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Week 60 | The Best of David Bowie 1969/1974 (1997)

What songs does a casual Bowie fan associate with Bowie?  I saw a show a few years ago featuring performers dressed as, and singing in the style of deceased rocks stars.  The Bowie impersonator got two songs:  “Let’s Dance” and “Space Oddity.”  Those are two pretty solid contenders as signature songs, though coincidentally neither is from the decade most associated with Bowie, the 1970s.  That’s the focus of this particular compilation album, which would be the first of three, ultimately covering the period from 1969 through the 1980s.  

To me, just about all of the 20 songs on this album are greatest hits.  Among the exceptions are a few songs that might not be greatest hits for Bowie, but are nonetheless well-known (I’m thinking of Bowie’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” and Bowie’s version of his own, “All the Young Dudes,” a highlight of this album but not the better-known Mott the Hoople Version).  But I don’t know…is “The Prettiest Star” a greatest hit?  Its a terrific song (especially this version, featuring Marc Bolan on guitar), but I imagine it isn’t as well known as, say, “Queen Bitch,” which does not appear on this album.  In any case, this does not purport to be a greatest hits album, but rather a “best of” album, which is a little more subjective.  

But that distinction— best of versus greatest hits?  One album or three?  Where to start and where to end?  All those questions bear on the challenge of what to do with Bowie compilations pulled together in the mid-late 1990s.  By that time it was clear that Bowie’s back catalogue contained a large number of songs that were both relatively well known and really, really good.  About half of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust” by itself could fall into both categories.  Meanwhile, Bowie was not only still making music, but banging out an album every two years or so.  It must have also been clear that he had moved beyond the point in his career that his new songs would receive wide radio play.  The first Bowie compilation album, “Changesonebowie,” which helped define what his greatest hits were, was released in 1976– there was already enough material to fill a greatest hits album, but Bowie was still early in his career.  The strategy with the “Best of” series was to cast a pretty big net, and progress thorough time one album at a time.  Hypothetically, there could have been a fourth “Best of” album taking the collection up to the then-present time.  (A more recent compilation album is the two-CD set, “Nothing Has Changed,” which spans from “Space Oddity” to “Blackstar” (which hadn’t yet been released).  

The “Best of” strategy works moderately well, but falls short of the “Changesone” standard.  The songs on “Changesone” have a good claim to both being genuinely “best of” and “greatest hits.”  The one song on that album that couldn’t make that claim at the time, “John, I’m Only Dancing,” became much better know because of its inclusion, sitting next to better-known songs.  In this case, relatively obscure songs such as “Velvet Goldmine,”  “Drive In Saturday,” or even, “Aladdin Sane” (known more as an album’s title than for the actual song), are not especially elevated by their inclusion here.   A Bowie fan would say, “Yes, I know those songs,” but their familiarity is not what’s attractive about them.  As a result, the overall collection lacks the comfortable feel of “Changesone,” that, at least for me, lends itself to repeated play.  I also don’t agree that the 20 songs on this collection are truly Bowie’s 20 best from this period, or at least not my 20 favorite from this period.  

So I think this is a “best of” album moire for fans than for someone looking for a starting point with Bowie.  As I mentioned, this album contains some unfamiliar versions of songs that would be familiar to fans.  The song order is oddly not chronological, so that’s something new.  And at 20 songs, there is a lot of music.

A fun exercise is reimagining the album— what would I include on a best of or greatest hits album from this period?  Here’s what I’d do:

I’d start with the greatest hits from “Space Oddity,” “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Hunky Dory,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Aladdin Sane,” “Pin Ups,” and “Diamond Dogs.  This list would be fairly obvious:

  1. “Space Oddity”
  2. “The Man Who Sold the World”
  3. “Changes”
  4. “Queen Bitch”
  5. “Life on Mars”
  6. “Oh, You Pretty Things”
  7. “Star Man”
  8. “Ziggy Stardust”
  9. “Suffragette City”
  10. “The Jean Genie”
  11. “Sorrow”
  12. “Diamond Dogs”
  13. “Rebel Rebel”

I’d then weave in, chronologically, a few more “best of” songs:

  1. “Memories of a Free Festival”
  2. “The Width of a Circle”
  3. “Quicksand”
  4. “Moonage Daydream”
  5. “Cracked Actor”
  6. “Time”
  7. “1984”

I’d probably end the album out of sequence, either with “Rock N Roll Suicide” or, “The Bewlay Brothers,” because those are songs that were meant to end an album, and both are stronger than “Big Brother,” which ends “Diamond Dogs.”

Of course, it is easy to do exactly that now, with playlists and MP3s.  The extent to which individual greatest hits can’t be purchased on-line, renders compilation albums less relevant.  So…I don’t think “The Best of David Bowie…” is still in print.  There’s no need.  There is a single two-CD set version, including the whole span covered by the three in the series, which does remain in print because there’s still a market for a single-source for all these songs without having to worry about the so-called “deep tracks” or the less familiar newer songs.  But meanwhile, “1969-1974” remains a transitional compilation album

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