Admit it, your list of favorite Bowie songs is full of the big hits. Hell, maybe it’s all hits; there’s no shame in that. Digging deep into the crates will yield many an overlooked surprise, many a subtle sleeper, cut-up classic, and electronic experiment. But if all you’ve got is Changesbowie—the 1990 compilation that became, for some generations, a definitive statement of his career—you’ve still got a collection of songs the likes of which have never been heard before or since in modern pop.
Completists may grouch, but even resident Bowie scholars/local record store clerks have an “Ashes to Ashes,” “’Heroes’,” “Changes,” or “Modern Love” in their top ten. Whether ardent or casual fans, we connect with Bowie’s music through milestones, both in his career and in our own lives. This truth has been exploited. In 2008, Mike Schiller at Popmatters bemoaned the fact that almost 20 Bowie compilation albums had been released, a few of which “don’t really seem to court any greater purpose whatsoever.”
Given this surfeit of Bowie compilations on the market, Schiller’s initial groaning reaction to news of yet another (“Oh, good Lord. Another David Bowie collection?”) seems apposite. Except this collection, iSELECT: BOWIE, released in 2008 to readers of the U.K.’s Mail on Sunday, then later in an official CD and digital edition, “is actually something special.” Bowie “picked the tracklist himself. Even more than that, the tracklist actually looks like something he’d have picked himself, rather than having a manager or publicist pick it for him.”
1. “Life On Mars?” (from the album Hunky Dory)
2. “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing” (from the album Diamond Dogs)
3. “The Bewlay Brothers” (from the album Hunky Dory)
4. “Lady Grinning Soul” (from the album Aladdin Sane)
5. “Win” (from the album Young Americans)
6. “Some Are” (currently exclusive to this compilation)
7. “Teenage Wildlife” (from the album Scary Monsters)
8. “Repetition” (from the album Lodger)
9. “Fantastic Voyage” (from the album Lodger)
10. “Loving The Alien” (from the album Tonight)
11. “Time Will Crawl (MM Remix)” (new remix by David Bowie)
12. “Hang On To Yourself [live]” (from the album Live Santa Monica ’72)
See the full tracklist above and hear a playlist of his picks at the top. If we put all our lists of favorites together, we might see a very high percentage of “Life on Mars?” picks. We’re in excellent company; it’s Bowie’s number one favorite song of his. But how many of his other picks might we choose? The eight-and-a-half minute “Sweet Thing”/”Candidate”/”Sweet Thing (Reprise)” from Diamond Dogs? “Win” from Young Americans or “The Bewlay Brothers” from Hunky Dory?
Aside from “Life on Mars?” and the far lesser-collected “Loving the Alien” and “Time Will Crawl,” none of his twelve selections were released as singles. There are no songs from two of the most acclaimed Bowie albums, Low and ’Heroes’, unless we count “Some Are” a bonus track included on the Low 1991 rerelease. There are two tracks from Lodger, the third and least accessible of his vaunted Berlin trilogy, and only one selection from Ziggy Stardust, and it ain’t “Ziggy Stardust.”
If anyone else handed you this list of favorite Bowie tracks, you’d be skeptical. Who puts “Hang On to Yourself” (Live in Santa Monica ’72) above any of the studio tracks on that classic 1972 breakout album? David Bowie, that’s who. And who knows, if you’d asked him the day before or after, he might have picked twelve different songs. There’s no telling how seriously he took the exercise, but in the newspaper release, he did “casually [pen] his inspirations for the songs and the recording processes behind them,” notes Allmusic’s Jason Lymangrover.
On his choice of “Teenage Wildlife,” for example, Bowie commented: “So it’s late morning and I’m thinking, ‘New song and a fresh approach. I know. I’m going to do a Ronnie Spector. Oh yes I am. Ersatz just for one day.’ And I did and here it is. Bless. I’m still very enamoured of this song and would give you two ‘Modern Love’s for it anytime…” Bowie got to experience his own music in a way no one else could. iSELECT: BOWIE gets behind the greatest hits collections for a glimpse at the way he heard and remembered his catalogue.