The 30 Greatest David Bowie Songs of All Time

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The 30 Greatest David Bowie Songs of All Time

Rock music as we know it today wouldn’t exist without its wildest, glittery rebel, David Bowie. In his over 50 years of being active in the industry, he influenced culture as much as he influenced music. He was a pioneer of the glam rock genre, a significant influence on the punk rock movement, an innovator of theatricality, an auteur of fashion and a symbol of queer freedom. Bowie’s impact throughout his life—while expressing his passion and perspectives on the world—is still unbelievable in many regards.

Throughout all of his creative endeavors, including acting, art collecting, writing and crafting stage productions, he managed to release 26 studio albums—dropping three of the best albums of all time back to back to back: Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane. He continues to inspire generation after generation with his unique creativity and his fearlessness of expression.

With a massive catalog like Bowie’s, while there were rough spots along the way, looking back with the whole picture and without the shadow of his previous work constantly looming over anything new, there is so much innovation hidden throughout even the lesser-known songs. To pay tribute to one of music’s greatest innovators, vibrant performers and one of my favorite artists ever, let’s dive into the Starman’s 30 greatest songs—from “Ziggy Stardust” to “Life On Mars?” and, of course, “Space Oddity.”

30. “Slip Away” (Heathen, 2002)

Listen, I know this feels like an out-there pick, but there is something about this emotional, soaring ballad—about the death of a vaudevillian comedian—that is so quintessential Bowie. Through this eulogy to Floyd Vivino, he weaves a love letter to New York and mourns the death of his friend John Lennon, who introduced him to the The Uncle Floyd Show. The line “No one knew what they could do, except for me and you” feels like a direct call out to Lennon, too. It’s a deeply reflective tune that lets the ache in Bowie’s vocals take center stage. Following his experimentation with industrial rock and art-pop throughout the ’90s, Heathen felt like a natural return to form and found Bowie accepting his getting older.

29. “Seven Years In Tibet” (Earthling, 1997)

So much of Bowie’s ’90s experimentation period is overlooked due to people’s constant need to compare it to 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). There are some true gems hidden in those albums. Capitalizing on the roaring, guitar-centric grunge movement while adding his jazzy space-age flair, “Seven Years In Tibet” is one of the most compelling pieces he put out during the decade. The guitar breakdown and cacophony of instruments accented with the funky keyboard solo at the end of the song feel like his interpretation of making some head-banging rock but keeping it strange. My favorite tidbit about this track is that Bowie put out a Mandarin translation, making him the first non-Asian artist to hit #1 in Hong Kong. He was still breaking boundaries even during what many argue to be his “worst” years.

28. “Lady Grinning Soul” (Aladdin Sane, 1973)

If The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is Bowie at his glam rockiest, Aladdin Sane finds him at his rock opera-iest. The piano weaved throughout this album adds a level of drama that evokes a level of melodrama that serves to suck you into the narrative. “Lady Grinning Soul” is the final track on the album, and it’s a climactic piece of romantic art—thanks, in most part, to the tender ache that Mike Garson was able to draw out of the keys. “She will be your living end” is an unbelievable line to conclude an album, and it also wasn’t there at all—as “Lady Grinning Soul” was a last-minute addition to Aladdin Sane.

27. “Hallo Spaceboy” (Outside, 1995)

This is probably the most “anti-Bowie” track on this list, but it has this inexplicable avant-garde energy that somehow makes it even more Bowie. “Hallo Spaceboy” is his attempt at Lynchian industrial nightmare fuel, and I eat it up every time. Bowie’s specialty is making me wonder what world he is going to take me to next—because that’s what his music does best: transport you to a place he crafted in his mind. To this day, I’ll never understand the hate for his ’90s catalog. Bowie was an innovator, and his whole deal was constantly reaching out to further break the mold—so of course, it makes sense that he would create a Twin Peaks-esque concept album set to grimy, overproduced electronic rock.

26. “We Are The Dead” (Diamond Dogs, 1974)

God, is there anything better than Bowie talking about “fuck-me” pumps? “We Are The Dead” is one of the few remnants from Diamond Dogs‘s origins as a George Orwell, 1984-style concept album. It’s a slow, sultry romp through the self-devouring nature of the zombies of Hollywood. This track didn’t get the love it deserved, fighting amongst the heavy hitters on Diamond Dogs, like “Rebel Rebel” and the title track. But only Bowie could sneak in a line as bonkers as “For you’re dancing where the dogs decay, defecating ecstasy”—one of my favorite lines on the entire album.

25. “Lazarus” (Blackstar, 2016)

“Ain’t that just like me?” Bowie asks in “Lazarus”—a fitting question coming from the man whose death would shock the world only a few days after releasing his final album. The entirety of Blackstar is an art rock eulogy to a life filled with incredible triumphs, tragic personal losses and legacy-building gambles. That kind of morbid poetic irony made “Lazarus” such a beautifully painful listen; the noir-esque, jazz-fueled saxophone tragically laments Bowie’s incoming demise—as he tells us his final goodbye, a goodbye we had no idea was coming, but he surely did.

24. “Queen Bitch” (Hunky Dory, 1971)

“Queen Bitch” has that classic ’70s lo-fi, thrashy guitar that gives the perfect edge to the provocative nature of the song. As a purveyor of camp, I adore how Bowie recites this track’s lyrics. Even though it’s known to be an homage to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, I’ve always seen it as a theme song for queer nightlife in the ’70s—messy, promiscuous and fun. “Queen Bitch” also acts as a precursor to the Ziggy Stardust era to come, taking Bowie away from melodic piano-driven pop to guitar-led glam rock.

23. “Aladdin Sane” (Aladdin Sane, 1973)

Only Bowie can get away with an erratic, discordant jazz piano solo in the middle of the title track of an album, and it’s a masterpiece—all about presentation and gall, both of which he had in spades. I think “Aladdin Sane” is the most prominent representation of Bowie’s state of mind writing this album—as he was touring in America and feeling the effects of the Vietnam War. This is one of many anti-war tracks to leap from Bowie’s pen, but it occupies an interesting space since he wrote it in the middle of one of the most violent wars in American history.

22. “Where Are We Now?” (The Next Day, 2013)

Although I feel like Bowie shined when he got weird, sometimes a simple ballad where he lets his lyrics and vocals thrive is all you really need. This is a more recent favorite of mine, as I have expanded my Bowie listening from his peak era into more of his later work. I love knowing he just dropped this on his 66th birthday after years of silence. On the surface, it’s a track about the state of Berlin—a city so crucial to Bowie’s legacy—in the 2010s compared to the state in the ’70s, but underneath that, it’s really an introspective track about his career at-large. After that time off from making music, he found himself at peace with aging rather than grappling with trying to recreate the magic he had once thrived on in his youth.

21. “Diamond Dogs” (Diamond Dogs, 1974)

“This ain’t rock n roll / This is genocide” hits harder now than ever, but it’s a line that makes even more sense when you realize the Orwellian inspiration behind the track. The line “The Diamond Dogs are poachers and they hide behind trees / Hunt you to the ground they will, mannequins with kill appeal” captures the album’s energy better than anything—a snapshot of the rise of the punk scene in the ’70s and the dystopian fall of society in the world’s cities fighting chaos. The term “Diamond Dogs” has become a staple in pop culture—my favorite being from Moulin Rouge!—as a caricature of rebels and disruptors.

20. “The Jean Genie” (Aladdin Sane, 1973)

As the first single off the seemingly impossible follow-up to the masterpiece that is Ziggy Stardust, “The Jean Genie” is an explosion of Bowie’s confidence in his newfound stardom—combined with a Yardbirds-inspired chugging riff and a sleazier version of the Ziggy Stardust persona. Often touted as a stylized version of Iggy Pop, “The Jean Genie” drips with New York influence, painting a narrative of Ziggy getting caught up in cheap thrills and daring promiscuity. “The Jean Genie” is one of Bowie’s catchiest songs, with an Americana bite that touts glam rock excellence.

19. “Moonage Daydream” (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972)

“I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you / I’m a space invader, I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you” still remains one of my favorite song openings of all time—as it exemplifies the absurd nonsense that Bowie could make so incredibly profound. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars will probably consistently rank as one of my favorite albums of all time, as it’s riddled with weird gibberish that makes sense if there is glam rock alien prophet coming to deliver a message of hope in a time of strife. “Moonage Daydream” also features my favorite solo from Mick Ronson—it’s so rich and electrifying that I feel like I can taste it.

18. “Fashion” (Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), 1980)

I won’t even lie. I first heard this song in Clueless. Every girl I know who has seen that movie would kill to have Cher’s automated closet. There’s no telling if this track has stuck with me because of my subliminal association with Cher’s “magic closet” or if the track is just that catchy. Of course, it’s ironic to include that song, knowing that it’s a critique of the fashion industry as a consumerist, fascist nightmare—but it fits so well as a radio hit that people tend to overlook the actual message. The heart of the song lives in ’70s disco while combining the heavy guitar of Bowie’s glam rock era strengths. Also, as a Donna Summer lover, I will instantly adore any song that heartily hits us with a “beep, beep.”

17. “Loving The Alien” (Tonight, 1984)

Honestly, if I could use a singular track title to describe Bowie to someone who knows nothing about him, I feel like “Loving The Alien” just about sums up his intergalactic infatuation best. Although most of Tonight falls flat, Bowie can’t make an album without producing at least one hit. It’s his artistic curse. Bowie admitted that the album altogether doesn’t play well, but that singular tracks stand out. “Loving The Alien” does just that. Contrary to the title, the song doesn’t exist as purely another dedication to Bowie’s love of extraterrestrial life. Rather, it is more of a critique of organized religion and its use as a weapon. It’s tragic that this track ended up on one of his least popular albums; I still like to imagine what an entire record continuing the exploration of the world between spiritual beliefs would have looked like. Unfortunately, it fell to the curse of ’80s overproduction.

16. “Rebel Rebel” (Diamond Dogs, 1974)

The back-to-back punch of “Sweet Thing” and “Rebel Rebel” cannot be downplayed, but there is something about the latter that draws me in. Its place as a farewell to Bowie’s glam era is that extra emotional tie that keeps pulling me back in—as “Rebel Rebel makes me feel like I’m right in that era. The riff in this also came when Bowie was hanging around Keith Richards, which makes complete sense. You can hear how Keith it is once you put the pieces together. Add in the fact that it’s Bowie openly discussing gender (“You’ve got your mother in a whirl, ‘cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl”), and it makes for a perfect counterculture anthem.

15. “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” (Let’s Dance, 1983)

Maybe it’s the Stevie Ray Vaughan of it all, but “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” is such a standout on Let’s Dance. Plus, the fact that its first iteration was the title track for an erotic horror movie, whose recording led to Bowie meeting up with Queen to record “Under Pressure,” makes it even more special. The album version is far superior to the soundtrack version—though the atmospheric build-up fits better in the film, the re-recording is way more fun. Vaughn’s punchiness, combined with Nile Rodgers’s rearrangement of the rhythm guitar, gives it the claws it deserved in the Let’s Dance era.

14. “Starman” (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972)

It’s impossible to talk about Bowie without mentioning “Starman.” As someone who doesn’t identify with any religion, there is something strangely comforting about the idea that, if there was some “Starman” watching over the chaos, his message would be “Let the children lose it / Let the children use it / Let all the children boogie”—basically just saying that we should dance. It’s such a bright beacon of hope sent out as the world was in disarray during a horrible war. The comforting acoustic paired with a message of peace is as relevant today as when Bowie wrote it.

13. “Let’s Dance” (Let’s Dance, 1983)

Feelings aside about this track being used in a certain movie trailer recently, there’s no denying the infectious energy that “Let’s Dance” exudes. Yes, David, I will dance. The song is a boppy rollick of a big band with a funk twist and one of my favorite vocal performances from Bowie throughout his career. I swear we will never again hear a symphony of talent joined together quite like the trio of Bowie, Vaughan and Rodgers. They simultaneously brought the best out of traditional funk while breaking the rules, like Bowie does best.

12. “The Man Who Sold The World” (The Man Who Sold The World, 1970)

I’ll be the first to admit that I discovered this song because of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. However, the second I heard the mesmerizing wail of that opening riff, I needed to know where this song came from—Mick Ronson strikes again. What’s funny is I typically would never assign the words haunting to describe Bowie’s music, but “The Man Who Sold The World” gets that under-the-skin feeling just right. Imagine someone delivering the line “You’re face to face / With the man who sold the world” directly to you. Chilling, truly. Although I’m not the biggest fan of The Man Who Sold The World as an album, I love the idea that it was Bowie’s horror fantasy exploration before his commitment to the world of sci-fi.

11. “Fame” (Young Americans, 1975)

Funk music will never get old. “Fame” is my favorite foray into the genre from Bowie, as it has the nasty, toe-tapping energy that can take over your whole body. (It’s only fitting that he recorded it in Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studio; I’m sure the legend’s spirit lived deep in those walls.) John Lennon was a huge inspiration for the track—and he even provided backing vocals—and their collaboration on “Fame” explains the anti-stardom angle of the song, too. Both of them famously had issues with the hollowness of rock celebrity, and thus gave us the killer line, “Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame / That burns your change to keep you insane.”

10. “Ashes to Ashes” (Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), 1980)

Bowie took on the new wave era with one of the best albums he ever put out. “Ashes to Ashes” was the lead single from Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and called back to Major Tom from “Space Oddity”—but this time discussed the character’s drug use, also a reference to Bowie’s own experiences with cocaine addiction. The beat on “Ashes to Ashes” is perplexing in the best way possible, and Bowie creates his very own dark nursery rhyme in the chorus: “Ashes to ashes, funk to funky / We know Major Tom’s a junkie / Strung out in heaven’s high / Hitting an all-time low.” I love this idea of taking a beloved character and making them flawed, if only as an allegory for how most celebrities are not who they seem to be.

9. “Ziggy Stardust” (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972)

Ziggy Stardust, the alien that launched Bowie to astronomical heights. It’s hard to imagine rock music without the vibrant influence of Bowie marching around in wild costumes with bold red hair and platform boots as an alien prophet. What I love most about this track is how its acoustic-driven melody still stands tall amongst the electric-driven giants on the rest of the album. “Ziggy Stardust” acts as a climax to the protagonist’s fame—ironic as it is just the precipice of Bowie’s successes—told from the perspective of his band, the Spiders From Mars. “Making love with his ego / Ziggy sucked up into his mind” is a reference to the title character’s inspiration, Vince Taylor, who was a victim of his own undoing from drugs. It’s a cautionary tale that maintains the very human quality of this imagined prophet.

8. “Changes” (Hunky Dory, 1971)

“Changes” is a perfect example of the masterful blending of genres Bowie was constantly able to accomplish. The rock chameleon pulls influences from ’60s pop and old-school jazz punctuated with a rock edge in the track. “Changes” could be seen as a title track for Bowie’s entire career; he knew who he was from the very beginning—a Renaissance man with a desire to do it all. I would kill to write something as profound as “Time may change me / But I can’t trace time.”

7. “Blackstar” (Blackstar, 2016)

All of Blackstar operates as a morbid threnody, but there is something about the title track that hurts the most. A black star continues to emit its energy long after it dies—truly the perfect metaphor for Bowie as an artist, and how his cultural impact will continue to fuel music long after his passing. The track is almost 10 minutes long, but I wish it continued forever. The cinematic desolation Bowie conveys throughout the relatively simple track production-wise—simple for his standards—sticks with you in such a haunting manner, until the instrumentation gives way to a hopeful orchestration before adding a levity to the line “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a meter then stepped aside.” I can’t imagine embracing death with the grace Bowie did.

6. “Life on Mars?” (Hunky Dory, 1971)

Recently, I learned that this song was allegedly meant to be a parody of “My Way” by Frank Sinatra. Such a fact adds another layer of intrigue to an already masterpiece of a song. “Life on Mars?” feels like the natural beginning of the cinematic glam rock world that Bowie has become so synonymous with, as the soaring ballad has an unearthly quality that brings us right into Bowie’s own mystical world. “Life on Mars?” is, essentially, an existential contemplation of whether or not art can act as escapism or if it’s just a bleak mirror to a dull reality. I find this to be the origin of an idea that Bowie continues to explore throughout his entire career—how far can our imagination really take us.

5. “Modern Love” (Let’s Dance, 1983)

Unlike David, I do not know when to go out and when to stay in. If anything, I tend to do the opposite of what I should be doing. That’s where much of Let’s Dance lies. It is opposite to much of Bowie’s heady avant-garde work, presented as a simplistic commercial album—but Bowie still manages to slip a thoughtful critique of the church in the song’s unbelievably catchy call-and-response chorus. I love the thought that people were walking around in the ’80s and mindlessly singing along to the lyrics “God and man / No religion.”

4. “Under Pressure” (Queen’s Hot Space, 1982)

Ironically, I thank Freddie Mercury for my introduction to David Bowie. Growing up, we were a Queen household through and through—and you bet “Under Pressure” was on rotation on my mother’s Queen: Greatest Hits CD. Even after I ventured into Bowie’s work independently, “Under Pressure” always stuck with me. Perhaps it’s because it’s the greatest collaboration of two of rock’s greatest icons of all time, or maybe it’s the fact that two queer men were discussing the pressures of existing as themselves. “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about” is one of those lyrics that remains relevant and maybe resonate even more as I get older. But I still crumple every time I hear, “Because love’s such an old-fashioned word / And love dares you to care for / The people on the edge of the night.”

3. “Space Oddity” (Space Oddity, 1969)

If I were alive in 1969, the moon landing would have been all I was talking about, too. “Space Oddity” is a masterpiece of storytelling. I’m up in the spaceship, floating aimlessly through space along with Major Tom. The psych-folk track feels like it’s physically lifting me up with the 12-string acoustic guitar, Stylophone, woodwinds and Mellotron working together to help me levitate. There is something so special about seeing someone’s artistry feel realized so early on in their career. One of his now most famous and withstanding songs came after multiple failures, yet Bowie’s superpower is crafting these characters and narratives you get utterly invested in most of the time over an entire album but, in this instance, over a five-minute cinematic narrative in one of the greatest songs ever written.

2. “Heroes” (Heroes, 1977)

It’s impossible for me to listen to “Heroes” without getting a nostalgic ache, and I wasn’t even alive when it was made. My parents were just kids in 1977, but the power of that chord progression still manages to evoke an emotional response every time I listen to it. Framing a protest song surrounding the division of Berlin by using the story of two lovers on either side of the wall was a stroke of heart-wrenching genius. “Heroes” captures the tragedy of life’s briefness, but also the beauty of the time we spend together and the love we carry with us through it all. Is there anything more heartening than “Though nothing will keep us together / We could steal time, just for one day / We can be heroes, forever and ever.” Like Bowie himself, “Heroes” is immortal.

1. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972)

“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” is not only the best album closer of Bowie’s discography, but I’d argue one of the greatest album closers of all time. I have never heard drama in rock music quite like the tale of Ziggy Stardust. His ultimate downfall is a magnificent display of Bowie’s ingenuity, and so much of his work grapples with mortality and legacy—but none do it as gorgeously as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.” He opens with the line, “Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth,” saying both that life is taking over and your time is up and to savor those last moments. To this day, “You’re too old to lose it, too young to choose it / And the clock waits so patiently on your song” feels like a premonition to Bowie’s own death—waiting for him to sing his final goodbye to Earth. I’ve never really understood why this song has always meant so much to me. Maybe it’s because the big band that scores the outro to Ziggy’s life is filled with hope, or perhaps it’s because, when I first heard it, there was nothing I needed to hear more than “You’re not alone.”

Check out a playlist of these 30 songs below.

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