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That Mr. David Bowie was a great artist shouldn’t really be news to anybody, the matter having been expounded upon countless times in countless places, by everyone from trend-settlers to tights aficionados. What we tend to forget, however, is that He of the Artful Pants was first and foremost a fantastic musician. With the recent release of his 25th album, ★ (its avant-garde single!), and its accompanying somber news, Culture Trip proposes a selection of 25 songs from the Dame’s most successful period, a time when he repeatedly dominated the world of music (1969-1983), and did so across multiple genres.
The song that started it all. Released nine days before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, ‘Space Oddity’ propelled David Bowie to fame… and it isn’t very hard to understand why. A masterpiece of songwriting and production, it remains one of his most enduring hits, despite supporting Bowie’s largely underwhelming (and folk-dominated!) second album.
Following his previous album’s general lack of success (despite ‘Space Oddity’), Bowie – like many folk musicians of his day (think T.Rex) – turned towards a harder sound, inventing what would later be known as ‘glam rock’ in the process. The album, the first in a long series of critically acclaimed LPs, also saw the first appearances of his costumed personas, as he and his new wife Angie had begun garnering press for cross-dressing – something which would later earn Bowie the nickname ‘the Dame’. This song, an eerie, brooding little gem, is easily the album’s most famous, and definitely one of its best.
Released in 1971 to moderate success, Hunky Dory is now widely accepted as one of Bowie’s best albums… which, considering the considerable critical favors also garnered by most of his other works, is definitely saying something. It was the first to feature the backing band that would only a year later be known as The Spiders From Mars, and to allow guitarist Mick Ronson to showcase his unbelievable talent for arrangement. This, the album’s first single, is quite simply David Bowie’s manifesto, a foreshadowing of his coming reinventions.
What’s there to say about ‘Life On Mars?’ that hasn’t been said before? A magnificent song in every way possible, and perhaps even his finest overall, it was re-released in 1973 – like much of Bowie’s back catalogue – following the immense success of Ziggy Stardust. The arrangement, melodies, and lyrics all conspire to make this Bowie’s best reason for greatness… Not to worry, though, we’ll still go through with the rest.
The first single off of Bowie’s landmark album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, was his first hit since ‘Space Oddity’; to the extent that most people thought he hadn’t released any thing since 1969. It was showcased in a legendary performance on Top of the Pops on July 5th, 1972, which effectively launched the Ziggy Stardust persona and catapulted Bowie to a stardom he hasn’t lost since. The song displays the musician at his poppy best, and also happens to contain one of the greatest choruses ever written.
“I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you! I’m a space invader, I’ll be a rock’n’rollin bitch for you”
Sure, almost any song off the album could’ve been used instead, but we feel ‘Moonage Daydream’ is the epitome of the Ziggy Stardust persona. The sex, the bravado, and the occasional lyrical ascension combine to make this the perfect exemplar for glam rock. Little wonder that this song is one of the most important on the album and a staple of Bowie’s live shows, even after Ziggy was ‘killed’ off on July 3rd, 1973.
Though it was recorded and performed by Mott the Hoople, this song was written by none other than David Bowie, after he’d heard the band was ready to split over their lack of commercial success. And success they found! Released in July 1972 just as Ziggy Stardust was picking up steam, this single soon became glam rock’s anthem, combining dark themes of teenage disaffection (glam was, after all, built on the failures of the hippie movement) with generational brotherhood.
Recorded during the Ziggy Stardust tour and quickly released as a single in September 1972, it and ‘Starman’ became his first back-to-back hits. Not only did the song’s overt homosexuality solidify Bowie’s bisexual image (and was reportedly an answer to John Lennon comments on his cross-dressing), but its eerie, almost avant-garde chorus remains an enduring testament to the musician’s originality.
The first single off of Bowie’s next album, Aladdin Sane, and what a single it is! Written in the United States, like the rest of the LP, ‘The Jean Genie’ exemplifies the album’s characteristic ‘rougher’ sound. The persona of ‘Aladdin Sane’ itself is a development on Ziggy Stardust, described by Bowie as ‘Ziggy goes to America.’
Another single from Aladdin Sane, ‘Time’ is arguably the album’s best song and the perfect testament to what makes Bowie, well… Bowie. An anthem, sure, but always at an angle against reality – never quite going for the expected. Built around a cabaret piano line, written with incredible (though certainly peculiar) lyrics, and possessor of an ending to rival even ‘Hey Jude’, this is without doubt a very influential number.
That’s right, you read correctly! One of Lou Reed’s most famous albums, Transformer, was co-produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson (the Spiders from Mars’s lead guitarist). The glam influence is palpable – from Mick’s lush string arrangements, to the innovative (and at times silly) instrumentation – and it allowed Lou to rise from cult artist to international star. It is worth noting that both Bowie and Ronson were big fans of Lou Reed even before they became famous, something which makes this story that much more endearing.
Out with glam rock, and into… something else? Having gotten rid of Ziggy, and indeed Ziggy’s backing band, Bowie turned towards pastures new and prepared a concept album based around George Orwell’s seminal novel, 1984. Failing, unfortunately, to secure the rights for a proper adaptation, he was forced to change his plans slightly, creating a half-character for himself, ‘Halloween Jack’ (never fully acknowledged as a persona, though it certainly has all the makings of one). This song is Bowie’s famous farewell to the genre that launched him and the only glam piece on the new album: Diamond Dogs.
Like Diamond Dogs itself, there is no denying that ‘Candidate’ is something of a dark masterpiece. Another perfect showcase for Bowie’s unique sound, it also happens to be one of the man’s very best lyrical performances – and a definite argument in favor of Bowie the Poet. It should be noted that David had been using cocaine regularly since his Ziggy days and was by 1974 a steadily worsening junkie, a development that would reach its peak in the following two years. A good reason for darkening moods, then.
Young Americans marks Bowie’s definite turn towards ‘plastic soul’, a transformation that produced one of his greatest (and perhaps most underrated) albums. Back since the previous effort with his early-career producer Tony Visconti, David Bowie made sure this particular project had no persona associated with it, and focused instead on creating a sleek, recognizable, and remarkable sound. This album is further notable for its fantastic vocal harmonics, the presence of early-career Luther Vandross in the backing band (and on writing credits), and two amazing collaborations with John Lennon.
No Bowie album could be complete without some form of groundbreaking experimentation, and Young Americans sure doesn’t disappoint. While his John Lennon funk collaboration ‘Fame‘ was very successful in the charts, there is no denying that ‘Win’ proved to be the most influential over time. A musical foreshadowing both of Bowie’s Berlin years and the 1980s in general, this beautiful little gem definitely deserves to be counted among the man’s best.
1975-1976 was the year Bowie hit bottom, a year of psychotic fear spent, but mostly forgotten, in L.A. – a place he later claimed should be ‘wiped off the face of the earth‘ – and where his daily diet consisted of cocaine, milk, and red peppers. Out of the madness came his last great persona, the Thin White Duke, a debonair, hollow shell of a man (‘ice masquerading as fire‘), and Station to Station, his masterful plea for an escape. ‘Stay’ is the album’s dark funk masterpiece, driven in equal parts by the guitar heroics of Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick, and the Duke’s haunting songwriting.
The escape song itself, a call for Europe (‘the European canon is here’), this is the kind of avant-garde that will come to dominate Bowie’s Berlin output. It is nonetheless, first and foremost, a roller-coaster of a song, more than ten minutes long and split into two parts: a brooding, languorous first half – symbol of all he tries to get away from – and an ecstatic second half… the escape proper.
Low, the first album from Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, completes Bowie’s transition into art rock. Recorded in late 1976 in both France and West Berlin, and released in early 1977, it is the first of many to feature Brian Eno. This song perfectly epitomizes the LP’s first half, a somewhat standard song transformed by a quirky and innovative production – heavily influenced by Krautrock – and written by Bowie as a plea to his estranged wife, Angela.
Low’s second half is where the album’s real fame comes from, and it’s easy to understand why. Composed of a haunting, experimental, and instrumental set of four tracks, the result was uniquely beautiful and highly emotional, a sound that definitely influenced much of the music that came after (post-punk being the obvious example).
While in Berlin, David Bowie collaborated with long-time friend Iggy Pop on two of his albums, producing and co-writing The Idiot and Lust for Life. These are now widely considered to be Pop’s best, and they were hugely influential over the next generation of musicians – both for their avant-garde style and the raw power of Iggy’s delivery. This single in particular was re-recorded and made famous by Bowie in 1983, and remains an enduring example of the two’s brilliant collaborations.
The most famous song off of Bowie’s most famous Berlin album, and an enduring classic, this song epitomizes the heights achieved during his time on the continent. It is a deceptively simple song, one that hides the complex production headed by Eno and Visconti in an all-engrossing feeling of hope. Now you understand why Bowie needed to escape to Berlin.
Another testament to his versatility, ‘The Secret Life of Arabia’ represents the best of 1977 Bowie. Built on the groove of his funk years and adding the unique sound of his Berlin era, it manages to foreshadow the musician’s move towards dance (one that would arrive with the 1980s). It is certainly a masterpiece of its genre, and worth more than a passing listen.
Although a great critical success, the Berlin Trilogy (and particularly 1979’s Lodger) failed to provide any meaningful commercial hit. In an attempt to remedy the situation, Bowie moved again, this time to New York, transposing his Berlin band with the explicit desire to regain commercial standing. The result, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), turned out to be the perfect balance between pop and experimentation, as well as a a huge success – it is often considered Bowie’s last great album. Its majestic lead single (and seminal music video), ‘Ashes to Ashes’, illustrates the new balance perfectly.
Co-written with legendary producer Giorgio Moroder, this single proved to be Bowie’s first move towards dancier music and was recorded specifically for the 1982 film Cat People. Combining a brooding, almost goth atmosphere with harder dance-rock, it is another fantastic example of Bowie’s capacity for collaboration. It was nonetheless overshadowed that year – and understandably so – by the much-too-famous ‘Under Pressure‘, recorded with Queen.
Super-stardom, of a kind not reached since his Ziggy days, eventually found Bowie again on his next album, Let’s Dance. Produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and recorded with blues guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan, this LP sees Bowie shed the avant-garde for dance-rock, the incredible success of which surprised even him. It is, in retrospect, probably the moment fashions of the day finally caught up with him… but we’re certainly not complaining!
David Bowie passed away on Jan. 10, 2016 at the age of 69, after an 18 months battle with cancer.