The Best David Bowie Songs You’ve Never Heard

Published on 10 January 2024

 

It’s been eight long years since the world lost David Jones, the elusive and chameleonic talent otherwise known as David Bowie. One of the world’s most successful and significant musicians, Bowie re-imagined and reinvented himself a number of times, changing perceptions of fashion, masculinity and the very definition of ‘pop music’ as he did so.

Even casual music fans will be aware of a large number of David Bowie songs. Classics such as Rebel Rebel, Life on Mars and Heroes are etched into the world’s collective consciousness, but there are a ton of Bowie belters that are less well known. This is inevitable, given the man’s prolific output, but it means that people who are even ‘quite into’ his music might miss loads of great tunes, particularly in today’s playlist-driven world.

 

 

I aim to remedy this today! As a long-time Bowie fan and someone who has had the privilege and pleasure of interviewing two of his former guitarists, I feel like I’m suitably equipped to offer you a list of ten excellent tunes from across the great man’s career that may have passed you by.

Some of these are album deep cuts, some are underappreciated singles, and some again are reworked songs that maybe fared better when David reapproached them. All of them are incredible pieces of music, and keeping this list to only ten tracks was tough!

Ease my pain today by coming with me on a tour of the lesser-visited locations of one of the greatest original song collections any artist has given the world…

 

Red Sails

Since this blog isn’t in any particular order - either of chronology or implied merit - I’d like to start with this somewhat eccentric album cut from 1979’s Lodger album. Lodger is thought of as the last of the ‘Berlin Trilogy’ which also contains Low and Heroes, but this is probably more down to the continued inclusion of producer Tony Visconti and boffin Brian Eno than anything else, since it was made in Switzerland!

Lodger has a very particular sound, one that seems to take in post-punk, African highlife and some quite bold experimentation. Red Sails is a great example of an ultra-melodic tune that is also quite groundbreaking. The arrangement is anything but standard, but the graceful chord progressions lend beauty to the strangeness. Also, Adrian Belew’s atonal whammy-frenzy solo excursions are a prime example of ‘going for it’! Apparently he was not told the song’s key or chords before being asked to improvise a solo. Adrian, you did yourself proud!

 

Thru These Architect’s Eyes

Bowie’s mid 90s return to form started with the labyrinthine Outside album. A concept album based around a pretty far-out story about murders being committed in the name of art, this bold record suffered from being over-long, but there’s an excellent album in there.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to chat to guitarist and co writer Reeves Gabrels about Outside, so for a detailed dive, click through to the guitarguitar Reeves Gabrels Interview, but in the meantime, I’d like to highlight this tune, which is one that Reeves and I didn’t actually talk about.

Thru These Architect’s Eyes is a slice of edgy Bowie pop, with an excellent vocal performance singing lines like ‘Stomping along on this big Philips Johnson’ which makes it sound like it is actually a song about architecture. Rare!

That is, until you realise that each song in this album is sung by a character in the overarching narrative, and that some real-life digging into architect Philips Johnson will reveal some puzzling facts…I’ll leave you to search for yourself, but what a song!

 

The Secret Life of Arabia

This final song on Heroes is strangely placed, as it comes after side two’s ambient instrumental tracks. Why not have it next to the other tunes like Beauty and the Beast or the title track itself? There will be a reason, no doubt, but do listen out for this mysterious and seriously groovy tune. 

I’m not entirely sure whether Carlos Alomar or Robert Fripp is responsible for the mercurial and highly distinctive opening guitar figure (Carlos’ style is very close to this, but so is Fripp’s playing elsewhere on Heroes, notably on Joe the Lion), but it’s an exceptional and memorable way to begin a tune for sure! 

Some people think this song is about meditation, and the splitting of the mind/self. That sounds good to me but I’m honestly including it because it just sounds excellent and really sticks out in Bowie’s catalogue!

 

Slip Away

2002’s Heathen album prompted one of the many occasions when music journos have hailed a new Bowie release as ‘his best since Hunky Dory!’ or whatever. True enough, it’s a very strong album with a startling opener (Sunday), but there’s also a lot of cover versions too: Bowie-takes on Neil Young, the Pixies and the excellently-named Legendary Stardust Cowboy all jostle amongst the original compositions. 

It’s a Bowie original I’m interested in here, though, and Slip Away is the sort of sweeping epic that David seemed to be able to just throw out there. Obscure references to The Uncle Floyd show (never seen it) seem to be metaphors for a melancholic sense of loss, a subject that permeates many of Bowie’s greatest compositions: even Heroes is about longing and memory, when you think about it.

There’s also the notable return of the Stylophone, that odd little electronic gimmick instrument made famous by a young Bowie decades earlier on Space Oddity. This helps highlight the feeling of whimsical lamentation that permeates this mini masterpiece. ‘Twinkle twinkle, Uncle Floyd!’

 

Sweet Thing

Diamond Dogs will be a record that loads of Bowie fans have in their vinyl collections, but not enough people talk about the astonishing Sweet Thing. Is it because it’s a three part odyssey that’s bisected by Candidate before returning for a Sweet Thing Reprise? Would it have been better as its own somewhat longer song? I’d venture to say ‘yes’ but then that wouldn’t be a very Bowie thing to do, would it? As an artist who confounded expectations at the best of times (killing off Ziggy Stardust at the height of his fame, ‘going drum ‘n’ bass’ etc), he seemed to find energy and inspiration in doing the unexpected.

So, anyway, Diamond Dogs is another concept album - a sort of theatrical future dystopia - and Sweet Thing is a diatribe on the cheapness of love in the future. It’s also a very thinly veiled metaphor for Bowie’s mid-70s life as a rock star, with all of the sex, drug use and ennui that you’d expect from all the stories you’ve heard.

It’s also one of Bowie’s all-time greatest vocal performances, so check it out for that reason anyway. It’s a quietly heartbreaking song in its own way, and is massively effective at conveying a vibe and a time.

 

Within You

Bowie fans from his glam Ziggy/Aladdin Sane days were apparently upset about him playing Jareth the Goblin King in the Jim Henson fantasy movie Labyrinth. For people my age, though, it was probably our first introduction to this strange-eyed man known as David Bowie, so it has always been quite special.

Whilst it might be an overstretch to call Labyrinth a musical, it is a movie that’s filled with original songs, which the characters themselves sing (well, just David, actually…) so it sounds like a musical to me!

Everybody knows Dance Magic (‘You remind me of the babe…’), and lots of you will remember the opening song Underground, but what about the dark epic Within You? From the scene when Jareth defies physics and walks upside down around a distinctly Escher-inspired fantasy dungeon? Yeeeees, now you remember!

Within You is actually a great example of Bowie’s far-from-standard approach to chord changes, and his ability to weave an excellent, accessible melody around pretty much anything. Extra props to the goth-tastic dramatic production too!

 

Seven Years in Tibet

This is one of those songs that I hope people discover and base entire bands around. It’s a monstrous epic, taking in moody electronica, obscure book references (obscure until the Brad Pitt movie showed up, at least) and some giant, swaggering rock complete with some heroically abrasive guitar shrieks courtesy of Reeves Gabrels.

Seven Years in Tibet sits in the middle of 1997’s Earthling record, the one that’s notorious within Bowie’s canon for being the ‘drum ‘n’ bass’ one. In truth, whilst it is awash with 90s electronic music influences, it actually bears up to modern day scrutiny surprisingly well. Ahead of its time? Probably, but also just a thrillride of sounds and textures to enjoy. 

The intro saxophones always felt to me like a wrong decision (they sound like samples but were actually played by David), but the rest of the song is a gleeful flex of build-and-release, comfortably displaying large rock moves in a way that Bowie didn’t often get to do.

 

Loving the Alien (Live)

Loving the Alien comes from a period in David’s career that’s generally ranked a little lower than others. The mid 80s seemed to blindside the otherwise taste-making, zeitgeist-seizing star for some reason. 1983’s Let’s Dance was of course a phenomenal hit, and Bowie was keen to repeat the formula, right down to keeping the same sound and the same musicians. Tonight, his 1984 follow-up, was a big success too, at least in terms of sales, but it was badly reviewed and hasn’t enjoyed much of a reappraisal since.

I can see why, to be honest, but it’s home to a few belters, not least the wonderful Knights Templar-referencing tune Loving the Alien. At least, it’s a belter in its revisited form. During his Reality tour, Bowie and guitarist Gerry Leonard (click through for my exclusive Gerry Leonard interview) performed a quasi-acoustic version, with Leonard looping lines from his PRS Hollowbody to quietly thrilling effect. If this version was what had come first, would the song have been on the Bowie classics list? Maybe so!

 

Heathen (The Rays)

We looked at Slip Away earlier, and I commented on its whimsical melancholy. This song is something of a sister to that one, but this time with Bowie addressing the very nature of death itself.

He displays one of his great songwriting traits here: he is able to effectively summon quiet despair and shoot it through with a simultaneous streak of light, though whether that light is hope or hoped-for peace, is a matter for the listener.

To call it elegiac is accurate but ineffective: there’s something very subtle and spectral at play here. It’s hardly portentous, though: this was released a good 13 or so years before David passed on. Still, it’s an enormously affecting document of a human being staring directly into that great, inscrutable void.

 

Keep Listening for More Greatness

David Bowie was unquestionably one of the most significant songwriters of the last 70 years. He made and changed history several times, fought against all kinds of demons and made a catalogue of work that rivals anybody’s. If you’ve only ever sampled the usual Greatest Hits records or gingerly clicked on the Ziggy Stardust record, there’s a whole universe of music awaiting you.

Take these ten songs as starting points for the less familiar roads, and reap the bountiful harvest that awaits you!

 

 

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About the author

Ray

Features Editor, Warehouse

I'm a musician and artist originally from the South West coast of Scotland. I studied Visual Arts and Film Studies at...

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