As we celebrate the release of David Bowie’s seminal record Hunky Dory, which arrived 39 years ago today, we thought we’d rank the iconic album from our least favourite to our most cherished track. It may well have been the moment that David Bowie finally fulfilled his potential, but that doesn’t mean the record is perfect from start to finish.
That said, in an album filled with some of Bowie’s best pop work, it may be more difficult than you think to rank the songs from worst to best. The album remains the breakthrough record for Bowie and saw the then-24-year-old finally make his name. While the success of ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969 had afforded the Starman some fame and acclaim, it was Hunky Dory that really set him on his path to becoming a bonafide legend.
In the record, Bowie set out his blueprint for success. He would take the kaleidoscopic influences he fell upon and which fell upon him during the previous decade, tie them up together in a neat bow and deliver them with a charismatic smile. If there’s one thing that Hunky Dory is, it’s an introduction to an icon. It should be the first place you send any Bowie virgin not least of all because of the vast range of songs and styles.
Here, we rank them all for you so that you can be as efficient as possible with your David Bowie adoration. Yes, we know. These kinds of articles are essentially just one person’s opinion in an ocean of opinions. However, we like to think of ourselves as Bowie experts here, so maybe we’ll surprise you, or maybe, just maybe, you’ll disagree with our rankings.
A few rules to note, for any ranking article we avoid bonus tracks or any remixes. We also try to listen to the albums on ‘shuffle’ so that we avoid falling into the traps of clever producers.
David Bowie’s album Hunky Dory ranked:
11. ‘Eight Line Poem’
Without doubt one of David Bowie’s more opaque songs, in fact, it never warranted itself a title, the song remains as a leading example of Bowie’s expressive lyricism. It was not an aspect of his songwriting which had been fully explored, but these are some of the first steps to Bowie’s legendary pen.
While the exact interpretation is hard to define, you’d be forgiven for thinking this may surround the urbanisation of modern life and Bowie’s struggle to come to terms with it.
In an album chock-full of hits, this one falls by the wayside a little.
10. ‘Fill Your Heart’
One of the funkier moments on the album, adding some delicate jazz touches wherever possible, the overarching sentiment that Bowie lets resonate is the last repetitious line “free your mind,” which punctuates the track with aplomb.
His first cover since ‘I Pity The Fool’, the special rendition of Biff Rose’s track had been featuring in the singer’s earlier live sets for some time. Never afraid to show his admiration for another, Bowie’s cover is up to scratch.
9. ‘The Bewlay Brothers’
Largely seen by many as one of the most challenging songs of Bowie’s to navigate, it was one of the last tracks to be written for the 1971 record. It’s dense texture, and rock hard exterior has it sinking to the bottom of the rankings for us, but that won’t be a popular opinion.
‘The Bewlay Brothers’ has taken on a life of its own in recent years as a new generation discovers the singer. These are the artistically driven moments in Bowie’s career that have always seen him on the sharper side of the cutting edge.
The B-side to ‘Rock N Roll Suicide’, this 1971 song remains a bastion of Bowie’s inspiration at the time. While the arrangement was amply provided by Mick Ronson, it is in the lyrics that we see the beginnings of Bowie’s career unfolding.
The lyrics are influenced by Buddhism, occultism, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman — everything that makes Bowie brilliant.
In it, he refers to the magical society Golden Dawn and name-checks one of its most famous members, Aleister Crowley, as well as Heinrich Himmler, Winston Churchill and Juan Pujol. A kaleidoscope of influential figures to match the ranging styles of the music.
7. ‘Song For Bob Dylan’
Not our favourite song on the record as it feels a little too dad-rock but Bowie himself once highlighted the song’s significance to his own career in a 1976 piece in Melody Maker.
He once recalled: “There’s even a song – ‘Song for Bob Dylan’ – that laid out what I wanted to do in rock. It was at that period that I said, ‘okay (Dylan) if you don’t want to do it, I will.’ I saw that leadership void.”
He added: “Even though the song isn’t one of the most important on the album, it represented for me what the album was all about. If there wasn’t someone who was going to use rock ‘n’ roll, then I’d do it.” This was the moment David Bowie made it clear that he was not just a showman; he was an artist capable of changing society.
6. ‘Andy Warhol’
Starting of course with David Bowie’s uncanny impression of Warhol, and a comedic expression that shows off Bowie’s acting skills, the song soon descends into a folk-pop track about the mercurial pop artist that is certainly tinged with apprehension and darkness.
The lyrics highlight a distrust of the artist: “Andy Warhol looks a scream, hang him on my wall / Andy Warhol silver screen, can’t tell them apart at all.” Allegedly, when the two icons met and Bowie played the song for the pop artist, Warhol was not particularly impressed, leaving Bowie more red-faced than his usual make-up routine afforded.
Sadly, the possibility of two of the 20th century’s most creative and purposeful minds ended with the drop of a record needle as Bowie and Warhol quickly ascertained they were never going to be great friends. But Bowie certainly made off the better of the two from their meeting. Bowie could count two lifelong partners in Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, who he met on the trip and the seedlings of his upcoming creation Ziggy Stardust who he lifted from the underbelly of NYC.
5. ‘Queen Bitch’
Allegedly written in tribute to Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, the former of which Bowie would introduce too much of the British audience in 1972 with his work on Reed’s Transformer, Bowie’s ‘Queen Bitch’ is an insight into the artist’s future.
First port of call is Ronson’s decidedly thrashier guitar work which pulls this song apart from the rest of the album and turns a folk ditty into pure rock ‘n’ roll. The song’s arrangement, featuring a wonderfully melodic bass line, a tight and disco drum pattern, choppy fuzzy guitar chords, and an understated vocal performance by Bowie, all add up to glam rock gold.
As well as being a bloody brilliant song (in whatever decade) the track also provided the template for the invention of glam rock as we know it. It would be a template too for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the 1972 introduction to Ziggy Stardust.
4. ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’
An anthemic adolescent bounces down Carnaby Street, Bowie transforms this jaunty little tune, somewhat reminiscent of The Beatles in their pop pomp, to something far more textured and intriguing.
Despite being originally released by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, upon inspection, it is really hard to imagine anybody but Bowie writing this track.
Lyrically and thematically, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ has been seen as reflecting the influence of the aforementioned occultist Aleister Crowley, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 novel Vril, the Power of the Coming Race, most notably as heralding “the impending obsolescence of the human race in favour of an alliance between arriving aliens and the youth of the present society.”
An anthem for the outsiders of this world, ‘Kooks’ may not be the most famous of the album’s incredible tracklist, but for many fans, it resonates most strongly. The song, written for his son Zowie, is the track which recognises not only Bowie’s own ‘kookiness’ but the effect that will have on him as a parent and Zowie as a child.
“I bought you a pair of shoes, a trumpet you can blow and a book of rules on what to say to people when they pick on you,” sings Bowie. “‘Cause if you stay with us you’re gonna be pretty kooky too.”
It’s a song which has transcended its intended target and instead hangs around the shoulders of all those who hear it as a comforting cradle of emboldening creativity. It’s a forgiveness for the errant character traits and odd affectations. It’s Bowie signing off on your weirdness and recognising it for the unique beauty it is.
Was there ever really any doubt that this song would be near the top of the pile?
One of the songs, that for many people, is one of the best that Bowie ever wrote. It’s equally a song that Bowie admits “it started out as a parody of a nightclub song, a kind of throwaway”— we think it’s fair to say that we’re all glad he didn’t.
What transpires instead is a song drenched in optimism and guarded enthusiasm for life and art. 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.
It’s a mark of Bowie’s character and his artistic destination. It’s a manifesto for his career as a rock and roll chameleon, for his life as a patron of the arts and creativity, and his legacy as one of the most iconic men in music.
1. ‘Life On Mars’
Without doubt one of the most powerful and poignant songs, Bowie has ever written. Likely to be as powerful in a rock opera as on a pop record, with ‘Life On Mars’ Bowie really changed the game and made artistically-driven music hit the heights of pop stardom despite never being released as a single.
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 real concrete truth from, it is in the series of tableaux that Bowie provides which shows off his creative genius. Not comfortable with providing a searing narrative that the music warrants, instead Bowie provides a disjointed and designed medley of vignettes from the museum to the modern—asking the listeners to create their own tale.
For us, if you can write a song filled with lyrics as non-sensical as ‘Life On Mars’ while still having the audience sing those mysterious lyrics back to you with passion and drive—then you’ve truly succeeded as an artist.