This week the world has been looking back upon the career of David Bowie, with January 10 marking the first anniversary of his death. Bowie left behind him over five decades worth of music, having spent an unparalleled amount of time at the forefront of his art, boldly acquainting himself with new audiences throughout each era of the music industry since the ’60s.
Bowie was so successful at reinvention because, unlike most artists, it never felt like he was sacrificing his dignity as a creator in order to “fit in” with a new crowd. Rather than hitching onto bandwagons, Bowie’s transition from rock, to glam rock, to funk, to soul, to pop and beyond instead felt like a natural progression, with him deftly slipping between genres while greatly influencing them, too.
Due to his extraordinary prolificacy, narrowing down his greatest work from the last half-century is incredibly difficult — this list was originally intended to be a top 20, but rounding down such an extensive back catalogue into just twenty songs was nigh-on impossible. Even a top 40 feels like a disservice, when you consider that almost every track on the likes of
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stadust and the Spiders From Mars or Hunky Dory could happily feature on a list of the greatest songs of their respective decades.
This top 40 list in no way includes all of the great Bowie songs, then, but is a collection of both his most important and defining moments as a creator, the underrated classics that have slipped by the wayside over the years and, yes, his greatest hits. Each song on this list highlights how and why David Bowie remained so vital to the music world even until his dying days, and how he musically excelled beyond the grasp of even his most legendary of peers and contemporaries.
Here are the top 40 best David Bowie songs ever:
Listen to the Top 40 Best David Bowie Songs Ever playlist below:
Image Credit: Ron Galella (L) / Debi Doss (R) / Getty Images
Top 40 David Bowie Songs
40. 'Memory of a Free Festival'
Before Bowie launched into the kaleidoscopic pop of
Hunky Dory, he released the quintessentially '60s 'Memory of a Free Festival'. Recorded using a child's electric chord organ, this closer to the Space Oddity LP was seemingly a triumphant ode to the free-loving festival culture of the time period, though many believe that it's instead a parody of the hippies that populated a London festival he had visited.
39. 'Boys Keep Swinging'
Lodger may have been the least accomplished album in Bowie's 'Berlin Trilogy', but 'Boys Keep Swinging' was one of the best singles taken from this time period. Propelling him into the UK's top ten charts for the first time since 'Sound and Vision', Bowie's derisive take on gender norms was way ahead of its time, and the contentious nature of its lyrics (particularly the line "other boys check you out") saw it being censored in a performance on Saturday Night Live.
38. ''Tis A Pity She Was a Whore'
Blackstar track is a five-minute scramble of mad energy, laced with an anti-war sentiment and Bowie uttering the bizarre couplet "Black struck the kiss / she kept my cock". A saxophone, an instrument that served as a staple of Bowie's career, rips through the heart of the song, until it explodes in a raucous, beautiful mess.
37. 'New Killer Star'
The '90s were a
rough period of time for Bowie. Although the '80s were a decade of sporadic successes punctuated by ill-advised efforts to re-enter the zeitgeist, the '90s saw him falling firmly out of relevancy, beginning with his contributions to the underwhelming four-piece Tin Machine and concluding with the mediocre Hours. The '00s fortunately breathed new life into him, particularly on the album Reality, which would also mark his last ever tour. Its lead single 'New Killer Star' is the pick of the bunch, with it sharing a lot in common with Blur's later, more experimental output (this influence hasn't been confirmed), while providing subtle commentary on the escalating conflict in the Middle East. Bowie wouldn't create a new album for ten years, but 'New Killer Star' was as good a single as any to signify his extended absence.
36. 'Song For Bob Dylan'
Hunky Dory track was a mission statement for David Bowie, expressing his desire to fill the gap left by Bob Dylan as rock's talisman. It's no coincidence that the track features a Presley-esque voice warble, with Bowie's rockstar inclinations laid bare. Bowie's admiration for Dylan was well-noted, with him even having worked on a musical based around the songwriter that eventually morphed into 2015's Lazarus.
35.'The Jean Genie'
Inspired by his friend and collaborator Iggy Pop, 'The Jean Genie' was a bluesy number written in the company of actress and model Cyrinda Foxe, who the musician had been spending time with in the early '70s. Simple but effective, the inherent catchiness of 'The Jean Genie' caused it to be a mainstay of Bowie's live set throughout his career.
34. 'Up The Hill Backwards'
Arguably one of Bowie's most lyrically accomplished songs, though not often ranked among his most popular, 'Up The Hill Backwards' is an excellent tear down of self-absorption in the time of crisis. "It's got nothing to do with you / if one can grasp it", Bowie chants derisively. One of his more underrated tracks, Bowie later said that 'Up The Hill Backwards' had "far more power than it would first seem".
After having his ambitions to stage a musical based upon
Nineteen Eighty-Four blocked by George Orwell's estate, Bowie embarked upon his own musical, Diamond Dogs. The show's subsequent album was Bowie's final foray into glam rock, with '1984' a stomping, sufficiently over-the-top march from out of the genre and into the next phase of his career.
32. 'The Bewlay Brothers'
'The Bewlay Brothers' is one of the most interesting songs of Bowie's career, with it still confusing fans to this day as a result of its vague lyrics. Now believed to be an autobiographical tale regarding his struggles with his schizophrenic half-brother, more so than perhaps any other track in Bowie's extensive library, the inveigling mystery of 'The Bewlay Brothers' made it the perfect song to close out the evocative
31. 'Drive-In Saturday'
'Drive-In Saturday' was retrofuturistic in both concept and execution, with Bowie lovingly mimicking finger-clicking doo-wop against a story of an alien future world, looking back on our own with their "Astronette 8s." Its high concept could have easily been overlooked in favour of concluding that Bowie was singing a straightforward, '50s-tinged love story, which is what makes it so special.
Bowie and producer Brian Eno's Berlin Trilogy can perhaps best be summarised by 'Warszawa'. As far removed from the campy rock 'n' roll of his early '70s career as possible, 'Warszawa' is an unpleasant listen that washes over the listener in waves. Despite the presence of 110 different vocals on the track, each one belongs to Bowie, with him effectively acting as an orchestra among Eno's haunting soundscape.
29. 'Beauty and the Beast'
The second side of
Low is arguably the most impenetrable of Bowie's career, so for many its follow-up "Heroes" opening with the oddly comical 'Beauty and the Beast' was a relief. Though retaining the abstract nature of all of Bowie's recordings with Eno (lead guitarist Robert Fripp stated that he recorded his part in the song in one take), 'Beauty and the Beast' was a different monster than the claustrophobic conclusion to the first entry in the Berlin Trilogy. Fun fact: the song's odd lyric"someone fetch a priest" is supposedly a reference to producer Tony Visconti's frequent proclamation "someone fuck a priest!" during their recording sessions.
28. 'Be My Wife'
Frequently described by Bowie as one of his personal favorite songs, 'Be My Wife' also unfortunately helped prove his claims that he couldn't "pick a single if it hit me in the face", with it failing to chart despite the success of its fellow
Low track 'Sound and Vision'. 'Be My Wife' firmly stands out from the rest of the album, not just because of its deviation from the minimalist sound employed by Bowie and Brian Eno on its other tracks, but because of Bowie's thick London accent, something which had been almost completely absent from his '70s recording up until that point.
27. 'Station to Station'
Station to Station album was released during a dark time in Bowie's personal life, with him still contending with his cocaine addiction and, as a result, its recording sessions were largely a blur for the artist. Its title track is representative of the haze Bowie was living in at the time; a 10-minute sprawling clash of disparate ideas, starting with droning static before exploding into rollicking funk. The single edit understandably cut all the weirdness out, but the schizophrenia of the album version is perfectly emblematic of Bowie's "lost years".
26. 'Lady Stardust'
Bowie wasn't shy of alluding to his contemporaries on
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, exemplified by this ode to T-Rex frontman Marc Bolan. An underrated gem on an album filled with classics, 'Lady Stardust' explores the hysterical effect Bolan had upon his fans, from the girls signing his songs in the front row to the "boy in the bright blue jeans" rushing the stage.
25. 'Modern Love'
Inspired by Little Richard, 'Modern Love' opened the
Let's Dance album and helped characterise Bowie's shift towards funk that would both broaden his appeal in the US, while also forcing him into an unfortunate creative crossroads. However, 'Modern Love' helped bring to life arguably the most accessible album of his career, catapulting him back into relevancy despite him struggling to recapture this success over the course of the following few years.
24. 'The Prettiest Star'
Following the success of 'Space Oddity', Bowie teamed up with Marc Bolan and released 'The Prettiest Star', which wound up flat-lining commercially, reportedly selling under 800 copies. Since then it's largely been lost in the shuffle, mostly as a result of Bowie's own glam rock re-recording of the track for the album
Aladdin Sane. However, it's the original that is the most powerful, with it seeing an uncharacteristically sweet Bowie breathlessly singing about loss and bereavement, while Bolan's gentle riff carries it along on a rain cloud.
23. 'I Can't Give Everything Away'
The final track on Bowie's final album,
Blackstar's 'I Can't Give Everything Away' is a haunting but fitting conclusion to his life as an artist. The most straightforward song on the entire album, 'I Can't Give Everything Away' is the return of Bowie the crooner, albeit in suitably postmodern fashion. 'I know something is very wrong,' he begins, before singing the titular refrain with all the resignation of a man who knows he is approaching his final days. Bowie had once said that, while he didn't possess the ability to paint a clear image with his songwriting, he knew how to make something personal out of the abstract. 'I Can't Give Everything Away' is the most affecting example of this, and the perfect conclusion to his last album.
22. 'The Stars (Are Out Tonight)'
Bowie's condemnation of celebrity was a recurring theme throughout his songwriting career, but never was he more acerbic than in 'The Stars (Are Out Tonight)'. Whereas songs such as 'Fame' were far more pointed in their deconstruction of it, this standout track from
The Next Day instead reveled in the dark surrealism that was a staple of the last era of his career, positing a world in which the famous preyed upon the normal like wolves. This theme was echoed in its music video, which paired Bowie with Tilda Swinton.
"Heroes" and Low are frequently compared with one another, but despite Brian Eno's unmistakable influence being prevalent in both, they offer contrasting takes upon the same time period in Bowie's life. For many 'Blackout' tips the favour in the direction of the former, presenting a perfect amalgamation of the talents of both artist and producer, which plays out like an erratic nervous breakdown with far more energy than any of his Low recording sessions. An underrated classic that was forever overshadowed by its album's career-defining title track.
20. 'Golden Years'
Ironically recorded during the throes of Bowie's cocaine addiction, 'Golden Years' presented the first steps into Bowie's transition towards American soul, providing him with one of his biggest hits in the US in the process. Though symbolic of a dark time in his life, 'Golden Years' may have been recorded in a time period that was anything but for the singer, but regardless it's still a bloody good pop song.
Though Bowie had been battling cancer throughout the recording of both
The Next Day and Blackstar, it's still unclear whether or not he knew just how close to death he was during the creation of his final album. In retrospect, Blackstar is viewed as Bowie consciously delivering his swan song, and 'Lazarus' certainly suggests as much. Beginning with the jarringly poignant lyric "Look up here, I'm in Heaven", 'Lazarus' is the story of a man facing his own mortality and finding his freedom as a result, and the standout track from the final chapter of his life.
18. 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide'
Whereas most of David Bowie's various personas naturally came and went as the years progressed, the theatricality of Ziggy Stardust therefore meant that it required Bowie to vocally express the character's demise. 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide' described Ziggy's downfall as a washed-up, withered rockstar and was the final track on
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars as a result, but it also provided the send-off for Ziggy in real life, too. To his fan's shock and concern, Bowie announced during a show at the Hammersmith in '73 that it would be "the last show we'll ever do" before launching into the song. Little did fans know that Bowie was retiring the Ziggy character, and not personally withdrawing from music.
'Fame' presented David Bowie at his angriest, a visceral deconstruction of celebrity as he was stuck in a battle with his then-management company, Mainman. During this period Bowie had been vocal about his struggles with Mainman, claiming that its founder Tony Defries was making more money than he was on the back of his music career.. 'Fame' was borne of this frustration, and would unwittingly serve as the soundtrack to Bowie's struggles with being a public figure throughout his life.
16. 'Ashes to Ashes'
Bowie bowed out from the '70s with 'Ashes to Ashes', a poignant and much darker return to the Major Tom character. With an eye on the burgeoning New Romantic scene, 'Ashes to Ashes' saw Bowie exploring the downfall of the astronaut while closing another chapter on his career, marking the beginning of the '80s with what appeared to be the demise of one of his most famous creations.
15. 'Rebel Rebel'
The ultimate anthem for teenage disenchantment, 'Rebel Rebel' is a song of acceptance, serving as a message from Bowie to his fan base of outsiders and misfits. Incorporating the divisive gender-bending lyric 'Got your mother in a whirl / she's not sure if you're a boy or a girl', Bowie applauded the youthful urge to experiment with lyrics that were uncharacteristically personable, with the music abruptly stopping as he bellows "Hot tramp, I love you so!"
14. 'Moonage Daydream'
The purest rock song on
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, the surrealist lyrics of 'Moonage Daydream' and its alligators, mamas/papas "coming for you" and space invaders are iconic in their ludicrousness. The serpentine sexiness of the Ziggy character was in full force here, and while it may have been beloved by fans of the singer for many years, it received a new lease of life by virtue of its inclusion on the excellent Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack.
13. 'The Man Who Sold The World'
The title track from Bowie's third album, 'The Man Who Sold The World' features one of the most recognisable guitar riffs of Bowie's career, alongside perhaps the most memorable use of a güiro. Many were introduced to the track by virtue of Nirvana's excellent, acoustic
MTV Unplugged cover, and even Lulu provided her own (albeit distinctly more upbeat) take on it.
12. 'Let's Dance'
One of Bowie's most successful singles ever, 'Let's Dance' was not his first foray into the '80s but it certainly epitomised his output during this time period. Though he struggled with consistency over the course of the decade, and appeared uncharacteristically detached from his music on a number of occasions, 'Let's Dance' was proof that he could step into any era and leave behind one of its most defining songs. The young audience that were introduced to Bowie via this song may have led to him attempting to appease a generation he didn't understand with his underwhelming next two albums, but at least it gave us one of the greatest hits of the entire decade.
11. 'Young Americans'
Bowie's frequently tapped obsession with American soul came to life in 'Young Americans,' leading to his first breakthrough hit in the US. With a prominent backing arrangement put together by Luther Vandross, 'Young Americans' also possessed the strong influence of '50s singer Johnnie Ray, and included the famous Beatles lyrics "I read the news today, oh boy" in a nod to his burgeoning friendship with John Lennon. Bowie's strongest track from his soul era, 'Young Americans' ranks among his most popular hits, providing one of his final crowd-pleasing singles before he headed off to Berlin.
Hunky Dory features some of the finest pop songs of Bowie's careers, with 'Changes' chief among them. Though it failed to break into the charts upon its release, the success of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars saw fans retroactively uncovering Hunky Dory, leading to 'Changes' becoming one of Bowie's most famous and enduring songs in the process.
9. 'Oh! You Pretty Things'
One of Bowie's most popular songs also ranks among his most simple, with the seven-chord piano intro being among one of the most immediately recognisable in music, eventually giving way to its catchy, stomping chorus. Interestingly, Bowie wasn't the first artist to release 'Oh! You Pretty Things' despite writing it, with that honour being reserved for Peter Noone of the Manchester band Herman's Hermits. Bowie played piano on the track, before eventually including it on
Hunky Dory and releasing it himself to much higher praise.
8. 'Ziggy Stardust'
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was David Bowie's most important album, and 'Ziggy Stardust' defined the LP's titular character for a world that had never quite seen anything like the Starman before. A candid and vivid exploration of the highs and lows of rock 'n' roll, Bowie injected Ziggy with the paranoia that would soon insert itself into his own life.
7. 'Sound and Vision'
Low was a difficult album to get into upon first listen, with it containing only one obvious single in the form of 'Sound and Vision'. But what a single it was. Bowie mostly spent the album utilising his voice as an instrument for Brian Eno's ambitious production, with 'Sound and Vision' being one of few instances in which he was placed at the forefront. It stands out perfectly amidst the frequently oppressive nature of the album, with Bowie's laid-back crooning providing a melancholic contrast to its joyous guitar riff and synths.
6. 'Where Are We Now?'
Bowie's predilection towards reinvention led to him refraining from returning to his past, so 'Where Are We Now?' was unexpected. A rumination upon his time spent in Berlin, the first single from his "comeback album"
The Next Day indicated that plenty had changed in Bowie's life during his decade-long absence, though we were unaware of the tragic reasoning behind his sentimentality.
Arguably the track that is most commonly associated with Bowie, 'Starman' was a vital release for the artist after he struggled for three years to emulate the success of 'Space Oddity.' 'Starman' and Bowie's subsequent
Top of the Pops performance of the single solidified his status as a star, introducing fans across the UK to the Ziggy Stardust character and opening the door to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. From '72 onwards 'Starman' would be the track used most frequently to exemplify Bowie's career, with its story of an extraterrestrial being sent down to Earth to deliver a message echoing the mysterious Bowie's own infiltration of popular culture.
4. 'Five Years'
'Five Years' kicked off
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and there could not have been a better song to mark Bowie's swift ascension into the annals of rock history. A perfect opening track if ever there was one, 'Five Years' is the closest Bowie ever came to consciously writing an anthem, with its string-laden climax borrowing heavily from The Beatles, while its socially conscious lyrics introduced us to the empathetic rockstar who would soon become the poster boy for the outsider.
3. 'Space Oddity'
The song that started it all, 'Space Oddity' presented Bowie's first flirtation with the otherworldly persona that would eventually carry him into the stratosphere. Providing an unofficial soundtrack to the Apollo 11's moon landing, which took place just ten days after the single's release, 'Space Oddity' also introduced the world to Major Tom, a fictional character that was revisited by Bowie on several occasions.
2. 'Life on Mars'
Though 'Space Oddity' may have been Bowie's first major hit, 'Life on Mars' was the first indication that Bowie was the next great rockstar. Initially released with
Hunky Dory in '71 though finally released as a single in '73 after the success of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 'Life on Mars' is a gloriously theatrical sci-fi anthem that, with its overarching themes of unrealised aspirations and media obsession, is just as relevant in today's world as it was back then.
The greatest David Bowie song ever recorded, 'Heroes' exemplified Bowie's capacity to take the world by surprise, releasing slap-bang in the middle of one of the most alienating and divisive periods of his career. Inspired by Bowie witnessing producer Tony Visconti kissing his girlfriend next to the Berlin Wall, 'Heroes' is a heart-wrenching but triumphant tale of lovers divided between East and West Berlin, with it eventually serving as one of the catalysts behind the wall's destruction. Upon his death, the German government released a statement in which they acknowledged Bowie's influence upon the collapse of the Berlin Wall, adding: "You are now among Heroes."