Fifteen years ago, EMI released The Best Of David Bowie 1969-1974, a terrific one-disc overview of the British rock legend’s first period of success. Then, in 1998, the company issued The Best Of David Bowie 1974-1979, another awesome single disc collection. Seven years after that, these two compilations were re-packaged with a third disc of hits (The Best Of David Bowie 1980-1987, also very fine) and released under the name, The Platinum Collection. (I would love to own a copy but can never find it.) In 2007, The Best Of David Bowie 1980-1987 got a separate release. (The CD was paired with a bonus DVD of videos from that era.)
Although he never had another American Top 40 hit after 1987, Bowie continued to release a whole slew of successful rock radio singles, many of which cracked the Top 40 in Britain, for almost the next 20 years. What better way to honour that overlooked period of his career than with another single-disc Best Of… collection. Call it The Best Of David Bowie 1987-2003.
So, what songs should make the cut for this hypothetical conclusion to The Best Of David Bowie series? Let’s sequence this imaginary collection in this order, one song at a time:
Track #1: New Killer Star (Single Edit)
Nominated for a Grammy, this stellar opener to Bowie’s final, uneven studio album, 2003’s Reality, would also be a great way to open The Best Of David Bowie 1987-2003. And yes, the title is a pun, just like Aladdin Sane.
Track #2: Little Wonder (Single Edit)
The full version on the 1997 CD, Earthling, is six minutes long so if we want to find room for this jungle-inspired tribute to Bowie’s 70s heyday, it’s best to go with the four-minute single edit which simply excises an instrumental interlude and parts of the ending, without at all sacrificing the heart of the song and its unique multiple time-signature structure.
Track #3: The Heart’s Filthy Lesson (Single Edit)
The best known single from the 1995 concept record, Outside, for a lot of younger alt-rock fans who weren’t around during his commercial and creative apex in the 70s and 80s, this was their first introduction to him, albeit a bleak and grimy one.
Track #4: Never Let Me Down (Single Version)
Two singles from the much maligned 1987 album, Never Let Me Down, – Time Will Crawl and Day In, Day Out – were included on The Best Of David Bowie 1980-1987. But not the title song, a re-recording of the album version. Considering it was the last American Top 40 hit Bowie would ever have, its inclusion is essential to this imaginary collection.
Track #5: Under The God (with Tin Machine)
Deeply discouraged by his accessible dance music at the end of the 1980s, Bowie reunited with the solid rhythm section from Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life album (Hunt and Tony Sales) and brought on board the talented Reeves Gabrels to form the short-lived Tin Machine. This track from their 1989 self-titled debut was the biggest hit from it, reaching the Top 10 on American rock radio and Top 5 on modern rock stations. Regardless of how one views their limited output, Tin Machine revived Bowie’s interests in futuristic experimentation and assured him another decade of studio work with Gabrels along for the ride.
Track #6: The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell (Single Edit)
Loosely inspired by The Stooges’ Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell (from the Bowie-produced Raw Power), it originally appeared on the 1999 CD, …Hours, in a slightly longer running time. The single edit should suffice for The Best Of David Bowie 1987-2003.
Track #7: Dead Man Walking (Single Edit)
Another epic track from Earthling, this lyrically wistful raver is about Bowie’s longtime creative and personal friendships with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and his coming to terms with his mortality. It clocks in at 7 minutes on the album but the four-minute single edit will do just fine.
Track #8: Fame ’90 (Gass Mix)
As Bowie was gearing up for Tin Machine, he acquired the rights to most of his back catalogue from PolyGram and RCA. He ultimately made a deal with indie label Rykodisc Records to reissue every studio and live album he made for those labels between 1969 and 1980 over the next few years.
After the 1989 release of the Sound + Vision box set, which kicked the whole reissue project off, Rykodisc put out Changesbowie, a 1990 greatest hits package whose title was inspired by the previous RCA releases, ChangesOneBowie and ChangesTwoBowie, but featured a very different track listing. In order to push the album, a remix of his first number one in America was commissioned. Working from the original single edit rather than the full album cut, the new version of Fame was remixed by John Gass and rechristened Fame ’90 (Gass Mix).
Although it wasn’t really necessary and is most definitely inferior to the original, the entertaining Fame ’90, which appeared on Changesbowie and the Pretty Woman soundtrack, did hit the Top 30 in the UK so that alone justifies its inclusion on our hypothetical compilation.
Track #9: Real Cool World (Single Edit)
Five years after Never Let Me Down, Bowie released his first proper solo single in the 1990s, following the end of Tin Machine. This song, from the god awful Cool World movie (which featured a young Brad Pitt and pretty much came and went in 1992), did a lot better on modern rock stations in the US than it did in the UK where it almost hit the Top 10.
Track #10: Jump They Say (Single Edit)
Bowie’s last Top 10 hit in his native land was this cut from Black Tie White Noise. Released in 1993, it was his first proper solo album in six years and reunited him with Chic guitarist Niles Rodgers, who produced the Let’s Dance album as well as Real Cool World. The song was inspired by Bowie’s deceased half-brother Terry who suffered from schizophrenia and committed suicide in 1985.
Track #11: I’m Afraid Of Americans (V1) (Single Edit)
This song was originally in contention for Outside but ultimately deemed unsuitable so it ended up on the Showgirls Soundtrack instead where it was promptly ignored. The song was later tweaked for Earthling but curiously it was this Trent Reznor remix, AKA V1, that ended up being issued as the single version.
The closest he ever came to having an American Top 40 hit in the 90s (it peaked at #66 on the Billboard Hot 100), the song nevertheless proved popular on multiple rock radio formats and had a high rotation video clip on MTV. Bowie even performed the song live during one of Howard Stern’s birthday broadcasts.
Track #12: Without You I’m Nothing (with Placebo)
The original version of this song was the title cut of this fantastic English trio’s second album and just featured singer Brian Molko on the vocals. But when a single version was commissioned, the band somehow convinced Bowie to record a vocal track which transformed the song into a rather unusual duet. As far as outside collaborations go, this ranks right up there with Under Pressure and Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy. The Bowie version appeared as a bonus cut on early pressings of the Black Market Music CD but good luck finding a copy today. It would be a worthy addition to The Best Of David Bowie 1987-2003.
Track #13 The Buddha Of Suburbia (with Lenny Kravitz)
Bowie made two albums in 1993, the dance-oriented Black Tie White Noise, and the soundtrack to a BBC miniseries called The Buddha Of Suburbia. The latter featured two versions of the title cut, one of which was issued as a single. That’s the one with Lenny Kravitz although, to be fair, there is little difference between the two takes.
Track #14: Slow Burn (Single Edit)
I wasn’t a big fan of Heathen, Bowie’s less than spectacular 2002 reunion with his favourite producer Tony Visconti (who helmed many of his classic albums including his last, Reality), but this single was one of its highlights. Although it previously appeared on the 2002 double disc North American version of Best Of Bowie, I see no reason to exclude it from my proposed singles collection.
Track #15: One Shot (Tin Machine)
Bowie’s most successful North American single with Tin Machine was this 1991 track from the critically pummelled Tin Machine II. It was in regular rotation on American rock stations despite being released in the year of Nevermind and Achtung Baby.
Track #16: Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys Remix)
First, in 1969, there was Space Oddity. Then in 1980, there was Ashes To Ashes. But in 1995, Bowie wrote his final song about Major Tom, the troubled astronaut who disappeared from the former only to return in the latter. The rollicking five-minute album version wasn’t issued as a proper single. Instead, the Pet Shop Boys were commissioned to rework it for this remix version which I’ve never heard. It would be a welcome choice for my proposed singles collection.
Track #17: Black Tie White Noise (Single Edit w/ Al B. Sure!)
Inspired by the 1992 LA Riots, the title cut from Bowie’s first solo album of the ’90s was a modest Top 40 hit in Britain.
Track #18: Strangers When We Meet (Outside Single Edit Version)
The 1995 album, Outside, marked Bowie’s first set of recordings with old collaborator Brian Eno in almost 20 years. (They last worked together on Lodger back in 1979.) A concept record about a grizzled detective investigating the murder of a teen prostitute, Strangers When We Meet is actually a re-recording of a song that originally appeared on The Buddha Of Suburbia.
Track #19: Thursday’s Child (Single Edit)
The final song on my imaginary compilation should be this softer sounding single from …Hours. While rock radio was given The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell to spin, pop and easy listening stations were offered this one instead. One of Bowie’s biggest UK hits in the ’90s, it hit the Top 20 there in 1999.
And there you have it. A 78-minute compilation that nicely sums up the last phase of this British legend’s unusually varied career. So, when can we expect this idea to become a reality? Anyone?
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, March 27, 2012