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David Bowie’s Top 70 Songs

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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.

Happy birthday to our eternal Starman.

bowie David Bowies Top 70 Songs

–Matt Melis
Editorial Director

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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”

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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”

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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.”

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67. “The Jean Genie”

Aladdin Sane (1973)

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)

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)

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”

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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”

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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”

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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

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

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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”

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59. “Baby Universal”

Tin Machine II (1991)

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

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

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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”

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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”

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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

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

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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”

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54. “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”

Toy (2001)

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.”

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53. “Some Are”

Low outtake (1977)

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

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

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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”

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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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50. “Where Are We Now?”

The Next Day (2013)

By the time I really discovered David Bowie — sometime in the late aughts — there was legitimate reason to believe there might never be another album from him. To hear his voice anew, then, on surprise single “Where Are We Now?” after a decade felt something akin to a forgotten astronaut emerging from the far side of the moon and regaining radio contact. His frail voice floats through much of the song, somberly depicting the passage and fleeting nature of time, until the rousing final build seems to lead not necessarily to an answer to the track’s titular question, but instead to enough consolation that the inquiry becomes moot: “As long as there’s me/ As long as there’s you.” Hearing from Bowie again, we felt the same way. –Matt Melis 

Bowiest Lyric: “Where are we now?/ The moment you know/ You know, you know”

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49. “Watch That Man”

Aladdin Sane (1973)

In yet another classic Bowie twist, the man we most want to watch buries his vocals deep in the mix, making the task that much more difficult. Considering the story song’s shady (and Shakey) characters, the lux posturing, and the run away from all the rock and roll showboating lyrically, it only makes sense that the singer would be swallowed up by the thick Stones-y jam. The result is a relentless, undeniable hook into one of Bowie’s best albums. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric: Oh honey, watch that man/ He talks like a jerk, but he could eat you with a fork and spoon”

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48. “Cygnet Committee”

David Bowie (1969)

In the dystopian “Cygnet Committee”, like so many Bowie narratives, good intentions don’t lead to a brighter day, people use each other and let one another down, and pedestals crumble beneath those once anointed. Read by many as a condemnation of the ’60s hippy movement and a reaction to Bowie’s off-putting encounters with those types, the sprawling recounting signals a goodbye to a certain innocence and good will. “I gave them all/ They drain my very soul,” Bowie’s “Thinker” laments. He’s basically saying, “I won’t be fooled again.” –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “I gave them life/ I gave them all/ They drain my very soul”

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47. “TVC15”

Station to Station (1976)

“TVC15” falls on the “Entertainment as all-consuming terror” spectrum somewhere between Videodrome and Infinite Jest, though of course pulsing with David Bowie’s intense knowledge and subversion of classic rock tropes. The song was allegedly inspired by Iggy Pop’s hallucination of their television swallowing up his girlfriend, and the song bears that terror out in a funky groove as irresistible as the best TV series. The Thin White Duke’s mantric hook and looping structure play out like the constantly droning screen, all rolling atop that deliriously rollicking piano. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric: “My baby’s in there someplace, love’s rating in the sky/ So hologramic, oh my TVC15.”

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46. “Strangers When We Meet”

1. Outside (1995)

1. Outside may best be remembered as the reunion of Bowie with Berlin Trilogy collaborator Brian Eno, and “Strangers When We Meet” remains one of the inarguable highlights from the pair’s second go-round. Salvaged from the all-but-buried Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack, the song sheds its previous fuzzy electronics for a crisper arrangement that lets Bowie shine in the foreground. Whether or not you can make heads or tails of the album’s dystopian concept, characters, or story lines, there’s no denying that Bowie sounds rejuvenated and that the song sits among his most essential ’90s output. –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “All your regrets/ Ride rough-shod over me/ I’m so glad/ That we’re strangers when we meet”

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45. “Diamond Dogs”

Diamond Dogs (1974)

Bowie’s personas have enough character to warrant entire film series to them, nevertheless actual lives, and he knew how to introduce them to audiences in the most Broadway of ways. The titular lead single of 1974’s Diamond Dogs drew up the sashes to reveal a post-apocalyptic Manhattan where Halloween Jack sits atop a skyscraper, a place where Bowie merged glam rock with classic rock blues. It’s a strange mix. And yet it’s one of the only songs out there, not just in Bowie’s catalog, that encourages you to sashay down the street, tilt your head back, and let out a howl like the hound you are. –Nina Corcoran

Bowiest Lyric: “In the year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch/ Sashay on the boardwalk, scurry to the Ditch/ Just another future song, lonely little kitsch”

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44. “Jump They Say”

Black Tie White Noise (1993)

In “Jump They Say”, Bowie contorts personal tragedy into a jazz-infused dance track. Bowie was purportedly long troubled by the looming specter of mental illness in his family, a factor emphasized by the schizophrenia-prompted suicide of his brother, Terry. “Jump” explores the torment of voices and society’s scrutiny with a screaming, warped sax and a BPM matching the pulse of 1993. –Cap Blackard

Bowiest Lyric: “When comes the shaking man/ A nation in his eyes/ Striped with blood and emblazed tattoo/ Streaking cathedral spire”

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43. “Let’s Dance”

Let’s Dance (1983)

Nobody’s going to dispute the fact that Bowie is an icon. You can write dozens of books explaining why — many have — and very, very few would shake their heads and say, “Nah.” But that all changes when you try to name his most iconic song, simply because his body of work is the aural equivalent of a melted Rubik’s Cube. That being said, if you’re going for an obvious pick, you can do no better than “Let’s Dance”, arguably his most popular track and the first song that traditionally comes to mind for the general public upon hearing his name. Yet even at his most accessible, Bowie’s still the sharpest guy in the room, melding funky pop with the sweet Texas blues of Stevie Ray Vaughn. All it took were some red shoes! Who knew? –Michael Roffman

Bowiest Lyric: “And if you say run, I’ll run with you/ And if you say hide, we’ll hide…”

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42. “Slip Away”

Heathen (2002)

Heathens marked the return of both longtime co-producer Tony Visconti and Bowie’s mainstream popularity in the States. Part of that re-connection stems from the belief that Bowie, then a New Yorker, had made the album in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the city. Bowie’s denied that he wrote any of the songs post-9/11, but it’s easy to understand how a song like “Slip Away” (previously “Uncle Floyd” on the unreleased Toy album) resonated in those anxious, confusing times. The song marches bleakly forward, nostalgic for a different era, for a time and feeling lost forever. Though the album didn’t surface until the following June, what American that summer didn’t want to “slip away” to a simpler time when fire and pain didn’t rain down from the skies? –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “Don’t forget/ To keep your head warm/ Twinkle twinkle Uncle Floyd/ Watching all the world/ And war torn/ How I wonder where you are”

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41. “Queen Bitch”

Hunky Dory (1971)

Sometimes we forget that our icons grew up admiring somebody, too. Not even Bowie landed on the planet not needing a little creative nudge here or there. And that’s partly what makes Hunky Dory such an interesting crossroads: part of the record finds Bowie undergoing an artistic metamorphosis while the latter tracks openly pay tribute to those who had influenced him. In the case of “Queen Bitch”, Bowie concocts a jealous tale of exes and a drag queen that pays homage to The Velvet Underground both in style and in the colorful, seamy vision Bowie had of New York City from hearing Lou Reed’s music as a teen. Reed and Bowie would go on to become lifelong friends and even played “Queen Bitch” together at Bowie’s 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden. Bipperty-bopperty-boo! –Matt Melis 

Bowiest Lyric: “She’s so swishy in her satin and tat/ In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat/ Oh God, I could do better than that”

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40. “Under Pressure”

Single with Queen (1981)

It’s strange to imagine what Queen’s hit would’ve been like without Bowie’s contributions. His vocals add a heavier depth to an otherwise sneaky, poppy song, adding contrast between his vocals and Freddie Mercury’s that makes their pairing even more explosive than that build to “Why can’t we give ourselves one more chance?” Yet out of all the song’s moments, it’s Bowie’s parts that usher in goosebumps — because knowing the terror of what this world is about will, unfortunately, never lose its edge. –Nina Corcoran

Bowiest Lyric: “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about/ Watching some good friends screaming, ‘Let me out!'”

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39. “Warszawa”

Low (1977)

Low, the first installment in the now legendary Berlin Trilogy, found Bowie kicking a serious coke habit while seriously indulging in electronic and ambient music for the first time. But if legend is to be believed, “Warszawa”, composed by Brian Eno, owes much to producer Tony Visconti’s then-four-year-old son, who sat beside Eno in the studio playing a loop on a piano. The child’s tinkering inspired Eno, whose resulting theme, coupled with Bowie’s faux Eastern European lyrics, creates the effect of staring out at a desolate urban landscape. That’s some pretty dark shit, kid. –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “Mmmm-mm-mm-ommm/ Helibo seyoman/ Cheli venco raero/ Malio/ Malio”

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38. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

Ziggy remains one of the rock records by which we measure all others. No matter how many times we take that demented, fractured journey towards the apocalypse, it never fails to touch every pleasure point that rock and roll can. But it also always ends the same way: Ziggy, washed-up, used, and crushed by the weight of stardom. In Bowie’s songs, stars burn out quickly and yesterday’s heroes becomes tomorrow’s punchlines. I’ve always loved that final plea of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, its desperation to save one forgotten soul as impassioned as any of the record’s hopes for all humanity. –Matt Melis  

Bowiest Lyric: “I’ve had my share/ I’ll help you with the pain/ You’re not alone”

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37. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”

The Next Day (2013)

Much the way the music video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” explores duality and the doppelgänger, the song’s structure relies on the keen interplay of light and dark, taut rock and soaring atmosphere, toothy grit and lush density. Bowie delivers lines in exploration of fame and power in a poisoned snarl, each hewn from steel and spit eagerly. Yet the seemingly opposing halves cannot be split, just the way that fame and art, society and its obsession, sincerity and irony, cannot be separated. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric: Stars are never sleeping/ Dead ones and the living”

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36. “Beauty and the Beast”

“Heroes” (1977)

A perfect flash of the experimental ferociousness that marked Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy. “Beauty and the Beast” ensured that everyone who dropped the needle on “Heroes” knew that they’d unleashed a demon of a record. Featuring one-take guitar work from an intentionally jet-lagged Robert Fripp (as per Brian Eno’s oblique production strategies), the track snarls and strobes with dancey, indulgent dissonance. –Cap Blackard

Bowiest Lyric: “Something in the night, something in the day/ Nothing is wrong, but darling, something’s in the way”

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35. “Who Can I Be Now?”

Young Americans (1975) Outtake

Considering the legendary level of his songwriting, enigmatic and unique persona, history-making fashion sense, and just all-around other-worldly self, it’s a wonder that perhaps the most considered element of Bowie’s career is his ability to shift between phases and styles. And while that’s partially due to the immense talent needed to excel in each of these styles, it’s also a testament to his absolutely honest exploration of self and willingness to expose every bit of uncertainty. The language of chains and blindness in “Who Can I Be Now?” is at once heartbreaking and empowering, a sign that if even Bowie can go through this psychic calamity, we can all stand tall together in our conflicted, muck-y selves. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric: Someone has to see/ A role for him and me/ Someone might as well be you”

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34. “Panic in Detroit”

Aladdin Sane (1973)

Pressed to describe Aladdin Sane, Bowie responded: “Ziggy goes to America.” It makes sense given that Bowie composed most of the album while touring Ziggy across the States. But what doesn’t make sense is what Ziggy sees once he arrives on this side of the pond. A revolutionary tale told through a Bo Diddley Beat, congas, and female backing vocals, “Panic in Detroit” offers that singular brand of WTF? that only America seems capable of manufacturing. Bowie even suggested that the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt makeup represented his rival emotional responses: fascination and disgust. Take a look at the Oval Office come late January. Not much has changed. –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “I screamed and ran to smash my favorite slot machine/ And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights”

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33. “1984”

Diamond Dogs (1974)

It must have been strange to be a George Orwell reader as the year 1984 approached. It’s quite enough to step outside one’s door and witness an atrophying world, but to have the great modern dystopian novel circling next year’s calendar in bright red? Hell, I’d refuse to let the ball in Times Square drop. Following 1973’s Pin Ups, Bowie had in mind a musical theater production of Orwell’s novella, but ended up using the material on the back half of Diamond Dogs when the author’s estate denied him the rights. The Shaft-inspired “1984” highlights these compositions and makes the future sound both terrifying and oddly danceable. –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “They’ll split your pretty cranium, and fill it full of air/ And tell that you’re 80, but brother, you won’t care”

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32. “Fantastic Voyage”

Lodger (1979)

“I’ll never say anything nice again,” Bowie sings at the end of “Fantastic Voyage”, after detailing the way in which society has gone to the dogs and the world might end. At one point, the lines that should rhyme pair the words “missiles” and “scum.” This is the sound of Bowie facing the reality of the world and almost unable to rationalize just how shitty things have gotten. “I’ve got to write it down,” he repeats over the jumbled tune. The mess isn’t typically this easily represented, and Bowie’s cranky but representative response is touching in its simplicity and directness. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric: “We will get by, I suppose/ It is a very modern world/ But nobody’s perfect”

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31. “I’ll Take You There”

The Next Day (2013)

Many Bowie diehards will tell you that the bonus material from 2013’s surprise release, The Next Day, actually surpasses the content found on the standard release. And when listening to a track like “I’ll Take You There”, you kinda see their point. Blaring, manic, and fueled with a drive not found on the record proper, this scorching seeker makes a cut like “The Next Day” feel almost superfluous. If we had to choose (thankfully, we don’t) one new Bowie song about frantically trying to make sense of 2013 after a decade away, we’ll go with “I’ll Take You There”. –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “I don’t need to know/ Know where you are/ Only that you are/ Safe in this world/ Then I’ll be content/ To get on with my life/ Eat, drink, and sleep/ Look up at the stars”

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30. “Ashes to Ashes”

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)

The best Bowie songs to dance to are ones that draw out the bass. Though its detailed description of Major Tom’s demise is a somber revival of the “Space Oddity” character, “Ashes to Ashes” makes the most of Bowie’s musical creativity, combining instrumental parts that, despite their odd tones, work. He pairs wiggling, warped electronic sounds with slap bass. Distorted keys growl beneath high-pitched synth. It’s an ode to the ’70s that ushers in one final dance party no matter your state of mind because, well, love. –Nina Corcoran

Bowiest Lyric: “They got a message from the Action Man: ‘I’m happy. Hope you’re happy, too. I’ve loved. All I’ve needed: love. Sordid details following.'”

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29. “The Hearts Filthy Lesson”

1. Outside (1995)

If Bowie’s 1. Outside doesn’t have a treasured place in your concept album pantheon, you’re missing out. The “non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle” is a cyberpunk paradise of Art Crimes and “ape men with metal parts.” Ultimately, the parts aren’t as great as the sum of the whole, but the record is home to several indispensable standalone tracks, and “Heart” is chief among them. Consider this a sample of the illicit interest drugs that await when Leon takes you Outside. –Cap Blackard

Bowiest Lyric: “There’s always the Diamond friendly, sitting in the Laugh Motel”

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28. “Always Crashing in the Same Car”

Low (1977)

Always crashing in the same car is a fine metaphor on its own for making the same mistake over and over again. Then to learn that Bowie actually copped the figurative language from an cocaine-fueled incident when he rammed his Mercedes into a drug dealer’s car multiple times before speeding off and driving circles in his hotel’s underground parking garage, well, um, don’t do drugs, kids. But apart from a VH1 Storytellers-type anecdote maybe best forgotten, the song remains a muscular standout among the early fragments of Low. Musically, it puts you right in that passenger seat alongside Bowie. On second thought, maybe you’d better drive. –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “Oh, but I’m/ Always crashing in the same car”

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27. “Blackstar”

(2016)

Even before Bowie bowed out on this mortal coil, “Blackstar” was a triumph of a song. Cracking open the leather tome of the Goblin King’s occult fascinations, indulging his imminent mortality, and inviting aliens far and wide to take up his outsider mantle – the fact that he meant all of it in a literal sense was just the jewel on the proverbial astronaut skull. It’s a beautiful thing to hear Bowie be so indulgent, too: 10 minutes of dreamy, dark jazz landscapes that take listeners on a genuine sojourn through his uncanny mind. –Cap Blackard

Bowiest Lyric: “Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place and bravely cried: ‘I’m a blackstar'”

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26. “Fame”

Young Americans (1975)

That vocal drop! Those guitar plucks! The whammy bar! Bowie uses everything sparingly in “Fame”, but my god, when each note comes in, it electrifies. Why else was it his first No. 1 hit on Canadian and US Billboard Hot 100 charts? Bowie taught music lovers how to strut with “Fame”, even though the ’70s had its fair share of dance moments already, because the one thing disco could donate and rock needed to grasp was funk, especially in reserved quantities the way this does. –Nina Corcoran

Bowiest Lyric: “Fame puts you there where things are hollow”

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25. “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”

Let’s Dance (1983)

Though the film for which this song was initially made doesn’t hold up, the epic “Cat Power” has only doubled in power. The pairing of now-legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder and Bowie in one of his snarliest, grandest vocal performances is a slow-burning gem, an explosion occurring when the singer finally reaches the apex of his delivery. After nearly two minutes of crooning, the gradual build of Bowie’s baritone reaches an extreme height, making his mainstream moment that much more bizarre. (“I’ve been putting out fires with … gasoline”), stretching one last syllable into a soul-burning shot. The rest of the track pushes into gripping rhythms and swaggering guitar, Bowie always leading with fire in his eyes. It’s an ode to Bowie fans who enjoy the darker tinders lurking beneath his work. However you label this version of Bowie’s sound, it was manna for post-disco-lovers all over the world. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric: “Feel my blood enraged/ It’s just the fear of losing you.”

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24. “Suffragette City”

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

I’ll never understand how “Suffragette City” failed to chart when issued as a single. Though originally on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the song got a solo release four years later in 1976 because its catchy piano clunking and Bowie’s spitting delivery ramp it up with sass. It’s a song born to be a hit. Maybe fans were too busy yelling, “Wham bam thank you, ma’am!” to one another to call their radio stations with requests. I would be. –Nina Corcoran

Bowiest Lyric: “Wham bam thank you, ma’am!”

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23. “Fashion”

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)

Bowie allegedly wrote “Fashion” with the idea of the song falling in line with The Kinks’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”, another tale rolling its eyes at those trying oh so hard to make sure they fit right in. The intentionally senseless repeated “beep beep” fits like shoulder pads, exposing its own goofiness in an effort to make an impression. Bowie may have been the most fashionable person in the room at all times, but it certainly never came from being a follower of fashion, dedicated or otherwise. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric: Oh, bop, do do do do do do do do/ Fa-fa-fa-fa-fashion”

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22. “Sound and Vision”

Low (1977)

For a song about being shut up in a room with nothing to see but a single color and waiting around for senses to strike, “Sound and Vision” is a treat of sensuous glory. The guitar riff (a sound The Strokes and their ilk latched onto and excelled at decades later) is a sublime balm, and the twinkling synth sound feels like hope warming the edges. The song winks at itself, Bowie singing about waiting for inspiration in a song so delightfully inspired, the proto-garage that gave freedom, safety, and a place to experiment for artists to come. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric: I will sit right down/ Waiting for the gift of sound and vision/ And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision.”

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21. “Oh! You Pretty Things”

Hunky Dory (1971)

Whether interpreting the shocking thing coming down from the heavens as aliens or the next generation, there’s a charm in the way that Bowie addresses the passing of the baton, the end of one reign and the start of another. It’s the march of time, as inevitable as the next roll of piano chords coming from his limber hands. About a minute and a half in, the band kicks in behind him like a New Orleans second line funeral march, as much celebration as it is acknowledgment. If this is what it sounds like to be replaced by the “homo superior,” at least it’ll be a fun way to go out. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric: “Look out my window and what do I see/ A crack in the sky, and a hand reaching down to me …Oh You Pretty Things/ Don’t you know you’re driving your Mamas and Papas insane.”

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20. “The Man Who Sold the World”

The Man Who Sold the World (1970)

“The Man Who Sold the World” is probably the only example of a Bowie song reaching its greatest popularity because of a cover version. Nirvana’s performance of the song on MTV Unplugged was faithful down to the cut’s signature guitar riff, coming just before Cobain’s death and at a time when anything attached to the Nirvana brand received an added spotlight. It’s an example of just how important the relationship between Bowie’s music and his audience is, giving everything that Bowie’s ever done a sort of second life. –Philip Cosores

Bowiest Lyric: “I must have died alone/ A long, long time ago”

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19. “Modern Love”

Let’s Dance (1983)

Bowie’s catalog is peppered with tracks that made major waves on the radio and got listeners of all ages dancing, and yet, many of these same songs carried an undeniable darkness or existential questioning. While it might not reach the depths of his more epic tunes, “Modern Love” may have the glossiest coat covering its uncertain core. In successive spins on the chorus, the iconoclast tackles the concept of love, church, and then god and man, each one coming with its own fear and unease. And yet there’s a sense that he’s chasing it all still, that though the “modern” version of each comes flawed, there’s a spiritual connection (to other humans and to the sublime) that he’s reaching out to with outstretched fingertips. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric:(Modern love) gets me to the church on time/ (Church on time) terrifies me/ (Church on time) makes me party.”

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18. “Teenage Wildlife”

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)

While Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy now holds a revered place in music history, that doesn’t mean copies of his experimental collaborations with Brian Eno sold like heiße kuchen at the time. By 1980, Bowie was in search of a sound that could satisfy his artistic needs while appealing to a broader audience. He found that on “Teenage Wildlife” via a Ronnie Spector-influenced vocal delivery, a song structure similar to that of “‘Heroes'”, and an alleged axe to grind with up-and-coming New Wavers like Gary Numan. Luckily, nothing ever came of the grudge because Numan stayed in his car where he felt safest of all. Eh, sorry. –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “Same old thing in brand-new drag/ Comes sweeping into view, oh-ooh”

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17. “Moonage Daydream”

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

“I’m an alligator/ I’m a mama-papa coming for you/ I’m the space invader/ I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you.” So begins “Moonage Daydream”, punctuated by chunky riffs from Mick Ronson and then a shambling rhythm. The track introduces the astral Ziggy Stardust, glowing radioactive with sci-fi lyrics and identity experimentation. It incorporates pennywhistle and baritone saxophone without coming off Renaissance Fair and closes out on an explosion of guitar shrapnel. The song is packed to the gills with memorable musical moments, and yet Bowie’s dada persona experimentation carries the day without a hint of insincerity or cloying performance. He embodied a whole new world and translated it in one of his most endearing performances, helping all those alien listeners out there connect to something beautiful.

Bowiest Lyric: Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe/ Put your ray gun to my head/ Press your space face close to mine, love.”

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16. “Station to Station”

Station to Station (1976)

Station to Station often gets praised as much for its role as a transitional album as it does for being a great work in its own right. It’s true that Bowie’s new persona, The Thin White Duke, acts as the stylish, emotionless baton between the “plastic soul” of Young Americans and the experimental Berlin days to come. However, one listen to the album’s title track — Bowie’s longest recorded song — and it’s clear that there’s room for both that cold, mechanical trudging and the up-tempo R&B that follows. This is one station where we never mind if the train is running behind schedule. –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “There are you/ You drive like a demon from station to station”

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15. “I Can’t Give Everything Away”

(2016)

It’s impossible for us to separate  from the passing of David Bowie. In a sense, a birth and a death took place in only two days’ time – jubilation soon overshadowed by sorrow. And given that we now know what Bowie had known for quite some time, it’s understandable that we look to that newborn for answers, for messages. And no song do we more naturally flock to than the album’s final one. For us, these are not only parting words but a parting of worlds. When the ringing clouds finally dissipate at song’s end, we go on our way, but Bowie goes away. We can shift the needle and hear him return, but for only so long before he’s gone again. For the first time ever, no matter how open-minded we may be, where David Bowie goes next we cannot follow.

It’s natural to try and make sense out of these final sounds and words. Does the refrain “I can’t give everything away,” the “away” drifting off into space, lament that there was so much more to give or nothing left? I can’t answer that, nor do I think poring over a lyric sheet will crack the code either. As in everything Bowie ever did, including where he may or may not be right now, there’s an element of mystery. While our instincts and impulses crave answers and understanding, listening to Bowie’s swan song reminds us of how fortunate we are to play a part in a far greater mystery. –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “I can’t give everything/ Away…”

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14. “Time Will Crawl (MM Remix)”

iSelectBowie (2008)

Released as the Cold War drew to a close, “Time Will Crawl”’s nuclear pop never had its time to shine — especially amidst the production excess of Never Let Me Down. Now that the Doomsday Clock’s hands are once again at a steady tick, the apocalyptic track’s nightmare-evoking lyrics are more relevant than ever. The “MM Mix” version is the creation of engineer Mario J. McNulty and was commissioned by Bowie himself to be the definitive version and save an amazing song from ’80s fallout. –Cap Blackard

Bowiest Lyric: “I got a bad migraine/ That lasted three long years/ And the pills that I took/ Made my fingers disappear”

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13. “Young Americans”

Young Americans (1975)

“Young Americans” was one of the first left turns in a career of many, Bowie abandoning his intergalactic glam for something much more traditional. It’s essentially soul, with a horn section and backing singers, but distinct with the personality that he’d taken nine albums to craft. The song placed Bowie in a greater musical tradition, enough so that lifting a line from The Beatles seemed like fair game (Lennon would even guest on the album). Its style even got its own name: “plastic soul.” When they are coining genre names for you, things must be going well. –Philip Cosores

Bowiest Lyric: “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?”

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12. “Changes”

Hunky Dory (1971)

Not a year will pass where “Changes” doesn’t make a lump rise in your throat. It’s the perfect combination of gut-punching goodies: creeping chord progressions, timeless piano, a slick sweeping of strings, a chorus of pre-packed advice, and an emotional saxophone outro. Bowie knew how to package pop songs that combined realism with fantasy, but didn’t leave you empty-handed when reality set in. Instead, he grabs a hold of your palm, offers a smile, and suggests you dance, even if the future looks grim. You can’t chase time, but at least Bowie will be by your side throughout it. –Nina Corcoran

Bowiest Lyric: “Time may change me/ But I can’t trace time”

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11. “Ziggy Stardust”

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

The euphoric opening moments of “Ziggy Stardust” are everything we want rock and roll to be: chaotic, cathartic, and celebratory. It’s just impossible to hear Mick Ronson’s guitar and Mick Woodmansey’s drums collide with Bowie’s “Ah, yeah-eah-eah” and not begin glowing stupidly from fiery mane to platform boots. While we know Ziggy may be heading toward disaster by the end of this glam power ballad, we’re left jamming too hard to notice his fall. So sue us. –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “Making love with his ego/ Ziggy sucked up into his mind/ Like a leper messiah”

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10. “Space Oddity”

David Bowie (1969)

If you’ve only heard one David Bowie song, it’s probably “Space Oddity”. It’s also the first Bowie song that the masses connected with, giving the legend his initial charting single in the UK and his first #1. Everything about those distinctions is appropriate when taking into account its content: the tale of an astronaut’s space launch from a performer hellbent on blasting listeners into the cosmos. While we can argue about Bowie’s best songs, it doesn’t get more iconic than this. –Philip Cosores

Bowiest Lyric: “I’m floating in a most peculiar way/ And the stars look very different today”

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09. “All the Young Dudes”

Aladdin Sane sessions (1972)

It’s hard to believe there was a time when David Bowie considered himself more songwriter than performer, someone whose songs would be better off in someone else’s hands and hearts. But that’s the origin of “All the Young Dudes”, one of the most explosive generational rock hooks handed off to Mott the Hoople. While the full band suits the song, the foundational pieces are all there on paper; lyrically, Bowie’s bundles of smirking hip slang (“boogaloo dudes,” anyone?) and asides at the older generation (“And my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones/ We never got it off on that revolution stuff/ What a drag, too many snags”) all attempting to anchor against the always nearing darkness. All the young dudes might be together, but the news they’re carrying is certainly not happy. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric: We never got it off on that revolution stuff/ What a drag/ Too many snags”

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08. “Golden Years”

Station to Station (1976)

Glory days are fleeting, and even though he sustained a legendary career over decades, Bowie was self-aware that every golden year could wind up smothered in darkness. Though it opens with an undeniable funk groove and a blearily simple vocal hook, the kind of thing that drove so many mindless pop tunes of its era, one of Bowie’s absolute best octave-leaping vocal performances and some slyly nuanced lyrics reveal the song’s mystic depth. In one instance, the word “gold” stretches majestically from the lowest low to the highest high, the weight of the word so all-encompassing that it, like love or hate or death, could crack the whole world apart beneath your feet. For every repetition of the song’s title, Bowie’s verses start to reveal the encroaching shadow. All the traditional talk of a “baby” or “angel” is subverted, too — though he promises that nothing’s gonna touch his baby in a thousand years, you don’t promise that unless there’s a threat that something will. “Run for the shadows in these golden years,” he cries, the darkness of the world seen through a golden reflection, the pleasure of high times always tied to someone’s pain. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric: “Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere, angel/ Come get up, my baby/ Run for the shadows, run for the shadows/ Run for the shadows in these golden years”

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07. “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)”

Diamond Dogs (1974)

Are we cheating by sneaking three songs into the seven slot? Maybe. I like to think we’re being true to Bowie’s intentions by keeping the “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” suite intact. (After all, you wouldn’t break up the Abbey Road medley, would you?) The song depicts a night out, one that starts with some promise of comforts but ends in a cocaine snowstorm. Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the suite is how we can see and feel the fleeting night play out through subtle instrumental changes and Bowie’s versatility both as an actor and singer. Come for the suite; stick around for “Rebel Rebel”. Don’t mind if we do. –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “It’s got claws/ It’s got me/ It’s got you”

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06. “Starman”

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

It’s fitting that critics initially thought “Starman” was a sequel to Bowie’s first hit single, 1969’s “Space Oddity”. In some respects, it feels like one, what with all the extraterrestrial allusions and the fact that it was his second hit. Despite the name, though, there’s something rather human about the track, and much of that feeling can be attributed to the raw innocence that bleeds through every part of the song — from Bowie’s balmy acoustics to Mick Ronson’s celebratory riff to those weepy strings. It’s chummy, too, a parable of hope told with a magical cadence that radiates upon every listen. Though, no listen can compare to its stunning performance on the BBC’s Top of the Pops. Nobody wore happiness like Bowie and Ronson. –Michael Roffman

Bowiest Lyric: “Some cat was layin’ down some rock ‘n’ roll ‘lotta soul, he said”

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05. “Loving the Alien”

Tonight (1984)

Lyrically speaking, “Loving the Alien” is a complex exploration of religion in the West – specifically Christianity’s often brutal conversion of “heathen” cultures in the Middle East. Bowie’s gaze meshes prayer, fear, and the hope for salvation into a shockingly sensual yearning. But there’s another layer to the song. Musically, the track embodies the sexual mysticism so prevalent in Bowie’s mythology. Though disconnected from the direct lyrics, “loving the alien” becomes a statement both about Bowie himself being drawn to other worlds, both in sci-fi and the occult – and, by virtue of Bowie embodying those things, our draw to Bowie as an embodiment of alien beauty. –Cap Blackard

Bowiest Lyric: “Believing the strangest things/ Loving the alien”

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04. “Rebel Rebel”

Diamond Dogs (1974)

Bowie redefined what it meant to embrace your sexuality, in part because he blurred the lines between masculinity and feminity, early on — and yet not early enough for those who felt themselves questioning their identities in a similar fashion. “Rebel Rebel” wields its opening words with the confidence of someone who knows they want to dress up, they want to splash makeup across their face, and they want to dance freely. And thus, the term “hot tramp” was reclaimed as one of endearment. –Nina Corcoran

Bowiest Lyric: “You’ve got your mother in a whirl/ She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl”

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03. “Five Years”

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

I’d heard many David Bowie songs before ever listening to “Five Years”. I’m sure that’s not unusual. When the time came to finally purchase my first Bowie record, I bought Ziggy Stardust. Also, probably not an anomaly. And I remember playing “Five Years” at least a dozen times before ever letting the album skip ahead to “Soul Love” or any of the classic Ziggy cuts you’ll find throughout this list. It sounded so confident, taking me by the hand, never breaking stride, not even when it reached the heights of its dizzying crescendo or when it finally toppled (like one heart too many on a castle of playing cards) and faded out, leaving me wondering where exactly I was at. “Five Years” does more than just kick off an indelible rock record or act as a gateway for starmen, leper messiahs, and rock ‘n’ roll suicides. It unlocks something inside the listener — what exactly, I can’t begin to say. As it marches forward towards the ultimate countdown, it’s frantic and troubled yet elegant and sweeping, somehow grander than life … just like Bowie. Hyperbolic, maybe, but it’s one of those songs that shifts the cargo in our hauls, that makes the world, not just our record collections, seem infinitely wide and yet somehow all within our grasp. Wow, my brain hurts a lot. –Matt Melis

Bowiest Lyric: “My brain hurt like a warehouse/ It had no room to spare/ I had to cram so many things to store everything in there”

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02. “‘Heroes'”

“Heroes” (1977)

In 1975, Captain and Tenille sang that “Love Will Keep Us Together”. Two years later, David Bowie rejected that sentiment, singing instead that “nothing” will. Written in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, watching a doomed romance (between the married Tony Visconti and a Bowie backup singer) unfold under a guard tower, “Heroes” expertly captures the hopeless reality that nothing lasts and that we all must die — and also the inherent beauty in the fact that we all live and love in our time despite that fact. “And the guns, shot above our heads/ And we kissed, as though nothing could fall,” he sings, insisting powerfully on the heroic nature of love in a cold world. And, in one of the most concrete examples of Bowie’s world-changing power, his performance of the song at the West Berlin Reichstag is considered a watershed moment on the path to the fall of the very wall that inspired the song. Since then, “Heroes” has become an anthem for love against any number of obstacles, prejudices, and aggressors, a powerful statement for the disenfranchised and downtrodden, a crushing sing-along of hope and beauty. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric: “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”

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01. “Life on Mars?”

Hunky Dory (1971)

The curtains peer open, only to reveal something small — “a godawful small affair,” to be precise. A girl with mousy hair is sent from home by her fighting parents, only to wind up getting stood up by her friend at the theater. But she sticks around, and the blur of images and signifiers that unreel on the screen blend with her reality, raising the question whether art or life is real. That sort of scene has fueled countless songs of teen angst, but Bowie is more interested in analyzing those products than the angst itself, in that way digging even deeper into the surreal reality we all face, deceptively simple social commentary that reveals everything trying to hide. Reportedly written as a reaction to the media, Bowie borrows from and subverts typical mass media tropes (Mickey Mouse grows up a cow, “look at those caveman go” borrowed from a little-known doo-wop hit, sailors and lawmen), though all presented in a soaring, astral hook as conventionally appealing and approachable as any of the things he’s picking apart. He has so expertly dissected the inanity of real life that he can chop up the pieces, rearrange them, and still find it boring — “the film is a saddening bore/ Because I wrote it 10 times or more.”

The theatrical musical production unfolds in perfect clarity, yet the story is filled with unfulfilled signposts: What do any of these characters or scenes have to do with each other? And yet it still feels so right, Bowie’s vocal arcing over the top, the marquee announcing the insanity in irresistible and lovable incandescence. And as the last flickers of light flash across the screen, the girl is left sitting there, dazzled yet unhappy to accept the reality she faces, questioning whether this sort of surreal, beautiful, artistic vision of life can extend beyond the screen — “Is there life on Mars?” And, as the song ends, that question repeats, leaving her (and the listener) without an answer. But the answer lies within the song, within Bowie.

Generations from now we may start to visit Mars, to find out whether indeed there’s some fantastic existence out there beyond our own. But in the meantime, these bursts of surreal beauty, offered by geniuses like David Bowie, are what we have, there for us when we face the poor pains of life and need them most. They may not let us escape our reality, but they give us a chance to face those pains in a new way, to welcome them. While at times that might leave a melancholy question lingering in our minds, at others it’s the absolute key to survival, and “Life on Mars?” in all its questioning beauty can easily fulfill both roles. –Lior Phillips

Bowiest Lyric: “It’s on America’s tortured brow/ That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow/ Now the workers have struck for fame/ ‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again”

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Playlist

Stream our entire collection of songs, sans a few outliers, below via Spotify:

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