The 100 Greatest David Bowie Moments
The finest gifts of sound and vision
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in January 2016. It was recently discovered in our archives.
As devastating as it was when news came down last Monday that David Bowie had died of cancer at age 69 — and it’s hard to remember many musical deaths so universally or personally affecting — the one saving grace was watching how fans across the world were able to take the opportunity to share and discuss their favorite moments from the Starman’s career. Even more than most other rock legends of his stature, Bowie’s greatness can’t be captured just through remembrances of his finest albums and songs — it’s about the music videos, the live performances, the interviews, the movie and TV roles, the interactions with pop culture and his future disciples, and the tiny, unforgettable musical bits that make his best songs and albums so iconic.
To try to capture the span of one of the greatest artists in rock’s half-century-long history — and to be able to relive all of our personally preferred Bowie bits one more time — we’ve come up with a list of our own 100 favorite moments from the life and times of the Man Who Fell to Earth. And if we’ve left off your own favorite moment, of course we did: Apologies, but if you think even 100 such moments can encompass All Things Bowie, you haven’t been paying enough attention these last eight days. (Or the 50 years before that.)
100. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer at Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert (1992)
Emotions ran high at the 1992 tribute to then-recently departed Queen singer Freddie Mercury, but David Bowie cut to the quick, dropping to his knees at the conclusion of his “Heroes” to recite the Lord’s Prayer for all who have died or suffered from AIDS. Such a simple, unexpected gesture — it took Queen by surprise, Brian May claiming the singer “didn’t do that during rehearsals” — stemmed equally from Bowie’s penchant for theatricality and the deep reservoirs of real emotion that flow through his art. — STEPHEN THOMAS ERLEWINE
99. Voice cameo as Lord Royal Highness in SpongeBob’s Atlantis SquarePantis (2007)
Never underestimate a daughter’s influence on her father, as Bowie’s daughter Lexi’s love of the titular pineapple sea-dweller led Bowie to play Lord Royal Highness in SpongeBob’s Atlantis SquarePantis. Bowie completely transformed his voice for the part — if you didn’t know it was him voicing the aristocrat, it’d be hard to guess; just another new form for one of the most versatile shape-shifters of all-time. — MOLLY EICHEL
98. The croaking sounds in “Wishful Beginnings” (1995)
Trent Reznor cited Bowie’s Low as the primary inspiration for Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, and he seemed to repay the influence on much of the Starman’s mid-’90s work. “Wishful Beginnings” off of Outside bears the stamp of Reznor’s buried-secret manner of layered production, its recurring croaking noises unnerving like the last gasps from a strangulation lost somewhere in the recording of “Reptile” or “A Warm Place.” — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
97. Villian turn in Into the Night (1985)
John Landis’ mess of a movie is overstuffed with cameos — not just with familiar faces but with directors and screenwriters, the kind of Hollywood players no audience member would recognize — but Bowie’s grinning, mustached turn as a hit man is the film’s highlight, capturing how his charm could slowly turn menacing. — S.T.E.
96. “Don’t be afraid of the man in the moon” from “Love You Till Tuesday” (1967)
From his 1967 self-titled debut, five years before that “Starman” fell to earth, Bowie had his eyes trained on the night sky. “Don’t be afraid of the man in the moon,” he assures on the retrospectively twee infatuation tune “Love You Till Tuesday,” “because it’s only me.” — SASHA GEFFEN
95. Declaring himself the Bowie karaoke champ on Facebook (2015)
Don’t read the comments, and if you must read them, certainly don’t engage — a cardinal rule of the Internet, but then, Bowie never was one for obeying rules. When some jabroni on his official Facebook page had the gall to claim that he was the best at calling “ground control to Major Tom,” the Thin White Duke expertly, dispassionately put him in his place. — JAMES GREBEY
94. Whistling in “Never Let Me Down” (1987)
The “Golden Years” outro is the lips-together-and-blow moment of Bowie’s most likely remember, but don’t forget about the ending to this underrated late-’80s hit, Bowie whistling serenely over a harmonica-laced fog that may have accidentally invented the War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream. — A.U.
93. Synth Swells on “Heathen (The Rays)” (2002)
An underrated musician, Bowie could coax pathos out of synthesizers. On the closer and title track of his 2002 album, these keyboards summon a worry and tumult belied by his vocal. — ALFRED SOTO
92. Demo cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s So Hard to Be a Saint in the City” (1975)
Springsteen’s original version of “Saint” is ebullient and youthful, more posturing. But Bowie wraps his voice around the opening lines — “I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra / I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova” — as if he’s actually lived what a young Springsteen was just guessing. — M.E.
91. Intro to “Andy Warhol” (1971)
It feels like we’re listening to a moment we’re not supposed to be hearing. It’s not just Bowie’s laughably needling, pedantic correction of how to pronounce Warhol’s name, but when he figures out tape is rolling and lets out a high-pitched bwa-ha-ha laugh that immediately kicks in to the opening guitar riff that’s so truly wonderful. — M.E.
90. Jay Z borrowing “Fame” for “Takeover” (2001)
The number of greats involved in “Takeover” is insane: (1) Jay Z’s history-making diss track for (2) Nas and (3) Mobb Deep was produced by (4) Kanye West and samples (5) the Doors while delivering the killer blow via interpolations of (6) David Bowie’s more-sarcastic-than-ever bellows of “Faaaaaaaame” flipped into “Laaaaaaaame” (as in, Nas’ supposedly now-defunct career). And that’s not even including James Brown. — DAN WEISS
89. Backing vocals for Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” (1977)
If we’re being really honest, we can count on one hand the number of solo songs that Bowie’s made with the sheer potential to loop in your head more than the “la-la-la-la-lalalalas” from Iggy Pop’s endless 1977 hook. — D.W.
88. Predicting the power of the Internet, pre-millennium (1999)
predicting electronic music in 1969, is a reminder that musical geniuses can also serve as modern-day oracles. — HARLEY BROWNAsked by a newscaster in ’99 if the Net is a tool, a twinkly-eyed Bowie murmurs, “No. It’s an alien life form… the actual context and the state of content is gonna be so different to anything we can really envisage at the moment.” The Starman’s whole life was one of self-assured prescience, but this short clip, like Jim Morrison
87. “Arnold Layne” at the Royal Albert Hall with David Gilmour (2006)
In his second-to-last public performance, David Bowie appeared unannounced at David Gilmour’s May 29, 2006 concert at Royal Albert Hall. He sang “Comfortably Numb,” but the moment that inspires chills is a rendition of the early Pink Floyd classic “Arnold Layne,” a performance that serves as a reminder just how much strangeness Bowie copped from Syd Barrett. — S.T.E.
86. Piano freakout in “Aladdin Sane” (1973)
Bowie issued “Aladdin Sane” as something of an anthem for the unhinged, and nothing in the song cements its status quite like the breakdown where the piano goes off the rails. You can almost see him grinning as the chaos hinted at by the song’s first half finally comes to fruition. — S.G.
85. “Golden Years” in A Knight’s Tale (2001)
In middle school we watched A Knight’s Tale for Heath Ledger, only to be introduced to one of Bowie’s best during a choice anachronistic dance scene. Now that placement makes him seem more like a time traveler than ever, launching “Golden Years” back a thousand years in the past so the middle ages can get it on. — S.G.
84. “Everyone Says Hi” in Amplitude (2003)
David Bowie’s songs were a regular and always-welcome fixture in rhythm video games like the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series, but his most memorable appearance in the genre came with the earlier, electronic-focused title Amplitude. The game turned a dance remix of his elegiac Heathen closer into a breathing organism which players could travel through and change the fundamental DNA of, and Bowie — who always treated music as something profoundly mutable — undoubtedly would’ve loved playing it. — A.U.
83. “Oooh Ooh Ooh Oooh”s in “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (2013)
Bowie’s last great pop vocal hook, a double-tracked non-verbal sashay that conveyed the gleaming hollowness of Hollywood allure better than any raving about “Brigitte, Jack, and Kate and Brad” ever could. — A.U.
82. Gunned down by Trent Reznor in “I’m Afraid of Americans” video (1997)
It’s easy to feel paranoid while walking alone in New York City, but if you’re David Bowie being dogged by a greasy-haired Trent Reznor, well, you’d probably jump into the nearest cab, too. But because it’s Bowie’s world and we’re just living in it, the Taxi Driver-inspired clip takes a bizarre turn, with Reznor whisking his terrified passenger along for a joyride and firing shots at his own car with Bowie inside, a feverish kill-yr-idols delusion. Good thing it’s all in his imagination, right? — RACHEL BRODSKY
81. Riding around Los Angeles in Cracked Actor (1975)
Later on, Bowie would remember his ’74-’75 period as a lost period of soulless decadence — which is to say, he didn’t remember it at all — but from this scene in the ’74-filmed BBC documentary Cracked Actor, he seems perfectly excited to be a “foreign body” touring Los Angeles, the proverbial fly in the milk of America’s glamor capital. Plus, with that sharp chapeau towering over his ghostly frame, he brilliantly forecasted “Snakeskin”-era Bradford Cox. — A.U.