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Best David Bowie Songs: 50 Tracks That Rewrote The Rock Rulebook
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Best David Bowie Songs: 50 Tracks That Rewrote The Rock Rulebook

From art-rock manifestos to cinematic ballads and era-defining anthems, the best David Bowie songs changed the face of music forever.

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Across a career that spanned five-and-a-half decades and 25 studio albums, David Bowie not only proved that musicians didn’t have to limit themselves to playing one style of music, he kicked the door down for artists seeking to reinvent their entire persona whenever they pleased. Paving the way for everyone from Prince to Lady Gaga, punk to new wave and beyond, the best David Bowie songs changed the face of rock music forever while remaining the inimitable work of one man’s unique vision.

That vision knew no bounds, making our list of the 50 best David Bowie songs a true exploration of rock and pop music in all its guises.

Listen to the best of David Bowie here, and check out our best David Bowie songs, below.

50: Loving The Alien (from ‘Tonight’, 1984)

The opening track from his 1984 album, Tonight, Loving The Alien smuggled into the charts a scathing observation on organised religion at a time when Bowie was ostensibly making efforts to appeal to a mainstream audience. Referencing holy wars and crucifixions, and questioning the effectiveness of prayer, the lyrics to Loving The Alien were as confrontational as any among the best David Bowie songs, though the music, with chiming guitar and soothing percussion melodies, plus a soaring vocal leap from Bowie, made them palatable to even the most sensitive ears, helping the single edit go Top 20 in the UK.

49: Let’s Dance (from ‘Let’s Dance’, 1983)

Initially written by Bowie as a folk tune, and first played to producer Nile Rodgers on a 12-string guitar missing half its strings, the song Let’s Dance was worked up into a genre-melding smash hit around which the remainder of its parent album would quickly coalesce. Pulling together vintage R&B, electric blues and free-jazz skronk, and smoothing the joins with up-to-date production, Let’s Dance kick-started Bowie’s transition into one of the 80s’ most bankable stars.

48: Boys Keep Swinging (from ‘Lodger’, 1978)

Six years on from helping to redefine sexuality with the “I’m gay” interview he gave to Melody Maker magazine in 1972, Bowie, whose fashion choices often blurred gender lines, released this sardonic appraisal of gender inequality as the lead single from his Lodger album. Though he gave some of his “Berlin era” experimentalism a pop bounce on Boys Keep Swinging, any perceived bombast was undercut by Adrian Belew’s guitar work, which agitates at the edges of the song before being fully unleashed for a lengthy coda. For those who hadn’t noticed Bowie’s tongue lodged firmly in his cheek as he sang such lyrics as “Life is a pop of the cherry when you’re a boy”, he later clarified, in an interview with his wife, Iman, for Bust magazine, “The glory in that song was ironic… I was merely playing on the idea of the colonisation of a gender.”

47: 5:15 The Angels Have Gone (from ‘Heathen’, 2002)

One of Bowie’s personal favourites from the the Heathen album, 5:15 The Angels Have Gone references the same early-morning train that inspired The Who’s song 5:15, from their Quadrophenia rock opera, but to very different effect. While Pete Townshend had been writing about his fictional mod character, Jimmy, despondently gobbling amphetamine on a journey from London to Brighton, Bowie – who, along with Townshend, had been no stranger to taking what he called “the milk train back home after a weekend in London” in the mid-60s – sings of waiting alone on the platform, facing up to life’s disappointments. Glacial synths set the downbeat mood on this 21st-century highlight among the best David Bowie songs, and yet when Bowie lets loose a full-throated chorus (“We never talk anymore/Forever I will adore you”), his voice reaches towards the heavens as if in search of those elusive divinities.

46: Fame (from ‘Young Americans’, 1975)

Developed from a cover of Foot Stompin’, a 1961 hit by US doo-wop group The Flairs, and with an assist on the lyrics from John Lennon, Fame was an acerbic takedown of the music industry, wrapped in a taut funk groove and skewered with Carlos Alomar’s wiry guitar riffs. “We spent endless hours talking about fame, and what it’s like not having a life of your own any more,” Bowie later told Musician magazine of the discussions he’d had with the ex-Beatle, and which filtered into this highlight from the the Young Americans album. Many listeners simply heard an infectious groove, with US audiences buying into the Fame game and giving Bowie his first stateside chart-topper. “Soul Brother Number One”, James Brown, would quickly respond, lifting the Fame riff for his 1975 cut Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved).

45: The Jean Genie (from ‘Aladdin Sane’, 1972)

From its rattlesnake percussion to its supercharged blues riff, The Jean Genie is a straight-up hip-shaker among the best David Bowie songs. What it lacks in musical complexity it more than makes up for in lyrical dexterity, with Bowie painting a ribald image of his insatiable character arriving in New York and cheerfully consuming all the city has to offer. Revealing that it was written as an homage to Stooges frontman and proto-punk icon Iggy Pop – or “an Iggy-type character” – Bowie singled The Jean Genie out as one of the few old songs that he enjoyed playing later in his career, thanks in part to its “old-fashioned blues” roots.

44: Bring Me The Disco King (from ‘Reality’, 2003)

Originally written in the early 90s, when Bowie was about to embark on a decade’s worth of creativity that would recall the inventiveness of his pace-setting 70s, Bring Me The Disco King was held back for over ten years, until finding a home as the closing track on Bowie’s final album for ten years, 2003’s Reality. Built on a looped drum part from a Heathen-era B-side titled When The Boys Come Marching Home, over which long-running Bowie sideman Mike Garson laid some of his finest minimalist piano, Bring Me The Disco King is a brooding late-period classic among the best David Bowie songs. Of such lyrics as “Damp morning rays in the stiff bad clubs/Killing time in the 70s”, Bowie reflected, “I guess it was a cynical bye-bye to the past kind of thing.”

43: The Width Of A Circle (from ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, 1970)

The lengthy opening track to The Man Who Sold The World, The Width Of A Circle became an epic centrepiece for Bowie’s live shows in the early 70s, as The Spiders From Mars stretched the proto-heavy-metal monster into a quarter-of-an-hour jam that involved a mock battle between guitarist Mick Ronson and bassist Trevor Bolder, and a narrative-led mime routine from Bowie. Stage theatrics could only ever allude to the meaning of the song’s dense lyrics, which tie religion, philosophy and, it’s been suggested, gender-fluid sexual encounters together into a song about which Bowie said, “I very much doubt whether anyone could decipher that song correctly on my level. But a lot of people have deciphered it on their own levels. That’s fine – that’s what a song does.”

A highlight of Bowie’s final concert as Ziggy Stardust, The Width Of A Circle was brought back into commission for his tour in support of the Diamond Dogs album. As captured on the 1974 album David Live, Bowie pushed his genre-blending to new extremes with a band that ladled Philly-soul saxophone on top of a barrage of riffs, drums and keyboards.

42: Hallo Spaceboy (from ‘1. Outside’, 1995)

With a crushing beat sounding like a galaxy imploding, Hallo Spaceboy found the sweet spot between industrial rock and Bowie’s increasing experiments with electronica, making for one of the heaviest moments on his uncompromising studio reunion with Brian Eno, the 1. Outside album. Extrapolated from an instrumental written by guitarist Reeves Gabrels, the finished song became something Bowie described as “an extraordinary sound… like Jim Morrison meets industrial. When I heard it back, I thought, Fuck me. It’s like metal Doors.” Pet Shop Boys would up the song’s dance quotient with a remix that folded in references to Space Oddity’s lyrics, helping to make Hallo Spaceboy a Top 20 hit in early 1996

41: All The Young Dudes (recorded 1972)

At a time when many of the best David Bowie songs featured cryptic lyrics designed to goad listeners into theoretical flights of fancy, All The Young Dudes was written with an entirely different cause in mind: to stop Mott The Hoople breaking up. Promising to hand the struggling group a hit single if they agreed to keep going, Bowie came up with a singalong youth anthem perfectly calibrated for maximum chart impact. With nods to rivals T.Rex (and a snub for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones), plus celebrations of glam fashions and adolescent booze-ups, All The Young Dudes ensured Bowie was true to his word, going to No.3 in the summer of 1972.

40: Shadow Man (from ‘Toy’, 2000)

Shadow Man was almost the one that got away for Bowie, who originally demoed the song in 1971 but waited another five decades to finish it off. A standout among the material Bowie dusted down and re-recorded during sessions for the Toy album, this reflective entry among the best David Bowie songs benefits greatly from the maturity of the then 53-year-old Bowie’s voice. Having recently assessed his own mortality on his 1999 album, ‘hours…’, here Bowie sees Shadow Man’s titular character “waiting up ahead”, his significance unclear but portentous. “David was always up for remixes and different takes on things,” Bowie’s then guitarist Mark Plati told Dig! in 2021, around the time of Toy’s long-awaited release. Of the three different versions of Shadow Man created by Plati, the Unplugged & Somewhat Slightly Electric Mix is the most haunting.

39: Memory Of A Free Festival (from ‘David Bowie’ (aka ‘Space Oddity’), 1969)

Accounts differ as to how Bowie truly felt during the Beckenham Free Festival of 1969, but by the time he came to write a song memorialising the event, which he helped organise as well as performed at, he painted a picture of hippie unity (“Oh, to capture just one drop of all the ecstasy that swept that afternoon”), complete with a group-singalong outro that took up almost half the song’s seven-minute length. Though Bowie’s avowed optimism for a new decade (“Things WILL get better,” he told Disc And Music Echo) would soon turn to something altogether more cynical, sparse electric organ gives Memory Of A Free Festival an almost hymnal quality – something film director Brett Morgan ran with in his Moonage Daydream documentary, using the song’s closing refrain, “The sun machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party,” to almost transcendental effect.

38: Heat (from ‘The Next Day’, 2013)

If The Next Day’s lead single, Where Are We Now?, had introduced Bowie’s first new album in ten years with a relatively open reflection on his past, he closed the record with one of the most opaque songs in his discography. Though, as he told producer Tony Visconti, Heat was “not about me”, the repeated refrain “And I tell myself/I don’t know who I am” reflects the identity crises Bowie would feel his rapidly changing personae had sparked in the mid-70s, even if the remainder of the song seems to exist in its own troubled environment. Setting the scene with a reference to a passage in Yukio Mishima’s 1969 novel Spring Snow, in which a dead dog is discovered and taken for a bad omen, Bowie invokes perpetual nightfall and images of deceit in an undefined prison run by the narrator’s father. “Tragic”, “nerve” and “mystification” were the three words he used to describe Heat to novelist Rick Moody, each one of them a fair approximation of both the lyrics and the dread-laden soundbed – fretless bass, acoustic guitars, a string quartet – which simply builds over four minutes and 25 seconds, with no resolution. Scott Walker’s chilling solo work is a clear antecedent, but Heat burns with an intensity of its own among the best David Bowie songs.

37: Win (from ‘Young Americans’, 1975)

Given early airings during his Soul Tour of 1974, in support of Diamond Dogs, the lightly opulent ballad Win became a standout of the following year’s Young Americans album, exemplifying Bowie’s creative approach to what he termed his “plastic soul” record. “I just wanted to put this spin on it,” he said of the era-defining soul music coming out of Philadelphia International Records in the mid-70s. “Things like Win, the chord structures are much more of a European thing than an American thing. But it imbued the muscular qualities of soul music pretty accurately, and I got these pretty heavyweight American musicians working on it.” A quarter of a century later, Beck, Bowie’s genre-blending heir apparent, would lift Win’s twinkling guitar intro for his song Debra, an R&B send-up that closed his own overhaul of funk music, 1999’s Midnite Vultures.

36: Queen Bitch (from ‘Hunky Dory’, 1971)

Sounding nothing like the rest of the Hunky Dory album, Queen Bitch signposted Bowie’s move into hard rock with The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, and acted as a love letter to his longtime influences The Velvet Underground, whose frontman, Lou Reed, would be the beneficiary of Bowie’s adulation when it came to recording his second solo album, Transformer. With Mick Ronson’s metallic guitars and Bowie’s character studies (“She’s an old-time ambassador of sweet-talking, night-walking games/Oh, and she’s known in the darkest clubs for pushing ahead of the dames”), the song brought the denizens of New York City’s queer underground to the streets of London, as if detailing a night out at the capital’s Sombrero club, the LGBTQ+ hangout where the frontrunners of glam-rock fashions gathered in the early 70s.

35: Golden Years (from ‘Station To Station’, 1976)

Twelve years Elvis Presley’s junior, Bowie shared a birthday – 8 January – with the “King Of Rock’n’Roll”, and had briefly considered gifting him this song, at a time when the 50s icon was deep into his Las Vegas residency. In the hands of late-period Presley, such lyrics as “In walked luck and you looked in time/Never look back, walk tall, act fine” may have felt knowingly nostalgic; setting them to a shimmering midtempo groove, Bowie manages to coat them in optimism. A natural evolution from Young Americans’ smooth soul stylings, Golden Years is the calmy assured cousin to the strutting funk of Station To Station’s penultimate track, Stay.

34: Beauty And The Beast (from ‘“Heroes”’, 1977)

If the song “Heroes” is the sound of Bowie at his most poised, then Beauty And The Beast is an unhinged Mr Hyde, striding into view on an ominous build of piano and drums, before careening into squalls of synths and Robert Fripp’s piercing guitar lines. Bowie’s lyrics do nothing to quell the sense of impending catastrophe (“There’s slaughter in the air/Protest on the wind/Someone else inside me/Someone could get skinned”), while Antonia Maass – a jazz singer on the Berlin circuit – jumps in with fevered vocals that heighten the sense of a world in danger of spinning off its axis. An exercise in controlled chaos, Beauty And The Beast reveals how the best David Bowie songs could be worked up in the moment, out of a few scant ideas. In his essay accompanying the box set A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) producer Tony Visconti still found it “hard to believe” that the song’s backing track was “arranged on the spot with no knowledge of titles, vocal melodies or lyrics. Once a riff was established, as in Beauty And The Beast, a lick, an interjection, a countermelody, a quirky drum fill all fell into place naturally. Somehow it was mutually sensed where singing would and wouldn’t be. Emotional music textures, not songs, were being recorded.”

33: Always Crashing In The Same Car (from ‘Low’, 1977)

The dreamlike soundscape that Bowie and Brian Eno constructed for Always Crashing In The Same Car belies the nightmarish events that inspired the song. During a gig recorded for the BBC in 2000, Bowie explained how his attempts to run “a coke dealer… who screwed me over a deal” off the Berlin Kurfürstendamm, in broad daylight, left him questioning his sanity; later that evening, while speeding in circles in an underground car park, a despondent Bowie let go of the steering wheel, only to be saved from collision as the car ran out of petrol. Directly addressing his state of mind at this juncture, Bowie’s near-spoken vocals, ending with a wordless wail, are framed by synth washes and treated guitar parts, showing how the best David Bowie songs can transform real-life experiences into enigmatic moments of beauty.

32: Stay (from ‘Station To Station’, 1975)

A showcase for Bowie’s mid-70s rhythm section, Stay flies along on a complex backing track built up by guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis, with second guitarist Earl Slick and percussionist Geoff MacCormack ably making themselves felt amid the melee. If Golden Years was an assured consolidation of the soul stylings Bowie had explored on Young Americans, Stay was a full-throttle blast of funk-rock that proved he had plenty more in his floor-filling arsenal. With lyrics that reveal a deep distress (“Maybe I’ll take something to help me/Hope someone takes after me”), the song hints at the circumstances that would soon lead Bowie to leave Los Angeles for Berlin, in search of a fresh start both artistically and in his private life.

31: Quicksand (from ‘Hunky Dory’, 1971)

Written at a time when Bowie was resetting not only his career path but also his entire artistic vision, Quicksand was a Hunky Dory standout in which the struggling songwriter interrogated his own creative powers after almost a decade in the music industry, with only 1969’s Space Oddity as an indication of the success he could – and would – achieve. Threading together his interests in Buddhism, the occult and Nietzschean philosophy, and layering them in a dense collage of images, Bowie finds himself “sinking in the quicksand of my thoughts”, but is lifted up by a lush arrangement of strings, Mellotron and six separate guitar parts, mixed with maximum dramatic flair by producer Ken Scott.

30: Five Years (from ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’, 1972)

The opening track to The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Five Years introduced the apocalyptic mindset that Bowie would largely find himself in throughout the early 70s. Like a roving reporter witnessing Earth’s slide towards destruction, he describes, amid other end-times scenes, attacks on children, and police officers genuflecting before the clergy. As with the Ziggy album’s lead single, Starman, Bowie addressed the listeners directly – “Don’t think you knew you were in this song” – in a canny move that drew fans ever deeper into his rapidly expanding world. Over 40 years later he would test his audience’s memory, closing The Next Day’s You Feel So Lonely You Could Die with the instantly recognisable drum beat that bookended this bar-raising entry among the best David Bowie songs.

29: I Can’t Give Everything Away (from ‘Blackstar’, 2016)

Though it contains its share of unexplained imagery – “With blackout harks with flowered tune/With skull designs upon my shoes” – I Can’t Give Everything Away, the closing track to Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, now reads as a goodbye from an artist facing up to his own death. “Saying ‘no’ but meaning ‘yes’/This is all I ever meant” he sings on this expansive electro ballad, seemingly acknowledging the obfuscations he used to block the paths of fans, press and critics alike, even as he poured his life into his art, perhaps not giving everything away but leaving clues enough for those who wished to follow.

28: Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (from ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’, 1980)

The title track of David Bowie’s 1980 album, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) is a prime character study among the best David Bowie songs – or is it? In a track-by-track discussion of the album, released to the press as The David Bowie Interview, Bowie claimed to have taken an objective view on “a few people I’ve met”, before throwing other potential sources in: “Actually, he’s a sort of criminal with a conscience, I think. Maybe it is about me, let’s see.” Descriptions of toxic behaviours (“She asked me to stay and I stole her room/She asked for my love and I gave her a dangerous mind”) are delivered in a dispassionate voice from a narrator who, Bowie explained, had “corrupted a fine young mind”. Behind him, descending bark-like keyboard effects, Robert Fripp’s dimension-shredding guitar and drummer Dennis Davis’ plate-shifting drums all do battle for supremacy amid a churning art-rock backing.

27: Breaking Glass (from ‘Low’, 1977)

At just 1.52, Breaking Glass is the shortest entry among the best David Bowie songs, but that doesn’t diminish its impact. Confessions of sinister-sounding activities (the lyric “Don’t look at the carpet, I drew something awful on it” actually referenced a Station To Station-era photoshoot with Steve Schapiro, in which Bowie drew the Kabbalah Tree Of Life in the photographer’s studio) and a rejection of intimacy (“You’re such a wonderful person/But you got problems… I’ll never touch you”) slip around an avant-funk rhythm track that earned bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis a co-writing credit on the song. Add blasts of Brian Eno’s Minimoog, and Breaking Glass is the aural equivalent of the “used future” aesthetic.

26: Time (from ‘Aladdin Sane’, 1973)

Bowie turns morbid cabaret host on Time, a song that manages to sound simultaneously debauched and despondent, Mike Garson’s stride piano setting the scene for Bowie’s tussle with an ever-shifting personification of time. No matter the form it takes – flexing “like a whore”; downing “quaaludes and red wine”; “the sniper in the brain” – time remains a mocking presence throughout this highlight among the best David Bowie songs. When Mick Ronson swoops in with a piercing guitar solo, it’s like an air-raid siren heralding the advance of old age, impossible for Bowie’s fabulously glamorous fans to outrun.

25: The Bewlay Brothers (1971)

With lyrics that defy interpretation, Hunky Dory’s closing song was hardly illuminated by Bowie himself, who, depending on his mood, would claim it to be “another vaguely anecdotal piece about my feelings about myself and my brother, or my other doppelganger”, or a nonsense collection of words designed to appeal to “the American market. They like that kind of thing.” More an abstract sonic construct than a song, it suggested that those who’d enjoyed arguably his most conventional singer-songwriter album shouldn’t get too complacent: far stranger things were to come.

24: Modern Love (1983)

With its walloping Motown beat and slick Nile Rodgers production, Modern Love – and its parent album, Let’s Dance – updated Bowie’s Young Americans-era “plastic soul” for the 80s. A decade after The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust finally made him a star, Bowie found himself with a gargantuan transatlantic success that took him to stadiums around the world. The Let’s Dance era ultimately marked a concerted shift towards producing more commercially-minded material, but Modern Love hit a sweet spot between radio-friendly sheen and Bowie’s ability to run the zeitgeist through his own filter. Twenty-nine years after its initial release, the song’s use in the cult indie flick Frances Ha ensured new generations of hipsters would find more to Bowie’s 80s output than that other cult classic, Labyrinth.

23: Where Are We Now? (2013)

Released, as his first new music in a decade, on Bowie’s 66th birthday, Where Are We Now? answered two questions: where had David Bowie gone? and: how did he feel about aging? With the astoundingly well-curated David Bowie Is exhibition two months away from opening in London’s V&A museum, Where Are We Now? made it clear that Bowie was in a reflective mood, taking stock of his legacy with lyrics that alluded to his time in Berlin in the mid-70s. Though it wouldn’t prove representative of The Next Day, the long-awaited album that followed, Where Are We Now?’s fragility would become all the more poignant three years down the line…

22: Strangers When We Meet (1995)

Originally given a skittering electro arrangement on Bowie’s 1993 soundtrack to the BBC adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha Of Suburbia, Bowie refashioned Strangers When We Meet for 1. Outside – and, if its inclusion on subsequent compilations is anything to go by, it’s this more lushly arranged version that’s seen as definitive. Though not necessarily making for a natural bedfellow among 1. Outside’s less listener-friendly material, Strangers When We Meet – whose Spencer Davis Group-inspired bassline underpins both versions – is one of those classic late-period Bowie ballads whose despondent lyrics are overcome with a deeper need for emotional connection.

21: Oh! You Pretty Things (1971)

Originally written for ex-Herman’s Hermits frontman Peter Noone (who turned it into a No.12 UK hit in 1971), Oh! You Pretty Things married the music-hall catchiness of Bowie’s self-titled debut album with lyrics that revealed his increasing development as a songwriter. Making overtures to a new generation of youths embracing gender fluidity, while also nodding to Bowie’s recurring fascination with the Übermensch (or Superman) of Nietzschean philosophy, it marked a point where Bowie began to fuse disparate ideas together seamlessly in one song.

20: Lady Grinning Soul (1973)

Pianist Mike Garson would be one of Bowie’s greatest secret weapons, a fact underlined two decades later, when he returned to the fold for the Black Tie White Noise, 1. Outside and Earthling albums. His first studio contributions came on Aladdin Sane, with stately jazzy passages that evoked both old-Hollywood glamour and the unease that rippled beneath the surface of Weimar-era Berlin. Closing Aladdin Sane, Lady Grinning Soul is often overlooked in favour of the more raucous “Ziggy Stardust goes to America” (as Bowie put it) material that preceded it, but its resigned air crawls under the skin in a way none of the album’s other tracks do, becoming one of David Bowie’s best songs for those who love it when he gets maudlin.

19: The Man Who Sold The World (1970)

Relatively overlooked when it initially appeared, frequent revisits by Bowie and other artists have led to a wholesale reappraisal of The Man Who Sold The World’s title track, elevating its status among David Bowie’s best songs. Lulu had a hit with it in 1974, but Nirvana’s stripped-back acoustic rendition, performed live on MTV Unplugged, found the song a whole new generation of fans at a time when Bowie himself was on the cusp of giving it his own radical makeover, albeit in a different direction, as part of his electro-heavy mid-90s live sets.

18: Drive-In Saturday (1973)

All doo-wop vocals and faux-chaste nostalgia, Drive-In Saturday taps into glam rock’s obsession with the 50s, though with lyrics that switched from the abstract (“Pour me out another phone”) to the prosaic (“His name was always buddy/And he’d shrug and ask to stay”), Bowie ensured it was more than a genre pastiche. Swinging close to soul music two years before he was ready to go all in on it, the song also found Bowie exploring his fascination with US culture while deconstructing everything the American dream appeared to be built on.

17: Young Americans (1975)

In which the nostalgic optimism of Drive-In Saturday has curdled into a post-Watergate cynicism, and Bowie finds himself seeking “one damn song that can make me break down and cry”. Fat chance in this landscape of hustlers and teenage pregnancies married to a Philly soul groove worked up in the city’s legendary Sigma Sound Studios (home of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records hits). Lyrically, Young Americans stands as one of the best David Bowie songs to put narrative first; musically, it signalled that the Young Americans album would not only mark a decisive departure from glam rock, but that Bowie was willing to make ever more radical transitions in pursuit of his art.

16: The Hearts Filthy Lesson (1995)

Central to Bowie’s 1. Outside album, which found him collaborating with Brian Eno for the first time since the “Berlin Trilogy” restructured rock music’s DNA in the mid-to-late-70s, The Hearts Filthy Lesson remains one of David Bowie’s best songs of the 90s. An unsettling introduction to the “Art Crimes” that fuelled the album’s fractured narrative (in which mutilated bodies became high-art sculptures celebrated by an underground scene of collectors), it channelled all the anxieties of the coming millennium, while Bowie questioned the very meaning of what art could be at the close of the 20th century.

15: Absolute Beginners (1986)

Far more enduring than the Julien Temple-directed film musical it was penned for, Absolute Beginners found Bowie setting a template for the widescreen ballads he would periodically revisit right up to I Can’t Give Everything Away, the closing track on his final album, Blackstar. Riding a soaring vocal performance tinged with melancholy, the song channels duende’s happy-sad dichotomy, offering a moment of intimacy amid the more stadium-fixated material found on 80s albums like Tonight and Never Let Me Down.

14: Rock’n’Roll Suicide (1972)

Though Bowie didn’t quite sustain a cohesive narrative across The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, he ended the album with a dramatic flourish that flattered his fanbase while romanticising the myths behind the rock-casualty burn-out. Rock’n’Roll Suicide’s impressionistic lyrics create the atmosphere, but Bowie’s exhortations to his devotees (“Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful!”) only further encouraged them to follow him in their droves – even as fame was beginning to take him so far out of reach.

13: Under Pressure (with Queen) (1981)

Though collaboration would remain a constant throughout Bowie’s career, he rarely shared a title credit with another artist. Under Pressure, however, grew out of a jam with Queen at the latter’s studio in Montreux. With Bowie and Freddie Mercury spurring each other on to deliver career-best vocal performances, the resulting track emerged as not only one of  David Bowie’s best songs of all time, but one of the best Queen songs, too, gifting the latter their first UK No.1 single since topping the charts with Bohemian Rhapsody, six years earlier.

12: Moonage Daydream (1972)

Bolstered by the full heft of The Spiders From Mars, Moonage Daydream was part real-world sexual come-on, part intergalactic fantasy seduction that embodied everything the Ziggy Stardust character stood for. An interpretation of a line drawing that Bowie scribbled in the studio (ending as “a fat megaphone type shape” with “sprays of disassociated and broken lines”, as Bowie would later recall), Mick Ronson’s guitar solo alone earns the track its place among David Bowie’s best songs. Live with the Spiders, he would extend it further into the stratosphere, earning his own spot among the world’s greatest guitarists in the process.

11: Wild Is The Wind (1976)

Recorded in homage to Nina Simone’s 1966 cover, Bowie’s take on the Oscar-nominated song originally written for the 50s movie of the same name brought the emotional turmoil of his Station To Station album to a close on a heart-rending note. With an epic vocal performance reportedly nailed in one take, Bowie immediately made the song his own while establishing himself as a vocalist with enough range and nuance to rival heroes like Elvis and Frank Sinatra. His voice would only get better from here.

10: Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise) (1974)

Even by Bowie’s theatrical standards, the Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise) suite is a startling play-within-a-song on an album more often remembered for its conventional glam rock hit, Rebel Rebel. Though Diamond Dogs carried vestiges of Bowie’s aborted plans to stage a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (in the shape of songs such as We Are The Dead and Big Brother), this atmospheric triptych was arguably more dramatic than anything he could have taken to theatres. Alluring, unsettling and despairing in equal measure, it’s desperate to be a love song even as it reduces intimacy to a transaction. Bolstered by one of Bowie’s most committed vocal performances, the suite still stands as a mini movie for the ears, a goodbye to glam, and something so powerfully evocative its events could be taking place right before your eyes.

9: Starman (1972)

One single performance alone ushers Starman into the realms of the greatest David Bowie songs. After igniting a youthquake as he pointed directly at the camera (“I had to phone someone, so I picked on you”) during a Top Of The Pops appearance aired on 6 July 1972, Bowie casually placed his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulders, and a generation of youths suddenly saw the walls of homophobic sexual repression crumbling. As their parents looked on in disapproval, Bowie, in full Ziggy Stardust regalia, unfolded the narrative of a rock’n’roll messiah come to save the world, while writing himself into history as that very individual.

8: Space Oddity (1969)

After half a decade seeking a hit with early bands like The King Bees and The Lower Third, and then trying his luck as a mod turned vaudeville-minded solo artist, Bowie finally scored with Space Oddity, which proved that the best David Bowie songs could capture the zeitgeist like no others. Released just weeks away from the 1969 Moon landing, it rocketed to No.5 in the UK. Channelling all the excitement and existential angst of the late-60s space race, plus Bowie’s own obsessions with the cosmos and the vagaries of fame (“And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear”), Space Oddity set out themes he would explore throughout his career, while also giving rock music one of its most enduring figures. Doomed to forever orbit Earth in his “tin can”, Major Tom becomes a cautionary symbol of the isolating dangers of celebrity. Bowie would check back in on him 11 years later, in Ashes To Ashes: the former intergalactic hero now a junkie “Strung out in Heaven’s high/Hitting an all-time low”.

7: Changes (1971)

Opening Bowie’s fourth album, Hunky Dory, Changes masquerades as an anthem of rebellion for young generations kicking against their parents’ outmoded ideas, but really it lays out Bowie’s entire modus operandi: turning to “face the strange” and become “a different man”, his realisation that reinvention would be his only way forward came to the fore on an album in which Bowie truly found his voice. In doing so, he gave those who followed in his wake the encouragement to find theirs.

6: Station To Station (1976)

Bowie described Station To Station as “the nearest album to a magick treatise that I’ve written”, and its title track – a radical statement of intent pulling in at over ten minutes – was full of incantatory lyrics that referenced the Kabbalah and The Stations Of The Cross amid a funk/art-rock hybrid tinged with the work of experimental German acts like Kraftwerk and Neu!. Seeking to resolve the spiritual and personal crises that threatened to pull him under at the height of his 70s excesses, Bowie discovered The Thin White Duke: a new, unforgiving persona who would point the way towards Bowie’s deliverance in Europe.

5: Sound And Vision (1977)

Effectively inventing new wave while audaciously rethinking his songwriting as a process of creating sonic tapestries, Bowie’s Low album marked a line in the sand: he’d always pushed the boundaries of his form, but across the three albums collectively recognised as his “Berlin Trilogy” – Low, “Heroes” and Lodger – Bowie, with fellow sonic deconstructivists Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, held nothing back in his attempt to entirely reconfigure the notion of what music-making could be. Deceptively simple, with its descending synth sweeps, ping-ponging lead lines and jittery rhythm section, Sound And Vision sounds permanently on the verge of collapse while coming together as more than the sum of its parts: a paean to Bowie’s creative enlightenment.

4: Blackstar (2015)

Released in November 2015, two months ahead of its parent album, Blackstar immediately served notice that some of Bowie’s best work was about to come from a late-stage creative peak. At ten minutes long, and seemingly referencing everything from religious rites to ceremonial executions, fame and the afterlife – along with Bowie’s own life, his death and the legacy he would leave behind – the song marries nervy electro with cutting-edge jazz courtesy of an ensemble led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin. While the wider public are unlikely to ever consider it his signature moment, Blackstar encapsulates a life lived as a work of art while rising above the surface subject matter of his death to unfold worlds upon worlds of creativity.

3: Life On Mars? (1971)

Amazing now to think that Life On Mars? was passed over for single release in 1971. Waiting a further two years before the strength of Bowie’s Ziggy-era fame took it to No.3 in the UK and cemented its place among David Bowie’s best songs, Life On Mars? is now, for many, the finest example of Bowie as a straight-up songwriter: an epic ballad whose impressionistic lyrics are carried aloft by Rick Wakeman’s masterful piano and Mick Ronson’s cinematic string arrangements. Written in response to Frank Sinatra’s recording of My Way, but seemingly concerned with the ennui of reality as experienced by those for whom life is a “sunken dream”, Life On Mars? continues to ask questions that can be experienced more than they can be answered.

2: “Heroes” (1977)

Bowie, Brian Eno and Tony Visconti came up with material that was both more daring and more catchy during their time at Berlin’s Hansa Studios, but for sheer emotive expression matched with sonic perfection, “Heroes” marks the towering pinnacle of their achievements. Said (perhaps apocryphally) to have been inspired by a surreptitious kiss that Bowie witnessed Visconti sharing with a lover by the Berlin Wall, “Heroes” overflowed with all the yearning in the world, propelled by Robert Fripp’s penetrating guitar line and a vocal that finds Bowie – still seeking a new lease of life following his mid-70s excesses – truly elevating himself into the pantheon of the gods.

1: Ashes To Ashes (1980)

With a meta-narrative that reaches back to his first hit, Space Oddity, a future-shaping new wave/pop crossover style that set the blueprint for the 80s, and one of his catchiest choruses matched to some of his most cryptic lyrics, Ashes To Ashes sits at the juncture where Bowie’s knack for writing perfect pop tunes meets his compulsion towards the avant-garde. The first single from the Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) album, it also became his first No.1 of the 80s and, topping our list of the best David Bowie songs, arguably remains his archetypal track.

Buy David Bowie vinyl, box sets and more at the Dig! store.

Original article: 10 January 2021

Updated: 10 January 2024

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