O.K.- how do you limit the great David Bowie down to his best five songs? Doing so may have been even more difficult that it was with the Clash. Bowie is a musical and stylistic chameleon, not just changing genres numerous times, but pioneering them. Though his solo debut was in 1967 and he’s released plenty of albums of varying quality over the past 30 years I’d like to focus on what I consider the most important part of his musical career which begins with his first major hit in 1969 with “Space Oddity” through 1983’s album “Let’s Dance”, where he achieved his greatest commercial pop success- at least in America.
Though “Space Oddity” is a monumental song and certainly one of his best, capturing the zeitgeist of space travel and the moon landing in the late 60’s and launching Bowie’s first in a series of many different characters with Major Tom. But it still doesn’t crack my top 5. The three singles taken from “Let’s Dance”- the title cut, “China Girl” and my favorite “Modern Love”- all massive pop radio and MTV hits at the time, don’t crack the top five either. That shows you the strength of Bowie’s catalog. Many other perfect Bowie tracks including what many consider to be Bowie’s signature song “Changes” from “Hunky Dory” along with other big hits like “Ziggy Stardust” and “Starman” (off of “Ziggy”), “Jean Genie” from “Aladdin Sane”, “Rebel Rebel” from “Diamond Dogs”, the perfect title cut from “Young Americans” as well as massive #1 hit “Fame”, “Golden Years” and “TVC-15” from “Station To Station” and “Ashes To Ashes” and “Fashion” from “Scary Monsters” all just miss the cut as well. Plenty of deeper album cuts that I love just as much as the above singles were left on the cutting room floor as well like “Queen Bitch” and “Oh, You Pretty Things” from my favorite Bowie album “Hunky Dory”, “Moonage Daydream” from “Ziggy”, “Panic In Detroit” and “Cracked Actor” from “Aladdin Sane”, “Always Crashing The Same Car” and “The Sound Of Breaking Glass” from “Low” and “The Boys Keep Swinging” from “Lodger”.
So where does that leave me? My first choice is beautiful & strange surrealistic piano ballad “Life On Mars?”, which has been called a cross between a broadway musical number and a Salvador Dali painting. The track was released as a single from the “Hunky Dory” album in 1971, reaching only #55 on the British pop charts, but has endured as a Bowie classic and shows Bowie stretching the parameters of a singer-songwriter and maintaining a perfect balance between accessibility and utter weirdness.
My second choice is from the following year’s “Ziggy Stardust”, probably still Bowie’s career defining album. Though I love the title track nearly as much, single “Suffragette City” just slays me. Along with possibly “Rebel Rebel”, it contains more swagger and rocks harder than any other single Bowie track. I’ve probably heard “Suffragette City” over a thousand times at this point but I still never change the dial when it comes on and it never fails to get my blood pumping.
Reluctantly, I have to skip over Bowie’s last two glam rock-era albums, 1973’s “Aladdin Sane” and 1974’s Orwellian apocalyptic concept album “Diamond Dogs”, as well as Bowie’s foray into plastic soul with 1975’s “Young Americans”, great albums all, to get to my next cut- the twelve minute title cut to 1976’s “Station To Station”. This album was the vehicle for Bowie’s last great character, the thin White Duke, and was a transitional album between Bowie’s soul phase and his Berlin Trilogy. “Station To Station” was said to be fueled by rampant cocaine usage, symptomatic of both the decadence and the paranoia heard on the album. Bowie took the American soul and funk music of the previous years “Young Americans” and developed them further, combining those sounds with German Krautrock of bands like Can, Faust & Neu!, along with both American and Euro disco gaining increasing popularity in the mid 70’s. “Station To Station” leads off the album and is over ten minutes long, quite a bold move. It is probably the single biggest influence on the music Bowie made throughout the rest of the seventies and is my choice for Bowie’s greatest epic.
Now on to Bowie’s famed Berlin trilogy, made up of albums “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”, recorded and released between 1977 and 1979 and worked on by Bowie in Berlin, Germany while collaborating with famed producer Brian Eno. All three albums, particularly “Low” began to focus on minimalistic, ambient electronic music, heavily featuring synthesizers and would all be massively influential and what would become known as techno music, particularly the IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) aspect of techno. The entire second side of “Low” was made up of all instrumental song fragments which has little in common with the rock music Bowie had made on prior albums. Even so Bowie managed a top 5 (in Britain) pop hit with the lead single “Sound And Vision”. It’s my favorite track on that nearly perfect first side of “Low” and shows the genius of Bowie and Eno that they would combine the the withdrawn, electronic minimalist music and still somehow create a catchy three minute pop single out of those elements.
The best known track of Bowie’s Berlin era is by far the track “Heroes” from the album of the same name. Though six and a half minutes long, the track was released as a singles, and though it didn’t chart highly at the time, it has since grown in stature to the point where it’s become one of Bowie’s most well-known and career defining cuts, along with “Changes”, “Space Oddity” and probably “Ziggy”. DEspite its nearly epic length “Heroes” sounds like a single and is much more radio ready than a track like “Station To Station”. It’s about two lovers meeting on the west side of the Berlin Wall, which ups the goose bump factor even further. It was recently played during the 2012 summer olympics and featured prominently in influential film “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower”, a millennial touchstone, so if anything “Heroes” is likely to become an even bigger deal in the future.
So what do you think of my choices? What are your favorite Bowie cuts? Is there anything that killed you that I didn’t include?
LIFE ON MARS? (1971) FROM “HUNKY DORY”
Buy Life On Mars? Amazon
SUFFRAGETTE CITY (1972) FROM “THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS”
Buy Suffragette City (2012 – Remaster) Amazon
STATION TO STATION (1976) FROM “STATION TO STATION”
Buy Station To Station (1999 Digital Remaster) Amazon
SOUND AND VISION (1977) FROM “LOW”
Buy Sound and Vision (1999 – Remaster) Amazon
HEROES (1977) FROM “HEROES”
Buy Heroes (1999 Digital Remaster) Amazon