The 25 most underrated and obscure David Bowie songs that give ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘Young Americans’, ‘China Girl,’ etc. a run for their money.
The world is still mourning the loss of David Bowie. Last week I wrote a piece on why I was so deeply affected by his passing.
In it, I discussed how Bowie’s discography was so vast and diverse that for every smash hit, there were other underrated songs and albums that deserve wider acclaim. While casual fans know Space Oddity, Let’s Dance and Heroes, there’s even more treasure for those willing to dig deeper.
Well that inspired me to make this list of 25 of the most underrated and obscure songs from his career, from both his solo work and collaborations with other artists.
Let me tell you folks, this list was a challenge! So many songs and eras to choose from. So these are my personal favorites. I’ll have Amazon links under each entry if you’d like to add any to your collection, or for those preferring iTunes, I’ll have a playlist at the conclusion.
Without further ado, here are some of the most underrated gems from his over five decade career:
25. The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell (1999)
Hours got a tepid response from critics, largely due to a complaint that it was too adult contemporary and bland in sound.
But that claim is completely negated by this ripping track (an homage to The Stooges’ Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell), featuring one of guitarist Reeves Gabrel’s most decadent riffs, with Bowie’s vocals on a low simmer.
24. Real Cool World (1992)
The movie wasn’t so hot, but the electronica fueled soundtrack for 1992’s Real World was a winner, with Bowie’s title track embracing the burgeoning techno scene that he largely inspired in the first place.
23. I’ll Take You There (2013)
This iTunes exclusive bonus track from Bowie’s surprise 2013 album The Next Day has a strident urgency that makes it just as good as the standard edition material, with top-notch backing vocals from bassist Gail Ann Dorsey.
22. Wishful Beginnings (1995)
95’s Outside is arguably the most underrated album of Bowie’s career, and this spooky skeletal, Brian Eno assisted track is a standout.
21. The Width Of A Circle (1970)
This scorcher from The Man Who Sold The World features one of Mick Ronson’s most powerful riffs, with Bowie at his theatrical best, playing the part of a man engaged in a sexual tryst with God and the Devil (or something to that effect).
20. Under The God (w/Tin Machine, 1989)
Feeling adrift after the mixed reception of albums Tonight and Never Let Me Down, Bowie decided to get down to basics, forming the Pixies inspired Tin Machine alongside guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the rhythm section of Hunt and Tony Sales.
The critics weren’t kind and the masses were somewhat befuddled. Their loss. This track off their self-titled 1989 début album is badass.
19. Love is Lost (2013)
This slow burner off The Next Day feels akin to his Berlin trilogy material. Haunting and primal, it pays off in repeat listens.
18. Hang On To Yourself (1972)
It’s just as rollicking and hook laden as Suffragette City, but this fellow offering from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust never achieved the same public notoriety.
Perhaps because it feels more powerful in live recordings vs. the studio version, hence the above clip.
17. Little Wonder (1997)
Alas, his 1997 album Earthling suffered from those assertions, with the exception of I’m Afraid Of Americans (propelled by a video and remix featuring Trent Reznor). But this winning flashpoint ditty is just as engrossing.
16. Time Will Crawl (1987)
Critics were unkind to Bowie’s album Never Let Me Down, claiming creative ennui. It’s certainly not his finest hour, but Time Will Crawl is a notable exception, featuring some of his most evocative lyrics:
I saw a black black stream
Full of white eyed fish
And a drowning man
With no eyes at all
And the video remains endearingly odd.
15. I Can’t Read (w/Tin Machine, 1989)
Bowie noted that this song’s lyrical content was of full of remorse and agony, and that’s palpable in its distressed gothic atmospherics and his tortured vocals: I can’t read and I can’t write down/I don’t know a book from countdown/I don’t care which shadow gets me/All I’ve got is someone’s face.
14. Absolute Beginners (1986)
Bowie’s theme songs for the Julien Temple musical is sublime 80’s ear candy, which should have made it a bigger hit. And most recently, Bowie’s recording sessions for the song revealed a hidden treat for a world still in mourning.
13. Dead Man Walking (1997)
My favorite track from Earthling is circuit fried overload in the best sense of the word: gurgling synths, angelic backing vocals and a battering ram riff prove irresistible. Crank it loud.
12. Hallo Spaceboy (50th Birthday Concert, 1997)
Another criminally unsung track from Bowie’s Outside album got a pulverizing live rendition for his 50th Birthday concert at Madison Garden, featuring not one, not two, but three drummers (including Dave Grohl), giving it a slamming bravado that surpasses both the studio version and Pet Shop Boys remix.
11. V-2 Schneider (1977)
This eerie spacey track from Heroes, is a krautock-esque tribute to Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider. It also features a soulful sax solo from the Thin White Duke himself.
10. I’m Deranged (1995)
This percolating, trance-inducing stunner appears both on the Outside album as well as on David Lynch’s Lost Highway soundtrack, and its rubber band bass and glacial synths ably assist Bowie’s distressed, paranoid delivery.
9. Soul Love (1972)
This plaintive romantic tune is one of the best deep cut from Ziggy Stardust, which feels like a tribute to fellow Glam rocker Marc Bolan in its song composition.
8. Cat People-Putting Out Fire (w/Giorgio Moroder)
7. Subterraneans (1977)
This stunning closer to Low begins with an oceanic swirl of synths and sax before The Man Who Fell To Earth’s otherworldly tenor parts through the fog.
6. Pretty Pink Rose (w/Adrian Belew, 1990)
On-again off again Bowie guitarist Belew enlisted his employer’s help for 1990 solo album Young Lions. Bowie wrote this buoyantly joyous tune for the occasion, with a suitably wacky video.
5. Lady Stardust (Original Demo, 1990)
This gem was first released as a bonus track on the 1990 reissue of Ziggy Stardust. Hearing Bowie with just his (own) backing vocals and piano is a revelation, arguably more emotive and stirring than the studio version.
4. Abdulmajid (1977)
Bowie’s finest instrumental appeared as a bonus track on the ’91 reissue: an ambient exotic jewel of a tune named appropriately after his wife: Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid.
3. Prisoner of Love (w/Tin Machine 1989)
Veering between classic balladry and distressed noise rock, Prisoner of Love is Tin Machine’s finest track, full of swaggering melodrama and spaghetti western atmosphere.
2. Quicksand (1971)
This Hunky Dory stunner is a ballad of the first order, full of arcane lyrical imagery inspired by luminaries as varied as Alister Crowley, Winston Churchill and Friedrich Nietzsche, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the occasional self-doubt that clouded his orchestrated ambition.
1. Velvet Goldmine (1969)
Velvet Goldmine is better known for the glam rock film that shares its name (which is still fairly obscure) than for its bewitching musical charms.
Nixed from inclusion on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust for not showing hit single potential (its sexually explicit lyrics also a deciding factor), it was relegated as a B-side on the single for Space Oddity. But it’s one of his most infectious songs, full of glam crunch and a jazz-inflected chorus.
So that concludes my list of underrated David Bowie songs. But now it’s your turn: what would make your list? Tell me in the comments.