When I was about 11, the next door neighbor to my parents gave me a whole grocery bag full of cassettes that he had obtained while growing up and living in England for many years. He knew I was way into music and had a strong penchant for classic rock music, amongst others. There were countless copies of favorites from the likes of AC/DC and Queen, but included in the bag was a tape of collected David Bowie songs. Having seen the video for “Let's Dance” countless times while growing up, and loving the shit out of it, I was excited to sit down with a wider assortment of songs. What came from the speakers was so infectious, so riddled with rock pop hooks and sonic experimentation, so moving and brilliantly written, I rushed out immediately and horded all I could find of his work. After recently filling some holes in the collection, I decided to offer a breakdown of his stellar body of work.
With a career that produced twenty four albums over five decades, David Bowie's music catalog is staggering, both in it's creativity and it's originality. Every album is different from the last, and each one is a masterpiece in it's own right, with maybe only a few lags along the way.
The point of this album by album essay is to disprove the myth of a David Bowie “best of” mix, because it is impossible. A David Bowie “best of” compilation should consist of at least twenty two discs, as just about every complete album offers the best of Bowie's incredible music writing prowess. Here now is a brief dissertation on each one of David Bowie's undeniably brilliant albums. It should be noted that in every case I am reviewing the Rykodisc re-releases of each album, as they included bonus material not found on previous LP and CD copies. These usually include Soundtrack contributions (of which he has many), B-sides to singles, previously unreleased songs, and alternative mixes and demos of album tracks. Prepare to behold the impressiveness of David Bowie's musical career.
David Bowie - 1967
Seemingly inspired by fellow beginning British band Pink Floyd, but sounding more like a Syd Barrett solo album, Bowie’s self titled first release is Folk Pop music at its oddest. The lyrical content is riddled with aloof silliness (in a fun way, not annoying), and some of the songs come off as some of the strangest pop songs you’ll ever hear. It’s an album marked by lightheartedness and whimsy, and while there aren’t much of the scoping concepts Bowie would create for later albums, the fun and instant vision of each song is enough to keep you entertained. It’s also funny to think that this album began Bowie’s illustrious career as it has a sound he rarely visited again until much later on.
Space Oddity - 1969
While instrumentally still sounding folk inspired for most of the album, Bowie brings it to a sonic level and many regard this as the first true Bowie album, the one that actually set the tone for his career. With the addition of electric guitar and high concept lyrics, this album possesses some of Bowie’s first masterpieces such as the titular “Space Oddity”, as well as “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”, and the epic “Cygnet Committee” which featured his first huge drawn out concept piece about a modern day messiah who is eventually destroyed by the people he originally rallies. The concept of character pieces and contained stories presented as songs are introduced on this album, and if Bowie’s career ended here, I think he would still go down in history books with how good this album is. The song “Space Oddity” alone is enough to solidify him as a songwriting genius, whether it be interpreted as a straightforward tale of a space explorer’s journey into space and his eventual isolation and loss of communication with his home planet, or as an allegory for drug use. David Bowie’s true genius began to first flourish here.
The Man Who Sold The World - 1970
This album marked a bold direction for Bowie, as it leaves more of his folk beginnings behind to pursue a heavy sound inspired by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Some songs are odd and more playful, still in the vein of Pink Floyd. Some are bluesy and heavy guitar driven, much like the Led Zeppelin songs of the time. Some are looming and dark like Black Sabbath songs. Some, however, are strikingly haunting (the chilling titular track “The Man Who Sold The World” and the Nietzsche inspired “The Supermen” being good examples of this). It marked the beginning of some of Bowie’s more Hard Rock driven guitars that helped carry him through to the mid seventies and was a great achievement for his catalog of albums.
Hunky Dory - 1971
Seemingly written as a self-rebuttal to the “The Man Who Sold The World” album, "Hunky Dory" acts as a piano driven pop-ish album to counterweight the heavy rock n’ roll of his previous release. The sounds of these two albums combined solidified the tone of the coming Ziggy Stardust years. Featuring some incredible stand out songs (The hook-y “Changes”, the pop driven maliciousness of “Oh, You Pretty Things”, the moving and brilliantly written “Life on Mars?”, The acoustic riff centered “Andy Warhol”, and the rocking Velvet Underground-esque “Queen Bitch” are prime examples), this album is a solid and slightly more laid back approach to the evolution of the Bowie sound.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – 1972
Arguably his best album and indisputably one of his finest, “Ziggy Stardust” is a perfect rock n' roll record with not a single misfire in the eleven original tracks. It is highly significant to Bowie's career as it is the first record he released to have an album wide linear concept and story, one that begins in the first track and ends in the last. The album follows the tale of an alien come to earth, Ziggy Stardust, who has five years to bring his vision of love and peace to Earth and stop it from destroying itself by creating a band, the Spiders from Mars, to help spread his message. He ultimately ends up doing himself in and failing his mission as he slips into the drug and sex excesses of the human rock n' roll world. Taking some of the energy and over the top originality he would induce into the impressive live show of the album and it's story, it is a super sonic loud, undeniably catchy album that without a doubt is one of the best of his astounding career, and features career defining excellence such as the powerful “Rock n' Roll Suicide” or the smooth “Soul Love”.
Aladdin Sane - 1973
While it lacks a cohesive tale like “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust”, Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” is still a concept album in the sense that every song is tied together by its source of inspiration. Aladdin Sane was a new character and persona for Bowie on this album, but he described him as “Ziggy goes to America”, and he still performed most of the live shows on the tour for this album as Ziggy Stardust. The “Aladdin Sane” album draws its inspiration from Bowie’s first tour of America which he did for the “Ziggy Stardust” record, and he used Ziggy’s alien perspective to write songs for this album while on the tour. Each song is inspired by a different city or region of the U.S., and the original LP sleeve lists these sources of inspiration next to the name of each track. It contains some of Bowie’s most beautiful arrangements to date, some of his loudest rockers, and '50s style rock and doo wop . The striking cover image has become synonymous with Bowie and his elaborate fashion sense of the early ‘70s, and the songs mirror that effect. Easily in the top three of my personal selection of favorite Bowie albums, “Aladdin Sane” is a force to be reckoned with, as each listen dares you to accept how good it is and holy shit, is it good.
Pin Ups – 1973
“Pin Ups” is one of Bowie's more fun albums, as it's not his material. An album of all cover songs from the 1960's, Bowie gets to take a shot at some of his favorites from artists ranging from Pink Floyd, The Yardbirds, The Who, The Pretty Things, The Kinks, and more. The Rykodisc re-release even has bonus tracks featuring an exceptional cover of Bruce Springsteen's “Growin' Up”. Bowie's interesting interpretation of each of these songs makes for an entertaining Rock and Roll experiment, and even sometimes returns him to his earlier playfulness found on his Self Titled first release.
Diamond Dogs – 1974
Possessing some of Bowie's most moving material to date, 'Diamond Dogs” is a return to concept pieces as it is an album based on two ideas collided together. Bowie used some of his material for an unfinished musical adaption of George Orwell's incendiary novel “1984” and mixed it with the concept of life in a post apocalyptic city that has slipped in urban decay and chaos. The three song suite of “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)” remains one of the grandest highlights of Bowie's career, along with one of his greatest singles, “Rebel Rebel”. The album's descriptive content of downtrodden youth and sometimes raw guitar style served as inspiration to the developing Punk movement, and some of it's songs have a funk and R&B flair that show original flirtations with what Bowie would soon call his “Plastic Soul” period. A political concept piece with emotional delivery, moving vocals and descriptive lyrics, “Diamond Dogs” somehow manages to stand out in a solid career of often flawless and incredible albums, and not just because of the shocking wrap around cover which features a terrifying illustration of the lower half of Bowie's body being that of a dog's (the original pressings of which portray Bowie's creepy dog dick, but this was sadly and puritanically air brushed out for wide release).
Young Americans – 1975
With Bowie's silky smooth vocal work, choir-sh background singers holding up the choruses, funk guitar riffs, and saxophone solos aplenty, it's no wonder that the Philadelphia soul inspired sound on this album got David Bowie a performance on the popular show of the time, “Soul Train”, and was one of the few white performers to do so. There's outstanding white boy soul all over this album, and plenty of funkiness to match. It's a wild departure for Bowie, but the sudden shift in his sound rewarded him with two of his most successful singles, “Young Americans” and “Fame” (which was co-written by John Lennon who also performed vocals on the song) and highly enjoyable album cuts like the mesmerizing “Win”. Actually, two of the era's best offerings, “Who Can I Be Now?” and “It's Gonna Be Me”, weren't released on the original album but are included on the Rykodisc re-releases and are even more exceptional than some of the album cuts. “Young Americans” is a standalone in his repertoire, as only certain elements remained for continuing albums, but his experimentation into the Philadelphia Soul sound, his interpretation of which Bowie called “plastic soul”, proved successful and produced a very smooth album despite his severe developing personal problems.
Station to Station – 1976
While Bowie was touring for the “Diamond Dogs” album, it began to be known that he was becoming more and more involved in heavy cocaine use. In '75, with his coke abuse growing, he decided to move to Los Angles for two years. He also at this time began filming for the emotionally solemn but beautifully made sci-fi movie “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, which had Bowie in the film's lead role, a part that director Nicolas Roeg warned would stay with him for a while. These three events in Bowie's life resulted in living in a depressed and terrifying cocaine driven mental state for two years which resulted in mounting paranoia, horrifying hallucinations, obsession with the occult, and extreme weight loss. During this period, Bowie created one of his most eccentric characters, The Thin White Duke, as inspiration for a new album he was working on. The album, “Station to Station”, is an incredible result of Bowie's two year self described “psychic terror”. Turning his own cocaine fueled emotional detachment into inspiration, the Thin White Duke character is self-described by Bowie as “a nasty character” and an “amoral zombie”. He's a man who feels no emotion, only stark depression and slick superiority to all around him. Although trying with all his might to be moved by the highly emotional output he displays on the album, The Duke is “ice posing as fire”, feeling nothing from the heartbreaking lyrics he is vocalizing.
“Station to Station” as an album is an incredible representation of Bowie's distraught Thin White Duke character, and it's sometimes choppy guitar work and funk driven rhythms accurately reports on his cocaine abuse, not to mention the lyrics on the album that directly reference it. Although only six songs in length, “Station to Station' is an incredible album and features exceptional work. The title track is an evolving ten minute rock track, layered in several parts. “Golden Years”, originally written by Bowie for Elvis, who turned it down, is a smooth and affectionate single. The seemingly hymn inspired “Word on a Wing” is haunting in it's music and performance and feels like the Duke begging to reclaim any human connection, even religion. The anthemic “TVC15” can easily be found to draw inspiration from Bowie's work on “The Man Who Fell To Earth” movie. “Stay” is a driving mix of funk and rock, and it's tones of sexual conquest are to serve as an insight into the Thin White Duke's shallow attempts at romanticism. The album's closer, “Wild is the Wind”, is a cover of a song previously recorded by the likes of Johnny Mathis and Nina Simone and is a powerful song that features some of the most moving vocal performances of Bowie's career. Although there's plenty of affection and emotionality to the album, Bowie later claimed that “Station to Station” was "devoid of spirit ... Even the love songs are detached, but I think it's fascinating.” It serves as a highly transitional album, closing the chapters of Ziggy Stardust and Plastic Soul, and ushering in the career defining work he was soon to create. The album's cover is the first of two to feature a still from the exceptional “Man Who Fell To Earth” film, in which Bowie's character, Thomas Jerome Newton, perfectly encapsulates his own persona at the time, as well as the work he did on “Station to Station” and the soon to follow “Low”.
Low – 1977
After his turmoiled years in Los Angeles, Bowie decided to dry out from his cocaine abuse and seek inspiration by moving to a new city, Berlin (although most of this album was recorded in France). What resulted is whats referred to as the “Berlin trilogy”, Bowie's next three albums. Infused with new sorts of creative inspirations such as the German experimental electronica of bands like Kraftwerk and the more improvisational Neu!, and mixed with his latent depression and still occasional drug abuse, the title of “Low” is an accurate depiction of Bowie's mood at the time of recording. The “Low” album sounds like a robot trying to fall in love, a barren entity trying hard to become emotional again. With help from new friend and musical accomplice Brian Eno, and featuring clever production from long time Bowie producer Tony Visconti, “Low's” often emotional lyrics are paired with electronic bleeps, synthesizer accompaniment, and robotic drum recording. Visconti used a harmonizer to make all the drum work on the album sound like mechanical steam presses. Featuring both emotionally stirring and depressingly estranged lyrics, the album's first seven songs (the entire side 1 of the original record release) are a catchy but moody electronic rock and R&B experimentation into new directions for Bowie. The last four songs (Side 2) are longer, haunting instrumental pieces, some of which are residual work Bowie originally submitted for the soundtrack to the moody “The Man Who Fell To Earth” film in which he starred and where the cover artwork comes from, but the songs were denied by the film's director who wanted a different musical direction for the movie. Every song on the album is a masterpiece and far ahead of it's time, and the Rykodic re-release features unreleased material including an outstanding and somewhat spooky instrumental, “All Saints”, not previously heard. Widely considered as influential and among the top three in my selection of favorite Bowie albums, “Low” is as chilling and infectious a record now as it was when it was originally released.
“Heroes” - 1977
The second installment of the Berlin Trilogy, “Heroes” is the most fitting release with that title as it is the only one of the three completely recorded and produced in Berlin, about 500 yards from the Berlin Wall, in fact. Possessing a more upbeat and positive tone than “Low”, it’s somber predecessor, “Heroes” still follows the formula of the album before it as the original LP release had one side of shorter vocalized songs, and a second side of longer instrumentals. To me, “Heroes” is the first post-punk album, even though it was released the year punk was fitting to explode in the way of the Ramones in the U.S. and the Sex Pistols in the U.K. With its creative guitar producing and more dissident rocking rhythms, you can hear a tone being set that bands like Killing Joke, The Chameleons, The Smithereens, The Smiths, and Television would follow years later. The first five songs form a perfect record side. Each song is an astoundingly innovative and well written rock and roll song, including one of Bowie’s more popular singles, the titular “Heroes” which tells the tale of two people falling in love at the Berlin Wall. The remainder of the album are beautiful arrangements of interesting and moody mostly instrumental music. An absolutely fantastic album, “Heroes” is a stand out recording and should be considered one of the best releases of the time.
Lodger – 1979
I consider “Lodger” to be Bowie's return to being Bowie, both as he was before the seminal “Berlin trilogy” began, and how he would be for the next ten years. Ditching the whole second side of instrumental tracks that were present on the previous two releases, “Lodger” is Bowie's return to Rock pop accessibility with inventive producing and recording tricks that add odd atmosphere to an album of solid hooks. Brian Eno's touch is noticeably not as strong on this release as the previous two, due mostly to a wavering in the creative synchronism he and Bowie previously shared. “Lodger”s first side are all songs designed around the theme of journeying or traveling. Beautiful vocal performances, almost ambient rhythm guitar work, and clever producing techniques and effects make the first half of the album a wonderful trip to musical styles from around the world. Side two returns Bowie to his pop rock roots, with harsher and more insidious tracks with sardonic comments on Western culture as their theme, but all with undeniable “hit single” flair that makes their jagged hooks unforgettable. (Iggy Pop fans might also notice that Bowie's “Red Money” on this album possesses the same music as Pop's “Sister Midnight” but with different lyrics, as Bowie produced Iggy's first two solo albums while working on his Berlin Trilogy). “Lodger” sets the tone for what Bowie would bring in the 80's and closes out the inspirational “Berlin Trilogy” beautifully. Some of Bowie's best tracks are on this album and it remains one of his most underrated.
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) – 1980
“Scary Monsters” continues the trend laid out by “Lodger”. Featuring Bowie’s hardest edge to date, “Scary Monsters” is an erratic rock and roll album that bids farewell to his evolving 70’s personas as well as his troubles of the decade, and it further establishes what he would become in the 80’s: a schizophrenically optimistic and bleakly sardonic pop rock hit machine. “Scary Monsters” features sometimes disjointed guitar riffs, a lyrical leaning towards the supernatural, and a brief return (and a seemingly not so fond farewell ) to his Major Tom character originally created for 1969’s “Space Oddity”. The striking appearance of Bowie from both the album’s cover and the revolutionary music video for its incredible stand out single “Ashes to Ashes”, reflects the beautiful but odd sound of the album. With “Scary Monsters”, Bowie can be completely credited for ushering in the success of New Wave music, as it was a forerunner of what would soon dominate the radio airwaves.
Let's Dance – 1983
“Let’s Dance” ushers in a whole new era for Bowie, as it starts his pop rock domination of the 80’s. Developing a more accessible sound, Bowie created a pop music masterpiece with this album. It contains some of the most brooding and insidious pop music writing ever heard on an album of its nature. Some songs are upbeat post-disco, some have flairs of reggae, others are dark rock tunes that stab like a knife. Bowie enlisted popular blues rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan to provide the sharp, stabbing lead guitar work, and it supplies the album with incredible rock-ability to match the moody dance-abilty of Nile Rodger’s slick producing. Just about every track is a catchy stand out, not excluding the titular “Let’s Dance” which I regard as one of the best pop songs of the 80’s, if not all time. Bowie’s cover of a song he co-write and produced for Iggy Pop, “China Girl” remains a sinister stand out track, and I could listen to the bruise black and almost malicious “Criminal World” for days on end. “Let’s Dance” remains an upbeat pop rock masterpiece, even though some less pop music friendly Bowie fans regard it as an attempt of his to commercially cash in.
Tonight – 1984
With “Tonight”, Bowie continues his journey into 80’s pop music, but this time falls short of the almost epic “Let’s Dance”. That isn't to say “Tonight” is a terrible album by any means, far from it. It's actually quite enjoyable. “Tonight” sort of ends up coming off like “Let's Dance”'s lite rock cousin, and continues his developing '80s pop centric trend. There are certainly some standout tracks, like two more cleverly re-imagined Iggy Pop covers (Including the titular “Tonight” which Bowie infused with a reggae sound and backing vocals from Tina Turner), and the infectious pop rocker “Blue Jean” amongst others. The CD re-release features some of his solid movie soundtrack submissions that were released separately at the time such as the biting “This is Not America” or the smooth “ Absolute Beginners. It may not posses some of the edge that “Let's Dance: has, but it creates a solid, slightly more mellow, but always creative '80s pop listening experience.
Never Let Me Down – 1987
Some regard this as Bowie's worst album, but I'm inclined to disagree. “Never Let Me Down” is his ultimate endeavor into pop music. This album is completely designed to appeal to a broad audience and get good chart placement, and that's where the merit lies here. “Never Let me Down” is not a bad album, it's just not a great BOWIE album. If this exact album was made by anyone else, like Robert Palmer or someone like that, it would be revered as a solid late '80s pop album, but because it seems so out of character for Bowie, it gets labeled as a bad album. It's not great by any stretch of the imagination, but there are some pretty good synth-heavy pop singles on this album, and its certainly worth a listen every now and then. Bowie himself has grown to hate it and considers it his least creative album he's done. While that may be true, he still gives stellar vocal performances and delivers with straight catchy pop tunes. It would have been a pretty solid album if it was made by anyone else.
Black Tie White Noise – 1993
Oh man. Even though he had taken a six year break from recording as just himself, and had a luke-warm stint as a front man for the more punk inspired band Tin Machine, the time off did not seem to yet break Bowie's habit of trying to make ultra accessible popular albums as he had started about nine years previously. Bowie said he simply felt uninspired for most of the '80s, as he had quit hard drugs for the most part, and was trying to get himself together. The work put into collecting himself seemingly distracted his creativity for a while, and I believe this album marks the end of that streak. It's not without it's solid singles, however. The “Black Tie White Noise” title track remains a powerful comment about race inspired by the L.A. Rodney King riots, and the catchy “Jump They Say” provided a moving way for Bowie to pay tribute to his schizophrenic stepbrother who had committed suicide. Despite it's shining moments, it's a mostly weak attempt at returning his name to music by being inspired by the popular early 90's dance music trends and doesn't quite yet return Bowie to his proper track of creativity.
Buddha of Suburbia – 1993
Released the same year as “Black Tie White Noise”, “Buddha of Suburbia” is an album inspired by the BBC TV mini series based off a book of the same name. Only the titular track on the album actually appeared as part of the soundtrack to the show, with the rest of the album being all new music Bowie wrote later as he scrapped what he submitted for the soundtrack and wrote all new material for the album release, keeping all of it in the vein of the show which featured a story that heavily referenced pop culture and the condition of London. The album marks some creative progression from it's predecessor but still doesn't bring Bowie back to the status of his previous masterpieces. Part Cure album, part Jazz album, part instrumental rock album, “Buddha of Suburbia” gets Bowie headed down the right path once again, just don't doesn't bring him to his final destination.
1.Outside – 1995
In a surprising return to his high concept originality, Bowie dropped the astonishing “1.Outside”. The album could easily pass for a Nine Inch Nails release, as it pulls most of it's musical roots from Industrial music, but there's far more going on here than your average mid 90's industrial album. “1.Outside” is Bowie's first concept album in a while. It tells the tale of a dystopian CyberPunk version of 1999 where “artists” murder people and brutalize their bodies as “art”, and the government has created a new investigative branch to determine in each case if this it's considered “art”, and passable, or if it's “trash” and just boring old murder. The album is written form the perspective of several people involved in the story, including the victim of one of these “artists”, the murderer, and the investigator sent to crack the case and determine the validity of the murder's “art”. Each song is schizophrenic in a sense, as all have undeniable almost pop hooks, yet these are laid down over industrial style rhythms and sometimes almost jazzy guitar work. The album also marks the first time the influential Brian Eno returned to work with Bowie since the career defining and highly inspiring “Berlin Trilogy”. “1.Outside” remains a highly remarkable album and it's always guaranteed to be an interesting listen as there's so much going on in each track. Bowie did great work in returning to his more inventive and adaptive musical qualities.
Earthling – 1997
Shedding the similarity to Nine Inch Nails, Bowie's next album seems closer to a Prodigy release. Inspired by the prevalent rave culture of the late 90's, “Earthling” is a crazy jump into fast drum break sampling and bombastic synth and guitar rhythms. Overall, “Earthling” is a good album. The usual solid vocal work from Bowie, and a new, interesting musical direction to go with it. It might be far from his best, but it's still a pretty enjoyable listen, even if you don't make it out to the sweaty rave clubs this was meant, and popularly was, to be played in.
Hours – 1999
“Hours” starts as a pretty boring album until you get four songs in and then BAM! You found you were just taken on a ride, a ruse if you will, to keep you off guard for the rocking moodiness of the rest of the album. Featuring a lot of music originally made for the video game “Omikron – The Nomad Soul”, “Hours” kind of goes all over the place in terms of it's style and inspirations. It's certainly much more mellow than it's predecessor, but it still packs it's rock n' roll punches. Not necessarily staggering in it's creativity, its still a decent and slightly more mellow attempt of Bowie's to mature.
Heathen – 2002
“Heathen” is Bowie's best album since “1.Outside”. In a sort of return to the “Space Oddity” and original “David Bowie” days, “Heathen” has a slick acoustic feel with sharp jabs of wild electric guitar and atmospheric synthesizer on top. It shows that the style of his original material has not aged at all, and feels as cutting edge now as it did then. Every track is smooth and occasionally creepy feels like it could be used in a David Lynch movie (although “I'm Deranged” from 1.Outside already was used in Lynch's “Lost Highway”) with “Sow Burn” being not only really goo stand out track, but a fine example of this. The album even contains an exceptional cover of “Cactus” by the Pixies. One part his earlier work, one part Sonic Youth inspired structured dissonance, one part creepy moodiness, “Heathen” is a sharp return to greatness for Bowie.
Reality – 2003
Continuing his inspiration of his earlier work, “Reality” digs back as deep as “Heathen” and seems to re-imagine his original self titled album years a bit. It's the most playful Bowie has been on an album in years, even though it touches on occasional self depreciating themes like growing old, and most if it is catchy as hell. It's certainly a tad more mellow than the more rocking “Heathen”, but it doesn't feel tame by any means and his fascination with reinvisioned cover songs continues with a sharp cover of “Pablo Picasso” by the eternally enjoyable Modern Lovers . It's his last album to date, and if it's his last for good, then it's certainly a good note to go out on, but I feel like Bowie has at least one more good album in him and I hope we get to see it one day.