by Ed Biggs
The passing of David Bowie, who succumbed to liver cancer at the age of 69 on January 10th, felt very much more momentous than the average passing of a rock legend. Bowie’s death feels like one of the most significant losses, not just for pop music, but for the totality of Western popular culture. Truly, no artistic voice has been heard like his since, or so fearlessly fought to be heard in such a wide variety of media.
On a personal note, I reflected on Monday that I couldn’t remember feeling as saddened by the passing of any celebrity since John Peel, way back in autumn 2004. In the same way that Peel was a faithful companion of my teenage years as I listened to his radio show while I did my homework, Bowie had a similar kind of impact in those same formative years. Introducing me to new ways of thinking and new styles of music, of an awareness of rock music as a pantheon with a venerated history, building key components of my identity and psyche as a music fan.
And it’s precisely for this kind of reason that his music resonated with so many people, and why so many have felt his death on such a personal level. Each and every Bowie fan, across many generations, will have had their own introduction, their own interactions with a living, breathing back catalogue that remained as enduringly relevant as his latest release. More than most artists or bands, Bowie was an icon, even a way of life, about so much more than just the recorded output. The phrases ‘Bowie boys’ and ‘Bowie girls’ didn’t come about for nothing.
Quite aside from the wealth of great music, most famously his dazzling run of albums throughout the 1970s whose consistency, variety and brilliance arguably outshines even that of the venerated Beatles, Bowie was an innovator in the entire presentation of pop music, challenging preconceived notions about how it should look and sound, the subject matter it could address, and how it could be consumed.
Barring an uninspired nadir in the mid-to-late ‘80s (a decade when pretty much every established major star had a bit of a wobble in their output) it’s startling to look back and see just how much of Bowie’s work was, if not necessarily brilliant, then at least challenging or interesting, a determined departure from ground he had previously covered. Hell, even the Tin Machine days have something to be said for them, even if they represented Bowie’s lowest commercial ebb.
But everything about Bowie seemed to spill over into another component or facet of media. Of course, he’s known for his big screen appearances in the likes of Labyrinth and The Prestige, which ranged from the powerful to the faintly ridiculous, as well as a memorable starring appearance in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, but he also graced the small screen. One of the first popular musicians to experiment with the new format of promotional music videos at the dawning of the MTV era, arguably the first to embrace the power of the internet in the ‘90s, Bowie was restlessly creative, keen to explore the possibilities of the newest technology even as the traditional music industry resisted.
Though much is made of his ability to reinvent himself, from his characters such as Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to The Thin White Duke and the musical guises he donned, from plastic soul to avant-garde-rock and dance music experiments to his latter-day soulful rock, Bowie occasionally tended to his legacy and looked backward. In the early ‘80s and ‘90s, his Serious Moonlight and Sound + Vision tours saw him retire a large section of his greatest hits, airing tracks like ‘Changes’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’ before mothballing them for good. On the hard-nosed business front, there was the invention of the Bowie Bond, a way for him to realise royalties from his back catalogue ahead of time.
Then there’s his selflessness, his willingness to assist those he admired or to lend some of his cultural capital to others give them a leg up, or to put them in a prominent position in the mainstream once again. Donating his song ‘All The Young Dudes’ to Ian Hunter’s flagging group Mott The Hoople in 1972 was the most noteworthy incidence of this. It went on to be the definitive glam-rock track, more so than any of Bowie’s own celebrated songs from the time.
The production work he did for Lou Reed’s seminal solo album Transformer and The Stooges’ abrasive, iconic Raw Power around the same time led to some of the very best LPs of the early ‘70s. Even while busy recording his famous ‘Berlin’ albums in 1977 with Brian Eno, Bowie still found time to assist his great friend Iggy Pop by producing not one, but two, classic records in shape of The Idiot and Lust For Life in the same year.
Following an extended period of absence, Bowie stunned the world with 2013’s The Next Day, one of his finest and most assured works in decades and which secured his legacy once again, as if it needed it. 2016’s Blackstar, named here as Best New Music just one week ago, has proven to be a suitable epitaph for Bowie, as fearlessly ground-breaking as anything he’d done in his whole career. While it seems devastating to think there will never be another new Bowie album, Blackstar is a fitting end to a fearsome legacy, as good as anything we could have wished for in hindsight.
So, as The Student Playlist’s humble yet heartfelt tribute to the great man, here’s an alternative introduction to Bowie, one that we hope avoids the really obvious tracks yet gives an accessible, holistic overview of his catalogue and rough guide to his development as an artist. Please scroll below to read some brief thoughts on the individual tracks. We fondly hope you discover something about Bowie you didn’t know about, or hadn’t explored before: truly, there is a vast amount of it. Happy listening!
An interesting early portrait of Bowie as folkish-hippy warbling about “sun machines”, the lengthy ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ closed his second self-titled album and showcased his willingness to make ambitious (if, at this stage, flawed) music.
Bowie’s relationship with Tony Visconti really began to blossom one The Man Who Sold The World, from which ‘The Supermen’ is the wild-eyed, Nietzsche-inspired closer.
Showcasing Mick Ronson, arguably Bowie’s most famous creative foil, at his best, the stomping glam-rock riffage of ‘Queen Bitch’ was one of many highlights from Hunky Dory, the first truly great Bowie LP.
The apocalyptic, string-swept intro to Bowie’s most famous LP.
Left off Ziggy Stardust in favour of ‘Starman’, as Bowie’s record company demanded a hit single, ‘Velvet Goldmine’ is something of a fan favourite, effortlessly melodic as the bassline confidently sashays through the mix.
Though Aladdin Sane was often lazily characterised as ‘Ziggy goes to America’, the addition of jazz pianist Mike Garson to the backing band made for something altogether weirder. The profane, Brechtian ‘Time’ is a perfect example of the versatility he lent Bowie, and likewise a great illustration of Bowie’s uncanny knack for picking collaborators.
One of the thematic centrepieces from Bowie’s ornate Orwellian dystopia Diamond Dogs, the live stage show of which there is regrettably no archive footage from.
One of his most frequently overlooked albums, Station To Station was a bridge between the warm blue-eyed soul of Young Americans and the cold explorations of the Berlin era, and no track encapsulated the sense of ice meeting fire in Bowie’s soul than ‘Stay’.
Consistently left off his greatest hits collections, ‘Be My Wife’ never made it as a hit single but is in many ways the quintessential Bowie song – low key, odd and supremely beautiful.
Lodger is the lesser known instalment in the famed Berlin trilogy, but no less ground-breaking as Eno and Bowie started messing around with polyrhythms and Eastern scales to produce dramatic highlights such as this.
Following the more famous ‘Ashes To Ashes’ out of the traps from the Scary Monsters… album, the avant-garde pop of ‘Fashion’ helped Bowie capture America once again.
A cover of Iggy Pop’s 1977 single, the sultry ‘China Girl’ boosted his friend’s coffers and provided Bowie with yet another enormous hit, making him as big in America as he ever got.
Teaming up with Nile Rodgers once again brought Bowie back in from the cold, as Black Tie White Noise returned him to the top of the charts. Incredibly, this was to be Bowie’s last UK Top 10 single until 2013.
For all of Bowie’s ground-breaking work throughout his career, 1995’s 1. Outside remains his most impenetrable, characterised by oblique experimentation and discordant soundscapes.
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails remixed this unassuming track and made it into one of Bowie’s most memorable ‘90s cuts, a towering mechanical beast with a fantastic accompanying video, and asserting Bowie’s relevance to a new generation of American alt-rock teenagers.
A highlight from 2002’s Mercury-nominated Heathen, which won over the critics unanimously and secured Bowie’s legacy for good.
LCD Soundsystem’s modern dance music auteur James Murphy transformed ‘Love Is Lost’ into a dazzling promotional single for the expanded re-issue of The Next Day, dropping in a hint of 1980’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’ for good measure.
The serene, emotional closer from Blackstar. Needs no further description.
Tags: David Bowie, David Bowie playlist, David Bowie tribute, Ed Biggs, RIP David Bowie, The Student Playlist
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