This is maybe the most simply competent of David Bowie’s adult contemporary phase, a finely rendered set of nuanced tunes that would be grand if recorded by anyone else but feels unremarkable coming from a master of the art form. There are exceptions. The first track, Sunday, feels like a nocturnal Scott Walker song, while a couple other highlights buoy the experience. The rest is kind of less distinctive. It’s serviceable low-key fun that could have been much more.
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15. Diamond Dogs
Here’s an album that David Bowie really wanted to do something ambitious with, but it never completely comes together. Partly the result of his failed stage adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, partly an exorcism of his Ziggy Stardust era, it’s got some brilliant tracks, including the infinitely-covered and karaoke’d Rebel Rebel, but it’s not gripping enough as a whole to really claim its place in the pantheon of great Bowie albums. The production is wild and noisy, a far cry from the straightforward work on Ziggy or the jazz cavalcade of Aladdin Sane. In a way, it’s more interesting than either of its predecessors, but more difficult to fully embrace. There’s a lot to love inside Diamond Dogs, but it’s lost in some knotty, transitional space.
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Reality was the final album David Bowie released before “retiring” in 2003. It was easily the most progressive, thoughtful album he’d dropped in a while, eclipsing the sedate rock of Hours and the merely-adequate work of Heathen. That wouldn’t be saying much, but the fact is, despite a lack of standout hits or fresh experimentation, this album is a subtle refinement of what the elder statesman had been reaching toward over half a decade. The melodies are catchier, the rhythms more forceful, and the detours more distinctive. In fact, the final song here, Bring Me The Disco King is a piece of strange, sleek future jazz that stands as one of the single best tunes Bowie ever recorded. It defines “timeless” while the rest of the album merely nods toward the word.
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13. Aladdin Sane
Aladdin Sane was the freewheeling followup to the massive breakthrough of Ziggy Stardust, looser and weirder in every way, pulling in a dozen directions at once. On top of the glam bedrock, Bowie adds a heaping dose of jazz and an experimental playfulness. The recordings here feel detached from their era, as ephemeral as they are anchored in the early 1970s. Some pieces are relatively straightforward rockers that never quite work up as much steam as their Ziggy counterparts; others zoom off on tangents of cascading piano and horn, showing a restlessness that would never stop. This is the album where Bowie began chafing at the edges of his space rocker character, torn between destroying the mold and perfecting it. It feels uneasy, but rewarding all the same. The album art is infinitely more famous than the music within, for good reason.
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12. The Next Day
This was the surprise comeback that nobody saw coming, for once. Bowie had not only retired from recording, but stopped touring entirely after his prior album, 2003’s Reality. After a heart attack scare, he was spending time at home with his wife and young child, becoming the one role he’d never really stayed in for long: family man. But old impulses die hard. After a decade of silence, he roared back into our lives with an album that cheekily repurposed his famous “Heroes” artwork and toyed with that era’s distinctive, sharp-edged style in a fresh, playful way.
The songs are all over the map here, for better or worse. Highlights, including Where Are We Now? and The Stars (Are Out Tonight) rank with some of the best pieces he’d ever recorded, aging the experimental framework of the Berlin era like a fine Scotch. The low points don’t bear specific mention, but they remain closer to the treading-water phase of his career, lacking that vital impulse that powers his best work. As a whole, it’s one of his most worthy releases, but it falls short of true greatness.
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11. Hunky Dory
This was David Bowie’s breakthrough album, the one that really put him on the map artistically before the supernova of Ziggy Stardust. He was already firmly into his glam phase here, ripping out undeniable spacey anthems like Life On Mars? and heart stopping pop like Queen Bitch. Even better, the album bursts from the gates with one of the best openers of all time, Changes. The stuttering chorus of that song alone is one of the catchiest and most well known in pop history. It’s not as cohesive as almost anything that came after, but it’s the first document of the Bowie that we all know and love.
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10. Let’s Dance
Here’s the thing: Bowie going pop is an amazing thing. He’s a brilliant songwriter with an ear for hooks, so when he finally embraced the form wholeheartedly, he made his biggest hit ever. Of course, his reputation took a hit through the rest of the eighties, as he coasted on the success of Let’s Dance with increasingly poor results. He’d seemingly lost it, and people were quick to place the blame on this album; after all, it caused the downfall. The thing is, this is one of Bowie’s most fun sets of music, a freewheeling production of earworm hooks, virtuoso instrumentation – with guitars courtesy of a young Stevie Ray Vaughan – that bursts with enthusiasm for life almost every moment of its runtime. There are a couple dull spots near the end, but with Cat People, originally written with Giorgio Moroder, and an opening trio of astonishing radio songs, it’s mostly fireworks.
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I’ve never been sure why this was considered the third in a “Berlin trilogy” because it just feels so completely different from the prior two releases, Low and Heroes. It’s faster, funkier, and more approachable than either of those two, and it doesn’t fit their mold of one half vocal pop, one half instrumental. It’s definitely informed by the krautrock and non-European rhythm mechanics that defined the prior sets, but it feels closer to its followups, Scary Monsters and Let’s Dance, in terms of overall effect. It’s looser, more ready to have fun, treating experimentation as a color to swirl in and flirt with.
Lodger just took a minute to get into. I didn’t dislike it; in fact, I immediately considered it to be in the better half of his records. It just felt slight and pointless after Low and Heroes – but tonight, right now, this listen, probably my 12th listen ever… suddenly it clicks. While it falls through the cracks, thematically, in Bowie’s persona-shuffling career, it’s easily one of the best sets of songs he ever recorded.