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.