It’s almost impossible to confine the man who released nearly 30 studio albums over the course of an incredibly vibrant and varied career to just one playlist. But we still gave it a shot; below, a decades-spanning but by no means definitive sampling of David Bowie’s remarkable four-plus decades of musical output. (We’ve made it 69 songs, to honor the birthday he celebrated just two days before his death on Jan. 10. )
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“Space Oddity” (1969)
Leave it to Bowie to be always ahead of his time. “Oddity” was released just days before the inaugural moon landing, though he later said it was entirely inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, not Apollo 11’s astronauts. Still, the song gave him his first Top 5 U.K. hit, and its opening lines—“Ground control to Major Tom, Ground control to Major Tom/Take your protein pills and put your helmet on”—remain one of rock’s all-time introductions.
“The Man Who Sold The World” (1970)
Nirvana would bring this track to an entirely new audience with their seminal Unplugged cover in 1993, but Bowie’s slinky, eerie original remains the definitive take. (Check out a fantastically bonkers performance with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias on Saturday Night Live in 1979.)
“All The Madmen” (1970)
“Black Country Rock” (1970)
“Turn and face the strange,” he commanded; it might as well have been a directive for the next four-plus decades of his wild, decadent, endlessly faceted career.
“Queen Bitch” (1971)
A building block of glam rock, with a hall-of-fame riff courtesy of guitarist Mick Ronson and lyrics that doubled as a dress code for a nascent generation of gender-bent dandies and vamps (“She’s so swishy in her satin and tat/In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat.”)
“Oh! You Pretty Things” (1971)
“Life on Mars” (1971)
“Ziggy Stardust” (1972)
A deathless anthem that offered yet another all-time guitar riff, and a formal introduction our favorite left-handed man with the god-given ass and the snow-white tan.
“Moonage Daydream” (1972)
He’s an alligator, a space invader, a mama-papa coming for you (and also to movie soundtracks for years to come: “Moonage” has cropped up everywhere from 2003’s School of Rock to 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy).
“Suffragette City” (1972)
“It Ain’t Easy” (1972)
“Aladdin Sane” (1973)
The chaotic, piano-crashing title track on Ziggy’s moody followup introduced yet another alter ego. Sane was reportedly inspired in part by Bowie’s mentally ill half brother, though its musical and lyrical inspirations range far and wide.
“The Jean Genie” (1973)
“Drive in Saturday” (1973)
“Cracked Actor” (1973)
“I Can’t Explain” (1973)
One of pop music’s most original minds hardly needed to make a covers album, but when he did of course it was still better than most; his takes on tracks from contemporaries like the Who, the Pretty Things, Pink Floyd and the Kinks, are still worth digging up.
“Rebel Rebel” (1974)
Another song whose electric opening notes have permanently entered the rock-riff cannon—and whose arch lyrics (“You’ve got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl”) and risqué refrain, “Hot tramp, I love you so!”—was better than a love letter to thousands of enthralled young listeners.
“Rock n’ Roll With Me” (1974)
“Diamond Dogs” (1974)
“Big Brother” (1974)
“Velvet Goldmine” (1974)
Originally titled “He’s a Goldmine,” this early gem was deemed way too wild for release on 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars—let alone fit for radio. (Sample lyric: “You’re my taste, my trip, I’ll be your master zip/I’ll suck your hair for kicks.”) Still, it became a fan favorite when it was finally released as a B-side to a “Space Oddity”rerelease several years later, and its title went on to inspire Todd Haynes’ 1998 film of the same name, a gorgeously fictionalized fever dream of the relationship between Bowie and Iggy Pop.
“Young Americans” (1975)
Written with a little help from a guy called John Lennon, Bowie’s vicious mediation on the dark side of bold-faced fortune (“Fame, what you like is in the limo/Fame, what you get is no tomorrow/Fame, what you need you have to borrow”) would, ironically, go on to become his first No. 1 on the U.S. Hot 100.
“John I’m Only Dancing” (1975)
“Golden Years” (1976)
He reportedly had to get drunk to get up there, but do yourself a favor and watch his Soul Train performance of this soigné classic; the cocktails (or something) really begins to kick in halfway through.
“Station to Station” (1976)
“Wild is the Wind” (1976)
“Sound and Vision” (1976)
One of the most immediately accessible tracks on an album that marked yet another swerve for the star into territory more aggressive and avant garde than anything that came before.
“Be My Wife” (1976)
“Always Crashing The Same Car” (1976)
Praise or blame it for giving The Wallflowers and the kids on X-Factor something to cover for decades to come; still a stone-cold classic—even if it barely dented the pop charts at the time.
“Joe the Lion” (1977)
“Boys Keep Swinging” (1979)
Bowie’s return to a looser, more organic sound—juxtaposed with a take on gender politics as irreverent and sharp-edged as ever.
“Look Back In Anger” (1979)
“Ashes to Ashes” (1981)
Poor Major Tom. Things have not gone well for our “Space Oddity” hero in the last decade or so; he’s now “a junkie, strung out in heaven’s high/Hitting an all-time low.” But what a killer song to send him out on.
“Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” (1981)
“Under Pressure” with Queen (1981)
The union of two of rock’s most unforgettable frontmen yielded a massive hit in multiple countries. “Pressure,” with its end-of-days imagery and epic vocal exchange, made modern madness sound almost bearable.
“Peace on Earth (Little Drummer Boy)” (1982)
Yep, his earnest holiday idyll with Bing Crosby is still top 10 on the list of the strangest and most wonderful pop-culture collaborations of all time.
“Modern Love” (1983)
“Let’s Dance” (1983)
No mythology, no alter egos, just a song so irresistibly MTV-hooky that following the directive its lyrics delivered was easy.
“Cat People” (1983)
“China Girl” (1983)
“Dancing in the Street” with Mick Jagger (1985)
“Absolute Beginners” (1986)
“Magic Dance” (1983)
A spectacularly ‘80s entry sprung from his film role as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth; and a song so sticky with synths it seduced a whole generation of kids who had just begun to be introduced to the power of pop music.
“Day-In Day-Out” (1987)
“Time Will Crawl” (1987)
“Heaven’s in Here” (1989)
“Back to basics” was hardly a phrase that applied to Bowie, but this may qualify as his most straight-up rawk effort, recorded live and unadorned with the Tin Machine band.
“Miracle Goodnight” (1992)
“Jump They Say” (1992)
“The Buddha of Suburbia” (1993)
“The Hearts Filthy Lesson” (1995)
His reunion with longtime collaborator Brian Eno also ushered in a distinctly industrial ’90s sound, and a new touring era as well; Nine Inch Nails joined him on the road to support the record (though Morrissey, alas, canceled his planned dates).
“Hallo Spaceboy” (2995)
“I’m Afraid of Americans” (1997)
“Little Wonder” (1997)
Breakbeats, drum ’n’ bass and other sounds of the moment tweaked the trajectory of tracks like these on Earthling; so did some pretty wild and very very ‘90s videos.
“Slow Burn” (2002)
A welcome return after 1999’s disappointingly adult-contemporary …Hours, if not exactly peak Bowie.
“New Killer Star” (2003)
“Pablo Picasso” ft. Jonathan Richman (2003)
“The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (2013)
“Valentine’s Day” (2013)
“Where Are We Now?” (2013)
“Girl Loves Me” (2016)
It’s hard not to read new poignancy into lyrics that sound like their own defiant kind of epitaph: “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.”