DAVID BOWIE, WHO died Sunday at the age of 69, released more than 20 studio albums (and dozens of singles) during a decades-long career that found him infatuated with everything from starry-eyed space-folk to guitar-hero glam-rock to gurgling electronica. Reducing that output to a single best-of list is impossible, but here are 10 tunes that, at the very least, display his verve, his vigor, and his ongoing love of the new:
10. “Life on Mars?” (1973)
This was hardly Bowie’s first hit—by the time of its release, he’d already broken through with “Space Oddity,” and Ziggy Stardust was in full ascent—but “Life on Mars?” remains, without question, the most quintessentially Bowie-ish Bowie song of his early career: A weirdo rallying cry gussied up as a cabaret number, with lyrics so alien and disorienting, listeners still puzzle over them today (“It’s on America’s tortured brow/That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”). But there’s nothing inscrutable about the tune’s joyous, ozone-scorching chorus, and its success ensured Bowie’s outsider-hero status for decades to come.
This is your Bowie on drugs: Nearly worn out, and fuming on a mix of cocaine and desperation, he holes up in L.A. and returns with Station to Station, an album of sincere funk and tautly engineered Krautrock that sounds like the work of a man in love with a half-dozen musical styles at once, yet unwilling to settle down with any of them. “Golden Years” is just one of the album’s highlights, a future-thinking throwback that was funky enough to earn Bowie a spot on Soul Train.
Is there any way to get across just how ecstatic and life-conquering Bowie’s 1983 hit can make you feel? There is not. Luckily, though, this scene of Greta Gerwig sprinting through the streets of Manhattan in Frances Ha while “Modern Love” plays comes pretty close.
Bowie’s ’90s catalog was erratic, to say the least, but his voice and inquisitiveness remained intact, and there are plenty of more-than-worthy entries for those willing to dig around, from the paranoid tech-scuzz of “I’m Afraid of Americans” to the messy grandeur of “Little Wonder.” But this straightforward (for Bowie) tale of old friends and fading memories was one of the loveliest of his career.
Bowie’s hit with Queen is (deservedly) beloved for its crystalline piano-plinks, its against-all-odds feel-goodedness, and its buoyant bassline (which was later sampled for Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”). But this long-circulated alternate version—which strips out every element save for Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s vocals—is a reminder of just how beautifully supernatural Bowie’s voice could be, even in his quietest moments.
Ain’t there one damn song that can make you break down and cry?
A pure-sex tempest of Little Richard boogie-woogie, glam-rock riffage, and unchecked schoolboy hormones, “Suffragette” not only has the most appropriately wham-bam mid-song breakdown of any rock song ever, it also features one of the deliciously weird trajectories in modern pop-culture history: A horndog anthem by a fictitious bisexual alien that would become, over the decades, an unlikely gym-jam for classic-rock-lovin’ doods and dads. Outta sight.
Released as a single last month, the opening track of Bowie’s brand-newBlackstar album is a 10-minute-long rumination about death and identity that should feel like a pre-emptive self-eulogy; instead, it’s gorgeously spacey and propulsive. Every artist’s later work grows in stature after death, of course, but listen to this intricate mini-opus and ask yourself: What other sixty-something musician could have journeyed so far into himself and returned with something as affecting as this?
The clip above is fuzzy, but you won’t care: This is Bowie, in his last ever public performance, playing the 1971 song that, eons from now, will still be one of his most-quoted, most-karaoked, most-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherised hits, despite never having made it near the top of the charts in the U.S. Has any song ever so perfectly (and maybe inadvertently) encapsulated its performer—his outlook, his ethos, his appeal—than this one? And has any performer ever spent so many decades looking so good in a slim-cut suit?
1. “Heroes” (1977)
Bowie had just hit 30 when this was released—old enough to know heartache and defeat, but young enough to be hopeful nonetheless—and the result is the greatest, most gorgeously beguiling space-opera love-song epic ever, a wall of swan-diving synthesizers, gut-wrung vocals, and cold-war heat (plus some dolphin imagery). It’s been covered by numerous artists, but,to Bowie’s great credit, never fully recaptured.