Editor’s Note: It’s hard to believe, but it’s already been more than five years since David Bowie died. Few stars have ever shone brighter than our original Starman, which is why we’ll forever have a place for all of our David Bowie features in our Forever Bowie collection. As for this week, we’re revisiting this ranking, which originally appeared in 2015, to celebrate the anniversary of 1993’s Black Tie White Noise.
Back in the 1999, my older brother worked with Virgin Records, and in lieu of actual payment of money, it seemed like he was compensated exclusively in CDs. And hey, that was cool. He scored tons of Astralwerks artists, dozens of Lenny Kravitz’s 5 album, and, best and perhaps most educationally of all, the complete, digitally remastered studio record re-releases of every David Bowie album up to that point. Post-Earthling, Bowie was still relevant and selling. The Thin White Duke was hot. Again. And all his albums were at my fingertips. Out of drab brown boxes with discs marked for no-retail came … a god.
My mind was blown.
I went with Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, and The Man Who Sold the World on a strange odyssey and have never really come back since. Bowie took me to expansive, exciting, new places with fascinatingly disjointed sounds. I’d never before been this hopelessly fascinated by an artist and their full body of work. Like “Fame”, this deep dive become about brushing with notoriety, obsessively, for me. How could a man with so very many different albums and styles of music (not to mention fashion styles) be so consistently out there and entertaining? Was he an alien? An androgynous shape-shifter? An extraordinarily talented dude from Brixton? One minute Bowie’s singing about changes and playing with honky-tonk; the next he’s crying for heroes with synthetic Brian Eno droning sounds. And he’d never miss a turn. Always changing, evolving, challenging himself. Maybe the drugs and makeup got to his head, in a good way, but Bowie just kept rolling out hits. It’s like the guy could do no wrong. He is eternal. He is universal. He is Bowie.
It dawned on me much later that Bowie, musically, is everything to everyone. Ask anyone what their favorite Bowie song or album is, and guaranteed you’ll get different, protracted answers each time.
But damn it, today, we’re going to try and put a stamp on Bowie. That’s right. Consequence of Sound has decided to look back, not in anger, but in appreciation, to dissect and try to rank the albums in Bowie’s illustrious, diverse, and frankly quite-hard-to-agree-on career. So put your helmet on…
Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six, Five, Four, Three, Two, One, Liftoff.
Senior Staff Writer
28. Hours (1999)
That Is a Fact: Always one to be drawn to the internet and the wave of everything being “cyber” that took place in the ‘90s, Hours was one of the first albums by a major artist that was available online before the physical version came out. Many of the tracks were conceived as a part of the soundtrack for a Dreamcast video game, Omikron: The Nomad Soul, a futuristic adventure game with characters loosely based off of Bowie. Apart from that, there wasn’t much to the recording of Hours that set it apart, especially after the collaborators and concepts that served as the driving force between his albums earlier in the decade.
Sound and Vision: The most memorable thing about this dud of a record may be the album art, which features an image of a digitally altered younger Bowie cradling an older, likely weaker version of the singer, as if his past self was serving as his own guardian angel. The cover is all over the place with both Bowie’s decked out in cheesy, white outfits with the kind of fonts you’d find on a Backstreet Boys or 98 Degrees record. This is the most ‘90s cover made by an artist who was over 50 at the time, and its embarrassing sprawl is a bit of juxtaposition to the actual songs on the record.
Someone’s Back in Town: Hours marked the last album that found Bowie working with Reeves Gabrels and marked the end of an era of experimentation and unhinged willingness to seemingly try anything new that Bowie exuded throughout the decade.
Ch-Ch-Changes: Hours found Bowie making a nearly complete 180-degree turn from the aggressive electronica of Earthling, going into a more stately form of art-pop that he was known for. While not quite classic Bowie-revival, Hours was Bowie’s attempt to make a late ‘90s adult contemporary record, and unsurprisingly the results are as interesting as that sounds.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Sadly, Hours represents one of Bowie’s less weird albums of the decade, much to its detriment. The album finds Bowie playing it too safe, without many interesting contributions from an artist who, even if he doesn’t always get it right, usually has something more intriguing up his sleeve than this.
After All: As a whole, Hours stands as one of Bowie’s more unanimously reviled releases. It’s not actively terrible, just dull and uninspired, and at 47 minutes feels twice as long to get through as his winding records like Outside. Much of Bowie’s work in the ’90s was called a failure, but much of it holds up better than you may think. At least when Bowie failed or missed the mark, it usually wasn’t for lack of trying. Hours is Bowie’s biggest slog because it feels phoned in.
27. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
That Is a Fact: Even internally, the inclusion of Buddha of Suburbia in Bowe’s discography is a controversial decision. The album was labeled a “soundtrack” to accompany the television series of the same name, but unlike Bowie’s other soundtracks, the album itself is separate from what Bowie wrote for the BBC show. He used the pieces from the television show as a starting point for this record, which he wrote and recorded in a 15-day period. As Bowie himself wrote in the liner notes for the record, “This collection of music bears little resemblance to the small instrumentation of the BBC play of ‘Buddha.’” For this record, Bowie took themes and motifs from the play, slowing them down or extending them to create a sense of “companionship” to the primary theme. He noted influences such as Kraftwerk, Philip Glass, the O’Jays, Pet Sounds, and drugs as his inspirations for the musical direction on the record. The album was a continuation of Bowie’s desire to experiment and play with conventions throughout the decade, explaining in the liner notes that he believed “a major chief obstacle to the evolution of music has been the almost redundant narrative form.” For Bowie, these pieces evolved from the original score from the TV show into what he felt was a truly exciting work.
Sound and Vision: The Buddha of Suburbia has two pieces of cover art. The original depicts a scene from the television program, indicating its tenuous tie to the work from which it came. It was out of print for a long time until its reissue in 2007, which features an alternative cover of Bowie, in all black, sitting down on a stark bed frame. Neither image is particularly iconic in terms of Bowie’s long history of memorable artwork.
Someone’s Back in Town: The Buddha of Suburbia was co-produced with longtime collaborator David Richard, and featured contributions from pianist Mike Garson, in their first work together since Young Americans. The most surprising name on the credits is Lenny Kravitz, who contributed guitar to the title track the same year Are You Gonna Go My Way came out.
Ch-Ch-Changes: The album, based on the soundtrack, serves as a bit of a transitional period from the traditional work Bowie did on Black Tie White Noise and the frenetic experimentation he would go into on later ‘90s records. Songs like “Sex & The Church” have definite krautrock and house influences while others go into more jazz territory, especially on the instrumental pieces throughout. Other songs like “Bleed Like a Craze, Dad” show a bit more prog/industrial approach that works too. Like most Bowie records, this one finds him combining disparate influences to spin together into a work like only he could.
In a Most Peculiar Way: The idea of crafting an album based on a soundtrack that he already worked on is one of the more unique things Bowie did on this record. The fact that it was disputed for years whether or not this should be considered a part of Bowie’s album discography was an indication that many had a hard time figuring out how to classify it. Not so weird, but a fun fact is that the BBC series the album was influenced by starred a young Naveen Andrews, who would go on to play the character of Sayid on Lost.
After All: The Buddha of Suburbia fell out of print and was lost for a time, but Bowie always defended it. While it’s certainly a step up from the lowest point in Bowie’s discography (see Hours), a listen makes it apparent why many seem to regard it as an afterthought. The album doesn’t find Bowie diverging from anything he’d done before and feels like another middling entry in the midst of a decade where he would put out some of his most disappointing work. Bad Bowie is still better than most, but this record doesn’t have much to offer to anyone who isn’t a die-hard fan.
26. David Bowie (1967)
That Is a Fact: Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to Mr. David Bowie. The then 19-year-old developed his first LP for Deram records for a Summer ’67 release, and the album was a first pass at appreciation for music hall, British pop like The Kinks and the works of Anthony Newly. The whole thing is kind of a demo for all the sounds Bowie may have been interested in at the time.
Sound and Vision: There’s a funky font choice for the self-titled title on the cover and a bad mod mop-top gives David Bowie perhaps the most uninteresting and dated album cover of Bowie’s career. It’s totally, blandly, straight out of the ‘60s. Still, look at that intense, androgynous stare; he begged for looks.
Someone’s Back in Town: Mike Vernon produced the record, and it was the only time he’d produce for Bowie. He’d later go on to work with the likes of Eric Clapton and Fleetwood Mac, but, like, do you ever wonder if he regrets letting go of Bowie?
Ch-Ch-Changes: Given that this is Bowie’s first album, we’re going to take a pass in this category. All ch-ch-changes occurred after here.
In a Most Peculiar Way: “Please Mr. Gravedigger” is pretty damned weird. And gothic. And macabre. And 16 years before “Thriller” made gallows and ghoulish sounds cool.
After All: David Bowie is an awkward artifact. The album showcase Bowie’s talents and individualism, his ability to flex style and genre as he jumps from pop to rock and back again, and it’s a mild mess. Futurism, cannibalism, goofy sound effects, and other such things show a curious character not yet in control of his conceptual gifts. Yet you can immediately hear Bowie’s will to get nuts and play. A few hits like “We Are Hungry Men” and “Maid of Bond Street” aside, David Bowie the album is not essential, but this Bowie kid showed promise, and the dabbling hints at his future flexibility.
25. Pin Ups (1973)
That Is a Fact: This album was conceived to be the complete opposite of past Bowie albums, in that it was primarily unoriginal material. According to producer Ken Scott, the album was glam rock covers of popular British songs that didn’t quite get on mainstream radio in the States.
Sound and Vision: Twiggy. The famed ‘60s and ‘70s supermodel? The blonde woman that Dan Aykroyd stands up in The Blues Brothers? That’s her, right there on the cover, next to the late ’73 version of Aladdin Sane himself.
Someone’s Back in Town: Ah, it’s the usual Bowie crew from the early 1970s: Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, Ken Scott, etc. Ronnie Wood shows up to play guitar on “Growin’ Up”.
Ch-Ch-Changes: Bowie does The Who? And The Kinks? AND THE BOSS?! We’re not complaining, but when the first several years of Bowie’s career committed to creative new music, a covers album really wasn’t expected.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Did you know that Bowie did a version of The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” that was left on the cutting room floor of this album? Bowie’s take on Lou Reed’s hit, however, did make it out there as a single, part of the Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. It’s terrific and probably a little beyond Pin Ups.
After All: It’s a middling jukebox album when Bowie was powerful enough to get away with playing other folks’ hits. And Bowie’s wild-child early ‘70s sound was intact while layered over The Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, and The Merseys, but it was strictly Bowie’s sound and not enough of his funky, weird, space egg heart and soul.
24. Reality (2003)
That Is a Fact: Reality found Bowie working with Tony Visconti again, this time recording the album at New York’s Looking Glass Studios. Fresh off 2002’s Heathen, Bowie had a seemingly renewed energy, but after this record didn’t quite take off, he stopped making music for a decade. It’s a shame because this isn’t a terrible record; it’s more likely that in the early ought’s, the music world just didn’t have a place for an aging Bowie.
Sound and Vision: British graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook, who also did the album covers for Heathen and The Next Day, designed Reality’s album cover. Barnbrook is most famous for creating fonts, so it’s certainly an inspired choice from Bowie to let a font designer do three album covers for him.
Someone’s Back in Town: There aren’t any terribly exciting collaborations on this record, but there are two cover songs that Bowie absolutely nails. The Modern Lovers’ “Pablo Picasso” and George Harrison’s “Try Some, Buy Some” both get the Bowie treatment and, in fact, were both intended to be covered by Bowie in the early 1970’s for the never-recorded Pin Ups 2.
Ch-Ch-Changes: Working more in straightforward rock in his later career, there isn’t much of a tonal or sonic shift from Heathen to Reality. The albums were also received the same way, with neither quite catching on and leading to any mainstream success. For Bowie, this was an uncommon stretch, which obviously led him to step back and reflect.
In a Most Peculiar Way: “Bring Me the Disco King” was re-recorded for this record, having originally been recorded for Bowie’s 1993 album, Black Tie White Noise. The more you look at the origins of the tracks on Reality, it becomes clear that much of the record is not quite new material, which could explain Bowie’s departure from music for several years after this record. He was just running out of original ideas and needed to reboot perhaps.
After All: Reality is a decent record in the pantheon of Bowie, nothing more, nothing less. It’s unlikely that any of these tracks will be heralded as one of his best at any point in the future. Realistically, it might have been good that this record left Bowie in a spot where he needed to take a break, because it allowed him to go back to the drawing board and let new material percolate over the course of the next decade, which resulted in the truly great The Next Day.
23. Tin Machine – Tin Machine (1989)
That Is a Fact: The ’80s left Bowie in a personal crisis. Let’s Dance (1983) heralded a massive new audience, and Bowie struggled to discern not only what these new fans wanted, but who he was in the new climate of pop music. Never Let Me Down and its subsequent Glass Spider Tour were critical failures, branded as shallow pop excess. Bowie was drained and in need of soul searching. He loved The Pixes and Sonic Youth, a far cry from the music he’d been making, and so he teamed up with the brothers Tony Sales (bass) and Hunt Sales (drums) and guitarist Reeves Gabrels to form Tin Machine. With Tin Machine, Bowie was just one of the guys in a band. Together they cultivated a hard rock sound that, though unlauded at the time, acted as an early volley in the anti-’80s war of the grunge movement.
Sound and Vision: In direct contrast to Bowie’s previous album and tour, Tin Machine kept shows small, raw, and “non-theatrical.” Bowie kept his look reserved too: he cut his mullet and grew a short beard. The change was enough that Bowie’s chameleonic personality in this case helped him blend in. At an early show, Gabrels reported, “We just walked up on stage, and you could hear all these voices whispering, ‘That’s David Bowie! No, it can’t be David Bowie, he’s got a beard!’”
The album’s art is likewise simple, though slightly different across formats: variations on the band in suits moving though a white void – a strange look for a rock outfit as heavy as Tin Machine. The cover that’s become the definitive version across the record’s various reissuings is the CD edition. Gabrels, closest to the camera, leans against an unseen wall, followed by a standing Hunt Sales, Tony Sales, and most distantly, Bowie with a stiff, thoughtful pose.
Someone’s Back in Town: For his next project, Bowie rounded up people whose work he liked, not intending to necessarily form a band. He knew the Sales brothers from their work on two late ’70s Iggy Pop records, one of which Bowie had produced (Lust for Life). The at-the-time unknown guitarist, Reeve Gabrels, had come to his attention via a demo tape Bowie had received from a press agent for the Glass Spider Tour (Gabrels’ wife). The two would play together for the next decade across Bowie’s various projects. Also present was the band’s “fifth member” and occasional Bowie and Thomas Dolby collaborator, guitarist Kevin Armstrong. Producing the record was the then-unknown Tim Palmer, who went on to mix Pearl Jam’s Ten.
Ch-Ch-Changes: Bowie’s career hadn’t had a more drastic 180 since his transformation from glam to R&B, and even that wasn’t as stark as the switch from Never Let Me Down to Tin Machine. With Tin Machine, Bowie took a slash and burn approach to his career; and from the ashes of his ’80s self, a creatively rejuvenated Bowie surfaced. What’s more, he surrendered himself to the band dynamic. Tin Machine was a democracy where he was just one voice of four in making creative decisions. The music is harder than any Bowie record before or since and, by all accounts, isn’t truly a Bowie record. Tin Machine’s placement within Bowie’s solo chronology has to this day damned the project to a perpetual state of dismissal from Bowie fans as well as the music world at large.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Particularly with Tin Machine’s first record, the band put a massive emphasis on going with their guts. Many takes are one and done, and none of the lyrics had a second pass, much to the willing discomfort of Bowie as he put it in a ’89 interview with Q Magazine: “They were there all the time saying, ‘Don’t wimp out,’ sing like you wrote it. Stand by it. I have done and frequently do censor myself in terms of lyrics. I say one thing, and then I think, ‘Ah, maybe I’ll just take the edge off that a bit.’” During Bowie’s 1999 installment of VH1 Storyteller, he included Tin Machine offhandedly when mentioning his worst lyrics.
After All: The spontaneity Tin Machine cultivated was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the different approach was rejuvenating for Bowie and yielded some exciting results. On the other hand, the band’s “the album is the demo,” record-the-first-thing-that-comes-to-mind ethos made sure there was no chance of all the songs being winners. Bowie’s not wrong, the record does play host to some of his worst lyrics (“They’re just a bunch of assholes with buttholes for their brains” from the heavy-handed drug protest song “Crack City” sticks out as a prime example). However, there are also gems like “I Can’t Read” and “Sacrifice Yourself”, whose automatic lyrics and thrashy instrumentals have a place alongside alternative Bowie classics like “Joe the Lion”.
Everything that showed promise in Tin Machine went on to come into its own in their follow-up, Tin Machine II. Strangely, this record remains in print as part of Bowie’s solo discography while the sequel has never been reissued. Yet the real Tin Machine doesn’t live on these albums. In spite of the overdub-free rawness, what production Tin Machine has is smothering. The truest incarnation of Tin Machine can be found in their final release, Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby. Like Tin Machine II, the live album has never been reissued, but serves as an essential document of the band at its best: living and reveling in the chaos of the moment.
22. Earthling (1997)
That Is a Fact: Bowie went back into the studio less than a week after the Outside tour with nothing written beforehand and put Earthling together in two and a half weeks. Earthling marked Bowie’s first serious foray into electronica and drum and bass, utilizing samplers and recording digitally for the first time. Bowie was influenced by acts like Prodigy, Underwold, and especially Nine Inch Nails, who co-headlined the controversial Outside tour. For the recording process, Bowie did most of the guitar and saxophone work live before using the sampler to distort the recordings. All of the percussion was recorded live and then sampled, with Bowie preserving the live recording while still attempting to craft a somewhat jungle and trance record.
Sound and Vision: The cover finds Bowie decked out in an Alexander McQueen-designed Union Jack and served as perhaps the most striking image of Bowie in the ‘90s. The stark imagery was a better look on Bowie than the last few albums, and the brightness of the portrait was a warm welcome from the dull pictures that had become the norm beforehand.
Someone’s Back in Town: Earthling was more informed not by the people who worked on it, but by who worked around it. As it was recorded so soon after the tour with Nine Inch Nails, it is impossible to deny Trent Reznor’s influence on the record. The remix of “I’m Afraid of Americans” may be the only thing he actually had a hand in (and the biggest commercial hit from this record), but everything from the industrial sounds and frantic energy to some of the ways Bowie adopts Reznor’s more filtered, whispering vocals show the impact the tour had on Bowie’s choices here.
Ch-Ch-Changes: Earthling was another massive sonic departure for Bowie, with him diving headfirst into sampled electronica. The drum and bass and jungle influences are all over the record, with Bowie finding the midpoint between his own art-rock background and the modern styles of the time. There is an anxious energy that pervades the record, marking some of Bowie’s most chaotic work.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Coming off his reunion with Eno, Earthling felt like a highly weird step for Bowie to take. He abandoned the futuristic elements for something completely of the moment, going so far as to feature references from artists like Moby and Junior Vasquez. Earthling found Bowie fully embracing an opportunity to be played more at clubs or raves than arenas and was one of his strangest releases.
After All: While at the time Earthling was a drastic switch for Bowie, in retrospect it feels dated. “I’m Afraid of Americans” holds up best, with many songs coming off as Bowie trying a bit too hard to embrace a new sound and ride the current wave. Earthling certainly is one of Bowie’s most aggressive records, and for that it’s worth revisiting, even if it’s not necessarily one of his better attempts of the decade.
21. Never Let Me Down (1987)
That Is a Fact: Bowie’s ’80s work post-Let’s Dance is not well-loved, not by critics, not by fans, not even by Bowie himself. However, Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987) are overdue for a re-examination. Bowie’s weaker efforts are still better than most, and what little Bowie’s done that’s not top-shelf material can only be guilty of being boring or trite – these albums are neither. They’re different, they’re of their time, but the actual work produced is mired more by opinions three decades old than the reality of the records themselves.
The excess monster of the ’80s music industry and youth culture welcomed the venerable performer, but Bowie faltered. Tonight, though an enjoyable album, was simply pushed out for the sake of having a new record and confused fans old and new with its (generally) chill island vibes. With Never Let Me Down, Bowie went full-on, over-the-top, sensational in scale: big sound, big tour. Though both sold well, the critical response was brutal and ushered a creatively unfulfilled Bowie to look for a new direction – forming the proto-grunge band Tin Machine. In retrospect, though indicative of the decade’s over-produced, commercial sound, Never Let Me Down has its own voice. Certainly the songs would be more timeless in another form, but they wear their day-glo wrapping well.
Sound and Vision: As with the past two records, Never Let Me Down’s look was created by Mick Haggerty. This time, Haggerty went for a full-on photographic set piece, so visually overabundant that it hardly translates to an LP jacket, never mind a CD cover. It’s fun and matches the album’s energy, but not its tone. Bowie leaps through a circus ring, as though for a trapeze bar that’s not there; nearby is a flaming hoop, a cannon draped in a Union Jack, and a Picasso-like abstraction of a ladder that reaches up to a cotton cloud. No doubt about it, Never Let Me Down is visually the oddest duck in the discography lineup.
The album’s titular track and “Time Will Crawl” both received simple, but likeable singer-centric videos with loose concepts, but “Day-In Day-Out”’s video was the main event. Much like the song, the video does a surprising job of rocking the edgy-on-purpose, “music with a message” vibe while still being enjoyable. In it, the loose narrative of the song comes to life as two angels film the destitution of L.A. streets, the mistreatment of the homeless, and pay special attention to a mother resorting to hooking to care for her child. The video was banned or censored on some channels for an implied rape and “fuck” spelled out in wooden alphabet blocks.
Someone’s Back in Town: Bowie again teamed up with Iggy Pop, but this time just for the demos. Pop didn’t perform on the record or receive any writing credit, save for the cover of his song, “Bang Bang”. Never Let Me Down marks Bowie’s first time collaborating with multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kızılçay, who he also worked with on The Buddha of Suburbia and Outside. Kızılçay, along with Bowie fixture, Carlos Alomar, rounded out the band with – believe it or not – Peter Frampton on lead guitar. But the most baffling inclusion comes from a guest appearance by actor Mickey Rourke in “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)”. Though credited as a “mid-song rap”, which sounds awful, what Bowie and Rourke actually get up to is more like a beat poem reading and works quite well. The record was produced by all-star ’80s Queen producer David Richards, and it shows.
Ch-Ch-Changes: For the first time since Scary Monsters, Bowie got hands-on with instruments but was still somewhat hands-off musically – indifferent to the production. That said, he was pursuing a vision for the record, albeit very loose. He was looking for a sound with the theatricality of a ’50s musical but done with a small core band so that while on tour the stage could have room for dancers. The resulting Glass Spider Tour was a successor to the complex stage show of the Diamond Dogs Tour and played to Bowie’s love of theatricality in both scope and set pieces. The massive, precedent-setting production paved the way for every pop stage spectacular of the modern era, though it was critically panned at the time.
In a Most Peculiar Way: The decade had gotten sick of itself, and Bowie’s perceived pandering was a slight to critics. Bowie tends to agree: “I was in that netherworld of commercial acceptance. It was an awful trip … I didn’t really apply myself. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be doing. I wish there had been someone around who could have told me.” Though not a fan of the albums’ arrangement, Bowie is a fan of the songs themselves and in 2008 had “Time Will Crawl” remixed to his liking as part of his iSelect compilation. In the album’s liner notes, he laments, “Oh, to redo the rest of the album.”
There is one track he decidedly has no love for: “Too Dizzy”. Co-written by Kızılçay, Bowie called the song a throwaway as soon as a few months after the album’s release, and the track has been stricken from all future editions.
After All: Regrets aside, Bowie fully succeeded in creating a guitar-driven tribute to the big sound of ’50s musicals. In fact, that concept is actually bolstered by Never Let Me Down’s production saturation. The tracks are larger-than-life, made for dancers to stream across the stage and backup singers to chant supplemental lyrics. It’s an urban play with no core plot, but no matter how varied the motif, the songs are unified in energy. It was too much in 1987, but now that the fallout has died down, Never Let Me Down should have a second chance to be experienced. If “Time Will Crawl” doesn’t do it for you, I don’t know what will.
20. Tonight (1984)
That Is a Fact: Riding off the overwhelming success of Let’s Dance and the subsequent Serious Moonlight Tour, where he played to the biggest crowds of his career, Bowie found himself at an impasse. In a 1997 interview, he recalled, “I remember looking out over these waves of people and thinking, ‘I wonder how many Velvet Underground albums these people have in their record collections?’ I suddenly felt very apart from my audience. And it was depressing, because I didn’t know what they wanted.” Though these throngs of new fans perplexed him, Bowie immediately went back in the studio in an effort to stay connected to them. The resulting album, Tonight, is a sultry and playful side-step to Let’s Dance that shuffles between island influences, balladeering, and horn-heavy rock.
Sound and Vision: Tonight’s cover art, though not lauded in the annuls of music history as iconic, is easily among his most genuinely beautiful. A sketch of Bowie, drenched in midnight blue, looks up toward unseen stars against a stained glass abstraction. The piece was created by Mick Haggerty who also designed Let’s Dance and Never Let Me Down. For this record, Bowie asked Haggerty for something heroic and sourced medieval romanticism and Vladimir Tretchikoff’s painting of a blue-skinned Chinese girl. Haggerty photographed and then illustrated Bowie and created the background from photographs of flowers, time-lapse traffic, and paint smears.
The “Loving the Alien” music video features some great art direction interpreting the work of surreal painter Giorgio de Chirico as well as a real-life take on the album art. Unfortunately, Bowie came to the video with an inexplicably bombastic performance. But all is redeemed by Jazzin’ for Blue Jean – a 20-minute short film, encompassing the video for “Blue Jean” where Bowie plays both a romantically hopeless regular joe and the enigmatic pop star Screamin’ Lord Byron. In it, Bowie both creates one of his most visually stunning alter egos and tears him down (along with his past selves) when he yells at Byron: “You conniving, randy, bogus Oriental old queen! Your record sleeves are better than your songs!”
Someone’s Back in Town: Hoping to quickly capture whatever spark the millions of new fans had fallen in love with, Bowie brought in the band who’d played with him on both Let’s Dance and the Serious Moonlight Tour (including guitarist Carlos Alomar who’d been on the tour, but skipped Let’s Dance after being offered an “embarrassing” fee to play). The one key ingredient of Dance missing was producer Nile Rodgers. In his place was the production team of up-and-comer Derek Bramble and Genesis/Collins/Gabriel producer Hugh Padgham.
Along for the ride was Bowie’s good pal Iggy Pop who worked extensively on the album, including covers of three of his own songs and two new writing credits. The album’s finale, “Dancing with the Big Boys”, heralded the big sound Bowie would cultivate on his following album, Never Let Me Down. “Big Boys” is an impromptu track written and recorded over eight hours as Bowie and Pop goaded each other on in a spastic duet. Also lending guest vocals is Tina Turner on the album’s title track, who adds a beautiful edge to the re-imagined Iggy Pop song.
Ch-Ch-Changes: Until Tonight, Bowie hadn’t faltered in any lasting way. Records like Low and Lodger, now critically lauded, hadn’t done so well, but with each successive transformation, from the dissolution of the Spiders to the plastic soul of Young Americans, he’d challenged the expectations of fans and come out on top. It appears that for the first time, Bowie was truly at a loss with how to proceed.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Tonight is practically the oft-whispered Pin Ups 2 that never materialized. Of the nine tracks, five are covers. What’s more, the album’s preoccupation with chill reggae and soca, as well as two covers of ’60s tracks (The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and the Chuck Jackson R&B hit “I Keep Forgettin’”), left old and new fans alike scratching their heads or outright mad. Listener tastes and expectations aside, the vocal performances are spot-on as, like Let’s Dance before it, Bowie played singer, not full-on musician.
After All: Admittedly, Tonight isn’t for everyone. Yet even if funky islander crooner Bowie reads “disposable” to you, Tonight still plays host to some indispensable tracks. “Loving the Alien” is one of Bowie’s greatest songs of all time — an ode to the beliefs lost to the march of Christianity. It’s still a favorite of Bowie’s, having appeared on his hand-selected retrospective iSelect and in the set of A Reality Tour. Though these days he wishes it had been recorded differently, if you’re a fan of the Labyrinth soundtrack’s production, you’ll find “Alien” to be a long-lost relative to “Underground”. The Iggy Pop cover, “Neighborhood Threat” is another that Bowie himself has denounced, but the resulting recording is an amazing and heated piece of ’80s synth rock that’s owed a retroactive Miami Vice action sequence. And of course there’s “Blue Jean”, a sure-fire crowd-pleaser for fans of Let’s Dance. For the rest of the record, if you don’t jive to the aforementioned genres, then most of the album might sour you as it has many fans. But, if you’re prepared to come in with an open mind, Bowie’s funky island pleasure cruise has a seat waiting for you.
19. Heathen (2002)
That Is a Fact: Heathen started in part as Toy, an unreleased work from around 2000. When that album didn’t quite happen, Heathen swallowed some of that project’s work and evolved into Bowie’s 2002 album, a smooth, well-produced effort that was the artist’s first thing for Columbia.
Sound and Vision: Between Bowie’s possessed eyes and the upside-down font, Heathen’s art was all about anti-religious play.
Someone’s Back in Town: Oh, have you heard of these two guys, um, Dave Grohl and Pete Townsend? They showed up on Heathen.
Ch-Ch-Changes: Honestly, this effort felt like a celebration of Bowie’s own legacy in its carefully crafted sounds. Heathen is atmospheric residue from Bowie’s ‘70s efforts made in a more commercially slick and stable world.
In a Most Peculiar Way: No music videos? Bummer, Bowie!
After All: When Bowie got back together with producer and guitarist Tony Visconti, instead of recreating their famous sound from Scary Monsters, the duo worked together on a strikingly modern interpretation of past efforts from the 1970s. Heathen is sturdy art rock. It feels old and new, or rather, like Bowie proving how decent he can still be even when he’s not trying all that hard.
18. Black Tie White Noise (1993)
That Is a Fact: With Tin Machine a memory, Black Tie White Noise was something of a back-to-basics affair for Bowie. The album was heavily influenced by his recent marriage to model Iman Abdulmajid and marked the beginning of Bowie’s strange experimental journey through the remainder of the ‘90s. Bowie took a year to record the album — a bit on the long side for him — and tried his hand at playing saxophone, which producer Nile Rodgers said wasn’t exactly Bowie’s forte. Lyrically, Bowie explored personal tragedy and political turmoil here, taking influence from the suicide of his stepbrother and the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. Generally regarded a success, the album would be his last number one album in England until 2013’s The Next Day.
Sound and Vision: Black Tie White Noise had one of the weaker covers of Bowie’s discography, featuring a stark close-up of his face. With nothing sounding too distinctive from his other records, the image wasn’t on an album remarkable enough for it to be iconic in its simplicity.
Someone’s Back in Town: Nile Rodgers, reuniting the pairing from the success of Let’s Dance, produced the album. The album featured collaborations with singer Al B. Sure! and guitarist Reeves Gabrels, as the latter was in the midst of a 12-year stretch working on Bowie albums. Most notably, the record marked the last collaboration between Bowie and Mick Ronson, on a cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free” dedicated to Bowie’s late stepbrother.
Ch-Ch-Changes: The album was a return to a more traditional sound for Bowie after his work with Tin Machine. The biggest departure was midway through on the track “Pallas Athena”, a club hit that showed Bowie finding his way back to the dance floor, making a song fit more for raves than disco. Beyond that, the album found Bowie trying to fit into a changing landscape and for the most part doing so well.
In a Most Peculiar Way: The strangest thing about the album was not the actual music, but the interactive CD-Rom Bowie released as a companion piece. Featuring interviews, music videos, a chance to remix the “Jump They Say” video, and the chance to explore a virtual world, the project was Bowie’s attempt to jump in on the phenomenon of computer games. For a pre-Windows 95 world, the project was mostly a bust. Even Bowie commented that he hated the idea in retrospect.
After All: As a whole, Black Tie White Noise was somewhat of a transitional record for Bowie and holds up fairly well. In some sense, it finds Bowie playing safe with a few reliable themes and styles, but also features him trying his hand at house and electronica, at times unsuccessfully. The start of a period of risks and experimentation that didn’t always pay off, Black Tie White Noise stood as one of his better works from the decade.
17. Tin Machine – Tin Machine II (1989)
That Is a Fact: The first Tin Machine record was received with muddled response from the world at large. The second Tin Machine record even more so, which is truly an art crime. The charm of Tin Machine’s proto-grunge, one-take recordings was an exciting reprieve from Never Let Me Down for fans and Bowie alike. However, the band was still new, testing their cohesion, and the songs were decidedly underdeveloped. By 1991, they were a well-oiled machine, if you’ll pardon the pun. Tin Machine II is the great forgotten Bowie rock record, a worthy heir to his hardest solo work.
Sound and Vision: The front cover features an illustration of four ancient Greek kouroi statues; one for each member of the band. The nude male forms are tame, even by classical standards, but that was too much for America. In the States, Tin Machine II‘s kouroi feature an airbrushed pattern like torn metal over the groin of each statue’s crotch – a disturbing solution as though each penis had been violently torn off. Bowie called this his “second castration” after the similar censorship to his likewise tame canine tackle on the back of Diamond Dogs.
Someone’s Back in Town: Producer Tim Palmer returned for the second album with the exception of “One Shot” which was produced by Hugh Padgham making his Bowie production return after Tonight. The band’s “fifth member” Kevin Armstrong also returned to add piano and rhythm guitar on a couple tracks.
Changes: Tin Machine isn’t the same thing as “David Bowie”, but Tin Machine II is a far more David Bowie-sounding record than their first outing. This time around it’s clear they spent time with tracks, rather than throwing production on improvs. Bowie’s cut up lyrics have a power and focus not seen since Scary Monsters. Lead guitarist Reeves Gabrels elaborates: “we knew one another as musicians. … It wasn’t as dense. And we actually left more room, I think for David to come up with some interesting melodies. There was more room for vocals on this record.” Even the two tracks featuring drummer Hunt Sales providing R&B lead vocals feel more at home with Bowie than much of the first record.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Tin Machine II, for undetermined reasons, has never been re-released since its original pressing in ’91. Perhaps it’s because the record was released under JVC’s Victory label, as their first record’s sales had worn out their welcome with EMI. Or maybe there’s a royalty issue between Bowie and the Sales brothers. This is all just speculation. The facts are these: Tin Machine was re-released in ’99 along with the rest of the Bowie discography to date and was rebranded as “David Bowie – Tin Machine” on the spine. Each album in that set came with an insert showing Bowie’s full discography, omitting only David Bowie and Tin Machine II. In the recent David Bowie Is exhibition and book, both those records were included alongside the rest of his discography. Make of that what you will.
After All: Generally, it’s hard for Bowie fans to relate to Tin Machine. In a 2013 album-ranking poll on DavidBowie.com, Tin Machine came in at #26, while Tin Machine II came in last at #27. Likely this can be chocked up to a lack of experience. Tin Machine scared listeners away and they never listened to the second record. It’s past time to change that. Tin Machine II could in some ways play as the rocking Aladdin Sane companion to Scary Monsters‘ Ziggy, coming a decade late. Track down a copy and get familiar with the power houses of “Baby Universal”, “A Big Hurt”,and “You Belong in Rock ‘n’ Roll”; loose yourself in the more contemplative “Amiapura” and “Goodbye Mr. Ed” (both could’ve found a home on Heathen), and wonder where this record has been all your life with every track in between.
16. Station to Station (1976)
That Is a Fact: Sniff, sniff. Oh … hello, frightening Thin White Duke. I didn’t see you standing in that cloud of pearly white cocaine! Bowie’s last blowout and most unforgiving character pit stop — created for 1976’s Station to Station — makes any listener feel slightly deranged thinking about the artist creating this record (how didn’t he die?). The ’70s really were his Golden Years (stop swearing if you disagree), and by 1976 he’d fallen madly in love with cocaine. Numbed by the stuff he carried on, primed with the world’s imminent end, claiming to have no memory of recording the album in the first place. Songs like “Word on a Wing” were a cry for help: “Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing, and I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things.” Christ, it’s got that cartwheel-away-from-the-burning-house feeling to it, doesn’t it? It sways from an outrageous high to a walloping low. Firing on all cylinders during recording, days rolling into nights, and once the clock struck 12, the engines at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles started gurgling.
Sound and Vision: Looking like he got stepped on by a large shoe with a spiky rubber sole, the protruding blonde, nail-Thin White Duke appears out of the darkness! “Behold! I have been living on a diet of red peppers, cocaine, and milk!” Motivated by 1920s Berlin, and Lindsay Kemp’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth featuring Bowie, it’s stark and opaque just like a bad hallucinatory trip. While it represents a black-and-white still image from the movie (when his character climbs into the spaceship) – a protruding thorn trampled by the weight of the world seems more fitting.
Someone’s Back in Town: Co-produced by former engineer to Dionne Warwick and Carly Simon, Pretty Woman producer Harry Maslin worked closely with Bowie in 1975 on “Fame” (with John Lennon) and “Across the Universe – and he’s back on Station to Station. Without Maslin, that “rounded”bit of the backing vocals on “Golden Years” might not have happened – he suggested using an old RCA microphone. As far as the band goes, newcomer George Murray joins the ranks as bassist, and after working for the first time with Bowie on Young Americans, drummer Dennis Davis and gifted guitarist Carlos Alomar return, shaping Alomar for 10 more albums with Bowie.
Ch-Ch-Changes: As if some of that cocaine residue has the ability to seep into your nostrils, throat, and ears every time you hear this album, you can almost feel his high when you hit play. Exploring inner anguish and reflecting on mortality and misery, each line finds Bowie drenched in the painstaking sinister devotion to the persona of Thin White Duke, a huge transformation from Ziggy. Young Americans gave him the tools to re-program the soul and funk gears onto a krautrock track. Even if “TVC-15” drives a riling guitar and piano-punching storytelling of the “transition” to a “transmission” fueled by Iggy Pop’s supposed drug-induced hallucinations might seem normal, its surge into “Stay” fuses the Americana-funk with a cluster of cataclysmic European sounds.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Tell me how he made that 10-minute marathon title track high on cocaine! It’s a goddang miracle he made it out alive, probably survived on the back of baring his soul to the reaper – as Station to Station finds Bowie turning to face his demons head-on. That’s not to say drugs are cool, kids; that’s to say a little part of Bowie had to die so that the Thin White Duke could live. I expect it’s true that “Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years.”
After All: Station to Station moves as its name implies, a trek from the semi-sane to the utterly demented (with the potency of a musical genius travelling somewhere in between). He’s caught in passage of time where cries for help are reinforced with righteous funk rock. A man whose ideals are toppling over like building blocks is telling us to “Run for the shadows” over an intoxicating underbelly of finger-snapping funk, mere minutes before Davis’ fraught and fearless drumming pierces through the dimmed darkness on “Stay”. Perhaps to let the light of hope shine in just a little, “Light is so vague when it brings someone new/ This time tomorrow I’ll know what to do.” But it’s that 10-minute title track that bursts apart like the rubber burning under the wheels of a racecar. Though he’s undeniably gone off the rails on this album, Bowie isn’t burnt out — he’s on fire.