Our man David puts out a new two-disc best of on Virgin; Rykodisc whines, "We did it first!"
Is there anyone who would begrudge the Thin White Duke a two-disc greatest hits collection? I think not. Love him or hate him, it’s well documented . . . arguably to the point of making it a cliché . . . that the guy’s a musical chameleon. He’s influenced a few generations of musicians so far and who’ll doubtlessly continue to do so for years to come, if only by word of mouth. (He certainly hasn’t been getting as much airplay in recent years. Media exposure, yes, but the airplay peaked with Let’s Dance and has been going steadily downhill ever since.)
Thing is, there’s already a two-disc greatest-hits collection for David Bowie. It’s called Bowie: The Singles 1969 to 1993, and it came out on Rykodisc back in ‘93. (Actually, there was also a limited-edition 3-disc set, with the bonus disc consisting solely of the full-length version of the Bowie - Bing Crosby duet on “Peace on Earth / Little Drummer Boy” . . . but I digress. Again.)
So what of Best of Bowie, the latest two-disc collection?
It’s not bad. Not bad at all, in fact. But, then, it’s David Bowie, so what did you expect, really?
Since it covers the material covered on the Rykodisc collection, then tacks on a token track from each of the post-1993 studio albums (Outside, Earthling, . . . hours, and Heathen), it’s certainly the most up-to-date collection of the two. That “Slow Burn”, let alone anything from Heathen, appears is mildly surprising, since it’s a 2002 release, not to mention the first album of Bowie’s new contract with Columbia Records. Rather than an attempt to make it as current as possible, surely Bowie made it a contractual obligation, in hopes of snagging even a handful of extra sales from best-of buyers who might be swayed by the sample track.
And on a related note, the inclusion of a Tin Machine song (“Under the God”) . . . c’mon, you just know that either Bowie had to beg for that one or it was something written into Bowie’s contract as a make-or-break point. (“How will history ever look favorably upon Tin Machine if there’s not at least one song by them on my best-of?”)
Ultimately, however, neither the Rykodisc nor the EMI/Virgin collection can be considered definitive. But, equally, they each have their own merits. And since we’re talking up Best of Bowie, the latest collection, it seems only appropriate to play up its virtues in the field of “pre-1993 material”.
1. “The Man Who Sold The World”. No, it wasn’t a single, which is why it wasn’t on the original collection, but the song became as familiar as any single as a result of a certain notable recording artist releasing a live cover of the track a few years ago. Yes, of course, I’m talking about Richard Barone. Oh, right, and Nirvana did a fine version of it as well. In fact, I think it’s safe to assume that at least two-thirds of the people who own Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged CD have no idea that the track is a cover. As such, it’s about time they heard the original version.
2. “Moonage Daydream”. Ultimately, the only thing that really matters is that it’s from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Anything that gives you another reason to check out that classic album in its entirety is worth including.
3. “All The Young Dudes”. Kinda like the earlier comment about “The Man Who Sold the World”, it’s about time the world realized that, while Mott the Hoople may have recorded the definitive version of the song, they didn’t write it. Bowie did.
4. “Panic In Detroit”. Again, not a single, but it’s scored enough AOR airplay over the years that it’s as recognizable as anything that actually charted.
5. “Time Will Crawl”. Say what you will about Never Let Me Down. Many say it’s one of Bowie’s worst albums (it’s certainly not his best), and there are more than a handful who cite it as one of the worst albums of the ‘80s by a major recording artist, but this track was an undeniable highlight of the album.
Okay, but now that we’ve covered those tracks, in the interest of giving equal time to all parties, it’s important to note what tracks are missing from the Ryko set, so here’s that list for your perusal: “Oh, You Pretty Things”, “Starman”, “John, I’m Only Dancing”, “Sorrow”, “Drive in Saturday”, “Be My Wife”, “Beauty & The Beast”, “Boys Keep Swinging”, “Look Back in Anger”, “Loving the Alien”, and “Day in Day Out”.
I’ll give Bowie a couple of those omissions in good faith, and I won’t get up in arms about leaving off “Day In Day Out”, because I’m willing to say, okay, maybe that one’s just me, but, c’mon, “Starman” and “John, I’m Only Dancing”? I realize that all of the albums should get equal time without giving Ziggy but so much emphasis, but, c’mon, classics are classics! Indeed, they are, and here’s the rub. With Best of Bowie, our man David chose to release it with different track listings in different countries! The British version, for instance, does include “Oh You Pretty Things”, “Starman”, “John I’m Only Dancing”, “Drive In Saturday”, “Boys Keep Swinging”, and “Loving the Alien.” Presumably, the plan was to have the track listings geared more toward which songs were popular in which countries; ultimately, however, it just leaves Bowie completists flat broke from trying to buy every existing version of the collection.
Anyway, long story short (yes, I know, it’s far too late for that now), Best of Bowie is a great introduction to the man’s work, no matter from what country you buy it, and, in its own way, it’s as good as Bowie: The Singles 1969 to 1993. It’s just depressing to think that, sometime in 2013 (or sooner), there might be a third two-disc collection that needs to be bought. Though, hopefully, by then, someone will realize that two discs really just isn’t enough to cover the best of David Bowie.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.