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.
15. Young Americans (1975)
That Is a Fact: Recorded in Philadelphia during a period in which Bowie became obsessed with soul music and R&B, Young Americans was an insanely drastic change from Diamond Dogs. Even Bowie’s vocals on the record are barely recognizable as the same person and the music shifted into a pitch perfect encapsulation of the Philadelphia soul scene at the time. Bowie was self aware enough to realize he was co-opting a movement, and deemed Young Americans “plastic soul”, a term given to Mick Jagger regarding a white man singing traditionally black music. Bowie embraced the term, though, and was eventually offered an opportunity to play on Soul Train, one of the few white musicians to get the chance to do so.
Sound and Vision: Perhaps Bowie’s most straightforward album art, Young Americans simply features the rock star gazing longingly into the camera and holding a lit cigarette. Following Diamond Dogs, this cover was tamer than anyone thought Bowie capable of. With a nice plaid shirt and a truly majestic mane of hair, Bowie looks ready to be your friend. What could be more inviting?
Someone’s Back in Town: John Lennon assisted in the production of “Across the Universe” and “Fame”, while a young Luther Vandross contributed backing vocals for several tracks. The real star guest is Carlos Alomar, who would work with Bowie for 30 years after meeting for the first time while working on this record. Besides pianist Mike Garson, no one has worked more with Bowie than Alomar.
Ch-Ch-Changes: This is arguably the biggest genre shift that ever occurred in Bowie’s long and storied discography. For a guy who constantly jumps between genres, that’s really saying a lot. The glam rock of Diamond Dogs is entirely absent, replaced by R&B and soul so convincing you’d swear this is what he’d been doing all along. Bowie’s ability to pick up what is great about a genre and mesh it with his own sensibilities to make something approachable for everyone is as evident as ever here.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Bowie had several ideas for this record before landing on Young Americans and in traditional Bowie fashion, some of them were pretty damn weird. The strangest option is without a doubt “The Gouster”, which is a term for a way of dressing that was popular in Chicago in the 1960’s. Gousters were young black men who dressed like the gangsters of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.
After All: For such a drastic genre shift to be a success is a rare feat, and one Bowie pulls off with aplomb. His immersion into the Philadelphia soul culture helped to craft and contour a record with an immense amount of respect to the scene as well as incredible nuance and some of his most popular songs to date. Regardless of what Bowie record is your favorite, “Fame” and “Young Americans” are most likely in your top ten Bowie songs. They’re just so damn good, and so is this record.
14. The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
That Is a Fact: Considered by some to be the birth of Bowie proper, as well as the first time he glimpsed glam rock, The Man Who Sold the World is Bowie’s third studio record and finds him beautifully struggling to find himself a genre. Recorded in Bowie’s London home, a place that was described by a visitor as being “like Dracula’s living room”, this record was largely composed by Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti as Bowie was recently married and too infatuated with his new wife to contribute as thoroughly as he would on other records. Visconti recalled instances where he and Ronson would jam for a bit and if Bowie liked what he heard he would get up off the couch where he was laying with his wife and churn out some lyrics for the track.
Sound and Vision: The American release of the record had an illustrated cover of a cowboy with a dissolving hat and a rifle tucked under his arm. The subject of the drawing was, in fact, a friend of Bowie’s, Michael Weller, and the background of the illustration is the Cane Hill mental asylum. The UK cover featured the first appearance of androgynous Bowie, with the rock star donning a dress and long, blond hair while sprawled out on a couch. The German cover was a bit more abstract, with a strange flying creature with Bowie’s head and a hand for a body covering the record.
Someone’s Back in Town: The participation of Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti marks the beginning of the formation of the Spiders from Mars, who would obviously later become a huge part of the Bowie universe on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie is credited as the composer on all tracks and has objected to the idea that he didn’t participate much in the writing of the record, but multiple sources highlight Ronson and Visconti’s contributions as where the material came from.
Ch-Ch-Changes: This is where Bowie started to move away from folk into harder genres. Some even consider the record heavy metal, though I’d put it more between hard rock and glam rock. The introduction to glam rock is obviously a huge deal in the catalogue of Bowie, as it would loom large over his music for decades to come. Was it calculated foresight or an artist finding their path? Either way, Bowie finding glam inspiration was arguably one of the biggest moments in his storied career.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Ralph Mace, a concert pianist who was working in the classical music department at Mercury Records at the time of recording, was asked to play a Moog on the record, but when he didn’t have one he had to borrow one from George Harrison. A Rykodisc reissue of The Man Who Sold The World featured the first recordings of “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang On To Yourself”, recorded by Bowie with his side-project Arnold Corns. That band essentially only existed in the studio, serving as a practice run for Ziggy Stardust, and never put out an entire album or LP.
After All: This is really when Bowie became the Bowie we all knew him to be for so long. The sexually charged lyrics and psych-hard-glam rock merge to make this energetic and out there record that, while it holds up pretty well, is incredibly of its time. The early ’70s are encapsulated in this record and the genesis of the Spiders from Mars is an important moment in rock and roll history.
13. Aladdin Sane (1973)
That Is a Fact: Coming hot off the heels of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane was the spiritual sequel to Bowie’s 1972 glam masterpiece. Bowie and producer Ken Scott worked on a harder, heavier rock sound — just listen to those riffs in “Cracked Actor” and “Jean Genie” — but Bowie, ever the experimenter, didn’t just make Ziggy 2. Aladdin Sane kicks a ton of rocking butt, and the album was meant to be a balance between Bowie’s highs from performing live and being in the studio creating new tunes. Hence the metaphorical lightning bolt on Bowie’s face for the album. He was split in two, going insane, making grungy music magic out of the experience.
Sound and Vision: Arguably, that album cover is more iconic than the album. In fact, one could say the pale, pink-skinned glitter monster of the cover – complete with the shiny lightning bolt and flame-red mullet – is more popular than the music itself. It’s classic Bowie. The kind you see with annoyance, then acceptance, on Target T-shirts for teens. Or Kate Moss and Drew Barrymore’s faces. After all, the album is about teenage drama and being glamorous … but the kids might not know that! Tell them next time you see an Aladdin Sane bolt!
Also, be sure to look at outtakes from the album cover shoot. Literally all of them would have been perfect for this album’s cover. Bowie’s just that good in makeup.
Someone’s Back in Town: This being classic-era Bowie, peak Mick Ronson rocked the guitars while Bowie sang and saxed. Ow ow!
Changes: While Aladdin Sane is core to Bowie’s glam period, it’s interesting when placed next to Ziggy, or Pin Ups for that matter. Whereas Ziggy Stardust was practically a ready-to-film tale of a glitzy alien loaded with pomp and eloquence, Aladdin Sane continued the wildly big hard rock and cheeky vibe in a scuzzier, ever so sleazier way. It’s got more doo-wop, jazz, blues and other flashy new things Bowie thought he could play with at the time.
In a Most Peculiar Way: The album itself isn’t all that weird, per se. Just naughty. Now this Aladdin Sane makeup tutorial on YouTube? That’s weird. Well-meaning! But a little weird!
After All: Aladdin Sane is still a dirty, sexy, sorta-seedy-night-out kind of album. The album title is a pun on “A Lad Insane.” The album is nuts, evocative, and raucous. No, Aladdin Sane may not have reached the epically insane levels of Ziggy, but it beats the constant flat grind of Pin Ups, and songs like “Cracked Actor”, “Watch That Man”, and “Panic in Detroit” have ensured the album’s classic status. Bowie himself called the album “Ziggy goes to America,” and Aladdin Sane is practically a soundtrack for going out and getting into trouble on the streets of a big city, or in the back of a drive-in. Hey, why not get into trouble in both places? Just make sure this album’s bumping on the stereo.
12. Lodger (1979)
That Is a Fact: Lodger is the last entry in Bowie, Eno, and Visconti’s fabled Berlin Trilogy. The record saw them recording not in Berlin this time, but Montreux, Switzerland, and New York City. Lodger is a classic for many reasons, but is the less popularized of the Trilogy, largely because it goes on its own journey. This travelogue of themes, sounds, and narrative locales sees Bowie cultivating all the cut-up tricks of the Berlin era while shining some light on the beautiful, but dreary landscapes of Low and “Heroes”.
Sound and Vision: And now for something radically different. Lodger’s album art is the first in the official catalog of Bowie records not to feature his face, at least not directly. The cover art, a collaboration with pop artist Derek Boshier, takes advantage of a gatefold LP jacket. At face value, it’s just a floating pair of legs with text on an unassuming postcard. Fold it open and see the artist broken-nosed, bandaged, and sprawled out, yet hovering, through a bathroom. It’s like gravity went out and a car crash victim was flung though a hospital room. The gatefold’s interior includes a photo of Che Guevara’s corpse, Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ, and Bowie behind-the-scenes, strapped in for the cover photo.
With two years still to the launch of MTV, promotional music videos were a burgeoning industry. Ever the multimedia artist, Bowie dove right in. Director David Mallet and Bowie serve up low-fi video charm with “DJ” and “Look Back in Anger”, but turned heads with “Boys Keep Swinging”. Bowie’s disregard for gender shines in the role of three female backing singers (ranging from drag vamp to kindly grandma) who play off the sharply dressed male Bowie’s snarky machismo. The video was, not surprisingly, controversial, and as a result, RCA opted not to release the track as a single in the US.
Someone’s Back in Town: The usual suspects from The Berlin Trilogy are all here including the return of Carlos Alomar. Unable to secure Robert Fripp for guitars as he had on “Heroes”, Bowie brought in Adrian Belew, who he’d seen on tour with Zappa. But, as with the Oblique Strategies-infused sessions of the prior records, nothing was what it seemed, and spontaneous challenges were offered to the musicians. For example, all of Belew’s work was performed against backing tracks he hadn’t heard prior. Guitarist Alomar and drummer Dennis Davis swapped instruments, neither of which they were comfortable with, to give “Boys Keep Swinging” a garage feel.
Ch-Ch-Changes: The Berlin Trilogy was coming to an inevitable end, and the artists were ready for it. Tensions weren’t high, and the team still had tricks up their sleeves, but sometimes you feel the need to “Move On”, you know? As a result, Lodger breaks the loose format established by Low and “Heroes” and in some ways plays by its own standalone concept. Here you’ll find no eerie instrumentals. Side A is an assemblage of globetrotting tracks that experiment both in world sounds and themes of traveling (hence the cover’s postcard). Side B features a series of vignettes where Bowie becomes a DJ, an angel of death, an abusive husband, and others.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Eno and Bowie’s quirky experiments in songwriting are still in good form and are perhaps more playful than ever on Lodger. Bowie’s Ziggy B-side “All the Young Dudes” was played backwards to create “Move On”. “Red Money” is a complete lyrical revision of “Sister Midnight”, a track Bowie and Alomar had written music for on Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. Side A’s album opener, “Fantastic Voyage”, features the exact key, chord changes, and overall structure as side B’s “Boys Keep Swinging”. On “DJ”, Bowie is rumored to have been purposely mimicking the singing style of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne – you can’t unhear it. Whether it was a direct experiment or simply some fun on Bowie’s part since Eno had just started working with the young group, it’s hard to say.
Fun bonus fact: Moby got his first job, as a golf caddy, specifically so he could afford to buy the just-released Lodger.
After All: If Lodger is anything, it’s fun – not an adjective you’d use on the rest of The Berlin Trilogy. Bowie was in transition and the thru line from here to Scary Monsters is clear. In fact, the much lauded Monsters and the lesser-loved Lodger are two sides of the same coin. Whereas Monsters has a shiner polish to its art pop, Lodger is the dirtier, funkier listen, but both are matched in their hungry energy and deserving of equal listening.
11. The Next Day (2013)
This Is a Fact: The 24th album by Bowie and his first in a decade, The Next Day was recorded largely in secrecy. NDAs were distributed to musicians and engineers alike, and when a studio source leaked a rumor about which studio the album would be recorded at, Bowie relocated the entire operation to a new studio and would only allow one or two studio employees to be present when recording was in session. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s oft right-hand man, said that the album came together with a five-day recording session that built outlines for the tracks, followed by four months of radio silence from Bowie before he beckoned the band back to finish the songs.
Sound and Vision: In one of the cheekiest moves of his long and extremely cheeky career, Bowie and album artwork “designer” Jonathon Barnbrook (who also designed the artwork for Heathens and Reality), repurposed the “Heroes” cover with a white square and a relatively standard text that revealed the new album’s title.
Someone’s Back in Town: To still be collaborating with Tony Visconti this late in his career is a pretty baller move for Bowie. The two have a palpable chemistry even this far into their discography, and it honestly seems like they might die on the same day, like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; they’re that in sync.
Ch-Ch-Changes: The Next Day is a relatively straightforward rock album, less experimental than Reality, which makes sense given the decade separation. After the lackluster response to Reality, Bowie clearly wanted to put out high-quality material, but he seems far less willing to take risks throughout the record. Clearly his aversion to taking huge risks paid off because The Next Day is far better than Reality.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Aside from the cover art gag, this is likely David Bowie’s most boilerplate album. Pretty slick of the old man to go legit late in the game.
After All: The Next Day was a late in the game home run for Bowie, proving he’s still got it and hadn’t forgotten about us rabid fans who wanted some more of his special brand of weird. While combining his usual moves with contemporary trends, Bowie crafted a rock record that was both very 2013 and very Bowie, an impressive feat for sure.
10. Let’s Dance (1983)
That Is a Fact: The 35-year-old hadn’t received a Top 10 since Station to Station, and hypnotized by the charm of a prospective hit, he jumped into 1983 with the veteran formula: get people to dance. “Let’s Dance” even works on the dance floor still; I witnessed this with my very own eyes last weekend, and if that song is not a picture-perfect distillation of what the ’80s sounded like, no matter how old you are, I don’t know what is. Recorded in Manhattan’s Power Station studios, its engineers worked tirelessly to create that classic gated snare reverb and managed to do so by mic’ing the snare, then placing two additional mics above the kit (fully equipped with noise gates), letting the mic catch the hard snap of reverb without any echoes filling the space. If that wasn’t enough, Bowie cashed in by bringing Chic’s Nile Rodgers on board. “We did some pre-production in Switzerland,” Rodgers ruminated in 2013. “Then one morning he walked into my bedroom with his 12-string guitar with only six strings on it and said: ‘Nile, darling, I think I have a song which feels like it’s a hit.’” At that time, they were working without a record deal, “him and me against the world,” and with Bowie holding his pop pom-poms grinning like a car salesman, that collaboration resulted in three of his biggest US-charting hits: “Let’s Dance”, “China Girl”, and “Modern Love”.
Sound and Vision: Let’s Punch! da-na-na-na-na-nana. The ’80s graphic typography is just about the only thing remotely palpable on this cover. Bowie boxes himself into the pop-making ring by putting on the gloves to duke it out with other hits in the charts. Pity we can’t see his shoes – the pre-Let’s Dance fan in me wishes they’d be Wizard of Oz red.
Someone’s Back in Town: Nile Rodgers ripping the crown from longtime producer Tony Visconti’s head could have ruined his relationship with Bowie forever, but it lasted only two decades until 2002’s Heathen. Nile produced, played guitar, and sparred with horn arrangements, but it’s the band of gifted session musicians that won the match. You’ve got bassist Carmine Rojas, who toured with Bowie after Let’s Dance for four years, eight-armed drumming spider, Omar Hakim (Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Miles Davis), and Chic member Anthony “Tony” Thompson. Frank Simms, a backing vocalist for Billy Joel, jumps into the ring too, but the most crucial member is the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, who caught Bowie’s attention at Montreux Jazz Festival when he was only 29.
Ch-Ch-Changes: This is not the Bowie you once knew or expected. This is not the alien art-rock experiment you’d hoped for. It’s the sound in favor of pure disco, dance, and funk with Bowie coming down to earth. He always knew how to get people moving – politically, emotionally, and here he uses that skill to literal effect.
In a Most Peculiar Way: There’s really nothing more frightening than a normal-looking, tanned, and healthy bleached-blonde Bowie. After multiple personas (androgynous Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, or the gaunt Thin White Duke), it felt like a prank! Was it a mask? The ‘do’ really a wig made out of doll’s hair? But the most surprising happens on Side B; the gradual build of Bowie’s baritone during “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” introduces the bizarreness usurping Bowie’s mainstream moment. It’s an ode to Bowie fans who enjoy the darker tinders lurking beneath his work. (It was originally recorded with Giorgio Moroder for the 1982 erotic horror “Cat People” about a family with a penchant for turning into panthers.) Charming! That’s more like it.
After All: Yeah Bowie, “If you say run, I’ll run with you.” The perfect-scoring No.1 title track was a hit in the UK, US, and other countries, but it still couldn’t stop critics and pre-’80s fans to group it with the albums that followed, Tonight and Never Let Me Down. But when rankings outweigh head-scratchers, it barely matters. His high-dive into the mediocre pool of mainstream success was drastic, but necessary, and I suppose Bowie acting so “normal” and preppy was his mockery on the 1980’s tanned, hair-sprayed-coif currency. However you label this version of Bowie’s sound, it was manna for post-disco-lovers all over the world.
09. Space Oddity (1969)
That Is a Fact: You get out 2001: A Odyssey and feel a little inspired! You listen to Bob Dylan in the ‘60s and feel a little bit of a desire to play with that minimalist, wordy sound! Regardless, Bowie’s second studio album was a late-decade experiment in psychedelia, complete with electronic organs, acoustic, and even edgy guitars — a whole universe of new sounds for Bowie.
Sound and Vision: The original UK LP cover art shows a stoic, even catatonic Bowie’s face pressed against what could be best described as a blue-and-green game of Connect Four. The overlaying circles, however, were dumped for the American version, and Bowie’s straight face was zoomed in for maximum staring-contest thrills.
Someone’s Back in Town: For Space Oddity, Bowie worked with session cats like Paul Buckmater, Rick Wakemen, Herbie Flowers, and longtime collaborator Tony Visconti among others.
Ch-Ch-Changes: Whereas David Bowie was simply an introduction of Bowie, human being and singer-songwriter, Space Oddity — released in the US as Man of Words/Man of Music — was the first phase in Bowie’s nearly 50-year-long game of chameleon. What changed between Bowie’s self-titled album and Space Oddity? Everything. Whereas Bowie’s first album was of the mod variety, here he went cosmic and folky.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Look, it’s called Space Oddity. It’s all very weird, but have you ever seen the original video!? Check out the ‘60s camera effects and dime store costumes! Proceed with caution should you use drugs or protein pills before viewing.
After All: Space Oddity has some real depth and cosmic soul lingering in the air beyond the hit title track. “Letter from Hermione” has a jazzy Pied Piper charm, and “God Knows I’m Good”, a tale of shoplifting, shows a certain worrisome pluck. All in all, this album, the trip with Major Tom, is quite neat.
08. ★ (2016)
That Is a Fact: Hallo (again) Spaceboy! Bowie is back in the future. His last album, 2013’s The Next Day, appeared as if it might be his swan song – that one last gust of creativity after a decade’s worth of silence spurred on by mostly uninspired millennium-muck. Three years later, it looks as though that album was the start of a second wind, with ★’s seven tracks finding the icon reclaiming jazz propulsions, electronic-infused, guitar-laden rock, and experimentation scented with Black Tie White Noise and Low’s side B (particularly a mesh of “Subterraneans” and “Warszawa”). It takes an uncompromising confessional jaunt through fear, death, rebirth, and the mundane nature of life, and although it unravels through a range of prickly new sensations, the best way to cook up a fresh recipe for Bowie has always been to use traditional ingredients – particularly, bringing back his right-hand man Tony Visconti.
During The Stage Left Podcast, Visconti revealed that the album came together in early 2014, when they knocked out six songs in a five-day recording session. That pre-production saw Bowie’s former drummer Zach Alford joined by jazz pianist Jack Span and Visconti on bass, (hello “The Man Who Sold The World”). Almost all of the demos made the album and the ones that didn’t were used for the 2014 musical Lazarus and his chronologically reverse-sequenced compilation, Nothing Has Changed. The play, co-written by Bowie and playwright Enda Walsh, extended the ideals of Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth, honing in on the novel’s alien Thomas Newton which Bowie played in the 1976 film. But, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” from the compilation is like a dam broken loose on ★ with a brand-new revamp and sublime snare work suggestive of Outside’s “A Small Plot of Land”. It all came together after Bowie invited saxophonist Donny McClaslin’s jazz quartet with 30-year-old drummer Mark Guiliana into Magic Shop studios to build a new Bowie world.
Sound and Vision: Backed by kindred spirits — Lodger and its Bowie legs, The Next Day and its cloaked façade — Bowie now assails his audience with an austere and simple artistic visual blitz: a black star with fragments of stars beneath it. Artist Jonathan Barnbrook created this visual language, and as with the intangibility of Bowie’s music, you really have no idea what you’re staring at or what you’re listening to, but you’re able to understand the broken stars sitting under its ‘leader’ timely on an emotional level. The minimalist cover art is a first of its kind for Bowie; it has many potential interpretations. Literally, the star signifies his star-status in music history. His power can be construed as the ability to embed narratives, whether they’re fictional or not, into the psychic space of his listeners. Perhaps the best musical ideas break apart the listener’s routine, like the fragmented stars, and re-write it in the imagined space of the artist. Perhaps ★ illustrates how the state of being can be emancipated through the profound tool of music. In 2016, Bowie found a presence bigger than him.
Someone’s Back in Town: It’s Visconti’s 13th album, but what’s more striking is how the loud experimentation of Station to Station that lingered into 1977’s Low, which Bowie recorded with Visconti in Berlin, now finds another home 39 years later. Similar to the way in which Low’s “Subterranean” is imprinted with Bowie’s sax solo, ★ arrives with equally spellbinding saxophone epiphanies. McCaslin and his jazz quartet are crucial collaborators here, similar to David Sanborn playing sax on “Young Americans”. More remarkable still is the seamless teamwork between these jazz musicians and Bowie. The same chaotic genius on Scary Monsters rages through tracks like “Tis Pity She Was a Whore” but Bowie’s cry above the potent jazz-tangles is balanced by newcomer Mark Giuliana’s powerful drum work and Ben Monder’s exquisite guitar. Woozy brass and woodwind entwines so smoothly throughout electronic blasts that it generates a sense of a solid band, rather than Bowie The Lonestar.
Fun fact: Even LCD Soundsystem’s creator James Murphy is on percussion for two tracks.
Ch-Ch-Changes: While Bowie tried to fool us in 2014 with the convincingly titled compilation album Nothing Has Changed, he now buries the statement in a richly melodic croon during “Dollar Days”. “I’m dying to/ Push their backs against the grain/ And fool them all again and again.” Yup – he rips off his mask and tries on a new one by imploring a cosmic shift of flesh-tearing experimental jazz concoctions, masterful arrangements, and a shout of “I’m turning 69 years old you fuckers!” – paired with “I’ve got nothing left to lose” which he sings on “Lazarus”. He demolishes what he identifies as human complacency using upbeat jazz roots scattered across sheets of electronic noise. We find Bowie looking to the future whilst young musicians try to recreate the past. Now he wants to expose perplexity at a world which balances on the inevitability of time; “Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place and bravely cried/ I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar” – a mystifying statement suggesting he’s in transition, taking on a new persona, becoming a new Star.
In a Most Peculiar Way: The claustrophobic and ominous A Clockwork Orange English ‘nadsat’ slang during “Girl Loves Me” stews like a seizure, heightening with every polari (Soho dialect) smirk — “Cheena so sound, so titty up this Malchick” — no doubt a butchered mondegreen since we’ve yet to claw through the liner notes. Either way, it’s downright fucking strange and brilliant. Almost imperceptibly, it reminds us of the “cut-up” dialogue he and Eno used on Outside and how it had enough muscle to hold up 20 years later.
After All: This is one of Bowie’s most dynamic outings and a courageous triggering of a second creative wind. Its spirit and bursting energy reveal a sound experimental enough to frame his roguishly lyrical wit. The 28th studio album finds a 69-year-old uncovering a cohesive collection of cryptic lyricism riddled with visuals of death, panic, fear, and ambivalence. There’s urgency to his writing and singing that defies the danger of deceleration with age. He’s never sounded more appropriately matured as he does here, confronting deliberately opaque and ambiguous prophecies with ruthless cool, as if he were that prophet sent from space. ★’s best performances balance Bowie’s iconic messages with bold instrumental change-ups as heard during the near 10-minute three-suite concoction of the title track. The last time he offered a similarly long opener was during the coke-fied Station to Station, but now peppers the curtain-opener using the cosmic promise of an immortal being (“I’m not a pop star/ gangstar/ filmstar… I’m a Blackstar”). By album’s end, Bowie repeats a ripping fusion of classic pleading over a pulsating rhythm of cabaret sax and synth, admitting ruefully: “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. It’s a startling reminder that the only way Bowie can transcend 49 years of artistry is by detaching from the Superstar he had become and transform into a new thing altogether.
07. Outside (1995)
That Is a Fact: Built around anxiety surrounding the end of the millennium, Outside served as one of Bowie’s more high-concept approaches of the back half of his career. Built around a fictional investigator, Nathan Adler, the album tells the story of a dystopian future in which Adler works to solve the murder of a 14-year-old girl and its relation to Art Crime, a phenomenon involving the mutilation of bodies for artistic purposes. The album came out of Bowie’s work reuniting with Brian Eno, taking its roots from a three-hour piece the two put together in early 1994. Unlike many of his records, Bowie went into the studio without having any of his songs written beforehand, relying heavily on improvisation.
Sound and Vision: An abstract art piece featuring a distorted visage of Bowie, the album reeks of ‘90s “edginess.” Full of blurry, sloppy lines, the artwork wasn’t one of Bowie’s signature moments, looking more like something that may have been on Tyler Durden’s wall.
Someone’s Back in Town: Outside was Bowie’s big reunion with Brian Eno, for their first record together since The Berlin Trilogy. This collaboration resulted in many regarding Outside as one of Bowie’s strongest works of the ‘90s, and the collaboration with Eno certainly resulted in some of the more sonically striking and diverse records of the era.
Ch-Ch-Changes: Coming in at 75 minutes, Outside is one of Bowie’s longest records, and tying it heavily to a concept helped separate it from his work of the preceding years. Pairing with Eno after so much time apart resulted in one of the heavier, more avant-garde pieces he had made. The album found Bowie going slightly into more industrial and electronica sounds, embracing the acid-house of the ‘90s and furthering his descent into one of the sonically darker periods of his career.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Pretty much everything about Outside was strange, from the concept to the artwork to the music. Outside felt like a reaction to the commercial hits of the ‘80s and even the somewhat back-to-basics approach of Black Tie White Noise. From eerie, spoken-word interludes to its futuristic post-apocalyptic landscape, Outside represented one of Bowie’s more ambitious and bewildering albums.
After All: For many, Outside was Bowie’s last great record, at least until his tentative swan song in 2013’s The Next Day. The album succeeded because Bowie bought in completely to its concept and strangeness, and Eno worked to bring out some of the artist’s better and more innovative ideas. In hindsight, Outside holds up well as proof that the ‘90s contained some of Bowie’s most interesting ideas, even if the execution wasn’t always there.
06. Diamond Dogs (1974)
That Is a Fact: Originally conceived as a concept album version of George Orwell’s 1984, Bowie had to reroute the concept of Diamond Dogs after the Orwell estate denied his request for the rights. There’s still plenty of influence from the seminal novel, but the resulting album is half concept and half Bowie breaking away from Ziggy Stardust in his first album after retiring the character (but not the haircut). Bowie took over lead guitar duties from Mick Ronson for this record, which gave the proceedings a feeling that NME described as “scratchy and semi-amateurish.”
Sound and Vision: Belgian artist Guy Peellaert painted Bowie as a half-man half-dog for the cover, and while the original cover was a full body painting, the studio quickly edited the cover to airbrush out the hybrid genitals of the Bowie-dog. The original covers, with hybrid genitals intact, are rare collectors’ items now, going for as much as several thousand dollars. With artwork banned in the U.S., Bowie finds himself in the company of The Beatles, Pantera, and Spinal Tap.
Someone’s Back in Town: Tony Visconti was back in town for Diamond Dogs, providing string arrangements for the record. Much of the band participating in the recording of this record was working with Bowie for the first time, after he retired the Ziggy Stardust character and subsequently stopped working with the Spiders from Mars. This was also the second album Bowie worked with pianist Mike Garson, who would play an integral role in Bowie’s next record Young Americans.
Ch-Ch-Changes: The big change, as mentioned before, is the evolution of the lead character on the record. Ziggy Stardust was no more, and in his place was Halloween Jack, who was described as “a real cool cat” who lived in the decrepit Hunger City. Like Stardust, Halloween Jack was an anti-hero trapped in a dystopian scenario.
In a Most Peculiar Way: According to Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray’s Bowie: An Illustrated Record, Bowie considers “Rebel, Rebel” to be the female counterpart to “All the Young Dudes”, a song he wrote for Mott the Hoople. While both songs have an undoubtedly rebellious spirit, the music and lyrics for “Rebel, Rebel” are decidedly more upbeat.
After All: The ultimate glam rocker finally left the genre before it imploded, a wise move for sure, and he did so with a political statement. Diamond Dogs surely isn’t Bowie’s best work, but it’s among his most politically charged and passionate, and the formation of a new backing band proved to be a step in the right direction for Bowie mixing things up in the near future.
05. “Heroes” (1977)
That Is a Fact: When Bowie says we could be heroes for ever and ever, we really should believe him. After his drug-binge spiral, he moved to West Berlin to lie Low, landing in a city of quarantine and oppression. Triggered by that isolation, Bowie broke through to create the Berlin Trilogy – Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger – shutting off his LA-life by constructing a wall using bricks of muted electronic music. “Heroes” sits at the core of this trifecta. Plied by the minimalism of its older brother, Low, it was the only album recorded in full at Hansa Studio in Berlin. Following the template of Low and the Berlin wall, there are two sides to the album’s structure – the first finds Bowie in a pop-rock rebellion and the second tangled in experimental arrangements. Bowie teams up with Brian Eno again, and together they construct the shaded fragments, first deciding which category the songs fit into: defiant or defeated. Initially, each instrument was played in order to summon those desired feelings, with Bowie adding the lyrics later on. Its layers of pop cement krautrock beneath coursing vocal arrangements (“Joe the Lion”), and together they build a sturdier wall of sound.
Sound and Vision: The mime-trained salute hit the nagel on the kopf here! Moved by German expressionist Erich Heckel’s painting “Roquairol”, Bowie’s stark gaze is as hard as the wood its idea is carved from. When it comes to Bowie, his album artwork is like a magazine cover; it shows his current guise as it stands with his current sound. Often the most “artless” ideas can be the most profound.
Someone’s Back in Town: Musicians in their early 30s in a European city on the front line, with nothing to lose. Cue King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp arriving in Berlin and letting it rip on “Heroes”. He’d originally left the music biz in 1974, but after receiving a call from Eno and Bowie – “Can you play some hairy rock and roll guitar?” – Fripp’s answer was flying to Berlin to record the sessions straightaway. (“Beauty and the Beast” on the record is the first take and track they did.) Fripp’s distinct thick layering of guitar is remarkable, delivering a muscular footing for all the experimental sounds and holding up its own next to the super trio of Alomar, Murray and Davis. Also, Tony Visconti is back with Berlin jazz singer Antonia Mass, who sings backing vocals on “Beauty and the Beast”.
Ch-Ch-Changes: Unlike its sibling, Low, where subdued fragments of songs were molded with near clinical precision, “Heroes” has an added thickening agent of German synth pop and European art-rock. Songs emerge richer, through prolonged and intensified layers. Take the buoyancy of “V-2 Schneider”, for example; it’s unlike any instrumental on Low.
In a Most Peculiar Way: The song “Heroes” features some unconventional instruments – Eno-synth, Fripp-guitar … and producer Tony Visconti bashing on a metal ashtray found in the recording studio.
After All: The weary “optimism” of “Heroes” is mesmerizing. Even on its gloomiest tracks, there’s this upbeat, impassioned impression that everything’s okay, even just for one day. There’s near-hysteria during the heroic title track, a hymn enlivened by the story of a lover’s communion under the shadow of the Berlin wall. Although it’s the middle ground in the trilogy, it’s got it all: Bowie plays the Japanese string instrument koto on “Moss Garden”, “Sense of Doubt” is submerged in Eno-synth, and the finale – a meta trilogy of the spectacular apocalyptic prophecies “Sons of the Silent Age”, “Heroes”, and “Black Out” — breaks down Bowie’s sonic and emotive walls.
04. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)
That Is a Fact: Believe it or not, there was a time when The Berlin Trilogy wasn’t a beloved trifecta of art rock. The experimental records weren’t connecting with audiences on the scale Bowie was used to. The Trilogy‘s final installment, Lodger, showed a distinct path towards something popier. Meanwhile, New Wave had exploded, and a generation of Bowie descendants had taken the stage. These young upstarts miming Bowie’s past selves, “same old thing in brand new drag,” gave the artist pause and prompted a grand, new reinvention – a high watermark of art pop by which Bowie’s future releases are still compared.
Sound and Vision: Eager to punch up his career with the theatricality and pop viability he’d left behind, Bowie invented a new persona of sorts – his first visual character since 1976’s Thin White Duke. His iconic Pierrot/blue clown guise was less a character and more a meta examination of Bowie’s own persona-shedding self, a parody perhaps of what he’d been. To date, it’s the last true visual persona of his career.
Scary Monsters’ album art features a wraparound cover image of Pierrot Bowie, photographed by Brian Duffy and painted by Edward Bell in the style of chic fashion illustration. The album’s back facing features cutouts of Bowie from the covers of Aladdin Sane, Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger. They’re covered with a thin layer of paint – acknowledging the past, but whiting them out for something new.
The video work Bowie and director David Mallet started with Lodger continues with Scary Monsters and their pioneering collaboration, “Ashes to Ashes”. Going as far as to storyboard it himself and accompany Mallet in the editing room, Bowie created a nonlinear narrative, pulling from myriad European art film motifs, featuring his Pierrot figure, an inmate in an asylum, and an astronaut. Still a year from the debut of MTV, “Ashes to Ashes” took viewers by storm and set records as the most expensive video the industry had yet seen, to the tune of £25,000. It was a watershed event, as cultural historian Christopher Breward sums up in David Bowie Is: “[‘Ashes to Ashes’] marked a paradigm shift in British pop music, where the promotional film and the world of the visual … began to take prominence, eclipsing the importance of the album cover and even, arguably, the music.”
Someone’s Back in Town: Scary Monsters marks Bowie’s last collaboration with his longtime producer Tony Visconti until 2002’s Heathen. Back in the studio is guitarist Robert Fripp after joining the team on “Heroes” and skipping over Lodger; E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan returns after his previous stint on Station to Station; and providing guest guitar on “Because You’re Young” is none other than Pete Townshend. The album opens with vocals provided by Japanese actress Michi Hirota of The Red Buddha Theatre (who also appeared on the cover of Sparks’ Kimono My House.)
Ch-Ch-Changes: In an effort to put his experimental years to bed, Bowie came to the studio with songs in hand rather than building them from studio spontaneity. Scary Monsters has a rawness carried over from Lodger, but the calculated balance of art house and pop proved a winning combination with audiences – summoning the glam Bowie in a bold new form. If the “Teenage Wildlife” could cop his style, he’d do them one better and emerge as a powerful, modern incarnation of the rock god they’d worshiped. As RCA put it in their album promotion: “Often Copied, Never Equalled.” That said, for Bowie it was a clean slate. With “Ashes to Ashes” and the dismissal of the long lost Major Tom, he had consciously written an epitaph for the ’70s. He tapped into his own narrative and built a bridge between his most popular work of his early career and who he’d go on to become.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Though the experimenting was done, the tricks Bowie learned from Eno were a part of his repertoire now. Bowie continued to remix himself and pull from his past. “Fashion” was built off the bassline and melody of “Golden Years”, while the song’s “beep beep” hook comes from an unreleased 1970 recording called “Rupert the Riley”, about a car Bowie owned at the time. “Scream Like a Baby” had been written in 1973 as a song called “I Am a Laser”. The song was originally written for The Astronettes, Bowie’s backing singers from Diamond Dogs, who he hoped would have a career as a soul group.
After All: Scary Monsters stands as one of Bowie’s all-time quintessential records and one of his most successful transitions. In some ways, he was reintroducing himself to an audience who knew him, however abstractly, and in doing so created the ultimate version of what the public widely considers as “Bowie”. Though it acted as a pivotal launching point for music in the ’80s, the record doesn’t have the trappings of any particular time or place, and this timelessness is further emphasized by universal tracks like “Teenage Wildlife”. The song was a message to “the New Wave boys,” but alienation is always in style – as is riding on Bowie’s coattails; the entire 21st century is guilty of that.
03. Low (1977)
This Is a Fact: The first of the Berlin Trilogy, Low is one of Bowie’s most influential albums and the first collaboration between Bowie and Brian Eno. The record contains a multitude of krautrock and avant-garde influences and lyrics that touch on Bowie’s at-the-time-ongoing attempts to kick cocaine. According to Bowie, he moved from the coke center of the world (Los Angeles) to the heroin center of the world (Berlin), but luckily he “didn’t have a feeling for smack, so it wasn’t a threat.”
Sound and Vision: Relatively straightforward, the artwork for Low shows Bowie in profile against a background of orange clouds. It’s not all too exciting, but in the grand scheme of his album artwork, there had to be a few standard-issue album covers too.
Someone’s Back in Town: The collaborations between Bowie and Brian Eno were some of the most fruitful that the late ’70s saw. The two joined forces for three records that all graced the UK Top Five, and their work together has inspired countless musicians since then. In an unrelated-to-the-album-but-still-cool note, at the time of recording Low, Bowie was sharing an apartment with none other than Iggy Pop.
Ch-Ch-Changes: With influences like Kraftwerk and Neu! in the mix, Bowie dove headfirst into a well of European and specifically German sounds on this record, with less lyrics than on any other album he’s done and large instrumental sections that stand as some of his most inspired musical ventures.
In a Most Peculiar Way: If you check the liner notes for Low, you’ll find that a pair by the name of Peter and Paul assisted on some tracks with piano. In reality, this is a pseudonym that Brian Eno took on for fun. It’s difficult to be sure exactly why, as he’s credited under his government name elsewhere on the record, but it’s an unusual act from an unusual guy on an unusual album.
After All: Low may not sit at the very top of this list, but it’s entirely possible that it’s his most influential. Alongside Eno and Visconti, and in the process of kicking cocaine, Bowie went to one of the most engaging places he’s ever been and crafted a perfect art rock record.
02. Hunky Dory (1971)
That Is a Fact: No, B-B-Bowie isn’t stuttering during opening song “Changes”; he’s just ramming it into our heads that Hunky Dory would set the stage and change the course of his career. That sort of spellbinding Bowie-tongue works in tandem with the line “Oh, look out you rock and rollers” – both tease the audience about a prophesied future, which, only a flamboyant androgynous-alien-musical-savior like him could predict. It’s 1971, and we’re a year beyond the guitar-heavy The Man Who Sold the World, pre-rock opera Ziggy, and the 24-year-old soon to be father buggers off to America. “That was the first time a real outside situation affected me so 100 percent,” he said in 1999, causing him to refashion piano balladry and rock guitar by slapping some glitz and glam onto them. “Andy Warhol” (a tribute to Lou Reed), “Queen Bitch”, and “Song for Bob Dylan” were the products of his love affair with the country, and just a few days after his son was born, the unsigned artist started recording songs at Trident Studios. It was summer, and everything really was hunky dory – RCA Records heard the material and signed him straight away.
Sound and Vision: “Oh! You Pretty Things, let me bask in the golden glow of future fame!” Hunky Dory features the artist resembling equal part female warrior from folklore and Hollywood queen. Influenced by Marie “Marlene” Dietrich (the German-American singer and actress), George Underwood designed the artwork, rinsing the “heroine” in 19th century photographic treatment. The font remains the decade’s only signifier.
Someone’s Back in Town: A star can really shine in the glow of his cast and crew. Here, Bowie’s producer, bassist and backing vocalist for The Man Who Sold the World, Tony Visconti, took a break – thankfully it didn’t last long as Visconti went on to produce 10 Bowie albums after this (some of the best in there too: Low and “Heroes”) But the album didn’t dim, because Brit powerhouse Ken Scott – celebrated for his being one of the five main engineers for the Beatles – put on the producer hat, making Hunky Dory the first album to feature Ziggy Stardust’s three-piece band, Spiders from Mars. The real star was undoubtedly the piano, played by prog-rock band Yes keyboardist and Elton John session muso Rick Wakeman.
Ch-Ch-Changes: CH-CH-CH … Using Andy Warhol as both muse and missive, Bowie solidified the concept of what a rock star is – branding himself by knotting his sexualized persona with a musical style that thrived off consistent change. Hunky Dory transitioned seamlessly from The Man Who Sold the World, partly because the heftier weight was now thinned out across the 11 tracks (10 original) allowing Bowie to stretch into strings and piano.
Plus, he delivers his first tribute to his newborn son, “Kooks”, which finds him dishing out more forewarnings: “Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads/ ‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads.” The biggest change is Bowie predicting, err, change and wrestling pop to make it buckle down on guitar-drab and glam up on piano.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Hunky Dory is loved for its accessibility (musically and lyrically), and for us mere mortals, it unlocks the door so that we can run inside, unpick, and then inspect its brilliant mind without having to sift through its gooey lyrical waffle – that beloved stream-of-consciousness from Bowie we so often drowned in. Perhaps “The Bewlay Brothers” is the sinking ship, with ideas that feel stodgy and bleak. Or maybe the peculiar part is that this album became Bowie’s original clairvoyant nod to what lay ahead for the next four decades – and it’s got an unoriginal cover of Biff Rose’s (and Paul Williams’) song “Fill Your Heart” sitting in the middle.
After All: It’s Bowie with a loudspeaker and a crystal ball. The androgynous glam-alien arrives from Mars to give us a lick of what the future with him will be like – and after 44 years, we’re hanging on, and it still tastes juicy. I’m a song kinda-gal, and the tracks on Hunky Dory hooked me straightaway. From the get-go, “Changes” epitomizes Bowie’s sound, “Queen Bitch” points toward an upbeat arc by screeching bitchily in half-jealous mockery, “She’s so swishy in her satin and tat/ In her frock coat and her bipperty-bopperty hat.” But it’s “Life on Mars?” and its metaphoric rhetoric about escaping pop culture, “Oh! You Pretty Things”, and “Quicksand” that unveil the intimacy and brevity of Bowie’s skills as a songwriter. There’s a sense of humor here, and it’s washed with sympathetic sensitivity that feels instantly relatable (and dare I say it, human) Melodically, it leaps from polished pop to menacing folk to grimy-rock, shaping Bowie as an ever-changing artist.
01. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
That Is a Fact: The era (drugs) have likely confused and complicated the story of Ziggy Stardust. Mick Ronson says it was just a play on words with Iggy Pop. Lou Reed has been cited as a source, and maybe, just maybe, Ziggy is the too-perfect embodiment of Bowie’s grander qualities. The character’s likely a mixture of a million of things that Bowie was interested in at the time, but Bowie himself has told the story on Ziggy Stardust and what planet he may have come from. It was closer to Earth than we think. And who knows Ziggy better than Bowie?
Vince Taylor was the lead singer of The Playboys, an English band that trounced around to hound-dog rock in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Taylor had a marvelous Elvis Presley impersonation persona. Never heard of him or that band? No worries. David Bowie did, and that is what’s important. In the mid-‘90s, Bowie revealed to BBC that he had hung out with Taylor in the early days of his career, and this Taylor guy was bugged-out, out-there, and possibly out of his mind. According to Bowie, Taylor was obsessed with aliens, UFOs, and Jesus Christ. In fact, Taylor committed career suicide in Paris by taking the stage one night in white garbs and declaring that he was Christ himself.
Ziggy Stardust is Vince Taylor. Or rather, Ziggy was an homage to Taylor and all things intergalactic and freaked-out. And “wham bam thank you, ma’am,” the rest is glittered music history.
Sound and Vision: Never mind the Heddon street locale. Would you look at that hand-colored creature of the night? Bowie looks so confident, with a leg up, under a spotlight like he was just beamed down from Mars ready to own the streets until he eventually takes over the planet with his psycho-sexual rock gifts.
Photographer Brian Ward took the album’s photo cover on a wet and chilly night in January 1972. 17 black and white pics were taken altogether, and the colorization was added for a science fiction and cartoon feel, with pulpy shades of A Clockwork Orange, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, and old serialized films. We’re just grateful we weren’t worthy to see any actual spiders from Mars.
Someone’s Back in Town: Bowie wrote nearly every rocker and produced this masterpiece with Ken Scott. Bowie also had perhaps his best team here in peak form. He worked with Trevor Bolder on bass and trumpet, Rick Woodmansey on drums, and of course, the flared, fiery Mick Ronson leading the way with crunchy, nasty guitar work.
Tracks like “Moonage Daydream” and “Suffragette City” are the crazy rock hits that they are because Ronson came out wailing on his guitar; Ronson gave Bowie the guitar-powered presence and pomp and power to declare that he was “an AL-I-GATOR!”
Ch-Ch-Changes: Whereas the prior Hunky Dory was a sensationally accomplished and driven pop album, Ziggy Stardust was a singular work of such high concept. Ziggy Stardust told the tale of a rocking alien and Earth’s close, and it’s inarguably Bowie’s most beloved effort.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Honestly, it’s just ironic that in 1972 this crazy concept album was likely viewed a geek phase, like your goth and makeup years in high school. Rolling Stone loved the album, but didn’t think the album had lasting power. Heh.
After All: Ziggy Stardust has gone by so many praises. The ultimate glam rock album. A divine concept album about a god-like space alien. A sexy grungy punk rock stunner with nary a weak track to be found. Ziggy Stardust: Man. Myth. Music legend. But perhaps most fittingly (and most inarguably), this is without doubt David Bowie’s finest, biggest, and most ambitious album. Ziggy Stardust, its musical mystique, and hits like “Starman” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” made the album the funky, glamorous, popular revelation that it still is, and it’s still by-and-large considered Bowie’s powerhouse hit for all time. Ziggy came to Earth with a plan but never really left.