The Artist Essential Playlist: David Bowie
If you follow us on Facebook, you may be saying to yourself that this playlist looks familiar, and you would be absolutely correct. I shared this playlist a few weeks ago in the wake of David Bowie’s passing, so technically speaking this entry is a bit of a cheat, but quite frankly I like this collection of songs so much that I couldn’t resist sharing it again as part of this series without modification.
You can probably count on one hand the number of performers with the depth and breadth of career that David Bowie had. What struck me immediately when putting this list together was that two of the very best songs the man ever recorded were released mere days before his death at the age of 69. Can you think of many artists recording in the 1960s that produced such quality work so late in their life? I didn’t think so.
Here’s the playlist, with the tracks in rough chronological order to give you the best appreciation for Bowie’s development, transformations, and longevity.
Quite frankly it’s a stunning body of work. Here are a few of the personal highlights for me.
The Man Who Sold The World: Though it was later made famous by Nirvana’s performance during their MTV Unplugged set in 1993, I’ve always preferred the original. (And btw, the way people talk about Nirvana’s rendition, you would have thought it was a complete reimagining of the song. But it’s not too far of field from this take.) The song floats along over an eerie organ sounds played by Bowie himself, but the real star here though are the multiple layers of overdubbed, harmonic vocals that close the song out, sounding like a group of rather melodic ghosts haunting an abandoned old mansion.
Oh! You Pretty Things: Probably my personal favorite Bowie track and a definite high point of one of rock’s essential albums, Hunky Dory. Part ragtime, part The Beatle’s White Album-era album track, it’s quintessential early 70s Bowie: bleak, philosophical lyrics about the coming obsolesce of humanity contrasted masterfully with a jaunty, almost annoyingly catch piano and chorus. True genius.
Suffragette City: It’s been said Bowie could perform basically any style, and here is the definitive slice of raw, unbridled glam rock for the ages, propelled by one of the greatest guitar openings in history and a blazing piano riff. How this song failed to chart as a single is a mystery right up there with Stonehenge and The Bermuda Triangle.
White Light/White Heat: If there’s an artist beyond Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground that was born to perform this song, it’s Bowie. This version turns up the glam on the original while still capturing the underlying thrill and eventual darkness of its subject matter.
Young Americans: Perhaps only David Bowie had the instincts and talent to pull of the “British white guy goes Philadelphia soul” trick and do it quite so well. This is because Bowie didn’t simply try and ape the style from a studio in London. He went to Philadelphia to live and record, hiring and surrounding himself with local musicians and singers, including a then relatively unknown Luther Vandross, who would tour as part of Bowie’s backing band for the subsequent tour.
Sound and Vision: Most artists would trade the majority of their careers to have an album like Hunky Dory or The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust in their catalog. The fact that Bowie claims those and a work as stunning and creative as Low in the same decade is well nigh unbelievable and frankly seems a bit unfair. The first of three Bowie electric collaborations with Brian Eno as part of the “Berlin Trilogy,” the same sessions that would produce the iconic “Heroes”.
Modern Love: How many songs can claim to have Stevie Ray Vaughn and Nile Rodgers playing guitar on the same track? Despite the overabundance of firepower on guitar, it’s the bitching horn section that really makes this early 80s gem run at top speed.
I’m Afraid of Americans: This is an icy, sardonic slice of fuzzed-out electronic bliss about the homogenization of world culture under the onslaught of American consumerism. Another output of the fruitful Bowie-Eno partnership, it features a killer video featuring Trent Reznor that plays homage to Taxi Driver.
The Stars (Are Out Tonight): After nearly a decade away from recording and performing, Bowie returned with the shockingly good The Next Day. Does this song reach the giddy heights of his very best work? Of course not, but it’s vital and miles beyond what you have the right to expect from someone in their SIXTH decade of performing and recording.
Lazarus: If The Next Day was a wonderful, unexpected surprise, then Lazarus seems like a gift from the gods. The record, especially the title track, are achingly good, especially with the narrative of the record as Bowie’s planned farewell. The video for this song is haunting, as Bowie looks every bit the part of a dying man as he sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.”
Enjoy the playlist and celebrate one of the few artists of our time that deserves the moniker “genius”.