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.
Start the Countdown here.
UPDATE: Since the publication of this article David Bowie released his final album, ★ (Blackstar). You can read our review of it here.