In the opening to “Lazarus,” the David Bowie single whose video was released just days ago, the rock icon says”Look up here, I’m in heaven.” Just 48 hours after his 69th birthday and 28th album release, the legendary singer has died of liver cancer, ending a half-century of singles and albums that enchanted fans and arachnologists alike.
Bowie was particularly important to queers, as an openly bisexual, media shape-shifter with an affinity for androgynous looks and an embrace of the alien. He truly inspired several generations of those who didn’t feel quite at home in their own lives or bodies.
In case you’re not that familiar with Bowie’s work, here’s a primer into his career. Reducing 25 solo albums and 111 singles into a short playlist is tough. (True story: I once had a roommate who made friends a David Bowie best-of mixtape that stretched to seven and a half hours. I wish I had that now!)
1. “I Can’t Help Thinking About Me” (1965)
Though it took him a while to produce his first hit, Bowie began recording in 1964, at the age of seventeen. His early singles sound like his later work in the sense that the vocals are unmistakably those of the man who would become Ziggy Stardust, but creatively they’re not all that much different than any other better-quality British Invasion stuff from the mid-sixties. My personal favorite from that era is late 1965 single “I Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” a vague tale about a young man setting out on his own after shaming his family.
2. “Space Oddity” (1969)
Four years later Bowie had his first real hit, the UK top five single “Space Oddity.” A slow-building number about a stranded astronaut, the single’s release was strategically planned for just a week and a half before the Apollo 13 moon landing (though some people theorize that the song is actually about the alienation of a drug trip). “Space Oddity” was re-released in the United States four years later, when it became his first Top 40 hit. Another UK release in 1975 became his first number one, six years after its initial release.
3. “Starman” (1972)
Bowie’s career soon became a tumultuous journey of creative peaks and real-life valleys. He created and shed alter-egos – the bisexual and possibly alien rock star Ziggy Stardust and later the nihilist cabaret idol, the Thin White Duke – while faking his own death on stage and living on a diet of cocaine before retiring to Berlin and the bleak world of early electronic music. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars from 1972 is rightfully one of Bowie’s most celebrated albums, and lead single “Starman” was a song of surprising optimism for everyone at home listening to their radios.
4. “Young Americans” (1975)
In 1975, Bowie took an unexpected and commercially successful detour into the world of American soul music, starting with the 1975 single “Young Americans.” Later that year, “Fame” became the first of Bowie’s two number one singles in the United States, and shortly after he became one of a select few white artists to appear on TV series Soul Train, performing “Fame” and “Golden Years.”
5. “Modern Love” (1983)
After “Golden Years” and the Station To Station album, Bowie retreated to Berlin to escape his cocaine problem and record a series of experimental albums that were critically adored but commercially less successful. Then came the eighties.
Many Bowie fans like to gloss over the singer’s very commercial eighties work, from the abysmal Mick Jagger duet “Dancing In The Street” (a single recorded for charity that is just about the GAYEST THING EVER committed to video) to his work in political hard rock act Tin Machine.
This was his most successful period in the United States, and he hit the Top 40 nine times between 1982 and 1987, with “Under Pressure,” “Let’s Dance” (his second number one), “China Girl,” and “Modern Love,” all of which you still hear on ’80s rock radio shows and alternative retro hours.
He followed them with a string of forgettable Top 40 hits: “Blue Jean,” “This Is Not America,” “Day-In Day-Out,” and his final charting American single, “Never Let Me Down,” a #27 hit from 1987. Bowie himself has called this period “awful.”
6. “Absolute Beginners” (1986)
He also did some film work during this period. He made a cameo in the German heroin saga Christiane F., and also played a number of villains. Most famously, he donned alarmingly tight pants as the Goblin King in the gloomy children’s film Labyrinth. For Americans born in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Bowie’s sinister Labyrinth villain was our first introduction to this peculiar gaunt man.
He also appeared as Biblical villain Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and showed up as the villain in Julien Temple’s ambitious musical Absolute Beginners, a peculiar film about London teenagers, fascism and real estate. The film’s not great, but Bowie’s epic theme song is.
7. “Hallo Spaceboy” (1996)
In the mid-nineties, Bowie became interested in industrial music and specifically the work of Nine Inch Nails, with whom he teamed up for a tour in 1995. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor would also heavily inspire Bowie’s 1997 album Earthling.
His 1996 single “Hallo Spaceboy” was initially a rough industrial song, although the single edit took things in a drastically different direction, with a remixed track from the Pet Shop Boys that’s totally worth listening to.
8. “A Foggy Day (In London Town)” (1998)
In 1998, Bowie partnered with frequent David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti for a rendition of “A Foggy Day (In London Town),” for the Gershwin-themed AIDS benefit entitled Red Hot + Rhapsody. Over the years Bowie has covered a great many songs, from artists including Nina Simone and The Pixies.
9. “Everyone Says Hi” (2002)
Heathen was the first of two albums that Bowie released in the early 2000s before a ten-year hiatus which many assumed as his retirement. Heathen took a thematically dark tone and the singer refused to record videos for its three singles, feeling that he was too old to appear on TV anymore. He was 55 at the time.
10. “A Better Future” (2002)
Although it wasn’t a single, one of my personal favorite David Bowie songs appears towards the end of Heathen. A low-key ballad sung quietly, “A Better Future” could be taken either as a breakup plea or an address to God.
11. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (2013)
On Bowie’s 67th birthday, he announced A New Day, his first album of new material in a decade. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” was the second single and a great addition to Bowie’s lengthy list of songs featuring stars in the title.
12. “Lazarus” (2016)
Just last week, Bowie released the video for “Lazarus,” off his album Blackstar. The song was written by Bowie for an Off-Broadway production, also entitled Lazarus, which is actually still running for another ten days.
Co-written by Bowie and Irish Once creator Enda Walsh, the musical was inspired by Thomas Newton, the space alien character played by Bowie in the cult classic film The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie’s work frequently references his own past songs, so this meta-conclusion seems like a fitting end to a fifty-two year career that still, somehow, seems too short.