The Most Essential David Bowie tracks
David Bowie's death was tragically announced this morning. Here are 20 of his most essential
1. BLACK COUNTRY ROCK (1970)
970 was a productive start to the decade for Bowie. He was on the cusp of perfecting 'Ziggy' and flitting between acoustic and electric sounds. This track defines his brief flirtation with the blues-rock genre. Visconti-produced and T-Rex inspired, in Bowie's typical, insular style at the heart of this song is an in-joke: a piercing vibrato, sung in mocking reference to Marc Bolan but in fact replacing place of forgotten lyrics. Which ones, we’ll never know.
2. ANDY WARHOL (1971)
Taken from his resolutely dark pop album, Hunky Dory, this pared-down ode to the Sixties artist begins with a disagreement between Bowie and his producer, Ken Scott, over the pronunciation of “Warhol”. Unresolved, Bowie collapses into laughter and immediately segues into a flamenco riff, rolling and growling his words in mock-praise of the artist. Quite understandably, Warhol despised the song for making fun of him.
3. LIFE ON MARS (1971)
It truly is Bowie at his surrealist, anti-romantic best. In the scribbled note that accompanied its release in 1971, Bowie described the song "a sensitive young girl’s reaction to... songs like My Way, films like Love Story and newspapers”, later amended to "reaction to... The Media". The narrative, (and there is a one, albeit tumbling and non-sensical), is second only to the tune: a piano-led, show tune mimicking the trajectory of new-found fame.
4. MOONAGE DAYDREAM (1972)
Opening with the immortal/oddball line “I’m an alligator”, this trilling glam-rock stomp of a song was first recorded by Bowie under the stage name, Arnold Corns. A year later it appeared on the 1972 album, Ziggy Stardust, and introduces his audience to the rise, fall and rapid obsolescence of his alien messiah sent down to save the world in five years. In the context of the album, this makes perfect sense.
5. FAME (1975/1990)
Self-referential wheeze or post-modern pop? Well, both really, since it was written and recorded with mid-Seventies collaborator John Lennon and touches on a subject he’s familiar with. Inspired by a twinkling riff written by guitarist Carlos Alomar this was first released in 1975 to huge success. Bowie re-released it in 1990 to promote his Sound and Vision tour to further praise and roped in Gus Van Sant for the video – a fitting if self-aggrandizing montage of his previous videos.
6. WILD IS THE WIND (1976)
One of many Bowie songs led by a saxophone, this song was written for Johnny Mathis in 1957 and covered by Nina Simone before Bowie got his psych-pop hand on it in 1976. It’s a dreamy, Blakeian tune of love gained and lost which has taken on an almost-religious significance in modern culture. Unsurprisingly, it’s a favourite at funerals. (
7. SOUND AND VISION (1977)
Sung in Bowie’s typically late Seventies, laconic style, this paranoid critique of modern technology was a departure for glam-rock Bowie. A punch of a song at the start of Low (produced by Tony Visconti) it showed Bowie entering a new, dispassionate style which would divide his listeners but, with its liberal use of synthesisers, also cement his status as a trailblazer of the electronica
8. HEROES/HELDEN (1977)
A product of Berlin and nod to German group Neu, when Bowie released this late Seventies krautrock-inspired track, written with Brian Eno, it was met with mediocre success. Nowadays, it’s regarded as one of his best songs although the part English, part German version, Helden, is far superior to the English original if only because he proved that German can be sexy
9. SENSE OF DOUBT (1977)
An offbeat choice but one that resonates in modern electro, psych-rock. Formed almost entirely of one descending four-note piano motif and a sharp, horror-film siren, it was used to great effect in the German filmChristiane F (in which Bowie has a brief but key cameo) to aptly soundtrack the protagonist’s descent into heroine addiction.
10. SPACE ODDITY (1969)
It all begins here, a strung-out, shape-shifting epic of alienation. In 2013, the song was covered by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who recorded the song while aboard the International Space Station
11. THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD (1970)
A brooding, mysterious ballad of worlds within worlds, driven by one of the weirdest guitar riffs in pop history.
12. THE JEAN GENIE (1972)
Glam rock perfection: a chugging cut up paean to Iggy Pop’s outsider swagger.
13. YOUNG AMERICANS (1975)
Bowie gets his groove on for saxophonic stab of smooth, syncopated US soul.
14. BLACKSTAR (2015)
Venturing once more into the outer limits of pop, Blackstar is a gorgeously inscrutable avant jazz sci-fi torch song, all slippery drum’n’bass rhythm, two-note tonal melody with hints of Gregorian chant, shifting time signatures, churchy organ and spaced out wandering sax - like Ornette Colman on a moonwalk.
15 ASHES TO ASHES (1980)
The return of Bowie’s lost astronaut in self-referential off-beat epic, its innate peculiarity counterbalanced by pinging hooks, lyrical memes and melodies as catchy as the common cold.
16 CHINA GIRL (1983)
Bowie smartens up for the 80s with Nile Rodgers superslick remake of an old Iggy Pop / Bowie emotional addiction anthem, featuring cheesily brilliant oriental hookline.
17 BRING ME THE DISCO KING (2003)
A jazztastic workout from Bowie’s 2003 album, Reality, with Mike Garson’s eloquent piano framing Bowie’s poised vocal. A song of escape from a confining past, Bowie sings “let me disappear”. And then he did - for ten whole year.
18 THE NEXT DAY (2013)
The title track from Bowie's first album after a decade away opens with a snare slam and see-saw guitar riff appropriated from Fashion but ramped up with a Sonic Youth attack. Imagistic lyrics conjure a fallen idol betrayed and punished by “the gormless and baying crowd” who “can’t get enough of that doomsday song”. “Here I am, not quite dying,” chants Bowie, while his band punch and howl
19 WHERE ARE WE NOW (2013)
Lush, stately, beautifully strange, weaving resonant piano chords, decaying synths and echoing drums around a simple chord progression and a weary, tenderly understated, quietly defiant vocal, David Bowie’s elegiac most recent single may be the most surprising, perfect and welcome comeback in rock history.