I thought I’d just have a bit of fun with this one – I’ve made far too many lists about David Bowie, and I promise I’ll run out soon!
In my various lists I’ve mentioned a few songs that I thought were underrated, so my original plan was to pick out 10 or 20 tracks that I thought you should listen to; as I kept going down the list and adding items, I realised I could quite comfortably fit 50 songs in my list – the more the merrier I say (but 50 was enough, I thought 70 or 80 would be pushing it!).
Now, it’s a little tricky to define what it is to be underrated – do you go by radio air time, pure esteem, or just Spotify streaming numbers? It’s hard to say for sure, so I thought I’d make it a combination of all 3, and hopefully I’ve constructed a list of 50 decent tracks that you hadn’t thought to listen to before.
If you’d like, you can have a gander at a few of my other Bowie lists:
We Are Hungry Men
There’s only one track from Bowie’s first album that I’d consider to be even remotely close to good, and considering it only has listening figures in the low thousands I thought it had to qualify as “underrated”.
It’s not sensational by any means, but “We Are Hungry Men” is a curious insight into the unique mind of a teenage Bowie, who hadn’t even really come to be known beyond David Jones just yet, so that’s enough reason alone to give it a try.
Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud
I’ve heard a couple of tracks from Bowie’s first true album “Space Oddity” be considered as underrated, but I don’t think “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” has ever been on people’s radars – Bowie fanatics or otherwise.
It has all the bombastic ideas of an artist well into their career, so I can really respect Bowie’s ambition to arrange such a huge orchestral sound. This would never be a track I’d recommend to people just getting into Bowie, but it’s a good indicator that “Space Oddity” is an album worth listening to.
Memory of a Free Festival
“Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” was a bit of a wildcard to include in this list, but “Memory of a Free Festival” is much more well-renowned nowadays as being a fantastic early Bowie song, and the best on the record behind the title track “Space Oddity”.
It has a sort of “Hey Jude” quality in the way it builds up to the anthemic chorus, and Bowie couldn’t have written a more appropriately climactic track to end his first true album.
The Width of a Circle
As we’d come to expect from Bowie’s work, “The Man Who Sold The World” was a completely different sound than anything he had done previously – and “The Width of a Circle” was our introduction to a Hard Rock agenda.
It’s an 8 minute sprawling epic that justifies its long runtime with constant changes and additions, and this is lyrically one of Bowie’s early successes.
She Shook Me Cold
I might be the only Bowie fan who likes this track, but I consider it to be right up there in the context of this album.
It’s got a certain Black Sabbath-esque heaviness to it, from its screeching guitars to Bowie’s rough vocals. Again, I don’t think this is one I’d recommend to a complete newbie, but Bowie enthusiasts should give this another listen.
It took me the better part of a year to finally understand the appeal of “Quicksand”, but once I fell for it I fell for it hard.
I never realised just how sombre and introspective the lyrics were, and Bowie gives one of his best early vocal and guitar performances.
The Bewley Brothers
The closing track off Hunky Dory is one of the most underrated closing tracks in music history, and lyrically this is the peak of Bowie’s storytelling.
My only complaint is that it’s too quiet in the verses, but in fairness that helps to make the huge choruses stand out just that little bit more.
I’d probably be kidding myself if I labelled any track from Bowie’s most iconic album as “underrated”, so I thought I’d just limit myself to one pick.
Whilst not being an immediate stand-out compared to the other classics, “Soul Love” really grew on me over time; I just really like the jovial swing to it. This would be the best song on many other countless albums, but it unfortunately gets buried under some of music’s most famous glam rock ballads.
Watch That Man
One of Bowie’s most gripping and infectious opening tracks, “Watch That Man” is as energetic as you can get.
I’m genuinely surprised this didn’t end up being more of a hit, this seems exactly like the archetypal Bowie banger that would chart well in the 70’s.
Lady Grinning Soul
Quite comfortably one of Bowie’s most underrated songs in his illustrious discography, I’d even go as far as saying this is one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard.
It gets a lot of praise from Bowie fans nowadays as being one of his very best, so if you’re a casual listener then this is a track you must experience in your lifetime.
Sweet Thing (The Whole Medley)
I may be cheating a bit by putting an entire medley – 3 songs in total – in this list, but you can’t really just look at one of the songs without appreciating the whole aesthetic.
This is one of Bowie’s personal favourites, and producer Tony Visconti also heralded it as one of his best. I’d be inclined to agree – it all comes together marvellously to create a cohesive and surprisingly in-depth narrative, and “Diamond Dogs” wouldn’t be the same without it.
We Are The Dead
The whole vibe of “Diamond Dogs” could be summed up as “nightmarish”, and “We Are The Dead” is one of those tracks that truly puts the high-level concept in this concept album.
There’s something so suave and sexy about the instrumentation and vocals, but there’s an undeniable sense of horror within that gives the track an otherworldly sound.
“Young Americans” is an album that gets overshadowed by the title track and “Fame”, and while those two are definitely the best tracks I think a lot of the other songs are still fantastic.
“Right” might just be my favourite of the others (the “best of the rest” if you will), and I think it’s one of those songs where Bowie nailed the assignment. Bowie himself called the album “Plastic Soul”, but I still think there’s a genuine soulful appeal to this one.
Who Can I Be Now?
A song so good I even named a screenplay I wrote after it, “Who Can I Be Now?” is Bowie at his most triumphant and anthemic.
In typical Bowie fashion, however, it’s not all sunshine and roses, and the topic of self-doubt and identity crises is one that still resonates with me to this day.
Station to Station
I would never expect this song to appear on mainstream radios (10 minutes is quite an investment of time to be fair), and that’s a real shame as this is a certifiable banger.
In fairness, it took a fair few listens before I started to appreciate “Station to Station”, but I just think the whole arrangement and sonic soundscape is masterfully handled, and both sections of the song are genius.
Word on a Wing
In my opinion, this is as underrated as it gets. Nobody, not even Bowie fans, rates this song that highly, but I might even put it in my top 10 Bowie songs on a good day.
The lyrics and so sincere yet shallow simultaneously, and Bowie’s belting vocal performance is possibly my favourite across any of his tracks. This piano work is also gorgeous, and it all comes together to create one of my favourite “love” songs ever.
I could have quite easily put all of the songs from my favourite Bowie album into this top 50 (maybe not “Golden Years” though, that might be pushing it), but I also wanted to leave room for some of the other underrated tracks on his later works.
“Stay” is such a fantastic rocker of a track, so much so that Bowie usually played it live whenever it was a large crowd (maybe not that underrated, then, but even so!). Earl Slick’s guitar work is the true MVP, and it may even be my favourite Bowie guitar riff – even more so than “Rebel Rebel”.
It seems to be a bit of a hipster stance nowadays to rave about “Low”, but I genuinely believe it to be Bowie’s 2nd best album behind “Station to Station” due to the remarkable consistency of all the tracks.
“Breaking Glass” has always been a favourite of mine, mainly due to the awesome bassline that may just go down as my favourite in Bowie’s discography.
Be My Wife
There aren’t really any conventional hits on Low – even “Sound and Vision” is weird by mainstream standards – but “Be My Wife” deserves to be one of Bowie’s more well known tracks.
The guitar and piano riffs and top notch, and once again the bass is absolutely killer. Bowie really nailed the Art Rock aesthetic on Low, and songs like this are the pinnacle of his feel-good songwriting.
A lot of people choose to overlook the second half of Low, and I can understand that the ambient part won’t be to everyone’s tastes. In fairness, most of them are only fun experimentations at best, but “Subterraneans” is the clear standout in my mind.
It rivals even the greatest songs on the album as being one of Bowie’s most intricate pieces ever, and the sonic landscape that he and Brian Eno constructed is nothing short of mesmeric.
The Secret Life of Arabia
The closing track from “Heroes” is a breath of fresh air when you first hear the album – the ambient half is nowhere near as good as on Low, so when a proper track like “The Secret Life of Arabia” comes along it feels like a diamond in the rough.
Bowie’s screeching vocals may be off-putting at first, but they give the track a unique tinge. The bassline is also excellent (hence why I like the track so much!) and it helps to keep the song chugging along all the way through to the end.
“Red Money” is a track that quite literally nobody likes – everyone I’ve ever seen who’s done their own ranking or review of Lodger has put this near the bottom, but I absolutely adore this closing track.
It’s more rough-around-the-edges than most other Bowie songs, so that already makes it stand out in his discography. I also think the vocal performance is one of his most underrated – he really puts his back into it.
It’s No Game (Pt. 1 AND Pt. 2)
Now that we’re past the 70’s, I fell we’re getting to the songs within Bowie’s discography that are truly underrated in the public’s eyes.
I’m cheating a little bit by putting both versions of “It’s No Game” on my list, but I think they start and finish Scary Monsters wonderfully in their own unique ways.
Part 1 takes some getting used to, but once you listen to it a few times you really appreciate Bowie’s shrieking vocals and phrasings. Part 2 is much more laid back and “mainstream”, and it’s got a nice melody (at least, compared to the borderline atonal Part 1). I also just think it’s pretty neat to start and end an album with practically the same song.
A song so underrated that even I thought it was nothing more than a glorified hipster track at first, but somehow “Teenage Wildlife” keeps surprising me even after the hundredth listen.
The sheer number of movements and melodies in this track is awe-inspiring, and it may just be one of Bowie’s peak displays of songwriting. Couple that with arguably his greatest vocal performance, and you get a track that should have been played on radios up until the present day.
Admittedly, there isn’t much substance to “Shake It”, but it fits the dance appeal of the album just as much as the others that I’m surprised it isn’t more of a hit.
It’s not going to be for everyone, but if you’re just looking for a slick disco groove to turn your brain off to then this’ll do the job.
“Tonight” didn’t exactly set the world alight when it released, but at least the title track is pretty good.
Tina Turner either makes or breaks the track for most people, as if you don’t like her vocal style then this won’t be for you at all. I don’t mind it in the slightest, however, and it was a refreshing change of pace to have another artist feature on a Bowie album.
This Is Not America
It’s hard to tell just how underrated “This Is Not America” actually is, as whilst it has a decent number of plays and streams I can’t remember a single time I’ve heard it on radios or heard someone talk about it.
Bowie has made a fair few song commentaries on America, and this collaboration with the Pat Metheny Group is one of my favourites. There are some really nice key changes, and Bowie’s vocals are on fire as always.
I get the feeling “Absolute Beginners” may not be underrated at all, but I think people forget just how magnificent this love song truly is.
It’s one of the most endearing songs in Bowie’s discography, and he’s even on record as calling this his favourite love song of the eighties; while I may not entirely agree with that sentiment, it’s certainly up there.
Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)
The only good song on a dismal record, and even then the production goes out of its way to try and ruin the experience.
It’s a good thing Bowie’s vocal melodies are so infectious, and I can look past the 80’s cheesy-ness when the song is this damn catchy and fun.
You’ve Been Around
Bowie’s 1993 comeback album has a decent shout at being his most underrated album, and I really like the distorted / reverbed woodwind on a lot of the tracks. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I really dig it.
“You’ve Been Around” is one of the first tracks on the album, and it has one of the catchiest choruses. The trumpet solo is also pretty dope, and that weird vocal effect in the verses feels way ahead of its time.
Black Tie White Noise
The title track of the album, and the 2nd single to be released – so why have I put it among his most underrated?
“Black Tie White Noise” is one of Bowie’s best songs of the 90’s … period. It has an insanely cool groove throughout, and yet again having another artist feature makes it stand out amongst his discography.
The Wedding Song
“Black Tie White Noise” had a similar thing to “Scary Monsters” where the opening and closing tracks were practically the same, and whilst I don’t like it as much here I do really appreciate the closing track for what it’s worth.
Bowie in real life had just gotten married to Iman, who he would remain betrothed to for the rest of his life, and that feeling of euphoria – like finding a true soul-mate – is prevalent in this gorgeous track.
Untitled No. 1
A song so underrated even Bowie himself didn’t bother to give it a title, and the whole unfinished / demo sound would understandably put most people off – but I absolutely bloody love this track.
It feels way ahead of its time, like a synth pop bop that you might even hear today, and Bowie’s ethereal vocals send this track into the stratosphere.
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town
For the longest time I thought this was one of Bowie’s most underrated songs ever, but over time it’s effect has dwindled slightly. It’s still amazing, but there are others on the album that I’ve grown to like slightly more (at least, in terms of being underrated).
It’s just one of those Bowie songs that has an awesome groove, and with a foundation like that you couldn’t possibly go wrong.
Segue – Ramona A. Stone / I Am With Name
The “Ramona A. Stone” segue is completely forgettable (all the segues are to be completely honest), but it’s the second half of the song that gets all the marbles.
“I Am With Name” is such a nightmarish chant of a track, almost as if Bowie (or his character in the song) is preaching about some sort of impending doom.
Thru’ These Architects Eyes
“1.Outside” is quite an underrated album on the whole, possibly the most underrated of the lot, and the crème de la crème of underrated gems has to be “Thru’ These Architects Eyes”.
I thought very little of it at first, but after a few listens I started to really notice how perfect the vocals and bass are, and the whole thing comes together in a really satisfying way. There’s also some dope piano solos throughout that give it that extra edge over a few of the other tracks on this list.
Strangers When We Meet
“1.Outside” is quite an underrated album in general, and that’s mainly due to Bowie’s collaboration with Brian Eno. This song had appeared on a previous album, but Eno’s production somehow makes it ten times better.
“Strangers When We Meet” isn’t exactly underrated all things considered, but I think it’s waaaaaay better than a lot of people give it credit for. It’s one of my favourite Bowie songs ever, probably top 50, and I find the sentimentalities in the lyrics to be just sublime.
Seven Years in Tibet
“Earthling” is a peculiarity in the Bowie discography, as the EDM / Jungle angle that it takes will surely put off those who don’t expect it, but it’s actually a fairly solid album once you give it the time of day.
My pick for underrated gem has to go to “Seven Years in Tibet” for just how hard-hitting and bombastic it is; it all seems to coagulate and gel in just the way I wanted for a heavy electronic delve into madness.
Of all the albums Bowie ever did, “Hours…” is by far the most bland and forgettable. Not a travesty, like some might say, but most of the tracks are either “Meh” or barely “Good” at best.
The one exception, however, is the main single “Thursday’s Child”, and similarly to “Strangers When We Meet” I think it didn’t get the praise it deserved on its release. It’s Bowie at his most easy-listening, and it’s the perfect track to just kick back and relax to.
A song that was obviously inspired by the tragic events of 9/11 (even if Bowie himself denies it), that unsettling undertone is what makes this one hit so hard.
“Sunday” is the opening track on “Heathen”, and it would have been a good song anyway but the explosive finale is what sends it up a tier. It’s a great way to kick off the album, both tonally and musically.
5:15 the Angels Have Gone
A personal favourite of Bowie himself, the opening drum riff of “5:15 the Angels Have Gone” lets you know you’re in for a real treat.
The synthetic choir sounds add another layer of unease that fits the album wonderfully, and the sleek guitar riffs are yet another welcome dimension. Much like “Sunday”, it also escalates brilliantly in the choruses.
Heathen (The Rays)
One of the best closing songs in music history, and Bowie’s vocal performance never fails to send chills throughout my entire body.
The layered guitar and horn effects are perfect, and the thumping heart-like drumbeat gives the track a sense of urgency. This is one of my favourite Bowie lyrics, inspired by Bowie’s anxiety to his inevitable death, and after that tragic day finally came it really puts the whole song in a new light.
“Reality” is a Bowie album I’ve never gotten behind, even though loads of Bowie fans think it’s one of his most underrated. There are only 3 or 4 tracks that I really dig, but in fairness when this album peaks it peaks hard.
“Days” is a gorgeous example of masterful songwriting, and the chorus is one of late-game Bowie’s catchiest. I really like the use of 14 bar phrases in the verses, almost definitely an intentional decision that gives the effect of two weeks (14 days) passing.
Bring Me the Disco King
A song that I can completely understand if not many people like, but for me this is exactly the kind of high-level experimenting that I want from Bowie – and it proves that even in his later years he wasn’t afraid to take risks.
It’s an 8 minute jazz epic with fantastic drum and piano performances, and it’s such a left-field way to end one of his most underwhelming albums. You can see where some of the inspiration for “Blackstar” ended up coming from.
Similarly to “Reality”, Bowie’s 2013 comeback “The Next Day” hasn’t quite resonated with me as a full album, but a lot of the individual tracks are excellent.
It’s like Bowie had slipped his 70’s glam rock shoes on once again – almost as if the glory days of Ziggy and The Diamond Dogs had never left him. The guitar riffs are just wonderful, and Bowie’s aged vocals give the song a surprisingly mature dynamic.
I’d Rather Be High
If you delve into the lyrics of “I’d Rather Be High”, you’d find a rather bleak perspective on the horrors of war, and proof that an older Bowie still had the songwriting chops of an artist in their prime.
Even if this album isn’t my cup of tea, I have to give credit to the fact that a lot of the choruses are catchy as heck – this has possibly the highest number of catchy choruses on an album since “Let’s Dance”
How Does The Grass Grow?
I really like the effect on the opening guitar part, and the energy of the song never dwindles after that.
The verses are fairly straightforward, but the chorus is by far the stand-out. It’s visceral and memorable at the same time, with beautiful vocalisations and guitar riffs.
If we were talking about underrated in the purest sense of the word, “Heat” would definitely be up there in Bowie’s discography – the closing album to “The Next Day” has flown under so many people’s radars, but it’s a great and understated way to close things out.
I sense an immense sadness in the lyrics, almost as if Bowie (or maybe the character he’s playing, if there is one) is mulling over painful memories. The vocal performance is what sells this one, as Bowie wears his vulnerability on his sleeve.
‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore
Bowie must have recorded this close to the end of the recording sessions, as sadly you can tell his voice is starting to give way a little bit. In an odd way, I think that actually helps this song quite a bit, as it almost gives it a sort of aged perspective when Bowie is telling the story.
The opening drums of “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” draw you in straight away, and that chaotic energy is prevalent throughout the entire track. The little bursts of jazz and woodwind are also great, and they’re what make “Blackstar” such a monumental album to begin with.
“Dollar Days” is a song that gets overshadowed by the track straight after it (the transition between this and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is tremendous), but on its own it’s one of Bowie’s late successes.
This is Bowie at his most melancholic and introspective, as he’s wishing he can take the world by the scruff of the neck once again like in his glory days. That’s exactly what he did, and even if he didn’t stay alive long enough to reap the rewards of his victory, he still managed to create an album that benefitted the entire world.
As one final gift to you, the reader, I’ll quickly rank what I think to be the top 10 most underrated tracks from this list (as of today, it keeps changing every time I hear a “deep cut” again):
- Word on a Wing
- Teenage Wildlife
- Bring Me the Disco King
- Breaking Glass
- Lady Grinning Soul
- Heathen (The Rays)
- Untitled No. 1
- Thru’ These Architects Eyes
- Memory of a Free Festival
- Black Tie White Noise
Aaaaand that’s my list. Was this my last ever Bowie list? Probably not, I thought of two more while I was making this one! Until then, you can check out some of my latest blog posts below:
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