Unlike The Beatles before him, David Bowie was never afraid to relinquish a single or two. With that said, it doesn’t mean that all of his most beloved and most cherished songs were given their own releases. In fact, the majority of what makes David Bowie such a ubiquitous icon can be found in the depths of his studio albums. For the most part, it is in the rendering of the canvas that we truly find Bowie’s texture, not the foreground hero. However, he was more than aware of the power of the charts and the need to keep them happy.
Some artists saw the album as hallowed ground and, therefore, kept the chart-topping singles they had written off them. It’s a move that would baffle fans today, after all, why wouldn’t one want to hear the song being played endlessly on the radio as part of the album of that artist. It became a mark of ‘cool’ to keep your singles away from your albums. However, David Bowie saw the potential of the pop charts and was keen to give his best showing whenever possible.
It’s a facet of the singer that is most overlooked — for all his style, guile and panache, David Bowie was an extremely hard worker. He managed to fit countless careers int his own, taking on extra-curricular roles too, either as the unanointed king of pop fashion or in genuine film roles. He was the ultimate artist, never shying away from a challenge or a canvas.
While others only concerned themselves with one medium, Bowie took them all on, and with aplomb too. He was the master of radio play and perhaps the only true genius creator of singles we’ve seen. Never afraid to colour the airwaves with a brand new sound, Bowie has rightly sat at the top of the pop pile for some time as the archetypal single-maker. As with his ability to compact many careers into his own, he could also pack in the highs, lows, and everywhere in between of life into a little under three minutes.
Thanks to his love of singles, this list could be doubled or tripled without diminishing the quality. But, as we like a challenge, we’re picking out just ten of our favourite singles from the Starman.
David Bowie’s best singles:
Quite possibly one of Bowie’s most famous songs, and often regarded as one of his best, ‘Fashion’ has been littered across our airwaves since its release as a single back in 1980. It was the last track to be recorded for the Scary Monsters album sessions and is wonderfully rendered with all the peacocking-glory of the decade to come.
Many people suggested that this song was Bowie making a point about the new totalitarianism of the disco, something he saw intently in the New Romantic movement that was flourishing throughout the eighties. The singer later clarified that he was trying to “move on a little from that Ray Davies concept of fashion, to suggest more of a gritted-teeth determination and an unsureness about why one’s doing it”.
As a single, it provided his fans with not only a taste of the decade to come but a reassurance that it would be David Bowie at the forefront of pop still.
9. ‘Let’s Dance’
No song typifies the pop career of David Bowie more accurately than ‘Let’s Dance’. Released in 1983 as part of the singer’s resurgence on the pop charts, this track proved that Bowie was not an artist who would be restricted by the musical fashion of the time or by the dwindling of time. He would ensure that he was always at the cutting edge of creating music.
Using the acclaimed producer Nile Rodgers, the musical maestro behind chic, Bowie confirmed himself to the new decade as a relevant pop star once more. While it’s easy to dismiss this song, it’s damn well impossible to resist its charms. It’s the kind of release which showed Bowie was happy to play the pop game as intended if need be. Though often maligned by diehard Starman followers, the song is one of his biggest-selling singles, reaching even number one or two in the charts across the globe and selling one million units in the UK alone.
8. ‘Ashes to Ashes’
Another Scary Monsters cut, the lead single will almost certainly go down in history as one of Bowie’s best. The lyrics see Bowie reprise the character of Major Tom in a brand new decade and in a new darker sphere. It enraptured audience members upon its release who had now been with Major Tom and his travels for over a decade. Bowie described the song as “very much a 1980s nursery rhyme. I think 1980s nursery rhymes will have a lot to do with the 1880s/1890s nursery rhymes which are all rather horrid and had little boys with their ears being cut off and stuff like that.”
The song contains secret messages and hidden lyrics, meaning that it is one of Bowie’s fans’ greatest loves. Full of self-referential moments and clever lyrics, the track is balanced by hard-edged funk bass and art-rock credentials, flecked with new wave. It’s the kind of single that confirmed Bowie was still a musical magician.
7. ‘Hallo Spaceboy’
The track, which was originally written by Bowie and his partner in crime Brian Eno, was born out of a prolonged jam session after being inspired by the Nine Inch Nails but was given new life after one of Britain’s finest institutions got a hold of it.
“I adore that track,” Bowie later said of the song. “In my mind, it was like Jim Morrison meets industrial. When I heard it back, I thought, ‘Fuck me. It’s like metal Doors.’ It’s an extraordinary sound.”
Given the hard rock direction Bowie was attempting to take the song, it came as a major surprise to his fans when a special remix by The Pet Shop Boys—who added a disco edge to the track with additional lyrics sung by Neil Tennant—was given an exclusive release. The 1996 single, therefore takes a spot on our list as the only entry from the ’90s.
6. ‘Changes’ / ‘Andy Warhol’
There’s a good argument to suggest that while ‘Space Oddity (more on that later) may have launched Bowie’s career, it was son Hunky Dory, some three years later, where the singer truly found his sound. Marrying a touch of folk with the danger of rock and the nuance of jazz, Bowie produced an album that transcended genre and defied critics.
That was, in no small part, down to the wealth of songs that featured on the album. One such single release showcased this perfectly as Bowie shared ‘Changes’ backed with the B-side of ‘Andy Warhol’. The latter song may have been a tongue-in-cheek homage to the pop artist from New York, but the former was a cleverly constructed rock manifesto.
As well as being an indictment of the previous generation’s lack of control, Bowie stating in 1968: “We feel our parents’ generation has lost control, given up, they’re scared of the future. I feel it’s basically their fault that things are so bad.” The song is also an anthem for evolution and tolerance, two pillars of the singer’s legacy.
5. ‘Sound and Vision’
Appearing on Bowie’s seminal 1977 album Low, ‘Sound and Vision’ was released as a single in that same year and peaked at number three in the UK charts. Still, to this day it remains one of Bowie’s most notable songs.
So much so, that the song has become a permanent fixture in some people’s top ten lists, the song is an archetypal piece from the Thin White Duke as he uses abstract lyrical constructs shaped by incessantly groove-filled instrumentals to bamboozle and entrance.
Originally composed as an instrumental track, something Visconti and Bowie had agreed upon when creating the Berlin trilogy LP, but it was soon flourished by some of the singer’s more abstract lyrics. Its place on our singles list is guaranteed purely because of how strange it was for a single. Far removed from the pop tones of old, or indeed the eighties, this release relied on Bowie’s fans knowing that it was a fragment of his art.
4. ‘Space Oddity’
For many, ‘Space Oddity’ has come to represent a zeitgeist moment in world culture having been released so close to the moon landing in 1969. But the track was born out of something a little more off the wall.
Bowie explained: “In England, it was always presumed that it was written about the space landing, because it kind of came to prominence around the same time. But it actually wasn’t. It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me.”
Instead, the song would forever be associated with the exploration of space, “It got the song flowing. It was picked up by the British television, and used as the background music for the landing itself.” The singer continued, “It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did. Obviously, some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.’ ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.’ Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that.”
3. ‘Heroes’ / ‘V2 Schneider’
The LP’s title song, and perhaps one of Bowie’s most loved songs, ‘Heroes’ was written after the Starman caught a glimpse of Visconti and his mistress hugging on the divisive wall itself. It was a startling message of unity written about something intrinsically dehumanising and became part of the reason Bowie performed it in the city over a decade later.
It is a song which has seen not only people connect to and enjoy one another but also to hold hands while bringing down those who oppress them. It has become the montage sequence of Bowie’s entire career.
When the song was released as single with ‘V2-Schneider’ as its B-side, the song quickly took its place as a universal anthem. Ubiquitous and emboldening, its crowning moment came when Bowie sang the track back in 1987 and, for many people, sang straight to East Berlin and helped instigate the very removal of the Berlin Wall.
2. ‘Life on Mars’
Without doubt one of the most powerful and poignant songs, Bowie has ever written ‘Life On Mars’ only really gathered up acclaim in Britain upon its release. Likely to be as powerful in a rock opera as on a pop record, with the song Bowie really changed the game and made artistically-driven music hit the heights of pop stardom.
Compositionally the song is near-perfect. Piano work provided by Rick Wakeman, Bowie reflected that it was actually an effortless creation: “[The] Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise longue; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris’, so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon.”
While lyrically, it ranks among the most surreal and deliberately difficult to ascertain any truth from, it is in this series of tableaux that Bowie showcases his creative genius. Not comfortable providing a searing narrative that the music warrants, instead Bowie shares a disjointed and designed medley of vignettes from the museum to the modern—asking the listeners to create their own tale.
1. ‘Starman’ / ‘Suffragette City’
Is this the greatest double A-side in history? It could well be. For that reason, it has to take the top spot on our list of David Bowie’s best singles.
‘Starman’ is rightly seen as the only introduction to David Bowie’s creation Ziggy Stardust you’ll ever need. The song is finely crafted with lyrics that are perfect for the album and keep a pop audience engaged. Musically, Ronson and Bowie’s vision is perfectly enacted but perhaps the song’s shining moment is that fabled octave-leap on “Star-MAN”.
Bowie discussed the album with William S. Burroughs back in 1973 and explained the track: “Ziggy is advised in a dream by the Infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes ‘Starman’, which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the Infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth.”
Equally, ‘Suffragette City’ is another swashbuckling rocker. Though, if it wasn’t for Mott the Hoople, the song would never have landed alongside ‘Starman’. The glam rock band rejected using the song, instead opting for ‘All The Young Dudes’, which left Bowie open to including it on this 1972 release.
Super-charged with the electric riff that Ronson conjured up this was Ziggy and his Spiders in top gear. It’s one of the fiercest moments on the album and saw Bowie transcend into a fearsome rocker. Often thought of as the kind of songs the fictionalised band would sing, a notion punctuated by the final shrieks of “Wham, bam thank you ma’am!” and gilded by the glitter of glam rock glory that rings out with every note.