50. Let Me Sleep Beside You (1967)
A rejected single finally released on a 1970 cash-in compilation, Bowie’s first collaboration with the producer Tony Visconti is better than anything on his debut album. Driven by acoustic guitar, its sound points the way ahead and there’s something appealingly odd, even sinister about the lyrical come-ons: “Wear the dress your mother wore.”
49. I Would Be Your Slave (2001)
Uniformly strong, the songwriting on Heathen stretched from the prosaic – the letter-to-adult-son of Everyone Says Hi – to the baffling. Its highlight sits somewhere between: ostensibly a love song that gradually reveals itself to be about God. The melody is beautiful, the arrangement – very Visconti strings over electronic beats – perfectly poised.
48. Loving the Alien (1984)
The solitary moment that sparked on 1984’s inspiration-free Tonight. A strange, genuinely great song about religion smothered by overproduction. A 2018 remix helps matters a little, and the stripped-back 00s live versions available online are better yet. The demo version – much talked up by Bowie in later years – remains unheard.
47. Jump They Say (1993)
Hailed as a return to peak form on release, Black Tie White Noise was nothing of the sort, but its first single was authentically fantastic. Jittery but commercial funk is undercut by a dark lyric that returned to the subject of Bowie’s mentally ill half-brother Terry, this time brooding on his 1985 suicide.
46. The London Boys (1966)
Tellingly, Bowie’s first great song centred on outsiders. A stark, brass- and woodwind-assisted depiction of those – like Bowie himself – left with their noses pressed against the glass of the Swinging London party, it feels like a monochrome kitchen-sink drama compressed into three minutes.
45. Fantastic Voyage (1979)
The album Lodger opened with that rarest of things in the Bowie canon, a protest song. Inspired by the ongoing cold war and its attendant nuclear paranoia, its combination of anger and fatalism still sounds pertinent. The music meanwhile is essentially a gentle reworking of Boys Keep Swinging: same key, same chords, only slower.
44. Lady Stardust (1972)
Ziggy Stardust’s most emotionally affecting moment is one of its most straightforward songs. Driven by Mick Ronson’s piano, it paints a poignant picture beautifully: an overhyped gig by a hot new band, one man in the crowd sadly looking on as his younger ex-lover becomes a star. “I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey.”
43. Seven Years in Tibet (1997)
There was something charming about Bowie’s enthusiastic drum’n’bass experiments on Earthling, but its finest track had nothing to do with them: Bowie suggested it was inspired by 60s soul and the Pixies. Either way, its leaps from eerie atmospherics to blasting, wall-of-noise chorus are really exhilarating: an overlooked triumph.
42. Something in the Air (1998)
Another overlooked 90s gem, from the coolly received Hours, Something in the Air is both limpid and melancholy. The lyrics are filled with regret, the vocal parched and pained behind a liberal sprinkling of electronic distortion – and, when it hits its chorus, anthemic in a way that hints at All the Young Dudes.
41. Joe the Lion (1977)
Joe the Lion defies explication. Once you get past the opening lines about the transgressive self-mutilating performance artist Chris Burden – “Tell you who you are if you nail me to my car” – the lyrics make virtually no sense at all. The music – arcing, frantic atonal guitar and gibbering backing vocals – sounds deranged; Bowie sings like a man on the brink of a nervous breakdown. It is ridiculouslyexciting.
40. Hallo Spaceboy (1995)
After a decade spent courting the mainstream, Bowie clearly intended Outside to be seen as a grand artistic statement. It occasionally feels a bit laboured, but its highlights rank high: a Space Oddity-referencing Pet Shop Boys remix was a hit, but the original of Hallo Spaceboy is pummelling, chaotic and hypnotic.
39. I Can’t Read (1989)
Tin Machine was a hard rock folly that largely hasn’t aged well, but I Can’t Read is the exception that proves the rule: a brilliant, agonised, self-baiting study of the creative inertia that had overwhelmed Bowie in the 80s, over a dense wall of sheet metal guitars and feedback.
38. Rock’n’Roll Suicide (1972)
Ostensibly the tragic, French-chanson-and-50s pop-influenced finale to the Ziggy Stardust story, Rock’n’Roll Suicide’s epic coda seemed to take on a different, celebratory meaning as Bowie’s star rose, his howl of “You’re not alone / Give me your hands / You’re wonderful” summing up his effect on his fans.
37. Bring Me the Disco King (2003)
There’s a sense in which the final track on Reality, the last album he made before his decade-long “retirement”, would have worked perfectly as Bowie’s farewell: a beautiful, weary, uncertain and elegiac rumination on the 70s, set to Mike Garson’s distinctive piano, which shifts from hypnotic to spiky and surprising.
36. Always Crashing in the Same Car (1977)
“Self-pitying crap,” sniffed Bowie subsequently, which tells you more about his despondent mood during Low’s recording than the song itself. Always Crashing in the Same Car is a sublime sliver of moody paranoia, with distracted-sounding vocals, electronics that alternately bubble and drone, wiry, effects-laden guitar.
35. Stay (1976)
“It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine,” Bowie protested unconvincingly on Station to Station’s title track, but Stay – a taut, twitchy funk-rock hybrid – audibly was. As usual with Station to Station, the chaos of its creation (“a cocaine frenzy,” according to guitarist Carlos Alomar) isn’t reflected in the finished product: it’s perfectly poised and confident.
34. Cracked Actor (1973)
There is a particular strain of Bowie song from 1973/74 that sounds like the work of someone who has had all the sex and drugs in the world at once. Cracked Actor may be the supreme example. A sleazy, bitter blast of distorted guitar that sounds like it is seconds away from collapse, it’s both intense and electrifying.
33. Moonage Daydream (1972)
You never want for high-drama rock anthemics on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, but Moonage Daydream is the best example. It switches from the opening guitar chord’s strident call to something weirder and more ominous – its concluding encouragement to “freak out” doesn’t sound particularly inviting – and features a mind-blowing Mick Ronson guitar solo.
32. Diamond Dogs (1974)
Halloween Jack, the persona Bowie adopted on Diamond Dogs, never enjoyed the same cultural impact as Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke. That was no fault of the album’s title track, a propulsive, compelling strut that is simultaneously sensual and dark, as evidenced by its troubling opening cry: “This ain’t rock n’ roll, this is … genocide!”
31. The Width of a Circle (1970)
Not everything on Bowie’s self-consciously heavy album The Man Who Sold the World works, but its opening track is remarkable. It opens with an acoustic guitar that might have stepped off the 1969 David Bowie album, before exploding into something completely different: an eight-minute Ronson-powered homoerotic epic that swaggers with a newfound confidence.
30. John, I’m Only Dancing (1972)
Considered too controversial to release in the US, John, I’m Only Dancing blithely turned the era’s sexual mores on its head: in its lyrics, a straight relationship is the shocking, threatening aberration. The music, meanwhile, sashays insouciantly along – in another inspired theft, the guitar part is swiped from Alvin Cash’s 1968 funk hit Keep on Dancing.
29. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
Proof that Bowie worked in mysterious ways: it took a BBC Two adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia to return him to full creative power. Amid the Blackstar-prefiguring free-jazz experiments and Low-esque instrumentals lurked the fantastic, self-referential title track, a keen drawing of pre-fame Bowie, “screaming along in south London … ready to learn”.
28. Fame (1975)
Made up on the hoof in the studio – and allegedly constructed by Bowie cutting up a recording of Alomar playing a cover of the Flares’ 1961 hit Foot Stompin’ – Fame is a fantastic slice of funk, rendered nervy and strange by the pained delivery of lyrics that take a jaundiced view of the song’s subject: “The flame that burns your change to keep you insane.”
27. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)
Boasting a preposterously stage-y mockney vocal – “she ’ad an ’orror of rooms” – Scary Monsters’ title track apparently dated back to the early 70s. Bowie had attempted to donate it to Iggy Pop, before reconsidering. It’s the album’s most viscerally exciting moment: frenzied and aggressive, it coats everything from the guitars to Bowie’s voice in distortion.
26. All the Young Dudes (1972)
Glam rock’s unofficial national anthem. All the Young Dudes announced the arrival of a new era in pop via a Lou Reed-ish cast of characters – cross-dressers, speed freaks talking about suicide – and a timely, remarkably cocky dismissal of the past: “My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones … what a drag.”
25. Space Oddity (1969)
In his excellent book The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg notes that the episodic Space Oddity sounds like something the 60s Bee Gees might have written at their weirdest. He’s absolutely right, although where the Bee Gees would have played up the melodrama, Bowie perfectly inhabits its mood of blank-eyed, space-age alienation.
24. Where Are We Now? (2013)
The excitement over Bowie’s surprise re-emergence perhaps caused The Next Day to be slightly overrated, but its best moments are magnificent, not least Where Are We Now?’s recollection of Bowie’s late 70s sojourn in Berlin. Fond, nostalgic and oddly fragile, it still sounds moving.
23. The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
It’s a song that was subsequently rendered as everything from pop-soul (by Lulu) to despairing acoustic commentary on global success and punk rock ethics (Nirvana), but Bowie’s original version has never been bettered. The title track of his eeriest album remains mysterious, creepy and haunting 50 years on.
22. I Can’t Give Everything Away (2016)
Of the Blackstar songs whose meaning suddenly pulled into focus with the news of Bowie’s death, none is more affecting than I Can’t Give Everything Away. The music is gloriously buoyant, but it’s hard to see the lyrics as anything other than a man bidding farewell, the musical quotation from Low’s A New Career in a New Town perfectly judged and poignant.
21. Fashion (1980)
Brilliantly claustrophobic, reggae-influenced post-punk funk that casts a jaundiced eye over the ever-changing trends in the world of the hip. The ironic tone of Fashion seemed to be largely missed, possibly because the idea of David Bowie, of all people, protesting about ever-changing trends was frankly a bit rich.
20. The Bewlay Brothers (1971)
There’s a compelling argument that the incredible flowering of songwriting talent on Hunky Dory may make it Bowie’s greatest album. Its most striking moment may be its extraordinary, enigmatic acoustic finale – possibly a depiction of Bowie’s relationship with his half-brother Terry – that goes from becalmed to chilling to genuinely frightening.
19. The Jean Genie (1973)
Aladdin Sane’s Ziggy-goes-to-America concept in miniature, The Jean Genie is tougher and sleazier than anything on Ziggy Stardust – its I’m A Man-ish guitar riff and bursts of harmonica sound absolutely filthy. Anyone inclined to view pop’s past through rose-tinted glasses should note it was kept off No 1 by Jimmy Osmond’s Long-Haired Lover From Liverpool.
18. Let’s Dance (1983)
The difference between Let’s Dance and Bowie’s other 80s pop albums is that his heart was in it; even if he was largely out to make money, he made an effort. If its title track signalled his temporary abandonment of the avant garde, it’s still a superb song, nervier and stranger than its global smash status might suggest.
17. Win (1975)
A ballad draped in echoing, fluttering sax, Win is utterly gorgeous. Despite Bowie’s insistence it was an attack on artistic rivals who didn’t work hard enough, there’s something oddly sexy about it, not least his delivery of the line: “Someone like you should not be allowed to start any fires.”
16. Rebel Rebel (1974)
Bowie’s fabulous, valedictory farewell to glam, Rebel Rebel is essentially a loving salute to the kids Bowie had inspired, a metaphorical arm around the shoulder of every teenage misfit who had ever posed in a bedroom mirror. “You tacky thing,” he sings, delightedly, “you put them on” – set to one of the all-time great rock riffs.
15. Changes (1971)
A perfectly written, irresistible mission statement that few heeded at the time, Changes has ended up one of Bowie’s most beloved songs. “It’s saying: ‘Look, I’m going to be so fast, you’re not going to keep up with me,’” he explained. It would count as youthful arrogance were it not for the fact that his subsequent career bore the boast out.
14. Golden Years (1976)
A moment of straightforward joy amid the complex, troubled emotional terrain of Station to Station, Golden Years perfectly matches its lyrical optimism with glittering, shimmering funk. What it would have sounded like had Bowie’s original plan to give the song to Elvis Presley is anyone’s guess.
13. Absolute Beginners (1985)
The theme to Julien Temple’s universally derided film of the same name, Absolute Beginners may well be the high point of Bowie’s 80s commercial phase. It’s a stately, sweeping, undeniable love song that reunited him with the pianist Rick Wakeman, and – at an artistic nadir – proved Bowie could still write incredible songs when he felt like it.
12. Boys Keep Swinging (1979)
Greeted with disappointment on release, Lodger’s reputation has grown with the years. It’s uneven, but contains some incredible songs, not least Boys Keep Swinging, which condensed the kind of sonic overload found on “Heroes” into a sparky three-minute pop song, complete with lyrics that archly, camply celebrated machismo.
11. Starman (1972)
More a cultural moment than a song. Starman’s epochal Top of the Pops performance is probably the most celebrated piece of music television in British history. It’s a series of compelling musical steals – equal parts T Rex, Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Blue Mink’s recent hit Melting Pot (the morse code guitar) – and a brash announcement of Bowie’s commercial rebirth.
10. Drive-In Saturday (1973)
Glam doo-wop decorated with bursts of fizzing synthesiser, Drive-In Saturday is one of Bowie’s greatest singles, despite its peculiar lyrical premise. In “about 2033”, nuclear war has caused humanity to forget how to have sex and they have to relearn seduction techniques from old films. Incredibly, given its subject matter, the song sounds swooningly romantic. Bowie in 1999. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images
9. ’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (2016)
Before Blackstar was revealed as the most exquisitely staged final act in rock history, it sounded thrillingly like a new beginning. A relentless, intense drum loop decorated with squalls of sax, Tis Pity She Was a Whore was unlike anything Bowie had done before. His final exultant whoop suggests he knew exactly how great it was.
8. Oh! You Pretty Things (1971)
There was an apocalyptic strain in Bowie’s songwriting almost from the start – see We Are Hungry Men from his 1967 debut – but it was never more beautifully expressed than on Oh! You Pretty Things, a song that sets an incredibly bleak message to a melody so lovely it could be covered by the lead singer of Herman’s Hermits.
7. Young Americans (1975)
Young Americans represents the point in Bowie’s career where it became apparent he could take virtually any musical genre and bend it to his will. A white British rock star adopting the breezy, sumptuous sound of Philly soul shouldn’t have worked at all, but it did, to life-affirming effect.
6. Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise) (1974)
The medley on side one of Diamond Dogs is the album’s sickly heart, seven minutes of music that takes glam rock as far as it could go. It’s so decadent and diseased-sounding it must have been hard to imagine where Bowie could possibly go next. As it turned out, he was just getting started.
5. “Heroes” (1977)
Its posthumous uplifting-sporting-montage-soundtrack ubiquity means it’s easy to forget what a weird, ambiguous song Heroes is – it has, metaphorically, lost the quotation marks around its title. But perhaps that is tribute to Bowie’s brand of alchemy: only he could turn six minutes of pulsing electronic noise, howling guitars and screamed vocals into an all-purpose air-punching anthem.
4. Life on Mars? (1971)
A no-further-questions masterpiece, bolstered by Ronson’s fantastic string arrangement, Life On Mars?’s confusing gush of images almost defies explication, but might well be Bowie’s first clarion call to suburban misfits. It says a lot about the sheer power of its melody that a song so lyrically impenetrable has become so widely loved.
3. Station to Station (1976)
By his own account so out of control he couldn’t even remember recording it, Bowie somehow contrived to make Station to Station a work of awesome power and focus, as evidenced by the lengthy title track. The shift into its second section – “Once there were mountains and mountains” – is possibly the single most thrilling moment in his entire catalogue.
2. Ashes to Ashes (1980)
Ashes to Ashes is one of those moments in Bowie’s catalogue where the correct response is to stand back and boggle in awe. Presumably a depiction of its author in his drugged-out mid-70s nadir, everything about it – lingering oddness of its sound, its constantly shifting melody and emotional tenor, its alternately self-mythologising and self-doubting lyrics – is perfect.
1. Sound and Vision (1977)
Picking Bowie’s 50 best songs is a thankless task. His back catalogue is so rich, you inevitably end up having to lose tracks every bit as good as those you have picked in the process: Queen Bitch, Suffragette City, Be My Wife, Dollar Days. Picking his best is even worse, but Sound and Vision is both a fantastic pop song and an act of artistic daring. A three-minute hit single that doesn’t even feature a lead vocal until halfway through, it twists a despondent lyric into something uplifting and, musically, transcends time. Completely original, nothing about its sound tethers it to the mid-70s. Its magic seems to sum Bowie up.
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