality he speaks of? Probably not. But as a metaphor for the legacy Bowie continues to build and his perspective on such a productive career, “The Loneliest Guy” is likely as good a guess as any as to what his future holds. – Michael Merline
“Valentine’s Day” from The Next Day (2013)
Self-reinvention is David Bowie’s stock in trade. After releasing Reality in 2003 to positive critical response, it seemed like he would ride its “maturing rocker” sound into retirement as an elder statesman. Then a heart attack shut down his tour for the album in 2004, signaling a drastic slowdown in his public life and a seemingly permanent hiatus from recording. No one suspected that he had started working on a stealth project until he announced the upcoming release of 2013’s The Next Day on his birthday in January. Working with long-time favorite producer, Tony Visconti, the album unveils his latest incarnation: the composite Bowie. Building on the maturity of Reality, this latest persona acknowledges his earlier work and integrates those sounds into a self-aware coherence. The album is centered on creating a bridge between the past and present, from the repurposed cover art to the juxtaposition of musical moods, ranging across lethargic nostalgia (“Where Are We Now”), uneasy tension (“The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”) and bouncy cheer (“Dancing Out in Space”).
“Valentine’s Day” balances old and new by mining his back catalog for sonic references to support a thoroughly modern inspiration. Visconti has described the song as “Bowie’s response to the epidemic of gun violence in American schools,” featuring a shooter as the subject. As the opening chords carry a hint of “All The Young Dudes,” the first verse sets the stage: “Valentine’s told me who’s to go/ Feelings he’s treasured most of all/ The teachers and the football star.” The song’s character study is not so different from those on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) or Aladdin Sane (1973). But where Ziggy Stardust and the Jean Genie were larger than life role models, Valentine is a darker antihero. Bowie treats his subject gently even as he delicately paints a scene of dispassionate violence. But, just as he used childish background voices to suggest madness on “After All” from The Man Who Sold the World (1970), the spiteful background singing at the end of the song serves a similar purpose.
Ambiguity is Bowie’s hallmark, with songs that offer a polished surface and hidden ugliness. The threat in “Valentine’s Day” lies mostly in the lyrics while the music stays relaxed and open until the brief, final guitar solo. The hollow-toned production and brittle vocal fragility recall the arch sound of Let’s Dance (1983), with a blasé feel that distracts you from the darkness. Without full attention, the escalation of the internal pressure comes as a surprise. It’s a slick move; resolving that cognitive dissonance demands repeated listening. Songs like this were well worth coming out of retirement for. – Jester Jay Goldman