David Bowie’s Best: 10 Tracks That Sold the World on Rock’s Greatest Change Agent

(photo: AFP/Betrand Guay)

Never Let Me Down wasn’t just the title of a David Bowie album — it was the implicit rallying cry of fans who counted on him to stay great and stay strange in his senior years. Reviews for his final album, Blackstar, reflected the ecstasy of devotees who felt uplifted by Bowie continuing to challenge himself and his audience. And since it came out two days before we knew he was ill, much less dead, no one could accuse critics of grading the new album on a curve we might use for the terminally ill, or for posthumous releases. This might be the first and last time a veteran rocker will pass away from natural causes the same week a massively acclaimed album has already made him a social media kingpin.

Related: David Bowie’s Life in Photos

In memoriam, here are 10 essential touchstones from rock’s most historically consistent change agent: 

“Space Oddity” (1969)

Mellotrons and sax? Almost as unbeatable a combination as Bowie and space. Before he was a “Starman,” he made his mark by giving the world Major Tom, a marooned astronaut inspired by the space pioneers making a one-way journey in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. His breakthrough hit gets a lot of play every time the space program is in the news, usually without a lot of emphasis on the lyrics’ tragic denouement. Houston, we have a precocious superstar!

“Changes” (1972)

Years later, John Hughes would use some of the most famous lines from “Changes” as the opening epigram for The Breakfast Club: “And these children that you spit on, as they try to change their worlds, are immune to your consultations; they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.“ Bowie rarely got so on-the-nose with his lyrics, but it only took a few charged lines for “Changes” to become an anthem for adolescent self-realization, in the stuttering tradition of “My Generation”… albeit with a string-laden lushness that sounded a lot more wizened than rebellious.

“Ziggy Stardust” (1972)

The apotheosis of glam-rock, in three quick, narrative minutes. In the title track from the career-defining masterpiece Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, it appears that the fictional rocker dies for our sins. Bowie sent the character to his eternal rest shortly afterward, though it took a lot more chameleonic ch-ch-ch-changes for the whole world to realize that he and Ziggy were not one and the same.

“Fame” (1975)

“Master of funk” was not a term anyone would have been applying to Bowie even a year earlier, when he was still seen as the hard-rocking glitter king. But the starman became a soul man for the Young Americans album, and adopting the tropes of black music was what finally made him a radio star in the States. That album’s title track went to No. 28, and then “Fame” really broke the logjam, becoming the first of only two No. 1 singles he would ever have in America. Buddy John Lennon was the co-writer, but it was guitarist Carlos Alamar’s funk-rock guitar riff that made the track. Bowie even got invited on Soul Train to perform the tune, undoubtedly causing some cognitive dissonance for a lot of unsuspecting African-American dance extras.

“Heroes” (1977)

That soul thing was really working out well for Bowie in the mid-‘70s… so, of course, he shucked it, leaving behind the Philly funk and going thoroughly Euro with art-rockers Eno and Robert Fripp. Bowie may have turned into something of a recluse during his three-year move to Germany in the late ‘70s, but the Berlin wall inspired him to write something that felt tragic, majestic, and, by the time he gets to the “belt”-y section of the song, altogether open-hearted.

“Ashes to Ashes” (1980)

MTV was still a year away from premiering when Bowie made this seminal video, but his slightly spooky appearance as a Pierrot figure sure gave the fledgling network something to program once it bowed. If it was ostensibly a sequel to “Space Oddity,” it was far from an obviously commercial one, with Major Tom now revealed not to have been reborn as a Starchild but as a junkie… reflecting some of Bowie’s own struggles during his darkest days. And if people are afraid of clowns, you might’ve thought David Bowie as a clown would represent a truly scary monster. Yet this odd song’s popularity had him rising out of the ashes again.

“Under Pressure” (1981)

Bowie and Queen: two great flavors that go together, in a song so unwieldy it’s a miracle the center holds. The bass riff and finger-snapping may have been the most immediate grabbers, but it’s Bowie singing about “the terror of knowing what this world is about” that gives the duet such great emotional heft.

“Let’s Dance” (1983)

His back-to-soul move… sort of, since any track that has Stevie Ray Vaughan peeling off blues licks isn’t necessarily just a bid to get back on Soul Train. “Let’s Dance,” fronting the smash album of the same name, became his second and last #1 in America. Disco refugees and dancefloor denizens everywhere wondered how to bust a move that would best resemble trembling like a flower.

“I’m Afraid of Americans” (1997)

Here was a Bowie who was not afraid of torch-passing. In the ‘80s, some of his collaborations had seemed crassly motivated, especially his hit pairing with Mick Jagger on a remake of “Dancing in the Streets.” But Trent Reznor felt like a true soulmate for the erstwhile starman, as they paired up for a video of this track as well as a major tour and joint interviews. The true collaborator on the recording was producer/co-writer Eno, who’d brought out Bowie’s real sonic weirdness two decades earlier. While the song will never exactly become a staple of Fourth of July celebrations, it’s revived any time anyone needs some musical shorthand to illustrate how cultural xenophobia can run both directions.

“Where Are We Now?” (2013)

After not having released any new material for a decade, Bowie dropped a whopper of a surprise birthday present in January 2013 with this comeback track. It wasn’t geared for maximum commercial prowess, but instead reflected ruefully back on his late-‘70s days in Berlin. The tone was stock-taking, befitting a man turning 66. But the vitality of the full The Next Day album — and of Blackstar two years later — proved that Bowie was in no danger of getting stuck in nostalgist mode, even when he was facing the end.

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