Friday, March 25, 2016

Ultimate Playlists 8: David Bowie

Image from

Have you ever been to a concert and wished the band had played certain songs? I know I have. The reality is, you'll never get exactly what you want. However, you are free to build any playlist you like. I have decided to write a series showcasing the Top 20 songs from some of my favorite bands.

For those of you who are old enough to remember cassette tapes, you'll know the terrible anguish of trying to fit the songs together. How annoying when the last song you picked was still playing as the tape ran out! Those days are over and it's now a simple task to throw together a playlist using your computer, iPod or a USB. I know that having USB capability has enhanced my driving pleasure because it's so easy to update a list of songs.

But there's also more to creating a playlist than simply deciding which songs to include. Like an actual concert, or even a single song, a good playlist features changes in mood and tempo. If a band opens with the three songs that the audience most wants to hear, the rest of the performance might fall flat. My own particular method of creating a playlist has a number of considerations:

  • Mix up the duration of the songs
  • Put space between songs from the same album, unless the two are better when played in sequence
  • Build to a natural high, slow it down again, and finish with a real flourish
  • Put in some newer songs close to the start, assuming there are newer songs worthy of inclusion
  • For bands with more than one vocalist, mix up the sequence depending on who is singing
  • Speed and style matters, so mix it up unless there is a good reason not to
  • Albums often have a great choice of opening and closing song that work best in that particular spot 
  • The final three or four songs might resemble an encore if it was a real concert
  • Leave the listener satisfied and wanting more 

Has there ever been a musician that has changed identity more often or more successfully than David Bowie? Instead of my usual concert photo, I've borrowed the above album collage from to illustrate those many phases. Even if you are not a fan, you have to admit that it's pretty cool. Bowie remained original up to and including his final album release.

I was wary of featuring David Bowie in this Ultimate Playlist series because of the flood of material that appeared following his death in January. However, he has impacted my life in a lot of ways and I didn't want to omit him.

When I was a kid, with my musical tastes dominated by glam, novelty records, and all manner of embarrassing things, Bowie's music captured my attention like nothing ever had. Hey, I was 12 or 13, so give me a break! I remember playing Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane at my neighbor's house after buying them from a store my grandfather ran. I credit Bowie with being the first 'proper' artist I ever became obsessed with.

My grandmother was curious about my obsession and made an attempt to understand it. I have fond memories of her reading the lyrics to Hunky Dory. I have a sneaking suspicion that she imagined that Kooks could have been written about her and my grandfather.

I distinctly remember anticipating the release of Low. It was the first time I was ahead of the curve and not just reacting to existing music. When it finally arrived, I wondered why Bowie had included so many instrumental synthesizer tracks on the second side - a trend that continued with the release of Heroes - but I adjusted and regard those albums as two of his best releases.

I had a lot of trouble choosing just 20 songs for this list. Part of me wanted to showcase tracks that might have been overlooked by the casual fan. For example, I was desperate to include Cygnet Committee, but I couldn't leave out any of my final 20. Soul Love was another hard one to cut, perhaps because of my grandmother. So I have decided to list the 17 songs that just failed to make the cut. Here they are, in alphabetical order: 

Beauty and the Beast
Breaking Glass
Cygnet Committee
Drive-In Saturday
Fantastic Voyage
Golden Years
Hallo Spaceboy
I'm Deranged
Joe the Lion
Red Sails
Running Gun Blues
Soul Love
Watch That Man
Ziggy Stardust

I am sure that there will be many readers who will look at the above list and at my final 20 and think that I have omitted some of the best songs Bowie ever produced. That's how strong his catalogue is. But I hope that you will at least respect my choices, even if you are outraged at some of the omissions.

As for favorite albums, I would mention The Man Who Sold the World, Heroes, Hunky Dory, Low and Outside. That's not to say that most of the others don't contain songs that you simply need to hear. I'm sure a lot of fans would put Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane close to the top of their list, while others would choose Let's Dance or Young Americans. My closest friend would probably ask me where the hell Earthling was and why I haven't included anything from that. One of the biggest surprises I had regarding Bowie was listening to Outside. It was such an unexpected return to the sound I adored, but also updated in a weird and wonderful kind of way. I must have seen 10 concerts on that tour.

Anyway, before I completely lose your interest, here is my Ultimate Playlist for Mr. David Bowie, along with a link to my YouTube playlist:

Sons of the Silent Age
Diamond Dogs
All the Madmen
Sound and Vision
Space Oddity
Panic in Detroit
Five Years
The Man Who Sold the World
Rebel Rebel
Always Crashing in the Same Car
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed
Queen Bitch
The Heart's Filthy Lesson
Ashes to Ashes
The Jean Genie
The Width of a Circle
Life on Mars 

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