We can agree on why we all miss him. But we can’t agree on his best work. And that is beautiful.
David Bowie passed away two days ago after an 18-month battle with cancer. I have never been so sad and shocked at the death of an entertainer, which took me a bit by surprise. I’ve never considered myself a Bowie expert or anything, but I’m realizing just how strong of a personal connection I had to the man and his music.
Why do we miss him so much? I think we can agree on a few reasons.
1. He was taken from us much too early. He was only 69.
2. He was literally the coolest guy on the planet. No one was cooler than Bowie. He was thoroughly genuine from beginning to end. He wasn’t afraid to be weird, which gave hope to weirdos everywhere.
3. He never played it safe, even in his later years. While many of Bowie’s peers and contemporaries are still releasing albums and touring, the vast majority of them hit their creative peaks ages ago. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, U2, Van Halen, etc. — their best work is firmly behind them. That wasn’t the case with Bowie. He released his last album, Blackstar, only last Friday and it was full of inspiration and new ideas. His producer even said it was influenced by Kendrick Lamar of all people! It’s unbearable to think that this creative streak was cut short.
4. He said goodbye to us, but we didn’t realize it until it was too late. Blackstar is full of allusions to his illness and impending passing. On “Lazarus”, he says “Look up here, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” and later “This way or no way, you know I’ll be free. Just like that bluebird, now ain’t that just like me?” He knew he was leaving us, but he kept his private life private and left on his own terms. Even in death, he was the coolest guy on the planet.
We can all agree on what made David Bowie special. But good luck finding any agreement on his best, or even most notable, work. I played a game of Celebrity recently with two people in their 30s, three people in their 20s, and about 10 teenagers. For those unfamiliar with the game, participants put names into a hat and two teams take turns describing as many of the names as possible. When my team was up, one of the participants in her 30s (we’ll call her Jean for simplicity’s sake) drew David Bowie’s name. Jean began to describe the Goblin King in Labyrinth, but no one on our team (embarrassing disclosure: including me) knew what she was talking about. Exercising her knowledge of the subject, she had to give up, put the name back in the hat, and move on. Later on, a 13-year-old girl on our team drew the name and said “Ground control to Major Tom.” I immediately said “David Bowie!” and we got the point.
Now, besides the fact that Jean needs to get a copy of Hunky Dory and I need to brush up on my classic 80’s movies, that turn of events was fascinating to me. We all have totally unique and sometimes non-overlapping experiences interacting with David Bowie’s canon. As I’ve listened to him these past few days and read various remembrances, I’m reminded of not just how diverse his musical output is, but also how those who love him can have such vastly different opinions of what his best songs/albums/eras are. We all gravitate to different nooks and crevices in his catalog. We have favorite time periods, whether its the piano pop in the late 60’s, glam rock and art punk in the early 70’s, plastic soul in the mid-70’s, experimental ambient Brian Eno collaborations in the late 70’s, fun-loving disco in the 80’s, or his modern meditations on life and death in the last decade. Some are drawn to Ziggy Stardust, others to Aladdin Sane — some to the Thin White Duke, and others to Davy Jones.
One of Bowie’s lasting legacies was his ability to re-invent himself — that ability allowed us all to fall in love with different eras of his work. My Bowie experience is completely unique from your Bowie experience. That’s a beautiful thing.
Since those Bowie experiences are so unique, there’s no way I can proclaim what the 10 “best” Bowie songs are. But these are my 10 favorite. #TeamZiggyStardust
10. Modern Love | Let’s Dance (1983)
This is one of only two entries from the 1980s on this list, but wow it’s a good one. It sounds like an Elton John song with an 80’s backbeat. Come for the guitar “chicka-chickas” and the swinging drum beat, stay for the saxophones and triumphant background vocals.
9. Life on Mars? | Hunky Dory (1971)
Though there will be another song on this list that “literally” sounds like Queen, “Life On Mars?” actually comes pretty close to Freddie Mercury’s operatic style and Queen’s combination of grand pianos, strings, and melodic electric guitars. The vocal line is absolutely one of Bowie’s best, especially the chill-inducing jumps on “Take a look at the LAW-man” and “Is there life on MARS?!”
8. Under Pressure feat. Queen | Hot Space (1982)
The one that everyone knows. The one that sadly gave birth to Vanilla Ice. Despite the endless radio plays and the unfortunate, icy legacy, “Under Pressure” stands as not just one of Bowie and Queen’s most recognizable singles, but one of their best. There’s a reason it’s overplayed. Everyone celebrates Freddie Mercury’s unparalleled voice here, and for good reason, but David Bowie adds character and intrigue to many of the lines here, matching Mercury in terms of passion and conviction.
7. Suffragette City | The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust… (1972)
I love Bowie the guitar slinger. “Suffragette City” relies on an energetic, driving beat with a great riff and pounding, honky-tonk piano. Near the end, we get the most joyous “Wham-bam, thank you ma’am” ever said.
6. Rebel Rebel | Diamond Dogs (1974)
Normally I’m not a fan of endless repetitions of the same musical phrase, but I give an exception when the riff is this good and full of life. The best part is the sequence of “Hot tramp! I love you so,” that guitar riff re-entering followed by a beautiful, descending bass line, and then the “Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo.” It makes me want to grab some friends and just drive to the beach.
5. Space Oddity | David Bowie (1969)
“Space Oddity” is Bowie’s most definitive, impressive song. It gorgeously segues between the ominous “Ground control to Major Tom” section, the dreamy harmonies in the “sitting in a tin can” section, and the very brief, uplifting 4-beat breaths of oxygen with those major acoustic guitar chords. We’ve all imagined feeling the utter hopelessness in being lost in space, and Bowie, being the space-resident that he is, captured it perfectly.
4. The Jean Genie | Aladdin Sane (1973)
“The Jean Genie” sounds like Lou Reed singing over a gritty Rolling Stones track. This is bluesy, strutting, cocky rock and roll at its finest. Listen to the sound of that guitar! You can’t help but bust out the air-guitar for this one.
3. Starman | The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust… (1972)
“Starman” opens with discordant guitar strums before snapping into a groove. The chorus is great to sing along to, as demonstrated this week by residents of Bowie’s hometown of Brixton.
“There’s a starman waiting in the sky. He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.” Can anything more true be said about Bowie right now?
2. Ziggy Stardust | The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust… (1972)
This is David Bowie in all his glam-rock glory. “Ziggy Stardust” was his first real alter-ego, serving as the basis of what I consider to be his finest album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. I love the slow, plodding guitar intro and the “OH!” interjections.
And here’s a live version of the song from the Ziggy Stardust concert film.
1. Heroes | Heroes (1977)
Do you listen to Arcade Fire? LCD Soundsystem? The Killers? None of those bands would have existed without “Heroes,” I guarantee it. The strain of epic, uplifting, indie rock anthems that gained popularity in the 2000’s is completely indebted to “Heroes.” The song focuses on two or three chords, but gradually adds layers and layers until Bowie bursts forth with “I! I will be king! And you, you will be queen!” at 3:16. Bowie wrote the song while living in Berlin in the late 70’s, and he alludes to the circumstances in “Heroes”: “I can remember standing by the Wall, and the guns shot above our heads, and we kissed as though nothing could fall.” Ten years later, in 1987, he performed the song in West Berlin in front of the wall, while East Berliners gathered on the other side to listen, in a moment of glorious solidarity and unity. The German Foreign Office even credited Bowie this week with helping to bring down that wall.
“Heroes” is a triumph.