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  • Counting Down: David Bowie

Here, let’s play a game. Try to imagine David Bowie’s entire career as a single line (it’s a long line). Our line follows him from song to song, album to album, through every character he’s ever created, every look he’s stumbled onto, or invented, or borrowed, every musical style he’s played. From glam to folk, dance to rock and roll, heavy metal, musical theater, art-rock, soul, electronica, industrial, ambient, all of it. Try and imagine that line drawn on the wall in front of you — every hard turn, sloping curve, and dead stop. Think of all the times it doubles back to retrace the same surface only to spin off in some new, unexplored direction. I can barely wrap my head around it. (Since we’re being cute, the line probably looks like this.

Artistic left-turns aren’t all that uncommon, certainly not in rock and roll. One trend dries up, move along to the next. Change till it works. Reinvention can get you through the hard times, reverse your fortunes, keep your audience guessing. Hell, you can vanish for a decade and come back as someone else — and why not?

Like some kind of androgynous, musically gifted embodiment of that old Heraclitus quote — the only constant is change — Bowie built his life and art around the notion of reinvention. His approach to music was that of an actor taking on a role, a parallel he’d draw numerous times throughout his career (most plainly when crediting himself as “the actor” on the back cover of Hunky Dory). Not to mention that he actually was an actor, in movies and such, but you know that. As he developed his craft he took to creating characters for himself — separate, deliberate personas he could slip into in order to explore new worlds of his own creation, and he did so with the whole world watching, time after time, again and again. Ch-ch-ch-changes.

He came to us Davy Jones, fresh from his mum’s apron in South London, rambunctious and itching to make it as a singer or an actor or any which way, but that name was already taken. He lifted the surname of some dead, knife-wielding American and wrote songs about hungry men and laughing gnomes, but no one was paying attention so he grew out his hair and told us all about Major Tom. Ziggy and Aladdin were just around the corner. With every album came something new and strange and fascinating, and he kept right on going until 2003, with the release of Reality, when he seemed to fall off the face of the earth. Ten years later: He’s back with a new album, released just last week.

Bowie’s catalog is fucking enormous. I’m swearing for emphasis because, Jesus fucking Christ, what was I thinking taking this on? Wikipedia says he has 25 studio albums, and I’ll take their word for it. Plus Tin Machine … it never ends. Bowie has kept himself busy over the years. We’ll skip over the live albums because most of the material is redundant, and, sorry, Labyrinth isn’t on here because Bowie only contributed a handful of songs. But you can go watch “Magic Dance,” if you’re so inclined. I won’t bore you with more backstory before we dive in because we’re about to relive it all — album by album, in graphic detail, turn by left-turn. These are the albums of David Bowie in order of quality, arranged from worst to best. (For a fantastic chronological walkthrough of Bowie’s career — at least up through Let’s Dance — read Bill Wyman’s recent New York Magazine article .)

Start the Countdown here.

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Comments (80)
  1. Diamond Dogs is easily a top 5 album. Other than that, I can get on board with this list, although there is a lot to sort through before getting to the meat and potatoes of it all. I was really worried there was going to be a purposely ill-placed Ziggy Stardust, just to stoke the fire a bit. But worried is a relative term here.

    Is this the longest Albums from Worst to Best list yet? Can’t wait until you guys try to tackle Neil Young or Frank Zappa.

  2. Labyrinth Soundtrack for real.

  3. Great list. Kudos for even trying to take on this huge task. A lot of work clearly went into this.
    Now to read it all.

  4. Swap Scary Monsters and Heroes, push up Next Day, and you’ve got a solid list (although this list is already pretty solid)

  5. one instance where i’ve got to give it up to stereogum, regardless of album rank: you dudes did your homework, and the writing is great

    one of the best days of my life several years ago was rooting through a garage sale’s box of lps and finding, amongst other treasures, a pristine copy of ziggy for a dollar – can’t disagree with its placement here

  6. Low! Hands down my favorite Bowie album, and I love seeing it get its due (even though I prefer it to Ziggy, I can’t argue with the swap of my personal top two).

  7. *david bowie* ranked way too high. *Heathen* ranked way too low (come on, you actually believe that pile of crap *Black Tie White Noise* is better?)

    *Space Oddity* is a bore and ranked too high. It’s not nearly as good as *The Next Day*, for example.

    *Lodger* doesn’t get the respect it deserves, which has become predictable at this point.

    *Ziggy Stardust& as #1. LMAO – no chance. It’s a bunch of great songs, but to even pretend it’s superior to Low, Station, Lodger, Scary, Heroes, Hunky Dory, and Aladdin Sane is absurd.

    1. Low
    2. Hunky Dory
    3. Station to Station
    4. Lodger
    5. Aladdin Sane
    6. Scary Monsters
    7. Heroes
    8. Ziggy Stardust
    9. Young Americans
    10. The Next Day
    11. Heathen
    12. Let’s Dance
    13. Diamond Dogs
    14. Reality
    15. Outside
    16. The Man Who Sold the World
    17. Earthling
    18. Space Oddity
    19. Tin Machine II
    20. Hours
    21. Tin Machine
    22. Pin Ups
    23. Black Tie White Noise
    24. Never Let Me Down
    25. Tonight
    26. David Bowie

    no idea where to place Buddha, because I’ve only listened to it once.

  8. What’s the point?

  9. I have never listened to a single Bowie album (except for The Next Day) after Lets Dance because I had an understanding that those albums were awful. This list confirmed that for me.

    My five favourite in no order:

    Station to Station
    Low
    Hunky Dory
    “Heroes”
    Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)

    • LOL – a list made by someone other than you confirmed what your opinion is. Not too bright, are you?

    • Aaron Cunningham  |   Posted on Mar 22nd, 2013 0

      That’s a really brilliant way to appreciate an artist’s work:

      Develop “an understanding” of their career after a certain point.
      Don’t listen to any of their work after that point.
      Let the writing of someone you don’t know confirm the “understanding” you developed without actually experiencing it yourself.

      Your idea of “understanding” is… interesting.

      • So I’m guessing you two wasted many hours listening to the shitty David Bowie albums. I like to listen to any album as much as the next person, but with so much music in this world, do I really need to spend any time with music that everyone hates? Let’s take Frank Zappa. There is no way in hell I am going to listen to all the music he released. So I will see which of his albums are critically acclaimed and make a judgement. By the way, I hate Frank Zappa; just trying to make a point.

  10. Why are Tin Machine albums considered Bowie albums? I always considered Tin Machine its own entity for exactly the reasons described in the write up. Not that I’m hung up on it or anything, just curious.

  11. I realize not a lot of time has passed to put The Next Day in perspective. But it’s GOTTA be better than Let’s Dance! right? Plus, I could go on at length about how Diamond Dogs is better than Young Americans.

    other than that bitchy-ness, great, well-written piece! (oh, and Ziggy isn’t no. 1; no way, no how)

    • I know it’s still of-the-moment, but The Next Day really IS the best thing he’s done since Scary Monsters, better by far than Let’s Dance. I don’t want to rewrite this list, but the songs on The Next Day actually stick. I have generally admired his stuff from the mid-90′s through Reality but I have never compulsively played any of those releases over and over as I have been doing with his new one, I would definitely put this above even Young Americans and Space Oddity/David Bowie (the title song notwithstanding).

  12. ARRRRRRRRRGH THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT THIS LIST THAT UPSETS ME BUT RATHER THAN ELUCIDATE WHAT IT IS I’M GOING TO POST A PITHY PRETENTIOUS DISMISSAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. For me Scary Monsters is #2, but awesome list

  14. Picking apart specific placement of albums seems pointless. Every album in the Top 10 is spot on. Sure you could argue a placement here or there, but for someone who is looking to get into Bowie, I would definitely recommend every one of those ten albums.

    Aladdin Sane is my personal number 1.

    Ziggy at number 1 is fine, “Rock & Roll Suicide” is a legendary closer.

    Glad to see Hunky Dory in the Top 5.

    Nice work Aaron! Also props for putting The Next Day high up on the list. I’m loving that album!!

  15. There is Low, and then there’s every other Bowie album.

    • But seriously, I think Bowie preference will break down into two camps when regarding his albums: fans of traditional rock music vs. fans of art rock, avant garde, electronic music, etc. The former will gravitate towards his glam period, as shown in the love for Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and Hunky Dory, while the latter will talk up his Berlin era work. Neither is necessarily right, but both will try to claim so. I think it’s more about your general outlook on music because Bowie’s catalog encapsulates such a wide range of styles and ideas.

  16. Solid, solid list. My personal favorites are “Heroes” and Young Americans, but Bowie’s catalog is so ginormous and diverse that everyone ends up with their own personal (and totally valid) favorite.

  17. odd there is no mention of the Pixies cover on Heathen…

    My biggest complaint with all these list is how incredibly inconsistent the criteria is…. Sometimes soundtracks are included, sometimes they aren’t (Bjork). Sometimes we even get compilations (Smiths). In Bowie’s case we get one soundtrack that is basically unknown and you ignore a soundtrack that is a touchstone for most 80′s kids, ridiculous.

    • Criteria for inclusion can get tricky when the catalog is this messy. I didn’t include Labyrinth because Bowie wrote less than half the tracks (4 of 10, plus lyrics on a fifth), and the rest is straight soundtrack work by Trevor Jones. It was a judgment call, and I’d be lying if I said exhaustion/laziness after writing 26 other blurbs wasn’t a factor. Bowie’s contributed to a million soundtracks and this one didn’t seem enough like a proper Bowie “album” (maybe an EP) to include here. Buddha of Suburbia, on the other hand, was an actual album. Most of the material is based off the soundtrack contributions he made to the mini-series, but every track was reworked and expanded to create a concrete album, and he wrote the entire thing. There’s a certain contingent of fans who adore this thing, most likely because Bowie himself seems so fond of it, but I don’t really get the appeal beyond it’s status as “most obscure”.

  18. Top 10:
    1. Low
    2. Hunky Dory
    3. Ziggy
    4. Aladdin Sane
    5. Heroes
    6. Scary Monsters
    7. Station to Station
    8. Diamond Dogs
    9. Space Oddity
    10. Let’s Dance / Young Americans

  19. I would have placed Buddha of Suburbia higher – somewhere in the middle, maybe. This album might not have been the absolute sheerest of genius, but after years of bloated drek, it let us know Ziggy finally got his groove back. Kind of an important announcement. And while I too would have listed Tonight near the bottom of the pile, I don’t think it deserves the level of scorn this write-up has given it. Oh, it deserves scorn aplenty, don’t get me wrong – but I would throw it the few crumbs of compassion this article instead afforded Never Let Me Down, which in my opinion is Turd City, population: poop. Also would have liked to have seen some leniency for the 90s output. No, they weren’t sublime masterpieces, and they might even be slightly overrated, but they’re a universe more salvageable than anything he did post-Let’s Dance and pre-Buddha of Suburbia. Can’t argue with the top two picks in this list. Low and Ziggy are pure gold. Still don’t know where I’d place The Next Day, other than to say I sure do enjoy it.

  20. Very informative list. Thanks for the work. I think you’ll find less argument over it, because how many people have listened to his entire discography?

  21. I just realised how much crap I can let out without getting a downvote! for example I can start my comment with something completely else than what I think of the list

    fuckers!

    I like this list – I have listened more to heroes than low, so maybe I would switch those two, but there’s is just a damn high amount of good albums in his disocgraphy!

  22. Just me then who thinks Diamond Dogs (barring “Rebel Rebel”, of course) is pretty bad?

  23. Is no one going to stand up for Never Let Me Down? I didn’t really get that album until I watched the DVD of the Glass Spider tour. There are some gems on that one if you can look past the production.

  24. Lodger is awfully low.

  25. Good list. I would put Heroes higher and maybe put Hunky Dory at #2, but I still agree with most of it.

  26. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been listening to it so much lately but I would put The Next Day higher than where it is. And Station to Station is easily #1 for me.

  27. Enjoyable read – thanks for writing. I’ve been binging on the Bowie albums I have, but this has compelled me to check out four or five other well-known albums of his that I don’t have. Fun times ahead.

  28. Fantastic. There’s a lot of nice things to be said about how well this list was put together but I’ll just that it’s clear that a lot of love went into it. I don’t necessarily agree with where everything is ranked but it looks pretty decent and you even managed to get the top five right, if not necessarily in the right order.

  29. Can’t disagree with much here. Never paid much attention to anything after Let’s Dance, so I’ll take your word for that stuff.

    You kind of gave short shrift to one of Bowie’s best tunes, the title track from Station to Station. That song has one of the funkiest grooves of all time. Still surprised that a hip-hop producer hasn’t yet appropriated it.

    • My favourite album is Station to Station but the above is a really good list! Because this is Stereogum I thought you guys would do something annoyingly contentious like put Next Day in the top 5 or something.

  30. Bravo! I’m a Lodger man myself and would have loved to see it in the top ten, but beyond that, no quibbles. This was quite a task and you really rose to the occasion. Excellent piece.

  31. I did not really know D. Bowie, until I discovered him with “Space Oddity” (1969) that I found on AURFEE.

    He is a very good and gifted musician !

  32. Top five DB albums is always a matter of preference, as they are all equally perfect, but to not put “Heroes” in there somewhere is fucking sacrilege. It’s the yin to Low’s yang. It’s the Amnesiac to Low’s Kid A. It’s got the song ‘Heroes’ on it.

  33. Further evidence that Aaron is the best at making these lists.

  34. I would argue with this list until the rooster crows.

    First of all Aladdin Sane is #6 best Bowie album? I’m pretty sure Bowie himself would laugh. It’s definitely one of his worst, and only gets as much love as it does because of all the it followed Ziggy and still has the Spiders playing.

    But to put “Heroes” after Aladdin Sane at #7 is unforgivable.

    Never Let Me Down is probably his worst album, not Tonight. I actually enjoy the atmosphere on Tonight, which was obviously inspired by his Let’s Dance tour of Southeast Asia and early 60s Big Band. It’s actually an interesting album for Bowie.

    Both Heathen and Outside belong in the top half of the list. Totally underrated albums.

    • Top 5 most underrated Bowie albums (I know they were all in the top fifteen above but you always hear people talking smack about them in a way no one ever does about say Hunky Dory or Scary Monsters):

      1. Aladdin Sane
      2. Lodger
      3. Diamond Dogs
      4. Young Americans
      5. Let’s Dance

      • You read my mind, I’d like to include Space Oddity if i have a chance to.

      • I agree with 4 out of the 5. But Aladdin Sane is the one pre-EMI album that falls to the bottom of my list every time. It is Bowie’s “Rattle and Hum” – that is, rock star(s) crosses the Atlantic to memorialize the conquering of America and reflecting on the experience, but apparently not being particularly inspired enough to write great songs or let them mature into great songs, then rushing the production in the studio.

  35. It’s amazing how good The Next Day is.

  36. I love it when Justin Bieber stares at me while I read Stereogum

  37. This is actually pretty spot on, I think. I agree that Ziggy is his best album and that most people won’t pick it because it’s too obvious of a choice. Hunky Dory would have been #3 for me, but we can’t all agree on everything

  38. The Deram David Bowie album is awesome. Every song is a gem. Space Oddity is much more than the title track; Aladdin Sane is the album that isn’t much more than the title track (except for Jean Genie). Station to Station is wildly overrated; I can never fathom the love for it as it is one of his weakest of the seventies to my ears.

    1. Ziggy
    2. Low
    3. Hunky Dory
    4. Diamond Dogs
    5. The Man Who Sold The World
    6. David Bowie (Deram)
    7. Space Oddity
    8. Scary Monsters
    9. Lodger
    10. Let’s Dance
    11. Heroes
    12. Aladdin Sane
    13. Station To Station

    [Yes, I left out Young Americans because I only know the singles and everything after 1983 because, well...]

  39. What is Aaron Lariviere’s obsession with excrement? Way too many uses of it in this piece. Great writing otherwise.

  40. outstanding listing here. surely the most well-constructed, entertaining stereogum worst-to-best list yet. nailed it.

  41. Have to take issue with #10. The Man Who Sold The World was the album that, for the first time, proved what Bowie was capable of. It is the recorded equivalent of stumbling upon the road sharpened Beatles in Hamburg before finally they blew the minds of a nation on The Ed Sullivan Show.

    It showed that the former Anthony Newly wannabe could reach musical depths formerly unknown. It may be Bowie’s most consistent album bar none and perhaps his biggest leap- going from tree hugging peacenik to malevolent debaucher in a single bound, boldly launching him on his way to rock immortality. This was the beginning of the Bowie we know, creating songs morbid, profane and profound and making them catchy as hell. Peter Murphy, among others, regards TMWSTW as the first Goth record.

    It’s a given that Ziggy has to be #1. But Low doesn’t belong anywhere near #2. Let’s remember that half that album is simply unlistenable. I’ve got Scary Monsters and Hunky Dory battling it out for #2 and #3 and in no particular order after that, Station To Station, Heroes, Aladdin Sane and The Man Who Sold The World. Then Diamond Dogs, Lodger, Let’s Dance, Low and Young Americans (the most dated sounding of Bowie’s 70s releases) rounding out the top 12.

  42. Top 5

    1. Low
    2. Hunky Dory
    3. Ziggy Stardust
    4. The Man Who Sold The World (Black Country Rock!)
    5. Space Oddity/Heroes

    Bottom 4

    1. Black Tie/White Noise (will never play this one again)
    2. Tonight
    3. Never Let Me Down
    4. Earthling

  43. Pin-Ups is a vastly underrated album. Sure, it’s a covers album, but musically is just plain over-the-top glammy goodness. It’s a blast.

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