David Bowie Albums From Worst To Best
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.
UPDATE: Since the publication of this article David Bowie released his final album, ? (Blackstar). You can read our review of it here.
25. Never Let Me Down (1987)Bowie's mid-'80s output is rough going. This album, and the nightmare that was Tonight, are like binary stars of garish awfulness, one orbiting the other in a galaxy of aural diarrhea. But somehow Never Let Me Down has gained the worse reputation of the two, which, to these ears, seems unfair. Sure, it's like comparing the relative worth of a dirty diaper and a dingleberry, but let's go there. I posit that while Tonight is generally worthless, that assessment isn't 100% fair to Never Let Me Down (maybe 96%). Still grossly overproduced, you can hear Bowie fighting to reclaim his voice under the wall of gloss. He assembled an actual band in order to get back to playing rock and roll the right way, and … it's occasionally apparent. There's no way around it: This is still bad Bowie. But unlike the bulk of Tonight ("Loving The Alien" gets a half-hearted pass), this album retains the thinnest filament of Bowie's creative spark -- experiments with vocal delivery yield a few interesting results, and the songs feel more like a stab at actual art than anything Bowie had done since Scary Monsters. "Time Will Crawl" is bearable. If someone threw that on at a party, your head might subconsciously bob a few times before you caught yourself. "Beat Of Your Drum" has something going for it -- what, exactly, is hard to say, but it's not complete garbage. Sadly, there's not much else to recommend. Mickey Rourke pops in to rap over the bridge of "Shining Star (Makin' My Love)," which is funny, but still pretty awful. You can do better, Bowie.
24. The Buddha Of Suburbia (1993)It's debatable if this is an album in the proper sense, but I'll include it for the simple fact that so many Bowie fans hail this thing as a lost classic. Originally written for a BBC adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's novel of the same name, Bowie took his original batch of instrumental themes and expanded them heavily, adding lyrics and depth to the existing arrangements. In a lot of ways an extension of Black Tie White Noise, Buddha meanders, wandering in one direction then another, failing to coalesce into any kind of logical or meaningful whole. Some of the experiments are fun (the title track inches toward alternative rock), others recall glories past ("The Mysteries" and "Ian Fish, UK Heir" hint at the darker instrumentals on Low and Heroes), but most feel like afterthoughts at best. Bowie once proclaimed this his favorite album, but everyone's entitled to a lapse of sanity now and again, right?
23. Tin Machine I & II (1989 / 1991)Tin Machine would prove to be the noble experiment David Bowie desperately needed after half a decade spent in the weeds with Tonight and Never Let Me Down. He still got killed for it, critically and commercially, but it was the beginning of something ever so slightly better. The idea: dispense with the nonsense, trim the fat, cut the shit. This was back to basics rock and roll, possibly intended as a return to form, although Bowie never played much of this stuff, whatever it is, in his younger years. Either way, Tin Machine was intended to be an actual band, where the people playing instruments got to call the shots as much as the guy holding the mic. Whether it actually worked that way, who's to say. But the guitars were sure mixed to the front, and goddamn if there weren't a lot of guitars. Guitarist Reeves Gabrels was left to his own devices —- judging by the tones on display there must have been a lot of devices in use. The effect isn't dissimilar to what Robert Fripp did over Scary Monsters ten years before, except the songs are nowhere near as much fun. And that's the heart of the problem: both Tin Machine albums are similar in the way they blend straightforward rock with ambient guitar noise, but they're both forgettable. Neither is half as bad as the reputation they've gained over the years -- because really, nothing is half as bad as Tonight or Never Let Me Down -- but you won't reach for these often.
22. Hours… (1999)The bulk of Bowie's later material has seen him in a holding pattern in terms of relative quality. Some albums are incrementally better (Reality), some are worse (this one), but they're basically comparable: well-executed, thoughtful but not especially memorable records that are unlikely to blow the minds of anyone besides the most devoted. For shits and giggles I took a look through a pile of Amazon reviews to test my unnamed theory of forgettable consistency: sure enough, virtually every album from Black Tie White Noise onward has exactly 4 stars. (Outside and The Next Day break the mold with 4.5 stars each). In the vaguest sense I suppose this confirms my theory (hooray, validation), but the real takeaway is that Bowie superfans are serious apologists. Not to put too much weight on an arbitrary aggregated review system from an online retailer, but c'mon. Hours… is not a 4-star record. No way, no how. Abandoning the electro-fetishism of Outside and Earthling in favor of organic, straightforward pop-rock circa 1999, the results range from decent to dull, maybe occasionally irritating. Like everything he's done, it has its moments: the drop-tempo crooning that closes "If I'm Dreaming My Life" has a certain something, but it's not enough to erase the first 4 minutes of the song. Meanwhile we get non-gems like "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell," whose title channels the classic Stooges song with a similar name while seemingly copping cybertronic guitar tones from Orgy -- it ain't pretty. According to Wikipedia (blessed Wikipedia), Hours… marks the beginning of Bowie's "Neoclassicist" stage, which may or may not be a real thing, but it sounds right. In the words of one of the 4-star-granting Amazon reviewers, Hours… is "a mature album by a mature man."
21. David Bowie (1967)You could argue Bowie's eponymous debut was a case of hidden embryonic genius if you really felt the need, or you can write it off as a wonky false start by a capital-A Artist who had yet to find his footing. By 1967, David Bowie had already fronted a band, appeared in television commercials, and made the slightest semblance of a name for himself in underground circles as an up-and-coming something-or-other. His first record reflects the fractured nature of his career to date. Rock and roll barely appears, certainly not in any form like he'd pursue later. Instead Bowie comes off as a kind of all-purpose entertainer: a variety act of surprising imagination, rather than the provocateur he'd become in a few short years. So we get quaint little story-songs, the closest reference (at least for most of us) being the more eccentric music-hall moments of Ray Davies or Paul McCartney. Hints of Bowie's later brilliance pop up around the edges, but the songs generally don't stick. Still, it's fun to hear Bowie operating entirely in the realm of the absurd. There may not be many tracks demanding repeat listens, but you're immediately struck by the invention on display, the sense that ideas are being plucked wholesale from the mind of their weird young creator. "We Are Hungry Men" has a few choice lines about "mass abortion" and "infanticide" as solutions to over-population, also marking the first appearance of Bowie's messianic obsession (see: "Saviour Machine," all of Ziggy Stardust). Even at an early stage there was depth behind the slightest material.
20. Heathen (2002)Heathen sometimes gets bandied about as the "strongest" of the post Let's Dance albums (i.e., the best of the worst) -- at least until The Next Day came and we thought it blew our minds. Anyway. The curious thing about Heathen's reception is that it has less to do with the actual record than this imaginary conflation of what the fans were desperately hoping for, especially on the heels of Hours…. There's a misconception that this was another Bowie reinvention -- this time as the aging, haunted crooner we see on the album cover: vaguely demonic, wholly sophisticated … and he is, for exactly one song. That song, "Sunday," opens the album on a fantastically moody note, Bowie's rich baritone reveling in the kind of reflective gloom you'd expect from mid-period Scott Walker. The mood is perfectly set … for an album that never actually arrives. "Sunday" is essentially a long intro -- by the time the drums kick in we're probably meant to get excited to hear the whole band bashing out awkward turn-of-the-century alt-rock. But the rock rarely sticks. Stripped down arrangements with quirky guitars on top, it comes off simplistic rather than simple, watery melodies adrift over stiff, stock rhythms. But when things slow down again, as they do on "Slip Away," the somber, darker album we wish this was begins to write itself in our heads. Alas, only in dreams.
19. Black Tie White Noise (1993)Ah, the power of reinvention. Bowie knows it better than anyone. After Tin Machine tanked, Bowie took a new tack, ditching rock and roll along with that ridiculous notion of being in an actual "band." Black Tie White Noise dove back into the experimental, the arty, and the strange … and it worked. Setting the tone for much of his later career, the Bowie of Black Tie was dignified, reserved, and thoughtful — an elder statesman making a late-game appearance, ducking in to see what the kids are up to and realizing there's still something left to say. The record itself is an odd mix of soulful dance, restrained hip-hop, and light funk wrapped up in an electronic dressing all its own -- though it can't quite avoid the dreaded adult-contemporary tag, either. It's a dense, groove-based album that, while far from immediate, rewards repeat listens due to the complexity of the layered arrangements. Sure, the hooks of latter-day Bowie rarely equal those of his classics, but there's plenty to enjoy here, such as this excellent Scott Walker cover, "Nite Flights."
18. Pin Ups (1973)The only one of Bowie's '70s records you can safely call 'inessential,' Pin Ups was the last recording to feature the lineup we all know as the Spiders from Mars -- though it doesn't feature any original songs. Instead we get a dozen covers of mid-'60s Britpop bands, including stuff by the Yardbirds, the Who, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Them, and the Kinks. For what it is, it's quite good -- the album feels stuck out of time, even coming on the heels of the mind-expanding weirdness of Aladdin Sane. By this stage the Spiders were as tight and destructive as they'd ever be; years together on stage had fused them into a rock and roll wrecking ball. Rather than glamming up the covers, Bowie went lean and mean, grafting pop songs onto a proto-punk stomp. You have to wonder if time spent with Iggy Pop was rubbing off on him (the two of them recorded the seminal Raw Power a year prior), or maybe Bowie was just itching for something new. It wouldn't be the first time. (Or the last.)
17. Earthling (1997)"You know, that shitty techno record." Thus spoke a friend of mine, offhandedly besmirching a weird little record that doesn't necessarily deserve half the hate it gets. Sure, the opening strains of "Little Wonder" sound an awful lot like the Prodigy. Yes, surgically transplanting a jungle beat onto "Battle for Britain (the Letter)" probably doesn't make it a better song (Mike Garson's piano break at the 3-minute mark does, though). But there's something here. The previous record, Outside, had borrowed from industrial two years earlier; here it's clear Bowie was hitching his cart to the current drum-and-bass trend that had all the kids in a huff -- those crazy kids -- but the core songwriting benefits from the refreshed approach. It also helped to have strong songs to start with. At the time of its release, Bowie described the album by making comparisons to Scary Monsters, and while it's nowhere near as good, he's not entirely off base. Earthling is aggressive, abrasive stuff; texture-forward but still song-based. "Dead Man Walking," "Seven Years in Tibet," and especially "I'm Afraid of Americans" all stand out. "I'm Afraid of Americans" is still divisive amongst fans, but the track succeeds on its own terms. Earthling is nowhere near Bowie's best, but it's a treat to see the old dog show his teeth after all these years.
16. Reality (2003)Ah, David Bowie's last record. Until the new one came out the other day. But way back when, upon its release in 2003, Reality was part of that grand tradition we bestow upon our favorite aging artists, where we trot out the old chestnut: "BEST ALBUM SINCE _____." If all this sounds familiar, it's because just about every capsule review says the same thing about The Next Day, which came out last week. But the new one's actually good … right? Time will tell. Reality doesn't have the reputation for quality that Heathen has somehow gained since its release -- probably because the cover isn't half as cool and only super-fans remember either album anyway -- but at the time, contemporary reviewers were excited. Pitchfork gave it a respectable 7.3 (The Next Day
15. Outside (1995)Nothing if not ambitious, Outside hit at a point when we no longer expected this kind of thing from Bowie. A concept record detailing the anxiety of the approaching millennium -- man, remember that? -- Bowie built a massive mess of a story set in a near-future where murder is committed as an artistic act, and … who knows what else, really. Outside included a short story in the liner notes, and a half-dozen segue tracks are meant to clue us into the plot, but it makes no sense. Fortunately, the good songs are quite good, and the rambling bits don't do too much to get in the way. This was to be the grand reunion between Bowie and former Berlin Trilogy collaborator Brian Eno. Like those earlier records, Outside is cobbled together from far-flung textures, but the influence of modern industrial a la Nine Inch Nails brings a hydraulic stomp to songs like "Hallo Spaceboy," itself a pseudo-return to the tale of our long lost astronaut friend, Major Tom. Avant-garde pianist Mike Garson -- most famous for his work on Aladdin Sane way back when -- pops up after years out of the fold to push the songs even further from the confines of normality. Outside remains a solid record despite some bloat. Fun fact: fans of Paul Verhoeven's science-fiction epic Starship Troopers might remember the in-movie live band playing "I Have Not Been to Paradise," which is actually a re-titled cover of "I Have Not Been to Oxford Town" with altered lyrics. I guess this really was the music of the future.
14. The Next Day (2013)Goddamn, it's good to have him back. After ten hollow years of silence, amid rumors of fading health and never-ending retirement, we get a new album out of the blue, announced on David's 66th birthday. And it's good! Just like Reality, and Heathen before it, it's easily his … wait for it … BEST ALBUM SINCE ______. Though technically that just means he keeps getting better. Listening to these things in sequence (the way you have to when you write monstrously big, horrifying lists like these), it's striking just how similar this sounds to Reality. The press has been making noise about the return of Tony Visconti as if he actually went somewhere, when in fact he produced both Heathen and Reality. The bulk of the Reality lineup also appears here, so not much has changed -- except the man himself. Ten years. The world could have ended twice in that time. The result of all that time away is a certain hyperawareness of self, as if he's thought long and hard on his own career and what he still has to offer -- from the audacity of defacing one of his own album covers (and a classic at that) to the deliberate attempts to recall earlier incarnations, you get the sense Bowie knows what his audience wants after all these years. Spectacularly, magically, who-the-fuck-knows-how: it works. There's enough familiarity in the assemblage of classic Bowie components -- saxophone, fucked guitars, vocals layered just so -- to ease you into a comfortable listening space where the hooks can work their magic. For the first time in ages focus outweighs experimentation, without doing away with inventiveness completely. For every weird thing tried we get a sturdy Motown bass line, or a playful '50s vocal affectation. And we get riffs! "(You Will) Set the World on Fire" reminds us just how long it's been since we've heard Bowie rock properly, as in the old days when classic rock was just rock -- and he does it here. Visconti has been quoted saying a total of 29 tracks were recorded during The Next Day sessions, alluding to the possibility of a quick follow-up later this year. Keep those fingers crossed.
13. David Bowie [aka Man of Words/Man of Music; later reissued as Space Oddity] (1969)The song "Space Oddity" got Bowie up on the radar, and at this point, 44 years later, it's a classic. The melody is so familiar it practically exists outside of time -- it simply is. To listen closely, critically, after not paying close attention for years, I'm struck by the weirdness that permeates the whole thing. Distant drums clatter from around a corner, there's a strumming acoustic and a droning stylophone, while random instruments slide in and out for a few seconds at a time. Bowie's voice comes in doubled, each half of the chorus harmony hard-panned left and right. Through headphones it's disorienting, perfectly psychedelic. Rushed for release in time for the Apollo 11 moon landing, "Space Oddity" became his first UK hit upon its initial release. A few years later it would help him conquer the States. At this point, "Space Oddity" has come to define Bowie's second album to such a degree that hardly anyone still refers to the album by its proper title, which is the second self-titled David Bowie record (the 1973 reissue went and made the name change official). Listening through, it's obvious why. Where "Space Oddity" hits hard with a sticky melody and an inventive if gimmicky arrangement, the rest of the album mixes meandering folk and messy rock and roll. While still a massive leap forward over the first album's goofiness, "Space Oddity" eclipses everything else here by a long shot. That said: true to the title, oddities abound. The elaborate "Cygnet Committee" is weird enough to entertain, and "Memory of a Free Festival" is even more curious: a bright-eyed hippie-dream plays out over an organ until the song falls apart, and Bowie builds a massive chorus out of the repeated refrain: "The sun machine is coming down / And we're gonna have a party." Whether he meant it or not -- with Bowie you can't always tell -- it sure feels like a farewell to the flower-power movement, and an open-armed embrace of a darker world to come.
12. Let's Dance (1983)Let's Dance was a turning point. Not in the usual sense that most Bowie albums up to this point had been (i.e., reinvention leading to new rewards): something fundamental had changed in the intervening three years since Scary Monsters closed out the experimental streak that started in Berlin. For one, this was the longest break between albums yet, though it wasn't due to inactivity on his part. Taking time to star in a Broadway run of The Elephant Man, then a television adaptation of Brecht's Baal (resulting in an EP's worth of songs recorded for the production, David Bowie in Bertold Brecht's BAAL), as well as recording the untouchable Queen collaboration "Under Pressure," and a soundtrack contribution, "Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)," written with composer Giorgio Moroder (basically inventing the later Sisters of Mercy sound in the process). Dude kept busy. Scary Monsters made him a commercial force, and his side ventures kept his star burning bright -- but it was Let's Dance that would shatter the ceiling of worldwide fame and fortune. Attempting to do something different once again, this time marrying blues guitar to dance tracks (with the help of a young fire-breathing shredder named Stevie Ray Vaughan), he stumbled onto the formula for success. Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers took the production reins, delivering songs that were relentlessly clean and forceful, if relatively streamlined. In a certain sense, the record bears a surface resemblance to Young Americans. Unlike that record, all artistic pretensions were set aside: this was squarely pop. Unfortunately, it also comes off a bit lightweight. Naturally the masses ate it up -- Let's Dance is the best-selling Bowie record by a mile. It holds up well for what it is: "Modern Love," "China Girl" (co-written with, and originally recorded by Iggy Pop), and the title track are classics, perfect singles on their own and a hell of a strong opening sequence to the album as a whole. But listening, you never lose the feeling that something important is gone: the sense of risk, the restless exploration, the inherent danger that makes a Bowie record tickle your guts. That Let's Dance proved so successful meant bad, bad things for the records to come. Looking back years later, Bowie reflected, "It was great in its way, but it put me in a real corner in that it fucked with my integrity."
11. Lodger (1979)The bastard child of the Berlin triplets (as in the legendary "Berlin Trilogy" of albums, also including Low and Heroes), Lodger is largely forgotten in the grand scheme of Bowie's classic period, mainly because it feels slight. Slight is an unfair assessment, really, it's just that it came on the back of two mind-blowing albums, and just before the fabulous, revisionist return to form that was Scary Monsters. It's the runt of the litter, if you will. Apparently Bowie and go-to Berlin collaborator Brian Eno's working relationship was beginning to show some cracks -- this would be the last time they'd work together for at least 15 years. Lodger eschews the half-rock/half-instrumental format pioneered on Low and "Heroes"; instead Lodger digs deeper into African rhythms and non-Western scales to indulge its experimental streak. Hearing Bowie bellow "I'm not a moody guy!"over a bit of Turkish reggae on "Yassassin" is certainly weird. Ideas may have been thinning out, as a bit of recycling happens on occasion -- "Red Money" uses the same backing tracks as Iggy Pop's earlier "Sister Midnight" (which, to be fair, was produced and co-written by Bowie). "Red Sails"even digs up that trusty Krautrock staple, the Motorik beat, to keep things rolling forward. It's a propulsive record in general, never succumbing to the moody tendencies of the preceding Berlin records, making it a good companion for a morning jog, if you're into that kind of thing. The best thing about random, lesser Bowie is how consistently fascinating he is, no matter the overall success of an album. Here he was still operating at relative peak power, even if this particular batch of songs was not his best … meaning Lodger is still well worth the price of admission.
10. The Man Who Sold The World (1970)And the band began to assemble. Featuring all but one of the future Spiders from Mars --longtime Bowie conspirator and producer Tony Visconti was still playing bass instead of future-Spider Trevor Bolder -- The Man Who Sold the World dove into heavier, hairier territory than anything Bowie had yet done (or would do). Largely arranged by Visconti and new guitarist Mick Ronson, TMWSTW continued Bowie's trend of massive strides in songwriting between each album -- here he drew on Nietzsche and other literary influences to craft his lyrics, writing songs about supermen, omniscient machines, and his half-brother's ailing mental health. These days, the album is clearly best-remembered for the title track, which most folks of my generation were introduced to via a random acoustic rendition from some long-gone Seattle band. Oddly enough, Bowie's version wasn't a single on its own -- it's buried in the back half of a dense album full of de-centered hard rock -- interesting, then, that Bowie orchestrated his own reinvention for the Scottish singer Lulu a few years later, which became a legitimate hit. The album remains under-appreciated within Bowie's early catalog, but moments of genius are there if you're willing to look. Striking in its simplicity, "After All" turns a minced oath into a haunting refrain over a subdued, sinister waltz. "The Supermen" is based around an actual Jimmy Page riff -- given to Bowie years earlier during the recording of early single "I Pity the Fool" -- and a whole mess of intellectual pseudo-babble: "I was still going through the thing when I was pretending that I understood Nietzsche." That it actually works is proof enough no one sells high-concept like David Bowie.
9. Diamond Dogs (1974)Ziggy was dead. Aladdin came and went. The Spiders from Mars scattered to the winds after Bowie broke up the band onstage at the Hammersmith Odeon in July of '73. Diamond Dogs, then, was one last gasp of glam. In turns messy and garish, and every bit as addled and scatterbrained as Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs kicks off with an apocalyptic rant detailing the state of the future as Bowie sees it: a world of desecrated skyscrapers, tribes of roaming "peoploids" wrapped in shredded furs, all while "fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats." If it feels theatrical, it's by design -- originally written in part as a stage adaptation of George Orwell's 1984, the songs were salvaged and scraped together into a rough-hewn album after Orwell's estate refused to grant the rights for a musical. Their loss. The mini-suite of "Sweet Thing / Candidate / Sweet Thing (Reprise)" is surprisingly powerful, never mind the fact that it's bookended by "Diamond Dogs" and "Rebel Rebel," the two greatest Stones songs not actually written by the Stones. Also funny: turns out Bowie's single greatest guitar riff wasn't played by any of the inimitable guitarists to pass through his ranks (Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Reeves Gabrels, etc) -- he played it himself, along with the bulk of the album's instrumentation besides drums and bass. Side two fares less well due to its inconsistency, jumping from the plasticky disco of "1984" to the goofy pomp of "Rock 'n' Roll With Me" and then back to the fake-trumpet theatricality of "Big Brother" (but goddamn if that chorus doesn't slap you silly). By the end of the record you get the sense Bowie badly wants to leap out of his own skin, what with the mess of styles on display. He'd do that soon enough.
8. Young Americans (1975)The change was apparent right from the top. That opening drum fill slides into the room with a flourish and soft-shoes down your ear canal; you can practically feel the DJ put needle to groove while a dancehall springs to life around you. "Young Americans" the song was an instant classic, a timeless single that, on the album, doubled as an opening salvo and a statement of reconfigured intent. Young Americans the album was a stylistic about-face, the most dramatic yet from a career already built on reinvention. Gone was the glam, in its place a smooth and sophisticated take on soul. Recorded during a month-long break from the elaborately staged Diamond Dogs Tour, Bowie set up camp at Sigma Studios in Philadelphia and abruptly changed the course of his career. Local soul and funk musicians were tapped to authenticate the proceedings (including a young Luther Vandross), and after months on the road, Bowie's live band -- like the Spiders of Mars before them -- had solidified into a crack team of players, powerful and precise at once. Again working with Tony Visconti, the bulk of the album was tracked live -- including the vocals. After the occasionally labored back half of Diamond Dogs, Young Americans felt effortlessly cool. Describing the record in an interview, Bowie called it "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey." Success continued to mount behind Bowie, particularly in the States where the malicious funk of "Fame" (co-written with John Lennon and Carlos Alomar) became a number-one hit. Parts of the album drift, but as usual for Bowie, the highs are untouchable.
7. "Heroes" (1977)The middle child of the Berlin Trilogy, "Heroes" directly follows the mold of Low in its split-down-the-middle construction -- side one features Bowie in art-rock mode, side two is mostly instrumental soundscapes. The largest difference: "Heroes" winds up sounding more traditional, partly because the shock of the new when first encountering Low had already blasted sensibilities to hell, but also because the 'rock half' feels fleshed out in a way that the jagged scraps on the first half of Low did not. Instead, "Heroes" gives us lacerating lead guitars played by King Crimson's Robert Fripp, and an overall more optimistic approach to Bowie's new Berlin sound. Speaking of Berlin, this is the only one of the three Berlin records that was fully recorded in Berlin, go figure. The second half of the record, as on Low, is mostly instrumental, and leaning heavily on free-form ambient experiments co-written with everyone's favorite bald man, Brian Eno. The tone of the record comes off lighter, less claustrophobic, if still plenty playful and experimental -- either the drugs were starting to clear his system (the previous record was written during an attempted detox), or Bowie had found something new to dull the pain. But at the end of the day, "Heroes" will always be remembered for its soaring title track, with its unforgettable image of doomed lovers kissing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall (the quotation marks were added to the name to defuse the overt romanticism of that image). Despite all the studio trickery and effects magic employed (read about the recording of "Heroes" in serious, nerd-baiting depth here), at its core, it's just a simple looping progression with a mind-blowing vocal from Bowie delivering a perfect lyric. That said, there must have been magic in that room, because no one since has been able to turn in a worthy cover (lookin' at you, Wallflowers).
5. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)After that whole Berlin thing happened, Bowie wasn't thrilled to see his fortunes diminishing after a general lack of hits ("Heroes" excluded, but even that wasn't as big as it should have been). A change of location and tactics were in order. The gang decamped to New York, sans Brian Eno but once again with Robert Fripp (who sat out Lodger). For the first time in ages, Bowie began writing material in advance of the recording process instead of just showing up and relying heavily on studio spontaneity and collaborative input. With the majority of the Berlin musicians still onboard, the songs retain the discordant feel of albums past while finding new focus in the arrangements and melodies. Robert Fripp essentially ran wild, smattering tracks with unbridled guitar histrionics and noise, but underneath the squall, the rhythm section found new strength in tight, funk-driven arrangements. Bowie was essentially cherry-picking his back catalog for ideas, revisiting and condensing the highlights of his previous five albums -- the soul underpinnings of Young Americans and Station to Station met with the art-damaged escapism of Low, "Heroes", and Lodger to create a new hybrid. Tony Visconti's production marked a leap forward, the pounding drums and bass setting a new standard at the dawn of the decade for New Wave and danceable pop. Like magic, Bowie's commercial aspirations were met and probably exceeded: the crystalline space-funk of "Ashes to Ashes" became a massive hit on his home soil, thanks in part to its expensive, elaborate music video. Scary Monsters was Bowie in a reflective, reflexive mode (similar to what he just did on The Next Day but to exponentially superior effect): "Ashes to Ashes" brought the return of the long-absent Major Tom, who'd become a junkie in the intervening years since "Space Oddity" (as well as a thinly veiled metaphor for heroin). "Teenage Wildlife" was essentially a "Heroes" redux, featuring the same basic structure and a familiar lead guitar from Robert Fripp. But for all the backward looks, the overall impact is new, fresh, and invigorating. This would be the last of Bowie's truly great records -- it still stands as one of his best, a fitting capstone for a shining decade of accomplishment.
4. Hunky Dory (1971)It came into focus with a sigh and a sea change. On the surface, the leaden guitars of The Man Who Sold the World scurried out of sight to let a playful piano take center stage (played by one Rick Wakeman, who would later wear a sweet cape onstage with Yes). Meanwhile, Bowie reached deep inside (or between his legs, maybe) to pull back his own velvet curtain, finally letting his songs embrace and embody his own brand of sexuality. With songs fixating on androgyny, Nietzsche, and hero worship (see "Andy Warhol," "Song for Bob Dylan," and the Lou Reed tribute "Queen Bitch"), everything came together just so, and the audience wasn't far behind. "Changes" was a bona fide hit, solidifying his success and setting the stage for subsequent albums and singles. The most staggering development, however, was Bowie himself. Bursting with confidence, his vocal delivery went above and beyond anything he'd done, and the boldness of the arrangements paired with melodies, hooks, choruses, and brilliantly oblique lyrics to make a hell of a record. Practically every track is a highlight, but "Life on Mars" remains one of the best songs he'd ever write, stellar and stunning any way you look at it.
3. Station to Station (1976)Hello, cocaine. While most of Bowie's classic output (plus plenty of non-classic '80s material) was fueled by powdered refreshment, Station to Station does them all one better by announcing it to the world -- in case there was any doubt what the Thin White Duke was running on. "It's not the side effects of the cocaine, I'm thinking that it must be love." Young Americans reinvented Bowie as a sophisticated if detached soul-man a year earlier; here he hones in on the detachment, inventing a new persona in his Thin White Duke, and takes a turn for the truly strange. It's his definitive transitional album, a bridge between the plastic soul of Young Americans and the lightless soul-searching of the Berlin period. Often overlooked in the catalog, Station to Station is a grower bar-none. It's mutant disco before there was such a thing. Something of a musical contradiction, the record is in turns cold (see: the machine noises driving the epic, lurching title track) but a backbone of skeletal funk keeps things vibrant, warm, and weirdly accessible despite the strangeness of the vocals and instrumentation. Considering none of the talent involved seems to remember recording the thing (again, cocaine), it's some kind of perverse miracle that it came out so fucking good. "TVC 15" may or may not be about one of Iggy Pop's paranoid hallucinations … or it might be about a vibrator. Solid gold either way.
2. Low (1977)Broken shards of songs. Wandering alien worlds of sound and noise. Boiled down to its component parts, Low doesn't sound like much. But listening to the record -- then as now -- you're transported someplace new, someplace bold and strange, someplace hard to leave. Granted, our minds are conditioned to such strangeness these days, largely because of the lasting influence this record has had on just about everyone who's made interesting music in the last 35 years. Emphasizing texture and mood over hooks or structure (see the harrowing "Warszawa," assembled by Brian Eno with vocal contributions from Bowie), Low shifted the collective expectations of serious music listeners in ways that few other works of outré art ever could. To put it another way, hardly anyone was looking to Metal Machine Music for inspiration. This was to be the first piece of the Berlin trilogy, the sequence of albums written while Bowie and Iggy Pop were trying to kick some bad habits by absconding from the enabling surroundings of Los Angeles to Berlin. In Bowie's own words: "I moved out of the coke center of the world into the smack center of the world." The name Low then takes a literal meaning, describing Bowie's mood during much of the writing process. That melancholic air permeates the music, particularly the second side, which is primarily instrumental. Similar in many ways to the record that would follow, "Heroes", in that they share the same dual-sided structure and penchant for experimentation, Low remains the darker record, and the moodiness serves it well. Even in light of the records that came after, both from Bowie and from the millions he influenced, there's nothing else like Low. Sound and vision indeed.
1. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust (1972)Too often people take Ziggy for granted. Existing in a state of perfection for so long, it's as if the album has warped the minds of Bowie fans over the years, allowing lesser heights (sorry Low) to somehow displace their affection. Nonsense! As if being the most popular and famous album of an artist's career is somehow a bad thing. Sure, the whole record is built off a lunatic conceit -- a messianic tale of impending annihilation, aliens, sex, and death that's been unpacked endlessly by countless fans and critics more thorough than me -- let's just say ... upon close investigation it only makes so much sense. But that's half the charm. Hunky Dory proved Bowie was capable of brilliance -- Ziggy continued the evolution, folding in a newfound appreciation for soul that brought an immediacy Bowie had only flirted with before. It's a grand collision of pop songwriting and untamed vision, a collection of songs that succeed on their own terms while furthering the unwieldy machinations of the greater whole. "Five Years" is the quintessential opener, a perfect soundtrack for the fictional end of the world: the music starts small and grows, cycling ever upward, spiraling out and into space. "Starman" came off like a spiritual successor to "Space Oddity"with a transcendent chorus to match, and like that song it was a substantial hit that propelled Bowie to much greater success. For my money, "Suffragette City" might be the best rock and roll song ever written, made better in the way it's tossed off like a dirty joke: a pelvic thrust of a bass line hammers away on top of a Little Richard piano and Bowie raves about sex, or drugs, or none of the above. "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" closes on the highest possible note, Bowie belting "You're not alone!" with all the fire you'd expect from an actor playing his greatest part, while the band chimes in to chant "Wonderful!" underneath him. And is it ever wonderful. Ziggy might be dead by the end, but "after making love with his ego," he's seared into your skull, life imitating art all according to design. Sheer audacity made real with electric guitar and a snow-white tan.