This article was originally published in 2016, days prior to David Bowie’s death. It has since been updated in celebration of what would have been his 75th birthday on January 8th, 2022.
Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.
David Bowie is transformation incarnate. He’s been a starman, an alligator, thin white duke, goblin king, a lad insane, a piece of teenage wildlife, a broken man, and most recently a Blackstar. He can’t be held down, held back, and seldom pigeonholed. If he’s never struck a chord with you, then it’s likely you just haven’t heard the right Bowie. Since his emergence in the late ’60s, across the scope of 27 studio albums and counting, he’s been a crucial figure in folk, glam, soul, new wave, experimental, pop, grunge, electronica, dance, and jazz to name a few. A case could be made for Bowie being the most sonically prolific artist since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll.
All that in mind, it should be no surprise that whittling down the Bowie discography to 10 songs is nigh impossible. Fans will immediately notice shocking omissions and perhaps some unexpected choices. Our goal with this iteration of In 10 Songs is to take a fair crack at representing as many musical periods of Bowie’s work as space allows.
Idea being, for the uninitiated, if any one of these tracks does it for you, then there’s at least an album’s worth of material waiting to be discovered. Maybe you’ll love it all, rare bird that you are — but most likely, as with many Bowie fans, you’ll deeply love some of it, while the rest will remain a curiosity. There’s no wrong answer so long as there’s some Bowie in your life.
His 28th album, ★, arrives on January 8th, 2016 — and with it a new era of genre fusion and experimentation. If you’ve never taken the plunge, we know, the scope can be staggering. Let these 10 tracks begin your odyssey.
— Cap Blackard
Precursor to The Spiders from Mars
“The Man Who Sold the World” from The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
Released in 1970 as the title track to Bowie’s third studio album, “The Man Who Sold the World” demonstrated the heavy rock sound of his new backing band (Tony Visconti on bass, Mick Ronson on electric guitar, and Mick Woodmansey on drums), the future Spiders from Mars. The track is the exception to the other songs on the album — bass-heavy and Black Sabbath-scented.
Sci-fi intersects with relaxed Latin rhythms and acoustic guitar strumming underneath Bowie’s lyrics, telling one of many paranoid tales of the future in gently psychedelic phased-over vocals. Nirvana’s notorious cover for MTV’s Unplugged acoustic series in 1993 treated the tune with a similarly relaxed and detached style, contrasting with the dystopic subject matter but demonstrating the song’s timelessness.
In the early ‘70s, the album and song were laying the foundation for glam rock and Bowie’s upcoming Ziggy Stardust era, but in 2016, it’s being mistaken by millennial degenerates shopping in Urban Outfitters as a Nirvana original. This is not necessarily a surprise, considering the song’s melodic straightforwardness and accessibility, which has always been a clear point of access for Nirvana and Bowie lovers alike. — Erin Manning
The Birth of a Glam Alien
“Life on Mars?” from Hunky Dory (1971)
A girl with mousy hair is supposed to attend the movies. She tries to get out of the “God-awful small affair,” but her parents make her go, her best friend doesn’t show, and the girl is so bored of the movie, and so disgusted with all of humanity, that she asks, “Is there life on Mars?” This bleak epiphany caps off a soaring, sing-a-long chorus — one of Bowie’s best. The song was “inspired by Frankie,” according to the album liner notes, specifically chord progressions in “My Way” — itself based on a French song “Comme, D’Habitude,” which Bowie had been messing around with since 1968.
Bowie’s take has quite a bit more bite; in the second verse, he says it’s America’s fault that “Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow.” This commercialization bores Bowie the same way that the girl was bored by her movie and drives him back into the chorus. Of course, a few years later, Bowie would aggressively court American audiences in a way that would’ve made the Disney Corporation proud.
This feels like hypocrisy, and maybe it is. But the appeal of Bowie’s personas isn’t just that they kept his image fresh; it’s that the personas contradicted each other, that it really felt like he had become someone new. — Wren Graves
Ziggy Stardust’s Non-Political Power Persona
“Suffragette City” from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Recorded in 1972 towards the end of the sessions for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, “Suffragette City” commingles hard rock and lighter pop into a piano-driven, punkish sing-along whose meaning is difficult to arrive at without hearing it in the context of Ziggy Stardust’s entire story. It basically describes how a band (and the world itself) is starting to break up, and the singer (Ziggy) would prefer to distance himself from his friends in favor of female companionship.
It could also be perceived as a meaningless anthem, given phrases like the infamous closer “wham bam thank you ma’am” and “droogie don’t crash here” — perhaps a reason as to why the song has prevailed as one of Bowie’s most-covered classics performed by the most successful persona he ever created. “Suffragette City” and the other Ziggy Stardust songs whispered into everyone’s ears about the secret powers of glitter makeup and transgressive clothing: the message that sexuality doesn’t conform.
Bowie convinced millions of straight boys to buy his records while he publicly frolicked in dresses and heels and skintight leotards — all without being political. — E.M.
“Fame” from Young Americans (1975)
This strikingly original song actually came about because of two covers. While Bowie was preparing a version of “Footstompin” by The Flairs, Carlos Alomar developed a funky guitar riff that Bowie thought was too good to “waste” on a cover. Then, while Bowie had John Lennon in the studio for his cover of “Across the Universe,” he played him Alomar’s guitar riff; Lennon sang a scrap of melody with the nonsense syllable “ame,” which Bowie changed to “fame.”
The final great influence on the song, and indeed the whole album Young Americans, were the American pioneers of soul and funk. To try and capture that sound, Bowie brought in black session musicians like Dennis Davis, with whom he worked on six more albums, as well as an early-career Luther Vandross; Bowie referred to the results as “Plastic Soul.” —Wren Graves
The Berlin Years: Experimental
“Beauty and the Beast” from “Heroes” (1977)
The opening number on Heroes, Bowie’s second album from his Berlin era (comprised of three experimental rock albums he completed with electronic voyager Brian Eno), “Beauty and the Beast” is the experimental-but-danceable sound of something borrowed and something highly influential, (although that is essentially David Bowie’s music as a whole). Thanks to a lot of cocaine and a subsequent self-improvement program, “Beauty and the Beast” indicated a move away from storytelling in Bowie’s songwriting, to a more philosophical and scattered lyrical approach.
Partly influenced by Krautrock, the song amalgamates ambient sounds from a variety of synthesizers and noise generators like a revitalizing, polarizing pull of a zipper (thanks to some distinct lead guitar from the legendary Robert Fripp). The prized interplay between Eno and Fripp’s synthesizers and guitars disguises both instruments at any given time, and Bowie’s yo-yo’ing sprechstimme vocal treatment must have really stuck with Iggy Pop and Right Said Fred years later when they recorded “Wild One” and “I’m Too Sexy,” respectively. — E.M.
The Berlin Years: Pop
“Heroes” from “Heroes” (1977)
The song starts, and waves of guitar and synthesizer wash over the listener. Bowie whispers. There’s a feeling of anticipation in the air, like in a coastal town before a natural disaster. The waves come again and again, bigger and bigger; the whispers turn into howls; it builds into a devastating tidal wave of sound. The story of how this epic song came together is fascinating: Co-writer Brian Eno was doing live synth treatments in studio. The great guitarist Robert Fripp had measured how far from a speaker to stand in order to produce feedback at different pitches, and when he wanted, say, feedback from an F-sharp or an A, he’d stand at that distance.
It was left to legendary producer Tony Visconti to mix on the fly, and “This was before Pro Tools…You couldn’t do too many edits on the same point without the tape curling up or the backing coming off. You had a maximum of, say, two edits…” Perhaps this is all a bit overstated; perhaps it’s modesty on behalf of the collaborators, to list all of the ways a song that turned out perfect could’ve gone horribly wrong. — W.G.
The Commercial Experiment
“Let’s Dance” from Let’s Dance (1983)
Let’s Dance, the album, and “Let’s Dance,” the smash single, just about destroyed David Bowie, the artist. Leaving behind the Krautrock stylings of the Berlin trilogy, as well as longtime label RCA Records, Bowie teamed up with super producer Nile Rodgers and built on the post-punk, new wave sound he’d begun exploring on 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). The result? Bowie’s best-selling single and album of his career.
Bowie, on his new, larger audience: “I remember looking out over these waves of people and thinking, ‘I wonder how many Velvet Underground albums these people have in their record collections?’ I suddenly felt very apart from my audience.”
Looking back, Bowie said, “[I]t fucked with my integrity.” Trying to maintain his commercial momentum, he put out two of his most critically abhorred albums, 1984’s Tonight and 1987’s Never Let Me Down, before abandoning his solo career to form the proto-grunge group Tin Machine. Personally, I disagree, but some die-hard fans would argue that Bowie was never the same. — W.G.
A Diamond in the Rough
“Loving the Alien” from Tonight (1984)
Struck with the sudden stadium-filling pop fame of Let’s Dance, Bowie spent the rest of the ’80s searching for focus. While he eventually found it in the forming of the proto-grunge band Tin Machine, the much maligned pop years do have something to offer, provided you’ve got a taste for ’80s eccentricities and syrupy production.
In this often-overlooked era, the crown jewel is “Loving the Alien,” a haunting ballad of spiritual upheaval. Inspired by the Crusades, Bowie explores the tragedy and beauty of belief, specifically the “heathen” traditions stomped out by invading Christian armies. Though, in true Bowie form, the poetry of his lyrics trumps the song’s direct origins and extends to anyone who’s ever found themselves “believing the strangest things, loving the alien.” The track remains not just a favorite deep cut among Bowie fans, but of Bowie himself, who performed a new arrangement of the song on his last tour.
Fans of Bowie’s Labyrinth work, especially tracks like “As the World Falls Down” and “Underground,” have something extra to love in “Loving the Alien.” It’s the one track in Bowie’s core discography that taps into that same era of mystic and mysterious synth pop. — C.B.
Cyberpunk Art Crimes as the 20th Century Dies
“The Hearts Filthy Lesson” from Outside (1995)
Blade Runner, David Lynch, and Neuromancer collide with all the best parts of ’90s electonica and industrial on Outside, Bowie’s most complex narrative record. Billed as a “non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle,” the album tells the tale of Nathan Adler, an investigator of so-called Art Crimes — in this case, the calculated and surreal murder of a 14-year-old girl. It’s a staggering cyberpunk odyssey, and “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” is a perfect entry point.
Outside is Bowie’s reunion album with Brian Eno and saw the two indulging in myriad musical and conceptual experiments. If sci-fi is your cup of tea, it’s easy to sink into the album’s grimy world and cross-analyze the lyrics and eccentric spoken segues (all performed by Bowie). Conversely, there’s no shortage of fantastic standalone tracks — be they thrashers (“Hallo Spaceboy”), jazz (“The Motel”), ballads (“Strangers When We Meet”), or occupying an exciting place somewhere in between — as is the case with this track. — C.B.
“Blackstar” from ★ (2016)
“Blackstar” is the single from Bowie’s forthcoming 28th studio album of the same name, released in a dark daydream of hip-hop and free jazz that forms a tapestry of vividly deflected textures and scatterings produced with longtime collaborator Tony Visconti. From the album’s ideogram to the abstract sounds found in this 10-minute track, “Blackstar” welcomes an unexpected work of art hearkening back to Bowie’s Berlin-era electronica.
Watching the music video is like something out of an interstellar Pan’s Labyrinth or a not-so-American Horror Story, but merely hearing the song conveys something episodic and ritualistic. Bowie’s shadowy harmonies float over a diaphanous prayer and skittering glitch beats for seven minutes, until the song finally rests a garland around the shoulders of the listener — sauntering into a strangely calm groove after some sax soloing and a moment of Space Oddity-era balladry.
Bowie has always been an expert at borrowing and re-assembling the best sonic elements of popular music, but if “Blackstar” is any indicator of ★, his songwriting has adopted a critical perspective that recognizes social injustice and could possibly effect change outside of Bowie’s musical cosmos. — E.M.