The 10 Best David Bowie Songs of All-Time

David Bowie performing

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"Space Oddity"

Originally released days before the historic launch of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, "Space Oddity" was not played by the BBC until after the mission had safely returned to earth. The tale of Major Tom became David Bowie's first hit single in the UK climbing to #5 on the UK pop singles chart in 1969. It fared less well in the US, but in 1973 "Space Oddity" was re-released and became David Bowie's first significant hit in the US peaking at #15. In 1975, RCA re-released "Space Oddity" in the UK and the song went all the way to #1. David Bowie revisited the Major Tom character in later songs, most notably as a "junkie strung out in heaven's high hitting an all-time low" on "Ashes To Ashes."

The title "Space Oddity" alludes to the title of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It received a 1970 Ivor Novello Award for Originality. "Space Oddity" was included on David Bowie's 1969 self-titled second studio album. The album was re-released in 1972 by RCA under the title Space Oddity. It hit the top 20 on both the US and UK album charts.

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"Fashion" was released as the second single from the album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) following "Ashes To Ashes." It adopts a hard funk style that was popular in the avant-garde dance music underground of the time. The music video was filmed in the celebrated New York dance club Hurrah by British director David Mallet who would later work on the acclaimed clips for "Let's Dance" and "China Girl." "Fashion" was a top 5 pop hit single in the UK and, although it only reached #70, it was David Bowie's first pop chart appearance in the US in three years. 

Among the distinctive sounds on "Fashion" is a bassline reminiscent of "Golden Years," Robert Fripp's noisy guitar part, and the vocal "beep-beeps." The celebrities appearing in the music video include former John Lennon girlfriend May Pang, guitarist G.E. Smith of the Hall and Oates band, and MTV VJ Alan Hunter.

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"Golden Years"

The single "Golden Years" might be seen as the bridge between the disco-inflected soul music of the Young Americans album and the electronic experiments that would dominate David Bowie's work in Berlin on the Heroes and Low albums. Reportedly, he offered "Golden Years" to Elvis Presley to record, but it was declined. The song became a top 10 pop hit single in both the US and the UK and introduced the album Station To Station which peaked at #3, at that point David Bowie's highest charting album in the US.

The Station To Station recording sessions occurred during 1975 when David Bowie's cocaine addiction was at its peak. David Bowie was reportedly playing "On Broadway" on the piano in the studio when he came up with "Golden Years" and wanted to emulate some of the styles of the Mann and Weill classic. David Bowie performed the song live on Soul Train on American TV. He was one of the few white artists to appear on the show.

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"Young Americans"

David Bowie became obsessed with American soul music in the mid-1970s. The song "Young Americans" is steeped in the aesthetics of Philadelphia soul. The cynical lyrics make reference to Richard Nixon and include the dramatic break "Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?" Luther Vandross is included among the young backing vocalists. "Young Americans" broke into the pop top 40 in the US and paved the way for the commercial success of "Fame." David Bowie later referred to the sound as "plastic soul."

David Bowie began recording the songs for the album Young Americans in August 1974 during the breaks from his Diamond Dogs concert tour. The music was recorded live in the studio with a full band as much as possible. Andy Newmark, the drummer for Sly and the Family Stone, was brought in to help create an authentic soul sound. The album was also the first in which David Bowie worked with guitar player Carlos Alomar. They would then work together for more than thirty years. The Young Americans album reached #9 on the US chart and earned a gold certification for sales.

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"Ashes to Ashes"

"Ashes To Ashes" was released as the first single from David Bowie's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) album and became his first #1 pop hit single in the UK since "Space Oddity." Fittingly, the song is a sequel of sorts to "Space Oddity" detailing more of the story of the character Major Tom. David Bowie later described "Ashes To Ashes" as an epitaph for the 1970s. In a 1980 interview, David Bowie referred to "Ashes to Ashes" as a "1980s nursery rhyme." "Ashes To Ashes" broke into the top 25 of the US dance chart.

The celebrated music video was directed by David Mallet and features David Bowie in a Pierrot pantomime costume. At the time it was the most expensive music video ever made costing over $500,000. Steve Strange, vocalist for the group Visage, and a key member of London's New Romantic scene appears in the video. 

The album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) was David Bowie's first after his experimental trio of Berlin albums, Low, Heroes, and Lodger. Peaking at #12 in the US, it was David Bowie's highest charting album since 1977's Low. In the UK, it went to #1, the first David Bowie album to do that since 1974's Diamond Dogs.

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"Starman" was first released in 1972 and seen originally as a sort of sequel to "Space Oddity." However, it turned out to be an introduction to David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust era relating a story about the rock artist delivering a message to earth from a "starman waiting in the sky." Although the single only reached #10 on the UK pop singles chart at the time of release and #65 in the US, the song's reputation has grown with time. It was included on the soundtrack to the 2015 hit film The Martian.

In a 1973 interview with William S. Burroughs, David Bowie made it clear that the "Starman" is not intended to be Ziggy Stardust. The latter character is only the starman's messenger. "Starman" was David Bowie's first top 10 pop hit in the UK since "Space Oddity" three years earlier. In the US, the song climbed to #65.

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"Under Pressure" With Queen

For many fans, the combination of David Bowie and Queen's Freddie Mercury on vocals was a match made in heaven. David Bowie originally joined Queen in the studio to sing backing vocals on a different song "Cool Cat." He was dissatisfied with his performance on that song but "Under Pressure" grew out of a jam session with the band. When released as a single, the song soared to #1 on the UK pop singles chart and reached the top 30 in the US. 

The distinctive bassline of "Under Pressure" was later sampled in Vanilla Ice's 1990 #1 pop hit single "Ice Ice Baby." The music video for "Under Pressure" was directed by David Mallet and includes neither David Bowie nor Queen due to tour conflicts. Instead, it is a collage of stock footage and clips of classic silent films such as Battleship Potemkin, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Nosferatu.

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"Let's Dance"

With its big, brash contemporary rock-disco production courtesy Nile Rodgers, "Let's Dance" became David Bowie's biggest pop smash since "Fame" and his final #1 pop hit in the US. Stevie Ray Vaughan notably plays the guitar solo. "Let's Dance" made David Bowie into an 80s pop star, but many of his new fans were largely unaware of his earlier work. "Let's Dance" went to #1 in many more countries around the world including the UK and the song topped the dance chart while reaching the top 10 on the rock chart and the top 15 on the R&B chart as well, a rare feat of the time.

The "Let's Dance" music video was directed by David Mallet and filmed on location in Australia. It also starred two aboriginal students, Terry Roberts, and Joelene King. The music video also makes use of the "red shoes" mentioned in the lyrics of "Let's Dance." David Bowie said that he intended the video as a statement against racism and oppression. David Bowie's concert tour to promote the Let's Dance album was called the Serious Moonlight tour based on lyrics of the song.

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"Fame" grew out of studio session time with John Lennon and guitar player Carlos Alomar. Lyrically, the song is a slap at David Bowie's current management. Musically, it captured the spirit of disco beginning to infiltrate mainstream pop in 1975. Released as the second single from the Young Americans album, "Fame" soared to #1 on the US pop singles chart and quickly became one of David Bowie's signature songs.

John Lennon sings backup vocals on "Fame." It's his falsetto singing the word "Fame" in the background. David Bowie considered the song to be an angry one, and he had no idea that it would be a big hit. He told Musician magazine, "I wouldn't know how to pick a single if it hit me in the face."

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Recorded during David Bowie's heavily experimental years living in Berlin, "Heroes" is drenched in electronic noise. The song reached #24 on the UK pop singles chart and failed to chart in the US, but its reputation has grown tremendously over time. The lyrics tell the story of a tragic couple at the Berlin Wall. The production features King Crimson's Robert Fripp on guitar. "Heroes" was played at the 2012 Olympics when the UK's athletes entered the stadium in London. 

In writing "Heroes," David Bowie was inspired by seeing his producer Tony Visconti hug his girlfriend by the Berlin Wall. The instrumental track of "Heroes" was one of the first recorded for the album of the same name, but it remained wordless until near the end of the album's production.