Original artwork by Cap Blackard. Prints and other versions available here.
Top Songs is a feature in which we definitively handpick the very best songs in an artist or band’s catalog. Sounds simple, right? Oh, if only.
It’s no exaggeration to say that 2016 rose and set with David Bowie. The year began, in a sense, with both a birth and a death — the jubilation of welcoming a new album soon blanketed by a sense of profound cosmic loss. A week ago, the year expired in another heap of accolades and reflections with a burgeoning constellation of blackstars ready to shoulder the galaxy. In between, the gifts he left us helped us negotiate a year that for all it gave seemed to take a lot more. With ★ on the turntable, we sought out meanings and narratives far more numinous and transcendent than #2016Sucks. We examined the relationships between art, artist, and mortality not in terms of ashes to ashes, dust to dust but “Ashes to Ashes”, Stardust to stardust.
As it turns out, 2017 also seems poised to be a year in which Bowie’s name remains on the tip of our tongues. This very morning, what would have been his 70th birthday, a new David Bowie EP and video beamed down from the ★ sessions. That’s how you know someone’s an icon — we still celebrate their birthdays after they’ve stopped having them. And to that party, along with some smiles and tears, we’re bringing our list of the 70 Bowie songs from across his entire catalog that best remind us that some stars shine a bit brighter than others and never show any signs of burning out.
Happy birthday to our eternal Starman.
It’s hard to believe that anyone other than the most die-hard Bowie followers has spent more than a few minutes revisiting Hours; however, if you wager that you have a spare 4:04 to allocate, “Seven” won’t be time ill spent. A gently strummed reminder that all we have is now, the song repeats, “I have seven days to live my life or seven ways to die.” It’s a lyric that resonates all the more given what we know about Bowie’s last days on our planet. –Matt Melis
Bowiest Lyric: “The Gods forgot they made me/ So I forget them, too”
69. “I Can’t Read”
Tin Machine (1989)
While Tin Machine now feels more like a footnote than the footprint Bowie intended, “I Can’t Read” remains worth peeling open when the doldrums set in. The cut captures that miserable, helpless feeling that accompanies looking at the world and throwing one’s hands skyward in futility. Whether you’re an icon who just wanted to blend into a rock and roll band or an American aghast at your President-elect’s latest dunderheaded Tweet, some days you “just can’t read shit anymore.” –Matt Melis
Bowiest Lyric: “I don’t care which shadow gets me/ All I got is someone’s face”
68. “Let Me Sleep Beside You”
The World of David Bowie (1970)
This is the track that established Bowie’s relationship with longtime producer Tony Visconti, a song that would lay the groundwork for one of the most fruitful producer-artist relationships in rock history. The two daub up the prototypical come-on track with moody strings and lusty charisma, Bowie vocally translating a primitive want into something surreally captivating. The summer of love looks good on David. –Lior Phillips
Bowiest Lyric: “Child, you’re a woman now, your heart and soul are free/ I will boldly light that lamp and we shall walk together.”
67. “The Jean Genie”
Aladdin Sane (1973)
Bowie pulled from numerous inspirations when writing, but few songs are as rich of a smorgasbord as “The Jean Genie”. Aladdin Sane’s lead single snatched at its inspirations with greedy hands. He wrote the song to amuse Andy Warhol’s Bad actress and model Cyrinda Foxe. The lyrics’ protagonist mirrors Iggy Pop. The title goofs with author Jean Genet’s name. The music itself treads all over Americana styles, leaning into The Yardbirds-style R&B riff, the country rock guitar solo, the heavy harmonica flourishes. Bowie, once again, proved himself to be a masterful mix-and-matcher. –Nina Corcoran
Bowiest Lyric: “He says he’s a beautician and sells you nutrition/ And keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear”
66. “I’m Afraid of Americans”
Many aging rock stars may have been sunk by toying with industrial electronic or having a song feature in the Showgirls soundtrack, but David Bowie excels in even the most theoretically ill-fitting suits, looking sleek and charming. He’s telling tales of humans in ruin, of futility and idealism, and while the original version that appeared in the schlocky midnight movie was afraid of “the animals,” the eventual final take changed it to “Americans,” an electro-crunchy slab of sardonic delight. The title is a picture-perfect distillation of what it means to live in this world. –Lior Phillips
Bowiest Lyric: “Nobody needs anyone/ They don’t even just pretend … I’m afraid of the world/ I’m afraid I can’t help it/ I’m afraid I can’t”
There’s always been an element of seduction in both Bowie’s sound and appearance, so why should “Underground” be any different just because it plays over the credits of a children’s movie? Director Jim Henson sought out Bowie for the part of Jareth the Goblin King precisely because he’d bring a dark, sexual maturity to the role, aimed at luring a young, naive Jennifer Connelly toward the moral murkiness of adulthood. When Bowie assures her that “It’s only forever/ It’s not long at all,” it’s hard to imagine anyone not being tempted to flee with him, fairy-tale logic and the suspicious bulge in his beige pants be damned. Now, that’s some voodoo. –Matt Melis
Bowiest Lyric: “Don’t tell me truth hurts, little girl/ ‘Cause it hurts like hell”
64. “Shadow Man”
When you want to relive Ziggy Stardust vibes, turn to “Shadow Man”. Bowie originally wrote and recorded the song in 1971 during those very sessions, but it didn’t see the (public) light of day until he rerecorded it in 2000 for Toy, a planned but unreleased LP of his. Eventually, it stumbled out on a bonus disc of Heathen in 2002 where its acoustic strumming and stripped-down delivery give the song’s lyrics about self-discovery and communal emotionalism an extra punch. —Nina Corcoran
Bowiest Lyric: “You can call him foe/ You can call him friend/ You should call and see who answers/ For he knows your eyes are drawn to the road ahead”
63. “Conversation Piece”
B-Side of “The Prettiest Star” (1970)
This omission from Space Oddity sees Bowie the singer-songwriter still in his pupal stage before emerging an otherworldly being. The jacket might say “Bowie,” but this song appears to be all David Jones in an autobiographical ramble through disillusionment, disconnection, and one-sided conversations with himself. It’s charming, if not out-right heartrending, and makes you want to cuddle the humorously over-tragic young artist. –Cap Blackard
Bowiest Lyric: “And my essays lying scattered on the floor/ Fulfill their needs just by being there”
62. “All the Madmen”
The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
Space, sages, and saviors are three S’s Bowie triumphantly returned to throughout his career, but a good number of songs are also simply about looking out one’s window and seeing utter senselessness. While “All the Madmen” deals directly with insanity — Bowie claimed to have written the song about his schizophrenic half-brother, who appeared on the original US cover — the more salient question becomes whether the asylum walls are holding the real loonies in or keeping them out. By the time the song’s closing nonsensical French chant commences, disparate elements, like Tony Visconti’s flittering recorder and guitarist Mick Ronson’s distorted chords, have already become psychotic voices holding a town hall in the listener’s headspace. You know what they say: The whole world’s a padded cell. –Matt Melis
Bowiest Lyric: “‘Cause I’d rather stay here/ With all the madmen/ Than perish with the sad men/ Roaming free”
61. “Move On”
Oh, to be a fly on the wall for the studio antics of the Bowie-Eno-Visconti bro sessions that yielded the batshit experiments of Lodger. “Hey, David. What if we took that one song you wrote for Mott the Hoople, sped it up, played it backwards, and wrote a new song over the top of that?” “Oh brilliant, Brian! What a creatively liberating abstraction of the songwriting process.” “Move On” is as fun as its origins are absurd, and if the lyrics are any indication of the globetrotting holidays Bowie was having at the time, it’s no wonder the dreariness of The Berlin Trilogy was nowhere to be found. –Cap Blackard
Bowiest Lyric: “Feeling like a shadow, drifting like a leaf/ I stumble like a blind man/ Can’t forget you, can’t forget you”