8. Young Americans
Not only was Bowie’s wild shift into r&b and soul music the biggest curveball of his career so far, it managed to fit one of the only decent Beatles covers into its swaggering clutch of warmly funky tunes. Everything on this album just works, which can’t be said for virtually any other artist who suddenly decided to take on a new genre. Funny enough, for being such a distinctly American sounding rock album, it thrives on a Beatles fixation, quoting the band in the opening title track (“I heard the news today, oh boy”), covering Across the Universe in groovy fashion, and roping in John Lennon himself to craft the impossibly funky Fame. No matter what he did going forward, from Low‘s paranoid synths to his flirtations with drum and bass in the 90s, his music always carried that swing, that boogie introduced on Young Americans.
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7. Station To Station
This is Bowie’s big cocaine album, his most explosive Thin White Duke release. He literally sings about the drug in the ten minute opening song, which might make you think it’s an indulgent, bloated mess. Funny enough, the album is as pared down and focused as Bowie himself at the time, with six songs covering fifty minutes, all centered around rock solid grooves. While he was soaring onward from the high of Young Americans, he transformed the stateside groove into an endless motorik throb. There’s a deep sense of funk running through this album, but the expression has been flattened, stretched, obliterated into cascading rhythm. It’s another leap beyond what he’d done before, the perfect halfway point between his newfound groove and the future pulse of the Berlin-era trilogy. Beyond that, it’s one of the most perfect meetings between the avant garde and the daily hum ever set to record. Its unique structure was not repeated by Bowie until his final album, Blackstar.
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6. Scary Monsters
No matter what else happens around it, there’s a core 21 minutes of pure ecstasy in this album, beginning with the title track and running from the starstruck Ashes to Ashes, through the rabid funk of Fashion, into the careening Teenage Wildlife. Each track explodes with its own energy, fracturing multiple Bowie eras, recalling past heights while creating its own spin. The album centerpiece, nearly seven minute epic Teenage Wildlife, is a spiritual sequel to “Heroes” that manages to double its energy, becoming perhaps the most explosive song Bowie ever recorded. I know I can’t stop jumping around while it roars toward its end.
Scary Monsters is the noisy, apocalyptic singularity at the end of the 1970s, capping off the biggest decade of his career in spectacular fashion. It looks toward the pop eruption about to come, but its feet are planted firmly in the fertile experimentation of his most adventurous work. It’s by no means perfect, but it works that balancing act between accessibility and confrontational exploration better than anything else Bowie recorded.
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Low is the Bowie album that a lot of my friends would call number one, and I could easily agree with them. It’s the giant experimental leap into unknown territory. There are really no comparisons to the moment David Bowie, one of the world’s most famous pop musicians, decided to make a moody, difficult set of droning dystopian sound sculptures, half of which barely feature his signature instrument, his voice. The music explored the burgeoning krautrock, kosmiche, weirdo music scene of Berlin, a time and place that made English psychedelic rock like Pink Floyd seem positively pedestrian. The relatively catchy moments, like Sound and Vision and Always Crashing in the Same Car, burn with frantic oblivion, evoking a parallel universe where everything feels just slightly off.
Low is more important than it is perfect, but these terms are extremely relative. It’s both one of the finest albums of all time and one of the most enjoyable listens of Bowie’s career. In a different in mood, I might consider it his best work.
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Blackstar is virtually unprecedented in the history of modern music. Artists simply don’t make some of their best work over fifty years into their careers. Whether you’re looking at music or film or writing, there are scant examples of creative people touching the height of their artistry in old age. This is the time when most musicians are coasting, touring on the back of ancient hits or releasing tepid albums for dads to nod off to. But David Bowie already did that; he was ready for something new. The New Day showed the first sparks of this drive, but it was hamstrung by its allegiance to its predecessors. Not so here: Blackstar has no obvious forebear in the entire Bowie catalogue.
The album is a majestic suite of dark jazz and angular post punk, the distillation of sounds that Bowie had flirted with in the past but never fully embraced. Here is the moment when his deepest impulses came out to play, reaching unknown heights of gothic grandeur and psychedelic oblivion. The ten minute opener, his longest track since Station To Station, serves as an entry gate for the experience; if you bounce back from its serpentine journey, you might want to get a handle on Bowie’s Berlin era or his mid-1990s electronic experiments before trying again. The rest of the album is as catchy as it is otherworldly, the kind of music that gets stuck in your head, unable to resolve itself neatly.
Bowie knew he was dying when he made Blackstar and it shines through in every second. This is the music of a man with nowhere to go but up and out, shot straight from the darkest reaches of his heart. He sent out a final transmission before leaving our solar system for good, and it’s as great a career ending performance as has ever been recorded.
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3. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
This is it, the big bang of David Bowie’s career. Ziggy Stardust was the moment he became a superstar, a rock god with no peers. Its reputation is greater than that of the artist himself in some ways, giving us the eternal image of an androgynous alien coming to earth to save us with rock ‘n roll. It’s a fitting legacy for the album that first made Bowie larger than life, launching his journey through the outer reaches of space, far beyond the realm of mere mortals. If it weren’t for Ziggy Stardust, who knows what would have become of the man born David Robert Jones?
As the first of his many theatrical personas, Ziggy was as important as an album can get. But the music itself is better than anyone could have imagined, holding up as well today as it did forty five years ago. The live-wire energy is apparent from the get-go, as opening ballad Five Years amps up to meteoric proportions, properly introducing the album that would change rock forever. The music here is meatier, more aggressive, and more experimental than anything he’d created at that point. It’s also catchier and more approachable than almost anything in Bowie’s entire five-decade catalogue. Pieces like Suffragette City evoke blistering punk before it was even a thing. Moonage Daydream is a muscular slice of psychedelic rock that’s still soundtracking galactic adventures to this day. The final cry, Rock ‘n Roll Suicide, is still as harrowing and life affirming as it ever has been, a theatrical scream into the teenage wasteland: “you’re not alone!”
While David Bowie continued to experiment and evolve, making arguably better albums, this will always be his most important cultural contribution and the best entry point for new listeners.
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A lot of fans will always hold Low over Heroes. I understand them, I get them. I feel that. Heroes is a similar album, a sequel, and it doesn’t break the mold as much. This doesn’t matter. Heroes takes everything great about Low and makes it more Bowie. The pop half has more of his signature swing and the instrumental half is surprisingly pulsing, with a couple key vocal appearances, too. Everything that Low did great, Heroes does better. Sure, there are a few truly alien, almost cybernetic moments on Low that don’t have real equals here, but the warmly buzzing instrumental pieces on this album are simply more detailed, fluid, and exciting. There’s a natural warmth to them that makes the second half feel more like Bowie’s creation than its counterpart in the previous album.
“Heroes” is also the name of one of the greatest rock songs of the twentieth century. Its placement on this album almost guaranteed it a high spot on the list alone. This song cannot be underestimated. Riding on a groove caught somewhere between The Velvet Underground and Kraftwerk, the song is one of David Bowie’s most heartfelt and heartbreaking, an ode to love that feels a little too triumphant, until you notice the details. The quotes in the title are deliberate, meant to signify the irony of a celebratory declaration of love, despite the rocky impossibilities all around. The refrain, “we can be heroes… just for one day,” is a ragged shout into the void, powerful enough to hold onto forever.
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By the mid 1990s David Bowie had absolutely nothing to prove. He spent decades at the forefront of popular music, creating trends and adapting to others, unmistakably changing the direction of rock and roll more than once before taking a top 40 victory lap in the 1980s. When he began the Outside project, it was supposed to be the most ambitious thing he’d ever created. Designed as the first part of a trilogy of conceptually joined albums about a neon-drenched dystopian mystery, Outside was the most experimental, freeform collaboration between Bowie and Brian Eno. While their earlier work on Low and “Heroes” was beyond groundbreaking, the music here completely obliterates any boundaries that the chameleonic artist had left, nearly twenty years later. Its almost eighty minute run time undulates like a future jazz jam in slow motion, a freight train of millennial dread in cyberpunk colors.
The music is some of the most detailed production of Bowie’s entire career, blasting over electronic beats and industrial grind, corrosive guitar noise and fragile narrative bridges. He’s always been known for refashioning new genres in his own image, but this time he seems to have taken the pieces of his time and built a machine for traveling into the future. Sure, the references to the “world wide internet” are as dated as you can imagine, but the genre-agnostic style opens the door for moments that feel right at home in 2017’s more chaotic landscape.
Whether he’s crushing Nine Inch Nails’ atmospheric dread with The Heart’s Filthy Lesson or rolling through the trip-hop garden of I Have Not Been To Oxford Town, David Bowie manages to tie everything on this nineteen track album into a coherent little pocket universe of sound and vision. The story itself, a sordid detective tale of “art crime” in a future where the web and real life have become blurred, fades into a fog of confusion over a handful of spoken word sequences. That’s okay, because the passages are soundtracked by fascinating instrumental pieces and feel just weird enough to avoid skipping. Also, the actual songs are incredible.
The brilliance of Outside appears in its dense fabric of bent reality, a heightened mood that swerves and dips but never really changes. In a way, it feels like the best David Bowie album because it feels like the one where he was most completely himself, subsumed by the narrative, no need for another mask. Sure, he was using modern production and working with an old friend, but there are little flashes, in each song here, of the man at each of his biggest moments along the way. He’s using them as fuel, rocketing into a future that he never ended up exploring again.
The fact that Outside was a critical and commercial bomb at the time is a shame only because it meant that he dropped this particular thread for good. The music here is brilliant and it’s never going away. While it’s not Bowie’s most approachable album, it’s easily one of the most rewarding. For me, it’s the very best.
This is an adventure. If it’s new to you, be sure to stick around for the ending. Few songs can rocket off on a high mood like Strangers When We Meet.
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So there’s the full list. What did you you think? Let me know in the comments; I’m always eager to hear what fellow fans have to say.