It’s impossible to sum up David Bowie’s career.
Which Bowie do you want? The experimental maverick who carried on pushing the concept of what music was right up until his final album Blackstar? The androgynous alien who caused more teenage lads than before or since to ask their hairdresser to copy his haircut? Or the supremely focused musician who could knock out timeless pop songs like Ashes To Ashes and The Jean Genie in his lunch break?
To do any justice whatsoever to Bowie’s music, it seems only fair to examine all his albums. Loaded chose just one song from each of his 26 solo studio albums to at least give a flavour of the scope of his genius. Here is our complete Bowie playlist with a track by track guide to each sensational song.
Love You Til Tuesday (from David Bowie, 1967)
The only single from Bowie’s self-titled debut album, its whimsy was typical of Bowie’s early arch folk. A re-recorded version adding strings for its single version failed to chart, and it’s not Bowie’s finest song, but it’s got enough charm to give hints as to what was to come. Reviewing it for Melody Maker, Pink Floyd visionary Syd Barrett said: “It’s very chirpy, but I don’t think my toes were tapping at all.”
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (from Space Oddity, 1969)
The B-side of Space Oddity, it’s significant for being the first song to feature Bowie’s future Spiders From Mars bandmate Mick Ronson on guitar. Well worth revisiting for its themes of alienation, a constant throughout Bowie’s career. He said of it: “I always felt I was on the fringe of events and left out. A lot of my characters from my early years seem to revolve around that feeling.”
The Man Who Sold The World (from The Man Who Sold The World, 1970)
Another song about Bowie’s alienation, he said of it: “It exemplifies how you feel when you’re young, when you know there’s a piece of yourself you haven’t put together yet.” Such disassociation helps explain how Nirvana recorded their landmark cover for MTV Unplugged, although Lulu also had a hit with it in 1974.
Kooks (from Hunky Dory, 1971)
Covered by everyone from Smashing Pumpkins to Kim Wilde and Robbie Williams, Kooks is one of Bowie’s more knockabout songs – it was written as a Neil Young pastiche. That makes it markedly different from much else on Hunky Dory, but it’s got one hell of a melody. Kooks also unwittingly inspired the bandname for the 00s indie staples.
Five Years (from The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, 1972)
The perfect opening song for the album that changed everything, it’s one of Bowie’s purest stadium rock anthems. Which is hilarious, given that it’s also about an Earth that only has five years to survive. He chose five years as the timeframe after having a dream in which his father told him he’d only have five years to live if he flew on a plane again – Bowie had a lifelong fear of flying and preferred to travel by cruise ships from Britain to America.
The Jean Genie (from Aladdin Sane, 1973)
For a song that’s possibly the most straight-up glam-rock song ever, the single previewing Ziggy’s follow-up had no end of cutting-edge allusions. Named after French author Jean Genet, the “jean genie” is a character inspired by Bowie’s friendship with Iggy Pop. He wrote it for Cyrnida Foxe, a member of Andy Warhol’s clique who he had a brief fling with.
See Emily Play (from PinUps, 1973)
Bowie’s covers album was the last to feature The Spiders From Mars, with drummer Mick Woodmansey already replaced by Aynsley Dunbar. Released on the same day as Bryan Ferry’s covers album These Foolish Things, it was a set of Bowie’s favourite songs from his own early days of 1964-67. His version of Pink Floyd’s classic See Emily Play is probably its best remembered song from what was definitely a stop-gap in a brief rest between the feverish workload of writing his own songs.
Rebel Rebel (from Diamond Dogs, 1974)
Bowie’s final glam single, it was effectively a eulogy for his Ziggy days – Bowie himself played the guitar, making it his first single since 1969 not to feature Mick Ronson on guitar. Not that Bowie’s own playing is a million miles away, and he admitted of its riff: “When I stumbled across that riff, it was ‘Oh, thank you!’” Jayne County claimed it was partially based on a then-unreleased song, Queenage Baby, which she had recorded for Bowie’s record label Mailman.
Young Americans (from Young Americans, 1975)
The title track of Bowie’s album exploring his transition from glam to soul, Young Americans is a commentary on America’s troubled race relations, referencing civil rights leader Rosa Parks. Its backing vocals were arranged by a then-unknown Luther Vandross.
TVC15 (from Station To Station, 1976)
The second single from Station To Station, it was as upbeat as that magnificently frayed album got. Which is quite something, as its named after a fictional TV swallowing Iggy Pop’s girlfriend, after a dream Iggy had in which just that happened. The Jean Genie it is not.
Always Crashing In The Same Car (from Low, 1977)
At the height of his cocaine paranoia, Bowie repeatedly drove into the car of a dealer who he believed ripped him off. It didn’t take much thought to extend this into a metaphor for repeatedly making the same mistake. One of the most frazzled drug songs ever made, it’s harrowing but bleakly hilarious.
“Heroes” (from “Heroes”, 1977)
Written with Brian Eno and inspired by Krautrock pioneers Neu!, Heroes wasn’t actually a hit at the time – it arrived in the midst of Bowie’s then-offputting experimental Berlin phase. Its theme of cheating lovers were inspired by Bowie’s married producer Tony Visconti kissing backing singer Antonia Maass in the studio, though to save Visconti’s reputation he didn’t admit that until 2003. The quote marks in the title were to signify that Bowie was being sarcastic, thus inventing annoying air quotes. “Thanks”, Dave.
Boys Keep Swinging (from Lodger, 1979)
An early example of co-writer Brian Eno’s infamous Oblique Strategies cards paying off. Eno’s cards are designed to be chosen at random whenever musicians need inspiration. Bowie picked “Reverse roles”, which led to guitarist Carlos Alomar playing drums and drummer Dennis Davis switching to bass. It certainly worked.
Ashes To Ashes (from Scary Monsters And Super Creeps, 1980)
Originally titled People Are Turning To Gold, Bowie revisited Major Tom for the first time since Space Oddity as a way of saying goodbye to the 1970s. Its accompanying video rammed home the point that this was a new decade, starring many then-little known New Romantic scene pioneers including Visage leader Steve Strange.
Modern Love (from Let’s Dance, 1983)
One of Bowie’s simplest rock & roll songs, its themes of mankind’s eternal conflict with God were dressed up in a tune inspired by Little Richard. It was re-recorded as a duet with Tina Turner for a Pepsi advert in 1997. Bowie wasn’t always inspired, y’know.
Loving The Alien (from Tonight, 1984)
A better choice of single than the two which preceded it from Tonight – Blue Jean and This Is Not America – it returned Bowie to his otherworldly best. It was also going to be the song which opened his Live Aid set, until Bowie realised that it was more appropriate to play hits instead of forcing new songs on the Wembley audience.
Time Will Crawl (from Never Let Me Down, 1987)
Lyrically inspired by the Chernoybl nuclear disaster of the previous year, Time Will Crawl is one of the highlights of an otherwise middling album. It focuses on the human impact behind such a catastrophe, as Bowie commented: “It deals with the idea that someone in one’s own community could be responsible for blowing up the world.” Often neglected as it comes from Bowie’s artistic low-point, he named it as one of his favourite songs from his career in 2008.
Bleed Like A Craze, Dad (from The Buddha Of Suburbia, 1993)
After a then-unprecedented six-year gap following the muted reception to Never Let Me Down, Bowie returned in 1993 with the soundtrack to the BBC2 adaption of Hanif Kureshi’s novel. The actual soundtrack remains unreleased, with the album taking the themes of the book and expanding on them for more regular songs. Bowie once claimed it was his favourite of his own albums, saying: “It only got one review – a good one, as it happens. Because it was designated as a soundtrack, it got zilch marketing. A real shame.”
Jump They Say (from Black Tie White Noise, 1993)
An unusually biographical song, Jump They Say was inspired by the 1985 suicide of Bowie’s half-brother Terry. Producer Nile Rodgers gave it its distinctive funk undertow, while Leftfield’s remix stands strong 23 years later too.
Hallo Spaceboy (from 1.Outside, 1995)
Inspired by Nine Inch Nails and another of Bowie’s favourite singles, it effectively completes the trilogy of songs inspired by Major Tom from Space Oddity and Ashes To Ashes. The album version was not inaccurately described by Bowie as “a metal Doors”, before it was completely transformed into shimmering synthpop for its single version by Pet Shop Boys.
Seven Years In Tibet (from Earthling, 1997)
The fifth and final single from Bowie’s drum & bass album, it encapsulates the fevered sound of an album which Bowie started just five years after finishing the tour for 1.Outside. Relying on real playing rather than sampled loops, Earthling was derided at the time, but has slowly been seen to be influential on Bowie’s later career, notably Blackstar.
The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell (from ‘hours…’, 1999)
A self-referential callback to the Bowie-produced Stooges classic Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell, the video features Bowie haunted by puppets which later reappeared in the film of The Last Day’s single Love Is Lost. Its accompanying album ‘hours…’ is notable for being the first ever album released online.
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (from Heathen, 2002)
A return to Bowie’s more traditional rock sound, Everyone Says ‘Hi’ was a typically wry moment of Heathen’s grandiose style. Superb drumming too from future Soundgarden sticksman Matt Chamberlain. Its B-side, Safe, was somehow rejected for the soundtrack of the Rugrats film.
Fall Dog Bombs The Moon (from Reality, 2003)
Atypcially political, Fall Dog Bombs The Moon is a coruscating attack on Dick Cheney, after his company Haliburton were put in charge of the clean-up operation in Iraq. Bowie called it “an ugly song about an ugly man” in cataloguing “corporate and military power.” Bowie didn’t often vent, but it was spectacular when he did.
The Next Day (from The Next Day, 2013)
After his heart attack on stage at his final gig in Germany in 2004, Bowie stayed silent. It was presumed Reality was his final album. Then, on his 66th birthday, it was announced out of nowhere that he was releasing an album, The Next Day. Its title track was immediately available, and was remarkably worth the wait. Dignified, stately, yet underpinned by Bowie’s overwhelming sense of fun, in every sense this was classic Bowie.
Lazarus (from Blackstar, 2016)
Only now do we know that Bowie was terminally ill when he made Blackstar do its lyrics take on extra poignancy. “Look up here, I’m in heaven”, he sings as the first proper single from the album. Unbearably sad, but don’t let that detract from the album’s brilliantly savage and sweary humour. Bowie may well be up in the sky now, but the gifts he left us were heavenly too.
Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn