The last time I checked there were 50-odd David Bowie compilations, and they’re piling up at an even greater rate since his death.
But even as record companies pick at his bones releasing 200 quid box sets and best-ofs with the same 30-40 songs, there’s a good sport to be had picking a list of personal favourites.
I have a Bowie playlist on Apple Music of 1,196 songs that’s always on shuffle, no skipping allowed – even his 60s mod tracks and the cheesiest recesses of Never Let Me Down. So I gave myself a challenge of trying to squeeze a best of onto an imagined 90-minute mixtape that I’d give to a best mate or a weirdo who’d missed the boat on David…
1. Station To Station (Station To Station, 1975)
Bowie’s longest song at over 10 minutes, Station To Station was recorded in the depths of his cocaine psychosis and occultism, and introduced his nastiest character The Thin White Duke, “throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”.
A song in three acts, the avant-garde arrangements, krautrock repetition and train samples are a direct line to his sonic experimentation on Low in 1977 — and there’s even some magical piano from Roy Bittan, borrowed from the E Street Band. Station To Station is the most majestic opening to any Bowie album, and one of his most hysterically brilliant vocal deliveries. And he can’t even remember recording any of it.
Best bit: “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine… I’m thinking that it must be love.”
2. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (Scary Monsters, 1980)
One of Bowie’s most swaggering tracks — from his exaggerated Cockney baritone to the sheet metal arrangements and Robert Fripp’s dagger guitar solos. The subtle distorted vocal treatment adds to the disorientation.
Best bit: “I lahve the li’l girl and I lahve her til the day she dies”, David hamming it up like an East End gangster full of double gins.
3. Look Back In Anger (Lodger, 1979)
The third in the ‘Berlin Trilogy’, Lodger is Bowie’s most underrated album, on account of it following the 10/10 double-drop of Low and “Heroes” in 1977. Lodger is still still full of skewed pop and avant-rock classics, and Look Back In Anger gallops out of the speakers on the back of some serious prog metal drumming from Dennis Davis.
Best bit: That top of a cliff wind machine moment in the last chorus: “Look back in anger, feel it in my voice!”
4. Blackout (Heroes, 1977)
Bowie’s lyrics on Low were sparse, with sketches and repeated refrains that tailed off, but “Heroes” had him back in verbose form. It sounds like he’s trying to bite the microphone in half on Blackout, manically screaming over mangled proto-industrial guitar wails.
Best bit: “Get me to the doctaaah!”
5-6. Future Legend/Diamond Dogs (Diamond Dogs, 1974)
In 1974 Bowie introduced his post-Ziggy persona Halloween Jack, a “real cool cat”. The Diamond Dogs LP is a far sleazier take on glam rock, punctured by a dystopian fog, still hanging over things even after Orwell’s estate refused to let Bowie make it an official 1984 adaptation.
Intro Future Legend has one of his most grotesque passages, a feral “Hunger City”, with “fleas the size of rats”, “rats the size of cats”, “packs of dogs” and tribes of “peoploids” wandering the “slimy thoroughfare”.
Best bit: “This ain’t rock’n’roll — this is genocide!”
7. Suffragette City (Ziggy Stardust, 1972)
One of Bowie’s personal favourites, this is one of his only real headbangers, with a scummy ARP synth riff that sounds like a banjaxed saxophone. Mick Rock’s famous ‘fellatio’ photo of Bowie and Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson was taken during a performance of Suffragette City in Oxford in 1972.
Best Bit: “Wham-bam thank you ma’am!”
8. Breaking Glass (Low, 1977)
The first vocal track on Low feels like a shrug compared with the coked-up histrionics on the Station To Station album. Bowie hints obliquely at psychosis with a flat, anti-rock delivery, tangled in jagged guitars and a jarring synth line panning right to left.
Best bit: “Don’t look at the carpet… I drew something awful on it. See…”
9. Sound and Vision (Low, 1977)
Bowie says Low was “a new way of looking at life”, and Sound and Vision is a song about retreating from LA and his drug paranoia: “I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision.” He joked in later years that he moved from the cocaine capital of the world to Berlin, the heroin capital of the world. With Iggy Pop.
Best bit: That first few synthetic drum snaps, treated with the Eventide Harmonizer, which producer Tony Visconti famously said “fucks with the fabric of time”.
10. Boys Keep Swinging (Lodger, 1979)
Bowie doesn’t get enough credit for his sly sense of humour, and Boys Keep Swinging is one of his few directly funny songs. It seems like a trite celebration of being a lad, undercut with digs at gender inequality: “Heaven loves ya/ The clouds part for ya.” He subverted it further by dressing as three different drag queens in the video, and smearing lipstick over his face.
Best bit: “Luck just kissed you hello.”
11. Fashion (Scary Monsters (1980)
It takes some balls for the actual David Bowie to write a snide song about the shallowness of following fashion trends, but this is one of his best commentary pieces, tossed off with a self-aware cocky sneer. Brilliant foot-stomping metallic funk, with Carlos Alomar and Robert Fripp on jarring guitar stabs.
Best bit: “Beep beep!”
12. Beauty and the Beast (“Heroes”, 1977)
The opener of “Heroes” has the closest thing to a ‘drop’ on any Bowie song. The half-minute build-up at the start of Beauty and the Beast gives way to one of his most unhinged songs – an ode to his on-off relationship with coke.
After Brian Eno duelled on synth with guitarist Carlos Alomar, he apparently called Robert Fripp out of the blue to come and play “some hairy rock’n’roll” over the top of it. Fripp’s manic soloing was done in one take as he was hearing the song for the first time, without a word being said.
Best bit: “Someone fetch a priest!”
13. Ashes To Ashes (Scary Monsters, 1980)
You’ve been singing Ashes To Ashes for years, but ever zone in on how weird it actually is? That brittle distorted synth riff, the metallic musique concrete effects, the slap bass and Bowie’s ghostly detachment, updating us on Space Oddity hero Major Tom’s drug spiral.
Scary Monsters was an attempt to write commercial hits after the Berlin trilogy, but even one of his catchiest songs is one of his most sonically inventive.
Best bit: That few seconds just before the second verse with the jabbering echo chamber nonsense vocals. It feels like he’s brazenly seeing what he can get away with.
14. Where are we Now? (The Next Day, 2013)
On Bowie’s 66th birthday on January 8, 2013, the world woke up to his first new song in 10 years, posted on his website with zero warning or PR. It turns out he’d recorded The Next Day album as well, with his musicians signing non-disclosure agreements and his label Sony fully out of the loop.
At first Where Are We Now? Seems slight, a whimper of a return. But after 24 hours of rolling news and Sky and BBC pundits unpacking the song, it grew in stature once the hype dissolved. It’s a candid meditation on the passage of time, with references to Berlin and direct emotional yearning. One of his most disarming and straight-up beautiful songs.
Best bit: “As long as there’s me/ As long as there’s you.”
15. Art Decade (Low, 1977)
The second side of Low was one of the most radical passages of music in the 70s, five tracks of abstract synth ambience after the already confounding stuttery funk and detached rock on side one. Warszawa is the most famous, but it’s too terrifying to put in the middle of a mixtape. Art Decade is built on Brian Eno’s melancholy synth melody with odd sonic tinkering, and a recurring jingle that sounds like ghostly sleigh bells.
Best bit: At around 0:10, inventing Space Invader arcade noises.
16. V2 Schneider (“Heroes”, 1977)
Bowie was obsessed with Kraftwerk in the mid-70s, and this was his own tribute to Florian Schneider. Station To Station had already been inspired by the motor effects of Autobahn, and Kraftwerk in turn had followed with Trans Europe Express. On V-2 Schneider Bowie took flight, with rocket synth effects over off-time sax and military drum fills.
Best bit: “When the processed vocals finally come in near the end: “Veeeeee-twoooooo Schneider.”
17. Aladdin Sane (Aladdin Sane, 1973)
The whole Bowie persona thing can be exaggerated — Aladdin Sane is really just Ziggy with a lightning bolt and some fucked up growth on his forehead. But there’s a big jump in sonics between both albums, with Ziggy’s glam rock stomp giving way to more sophisticated arrangements, and Mike Garson’s avant-garde jazz piano.
Best bit: Garson’s iconic three-minute piano solo — done in one take.
18. Five Years (Ziggy Stardust, 1972)
The Ziggy opener is one of Bowie’s most evocative world-building epics, built on Woody Woodmansey’s famous waltz drum beat. After the breakthrough LP Hunky Dory in 1971, Five Years takes a grim left turn, announcing the end of the world and the population’s manic reaction after the “news guy wept and told us, Earth was really dying”.
Best bit: “I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour, drinking milkshakes cold and long/ Smiling and waving and looking so fine, don’t think you knew you were in this song.”
19. Blackstar (Blackstar, 2016)
At least he had one masterpiece left in him. The lead single from his swansong album is a haunting 10-minute sprawl of skronky free jazz sax, pulsing electronics and psychedelic soul. While his 2013 album The Next Day was a relative triumph, it was a self-referential comfort blanket, even down to the “Heroes”-defacing artwork. Way more than a ‘return to form’, Blackstar was Bowie’s best song in over 30 years, and the album was a beautiful parting shot.
Best bit: At 0.55, when the breakbeat kicks in properly
20. Heroes (“Heroes”, 1977)
Heroes is maybe Bowie’s most objectively brilliant song — a song so perfect it feels like some kind of miracle. It can’t even be killed off by X Factor dickheads, Team GB at the London Olympics, or a preposterous Thirty Seconds To Mars cover. Inspired by producer Tony Visconti sneaking a kiss with a back-up singer at the Berlin Wall, it’s become the ultimate song about love conquering all obstacles (and some bullshit about swimming like dolphins).
Best bit: “I… I can remember/ standing by Wall…”