clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

13 songs that defined David Bowie

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

David Bowie, who died Sunday at 69, reinvented his music, image, and identity with every album. One moment he was an androgynous glam-rock alien; the next he was a Krautrock cabaret singer; the next he was composing synth-driven '80s pop standards. Doing justice to every phase in his career would require a several volume biography. But here's a taste of each major moment in his career, one song at a time.

1) "Please, Mr. Gravedigger"

Bowie's self-titled first album, released in 1967, doesn't bear much resemblance to any of his later work. The single "Rubber Band" doesn't really sound like a rock song at all. It's more like a turn-of-the-century British music hall tune.

But you can still find hints of the artists to come on the record. "She's Got Medals" is a gender-bending smash about someone born Mary who "changed her name to Tony" and "got very tired of picking up girls," predating Bowie's interest in sexual and gender fluidity.

And then there's "Please, Mr. Gravedigger," the album's final track, which is basically just Bowie singing over a bunch of eerie sound effects.

"What I remember is Bowie standing there wearing a pair of cans with his collar turned up as if he was in the rain, hunched over, shuffling about in a box of gravel," his producer, Gus Dudgeon, told Bowie biographer David Buckley. "And you thought Brian Wilson had lost it!"

It's not exactly a good song, but it serves as potent foreshadowing of the obsessive, genre-rich work to come.

2) "Space Oddity"

"Space Oddity" is the earliest Bowie track that most casual fans have heard. Upon its initial release in 1969, it hit No. 5 in the UK, Bowie's highest mark to date. In 1973, a rerelease became his first US hit. And in 1975, yet another rerelease became his first UK No. 1 single.

More importantly, the song introduced the themes that made Bowie the artist we know today: a preoccupation with space and the mystery of the beyond; an experimental bent that manifests itself in a sparse backing track and an unorthodox verse structure; and a literary bent that emphasizes character development rather than Bowie's personal introspection.

3) "The Man Who Sold the World"

In 1970, Bowie followed up "Space Oddity" with an odd left turn: The Man Who Sold the World, a hard-rock album tinged with dark themes, from war to madness to Cthulhu.

The title track is probably best remembered by Gen-Xers for Nirvana's acoustic cover, but the cryptic lyrics — seeming to describe an encounter with an old friend or a doppelgänger or an old estranged acquaintance who is also your doppelgänger — and driving riff are compelling regardless of the performer.

4) "Changes"

If "Space Oddity" was Bowie's breakout single, 1971's Hunky Dory was his breakout album. It didn't have a central organizing character, as many of his future efforts would, but its songs share an interest in blending disparate pop traditions so fluently that you forget they were disparate to begin with.

"Changes" began, by Bowie's own account, as "a parody of a nightclub song." But the horns betray an interest in American soul, the backing vocals a debt to American girl groups, and the "ch-ch-changes" hook and "time can't change me" breakdown recall the Who, the Kinks, and other mod-rock groups.

5) "Five Years"

The 1972 album The Rise of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars was Bowie's first concept album. It made him a leading, if not the leading, figure in the rise of glam rock as a genre, using sci-fi tropes and pageantry to undermine the macho rock star culture of artists who came before Bowie.

The opening track, "Five Years," sets an ominous tone for the proceedings, declaring that Earth would be destroyed in half a decade's time and contrasting the confused, violent reaction of some humans ("A girl my age went off her head, hit some tiny children") to that of his love interest, whom he saw in an ice cream parlor ("Smiling and waving and looking so fine / don't think you knew you were in this song").

The point of the foreboding overture, then, is to give permission for the joy of the rest of the album. The conclusion is quintessential Bowie: We've got five years, and we might as well celebrate while we have them.

6) "The Jean Genie"

Aladdin Sane, Bowie's 1973 follow-up to Ziggy Stardust, didn't abandon its predecessor's glam stylings, but it's a bit darker and more cynical, written after a trying tour of America and named as a pun for "a lad insane."

Its lead single is indicative: Named for queer French literary icon Jean Genet, it's a blues-rock song with a protagonist, widely believed to be based on Iggy Pop, who "keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear." It's as fun as Ziggy but more dangerous and jaded too.

7) "Rebel Rebel"

Bowie's last glam single, 1974's "Rebel Rebel" isn't exactly subtle about its references to the subculture — "You've got your mother in a whirl / she's not sure if you're a boy or a girl" — but it's also a bit weary of them. Bowie declares his love for the fellow rebel he's singing about but also calls her a "tacky thing." And it's not totally clear it's a term of affection.

His subject is committed to the style of glam-rock bands — "You love bands when they're playing hard / You want more and you want it fast" — while Bowie strikes a more ecumenical tone ("You like me, and I like it all").

It's a fitting goodbye to the first major epoch of Bowie's career and transition to his experiments with soul and Krautrock in the rest of the '70s.

8) "Young Americans"

The title track of Bowie's 1975 Philadelphia soul album isn't the most innovative track he'd ever recorded; he's not doing much here that black American artists hadn't done before. But it's still one of the best, most purely joyful songs of his career.

The backing vocals, spearheaded by Luther Vandross, build a fantastic rapport with Bowie's, harmonizing at some points and echoing at others, and David Sanborn's sax is catchy and insistent without being distracting.

And the lyrics — which reference Watergate and brilliantly repurpose the "I heard the news today, oh boy" from the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" — manage to convey the mood of the time without feeling dated at all.

9) "Station to Station"

The Thin White Duke was Bowie's 1976 persona, first introduced for the Young Americans tour but primarily used for the album Station to Station. The nihilistic cabaret singer character marked a period where Bowie publicly flirted with fascism — saying, "Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader," and being detained by Soviet customs for owning Nazi memorabilia. It was also when, perhaps not coincidentally, Bowie was subsisting on a diet of red and green peppers, milk, and truly massive amounts of cocaine. (He later told a biographer that he didn't remember recording Station to Station: "I know it was in LA because I've read it was.")

The album itself is transitional: While some of the riffs and chord structures wouldn't feel out of place during Bowie's glam period, the songs are longer (the title track is about 10 minutes), and the instrumentation and structure owes a lot to Neu!, Can, and other German Krautrock bands that would become even bigger influences on Bowie's work after he moved to Berlin at the end of 1976.

10) "Breaking Glass"

Low, from 1977, was the first album of Bowie's so-called "Berlin trilogy," three highly experimental records made with the help of Brian Eno and Tony Visconti that balanced instrumental ambient pieces with synth-infused vocal tracks that are conventional only by comparison.

"Breaking Glass," the strongest song on Low, falls into the latter camp. It's less than two minutes of pure anxiety, channeled through a dominant lead guitar part, an unnervingly loose bass line, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics that alternate between the cryptic ("don't look at the carpet / I drew something awful on it") and the brutally straightforward ("you're such a wonderful person / but you got problems"). It was never a hit, but it remains my favorite song Bowie ever wrote.

11) "Heroes"

The closest thing to a traditional pop song to come out of the Berlin trilogy was the title track of its second 1977 installment, "Heroes." A love song between a West Berliner and East Berliner, the track had an unusual amount of political significance. Bowie was never apolitical, but direct commentary on Cold War politics was new to him.

But true to form, the geopolitics serves mostly as an impediment to and distraction from the micro-scale dramas of daily life that really interested Bowie. When his lovers yearn for freedom — "I wish you could swim / Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim" — it's simply the freedom to live their lives and have their love, not freedom to resist or to fight for ideals or otherwise actively struggle.

The sheer modesty of the desire adds to its power and humanizes the suffering Europe's division created. And there's an argument to be made that Bowie helped end that suffering: When he performed the song in Berlin in 1987, it sparked riots in the East, and a week later Ronald Reagan would demand that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall."

12) "Ashes to Ashes"

The 1980 album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) paired the experimentation of the Berlin trilogy with more conventional song structures and influences from new wave and post-punk, which had risen to prominence in the UK while Bowie was in self-imposed exile in Berlin.

The result was both a critical and commercial hit, something Bowie desperately needed; the Berlin albums were critical darlings, but not exactly successes sales-wise.

The lead single, "Ashes to Ashes," is emblematic: It resurrects the Major Tom character from "Space Oddity" and borrows both sonically and in its popular music video from new wave acts. But it turns Tom into a "junkie" who's "strung out in heaven's high." Bowie borrowed from his past, but twisted it for his own purposes.

13) "Modern Love"

With the 1983 album Let's Dance, Bowie became something he hadn't really been during his 16-year career to date: a bona fide American pop star. Co-produced by disco impresario Nile Rodgers, the album included the title track (a No. 1 single in both the US and UK), a version of his 1977 Iggy Pop co-composition "China Girl" (which reached No. 2 and 10 in the UK and US respectively), and, most enduringly, "Modern Love," which hit No. 2 and 14 in the UK and US.

This track became a standard in a way neither of the other hit singles did, not least due to its use as the soundtrack for ecstatic city runs in two films. Here it is in Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang in 1986:

And in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha in 2012:

Bowie was uncommonly good at conveying pure, unalloyed joy, never more so than on "Modern Love." If you were listening to it while walking in the middle of Paris or New York, you'd dance-run like that too.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.