David Bowie's career was as much about the vision as it was the sound. More than any of his peers and contemporaries, he understood the value of putting a face to his music. It started early, as he took on the role of Ziggy Stardust, a space-age rock star, and continued for more than 40 years and Bowie's many guises (Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, et al.). Music videos were the perfect vehicle for Bowie and his music. His early clips as Ziggy set the stage, but it was later -- through early-MTV hits like "Ashes to Ashes" and the harrowing "Lazarus," which he released shortly before his death in January 2016 -- that he became a pioneer in the field. The Top 20 David Bowie Videos paint a portrait of the artist that is just as crucial as the one told by his many classic albums.
"Boys Keep Swinging" (1979)
Bowie does Bowie in this 1979 video for one of the most rock 'n' roll songs on Lodger, the final album in his groundbreaking Berlin Trilogy. He shakes his hips, looks super-suave and even supplies his own backing vocals as a trio of women who all look suspiciously like Bowie. It's a fun clip and one of his first to truly embrace the visual medium.
After a series of clips in 1972-3 decked out as Ziggy Stardust, Bowie laid low on the music-video front for a few years until he returned in 1977 with a promo for "Be My Wife" from Low, the first album in the Berlin Trilogy. The complex music has become more and more influential over the years, but this video keeps things simple, with just Bowie and his guitar in a spare white room.
The second video from 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) album isn't nearly as groundbreaking as the first, "Ashes to Ashes." But the straightforward performance is cut with scenes of art-school frivolity as well as some bizarre turns (what's with that poolside couple?). More so than any of his contemporaries, Bowie adapted to music videos quickly and enthusiastically. An early example of an innovator taking another pioneering step.
This song from the 1986 movie Labyrinth, in which Bowie co-starred, gets lost in the post-Let's Dance period of commercial duds and creative misfires. But the video -- which Bowie himself was not too pleased with -- is an enjoyable trip down memory lane, as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and several other personas from his long career make appearances.
Bowie recorded this video in his Manhattan apartment and got it online almost immediately. It features puppets (modeled after Bowie), menacing shadows and maybe the most disquieting imagery in his long career of music videos. There's also a 10-minute remix version of the video out there, but we prefer the original scaled-down one that more reflects Bowie's harrowed vision.
"Look Back in Anger" (1979)
Bowie puts his movie and theater side gigs to good use in this final video from the Lodger album, playing an artist who goes mad while working on his art. Was it a reference to his struggles a few years earlier, when drugs and fame nearly sank him? Maybe. Either way, it's a pioneering moment in the history of music videos: a narrative played out over a semi-related song.
There's nothing really special about "Let's Dance" -- Bowie's not even in it much. But the song, and album, was a career jump-starter. The video's heavy rotation during MTV's formative years helped put the channel on the map and gave Bowie his second No. 1 single. Plus, it helped sell his image as a dapper soul man. It's a commercial move from the artist, no doubt, but it's a pivotal moment in his career.
Like "Blackstar," the video that preceded it, "Lazarus" is stuffed with imagery and references that may never be fully comprehended. The clip came out shortly before the Blackstar album, which was released only two days before Bowie's death at age 69. Does the video offer clues to the cancer that killed him (and which nobody knew about)? Possibly. The layers of this arresting clip run deep.
Featuring Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, the clip for the 1972 single "The Jean Genie" mixes studio performance shots along with live footage of the Spiders From Mars. It's probably the most representative music video of Bowie from the period, with his shocking red hair and space-age wardrobe, which seems to have taken a detour somewhere in the late '50s.
"The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" (2013)
After a 10-year break, Bowie returned in 2013 with the surprise comeback album The Next Day. The second video from the project, "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," is a typically out-there clip co-starring Bowie and actress Tilda Swinton as his wife. A Norwegian model plays the young Bowie. It's a welcome return to edgy and haunting music videos after a long period in the wasteland.
"I'm Afraid of Americans" (1997)
The best song from 1997's Earthling features a dizzying video in which Bowie portrays a paranoia-soaked man being stalked through the streets of New York City by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor. It's seeped in senseless violence, as Bowie witnesses one horrible act after another. This modern vision of hell is loaded with religious imagery, movie references and lots of scared-for-his-life Bowie.
The title track to Bowie's surprise comeback album The Next Day is filled with religious imagery, complete with a Christ-like figure posed by the artist himself. It's packed with symbolism and surreal imagery, as well as a sense of adventure from a restless artist who rarely rested on his reputation over the years. Along with his other latter-day music videos, this one is staggeringly bold in its audacity.
The scenes of Bowie walking on a crowded street in this 1979 clip are kinda boring, but the studio shots of him spinning records and having a grand time in a radio station capture him at his most playful. The song is one of the most accessible on Lodger, the last album in his famed Berlin Trilogy, and a setup of sorts for the new decade on the horizon.
The first video (and title track) from Bowie's last album, Blackstar, is a 10-minute tour de force that grows deeper with each viewing. His death mere days after the album's release adds to its poignancy. There's a lot going on here -- from aliens to rituals to Bowie in artsy-performance dance. But most of all it serves, along with the "Lazarus" clip, as a fitting end to one of music, and music video's, most influential careers.
Following the success of 1983's Let's Dance, Bowie returned the following year with Tonight, a mostly diluted take on the same musical themes. Its lead single, "Blue Jean," is the best song on the album, and its video features Bowie in a persona that imagines Aladdin Sane in his most literal presence. Bonus points for Bowie's other role in the clip: as a rock 'n' roll-hating square watching the show.
"John, I'm Only Dancing" (1972)
Bowie's first music video was for his 1972 single "John, I'm Only Dancing," and it's a striking introduction to the visual medium he worked so well during his career. The video is more or less a performance clip, with Bowie singing and occasionally staring intensely into the camera. But he's in full Ziggy Stardust mode here, with red hair and turned-up collar.
Like "Space Oddity," "Life on Mars?" was released as a single after the success of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album, even though it debuted a year before on the Hunky Dory LP. Bowie was already shaping his persona by then, so it makes sense (plus that whole Mars theme fits in so well). He's a striking figure here in his blue suit -- a stylish intro to one of rock's most fashionable artists.
Even though the song was recorded in 1969, "Space Oddity" didn't become a hit until 1972, after The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars made Bowie a star. So this video, from 1972, features him in Ziggy Stardust persona, complete with teased red hair, futuristic space outfit and, um, shaved eyebrows for some reason.
The first video for 1980's Scary Monsters album revisits "Space Oddity" in both sound and vision. The song name-checks Major Tom, and the video is a breathtaking and innovative piece of performance art that ties in themes of isolation and despair. Even the primitive video effects add to the clip's harrowing look. A milestone moment in music videos.
Backlighted and looking fit as clouds of haze roll beneath him, Bowie mesmerizes in one of his most groundbreaking videos, which pretty much set the template for almost every artsy New Wave video MTV aired in its early days. The song itself, the title track of the second album in the influential Berlin Trilogy, is the perfect backdrop to the clip, framing Bowie as both hero and mysterious traveler.