Top Ten David Bowie Songs of All Time
David Robert Jones, better known as David Bowie, left the world for further space and time exploration on January 10, 2016 after a battle with liver cancer. Within his lifetime, Bowie sold a beyond impressive 140 million records around the world. He jumpstarted his professional career in 1969 with “Space Oddity” and moved on to shape and transform numerous genres and styles of music including glam rock, highly inspired by his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, and “plastic soul,” a description of sound he termed himself. Bowie created groundbreaking pop music for over five decades of his life, the vast majority of his life, as he died at age sixty-nine.
Picking ten songs to examine by Bowie is difficult, as his discography is huge and wide-ranging in style and success. There are songs about space like “Starman” and “Life on Mars?”. Songs about madness, a line Bowie believe he toed based on family history and his own experiences. Songs about oppression and politics. Songs about originality and sexuality and openness. Songs about love.
If there must be only ten, here are some inspiring, unique, sometimes bizarre, beautiful and strange songs by the beloved David Bowie.
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
‘Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
You can’t have a best of David Bowie list without including this one. “Starman” was recorded on February 4, 1972 and later released in April. It stood on its own as a single, and we’re glad the Starman got to shine all by himself.
The lyrics tell the message of hope given by Ziggy Stardust via radio waves. Who’s the Starman? Some say Ziggy Stardust. Others think of the Second Coming of Christ. Me? I think it’s none other than David Bowie bringing in the good news that life is about boogieing: “Let all the children boogie!” he proclaims. “It’s all worthwhile,” he tells us. And what could be a better message of hope? What you’re doing, what you’re spending your time on, what you believe in? It’s all worthwhile.
John Peel, radio persona and DJ, described “Starman” as “a classic, a gem.” We agree. You can’t listen to this one without smiling and jumping off the couch to boogie for a full four minutes and sixteen seconds.
We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone, a long long time ago
Oh no, not me
I never lost control
You’re face to face
With The Man Who Sold The World
“The Man Who Sold the World” is included on this list because it was a real departure from previous Bowie albums and, because of this, allowed Bowie to build an entirely new fan base in the darker, more metal world of music (Nirvana covered it and did a totally awesome job, for instance).
The album cover of The Man Who Sold the World shows a long-haired, feminine Bowie wearing a long silk dress seductively reclined on a chaise lounge. Here, we’re getting a clear preview of what’s to come with Bowie’s quintessential sexual ambiguity and androgyny.
What’s really beautiful about this song, though, is the meaning behind it:
…Its lyrics… dealt explicitly with the thin line between sanity and madness, alluding to the history of schizophrenia in [his] family and suggesting, as the song had it, that Bowie, too, ‘would rather stay here with all the madmen/ For I’m quite content they’re all as sane as me.’
The line between sane and insane is thin, and David Bowie knows how to walk that beautiful and strange landscape that tips on the edge of reality.
Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
What does this song even mean? There are cavemen. A lawman beating up the wrong person. Mickey Mouse growing up a cow. Millions of mice. Some sort of film and dream a girl seems to float through? Why is Bowie singing with such emotion, such upset and passion and confusion?
BBC Radio 2 called this song “a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dali painting.” What an apt description. “(Is There) Life on Mars?” came out in 1971, soaring to number three on the UK charts for a grand total of thirteen weeks. Some believe Bowie wrote it after a difficult love affair. He himself called it a love song, and his question “Is there life on Mars?” does seem to ache and swell with heartbreak of some alien sort. In The Complete David Bowie, Bowie explains the song:
It’s “a sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media…” “I think she finds herself disappointed with reality… that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it.”
There is yearning in this song. A futuristic existentialism and the threat of total nihilism. And we can, to this day, highly relate to it.
I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing, will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day
This isn’t the catchiest or most endearing song of Bowie’s, yet it’s beloved. “Heroes” came out of Bowie’s “Berlin” period and was released in September of ’77. Why’s it so important? There are so many reasons.
Bowie performed “Heroes” on June 6, 1987 at the German Reichstag in West Berlin when rock music was considered “a destabilizing threat.” Before singing, Bowie said, “We said our wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the wall.” This performance was considered one of the catalysts which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. While Bowie played, East Berliners crowded against the wall to listen to the music waft across the city. East and West listened to the same song, despite their still very real divide. The song tells the story of doomed lovers who meet at the Wall in a tragic attempt to be together.
We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realize in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again.
Ziggy played for time
Jiving us that we were voodoo
But the kids were just crass
He was the nazz
With God-given ass
He took it all too far
But boy, could he play guitar!
Take a look at Rolling Stone’s list “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Times” and you’ll find 1972’s glam rock song “Ziggy Stardust.” Ziggy makes the list because of its huge effect on shaping glam rock with its flamboyant style, sexual ambiguity, and bizarre costumes.
Ziggy was an alternate ego for David Bowie, one that allowed him to express himself in ways he wouldn’t have been able to otherwise for nearly a year. Fearful of the mental illness that ran in his family, Bowie believed his artistry saved him from falling ill: “As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work I could always be throwing it off.” Ziggy was a release, and one that the public could latch onto and adore. Eventually, though, even Ziggy became too much for Bowie to take, and he shed the identity for good.
It’s the terror of knowing
What the world is about
Watching some good friends
‘Let me out!’
Pray tomorrow gets me higher
Pressure on people, people on streets
When I think of epic, I think of “Under Pressure.” Really, if this list weren’t just for David Bowie and were for, say, best rock songs of all time or best rock duos of all time, well, it would top the list. Unfortunately for “Under Pressure,” though, we’ve got to focus on Bowie today. “Under Pressure” was recorded in 1981 and hit number one on the UK singles chart. Greatest Songs of the 80s, according to VH1, placed the song at a whopping 31 out of 100. Not bad. Queen was so into the song they played it at every concert they ever played. Good move.
The baseline. Correction: the best baseline in the history of pop. The souring vocals (many of which resulted from an informal jam session in Montreaux, Switzerland). The beauty of improvisation and pure musical genius melded together: the fantastic Freddie Mercury and equally fantastic David Bowie. This song is classic.
Its meaning is simple: pressure builds upon us, weighs us down, beats us down. But love can be the answer.
Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?
Why can’t we give love that one more chance?
It’s a question worth asking over and over again, and it’s a plea worth remembering when weighed down with the burdens of pressure on a too-busy, too-strained life.
(Turn and face the strange)
Don’t want to be a richer man
(Turn and face the strange)
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
David Bowie released “Changes” in 1971 and later as a single in ’72. We know “Changes” meant something quite important to Bowie—it was the last song he played in his last live performance in 2006. Of course, he was facing a lot of big changes then as well.
Why does “Changes” make the list? Songfacts puts it pretty well:
This is a reflective song about defying your critics and stepping out on your own. It also touches on Bowie’s penchant for artistic reinvention.
In other words, this song is like Bowie’s anthem, whether or not he meant it to be. He himself called it a pop piece, a sort of “throwaway,” but it’s become one of his most beloved tracks. We can all relate to it all too hard: “And these children that you spit on as they try to change their world,/ Are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” Growing up, we’re going through so many changes and we’re doing things we’re on way, paving our own path. As adults, if we’re lucky, we continue to do the same thing. It isn’t easy, though, so Bowie’s here to encourage us to keep going and keep going.
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating
in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
Am I floating in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do
Though I’m past
one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much
When it comes to simultaneous lyrical beauty and simplicity and narrative, “Space Oddity” has it. We hear of Major Tom taking off, launching into space, floating away, and eventually tragically losing contact with Ground Control. Bowie wrote the song after seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey while “very stoned.”
“Space Oddity” was released in 1969 five days before the United States’ Apollo 11 mission. Five days later it would land on the moon. Unsurprisingly, “Space Oddity” became David Bowie’s first big single in the US. Interestingly, “Ashes to Ashes” follows up with Major Tom who finally makes contact again with earth. Ground Control comes to believe he’s a junkie.
Here’s a beautiful and pretty cool fact: Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the song during a stay in the International Space Station in 2013. Hadfield smartly avoided the lyrics where Major Tom lost contact and drifted into deep space.
Let’s dance put on your red shoes and dance the blues
Let’s dance to the song
they’re playin’ on the radio
while color lights up your face
sway through the crowd to an empty space
If you say run, I’ll run with you
If you say hide, we’ll hide
Because my love for you
Would break my heart in two
If you should fall
Into my arms
And tremble like a flower
Let’s dance! You can’t go wrong with a good ol’ dance song. “Let’s Dance” came out in 1983 as the title track of Bowie’s album. This song became popular, and fast. It hit number five on the UK Singles Chart from the beginning, and stayed up there for three weeks after that. It hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Although most of us don’t see much more than a dance song, take a look at the music video. Bowie and his band are playing in a bar in Carinda and taping an Aboriginal couple in the Warrumbungle National Park. While this nice-sounding song is playing, we see Aboriginals struggling against metaphors of Western cultural imperialism.
On the video, Bowie tells Rolling Stone,
[Australia is] probably one of the most racially intolerant [countries] in the world, well in line with South Africa. I mean, in the north, there’s unbelievable intolerance. The Aborigines can’t even buy their drinks in the same bars—they have to go round the back and get them through what’s called a ‘dog hatch.’ And then they’re forbidden from drinking them on the same side of the street as the bar; they have to go to the other side of the road.
Was this video about racism and oppression? Yes. “Very simple, very direct,” Bowie said. Now you know.
You’ve got your mother in a whirl
She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl
Hey babe, your hair’s alright
Hey babe, let’s go out tonight
You like me, and I like it all
We like dancing and we look divine
You love bands when they’re playing hard
You want more and you want it fast
They put you down, they say I’m wrong
You tacky thing, you put them on
Rebel Rebel, you’ve torn your dress
Rebel Rebel, your face is a mess
Rebel Rebel, how could they know?
Hot tramp, I love you so!
With this one, David Bowie really speaks to his audience, and future audiences as well. Glam Rock exploded thanks to the anthem directed at the boy who rebelled against his parents and society by wearing tacky women’s clothes and caked-on make-up.
Bowie had told listeners, three years before, that he was bisexual. We need idols who can open up about their sexuality, even today, and Bowie gives us just that with his open exploration of sex and gender and androgyny. What I admire most about Bowie’s sexuality is that he’s drifted through various labels but ultimately doesn’t need them. Here’s what he had to say about his sex life: “I was hitting on everybody. I had a wonderfully, irresponsible promiscuous time.” Does sexuality need an explanation or defense? Do we have to label ourselves in any way at all? Nope.
The world has lost a musical genius, but luckily, his discography lives on. These ten songs only scratched the surface of what David Bowie has to offer, but hopefully they peaked your interest or reminded you of why you loved Bowie in the first place. He’s a beautiful man, isn’t he? And he has such a grasp of so many genres.
“Starman” brought us one of many Ziggy Stardust messages of hope: it’s all worthwhile. “The Man Who Sold the World” extended Bowie’s reach, attracting fans of darker or grungier groups like Nirvana. “Life on Mars” was an epic Broadway-Dalian piece that tapped into a young woman’s disillusionment with the modern world and what other worlds could be just outside her reach, an exhaustion we can still strongly relate to, perhaps even more today. “Heroes” may have helped bring the Berlin Wall down. Rock music energized those on the other side. They listened with joy. And shortly afterwards, they began to rebel even more. “Ziggy Stardust” introduced us to Bowie’s new alter-ego, one that allowed him to transcend the mental illness he worried he would inherit from his bloodline. He gave us androgyny. He bent genders. He gave us color and glam and fashion and joy and mystery. “Under Pressure” defined epic, a perfect match of Freddie Mercury meets David Bowie thanks to a Switzerland improvisation session. Their voices soar. Their voices are otherworldly-beautiful. “Changes” is like a Bowie anthem. You’ll go through changes and you’ll be challenged by the outside world, but keep doing you. “Space Oddity” came just in time to inspire interest and excitement for the space program. “Let’s Dance” was the perfect pop song, but it also combatted complicated issues with western imperialism in Australia. Now you know. And “Rebel Rebel?” The song is an outlier’s anthem. Once again, Bowie encourages listeners to be themselves without apology or embarrassment.
We love you, we’ll miss you, we’ll continue to listen to you. Thank you for the hits and the love and the strangeness and the beauty, David Bowie.