It has taken me longer than expected to listen through every one of Bowie’s albums, make a judgement on them, then rank them. It started off just as a small project to listen to them all, then as time went on it seemed like it was worth me putting a blog post together since I was surprised at how they each varied in style, approach and especially quality. Bowie is rightly remembered for those moments in which he created something truly spectacular, but like any prolific artist, some of what he created could charitably described as failed experiments.
Writing this was hard. It was hard to explain what was wrong with poor albums created by a man with such stature. And it was even harder to write something interesting about albums regarded as ‘classics’.
I will say up front, because it gets mentioned a lot below, that I have very mixed feelings about Bowie’s cover versions. Some are sublime, and when he finds a track that he can transform in this way, it’s magical. Some, however, rank amongst some of his very worst tracks. The split appears to be between tracks he could bring something to, and ones he just liked. The latter end up sounding flat, and uninspired.
This is of particular interest to me because I think you can learn a lot from a cover version. It’s a place that you can isolate the sound of the artist by comparing the song to the original. Depending on the cover, sometimes this shows Bowie in his best light but often it shoes that he chose songs to cover badly.
Let me know what you think I’ve got wrong (explaining why, of course!) in the comments below.
26. Tonight (1984)
Bowie referred to his 1980s period as his “Phil Collins” albums. If anything, I think was being a bit kind to himself. A lot of Tonight sounds more like late Sting. Many late Bowie albums suffer from being over-produced, and this more than most. There are times that, in this post-Garageband world, this whole album sounds like it has been made up from middle of the road rock samples that come free with a program.
Bowie wanted to release an album as he came off the Serious Moonlight tour (to promote Let’s Dance) but found it hard to write new songs when touring. As such, he did what he had done many years before and released an album primarily of covers. Many of these songs are the work of Iggy Pop, which doesn’t sound like it would be too bad, but, well, it is. The album that resulted from the last time he released a covers album while on tour, Pinups, is better than this, but not by much. Certainly not something to be repeating but Bowie felt differently. There are a few albums which started life planned as a covers album similar to Pinups.
What makes this the worst album are decisions like the smooth as silk production, the cringe-worthy reggae beat on Don’t Look Down, the lack of memorable tunes and the fact it just sounds like the sort of album you could buy from a petrol station. And the cover of God Only Knows literally sounds like a joke. Like someone doing a parody of Bowie singing a Beach Boys song. It’s excruciating.
A couple of years later in 1986, Bowie released the songs from the Labyrinth soundtrack (Underground and Magic Dance) and Absolute Beginners. All three are better than anything on here, and the latter is one of Bowie’s greatest songs. It’s not like the talent had gone anywhere, he just doesn’t quite seem to have been able to focus it at this moment.
Bowie claims the demos were much better, and he would know. I certainly think that tracks here might have sounded better with a different production, and I know that its creation was rushed. But then Let’s Dance only took three weeks, and that’s outstanding. This, however, is awful.
25. David Bowie (1967)
Those familiar with Bowie’s output following Space Oddity will find this, his real debut album, a bit surprising. It bears similarities to the music hall leanings of The Kinks, but with the music hall elements cranked up, and the attitude dialled down.
It’s certainly not terrible, but it’s so little like Bowie’s later music that at times it feels like a different artist. That said, there are elements that are recognisably Bowie – the voice and a lot of the phrasing is unmistakeable. And although the later interest in space and alienation is not quite formed yet, She’s Got Medals prefigures his interest in challenging gender norms and some have seen We Are Hungry Men as the character that will become Ziggy Stardust.
Overall, a strange historical artefact more than an enjoyable album, but probably worth a listen (but not much more than one) if you haven’t heard it before. However, I would recommend Pete Paphides’s article on the albumwhich places in the album its historical context and is a great read.
24. Pinups (1973)
If I was a Bowie fan in the early 70s, I think I’d have been blown away by Ziggy Stardust. I’d have liked Aladdin Sane, but when Pinups came out, I think I’d be questioning if Bowie had a lot more to give. This feels like the beginning of a downward trajectory. And when you realise that just after this, Bowie dispensed of Ziggy Stardust entirely it seems less like an artist constantly experimenting and more like an honest person accepting he’d taken the character as far as he could.
To be fair, Pinups is pretty listenable. Indeed, for a man who has a mixed history of covers, some of these aren’t that bad (Here Comes The Night and Sorrow are solid), but this came out at a time when Bowie was starting out on his most creative and exciting couple of decades and, well, it’s just not good enough. Indeed, dare I say, its biggest flaw is that (whispers) it’s just a bit dull. But it’s got Twiggy on the cover with make up like she’s Bowie’s alien wife, and that counts in its favour.
23. Black Tie White Noise (1993)
In 1992, Bowie married Iman, then released this album the following year. It’s sweet that he made an album about his marriage (two songs reference the wedding directly), and Iman was the love of his life, but this album feels flimsy. Everything feels weak, from the production to the songwriting. It’s like a cup of tea that’s 50% milk.
This is odd because the producer in question is Nile Rodgers, who Bowie paired with to produce the splendid Let’s Dance album, selling millions. The aim, apparently, was to create “a new kind of melodic form of house”. If this was successful, then what they created was a new kind of melodic form of house that wasn’t very good.
It also marks the return of Mick Ronson, who Bowie excluded during the Young Americans recording sessions and had remained distant from ever since. Sadly, Ronson was to die of cancer only a few days after the album was released, so it also marks the very last time he appears on a Bowie recording.
Despite my feeling that Bowie’s covers are often awful, his cover of Morrissey’s I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday, done rather tongue-in-cheek, is very enjoyable and the album’s strongest track. I wouldn’t have predicted that the world needed an overblown gospel cover of a Morrissey track by Bowie, but we did.
Overall, it feels like the album of a happy man enjoying his new life. That sounds like it should be great but it feels like being made to look at someone else’s wedding photos.
22. Reality (2003)
Tony Visconti is still in the picture for this album (having returned for 2002’s Heathen). However, where on Heathen he helps Bowie create another great album, this falls a bit flat.
It’s certainly not terrible, and although the cover of The Modern Lovers’s Pablo Picasso is poor, Bowie’s own tracks are often good. Looking For Water harks back to Bowie’s water-searching alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth, and The Loneliest Guy feels like a deep insight into what it feels like to be Bowie – torn between feeling fortunate and uniquely alone. This semi-nostalgic dive into his own mythology is what will come to make his final two albums so fascinating, but here it doesn’t quite come to anything quite so intriguing.
Bowie set off on a massive tour for this album (named, unusually boringly, A Reality Tour) which he had to cut short following some serious heart problems. This prompted him to take the next decade out of the spotlight and living a low-key life in New York (well, as much as a low-key life one of the world’s most recognisable people could live in New York).
The cover artwork is probably the worst thing about the album. It’s by Jonathan Barnbrook who, to be fair also did the wonderful covers for Heathen, The Next Day and Blackstar. Apparently he delivered what Bowie asked for, it just didn’t work, which Barnbrook himself admits. It seems like the rest of the album shares the same sort of problems.
21. Never Let Me Down (1987)
We’re already in ‘not quite as bad as remembered’ territory with these 1980s albums. This was the album that prompted the huge Glass Spider Tour, which at the time looked like a ridiculous meld of stadium rock and Broadway show, but from our perspective in 2019, large acts make a living doing those types of shows all the time now, and the Glass Spider Tour looks like their progenitor.
This album has some perfectly respectable songs on it. The opener Day-In Day-Out is strong (although perhaps where Bowie got his idea that the 1980s were his Phil Collins years). Bowie himself liked Time Will Crawl (more than I do), but Beat of Your Drum, Never Let Me Down, and even Shining Star (Makin’ My Love) are memorable and have good singalong choruses that I presumably went down well on tour.
The biggest misstep to my ears is the track Glass Spider where, in a spoken word section with tootling synths, Bowie tells a story about a – you guessed it – glass spider. It must be one of the most skipped tracks in Bowie’s album history. Perhaps Shining Star sounds better because you know at that time Bowie’s finished wittering on about spiders. Granted, Bowie has some spider-related history, but it feels like a pompous misstep.
20. The Man Who Sold The World (1970)
Coming after Space Oddity, this harder-rock version of Bowie is, to me at least, interesting rather than enjoyable.
Interesting because this is where a lot of the Bowie mythology starts. It’s got a pre-Raphaelite Bowie with long hair in a dress on the cover, setting himself out as an artist with a wish to control and play with his image. It’s got Mick Ronson (soon to be of the Spiders from Mars) playing guitar. It’s the beginning of Glam Rock.
For some, Kurt Cobain was their first introduction to Bowie following his cover of the title track on MTV’s Unplugged, and this was Cobain’s favourite Bowie album. Despite my reservations it’s easy to see why, it’s closer to Nirvana than anything earlier or later. The Man Who Sold The World remains the best track on here and although it’s certainly not all that is good but the others I think are strong songs (Black Country Rock, She Shook Me Cold for example) just aren’t quite to my taste.
In summary, I get the importance of this album, for Bowie, Visconti, for glam rock, for metal. I just don’t like it very much.
19. 1. Outside (1995)
A lot of people treat this as the end of Bowie’s weak 1980s. It’s certainly more interesting than anything between Let’s Dance and its release. It saw the return of Brian Eno, and is an album which is in the same territory as Diamond Dogs: a dark a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The Hearts Filthy Lesson, used for the title sequence of Seven is a bleak and disjointed exposure of the soul. Hallo Spaceboy shows Bowie’s growing interest in drum and bass (which will come to fruition on Earthling, but the best track, by far, is Strangers When We Meet. However, the Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack should get the credit for that seeing as that’s where its original (and best) version is.
It must have been a relief for Bowie fans in the 1980s that he released a couple of genuinely good albums in a couple of years. The drought was finally over. I would be surprised if all that many people missed parts 2 and 3 of this proposed trilogy, though.
18. Hours… (1999)
Like many Bowie albums, this has a strange history. Many of the songs were originally written for the soundtrack of the computer game Omikron: The Nomad Soul. Originally, Hours was thought of as being the soundtrack to the game. Eventually, though, it was pulled clear of the game and released in its own right.
You shouldn’t be put off by the terrible, dated album cover, there’s some good stuff on here. Thursday’s Child and Seven are beautiful songs, albeit glistening from over-polished production. Guitarist Reeves Gabrels claims there was a grittier version of the album created that Bowie thought was too raw. Bowie brought in Mark Plati to play some fretless bass and remix the record. I suspect I might have preferred the original version.
It’s a patchy album and struggles to hold together as a cohesive work of art, but it’s got some strong tracks, just about saved from the production, and – nodding to Bowie’s wish to break new ground – it was the first album by a major artist released online before the physical release.
17. Heathen (2002)
This is one of the much better of the albums released after Let’s Dance. Tony Visconti returned to produce it, having been upset at being sidelined by Bowie during the Let’s Dance sessions in favour of Niles Rodgers. As a result, the production is stronger than many of the later albums. Bowie didn’t need Visconti to make a great album, but it seems he often struggled without him.
Like Black Tie White Noise, this contains one of Bowie’s better cover versions, this time in the form of The Pixies’s Cactus. The song also contains Bowie on every instrument and as such is his only drumming appearance on any album. Added to that, the album has some guitar from Dave Grohl (I’ve Been Waiting For You) and Pete Townshend (Slow Burn).
Having been recorded in New York and released not long after 9/11, it got a lot of attention as being a response to the attacks, but in fact the songs were all written earlier. From the perspective of 2019, it doesn’t feel like it’s got much to do with 9/11 and instead is the album of a man beginning to investigate his relationship to his own mythology (indeed, Slip Away and Afraid sees Bowie revisiting lesser-known tracks originally written in the 1960s).
The album was really made up of two ideas. The 1960s songs came from what was going to be called Toy, an album expected to be entirely of re-recorded older tracks, and Bowie’s plan to make another version of Pinups (an album he clearly liked more than me). The fact, therefore, that the album in its current form holds together so well speaks to Visconti’s skill in creating a unified sound.
Overall, it’s strong. There are some excellent tracks – Slip Away, Slow Burn, and I Would Be Your Slave are as good as any late-era Bowie songs. And, although it’s not the most important thing, it has a great cover. Certainly worth investigating if it’s not an album you know.
16. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
This doesn’t get included in every album list for Bowie. Strictly speaking it’s a soundtrack, but unlike other soundtracks that Bowie contributed to, every track on here is written by Bowie, and was recorded specially for the album, so I’m including it.
For an album that gets relatively little attention it’s good. The title track is catchy and soaring, and produced sensitively.
Strangers When We Meet is one of my favourite late-Bowie tracks and it makes its first appearance on this album. It was later re-recorded for Outside, but I prefer this version. The has an air of a 1990s version of Absolute Beginners. It deserves to be better known.
The rest of the album is made up mostly from instrumentals. As such it feels like Bowie returning to the Berlin trilogy. It’s not as good as those but it’s worthy of much more attention than it gets.
15. Lodger (1979)
The final part of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, made in Berlin with Brian Eno is also the weakest, but also the most intriguing. Unlike its two predecessors, there aren’t any instrumentals, it’s a lot more pop orientated and thus prefigures Let’s Dance.
As a trilogy, Low, “Heroes” and Lodger chart Bowie’s recovery from cocaine addiction, and Lodger is the one where he seems mostly over the worst side effects and has suddenly realised there’s a world outside his own head. By track two, African Night Flight, Bowie’s exploring the theme of travel which remains throughout. The travel theme continues in Yassassin, a Turkey-fringed reggae-lite track which is as bad an idea as that sounds. Red Sails, using a pentatonic scale for the hook sounds broadly Asian, but firmly rooted in the German recording studio.
Look Back In Anger is the track that Noel Gallagher ingeniously managed to add a ‘Don’t’ to the front of, making a mega-hit. That shouldn’t necessarily be held against it however, since it and Boys Keep Swinging are two of the best on the album.
Lodger reminds me a lot of The Beatles’s White Album. It’s all over the place, and as such responds well to revisiting. It’s like cocaine had been holding back hundreds of ideas that spew forth into this album. They don’t quite hold together, some don’t quite work, but the journey is fascinating.
14. Earthling (1997)
If I’m honest, I didn’t really expect this album to do all that well in my listing. My memory of it was that it was a failed attempt in Bowie doing drum and bass with not a lot else going for it. In fact, the opener Little Wonder has a drum and bass driven verse, but the chorus is pretty straight rock. It’s this flirtation with electronica, but with a rock root that’s often successful.
It was recorded off the back of the Outside tour, with Bowie’s touring band from that time. The drum and bass beats were fast sequenced beats rather than sped-up samples generally found in drum and bass tracks. The rest of the album is pretty similar – it’s made up of sounds from studio instruments, but then cut up, sampled, and reconstructed.
Broadly, it works well. As mentioned above, the strong opener Little Wonder has an aggressive, driving chorus. Seven Years In Tibet is the song of a meandering traveller looking for truth and it descends into a another fractured, angry chorus. Dead Man Walking plays with drum and bass beats again, but underneath it all is a conventional Bowie song, but a good one. I’m Afraid of Americans, a track that’s a rare moment of Bowie just saying something he felt pretty openly, doesn’t sound at its best on this album, but was wonderful live.
Overall, this drum and guitar-driven, aggressive album reflects the late-90s lad culture at the time it was created. It’s not very deep, and it’s not really very challenging, but it’s a fun experiment that pretty much works and deserves some attention.
13. David Bowie (Space Oddity) (1969)
This is where the Bowie most of us would recognise really starts. Space Oddity was his break-out hit (excluding, as we should, The Laughing Gnome), reacting to Kubrick’s 2001 a couple of years earlier, and fascination with space that the 1969 moon landing had created. It also makes the Stylophone sound like a plausible music instrument which itself is quite an achievement.
This album has a lot else to enjoy outside its opener however. Letter to Hermione, an ode to Bowie’s ex, Hermione Farthingale is touching. The sprawling Cygnet Committee sees Bowie adopting a the persona of a strange cult-like figure presaging future characters and Memory of a Free Festival has a wonderful coda, nodding to Hey Jude.
Unlike the first ‘David Bowie’ album, this feels like Bowie embarking on the recognisable path he will come to follow across future decades. He still has the folk leanings where his career started, but the first album’s music hall experiments are behind him and the artist darting in and out of characters, exploring space and dropping wonderful memorable choruses is there for all to hear.
12. Aladdin Sane (1973)
In many ways this album is great. It has probably the best, most iconic, album covers of Bowie’s (or anyone else’s) career. Musically it’s strong, acting as a sequel to Ziggy Stardust. However, it’s the latter comparison that is its biggest issue. It’s just not as good as Ziggy Stardust.
It’s a little unfair to judge it by saying it’s not as good as one of Bowie’s greatest albums, but because the music and iconography is so similar, the comparison keeps bubbling up. Bowie said this was the first time he had a hatchet job of a review, which seems entirely undeserved, but a reviewer waiting for the record that follows Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory is going to have had high demands.
There are some great tracks to enjoy, though. Watch That Man is a splendid explosive opener with glam backing singing. Drive in Saturday is a 1970s doo-wop rock song with a nostalgic 1950s sound and story. Time feels like a bad trip – the sound of a life falling apart. The Jean Genie is one of Bowie’s most famous tracks (although not a particular favourite of mine) and even the cover of the Stones’s Let’s Spend The Night Together is fine.
So it’s iconic, a handful of exciting tracks and it’s fun and from a great time in Bowie’s career. But to my ears, it doesn’t quite slip into greatness as the albums to come do. It’s strong but not perfect.
11. The Next Day (2013)
Bowie went on what looked to be a permanent hiatus in 2003 following a huge tour for the Reality album in which he’d had some serious heart trouble. Bowie settled down in New York, lived across the road from Moby and no-one really expected to hear much from him again.
So when he dropped this album in 2013 with absolutely no warning (even his own record company’s PR department didn’t know the album was coming) it was a shock to all concerned. Bowie had managed to record a complete album across two years (with three months of actual recording), with Tony Visconti and various other contributors, and no-one knew.
What was, perhaps, even more shocking is that this album is outstanding. It was the best album he’d released in thirty years. It’s the album of a star revisiting his career and assessing his place in the modern world “here I am, not quite dying” he shouts in the brutal opener and when he sings “if you can see me, I can see you” it sounds like a plea for people to realise that he’s a human as well as an icon. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die even finishes with Sterling Campbell recreating the drum beat that opens Five Years on Ziggy Stardust.
The most touching moment is the first single Where Are We Now? referencing Bowie’s Berlin home in Potsdamer Platz, a callback also referenced in the cover, which is the “Heroes” with a white board on it. Bowie, as ever, playing with his own image and iconography.
Amongst all of this assured, wonderful music, though, this is the first time that Bowie sounded old. Not out of date, indeed, this feels more of the moment than much of his post-1980s output. But he sounds like an older man. He sounds like a man looking back over a career rather than crafting a new direction. Little did we know in 2013 how little of this career was left.
10. Diamond Dogs (1974)
In the preparation for writing this, I asked a lot of people what their favourite Bowie album was. Diamond Dogs came up much more than I expected. Not because I dislike it – to the contrary, I think it’s great – it’s just that I also think it’s a bit of a mess that struggles to hold itself together.
Like many Bowie albums, its inception doesn’t entirely match up with end result. Following Pinups, Bowie was keen to put on a theatrical version of George Orwell’s 1984. However, the author’s estate said no, so the second half of the album is made up of songs that would have been part of that production.
The first half, and especially the opening spoken-word track Future Legend, sets a scene for a post-apocalyptic world that almost manages to hold the album together, but doesn’t quite achieve an album that coheres.
All my quibbles aside though, there’s some excellent material on this album. It continues (and broadly polishes off) Bowie’s glam era with some great glam tracks. Diamond Dogs itself is a platform-boot-in-the-face of a song which bridges glam to punk – Bowie himself saw the Diamond Dogs as “all little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses really”. 1984 sounds exactly like it’s come from a stage show (as indeed it did) but is wonderful and has R&B overtones that Young Americans will expand on. Rebel Rebel is a storming track – there’s never a bad time to hear that guitar riff kick in but I’m not convinced it feels at home here.
So it’s a great, enjoyable part of the catalogue that shows that some of Bowie’s failures are better than most artist’s greatest works.
9. Young Americans (1975)
Now we’re in the realm of albums that I love, almost without qualification. It’s worth stepping back, though, and considering that at this stage in his career, Bowie was already a rock star. He’d had a series of successful albums, and made a career as a space-alien in make-up producing vital glam rock tracks. And at this stage, Bowie throws all this up in the air, brings in a relative unknown, Luther Vandross, and releases an R&B album.
This shouldn’t work. In other hands it would be a terrible, unmentionable album. But Bowie could towards a new genre and create something comparable with anything from the time.
The Village Voice might have called this album “almost a total failure” but listening to it now, it’s surprising how great it sounds. The title track is such a classic R&B track that it’s a surprise it wasn’t always part of the canon. Win forces a catchy pop song out of the mostly unlikely of hooks, and never has shallow consumerism sounded so funky than in Fame . And with John Lennon on backing vocals no less.
But that aside, this is the first of the truly classic albums. A joy.
8. Let’s Dance (1983)
There’s a few Bowie fans who would dispute my positioning of this album so high. I understand that, since this album charts the transition of Bowie from challenging rock star to pop megastar. Bowie asked Nile Rodgers to produce this album with the aim of having a massive hit, in the process snubbing regular producer Tony Visconti (who wouldn’t return until 2002’s Heathen).
To me, though, Bowie and Rodgers deliver a perfect pop album. They show that Bowie could always have created commercial pop music, he just chose not to for the first decade he worked. The moment he turned his hand to it, he crafted pure, sparkling, pop.
This album, drenched in horn sections, storming bass-lines and choruses designed be sung by stadium audience worldwide. The second half of the album never quite matches the opening of Modern Love / China Girl / Let’s Dance / Without You. But then that run of songs competes with any album for the best first side.
The real downside of this album is that it effectively broke Bowie. Its amazing success (it sold 11m copies) meant that Bowie spent most of the next decade trying to imagine what this new audience would want, and in the process put out a series of mediocre, over-produced albums (see above). But that doesn’t mean that this album isn’t brilliant. As well as showing off Bowie’s songwriting skills, it also shows that Nile Rodgers is one of the best pop producers around. The meeting of these two geniuses, in an album that’s relentlessly fun, deserves its place high in Bowie’s canon.
7. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)
When Bowie was going through his fallow period (which for me lasts from the early 1980s to late 1990s), many would call each new album that didn’t seem quite so bad “his best since 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”. Personally, I think this is rather unfair to 1983’s Let’s Dance (see above), but nevertheless it’s one of these two albums that draws to a close Bowie’s astonishing period from Hunky Dory that saw him creating album after album that recreated his sound and image with fascinating new artistic statements.
This album also saw Bowie moving in a more commercial direction after the Berlin trilogy, which although critically acclaimed both at the time and subsequently, weren’t what you’d call “pop”. This, on the other hand, was preceded by the massive singles Ashes to Ashes and Fashion. The former of these revisits Major Tom from Space Oddity and had a groundbreaking video featuring Bowie as a clown. It’s a fantastic, iconic video but it despite it being most expensive music video ever made nowadays in places it looks like something you could knock up on an iPhone.
To me though, it’s the songs outside these two lead singles that make this album. The title track is the best of the three singles. The techno drums and Fripp’s persistent guitar low in the mix brings to mind Joy Division (who were in the middle of their flash of fame at this moment). It feels like a song fighting against its the major key, and as such has a beautiful tension.
Similarly, Teenage Wildlife was perhaps too long to be a single, but is one of Bowie’s greatest album tracks. Fripp’s guitar references his work on “Heroes”, and although the lyrics are typically cryptic there are flashes of absolute genius (“as ugly as a teenage millionaire” feels particularly pertinent at the moment). The song feels a bit like Bohemian Rhapsody in having multiple sections, but unlike that song, it holds together and feels like a unified song. When it drops into the chorus it is difficult to avoid shouting along at the top of your voice “I’m not a piece of teenage wildlife”.
Overall, this album is Bowie’s real grower of an album. It sounds great on a first listen, of course, but the more you hear it, the better it gets.
6. Blackstar (2016)
This, Bowie’s last album, released two days before he died is still hard to place in the canon. It’s not just the fact that it’s a complex and sometimes impenetrable work, but it comes with a dose of heavy emotion for any Bowie fan that makes it hard to make any sort of objective assessment.
Despite that, this is one of Bowie’s best albums. It has a new tone and direction, albeit one foreshadowed in The Next Day, but still its own. It leans on jazz a great deal, but like a lot of modern jazz, maintains a rhythmic basis firmly rooted in modern electronica.
The opening track, Blackstar, charting a scene from execution through to resurrection (or replacement) clearly leans on Christian iconography, whilst also suggesting that Bowie himself is going to be replaced, while his ‘Blackstar’ image is handed on. As though he’s giving his nod to the next generation of artists (while also comparing himself to Jesus – Bowie’s never really been known for his retiring understatement or modesty). It’s even become part of the Bowie / Kanye West conspiracy theory which can bring some light relief to a dark album
Continuing the religious iconography, in Lazarus Bowie sings “I’ll be free, just like that bluebird, I’ll be free, ain’t that just like me”. This way of speaking clearly refers to the death Bowie knew was imminent, but also echoes the refrain of slave songs and gospel.
This and more points to Blackstar as a complex piece of work, even for Bowie. Meaning upon meaning is layered into the lyrics, and it’s backed with some of the least-accessible of Bowie’s music. Not to say it’s not brilliant, it is, but it’s not a tune that gets stuck in your head. It doesn’t sound like the artist of Let’s Dance.
Perhaps the least cryptic of all of the songs gives a reason as to why others are so difficult to understand. I Can’t Give Anything Away is almost an apologia for Bowie’s entire career, and even here he’s purposefully contradictory. Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no and meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent / I can’t give everything away. He’s saying, in his final statement, that the point is that you’re not supposed to understand all of his creations. They are not a series of puzzles to be solved. Their power stems from their mystery. In this Bowie seems to be saying his art is like his forthcoming death – ultimately unknowable.
5. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972)
Hunky Dory is where Bowie the musician we recognise starts, but Ziggy Stardust is the album where Bowie the icon starts. With his short red spiky hair, make up and range of alien outfits to every occasion, from this album on, Bowie was Bowie. The boldness of releasing an album as an androgynous extraterrestrial messenger, then touring it in costume was such a huge step on for glam music that it prompted anger then resignation from Mark Bolan who realised the crown had been snatched out of his hand permanently.
It’s worth noting how quickly this came on the heels of Hunky Dory. Bowie released these albums within 6 months of each other. He was moving at an incredible pace in that first decade of work.
Five Years, which ranks amongst the greatest album openers ever. Not only is it a splendid tune, but a song about the news that earth was to die in five years is fascinating, and delivered with amazing pathos.
Starman is amongst Bowie’s greatest songs. The image of Bowie as Ziggy sharing a microphone with Mick Ronson on Top of the Tops is the introduction to Bowie for a large number of British people.
Suffragette Citywas my main introduction to Bowie. I’d heard a few hits before of course, but when, as a teenager I first heard Bowie shout “wham bam, thank you mam!” in the middle of what feels like the dictionary definition of a rock and roll song, I remember the smile growing across my face and immediately putting the song on again and again.
Altogether, although it’s a relatively loose concept album, as a work of art it holds together perfectly. It ebbs, flows, but nothing could be changed or moved. The journey from the apocalypse of Five Years to Rock and Roll Suicide is set in stone. Changing it would be like reframing the Mona Lisa.
4. Hunky Dory (1971)
When I asked lots of people on Twitter what their favourite Bowie album was, this was the one that came up time and time again. It’s the album where Bowie set out his stall. Life On Mars and Changes are two of his best songs. Most of all though, it’s just a great pop album. It’s fun, packed with great tunes and it’s an album I never tire of.
Changes and Life on Mars aside, Oh You Pretty Things has a great singalong chorus, Kooks wouldn’t have been entirely out of place on Bowies debut album of music hall songs, but it’s much more assured, and with a beautiful string part playing against a touching love song.
At this early stage in his career, Bowie is still somewhat of a fan (rather than the object of adoration he would become). As such, Andy Warhol speaks of his love for the artist (Warhol himself, in a rather uncomfortable encounter in The Factory, made it abundantly clear he hated the track) and Song For Bob Dylan is an ode to the folk singer done in the style of the artist himself. Bowie later said that this track was him saying that if Dylan didn’t want to make the rock Bowie wanted then he’d do it. He said it “represented for me what the album was all about. If there wasn’t someone who was going to use rock ‘n’ roll, then I’d do it.”
And this is what make Hunky Dory so bold an album. Bowie glanced across the rock landscape, couldn’t see a band doing the combination of folk, rock, glam and pop, and just did it himself. There’s much less here that’s got the arch knowingness that later Bowie can have. It’s a young man, full of confidence, throwing down the gauntlet to a generation.
3. Low (1977)
I have a particular interest in 1977. It’s always seemed to be the confluence of multiple artistic streams. It’s the year that punk and disco hit the mainstream. It’s the year of Star Wars. And it’s the year that Bowie released two seminal albums.
In 1977 Bowie’s cocaine consumption had reached a point that was even concerning Bowie himself. Bowie moved to West Berlin to clean himself up. Although this is the first of what’s known as the “Berlin Trilogy” (named by Tony Visconti, consisting of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger) it was actually primarily recorded in France. However, it’s a useful name because all three albums share various features. Firstly, they chart Bowie’s move away from cocaine, secondly, they’re all collaborations with Brian Eno, and thirdly, they share a certain soundscape. The first two contain a number of instrumentals, but over and above this, there’s a sort of messy perfection that brings all three together. Layers and layers of strange guitar sounds, synthesisers and flamboyant drums and bass somehow manage to hold themselves together as a sound that works better than any level of polish ever could.
It’s interesting comparing these best albums, therefore, with those at the other end of the scale. It’s an album like Low that shows precisely what I mean by some previous albums being over-produced. Here, drums are sometimes slightly off-beat, weird noises drift in and out of the mix, guitars scream and wail, and yet everything works so much better than later albums where technical studio prowess creates something cold and uninteresting.
Sound and Vision is probably the most famous song on Low, but it’s not particularly representative. It has elements that are found in other Low songs (like the weird, synthesised “tss” noise driving through the beat), and the fact the main vocal kicks in only half way through is a sign of something that’s not quite like a ‘normal’ pop song.
Compare this, however, to the synth-led Warszawa, which captures the essentially doom-laded tone of the rest of the album. It’s dark and disturbing, ominous and yet calming and hypnotic. It owes a lot to Eno (and foreshadows some his later ambient works), but it sounds like nothing ether Bowie or Eno had created before. As the song progresses, Bowie’s own chanting gives the song a religious air that seems to capture the tone of multiple religions. It’s beautiful and astonishing.
Like Ziggy Stardust before it, Low holds together well as a singular artwork. This time the theme holding the album together is depression, the fight against addiction, but also the redeeming power of music. It’s certainly an album that lives up (down?) to its title of Low, but it’s the sound of a man putting his exploration of the depths into creating something magnificent.
2. “Heroes” (1977)
It’s part two of the Berlin trilogy that appeals to me most of all. It’s part of a process that will be familiar to any addict going through recovery. Station to Station marks the end of the high (more on that later), Low is the realisation that something needs to be done, coming to terms with the havoc that’s been wreaked around you: a mixture of self-loathing and desperation. “Heroes” though is the sound of what addicts call the ‘pink cloud of happiness’. It’s a moment of clarity as your head clears and you suddenly see the world as it is for the first time in years. And it’s beautiful and overwhelming: sublime.
This feeling is best encapsulated in the title track of the album, which I read as a love affair between two addicts. The ‘just for one day’ echos the ‘just for today’ that many recovery programmes focus on (i.e. you don’t need to think about being clean of drugs forever, just work on being clean today). That feeling of elation is the feeling of being a hero. However, there’s the ever present darkness (“We’re nothing and nothing will help us”). This brings to the fore why the title is put in quote marks. They’re not real heroes, they’re “Heroes”, in their minds, fleetingly. This moment of joy will pass.
Elsewhere, Beauty and the Beast is an Eno-led explosion (it bears a great deal of similarity to Eno’s Kings Lead Hat released the same year) but lyrically is about the Jekyll and Hyde character of addiction. Moss Garden, is the peaceful, controlled side of that duality – the moments of peace appearing from a troubled mind.
There’s a lot more going on with “Heroes” of course, and addiction recovery is one single reading. There’s much to talk about in its relation to Kraftwerk and the Berlin sound (it’s the only one of the Berlin trilogy to actually be completed end to end in Berlin). It’s a deep and complex album that deserves regular listens to enjoy, making it almost the greatest work that Bowie has made…
1. Station to Station (1976)
As I’ve noted above, there’s good reason for treating Station to Station as the introduction to the Berlin trilogy. It was an album produced when Bowie was so far into the depth of his cocaine addiction that he didn’t remember creating it. When he recovered, he claimed that he listened to it much as we did – as an artwork he had no memory of playing any part in. However, it’s almost equally as dark as Low.
It’s the time of Bowie’s Thin White Duke character, referenced in the title track. A character that Bowie himself called “a nasty character indeed”. It’s a time that Bowie played with fascist iconography, including a controversy on a return to the UK where he was caught in a wave, looking like a fascist salute.
This set up is one of the things that makes the album so fascinating. Bowie so high on his “astronomical” use of cocaine that he doesn’t remember creating a theatrical fascist for a year. There’s nothing about this album that should be good. It should be a terrible mess.
But it’s not. It’s powerful and intense, disturbing and dark (much darker than Low, to my ears because it comes with a lack of insight or acceptance). It’s sublimely beautiful in places, and every song is a masterpiece reflecting all of his career to date (and showing elements to come).
Station to Station, introducing the Thin White Duke, (referencing “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine” – who are you trying to kid, David) grows from nothing into a multi-part soul song, with the repeated shout “it’s too late”. Because it is too late. This is Bowie’s realisation that his current position is untenable.
Golden Years is a nostalgic tune looking back on when things were better, or perhaps on the protection from emotion that the drugs could give – “nothing’s going to hurt you in these golden years”, where Word On A Wing is a plea to god to get him out of this torment (“Lord I kneel and offer you my word on a wing”).
Stay is a plea to those people who won’t. It’s a confused man watching all those around him leave as he pushes them away. Then, all too soon, we’re on the final track, a cover of Wild Is The Wind. As I’ve said, a lot, I have mixed feelings about many of Bowie’s covers. This, however, is one of Bowie’s greatest ever songs. Haunted and lost, this feels like Bowie’s deepest plea for help. It’s beautiful.
Station to Station is a masterwork, but it’s the sound of a man falling apart. It’s the soulful reflection of a world that cannot continue, and it’s sublime.