It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that I am quite an obsessive guy. My journey with David Bowie started when I was a kid during the 80s. I absolutely loved the 1986-film Labyrinth. Bowie played Jareth, the King of the Goblins. He was fucking cool and I was captivated. I mean look at him.
I must have seen Labyrinth over 100 times. Even today you could stick the film on mute and I would be able to fill the words in for you. But as a kid, I had no idea that Bowie was also a rock God. It was around 1995 when I was 13 years old and got my first CD player for Christmas. I remember I was given 2 CDs with it: Michael Jackson’s HIStory and Now That’s What I Call Music 32 (one for the UK readers). When I was 14, I started getting into music more and more. I wanted to build up a great collection — I wish I had known then that in less than 20 years the thousands of pounds I would spend on CDs over the next decade would be entirely worthless by the 2010s but that’s another story and another article. My tastes were diverse. I was one of the few kids living in South Wales to be really into hip-hop in a big way — again, another story and another article, I’m on a roll here. Of course, this was the 1990s and in the UK it was all about Britpop, especially Oasis and Blur. Oasis looked back to The Beatles, and I’m the sort of guy who just has to go back and build up an understanding. I started buying records from the 1960s. I started reading vicariously. And … well, it wasn’t long before I discovered that the King of the Goblins was one of the most important figures in rock history. I went out and bought the 2-disc Singles Collection and almost instantly was blown away by the level of awesome coming through my speakers. And so began a 3-year near total fixation with David Bowie. During this period my family or girlfriends I had at the time, knew that the only thing worth getting me for my birthday or Christmas was a Bowie album. I simply had to get them all. I got books and collected magazine articles. By the time I was 16 I already thought I was this great Bowie expert. In 1996, when he won an Outstanding Contribution to British Music awards at the Brits and came out nonchalantly wearing a pair of stiletto heels and rocking yet another new look for him, my fandom was probably nearing its peak.
Then, around the time of my 18th birthday, I discovered Bob Dylan and a new even stronger obsession was born. It it sounds strange to say it, but Dylan essentially supplanted Bowie as “the man in my life”. The interest in Bowie never entirely went away though. And I kept listening to the old albums and finding new ways to appreciate each of them as I got older.
Anyway, this little story is a round about way of establishing my Bowie credentials before you read my thoughts on his albums. I’ve spent a long time with each of these, even the bad ones, and they are an inextricable part of my life. This article came about because, last year, I had a friend who is into music who had never gotten into Bowie because the back catalogue was too vast and intimidating and he didn’t know where to start. Knowing of my fandom and also knowing me as a guy into lists and ratings, he asked me to provide a no-nonsense guide for him –no bullshit, just the stuff you need to know if you want to get into Bowie. In my early 20s, I used to be one of those guys who just wouldn’t even want to look at you if you didn’t have an inside-out knowledge of the popular music canon from Robert Johnson to Elvis to Radiohead, but I’ve mellowed out and, I guess matured a bit, since then as I’ve come to appreciate that not everyone can know everything. So rather than deride him for calling himself a music fan and not knowing Bowie like the back of his hand already, I went ahead wrote the guide for him. Now I’ve decided to revisit it and share it with whoever is interested. It’s written as a beginner’s guide but I’d welcome any opinions from Bowie enthusiasts. Let’s get into it then.
David Bowie (1967)
Largely inconsequential collection of curios. Bowie was signed to Deram and at this stage of his career considered as little more than a quirky novelty act. The fairly well known gimmick-y single “The Laughing Gnome” isn’t even on here. The only song worth tracking down is “Uncle Arthur” — it’s sort of an anthem for grownup comic nerds everywhere with its great chorus “Uncle Arthur likes his mommy / Uncle Arthur still reads comics / Uncle Arthur follows Batman”. “Love You Till Tuesday” was the lead single, and there’s a short film of that name featuring the very young Bowie of this era that is worth a watch.
Space Oddity (1969)
First proper album built around his breakthrough single. Nothing else on that level here, but lots of promise and good songs. “Letter to Hermione” is a great song. “Wide-eyed Boy from Freecloud” and “Memory of a Free Festival” could both get stuck in your head for days. I remember in the 90s Dario G sampled the “sun machine is coming down and it’s gonna have a party” line for one of his shitty Ibiza dance songs, ah the 90s. Would recommend listening to the three stand-out tracks and coming back to this when you know Bowie a bit better.
The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
Harder edge than much of his later work with more of a proto-metal sound a la early Sabbath. But the pieces are in place here: Ronson on guitar, Tony Visconti producing. Really good album. “The Supermen” establishes the hedonistic Nietzschean obsession in his work that would endure for much of the decade. You may know the title track from the Nirvana cover. Whole album is good from start to finish, with shades of Hendrix and Led Zeppelin here and there — arguably he’d never sound as hard or rootsy as this again. The front cover was controversial because Bowie is wearing a “man-dress” on it.
Hunky Dory (1971)
His first bona-fide knockout classic. This has the piano-driven sound with big hooks and strong melodies on every track. “Changes” and “Life on Mars?” are the most well-known songs here, but “Oh! You Pretty Things” is just as good, and “Bewlay Brothers” foreshadows a darker edge to his work with its themes of insanity and possible (gay) incest. “Queen Bitch” puts sexuality front and centre and owes something to The Velvet Underground’s “Andy’s Chest”. “Quicksand” continues his slightly worrying Nietzsche fixation and even flirts with fascism. There are some clunkers here in my opinion (“Kooks”, “Song for Bob Dylan”), and “Fill Your Heart” feels like filler, but the rest of this is so strong it gets the highest rating.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
One of the best rock albums ever recorded. This has everything. Your classic riffs (“Moonage Daydream”, “Ziggy Stardust”), your soaring ballads (“Lady Stardust”), your big choruses (“Starman”, “Star”), and the now customary great closer (the impossibly cool “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”). Everything is loosely tied together by the central concept of a rock star achieving fame quickly and then burning out just as fast in this awesome slightly dystopian Clockwork Orange-y world. All killer, no filler here.
Aladdin Sane (1973)
Often described as “Ziggy goes to America”, the sound is much darker here with Mick Garson’s slightly bonkers avant-garde piano stylings high in the mix. This adds to an overall feeling of insanity and chaos which is underpinned by Bowie’s lyrics. The title track, “Cracked Actor” and “Time” are the standouts here — that last one’s image of time falling “wanking to the floor” is one of the great one-liners in rock history. There is also a good single (“The Jean Genie”) and one I don’t like so much (“Drive-In Saturday”) and then quite a bit of filler. It all adds up to an album that is never fully satisfying and it’s one I don’t revisit very often. It kind of feels like a strung-out hang over after the wild ecstasy of Ziggy: the downer after the upper, if you will.
Pin Ups (1973)
By 73, Bowie could have got to number 1 in the UK album charts by recording his own farts. This is a homage to the swinging Soho of the 1960s as seen in something like Richard Lester’s 1965-film The Knack …and How to Get It, and it considering Bowie could do anything he wanted at this time, it could have been a lot worse. As it is, it’s a collection of interesting covers with a couple of hidden gems (“Here Comes the Night”, “Sorrow”) that demonstrate Bowie’s vocal range and dramatic singing.
Diamond Dogs (1974)
Bowie’s version of George Orwell’s 1984 is essentially two big suites punctuated by the big single “Rebel Rebel”. This is more cohesive as a concept album than Ziggy or Aladdin Sane with the tracks segueing into each other seamlessly. The tone is sort of “haunted”, and Bowie’s singing here is at its most distinctively “Bowie”. I really love the sequence from “We are the Dead” to the end. Some critics take against this album, but I don’t agree with them, it’s not quite up there with his absolute best but it’s a fantastic mood piece. Another controversial cover on this one because the “dog” half of Bowie on the back of the LP clearly had a pair of balls dangling.
Young Americans (1975)
Although we’ve had 3 distinct characters at this stage (Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack), they are all basically variations on Ziggy. This is the first time Bowie really really obviously changes his image and sound to deliver an album of what he described himself as “Fake Plastic Soul”. At times this feels like an intellectual exercise in disciplined songwriting within a genre and controlled performance — there is an ironic distance between Bowie and his material. At its best (“Win”, “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, “Fame”, which was co-written by John Lennon) this is very good but there is a lot of middling material here too. This album marks a shift away from traditional rock which he declared “a toothless old woman” — he wouldn’t fully return to it until the Tin Machine project in the late 80s.The title track is just tremendous by the way.
Station to Station (1976)
The Nietzsche fascination and flirtation with fascism reaches its apotheosis here in the figure of the Thin White Duke, by all accounts a nasty bastard, empty on the inside, who delights in “throwing darts / In lovers’ eyes”. Bowie had been listening to Kraftwerk around this time and ergo we get the 10-minute title track. Bowie (as the Duke) is cold yet precise and immaculate here. He doesn’t give us feeling, but a man without feelings pastiching emotion. “Golden Years” is a terrific single that will get stuck in your head for days. “Stay” has a great riff reminiscent of “the snooker music” (another reference for UK readers, but due to the magic of the internet, I can tell you I’m talking about this). “Word on a Wing” and “Wild is the Wind” are searing ballads. If you listen to this after listening to Ziggy Stardust and consider that the same artist made both within the space of 4 years, you can begin to understand the greatness of Bowie.
So after taking half the coke in North America and (famously) living on nothing but chilies and milk, he needed to detox or he was going to die. It was as simple as that. So, of course, you do what any self-respecting superstar does and decamp to Berlin with Iggy Pop and Brian Eno to record a series of seminal art rock albums under the Berlin Wall (see also Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Lust for Life). Low‘s first side is a series of half songs; listen out for Iggy singing in the background on most of them. Eno had some interesting ideas about songs existing outside of what the listener can hear and giving you only a glimpse of them. You can hear the Kraftwerk influence much more clearly, as we get synths and a much more edgy metallic sound on these half-songs. Whereas Iggy Pop seems to be getting his life together and feeling on top of things on Lust for Life, I’d describe Bowie’s mood here as diffident — watch the video for “Be My Wife” and you’ll see what I mean. He is literally “low” — vaguely trying to palm off genuine feelings as the pastiche of feeling, but he’s not fooling anyone, this is the real Bowie not the Thin White Duke. The first 6 tracks of this are simply put, amazing. It’s new wave / post-punk before punk had even finished. Then you get the dour instrumental suite of tracks that seem to echo Auswitch — and I’ll be honest I rarely listen to them. Nonetheless, fantastic album — Bowie truly at his most cutting edge.
Basically Low 2 with the format of the rock side and the instrumental side repeated again. Eno is still on board; Iggy doesn’t seem to be around, but Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame turns up and turns in some of the best work of his career. The lyrics to “Joe the Lion” were famously written using the “cut and paste” technique and, as such, they make no sense and veer into absurdism (“I am Robin Hood and I puff on my cigarette”). The title track is, of course, one of the all-time great anthems. The instrumental side here is slightly more upbeat than Low‘s in places (“V-2 Schneider”) and more ambient in others (“Moss Garden”). Overall, it’s slightly lighter and warmer than Low, David has started to cheer up a bit, he’s having fun experimenting and the struggles of the Cold War seem to put his own personal struggles into context. “The Secret Life of Arabia” gives a hint of the weirdness that is to come on Lodger.
For the final part of the Berlin trilogy, Bowie ditches the instrumentals and instead embraces world music … or at least influences from the East and tribal African music (we’re not talking Paul Simon’s Graceland here). Lodger is quite a mixed bag of weirdness and wonder: “Fantastic Voyage” is Bowie in full-on dramatic rock opera mode, “African Night Flight” and “Yassassin” are just mental, “Repetition” and “Red Money” are dark, and “DJ”, “Look Back in Anger” and “Boys Keep Swinging” are great singles. It’s not quite the towering achievement that either of the other two are, it’s just a bit too messy, but it is still pretty great.
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)
So he left Berlin and went back to London and New York reinvigorated and, believe it or not, almost broke. Despite the success of Ziggy and his mid-70s albums in both the UK and the States, he was surrounded by leeches associated with the Main Man talent agency. He’d spent almost everything he’d earned. And, well, y’know, avant-garde albums aren’t exactly a formula for success. So it’s not surprising that this is markedly more commercial than his Berlin albums, but still not exactly mainstream with a mad Japanese woman shouting all over one track and artwork featuring Bowie in full new-romantic regalia as a Pierrot. The songwriting is more conventional but there are some amazing singles here, as good as any he ever wrote (“Ashes to Ashes”, “Fashion”), some catchy songs (“Up the Hill Backwards”, “Scary Monsters”), and some challenging ones (“Scream Like a Baby”). This marks a return to Bowie’s obsession with insanity, but also a creeping dissatisfaction with elements of society — although, perversely, on “Fashion” you get the impression that Bowie celebrates “the goon squad” as much as he chastises them. He sees things as being shallow, yet also buys into that shallowness — as he was about to do in a big way.
Let’s Dance (1983)
So this is around the time when people generally accuse Bowie of “selling out” and it is also when he made his millions really — from record sales and massive sell-out stadium tours. Niles Rodgers from Chic is on board to funk things up and this is a pretty funky album. The three monster singles that kick this off: “Let’s Dance”, “Modern Love” and “China Girl” are all essential. This is not as poppy as one might expect, I mean it’s Bowie: there’s always an edge there. Around the time this was number 1 in the UK charts, RCA re-released his entire back catalogue and at one point he had TEN albums in the UK top 100. Unfortunately, after the awesome opening, this one teeters off into mildly diverting but ultimate inconsequential territory. “Cat People” is the pick of the rest of them, but not a lot to revisit apart from the singles — which would be the theme for the rest of the 80s.
Essentially Let’s Dance 2 and by this stage an automatic UK number 1. This is basically two great singles (“Loving the Alien”, “Blue Jean”) and a load of pointless covers of Berlin-era Iggy Pop songs done with a pop sheen as well as a pointless and rubbish cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”. Singles are really worth a listen though.
BONUS: Labyrinth soundtrack (1986)
Bowie only contributed 6 songs to this and rock snobs hate them. I, however, as a massive fan of the film, think they are rather excellent. “Underground” is a lot of fun as is “Magic Dance”. “Within You” and “As the World is Falling” have really awesome Bowie vocals and oblique lyrics. The only one I’ve never understood is “Chilly Down” — a Jamaican thing in the film sung by these red muppets with detachable heads — he’s credited with lead vocals but I’ve never been able to work out who he is on it. Trevor Jones’s score for this is awesomely 80s. I am perhaps biased and rose-tinted in my view of this, but I think it’s great.
Never Let Me Down (1987)
This album is much maligned and is generally seen as the nadir of Bowie’s career. Bowie himself has written it off as his absolute worst and has dismissively called this and Tonight his “Phil Collins albums”. It was mainly recorded to promote the massive Glass Spider tour. There is a lot of throw away “nothing” songs here. But the singles (“Day In, Day Out”, “Time Will Crawl”) and “Glass Spider” are definitely worth a listen and show that he didn’t TOTALLY lose it. Mostly rubbish. Hard to believe the guy who made an album this uninspired made Low and “Heroes” only 10 years earlier. This one is for completists only.
Black Tie White Noise (1993)
At the time this was a fairly big comeback after the rather shitty pub-rock band Tin Machine — he’d been away for 6 years as a solo artist after all. Niles Rogers was back on board here and sure enough this, as with Let’s Dance, came straight in at number 1 in the UK charts; “Jump They Say” was a fairly big hit, even I remember the video playing on Top of the Pops. The old Spider from Mars, Mick Ronson, drops in for a number too (he died soon after). This finds Bowie slightly rejuvenated by his wedding to Iman. Some people rag on this, but I think it’s a minor return to form. His voice is excellent; now older he seems to be able to reach low notes as well as high ones. This has some very intriguing moments: the real-life frog song used on the very catchy “Miracle Goodnight”, the aforementioned “Jump They Say”, the cover of Scott Walker’s “Nite Flights”, the slightly cheesy title track. However, the sort of jazz-club sound of the rest of it makes it feel very dated — it must have felt dated in 1993 as well. It’s an odd album, especially considering what he was about to do. Just like, random, in the overall scheme of things.
1. Outside (1995)
This was meant to be the first of 5 concept albums about art murders (or something). The album art and so on were all very elaborate. This is Bowie making an active bid to be a real artist again. This is strange: it has a narrative element with Bowie playing different roles as various different narrators. It has a few genuinely good songs (“We Prick You”, “Heart’s Filthy Lesson”, “Hallo Spaceboy” — although the Pet Shop Boys remix is better — “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”, and “Strangers When We Meet”, an update of a song originally recorded for the little-known Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack). It also has a lot of unmemorable songs and the narrative segues break things up a bit too much for it to feel anything less than discordant. Ambitious but ultimately a failure. The industrial, post-grungy sound owes as much to Prodigy as it does to Nine Inch Nails. The high-concept stuff and the “plot” are both too convoluted for anyone to care, but this is much more interesting than the previous 3 albums combined.
So it seems he abandoned the 5-album series idea almost immediately and instead explored drum and bass and techno a bit more thoroughly on this sadly overlooked album. I think he creates something unlike anything else — I mean people at the time criticised him for following the pack rather than leading it, but then I think “well, hang on, what ELSE sounds like ‘Little Wonder’?” Several of his strongest lyrical efforts since Scary Monsters on this: “Little Wonder” (great song), “Battle for Britain (The Letter)”, “Dead Man Walking”, “Telling Lies”, “I’m Afraid of Americans”. There is not much filler either. Just 9 solid tracks. Best late Bowie album in my opinion, remains very underrated in general.
This came out at the height of my Bowie obsession and I tried to force myself to love it. I never did though. Just a bunch of quite languid songs sung to vaguely boy-bandish arrangements. It’s kind of relaxed and wouldn’t sound out of place being played in a cafe. “Something in the Air”, “Survive” and “Seven” are all quite good. I recall that “New Angels of Promise” and “Brilliant Adventure” were recorded for the overlooked and highly-innovative PC game Omikron: The Nomad Soul in which he also starred. A lot of stuff here is passable to middling. “The Pretty Things are Going to Hell” is a not very interesting revisit to past glories. This was lauded by some as a return to form at the time and totally panned by others, including Pitchfork who were up and running by then. I’m more towards the latter camp, although it’s hardly awful. Sad to say though, that he’s never sounded more irrelevant than he does here.
With this and the next album, Bowie settles into what I’d call “the late Bowie sound”, a kind of amalgam of everything he’s done leaning towards AOR / MOR. This is quite a solid one. There’s a GREAT cover of Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting for You”, an almost as great cover of Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s (who?!!) “Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” and a surprisingly good cover of “Cactus” by The Pixies. He writes a couple of decent ones too: “Slow Burn” and “A Better Future” spring to mind, while the mention of “Uncle Floyd” on Slip Away and the chirpy Everyone Says “Hi” seems like a nod towards his very earliest work with Deram. This is simply good, solid Bowie, but nothing above that.
Basically Heathen 2, more of the same. “Pablo Picasso” is a great rocker. “The Loneliest Guy” is a nice piano track that sort of makes me wish for a whole album in that style, but everything else is, again, solid, but ultimately this is not very memorable. We can all hope and prays that this isn’t his last album — petering out rather than going out with a blaze — but it seems like it.
… but it wasn’t his last album …
The Next Day (2013)
I honestly haven’t spent enough time with this since picking it up back in March. The story of this album was the fact that everyone, myself included, had thought that Bowie had quietly retired. There were rumours of him being terminally ill, or of having throat cancer. The release of The Next Day, out of the blue, out of nowhere, with no prior warning or press release, was the sort of marketing masterstroke that kept Bowie ahead of the game for all those years. It starts off all Berlin-era and owes more than a passing nod to Lodger, but my take is that the album beyond the promising opener is slightly disappointing — more Heathen 3 than Heroes 2 (as its cover might suggest). There is some strong stuff here though: the “Dirty Boys” is hypnotically sleazy and foreboding, “Love is Lost” is one of the best songs Bowie has recorded in about 20 years, and even though the “single” “Where Are We Now” wouldn’t sound out of place on hours … it would have been the best track on that album. But the problem for me is that things feel like they lose steam and the second half of the album slips into the sort of MOR art-rock comfort zone we see on Reality. Of course, the media went wild for this — it’s the first Bowie album in a decade and it has some really good songs on it, and it went to number 1 — but I need many more listens to it to decide if it really lives up to any of the hype.