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Best David Bowie Songs: 25 Classics That Rewrote The Rulebook
Steve Schapiro
In Depth

Best David Bowie Songs: 25 Classics That Rewrote The 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 25 best David Bowie songs a true exploration of rock and pop music in all its guises.

25: The Bewlay Brothers (1971)

With lyrics that defy interpretation, Hunky Dorys 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. 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.

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