Long live the King!
Celebrating the life of a legend, today marks the two year anniversary since the passing of David Bowie. An artist adored by many, his death sent shockwaves through the heart of the music community. Regardless of whether you were a die hard fan, a casual listener, or somewhat of a music connoisseur who appreciated the uncompromising creativity Bowie brought to the table, it hit you like a bullet, quick and unexpected.
Looking back at his stellar musical catalogue, we decided to list our favourite tracks from the man with many faces. Some you may have expected to see, some perhaps not. But can you really go wrong with any David Bowie record? There may have been a few songs he himself didn’t like – or even remembered recording – but it’s rare you hear anyone bad mouth anything the Brixton-born singer/songwriter/producer/actor put his name to.
So, without further ado, here’s 15 of the best David Bowie songs:
During a period that saw Bowie working with producer extraordinaire – and overall musical genius – Nile Rodgers, this was the most commercially successful period of his career. Released in 1983 and co-produced with Rodgers, the album from which this song gets its name went platinum in both the UK and U.S. Channelling a more poppy side of Bowie, it was a floor filler that inspired a generation to get out and dance – it even later influenced Puff Daddy and Ma$e when they reworked it into the hit “Been Around the World”.
Just 22-years-old when he released his “Space Oddity” masterpiece, it became his first single to chart when released in 1969 and then became his first UK number one single when it was reissued in 1975. A fictional tale about an astronaut by the name of Major Tom, it went on to be one of four Bowie songs to be included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. It also received an Ivor Novello award for originality in 1970. An acoustic beauty, this is Bowie at his absolute best.
A collaboration with John Lennon and Carlos Alomar, “Fame” wasn’t a song born out of an initial idea, it just happened by chance. Recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York during a dark period for Bowie, the song channeled the malice he had for then management group, Mainman. Embroiled in a power struggle that would eventually see him sever ties with Mainman, this is one of those Bowie tracks that you just can’t help but sing along to – it’s also a track that has been sampled by half of the Hip Hop community.
Probably one of the most memorable David Bowie records, “Heroes”, while sad, is one of those uplifting numbers that gets deep down into the foot of your soul and spurs on an enthusiastic urge to sing the lyrics at the top of your voice. Written after spotting a couple romantically embracing under the Berlin Wall, with “Heroes” Bowie challenged the notion that he kept emotion and matters of the heart at arms length. This was Bowie more human than he’d ever been up until this point. Often used to score sporting events, one of its most memorable appearances however was during the closing scene of the Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman movie The Replacements.
“Life on Mars?”
Hunky Dory remains one of Bowie’s most celebrated albums. And never has his overly theatrical intentions been represented so perfectly than on one of its singles, “Life on Mars”. Written as a reaction to Paul Anka/Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, it’s a song full of wailing that builds with vigour as the track progresses. The lonely piano that is later joined by a soaring string section adds a welcomed touch of Broadway to it. Far from a straightforward narrative, it’s essentially a song about a girl unhappy with the reality of her own life. She’s told there is life elsewhere but she can’t access it. So, is there life on Mars?
“Under Pressure” w/ Queen
Many of today’s youth might recognise this because it’s the very same song that Vanilla Ice sampled for his one big hit, “Ice Ice Baby”, back in 1990. But it doesn’t matter what song samples it, or how many people recreate John Decan’s simple yet earth shatteringly effective bass line, it’ll only ever be a Queen and David Bowie song. It’s artistry in its finest form. A coming together of musical giants to battle a series of metaphorical prison walls, the pressures of the world might be real but the strength and comfort in both Freddie Mercury’s and David Bowie’s voices make these obstacles seem so insignificant.
One of Bowie’s final songs, the album from which “Blackstar” got its title was the singer’s farewell to the world. Making all the more sense when listening to it following his passing, the album hinted at death throughout while its lead single didn’t really point towards this – although the lyrics “Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried,” potentiality could have referred to his own death and not the astronaut the song builds its story around. Experimenting with a new sound that felt rich in euphoria, the futuristically abstract cocktail Bowie offered his listeners proved he was brimming with genius until his very last breath.
With the New Romanticism movement in full swing in the UK during the late seventies/early eighties, this song was Bowie’s dig at fashion for being too conformist and not very accepting of those not a part of the ‘cool club’. Also having a pop at Gary Numan for his sluggish but successful “Cars”, the slowed down tempo of “Fashion” – while initially created to mock – works incredibly well and draws influence from progressive reggae and is layered with a superb metallic guitar riff provided courtesy of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp.
If you don’t have “Changes” in your list of favourite songs by David Bowie then you have to ask yourself: are you a real fan? The unofficial theme song for Bowie’s career, it deals with reinvention and alludes to his many transformations that were yet to come. His chameleon-like nature took centre stage in what felt like an artistic declaration standing up for change. Flexing his unique vocal style, it was at this point he stepped out of Anthony Newley’s velvet loafers and into his own shoes.
While “Rebel Rebel” is a glam rock classic that played like a Rolling Stones punk rock song, it’s often said that this was actually Bowie bidding farewell to glam rock. Whether it was or it wasn’t what is known is that Bowie playing lead guitar on this one was absolutely the right decision. With an androgynous undertone, Bowie sings: “You got your mother in a whirl/ She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” This is yet another Bowie song that can’t ever not be discussed when listing his greatest musical moments.
“The Man Who Sold the World”
Easily one of Bowie’s most haunting offerings, the opening guitar riff echoes through space and time alerting listeners to the power psychedelic musical arrangements have over the soul. Inspiring one of music’s finest covers, the way in which Kurt Cobain sang it during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged will be talked about for generations. Aside from the instrumental backing on “The Man Who Sold the World”, one of the defining factors of the song is the way in which Bowie sings it. Like a searching serpent, he hisses his way through the track bending his vocals with the twists and turns of the backdrop.
Fusing a pinch of glam rock with unfiltered soul of the purest form, Bowie’s Young Americans album is arguably his best. On the title track he paints his impression of America and its social climate – he even references Nixon, who had resigned from his post as President of the United States two days prior to the song being recorded following the Watergate scandal. At times singing with an Elvis Presley-type vocal inflection, Bowie dips in and out of a variety of styles when delivering his vocals – that by the way were arranged with a young Luther Vandross – over a triumphant sax and some glorious background singing.
Inspired in part by Little Richard – the back and forth lyrics at least – “Modern Love” is another colourful result of Bowie’s work with Nile Rodgers. The song feels like it’s floating about a foot off the ground. It’s weightless. It’s gorgeous. It stockpiles good vibes like there’s an apocalypse on the horizon. Rich in flavour, it’s a superb song to have in the bank anchoring the pop side of his illustrious career. DJs, play this at a wedding and you’ll have guests buying you drinks for the rest of the night.
“Hey man!” A ferociously memorable way to start a track, “Suffragette City” is rock ‘n’ roll caught in a spin cycle of ambiguity that focuses on sex. Is he abandoning his friend for a quickie? Is he telling his male lover that he’s reverting back to having sex with females? Is this Ziggy Stardust telling those in his band he’s involved with that he’s more interested in groupies now? There’s so many ways to interpret this one. Over a hotbed of screaming guitars and rapid-fire drums, pulses get to racing on this three and a half minute enigmatic wonder.
“Sound and Vision”
You’d be forgiven for listening to the first two minutes of “Sound and Vision” and thinking you were listening to the end credits scene of a movie with a happy ending. Instrumentally dominant up until David Bowie hop, skips and jumps into the frame with some truly infectious singing that manipulates the music away from just being a sound and instead to a progressive feeling, it’s hypnotic. And while admittedly it features some pretty cryptic lyrical content it actually doesn’t matter. Music is open to interpretation in so many different ways and Bowie knew that and because of that “Sound and Vision” was born.