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David Bowie’s Top 70 Songs

Celebrate the 70th birthday of the late Starman with his greatest and most enduring works

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    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.

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    Happy birthday to our eternal Starman.

    bowie David Bowies Top 70 Songs

    –Matt Melis
    Editorial Director


    70. “Seven”

    Hours (1999)

    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)

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    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”
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    66. “I’m Afraid of Americans”

    Earthling (1997)

    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”
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    65. “Underground”

    Labyrinth (1986)

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    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”
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    64. “Shadow Man”

    Toy (2001)

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    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”

    Lodger (1979)

    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

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    Bowiest Lyric: “Feeling like a shadow, drifting like a leaf/ I stumble like a blind man/ Can’t forget you, can’t forget you”


    60. “China Girl”

    Let’s Dance (1983)

    One of Iggy Pop and Bowie’s collaborative songs, the track actually appeared on Pop’s The Idiot six years before Bowie unleashed his own version. Bowie’s was by far the bigger success, featuring Nile Rodgers production that seemed geared directly for the pop charts. It worked, reaching the top 10 in both the UK and US. In fact, it’s Rodgers’ imagining of the song that made it so successful, with Bowie often standing back and letting the song exist around him. –Philip Cosores

    Bowiest Lyric: “I stumble into town just like a sacred cow/ Visions of swastikas in my head/ Plans for everyone”


    59. “Baby Universal”

    Tin Machine II (1991)

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    There’s no harm in a bit of rock ‘n’ roll fun, and Bowie and Reeves Gabrels are imbibing heavily. “Baby Universal” is the opening track to the woefully overlooked Tin Machine II. It’s a telltale indicator that this time around the Tin Machine experience is tighter and decidedly more “Bowie.” Let’s see another rock outfit from ’91 aptly wield cut-up lyrics with such calculated abandon. –Cap Blackard

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    Bowiest Lyric: “Hallo, humans/ Can you feel me thinking?”


    58. “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”

    David Bowie (1969)

    Tony Visconti and Bowie put in a lot of work together on arranging the wailing harmonica, dizzying blues riffing, and flailing vocals, allegedly meant to capture an important relationship: the one with Bowie’s father, specifically his feelings immediately upon his death. It’s easy to hear the emotional weight dropping behind his words, weary and frayed nerves suffocating his poetic touch. Though that might be the intent, there’s a more general anxiety and unease in the verses and something truly transcendent in the extended psychedelic freak-out outro. –Lior Phillips

    Bowiest Lyric: I’m the Cream/ Of the Great Utopia Dream/ And you’re the gleam/ In the depths of your banker’s spleen”


    57. “Blue Jean”

    Tonight (1984)

    Bowie has always been a trendsetter, but Tonight may have been a clear case of the artist trying too hard to chase his own trend. Aiming to maintain the momentum of the previous year’s smash, Let’s Dance, Bowie rushed back into the studio with minimal new material to capture the same sound, which also meant he’d play no instruments for the second album in a row. Fans flocked, critics balked, and Bowie came to regret his rushed approach, but time has been a bit kinder to the record and originals like “Blue Jean”. While Bowie may have written the song off in the late ’80s as a dumb “piece of sexist rock ‘n’ roll,” it remained a live staple until he finally stopped performing. Shrug, sometimes dumb works. –Matt Melis

    Bowiest Lyric: “Remember that everybody has to wait in line/ Blue Jean, look out world, you know I’ve got mine”


    56. “The Width of the Circle”

    The Man Who Sold the World (1970)

    Some cite The Man Who Sold the World as the beginning of glam rock. Even if the record, at times, feels more like Zeppelin than Ziggy, certainly it at least marks a major departure for Bowie. After all, how much more removed from orbiting Earth in a most peculiar way can one get than supernatural sexual escapades in the caverns of hell? Salacious, if ambiguous, details aside, once this epic opener began splitting eardrums, Ground Control likely forgot about all that came before, including Major Tom floating in his tin can. –Matt Melis

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    Bowiest Lyric: “Oh, I said so long and I waved bye-bye/ And I smashed my soul and traded my mind”


    55. “DJ”

    Lodger (1979)

    “I am a DJ/ I am what I play,” Bowie sings with his best knowing smirk — and Talking Heads impression. The track even comes complete with Heads collaborators Brian Eno and guitarist Adrian Belew, though the latter before he joined David Byrne and co. on tour. But even when doing some mimicry, Bowie captures a powerful sense of alienation, frustration, and passion, all tied in a clever, fashionable bow. There’s some thought, too, that in this case DJ stands for his birth name, David Jones, and the song explores the duality of who he is against who people perceive him to be through his music. Either way, it’s a great self-aware jab and a funky groove that doesn’t lose its power or take itself too seriously. –Lior Phillips

    Bowiest Lyric: I am a D.J., I am what I play/ Can’t turn around no, can’t turn around no”


    54. “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”

    Toy (2001)

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    The last single Bowie released under his birth name, Davy Jones, “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” carries threads of safe, standard pop rock of the era — even straying near the realm of another famous Davy Jones. But then Bowie never could hide that eccentric streak, leading The Lower Third with a nasal, twisting vocal delivery as the band dips down through rumbling, loose bass and honking harmonica. It’s a fascinating look at what might have been had he kept experimenting in rock rather than rocketing into space. Our favorite version, though, can be found on his unofficial 2001 LP, Toy. –Lior Phillips

    Bowiest Lyric: Sometimes I cry/ Sometimes I’m so sad/ Sometimes I’m so glad, so glad.”


    53. “Some Are”

    Low outtake (1977)

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    This haunting lullaby of winter Weltschmerz [world weariness] was recorded by Bowie and Eno during the Berlin years. It conjures images of the Napoleonic forces’ slow retreat from Moscow, moving among their dead comrades, and features subtle notes of wolves howling in the distance. “Some Are” would have been a welcome addition to Low and got new life in 2008 when it was included by Bowie in his hand-picked retrospective, iSelect. With mention of sleigh bells, it’s the closest Bowie ever came to a Christmas song, excepting his Bing Crosby duet. –Cap Blackard

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    Bowiest Lyric: “Some are bound to fail/ Some are winter sun”


    52. “Bring Me the Disco King”

    Reality (2003)

    A lot of Bowie’s early aughts output can be viewed as casting an eye on the past, whether that meant reimagining old songs; reflecting on a long, winding career; or noting the passage of time and moments wasted. He wrote “Bring Me the Disco King” all the way back in 1991 as a way to comment on his past. His original recording of it for Black Tie White Noise — the first of three different attempts to nail down the song — parodied ’70s disco, a far cry from the salsa and jazz vibe of the future Reality standout. Happy with the final result after a decade of tinkering, Bowie himself said, “This poor, little Orphan Annie thing seems to have a home now.” Now, just remember to drink your Ovaltine. –Matt Melis

    Bowiest Lyric: “Life wasn’t worth the balance/ Or the crumpled paper it was written on”


    51. “Buddha of Suburbia”

    Buddha of Suburbia (1993)

    “Buddha” sees Bowie waxing nostalgic about his outsider youth in South London, a journey paralleled at least in part by the novel The Buddha of Suburbia and the subsequent BBC adaptation, which this track was the theme song to. Featuring nods to “Space Oddity” and “All the Madmen”, “Buddha” is a surprisingly plainspoken autobiography of Bowie’s ascent from the monotony of suburban life. It also comes in a version “enhanced” (read: “overcomplicated”) by the guitar work of Lenny Kravitz. –Cap Blackard

    Bowiest Lyric: “Elvis is English and climbs the hills”


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