For List-Likers

The New York Times’ Dwight Garner is looking for suggestions: “Help Us Compile an Alternative David Bowie Playlist.” He explains in the July 22, 2011, piece that “I wish to compile a Bowie playlist that omits the hits — ‘Heroes,’ ‘Young Americans,’ etc. — yet resonates perhaps even more mightily.”

It occurs to me he could have turned to Bowie’s own such list, the tunes he chose for ISelect, a CD that was included in the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday on October 8, 2008.

  • Life On Mars?
  • Sweetest Thing/Candidate/Sweetest Thing [Reprise]
  • Bewlay Brothers
  • Lady Grinning Soul
  • Win
  • Some Are
  • Teenage Wildlife
  • Repetition
  • Fantastic Voyage
  • Loving the Alien
  • Time Will Crawl [Mm Remix] – (remix)
  • Intro/Hang On To Yourself [Live] – (live)

I thought it would be fun to look for some other lists. Here are the top ten of the 50 songs William Higham discusses in “Fifty Ways to Love Your Bowie”  for Rock’s Backpages, October 2002.

  • 10. ‘We Are The Dead’ (Diamond Dogs, 1974)
    The ultimate in drug-fuelled, self-searching self-indulgence. Saved from the over-earnest pose of, say, ‘Rock’n’roll Sucide’ by a chilling sense of dread.
  • 9. ‘Cracked Actor’ (Aladdin Sane, 1973)
    . . .The ‘Positively Fourth Street’ of Glam…
  • 8. ‘Golden Years’ (Station To Station, 1976)
    A camp cocaine anthem from the days of disco glitter. Sums up that backstage-at-Studio-54-with-a-supermodel-on-each-arm style, but with a poignant ennui only Bowie . . .understands…
  • 7. ‘Young Americans’ (Young Americans, 1975)
    Bowie always does his best work when he tears open a genre, rams his essence in then sticks it back together clumsily, not when he reveres and mimics it….
  • 6. ‘Aladdin Sane’ (Aladdin Sane, 1973)
    A Noel Coward trip for the sci-fi set – beautiful, sexy, frightening and throwaway at the same time (“battle cries and champagne, just in time for sunrise”)….
  • 5. ‘Word On A Wing’ (Station To Station, 1976)
    …A rare and beautiful thing …
  • 4. ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ (Aladdin Sane, 1973)
    A hymn to the ambiguous delights of obsessive love. … As with much of Aladdin Sane, it’s never quite clear whether Bowie is an emotional participant (actor) or detached observer (artists) of the song’s events, but it works well on either level. …
  • 3. ‘Rebel Rebel’ (Diamond Dogs, 1974)
    Here in four and a half minutes is the essence of all that is rock’n’roll: black rebel leather and an innocent belief in the redemptive power of music. The album’s segue from the black swamp of madness that is ‘Sweet Thing’ /‘Candidate’ to the upbeat swagger of ‘Rebel Rebel’ is perhaps the greatest moment in Bowie’s entire cannon.
  • 2. ‘Station To Station’ (Station To Station, 1976)
    Kraftwerk with balls. A twisted, holy trip to the legendary Grail, taking in autobahns, railways and industrial cities on the way. Best heard pumping out of solid state speakers in some crowded sweaty disco. “
  • 1. ‘Sweet Thing / Candidate / Sweet Thing (Reprise)’ (Diamond Dogs, 1974)
    His most dramatic, sweeping suite is an unusual Number One perhaps, but its strange motions combine all Bowie’s finest features: his most powerful inner demons (“Don’t you see that I’m scared and I’m lonely”), his most impassioned vocal (‘Heroes’’ basso voce meets ‘Wild Is The Wind’’s heart-wrenching swoops), a powerful soundscape (echoed years later in Side 2 of ‘Heroes’) that builds to a Kraftwerkian bump’n’grind funk (ditto Side 1 of Station To Station), a remarkable ear for melody and pop arrangements (and Bowie’s piano-led tracks are too often overlooked in favour of his guitar workouts) plus a fine lyric both metaphysical (“love is a cheap thing”) and realist (“We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band then jump in the river holding hands”). The ultimate DB experience.

Higham’s choices for slots 11-20 are Beauty and the Beast, Win, ‘Heroes,’ Stay, Queen Bitch, Watch That Man, Teenage Wildlife, What In The World, Right, and Soul Love.
I’m fond of a blog called The Flying Lobster. Its writer discusses each song on Bowie’s albums and then rates it on a 1-10 scale. These are his perfect tens, in chronological order.

The albums he gives a perfect ten are Station to Station, Low, “Heroes”, Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and Hunky Dory.

I have to admit that one reason I’m fond of the Flying Lobster is because this is the only other place I’ve seen someone write with utter dislike about “I’m Afraid of Americans,” a song I also abhor. Flying Lobster gives only three songs a rating of 1:

  • I’m Afraid of Americans: Inexplicably overrated stuttering rocker. Surprisingly co-written with Brian Eno but nowhere near as good as anything they did on Outside. A minor hit but so intoxicatingly awful with it’s tiresome anti-anthem clichéd chorus and obnoxious no-chord riff repeated ad-nauseum that it’s beyond ironic that it has become a live favourite. The remix by Trent Reznor was much worse. 1.0 Earthling
  • Too Dizzy: This track has the unenviable honour of being a song Bowie thought so bad he had it deleted from some reissue of the album. Unfortunately my copy has it. 1.0 Never Let Me Down
  •  God Only Knows: A left over from the original Pin Ups album. To say covering this Beach Boys hit was ill-advised is a huge understatement (it’s a song I have never been a huge fan of…sorry) . There’s a lot wrong with this train wreck: the strings are kitschy and Bowie’s undistinguished vocal performance is one of his all time worst, for starters. 1.0 Tonight

When NME.com asks its readers to come up with their top 20, the results were:

Uncut Magazine took a different approach. Its lead for June 2008 was “Bowie: His 30 Greatest Songs”; the article’s sub-title tells us they are “as Selected by His Friends, Fellow Musicians, and Some Big-name Bowiephiles” but not how the ranking was determined. They are numbered, however. Here they are, 1 to 30:

Any commonalities or anomalies?

Other than “Rock N Roll with Me”, the NME poll is fairly standard stuff.

“Lady Grinning Soul” made Bowie’s ISelect, The Flying Lobster’s, Higham’s and bowienet’s list, but not Uncut’s.

“Life on Mars?” makes all the lists, except for Higham’s. It isn’t among his top fifty. He considers it, along with ” Ziggy Stardust,” one of  Bowie’s “second-rate-Art-student-postmodern-mime-artist attempts.” Similarly, “Moonage Daydream” doesn’t make his top 50 (“belaboured sci-fi”), and it didn’t make the NME list.

Everyone likes ‘Heroes.’ It isn’t on Bowie’s ISelect, but because he deliberately wanted to choose some of his less often anthologized pieces, this doesn’t mean much (except perhaps I shouldn’t be including the ISelect list with these others).

Only the bowienetters chose “Five Years” and “Cygnet Committee.”

Few are post-Scary Monsters: “Let’s Dance,” “Heathen,” “Sunday,” “Time Will Crawl,” and “Loving the Alien” — the later two  chosen by Bowie alone.

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