David Bowie left us with a wealth of classic songs—hit singles & deep album cuts alike. But when you tally up his most classic records, it's remarkable to see how almost all of them were major hits (either upon initial or re-release). Of the list that follows, only two didn't make the Top 20 in either the UK or US ("Changes" & "Ziggy Stardust")—& those two songs are actually better-known than many of the other songs that were hits.
For this list, I left out any collaborations, such as Bowie & Queen's classic "Under Pressure," for I wanted these songs to represent 100% Bowie compositions. Likewise, I left out Bowie covers, such as his versions of The Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend The Night Together," Eddie Floyd's "Knock On Wood," or Bruce Springsteen's "It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City." Finally, I chose songs in the versions that Bowie himself recorded; thus, a song like "All The Young Dudes" didn't make the list because, although the famous Mott The Hoople version is phenomenal, Bowie's own solo version on it is less than stunning.
These are songs that represent Bowie the singer & Bowie the songwriter, his own unique style as expressed through sound & vision.
& there's no better place to begin than—
10. "Sound & Vision" (Low, 1977; #3 UK, #69 US).
David Bowie's manifesto for his career—a true artist, working in sound & vision. Appropriately, the song finds him at the forefront of cutting-edge art rock, with an assist from muse/co-conspirator Brian Eno. It is a rich yet textured array of funky electronic sounds that seem to be powered by a lovely mechanical hiss that sounds like a factory engine releasing steam. For me, it is this sound that makes the record, a milestone where man vs. machine became not just about computers & outer space, but music & our inner-spaces. All of this gives way to a small set of elusive, brittle lyrics that seem to hide as much as they reveal. Such is the artistic process, & no song summed it up better—at least for the artist who was David Bowie.
9. "Modern Love" (Let's Dance, 1983; #2 UK, #14 US).
For all of the styles & genres that Bowie embraced—rock, pop, show tunes, glam, soul, art-rock, electronic, & countless others—"Modern Love" is the closest he ever came to gospel. The song stands out as the most exciting track out of an overrated "comeback" album that effortlessly builds off of its own energy like the finest church music. It's at once a funky '80s dance tune & an ancient call-&-response spiritual that uses the spirit of sacred music to power a song about secular love. To do so is well & good, but the song works because it simply sounds so infectious. It's one of those rare dance songs—like Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons' "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)" or ABBA's "Dancing Queen"—that has the power to pull you out of whatever context may have initially surrounded it—& onto the dance floor.
8. "Changes" (Hunky Dory, 1972; #49 UK [2016 re-release], #41 US [1975 re-release]).
If "Sound & Vision" was Bowie's artistic manifesto, then "Changes" was his initial statement of purpose, a portrait of the artist as a young kook. Looking out at on the brink of the 1970s, it is tempting to say that it was Bowie who most saw the onslaught of styles & conflicts that were to come in popular music—or, perhaps, that he was the most prepared to deal with them. Thus, by the decade's end, he was the artist who had best weathered it all (with the possible exception of fellow iconoclast Neil Young) in terms of artistic consistency & commercial appeal. Very few could have weathered hard rock & disco so well, let alone punk & the postpunk music that was soon to be known as New Wave. "Changes" seems to posit that in this river of pop music, the only constant is change. Is there any other reason why it has become so engrained as a classic rock anthem despite never being much of a hit?
7. "Rebel Rebel" (Diamond Dogs, 1974; #5 UK, #64 US).
If "Changes" is a classic rock standard in hindsight, "Rebel Rebel" seemed to be one from the moment it was conceived. Released as part of Bowie's messy last stand of late-glam, Diamond Dogs, "Rebel Rebel" was everything that they album which contained it was not: Sharp, clear, & an unabashed success. The guitar riff sounds like it was copped out of Keith Richards' unconscious & was applied to Bowie's slickest set of androgynous lyrics. But most important of all, it has a killer hook for a chorus, driven endlessly forward by that glorious backbeat. Once when I was in a guitar shop, I heard someone testing out a guitar & stack rig with its hook, & it cut through all of the watered-down Zeppelin & Metallica riffs that were playing around it, as though it would be stupid for a decent guitarist to ever play anything else.
6. "Ziggy Stardust" (The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, 1972; Album Track).
How to best encapsulate the Ziggy Stardust phenomenon? "Five Years" has that exciting build, "Moorage Daydream" has better production values, "Rock & Roll Suicide" has more ambition, & "Lady Stardust" may just be the most beautiful one of them all. But "Ziggy Stardust" has the whole package—summing up the entire project into a little over 3 minutes of space age rock music. Built around a jagged riff that could only be described as Bowie-esque, the music evokes hard rock & heavy metal without ever quite falling victim into it, with a strange set of lyrics that appear to be more straightforward than they actually are. Scattered throughout are our most graphic fleeting glimpses of Ziggy himself, playing left-handed guitar, screwed-up eyes & screwed down hair, & best of all, making love with his ego. Was this supposed to be a send-up of Hendrix? T. Rex? Iggy? Listening it to today, it sounds like all of them combined, consciously & convincingly, until all that can be seen clearly is the legend of Ziggy Stardust—or rather, David Bowie.
5. "Young Americans" (Young Americans, 1975; #18 UK, #28 US).
"Young Americans" stands in a long tradition of rock & roll—not just in terms of its conception as a soul record, but as a soul record that should have been a much bigger hit. In the latter regard, it stands in good company—The Five Satins' "In The Still Of The Night" (#24 US Pop), Marvin Gaye's "A Change Is Gonna Come" (#31 US Pop), & Ike & Tina Turner's "River Deep—Mountain High" (#88 US Pop)—for, like those other records, listening to its grooves doesn't explain how it was not a #1 (let alone Top 10) pop hit. For all of the ink that has been spilled about Bowie being a chameleon of rock music, I think I better word might be "student"—he truly studied & understood the music the way few had before or after him, like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen. "Young Americans" has all of the hallmarks of a bristling soul record—a funk beat, a sharp tune, great call-&-response vocals—plus a handful of Bowie's own signature touches—a cop of the "I heard the news today" line from The Beatles' "A Day In The Life" & a surprise shout-out to the recently-resigned Richard Nixon. & just when you think it can't get any better, check out the live version he sang on Dick Cavett's show here.
4. "Ashes To Ashes" (Scary Monsters (& Super Creeps), 1980; #1 UK, #101 US).
If "Young Americans" was the rare breed of a soul song that should have been a bigger hit, "Ashes To Ashes" was the even rarer breed of a #1 UK hit that failed to make the US Top 100 entirely. (Other notable examples include The Shadows' "Apache," Elvis Presley's "Wooden Heart", & The Rolling Stones' "Little Red Rooster.") At least part of the reason for it is because, even in the realm of Bowie, it is utterly bizarre. It is also hauntingly beautiful. Built around a shimmering, funky hook that sounds like it is made out of both water & glass, "Ashes To Ashes" continues the tale of Major Tom from Bowie's "Space Oddity," bringing the astronaut back down to earth & into an underworld of drug addiction, sung in a weird falsetto with a deadpan Greek chorus underfoot. Throw this together with the most expensive music video made up to that point & you have a true, bizarre, truly bizarre classic that hasn't aged a minute—if only because it doesn't sound like anything else.
3. "Space Oddity" (David Bowie, 1969; #1 UK [1975 re-release], #15 US [1973 re-release]).
David Bowie was 22 when he released his first hit single after a half-decade of toiling under non-hits & failed projects. It is rare that an artist's breakthrough hit can remain a high-water mark for a creative career to follow, but if anyone can defy the odds, it's David Bowie. "Space Oddity" is at once effortless & highly sophisticated, blending psychedelic rock & mainstream pop over a multi-part saga with a drawn-out & involved narrative. It seems as though nothing is compromised—the long, endless fade-in of an acoustic guitar, the wry cleverness of the countdown verse, the shifts back & forth from the brooding, tension-filled narrative sections & the bouncy, hand-clapping bridges, the utter sadness of the melody combined with the sheer wonder of the lyric. By the end, the song is soaring, & then suddenly lost, just like Major Tom himself. But between his disappearance in "Space Oddity" & his reappearance in "Ashes To Ashes," Bowie would chart the course of his own journey as a space-aged rock & roll legend.
2. "Heroes" ("Heroes", 1977; #12 UK [2016 re-release]).
Of all the wonderful film moments to incorporate a David Bowie song (& there are lots & lots of them), the one that stands out the most for me is the use of "Heroes" in 2012's The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. In it, Emma Watson's Sam asks her stepbrother to blast a song with which they are unfamiliar—spoiler alert: it's "Heroes"—as she stands on the back of a pickup truck going through a tunnel. When the film characters revisit the song & tunnel towards the end of the film, lead character Logan Lerman's Charlie sums up the feeling of the song in three words: "We are infinite." This is the sound of "Heroes," a glorious onslaught of guitars & synthesizers that both fades in & out, like it continues indefinitely in some other realm. But what carries it all is Bowie's most passionate reading of the lyric, wringing all of the beauty from the lyric & the melody. It acknowledges the ultimate potential of humanity ("We can be heroes…") as well as its frail limits ("…just for one day"). Sewn together with an allegorical tale of love, loss, & the Berlin Wall, "Heroes" is easily the most powerful song Bowie ever recorded.
1. "Life On Mars?" (Hunky Dory, 1971; #3 UK).
It's probably appropriate that every song from #6 on up is about space beings or space travel—& the one song that isn't ("Heroes") sounds like it was recorded in an intergalactic vortex. Living in the space age has greatly influenced David Bowie's entire career & so it comes as no surprise that his greatest song is called "Life On Mars?" More than any other song he would perform, "Life On Mars?" contains all of the elements that makes Bowie so brilliant: It's a cinematic, sweeping epic swirling with surreal lyrics & music that builds from an unsuspecting show tune ballad into an avalanche of cascading freaks & string. Sailors fight in the dancehall, cavemen in the best-selling show, lawmen beating up the wrong guy; if we are to take the singer at his word, it is in part a disjointed paean to "My mother, my dog, & clowns." The music is no less diverse, with music-hall piano growing into a symphony, slithering violins, searing electric guitar, rollicking bass, thundering drums, & atmospheric synthesizers—it all adds up to an orchestra playing on a careening a pirate ship. In a career that summoned countless distinct worlds, "Life On Mars?" is the rare David Bowie song that seems to capture them all. & if anything else, the song—as well as the catalog it caps—proved that the answer to the title was a resounding YES.