David Bowie is awesome and you should buy his music.
Why is this so? Well, because he is the consummate rock and roll artiste. An alternative, avant guard musician who still sells in the millions. A chameleon who changes musical styles with almost every new album. An innovator, who unlike his peers, is still doing cool and relevant stuff. (Or at least was until he retired for ten years, before re-emerging with a lovely new song). And because he was to the ’70s what the Beatles were to the ’60s – a giant who bestrode that decade and turned out timeless tunes.
Very little of what Bowie has released has been dull. Here is his catalogue:
1. Space Oddity ** (1969)
Bowie had released a lot of very left-field stuff before this album, but this was his first “proper” one for RCA. It’s largely a vehicle for the novelty single of the title, which catapulted him to the top of the charts for the first time. Mostly it’s a set of 12 string acoustic folk rock, most of which is fairly disposable. The title track remains an awesome pop moment. Best moment: “This is ground control to Major Tom…” Best song: Space Oddity (naturally) Best song you’ve never heard: Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud.
2. The Man Who Sold the World **** (1970)
The first classic Bowie album, and the first to feature Mick Ronson on guitar. Much of it apes the then current “heavy metal” trend of bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. While Bowie was never going to compete on that level, he finds his own voice in futuristic songs of dystopia and Nietzschean Sturm und Drang. Key tracks are Width of a Circle (in which Bowie has a homosexual encounter with beelzebub!), the dotty All the Madmen, and the title track made famous by Nirvana covering it, although Bowie’s original is much better. Also, wearing a freaking dress on the cover of your album was just not done in 1970! A landmark album. Best moment and song: Width of a Circle – “And I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree. And I looked and found the monster was me”.
3. Hunky Dory **** (1971)
A complete change of tack on this album, which strongly resembles the piano-based singer-songwriter stylings of Harry Nilsson. Hunky Dory is an album with its weak moments, but never without winning melodies. Changes, Life on Mars, Oh! You Pretty Things, Queen Bitch, Quicksand, and the dark folk of closing track The Bewlay Brothers make this indispensable. Best moment: :SAAAAAAILOOOORSSS fighting in the dancehall…!” Best song you’ve never heard: Quicksand – Nietzsche in Musica.
4. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars ***** (1972)
Hey na na… oh oh oh… not only a great album but a cultural moment! Bowie singing Starman on Top of the Pops was the instant when British pop music lost its virginity. With T-Rex’s Electric Warrior, the definitive glam rock album. All killer no filler. If you don’t own it or have never heard it, shame on you. Moonage Daydream, Starman, Hang On to Yourself, Suffragette City, Rock and Roll Suicide… pure genius. Best moment: Five years – “It was cold, and it rained, and I felt like an actor…”. Best song: All of them. Best song you’ve never heard: …well I’ve always loved Lady Stardust for Bowie’s vocal performance alone – perfect!
5. Aladdin Sane **** (1973)
In which Bowie goes all in on the glam. Not as consistent as Ziggy, but it definitely rocks harder. You’ll skip some songs, but the title track, Drive In Saturday, Cracked Actor and single Jean Genie make it difficult to ignore. There’s also a brilliant cover of Let’s Spend the Night Together. Mike Garson’s piano is to die for, as is Ronson’s guitar, both of which almost overshadow Bowie’s vocals. Best song: The title track. Best moment: the opening crunch of Cracked Actor. Best song you’ve never heard: The delightful closer – Lady Grinning Soul.
6. Pinups ** (1973)
Bowie’s first contractual obligation album – a set of covers from the 1960s. It’s largely unremarkable, although a pleasant listen. The real gem is Sorrow – an instant classic. Download it and don’t worry about the rest.
7. Diamond Dogs ***** (1974)
So many reasons why this album is amazing. Firstly, it contains Bowie’s greatest single – Rebel Rebel – though it was basically tacked on, and sounds nothing like the rest of the album. But more importantly, it showcases Bowie’s transition into soul music, and his flair for making the drama of a lyric come alive. Bowie intended the music to be part of a musical of George Orwell’s 1984. It’s a shame the project was never realised, as the whole thing is kickarse, and draws you in to its drama with top tunes and exquisite turn of phrase. Best song: Rebel Rebel. Best song you’ve never heard: The Sweet Thing suite, in which Bowie invites you to feel the pain of a rent boy, and succeeds. Maybe even be the best album track Bowie ever released. Best moment: The end of Big Brother “we love you Big Brother”, where the coda of Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family begins.
Indispensable Outtake: The song Candidate. Download it.
My daughter Bella shows why Diamond Dogs is da shiznit:
8. Young Americans *** (1975)
Once again Bowie took a risk. Having dabbled with soul on Diamond Dogs, he went all in. The result is so-so – much of the album sounds like filler. But the title track is a rollicking good time, and the closer – Fame – cowritten by John Lennon – was Bowie’s first big hit in America. In between is not all that much, but it’s pleasant enough, and you have to admire the man for trying. Best song: Fame. Best song you’ve never heard: Right. Best moment: That sax at the start of Young Americans… om nom nom…!
Indispensable outtake: John I’m Only Dancing Again.
9. Station to Station ***** (1976)
For an album that has only six songs, and was dusted off quickly in the middle of a tour, it’s still pure genius. Every single one of those songs will break your heart. Golden Years is pure alchemy – Carlos Alomar’s guitar plays notes you didn’t even think existed (try whistling that riff and you will fail). The title track – the longest in Bowie’s canon, slow burns like a motherfucker, from its opening choo choo train to its rock-out fade-out. And the conclusion – Wild is the Wind – has there ever been a better ballad to close an album? No, never. What makes this album a classic is the desperate mental state in which Bowie was at the time, which fueled his music to new heights. Again, all killer, no filler.
10. Low ***** (1977)
Having released the most emotional album of his career, Bowie then completely abandoned soul, Americanisms, and indeed, any sort of conventional songwriting, to collaborate with Brian Eno on the most innovative and influential album of his career. Sonically brilliant, a challenging listen, and yet strangely pop-oriented, this is Bowie at his most daring, with every song essential to the experience. Side One sees him abandon lyrical narratives completely in favour of Burroughesque fragments and cutups, while Side Two is completely instrumental. Best song: Sound and Vision. Best moment: The fade-in to Speed of Life – the opening track.
11. “Heroes” *** (1977)
Bowie continued with what he started on Low – adding a harsher, more guitar-oriented sound to the mix, but losing some finesse in the process. Some of it is disposable, but the title track is brilliant, as are instrumental V2 Schneider and the dramatic Sons of the Silent Age. A good enough album with some great songs, but somewhat overrated.
12. Lodger *** (1979)
An album as messy as its awkward cover (featuring Bowie as a sprawled cadaver on the slab), with poor fidelity on the mix. While Bowie returns to a more narrative (and new wave) style of songwriting, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. But there are some good singles on it – the fantastic Boys Keep Swinging, Look Back in Anger, and DJ. I’ve sometimes taken to changing the song order on my computer to improve the impact of what is mostly a fairly decent and experimental set of songs, but lacks impact as originally sequenced.
Indispensable outtake: I Pray Ole, which should have been on there, and should have kicked the album off.
13. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) **** (1980)
A loud, brash, guitar-driven album with some great songs on it. The brilliant Ashes to Ashes and Fashion add to the canon of classic Bowie songs. The sound is new wave, fresh, and enthusiastic, although side two of the album is not as strong as side one. Bowie continues his form of having a different sound for every album.
14. Let’s Dance **** (1983)
The big one. If Bowie wasn’t massive before, this pushed him over the edge. The title track is quite simply one of the best songs of the ’80s, and one of Bowie’s best songs. China Girl, while inferior to the Iggy Pop version, had THAT video, and was also a huge hit. Let’s Dance saw Bowie largely abandon his avant garde tendencies and embrace the New Romantic pop current at the time. A very commercial album with Nile Rogers’ pop production to the fore, and an important album – if not totally a classic one. Best moment: The synth intro on Shake It.
15. Tonight * (1984)
At least when Bowie released a covers album in 1973 (Pinups) he was straight up about it. This is just two great singles (Loving the Alien, Blue Jean), and a bunch of godawful padding, covers, and crap. Bowie’s worst album to date, and one put out entirely to cash in on the success of Let’s Dance. A total phone-in.
16. Labyrinth Soundtrack *** (1986)
Bowie’s iconic turn as Jareth, the Goblin King in Labyrinth, awakened the sexuality of a whole generation of young girls. The music, while sounding dated now, is kitsch genius. Who can forget the amazing Magic Dance as Bowie strutted about with muppets while throwing a live baby into the air? A guilty pleasure. The gospel-tinged Underground shows off his vocal skills remarkably. Great fun.
Indispensable download: Absolute Beginners. A classic, cinematic, epic song, one of his best from the 1980s.
17. Never Let Me Down * (1987)
Well you did. At least Tonight had the excuse of being written mostly by other people. On this one, Bowie has only himself to blame. It has the fine enough Time Will Crawl on it, but that’s the only good spot. The excreable Glass Spider may well be Bowie’s worst song of all time (if you don’t count Dancing in the Street). Bowie was in creative free-fall in the late ’80s.
18. Tin Machine ** (1989)
Bowie had to do something to stop the rot, and what he did was radical. He grew a beard and assembled a band to play loud, obnoxious rock and roll reminiscent of a cross between the Pixies and Gary Moore. This was partially successful at best. While the Sales brothers made a great rhythm section for Iggy Pop, they were completely unsuited to Bowie and his new guitarist, Reeves Gabrels. Heaven’s in Here and Amazing are great songs, but the rest is noisy, preachy and boring.
19. Tin Machine II ** (1991)
Having been burnt once, the public refused to care about this album, as Bowie was unceremoniously, and probably justifiably, dropped from his label. There are gems like Baby Universal, Amlapura, and Goodbye Mr Ed here, but Tin Machine’s attempt to soften the edge of its first album otherwise fell flat. At the end of the day, the weren’t a very good band, and it was time for Bowie to abandon them if he was going to survive as an artist…
20. Black Tie White Noise **** (1993)
Ten years later, this is the followup to Let’s Dance that Bowie should have released in the first place. Perhaps the only time Bowie has been out of sync with the musical zeitgeist, and it was only a partial comeback for him, but even without any big hits, it’s probably just as good as Let’s Dance overall. Heavy on the synths, funky, smooth and sassy, Bowie made himself cool again. Best moment – the opening synth on You’ve Been Around. Best song: Miracle Goodnight. A return to form that would continue onwards and upwards throughout the ’90s.
21. Buddha of Suburbia ** (1994)
Knowing Black Tie White Noise was ultimately a retrogressive step musically, Bowie went Underground with this low key release based on a TV series, in an attempt to reinvent himself yet again. It was put out with almost no promotion whatsoever, and contained a mixture of instrumentals and more electronic-styled music in keeping with the times. No real standout songs, but nevertheless, a compelling listen that doesn’t suck, even if it doesn’t quite engage. At least he was trying again. Best track: the indomitable Strangers When We Meet.
22. Outside ***** (1995)
Teaming up with Eno again was the best move of Bowie’s career, as it produced this classic album. It’s the perfect summation of what he is all about – a mix of the avant-garde and the commercial, all using current musical trends. Dark, brooding, foreboding and sinister, the songs are sometimes heavy listening, but never boring, and you’ll never need your skip button. The title track, Hallo Spaceboy, The Motel, No Control, Thru These Architects Eyes and more are great songs, and point to a man who is once more at the top of his game. An indispensable album in the Bowie story.
23. Earthling **** (1997)
The good form continues with this rather loud album mixing industrial and drum and bass sounds reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor even guests on standout track I’m Afraid of Americans. Reeves Gabrels pummels the guitar and gives Bowie an energetic, exciting and cutting-edge album of excellent tunes, with no filler.
24. …Hours *** (1999)
Bowie calms it down on this, Gabrels’ last album, with mostly slower, quieter songs. There’s a couple of good ones here – Survive and The Dreamers stand out, but otherwise a bit dull and introspective. With Hours, Bowie finally gave up on trying to be cutting edge and went for a more conservative sound, but ultimately it’s all a bit dull.
25. Heathen ** (2001)
Having got his old producer Tony Visconti back on board, Bowie completely changed sound again, opting for a return to his late ’70s new wave stylings, but without the wonky edges. The result is, again, a bit dull, but at least the album opens with the exquisitely sinister Sunday, and also contains the lovely ballad Slip Away.
26. Reality ** (2003)
Musically indistinguishable from Heathen, it repeats the trick of dull new wave music of no great note, until the title track and the finale Bring Me the Disco King, both essential tracks. Hopefully A New Day will give us something much more adventurous?