Happy 50th birthday to an album for the ages.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

It's no exaggeration to say that rock changed forever on June 16, 1972. Fifty years ago today, David Bowie, one of the most singular talents of the 20th century, released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The rock opera tells the story of the titular Ziggy Stardust, a queer space alien on a mission to save the human race with his glam rock musings. Bowie, ever a man of theatrics, designed his alter ego in his own image: androgynous, bisexual, and hell-bent on being a rock star. And though he was already at the height of stardom when he released this fifth studio album, it helped cement his place in the pantheon of rock gods.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this landmark album, here's our ranking of every song on Ziggy Stardust.

11. "It Ain't Easy"

If you were to corner a randomly selected Bowie enthusiast and ask them to name their favorite Ziggy song on the spot, few would be so bold and brave to pick "It Ain't Easy," and with good reason — it's not an original. This often-overlooked track is actually a cover of Ron Davies' folksy, finger-plucked (and mostly forgotten) tune from just two years prior. Now dripping in glam rock, Bowie swapped its twang for a twinkling guitar while keeping the choral chorus. It's not a bad song, but it doesn't hold a candle to the rest of the album. Thus it's condemned to the last spot on our list, though admittedly by default. 

10. "Hang on to Yourself"

The opening riff of "Hang on to Yourself" sounds like it could have been on the Footloose soundtrack, which is fine if you're not David Bowie. Let's face it, you don't turn to the single most influential pop-rock legend for a line dance. Still, its quick tempo and rockabilly reminiscence likely induce some foot tapping. The song didn't make waves when Bowie released it as a single in 1971 with the band Arnold Corns, though it didn't stand a chance as the B-side to "Moonage Daydream." Its inclusion on Ziggy Stardust the following year didn't do much to change that, but we won't hold it against him.

David Bowie
David Bowie
| Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

9. "Soul Love"

"Soul Love" sees Bowie kick off his shoes and get a little jazzy. Seriously, he's playing that saxophone himself. As the second track on Ziggy Stardust, "Soul Love" serves up some exposition for the larger narrative: Our titular hero gazes upon the humans of Earth in awe, inspired by their expressions of love. Here, he decides we're worth saving, for "All I have is my love of love / And love is not loving." Touching? Sure. But even amid Mick Ronson's operatic guitar solo, this track just doesn't sparkle in the sublime way so characteristic of Bowie's best work. 

8. "Star"

Even casual Bowie fans will recognize the recurring motif of stars in his work, what with the gift of his 2016 album Blackstar, which proceeded his shocking death by just two days. But before that seismic cultural shift, there was "Star," Ziggy's prophetic epiphany that he'd save Earth by being "a rock & roll star." Bowie said it best himself in a 1971 interview with the Cheltenham Chronicle: "People like to focus on somebody who they might consider not quite the same as them. Whether it's true or not is immaterial." The composition of "Star" feels simple, but listening to its celebratory, almost manic piano ring, it's hard not to feel saved. 

7. "Lady Stardust"

Here's where the album arguably ramps up, at least in terms of this list. Ushered in by an understated piano, "Lady Stardust" bursts into a ballad about an androgynous man on the fringes of life and love. Sound familiar? Though that of course brings Bowie and Ziggy to mind, the song is actually about T. Rex's Marc Bolan, a glam rock icon in his own right who served as one of many inspirations for Bowie's iconic character. Bowie's vocal quiver as he declares Lady Stardust to be "all right" is nothing short of knee-buckling, willing you to sing "all night long" right along with him.

6. "Suffragette City"

The second single off Ziggy Stardust, "Suffragette City" may have been the B-side to "Starman," but it deserves the same fervor from fans. Its pulse-quickening pace and relentless piano bring to mind the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, though the Velvet Underground were also a notable influence. But the true crux of this song comes with Bowie's electric yelp: "Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am!" Many other lyrics wink at Stanley Kubrick's malevolent masterpiece A Clockwork Orange, and this track is similarly sinister, being an ode to sexual frustration wrapped into a galvanizing rock anthem.

5. "Starman"

"Starman" is one of the more popular Bowie songs among the masses, and it's easy to see why. Beyond being the first single off Ziggy Stardust, this celestial anthem glimmers and gleams in ways only Bowie can. Its famed chorus mimics the vocal leap in Judy Garland's idyllic "Over the Rainbow," and its message mirrors it too. A messiah-like Ziggy broadcasts hope over the airwaves to the youth of Earth, telling them they're saved by the "Starman waiting in the sky." And just like that, Bowie goes from rock god to God god.

'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars'
'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars'

4. "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide"

Concept albums are hallmarked by their closing numbers, and much like Pink Floyd's "The Wall" ending with an epic trial, "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" sees a tragic end for its protagonist. Just as Earth's fate was sealed, our hero Ziggy Stardust can't save himself, succumbing to the fate of the archetypal has-been rock star. The album's climax comes in the final 80 seconds as Bowie exclaims, "Oh no love! You're not alone," as the Spiders from Mars become crazed, until they all evaporate into the stratosphere forever. Now that's an ending.

3. "Moonage Daydream"

It's shocking that "Moonage Daydream" never charted as a single in 1971, but the powers that be allowed it to be rerecorded for Ziggy Stardust, and we're all better for it. Chock-full of sci-fi flair, this track directly introduces our queer alien hero with electrifying vivacity. He's an "alligator," a "space invader," and (most of all) a "rock & roll bitch for you." It's a tour de force track that sweeps you off your feet, spins you around, and puts you in your place. In other words, it's Bowie at his best.

2. "Five Years"

Every good rock opera needs grand opening number, and "Five Years" absolutely delivers. What begins as a subtle percussive fade-in slowly expands like a black hole to swallow us whole. The strings swell, his voice strains, and just like that we're immersed in cosmic chaos. It's a melodic ballad bearing bad news: Earth is doomed and we don't even know it. Bowie addresses us directly — "Don't think you knew you were in this song" — stopping us cold. But it doesn't let up. The chorus warns that "we've got five years," repeating our fate with a frantic aura that ushers us into one of the greatest albums to grace the masses.

1. "Ziggy Stardust"

Sure, ranking the title track at No. 1 is like saying your favorite James Bond character is, well, James Bond… but are you wrong? Regardless of your stance, there's no denying that "Ziggy Stardust" is a hell of a song. Its opening riff triggers an almost Pavlovian response, willing you to wail right along with Bowie and crash on invisible cymbals. Though we're well acquainted with Ziggy's character by the time this track surfaces in the album's latter third, it's arguably the gravitational center for the work as a whole, condensing the Spaceman's birth and death into a single spectacular song. His "making love with his ego" may as well be an orgy, for it's an irresistible opus on one of the most beloved musical personas of the 20th century.

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The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
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