I woke up this morning with every intention of finishing up my review for Blackstar, but with the news of David Bowie’s death so fresh in the air, it feels rather crass to rush out a surface analysis of his latest album (I’d rather, now, take the time to savor it, giving each track the attention it deserves). So instead of a first impressions review on this day of Bowie remembrance, I offer commemoration that is much more consistent with the journalistic tendencies of today’s “Young Americans.” That is, a list of my personal favorite Bowie tracks from growing up. There aren’t too many B-sides here, but that doesn’t matter. He was cool enough that even his most over-played tracks are welcome earworms.
1. “Let’s Dance”
Alright, I’m starting the list with an easy crowd-pleaser. For anyone with even an inkling of love for funk, this song is simply irresistible. But David Bowie being David Bowie, it’s not enough for a funky song to be only that. The song weaves in and out of anthem-like refrains, slowing down for the “I’ll run with you” declarations, and at times even sounding like it might sit nicely next to “The Twist.” In other words, “Let’s Dance” is a total genre-bender, in addition to being exactly what its title suggests: a good dance track.
2. “Ashes to Ashes”
As a whole, Scary Monsters has to be my favorite Bowie album. Pretty much every track is memorable on its own, many of them haunting but also relentlessly catchy. “Ashes to Ashes” highlights the lasting strengths of what has been, regrettably, discarded by many as a coke-frenzied, so-’80s album. It has everything a person could ask for in a Bowie song, between his warbling, creepy vocals, an unforgettable opening melody, and just the right amount of energy to keep the party going without ever burning out.
3. “Rebel Rebel”
Though my parents both like David Bowie, there was always a noticeable lack of his work among their record collection. So growing up, all I really had to go on was his early greatest hits album Changes One (the only Bowie they had on vinyl). As a kid, I regularly nodded along to this simple rock track, as it directly followed my favorite “Diamond Dogs” on that album. I can’t even objectively say whether or not this is a decent song, because for years I only ever listened to it when still bursting with adrenaline from its predecessor on Changes One. But, because of those early good associations, I’ll always love the opening riff.
4.”Scream Like a Baby”
I can’t resist putting another Scary Monsters song on here. The album is just too good to be passed over. “Scream Like a Baby” is the one song on the album that ever truly scared me. The idea of a gun with a personality (no less, in the hands of someone who’s been in and out of mental institutions) seriously freaks me out. And yeah, I get that the gun is only a metaphor, but still… However, by the end of the song, I always feel kind of bad for Sam the gun when he kills himself. The song is a great plea for compassion, showing the perspective of the riff raff who have been repeatedly abused because the world just doesn’t get them.
5. “Suffragette City”
It’s sort of freaky to think about now, but anyone who neared my bedroom over the last few days already knows that I binge-listened to this song over the weekend, totally clueless to the fact that David Bowie was so close to breathing his last. It’s a great tune to wake up to, drive to, dance to, and great frustrated to while trying to teach yourself how to play it (Bowie songs are just no fun copying without a huge band to cover the many moving parts).
The early turn in this song from crystalline winding to the simple bass thud is totally unforgettable, and equally stunning when the same move returns later in the song. Thematic content aside, this song always lifts me up, even on the worst days.
7. “Sound and Vision”
Another pick-me-up, “Sound and Vision” really highlights Bowie’s prowess as a visionary and an entertainer. It brings so many elements together in such a natural way. Something my mom once told me, which has stuck in my mind for many years, is that she is most impressed by musicians who make their work look easy (rather than visibly exhaust themselves on songs that already sound difficult). “Sound and Vision,” in my opinion, puts David Bowie in that category of impressive performers and creators. A person could spend tons of time isolating the various musical strands in this deceptively simple tune, but its easy-goingness derives from Bowie’s skill as a born writer/composer/worker. He makes his inspiration sound like it comes much more naturally than it realistically ever could.
8. “The Man Who Sold the World”
This song got a bunch of attention when Nirvana covered it on MTV, but this version is just as fascinating as the super-successful (and irresistible) cover. It’s sad and beautiful, sounding more like a lament for what’s been lost or wrongfully taken, than sold.
There’s not much I can say about “Fashion.” If you don’t like this song, then there might honestly be something wrong with you. But don’t just take it from me. Take it from the Goon Squad. Beep beep.
10. “Diamond Dogs”
No existing language has the proper words to describe exactly how much I love this song. It has always been my favorite Bowie tune, and most likely always will be (please excuse all the absolutes, I just really really love “Diamond Dogs”).
11. “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”
I said earlier that I wouldn’t write about Blackstar tracks yet, but I have to include this one on the list. Even though it’s only been out in the world for a few days, I can already tell that this is a song I’ll turn back to for the rest of my life. It is just so exemplary of Bowie’s brilliance and intellect. I have to assume he took inspiration for the title from John Ford’s somewhat obscure 17th century play, ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore (for once, I’m appreciating the misery of slogging through that wacky tragedy last year for a Shakespeare class). In addition to being one of the most–perhaps the most–forward-thinking figures in the history of rock, Bowie was undeniably well-read. He always knew how to take his education of subjects spanning human history, and turn those topics on their heads with classic pop pizzazz.