In memory of David Bowie, I asked some past Song Exploder guests to help curate a playlist for the show’s newsletter. They each picked their favorite David Bowie track, and wrote a few words about the song they chose. You can listen to the playlist via Spotify or YouTube, and read their thoughts below:
Jim James, My Morning Jacket:
I heard this song for the first time on Bondi beach in Australia while the sun was setting in the wrong direction and the water drained backwards and my brain has never been the same since.
Valentine’s Day ⚡
Ben Gibbard, Death Cab for Cutie:
The phrase “I prefer their early stuff” is the collateral damage of being a career artist. What always astounded me about Bowie was how throughout his career he continued to pile on to what was already an impressive and iconic body of work. He was the only artist of his generation that I truly looked forward to The New Stuff. There was no soft, safe period, it was always interesting and forward thinking. There was always something to discover. I chose this song off his second to last album because I believe it ranks amongst the best pop songs he ever wrote. Seriously, who else could pull that off???
The Laughing Gnome ⚡
Stephin Merritt, The Magnetic Fields:
On this bleak Bowie-less morning what I can't get out of my head is "The Laughing Gnome," an early song he never mentioned again but which amounts to a manifesto which applies to his entire career (except maybe Tin Machine) as a great social satirist. A few years ago I shocked OUT magazine by saying Bowie was more important than gay lib, and "The Laughing Gnome" bears me out by being gayer than homosexuality itself.
Andy Warhol ⚡
Hutch Harris, The Thermals:
Choosing just one David Bowie song as my favorite? Possibly the hardest thing I've ever had to do. No single artist has ever made so many brilliant, iconic, and still incredibly accessible albums in one lifetime. My favorite Bowie LP has to be Hunky Dory, and really I could choose any track from it as they are all stellar, but I'm gonna go with "Andy Warhol", because the Bowie sang-froid is in top form, on full display. The last week of his life, David Bowie turned sixty-nine and released an album called Blackstar. Cool and composed to the very end.
Life on Mars ⚡
Bethany Cosentino, Best Coast:
I have this really specific memory of being in the car with my mom and my best friend Jessica when I was like, 13 – my mom was driving us to Disneyland, and we were listening to David Bowie's greatest hits the entire drive, and I remember my mom telling us about how her cousin introduced her to Bowie's music in the 70s in Detroit. It was the music of her youth – her teens – and here I was, an awkward teenager in the early 2000's bonding with my mom and my best friend over the same musician. That was the most special thing about Bowie to me- the universal appreciation for the art he created. I honestly don't think I've ever met anyone who wasn't a fan of Bowie- even if they didn't have a specific favorite album or even a song- everyone appreciated his work and his unique approach to every single thing he did. Anyways, I just specifically remember this song playing in the car and hearing the lyric "Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow" and I just screeched and was like "MICKEY!" because we were on our way to Disneyland.
Space Oddity ⚡
John Roderick, The Long Winters:
Space Oddity is the original and still the best lost astronaut song, released only a few days before the Apollo 11 launch in 1969. It was originally a current events song! Maybe even a novelty song, if the events in question weren't so solemn. All the more of an accomplishment, then, that it still sounds futuristic and provokes anxiety 47 years later. In 1969 space travel seemed poised to become mundane–we would soon all be living on space stations, wearing jumpsuits and enjoying science drinks–but Bowie sided with Kubrick that, in addition to metaphysical magic, suburbia, celebrity, and product placement and malfunction would follow us to the stars. Like so much of Bowie's music, Space Oddity has themes and sounds that in less adroit hands would be corny. The countdown at the top of the song and the horn swell "rocket ship taking off" are so literal you almost roll your eyes, but Bowie's voice is so urgent you lose all desire for detachment. It's hard for us now to imagine the emotional moment of 1969, with all the war, violence, unrest and upheaval taking place. The world-historical venture into space, armed with science and human confidence, wasn't yet a fait accompli. We still could have fucked it up, left dead astronauts on the lunar surface, surrendered to the impossibility of Kennedy's hubristic challenge and Vietnammed ourselves into a death throe. Instead, we succeeded, and Bowie more than any other artist made outer space the dominant theme of his work for many years after. His persona allowed him to comment on contemporary events from a place that felt like objectivity. Bowie saw us like an alien might, but he loved us and got bloody with us because he was trapped here, or emigrated here on his own, so he took our side. Bowie screeched and squawked and filled his music with unearthly noises and we accepted it because we were so flattered that this metallic space Phoenix was interested in talking to us. The appeal of the Rolling Stones was that you were supposed to feel lucky some cool junkies invited you to listen to their sex party through a keyhole, but Bowie had a message about the salvation of humanity. He seemed to be telling us that the looming apocalypse was survivable? Escapable, maybe? Maybe not, though. Maybe we should just quit fighting and have sex a lot until the fire tornados come? Maybe Major Tom experienced a malfunction and his spacecraft was lost, but more likely Major Tom severed his own tether for reasons known only to him. Maybe he saw something, or someone was waiting out there for him, or he realized the futility of our seeking, or he found what we're all seeking in the eternal quiet.
Sweet Thing ⚡
Ruban Nielson, Unknown Mortal Orchestra:
The first Bowie song that I discovered for myself (because Let's Dance was on the radio and I grew up with Labyrinth and all that but that doesn't really count) was called "Sweet Thing" from Diamond Dogs. I listened to that album so much when I was finishing high school and starting art school. The first time I heard Sweet Thing the vocal sent those chills down my spine that you get without expecting it. You have no choice in the matter. A great vocal performance can bypass your carefully curated taste filters and just stroke you down the spine whether you're ready or not. When he says "Will you seeeeee that I'm scared and I'm lonely" particularly. Bowie was so good at turning a song into a full blown dystopian musical.
Cygnet Committee ⚡
Matt Berninger, The National:
I don't know what to say. Bowie crossed every boundary and broke every mold. He was the the most exciting artist there's ever been. Just gonna smoke a joint and listen to Cygnet Committee over and over.