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David Bowie: 30 Essential Songs

From “Ziggy Stardust” to “Lazarus,” we survey the catalog of the late, great art-pop shapeshifter

In the days and months to come, it’s going to become a commonplace to say that David Bowie packed seven or eight careers into his one. That’s one of those cliches that’s actually true: His catalog is full of album-length statements that wrestled pop’s future into revelatory new shapes again and again. But Bowie was also one of rock & roll’s all-time great singles artists — an AM-radio Picasso who could pack more joy and loss and wonder into three minutes than most other artists could dream of in a lifetime. His genius comes into the sharpest focus when you listen to a playlist of his best songs spanning those four decades, which is what we’ve assembled here: a rough guide to Bowie, from 1969’s “Space Oddity” up through last week’s “Lazarus.” It’s a head trip, and it’s only the beginning.

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FILE PHOTO: English singer, musician and actor David Bowie, circa 1974. Bowie turns 60 on Monday January 8, 2006. (Photo by Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty

“China Girl” (1983)

Bowie was known for a wide repertoire of cover songs, including this take on "China Girl," which he originally co-wrote with Iggy Pop for Pop's 1977 album, The Idiot, an album Bowie also produced. Where the original was a charming but raw guitar-charged balled, Bowie polished the track into a hit with help from Nile Rodgers' glossy production, the unmistakable guitar tones of Stevie Ray Vaughn and his own sultry lyrical delivery. A single from Bowie's massive 1983 full-length, Let's Dance, "China Girl" would peak at Number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, helping his good friend Pop with a windfall of then much-needed royalties.

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FILE PHOTO: English singer, musician and actor David Bowie, circa 1974. Bowie turns 60 on Monday January 8, 2006. (Photo by Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty

“Modern Love” (1983)

Released in 1983, “Modern Love” revealed Bowie at his catchiest and most nihilistic, taking aim at the song’s namesake over jazzy saxophone and chunky guitar riffs played by legends Stevie Ray Vaughan and Nile Rodgers. His gospel-like call-and-response during the choruses reflects his thoughts on tradition, religion and, of course, love, as Bowie soul-searches and comes up short in divining the function of romance in the modern age. By the end of the song, he makes a convincing argument — over a classic, Fifties rock & roll sound — that the emptiness he has unveiled is something worth celebrating.

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FILE PHOTO: English singer, musician and actor David Bowie, circa 1974. Bowie turns 60 on Monday January 8, 2006. (Photo by Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty

“As the World Falls Down” (1986)

David Bowie recorded five songs for the Jim Henson–directed fantasia Labryinth, in which he played the spiky-haired villain Jareth the Goblin King. "Jim [Henson] gave me the script, which I found very amusing," Bowie said in a 1986 interview. "It's by Terry Jones, of Monty Python, and it has that kind of slightly inane insanity running through it. When I read the script and saw that Jim wanted to put music to it, it just felt as though it could be a really nice, funny thing to do." The sparkling, subdued ballad "As the World Falls Down," which intermingles a tender vocal performance from Bowie and a sinewy bass line with glassy New Romantic synths, appears in the film during a fantasy sequence triggered by Jennifer Connelly's Sarah eating an enchanted peach; it soundtracks a masquerade ball from which Sarah eventually breaks free.

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FILE PHOTO: English singer, musician and actor David Bowie, circa 1974. Bowie turns 60 on Monday January 8, 2006. (Photo by Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty

“I’m Afraid of Americans” (1997)

Bowie collaborated with his old friend Brian Eno for this stuttering, paranoid track from 1997’s Earthling, which appeared in a rougher form on the soundtrack to the 1996 Vegas fable Showgirls. “‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ was written by myself and Eno,” Bowie said in the press release announcing Earthling. “It’s not as truly hostile about Americans as say ‘Born in the USA’: it’s merely sardonic. I was traveling in Java when the first McDonald’s went up: it was like, ‘for fuck’s sake.’ The invasion by any homogenized culture is so depressing, the erection of another Disney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life.” Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, who reworked the track for its single version, appears in its bleak video, playing a stalker who chases Bowie around the streets of New York.

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FILE PHOTO: English singer, musician and actor David Bowie, circa 1974. Bowie turns 60 on Monday January 8, 2006. (Photo by Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty

“Sunday” (2002)

"Nothing has changed/Everything has changed," Bowie announces in "Sunday," the song that kicked off his creative renewal on 2002’s Heathen. After a decade of uneven work dominated by his Nineties guitar foil, Reeves Gabrels, Bowie started over with a leaner, livelier, sparser sound. (Not to mention finally getting rid of his grunge-era goatee.) "Sunday" mixes electro-pop blips with a sinister backing choir, as Bowie warns about the bleak future he sees ahead — there’s no point clinging to the past, because everything you think you understand will get burned away beyond recognition. Yet there’s something oddly cheerful in Bowie’s voice as the song builds — and there’s tangible excitement in the way he throws himself into yet another fresh start — turning to face the strange one more time. He had one more album along these lines — 2003’s equally excellent Reality — before a 2004 health scare helped inspire him to take a nearly decade-long break from the studio.  

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FILE PHOTO: English singer, musician and actor David Bowie, circa 1974. Bowie turns 60 on Monday January 8, 2006. (Photo by Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty

“Where Are We Now?” (2013)

Bowie's 2013 comeback LP, The Next Day, was surprising for more than just its mere existence: For the first time in his career, Bowie began to truly reflect on his past eras. This trend is apparent in the album's artwork, an adaption of the cover for 1977's "Heroes," but in "Where Are We Now?" Bowie spells out his reflective mission even more clearly, citing locations in Berlin, the city where he lived during the Seventies while creating a trilogy of iconic albums. His voice carries the weight of his life and memories; he sings with a soft stoicism that picks up towards the end as he triumphantly sings the song's coda: "As long as there's me/As long as there's you."

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FILE PHOTO: English singer, musician and actor David Bowie, circa 1974. Bowie turns 60 on Monday January 8, 2006. (Photo by Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty

“Lazarus” (2016)

Bowie was on the cutting edge until the end, fusing his love of rapper Kendrick Lamar and jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin in the secret sessions for his 25th and final studio album, . Recorded during marathon sessions beginning in 2014, Bowie would often sing for seven hours straight. "Lazarus" appears to have been written for the current off-Broadway play of the same name, about a lonely, once-wealthy man living in New York. Over a spooky, hypnotic rhythm, Bowie conjures the character as convincingly as he did Ziggy and the Thin White Duke. After the singer's death, the lyrics took on deeper meaning, and thousands started retweeting lines from the song: 

Look up here, I'm in heaven
I've got scars that can't be seen
I've got drama
Can't be stolen
Everybody knows me now 

Oh, I'll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh, I'll be free
Ain't that just like me?

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