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The 20 Greatest David Bowie Singles

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The 20 Greatest David Bowie Singles

If any single thread connected David Bowie’s now sadly completed half century-long musical journey, it was irrepressible restlessness. Bowie never, ever stopped exploring new musical avenues, which has historically been interpreted in one of two ways: that he was rock’s ultimate chameleon, refusing to be contented with any past success and constantly pushing himself to reach new heights, or that he was a shallow trend-hopping whore who parlayed a keen ear for ever-shifting popular music trends into commercial success.

If it’s ever permissible to call pop artists geniuses, then Bowie is indubitably among them; the fact that he managed to remain a giant of popular culture for decades while completely overhauling his sound every few years is a testament to that. To dismiss him as a mere copycat would be like calling the Boeing 747 a piece of hackwork because the Wright brothers existed. Marc Bolan may have been wearing makeup and playing glammy guitar first, but he didn’t come up with the invention that was Ziggy Stardust. Kraftwerk may have pioneered the cold, cerebral electronic aesthetic that influenced Bowie during his Berlin period, but they never wrote “Heroes.”

These 20 singles, not all of them chart hits, but invariably essential entries in the rock canon, span from Bowie’s first iconic song to enter the public consciousness in 1969 to the remarkable title track from his just barely pre-posthumous swan song, Blackstar, thus proving that his quest to turn and face the strange never ceased so long as there was a breath left in him. Jeremy Winograd


“I’m Afraid of Americans”

The late 1980s and ’90s are consistently regarded as Bowie’s dark ages, and “I’m Afraid of Americans” may be his sole classic of the period. Co-written with Brian Eno and featuring Trent Reznor, the song was an unveiled appropriation of the industrial rock sound Reznor helped to pioneer. Bowie returns to the familiar lyrical point of view of an alien among terrestrials, only this time his avatar is unable to escape the reach of American corporate brands and culture. The song also, of course, benefits from the slick polish of major-label capital. Such is the ambivalence of the Bowie brand. Benjamin Aspray


“Let’s Dance”

“Let’s Dance” may not be the best song Bowie ever released, but it’s one of his most irresistible, boasting a brass chorus riffing over a bouncy synth backbeat, all leading to a classic Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar solo. The track exposed Bowie to an entire new audience of post-disco-obsessed clubgoers in the early ’80s, raising the singer’s international profile and, thanks in part to the song’s music video, setting the stage for his increasingly vocal protests against apartheid in South Africa and racial tensions across the Western world. While “Let’s Dance” reinvented Bowie for a younger audience, his timeless message of tolerance and commitment to cross-genre musical exploration never changed. Jesse Nee-Vogelman


“Diamond Dogs”

Bowie’s many and prodigious talents have been praised and written about ad infinitum, especially in the wake of his death, but one that perhaps hasn’t gotten enough attention is his guitar playing. On his first post-Spiders from Mars album, Diamond Dogs, he played virtually all the guitar parts himself, and on its rollicking title track, he managed to work up an entirely convincing Sticky Fingers/Exile on Main St.-era Rolling Stones pastiche all by his lonesome (that’s him playing the prominent sax parts too). Winograd


“Modern Love”

“Modern Love” was instrumental in Bowie’s ’80s pop comeback, a song that brought his trademark incongruous combination of hesitant, doubt-filled lyrics and self-assured, energetic musicality to a newer, shinier, tackier decade. It’s such a perfect expression of the contradictory emotions behind contemporary relations that it served as the background music for not one, but two iconic cinematic expressions of such tension, in Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, and a later homage in Frances Ha. No song better serves frustrated dancing on the street. Nee-Vogelman


“Sound and Vision”

While Low is one of Bowie’s most engaging, experimental, and ambitious albums, it isn’t his most listenable. Lead single “Sound and Vision,” by contrast, worked within a traditional rock framework to deliver one of the most successful singles of Bowie’s career, contrasting Bowie’s removed sensual musings on color with catchy guitar and synth work. “Sound and Vision” exemplifies all that made Bowie great; it’s effortless, intellectual, affecting, and easy to dance to. Years later, Bowie would call “Sound and Vision” his “ultimate retreat song,” a portal away from writer’s block and a struggle with cocaine toward a new, vast world of musical creation. Nee-Vogelman