Emerald Recommends the best of Bowie

Bowie’s albums (from top left to right) Heroes, David Bowie (1967), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie (1969). Bottom: Low, Blackstar, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, Hunky Dory.

The surreal news of David Bowie’s passing earlier this week was met with immediate doubt and speculation that it was a hoax. With his 69th birthday and final album Blackstar coinciding just two days prior, it seemed far too dubious to be plausible.

2016 marked David Bowie’s 50th year in the music industry, a run that spanned a plethora of studio albums, compilations, live recordings, retrospectives and a narration of “Peter and the Wolf.” Bowie was iconic for his perpetual self-reinvention and career disruption.

His musical influence is recognizable across genres and into cosmic depths. The breadth of his career is unparalleled; you’d be hard-pressed to name another solo artist with an equal number of stand-alone, distinctive hits.

To help you navigate Bowie’s extensive career, we here at the Emerald are recommending some of the best of Bowie.

Click here to read Daniel Bromfield’s eulogy to David Bowie.

Read the Emerald’s Double Take review of Blackstar here.

Listen to our Spotify playlist here:

“Space Oddity” from David Bowie (1969)

“Space Oddity” was one of the first songs I ever listened to. My dad would play it and other classic songs for me on his beloved sound system and I grew to love it. It’s really a simple song but when I was a kid the story of a man lost in space amazed me. It’s so easy to imagine Major Tom in your head, spinning endlessly above the earth looking down on our beautiful blue marble. Bowie’s voice is so resonant that it’s easy to see why the lyrics in this song are so memorable and popular. – Alex Ruby

Bowie’s final album Blackstar didn’t represent the first time the singer confronted death; he’s been doing it from the beginning. On his breakout hit “Space Oddity,” Major Tom, Bowie’s perennial, doomed hero, finds that his circuit’s dead and something’s wrong. But instead of panicking, Major Tom turns his gaze to the stars and planets. Content in his spaceship, reassured his wife knows he loves her, Tom shuts out the cries from Houston and makes a truce with the inevitable. He doesn’t fight death, but instead immerses himself in what’s left of life – much like how Bowie would approach the subject on Blackstar. – Daniel Bromfield

“Changes” from Hunky Dory (1971)

One of Bowie’s more recognizable tracks, “Changes” serves as a song for any occasion. Specifically though, the track is a journey through evolution, growth and “facing the strange.” My first vivid memory of hearing this song was at my middle school graduation. Bowie’s voice soared over a slideshow of various photos of my class while teachers smiled and parents wiped stray tears from their eyes. I didn’t fully realize the weight of the song until I thought back on it years later. Sitting there, almost 14 years old, hearing Bowie sing, “Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older” was actually very emotionally significant. The song itself is sweet and funky, but the feelings it represents are intrinsically heavy – a very specific feature of songwriting I think Bowie perfected throughout his career. – Meerah Powell

“Life on Mars?” from Hunky Dory (1971)

“Life On Mars” is maybe the best song ever written about how everything sucks. His vitriol doesn’t have one particular target here. He’s just surveying the carnage around him, from violence to greed to racism, and it’s enough to make anyone wonder: is there life on Mars? That last word is delivered in what might be the most devastating octave leap in rock history. These high notes don’t convey elation as they tend to in pop. Rather, that one word seethes with frustration, a cry of unanswered anger echoing through an apocalyptic world. – Daniel Bromfield

“Five Years” from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust… (1972)

A song about mortality before Bowie’s whole album about mortality, “Five Years” is his triumphant song about the end of the world. As it builds and builds, Bowie fills the spaces between crescendos with details about the people he comes across and all the material things he thinks about. After those details he notices one person standing out and the song becomes a ballad for this person. Each word and phrase is sung with such purpose and care backed with beautiful piano melodies, drums and guitars. And you can’t forget that last repetition of the song’s title, with Bowie belting out the words with pure tenacity. – Alex Ruby

“Moonage Daydream” from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust… (1972)

I’ll admit: I first heard “Moonage Daydream” in Guardians of the Galaxy but that sure as hell doesn’t detract from how awesome it is. It’s epic and it’s moving and it’s about SPACE. It was just made for cool, stylish sci-fi movies like Guardians. When those drums kick in you know you’re in for a good time and when Bowie tells you to “freak out,” you better freak out. Its placement in the first half of the album totally sets the rocking tone for the entire album. – Alex Ruby

“Starman” from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust… (1972)

Merely one brief chapter on the album, this song looks up to an alien rockstar who introduces the youths of Earth to the magic of rock ‘n’ roll. The quick jump within the chorus (“Star-maaan”) is an ode to the same soaring transition within “Over the Rainbow” (“Some-wheeere”) from The Wizard of Oz and a reference to the titular Starman’s cosmic home. It’s easy to overlook how one of the most exemplary pop songs of all time can encapsulate a profound fable about an intergalactic bond. – Emerson Malone

“Suffragette City” from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust… (1972)

The madness of Ziggy Stardust peaks on “Suffragette City,” and likely triggers Ziggy and the Spiders From Mars’s fall. As the album races to a close, this chaotic number is made of distinct parts that add to an exhilarating product. The bass line is restless and provides a low end that balances the gritty electric guitar tone. Bowie’s acoustic guitar remains independent from the other instruments, but it all falls into place beautifully. The choruses gain momentum as the synthesizers add further madness to the song. Bowie’s vocals shine through, including an irresistible “Wham-bam thank you ma’am” in this rocker that reflected the best of classic rock, while possibly predicting punk. – Craig Wright

“Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed (1972)

Bowie was much more than just a singer. He served as the producer for Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power, Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, and (along with writing the anthem) Mott The Hoople’s All The Young Dudes (to name a few). Bowie produced perhaps Lou Reed’s best known non-Velvet Underground album, Transformer, and played the acoustic guitar for “Walk On The Wild Side.” While Reed retains the writing credit in this classic about male prostitutes and drag queens taking a “walk on the wild side,” Bowie’s influence, production and guitar are essential to the song. – Craig Wright

“Heroes” from Heroes (1977)

Similarly to “Moonage Daydream,” I first heard “Heroes” in a movie. Like many people my age, that movie was The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It makes for a great emotional and memorable scene in the movie and that’s why it comes to mind whenever I hear Bowie. It’s such a beautiful song that anyone can relate to whether they’ve been in love or not. It’s inspiring and uplifting and just a positive song. You can’t help but yell “WE CAN BE HEROES” whenever you hear it. – Alex Ruby

“Fashion” from Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)

The harmless “beep beep” lyrics and a ghostly backing choir are used to skewer the vapid nightclub culture of the late ‘70s; but this is all underlined by speculation that “fashion” is purely a stand-in for fascism. It evokes a separate image entirely than a dance floor when you hear the goose-step stomp and Bowie announcing himself and his ghost choir: “We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town.” – Emerson Malone

“Under Pressure” by Queen with David Bowie (1981)

This song is perhaps most famous for providing the beat that Vanilla Ice’s lone hit, “Ice, Ice Baby” would ultimately borrow, but Bowie and Queen originally teamed up to work on a different song. After Mexican food and a few hours of beer (as Brian May recounts), “Under Pressure” forced its way out of the studio, with Bowie leading the charge to capture the song that May recalls as a classic moment of Bowie genius. Freddie Mercury and Bowie’s vocals mesh perfectly, with Mercury’s scat singing adding a dimension of spontaneity to the sparsely layered track. Bowie’s background vocals demonstrate the versatility of his voice. – Craig Wright

“Modern Love” from Let’s Dance (1983)

Meant to be blasted at full volume, “Modern Love” proves to be one of the best album openers. The track starts off with a slightly reverbed stuttering and chugging guitar riff followed by a matching, extremely danceable drum beat. Bowie adds a tinge of drama by speaking the first verse in a low, graveling tone before skyrocketing into his signature croon. Also filled with various intermingling horns and playfully tickled piano, “Modern Love” is, on the surface, an incredibly fun song. Lyrically though, the song can be interpreted to be about refusing to give into the shallow ways of modern attempts at dating and romance. – Meerah Powell

“Blue Jean” from Tonight (1984)

On a lyrical basis alone, “Blue Jean” is one of the worst songs Bowie’s ever written. In nearly every other area, it towers. The tune starts out as a bubblegum jaunt, a modern update of the formula projects like The Archies and the 1910 Fruitgum Co. rode to success in the ‘60s. Then the chorus comes in, and Bowie unleashes a leonine roar: “JAZZIN’ FOR BLUE JEAN!” The mark of a great performer is the ability to redeem shit material, and it’s amazing to hear how thoroughly he inhabits this kiddie novelty and transforms it into something transcendent. – Daniel Bromfield

“This is Not America” from The Falcon and the Snowman soundtrack (1985)

At the confluence of Sean Penn and David Bowie, there is this song. It’s from The Falcon and the Snowman, a Cold War-era drama about two childhood friends whose paths diverge as they move into adulthood – one becomes a security guard, the other a pusher. Daulton Lee the drug dealer is played by none other than Penn, who recently lived out his journalistic daydream via an exclusive interview with real-life drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Regardless, with the help of the renowned Pat Metheny Group, this song is one of Bowie’s finest collaborations. – Jonathan Bach

“Lazarus” from Blackstar (2016)

“This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” – John 11:4.

“Look up here, I’m in Heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,” Bowie begins in the haunting six-and-a-half minute song. It’s slow and mysterious; it marches like a funeral procession. Bowie knew he was dying, but “Lazarus” is not meant to be a sad song. It’s a continuation of the ideals behind his quote, “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”

In the haunting video, Bowie writhes in pain in what can now only be viewed as his deathbed. At the song’s climax, Bowie, blindfolded and clad in all white, sits up in bed with a premonition as if reaching out for what he sees: “I’ll be free, just like that bluebird / Ain’t that just like me?” He then desperately scratches out a few last words on a notepad before retreating into the darkness. These are the final words we received from David Bowie. Rest in peace. – Craig Wright

“I Can’t Give Everything Away” from Blackstar (2016)

The final track of Blackstar destroys me. Bowie is someone who’s adopted various colorful, humanoid personalities over the years, but here he’s viscerally human. He admits that there’s more within him that could be shared with the world, but it’s obscured by either the constraints of time or human capacity. It’s a heartbreaking note on which to close, as his final word “away” recedes. Even Bowie, ever a curator of his public persona, couldn’t help but compose a narrative around his death. – Emerson Malone

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