Wednesday, January 20, 2016

15 Songs To Move You Beyond David Bowie's Greatest Hits

The passing of David Bowie is a tremendous loss to the world; one that can not be summed up in words. I've stated it before on social media but will state it again now; there are many people who can justly be called icons legends, and larger than life, but none of them are David Bowie. The only appropriate term for Bowie is... well, Bowie. He was who he was and that's more than many of us could ever think of being.

Oddly enough, despite his decades long musical career, Bowie never really had a lot of chart success in the United States. From his first American single in 1969 to his final one in 2016, Bowie only racked up 6 top 10 hits and a total of 13 top 40 pieces on the Billboard charts. Two of these 13 were duet collaborations, one being with Queen and resulting in "Under Pressure," the other being his cover of "Dancing In The Street" with Mick Jagger. Bowie's last chart appearance in the states was in 1997 with his more industrial rock piece, "I'm Afraid of Americans," but his last successful charting was "Never Let Me Down" in 1987.

To put this in perspective, let's look at the top 40 reign of some other artists; some legends, some decidedly not. The years given are of the time from their first appearance on the Billboard top 40 to the year of their last appearance there.

David Bowie: 1969 - 1987 (18 years) - Top 10 Hits: 6 Top 40 hits: 13

Huey Lewis & The News: 1982 - 1991 (9 years) - Top 10 hits: 12, Top 40 hits: 17

Bruce Springsteen: 1975 - 1997 (22 years) - Top 10 hits: 12, Top 40 hits: 18

Electric Light Orchestra: 1974 - 1986  (12 years) - Top 10 hits: 7 Top 40 hits: 20

Eagles: 1972 - 1980 (8 years) - Top 10 hits: 10, Top 40 hits: 16

Fleetwood Mac: 1975 - 1990 (15 years) - Top 10 hits: 9 Top 40 hits: 18

REO Speedwagon: 1980 - 1988 (8 years) - Top 10 hits: 4, Top 40 hits: 13

Duran Duran: 1982 - 1993 (11 years) - Top 10 hits: 11, Top 40 hits: 15

Nickelback: 2001 - 2010 (9 years) - Top 10 hits: 6, Top 40 hits: 10

The Rolling Stones - 1964 - 1989 (25 years) - Top 10 hits: 23, Top 40 hits: 41

Now, any music critic with their salt will tell you that being successful on the Billboard charts doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be a legend in music, and it's only a very small part of being a popular artist in general. So why have I spent time belaboring this point? Because it goes to show that if your exposure to Bowie has been limited to the mainstream classic rock radio, you've missed out on a LOT of great material. Bowie became transcendent not because of hit singles, but because of the artistry of his albums, stage persona, and individual songs that didn't make it to the radio.

Odds are that if you're a causal listener, you probably don't have any of his actual albums and settled instead for his greatest hits collection. The most popular and plentiful of these is the 2002 collection Best of Bowie. We're going to take a look beyond the 20 songs that this CD features (assuming you don't have the less common double disc version) and take a peak at 15 more Bowie songs that compliment and expand this collection. This is not a list of Bowie's best songs, instead this is meant to help give those who enjoy what Bowie has to offer, a bit more to listen to without having to pick through all the albums to find some of his better songs.

Before we begin, here's a couple notes that tie into the Best of Bowie release.

1) "Heroes" - The version on Best of Bowie is the single edit and is a travesty of a cut compared to the power of the full song. Do yourself a favor and find the full length version of this that clocks in at just over six minutes. This song deserves to be heard in its full glory, not a truncated castrated form of it.

2) "Young Americans" - Another radio edit that destroys a good part of this song's impact and power.

3) "This Is Not America" - There's nothing wrong with this song on Best of Bowie. It's still here in its understated glory. However, there is a live version of this song found on a bonus disc of Bowie at the Beeb that is positively exquisite. In lieu of finding that, you can always look it up on YouTube. Oh look, I already did that for you.

Quick Honorable Mention: Arcade Fire: Reflektor - Bowie's contributions to this 2013 song aren't enough to warrant inclusion in the list proper, but his presence still has to be made mention of. Arcade Fire shows a great deal of Bowie inspiration in this sprawling 7 and a half minute piece, but if that wasn't Bowie enough for you, he comes in and sings a few lines starting at 4:54. "Thought you were praying to the resurrector..." Unmistakable Bowie. 

With all that stated, let's get into the fantastic fifteen:

1) Starman

Hopefully you know this one anyway, but the fact it's not on Best of Bowie is ridiculous. You could easily argue that this is one of his signature songs. Bowie plays things low key throughout the verses, letting his voice and the instruments ascend into the chorus. Lyrically it fits right in with his glam rock of the time, carrying an early punk spirit and hope that there's something more benevolent than humanity somewhere in the world.

2) Life on Mars? 

An absolutely stunning piece made exquisitely beautiful from the combination of the string arrangement and piano performance from Rick Wakeman. The surreal imagery in the lyrics may be off-putting at first, but it ultimately works to form a narrative about disillusionment with the images we see in life and the hope that there's something greater elsewhere. All of these elements come together in a stirring chord progression that's emotionally captivating and powerful.

3) Fascination

"Plastic soul" was the term Bowie ascribed to his Young Americans album and the songs it contained. To paraphrase him, Bowie said that the album was ethnic music being played by a limey Brit. Essentially he felt he was appropriating black music but couldn't convey the emotion and soul of it effectively, having to do his own version of it, hence; "plastic soul." "Fascination" is the pinnacle of this, being lush, intense, soulful, funky, and rocking. There's a lot going on in the song from the funk of the synthesizers and bass to the soulful backing vocalists, to the blasts of saxophone from David Sanborn. Deceptively complex while being perfectly accessible to listeners. 

4) TVC 15

Extremely high on massive amounts of cocaine, Bowie writes a song inspired by a vision of Iggy Pop's girlfriend being eaten by a television. It sounds insane, it is insane, and it has a really bouncy piano part. Unlike the previous songs on this list, there's no real deeper meaning to TVC 15; aside from maybe a condemnation of television, but given how coked out Bowie was at the time, he probably didn't even plan for that. 

5) Sound + Vision

From the album Low, "Sound + Vision" is lyrically sparse but makes up for it by making the remainder of the lyrics quite memorable and surrounded by powerful music and production The drum sound here is years ahead of its time given it was made in 1977. The bass that completes the rhythm section is also amazingly strong, giving this tune one of the more driving beats Bowie has ever created.

6) A New Career In A New Town

This Low piece is a straight up instrumental that combines Brian Eno's whirring keyboards, Tony Visconti's hard hitting drum production (played by Dennis Davis) and Bowie's harmonica. Despite the lack of words the song has a very strong verse/chorus feel to it which makes it far more accessible than the other instrumentals on the album. 

7) The Secret Life of Arabia

Here's another Bowie piece that gets more legs out of its rhythm section than its lyrics. For the most part, "The Secret Life of Arabia" is a complete throwaway of a song; it's lyrically bereft of any meaning, Bowie himself doesn't seem to take the song seriously with his approach to the vocals, and the latter half of the song is mostly just a repeated instrumental refrain with repeated lyrics. Despite this, it's catchy and danceable to a mind-boggling degree. The groove it builds itself into is extremely tight and relentlessly plows ahead with an energetic fervor. 

8) Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy (Duet with Bing Crosby)

As the story goes, Bowie was invited to appear on a Bing Crosby Christmas special. The idea was to have them sing "Little Drummer Boy" together. Bowie wasn't thrilled with this prospect as he disliked that particular Christmas song. In an inspired bit of genius, several of the show's composers and producers worked together to quickly come up with another part for Bowie to sing which was then worked into the original song in order to create something new yet familiar. The end result is an absolutely inspired take on a traditional Christmas classic that has now become a classic in its own right, thanks entirely to the strong vocals from both Bowie and Crosby.

9) DJ

From Lodger, "DJ" is one of the more conventional songs of sorts on this list. It's not completely out there in a lyrical or musical way; it's just a tight rocker with a theme that seems to center on control and power over others and what it does to one's self. It's one of those rare occasions outside of Let's Dance that finds Bowie just letting go and rocking without the glitz and glam of his late 60's and early 70's persona. 

10) Pretty Pink Rose (Duet with Adrian Belew)

Released in 1990 off of guitarist Adrian Belew's album Young Lions, Belew had been a touring musician with Bowie for years and Bowie wrote this song for Belew to include on his record, and also sang it with him. There's no doubt it's a Bowie composition either with lyrics like, "She's the poor man's gold, she's the anarchist crucible, flying in the face of the despot cannibal, pretty pink rose." Belew is channeling Bowie in his vocals...Bowie is...well he's Bowie, and Belew rips with his distinctive guitar tone and style. It's a strong rocker and it would've been interesting to hear how it would've tuned out if Bowie recorded it himself.

11) Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys Remix)

The original version of "Hallo Spaceboy" appeared on the concept album Outside in 1995. It's a very harsh sounding song full of roaring guitars, crashing drums, and an obtuse lyric that's supposed to tie into a larger narrative. The Pet Shop Boys remix of this piece rips out the coarse electric rock and replaces it with electronic dance; and it's unbearably catchy. The lyric is still obtuse as all hell, but Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys lends some vocals onto the song that try to tie it back to "Space Oddity," implying perhaps the "Spaceboy" is good old Major Tom. 

12) Thursday's Child

Bowie's 1999 album "Hours..." is generally regarded as one of his worst. Part of the album was derived from songs he had used for the game Omikron: The Nomad Soul of which "Thursday's Child" is one of them. In contrast to a lot of Bowie's bizarre and surreal lyrics, here he comes across as far more normal and conventional. "Thursday's Child" is a touching, emotional ballad with a lot of the kind of sound you'd expect from a '90s adult contemporary piece. That being said, it's Bowie, so it's better.

13) The Next Day

The title track from his 2013 comeback album, "The Next Day" showed that Bowie had certainly not forgotten how to rock, provoke, and sing his heart out. A strong drum track, guitar riff and bass line push this song forward with Bowie rattling off lyrics that could be dissected a number of ways. They seem to point to the trappings of fame, possibly tying them to a religious figure and how he's observed. Whatever the meaning is, Bowie is in complete command of the atmosphere and the power of his music. It's a remarkable return to form for him.

14) The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

The second single from The Next Day was also the first to show that Bowie was capable of producing lush, sweeping sounds. Similar to other elements of the album, this song focuses on the trappings of fame and has a lush build up in both the arrangement and vocal from Bowie, complete with strings. By the time the song is over it feels like an exhaustive journey has taken place.

15) (You Will) Set The World On Fire

Not much needs to be said about this one aside from the fact that it's just Bowie rocking out in fairly vicious fashion. 

These are by no means all of the worthwhile Bowie songs, nor are they all some of his best. If you have Best of Bowie and want to hear more of what the man did, then this is your place to start. Go through these songs, see if you enjoy them, and then continue to explore the ears and styles that you like. Perhaps another time they'll be a more complete listing of the less accessible Bowie songs but for now, enjoy the contributions this man made to the musical world.

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