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