David Bowie tried on so many hats throughout his 27-album, 50-year recording career that sampling a handful of songs can’t possibly do the breadth and depth of his doggedly fearless musical exploration justice. Neil Young is the only artist of similar stature perhaps more committed to doing whatever the hell he wants, whenever he wants, whether the fans choose to come along for the ride or not. To love Bowie was to occasionally be frustrated or baffled, but Bowie’s willingness to frustrate and occasionally baffle was what made us love him.
So a David Bowie playlist is an impossible task. Nevertheless, here are three minisets that, with any luck, put across a decent cross-section of the man’s artistic brilliance. There will never be another one like him. Every rock fan on the planet lost a piece of himself this week.
“Moonage Daydream”: The titular hero’s theme song gets all the love, but this impossibly cool and cocksure mini-epic is The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ most majestically “glam” moment.
“Station to Station”: Wherein the Thin White Duke takes us on a drug-addled 10-minute tour through smoked-out prog, suave Euro-soul and gnarly old-school rock ’n’ roll. Bowie’s range and showmanship were never more evident.
“Ashes to Ashes”: Chilly and not a little self-loathing, this is Bowie’s most haunting single. The “My mother said / To get things done / You’d better not mess / With Major Tom” outro still gives me goosebumps.
“Blackstar”: Proof that Bowie still had a few surprises left in him right up until the end. The eerie, jazz-damaged title track to the new album manages to sound like nothing Bowie has done before and everything Bowie has done before all at once.
“Rebel Rebel”: “You’ve got your mother in a whirl / ’Cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” A joyous rallying cry for the freaks, featuring a sticky, sticky guitar riff played by Bowie himself.
“Boys Keep Swinging”: Amidst the general, anything-goes weirdness of Lodger sweeps in this slammin’ retro-futuristic amalgam of Bowie’s glam and “Berlin” personas and one is blinded by sheer freakin’ coolness.
“Under Pressure”: Not even Vanilla Ice could destroy the lasting power of this immaculately arranged and deliciously overwrought queen-off between Bowie and Freddie Mercury and Queen. I hope they’re duetting in the next world right now.
“Never Let Me Down”: The 1987 album of the same name ranks as one of Bowie’s most critically savaged, but there are a few gems hidden in the gloss.
“The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”: A tasty slab of ominously slinky electro-sleaze from 1995’s underrated sci-fi murder-mystery concept album Outside. Reunites Bowie with Brian Eno for the first time since Low, Heroes and Lodger.
“Dead Man Walking”: A techno-rock barn burner from Bowie’s electronically obsessed 1997 opus Earthling. A stormy seven minutes that feels much shorter thanks to a wicked chorus and a memorably brawny guitar line.