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Bowie knew how to end an album!

Most Bowie albums are structured in a particular way. With some exceptions, Bowie was very deliberate in song order. Time and again he picked the perfect song with which to begin and end an album. I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while, and its coming out as two lists. I’m going to start with the end— ranking Bowie’s closing songs. The larger point is that Bowie usually did not simply record a bunch of songs and stick them on an album— everything about the album, from its cover to its song order are part of the experience Bowie was trying to create. He often wanted to lure you into the experience of listening to the album and make sure you know when that experience has ended. This is the main reason I’m normally not too keen about bonus tracks.

The point of this list is not to compare the songs to each other in their own right, but how well they close an album. “Fame” is a much better song than, “Hammerhead,” but I get to “Fame” and expect something to follow, whereas “Hammerhead” tells me that the album is done. So with that said, here’s my ranking of the last songs on Bowie’s studio albums:

1. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). The perfect ending to a near-perfect album. The song can be viewed in the context of a coherent story about Ziggy or having nothing to do with the rest of the album, but it is the ultimate closer. Bowie has indicated that people read more into the album than he had in mind when he was making it, but one way the song works in context is, as the title indicates, that it is about the rise and fall of a rock star. For most of the album, the protagonist is depicted as alien (intriguingly maybe not a literal alien), but in the ashes of his fall we can finally relate to him. “You are not alone”— Ziggy is us.

2. “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Blackstar (2016). I very much think Bowie meant this to be the culminating song of his entire output, beginning with “Space Oddity.” In my thinking, Bowie kind of ignored his self-titled debut album, but saw an internal, linear consistency with everything that came after. At the very end, he’s telling us that he’s taking some of his secrets with him. It’s a brilliant song, brilliantly placed. Not necessarily as well-known as some of the other songs on this list, it is a fitting finale.

3. “It’s No Game (No. 2),” Scary Monsters, 1980. This song cannot exist without Part 1 (No. 1) at the beginning of the album and it can only exist at the album’s end. This is not the only example of Bowie expressing exhaustion at the end of an album, but in this case there really is no ambiguity about the song’s meaning. Bowie is never better at packaging an album as an encapsulated experience than he is here by beginning and ending the album with two different versions of the same song that convey two different messages.

4. “Memory of a Free Festival,” Space Oddity (1969). An early example of one of Bowie’s songs that is actually multiple songs grafted together— the “sun machine is coming down” chant not only fades the song to an ending but serves that purpose for the entire album. It’s hard to imagine this song being anywhere other than the end, or another song at the end instead of this one. Also— the album’s opening track, “Space Oddity,” is about a guy who drifts out into space while the closing song is about Venusians coming to Earth. Amazingly, I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone else make that observation.

5. “The Bewlay Brothers,” Hunky Dory (1971). Possibly Bowie’s most cryptic song, it’s hard to imagine this one anywhere other than the end of the album. Between its slow pace, near-epic length and up-for-interpretation lyrics, the song serves as a digestif to aid in the processing of what listeners just heard.

6. “The Chant of the Every Circling Skeletal Family,” Diamond Dogs (1974). This piece does not hold up as a song at all, but as something more like a closing sound effect, it is great. The album is the nearest Bowie got to telling a linear story, heavily influenced by Orwell’s 1984. At this point in the album, when the protagonists have been broken and Big Brother has been praised, the closing chant projects mindless, perpetual motion without meaning. Bowie has evoked a state of the crowd-mind submitting to totalitarianism.

7. “Heathen (The Rays),” Heathen, 2002. Like much of the album, this song is heavy on atmosphere and implication. It has the feel of being a great bookend to the opening track, “Sunday,” and nicely sums up the album’s building sense of apprehension. I long thought the line, “Have I stared too long,” was “have I stayed too long,” but the sentiment might actually be in there. And I did hear correctly that the lamentation, “All things must pass.” Along with “5:15 The Angels Have Gone,” this is one of the songs that seems like it was written about 9/11. Though it wasn’t, it has a sense of finality.

8. “The Secret Life of Arabia,” Heroes (1977). I think this song gets overlooked because it ramps things up after a series of instrumentals that get slower and darker along the way. It is easy to imagine “Neukoln” ending the album, but what I think Bowie is doing here is hinting at what’s coming next, which would turn out to be Lodger. “The Secret Life” is in some ways a better fit for the next album, which contains several songs about travel or foreign lands.

9. “Red Money,” Lodger (1979). Bowie’s adaptation of “Sister Midnight” at first seems to be gibberish set to the music of a different song. That said, the Bowie version contains some interesting lyrics including, “I could not give it away,” which Bowie would echo with the vey last song of his very last album, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” Bowie seems to have associated the term or the idea of giving something away with a reflection at the end of something. To that end, “Red Money” also contains the repeated lyric, “project cancelled,” which might very well be an acknowledgment that the Berlin period was a thing and with the end of Lodger, it is now over.

10. Where Have All the Good Times Gone!” Pin Ups (1973) The title itself hints at what Bowie is hoping his listeners are asking themselves as the album comes to a close. Time flies. Start the record again from the beginning!

11. “Subterraneans,” Low (1977). The only solo Bowie album to end with an instrumental (see, “Hammerhead,” below), this is the slow-paced comedown to an album that begins with an instrumental song called, “Speed of Life.” Overall, the impression I get is of petering out, which is kind of what the album is about.

12. “Lady Grinning Soul,” Aladdin Sane, 1973. Lyrically this song doesn’t address “end” topics but it slows down the album’s pace after the raucous, “Jean Genie.” It sounds like it’s wrapping something up.

13. “Wild is the Wind,” Station to Station (1976). One of my favorite albums has only six songs. The album starts slow with a rising chug-chug, like a train and ends with this slow moving, contemplative cover. Not especially an “end” song, but Bowie wasn’t going to finish his album with a rocker.

14. “The Wedding Song,” Black Tie White Noise, 1993. This is the lyrical version of the instrumental that opens the album. In that respect, it provides a nice symmetry. Bowie wrote the music for his own wedding to Iman, so it must have had meaning to him. The two songs form a nice enough pair, but other than the backstory, they are unremarkable. Also, despite serving as bookends, the songs don’t have an obvious connection to the rest of the songs on the album.

15. “Hammerhead,” Tin Machine II, 1991. There’s a longer version of this piece with lyrics out there somewhere, but Tin Machine chose to close its second and final studio album with this brief instrumental, following “Goodbye Mr. Ed,” which itself could have served as a fitting end. This is sometimes called a “hidden track” because it isn’t listed on the album sleeve. The overall effect is to emphasize that the album is indeed over.

16. “Heat,” The Next Day, 2013. Bowie chose another cryptic song to finish his long comeback album. Its the slowest song on the album and Bowie sings it in his deepest voice. The most memorable lyric is the oft-repeated line, “My father ran the prison.” What does it mean? Who knows. Bowie could have left this off and ended the album with, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” but believe it or not, that song might have been too upbeat and left listeners expecting something to follow. That said, there was a missed opportunity to use either that or this song at the end of, The Next Day (Extra), which is an album-length bonus disc that instead ends with the seemingly random, “So She.”

17. “Bring Me The Disco King,” Reality, 2003. This long, ponderous song sounds like it almost had to be the end of this album. What would sound right coming after it? That said, I think it weighs the album down and doesn’t tie up any loose ends.

18. “Fame,” Young Americans, 1975. Great song, but there’s nothing special about it being at the end, except as a counterpoint to the opening title track. The first and last song on the albums were the two hits, are the fastest paced and most relatable.

19. “The Dreamers,” Hours…, 1999. The last line of this song is literally, “so it goes.” Thematically, it is in-line with the rest of the album’s themes of reflection and decline. I have come to appreciate Hours… more of late, however this isn’t one of its better songs. That said, it seems like a very deliberate choice to place at the end.

20. “The Supermen,” The Man Who Sold the World, 1971. Good song, but this is one of Bowie’s albums that could have been rearranged without losing (or gaining) anything.

21. “The Buddha of Suburbia,” The Buddha of Suburbia (1993). This is the least of the examples of Bowie opening and closing an album with two versions of the same song. The problem with this one is that it is too similar to the opening track. There’s nothing wrong with the song on its own, but we already heard it.

22. “Law (Earthlings on Fire),” Earthling (1997). This is another example of Bowie ending an album with a seemingly random song. It’s representative of a type of dance-club song he was doing in the mid-90s, but there’s nothing about it that makes it an obvious closer.

23. “Strangers When We Meet,” 1. Outside (1995). A nice song that didn’t belong on this particular album. 1. Outside is dark, intense and thematic. This song not only seems like an addendum to everything that came before, but it is recycled from The Buddha of Suburbia. Despite its stand-alone quality, it actually detracts from the overall album.

24. “Bang Bang,” Never Let Me Down (1987). This Iggy Pop cover is one of the better songs on the album but doesn’t do much to wrap it up. Bowie seems to have lost his appreciation for song order in the 1980s.

25. “Dancing with the Big Boys,” Tonight (1984). Tonight is one of the few— maybe the only Bowie album that contains a different song that seems like it would have been better placed at the end— the title track. Bowie chronicler Nicholas Pegg wrote that this song gave a taste of things to come with Never Let Me Down, but I don’t see it. Seems like a random song.

26. “Shake It,” Let’s Dance (1983). Seems like this pleasant but unspectacular song was tacked on at the end. Very unlike Bowie.

27. “Baby Can Dance,” Tin Machine (1989). Bowie and the band closed out the 1980s with another seemingly random song that could have taken up a slot anywhere else on the album.

28. “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” David Bowie (1967). A bad song that ends Bowie’s worst (and first) album. The album is populated by lousy songs. I guess the subject matter has something to do with “the end,” but more than that thread of a concept would be needed to resurrect this stinker.

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