David Bowie left behind one of the most beautifully bizarre catalogs the music world has ever seen. Over his 50-year career, he kept experimenting and trying on new musical styles right up to the end. The Thin White Duke made masterpieces and messes, bold departures and glorious disasters, glossy pop hits and incendiary cult classics, constantly expanding the musical and emotional (not to mention sexual) language of rock & roll. You can spend decades exploring David Bowie’s songbook and still find buried treasures. Here’s a map to the musical world Bowie created and left behind for us, from his early folkie days through his glam golden years, right up to the Number One album he dropped just a couple of days before his death – the starman who never stopped blasting off to parts unknown.
Hunky Dory (1971)
Planet Earth, meet David Bowie. One of him, anyway – even in 1971, the former David Jones had already burned through a few pop disguises, posing as a folkie hippie songbird or a London mod pin-up boy. He scored a novelty hit in the summer of 1969, “Space Oddity.” But Hunky Dory was the album where he staked his claim as the most altered ego in rock & roll, billing himself as “The Actor” on the back cover while stretching out as a singer, songwriter and all-around mind-freaker. Bowie croons surreal ballads such as “Life on Mars” and “Quicksand” like a cosmic theater queen. He also steals guitar flash from the Velvet Underground in “Queen Bitch.” Led by Rick Wakeman on piano and Mick Ronson on guitar, Hunky Dory was a breakthrough hardly anyone noticed – Bowie was so far out, it would take the audience a while to catch up.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)
Bowie got tired of waiting for the world to anoint him as a rock star – so he did it himself, playing the role of a crimson-haired glam messiah from outer space named Ziggy. As he told Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe, “Basically, I wrote a script and played it out as Ziggy Stardust onstage and on record.” This concept album finally made him a total blam-blam in his native land, where his sexually flamboyant TV performance of “Starman” in full space-perv regalia blew teen minds all over Britannia. He was flamboyant on a level rock had never seen before, whether he was ranting about hot sex (“Suffragette City”) or morbid alienation (“Five Years”) or both (“Moonage Daydream”). “I’m out to bloody well entertain, not just get up onstage and knock out a few songs,” Bowie announced. “I’m the last person to pretend I’m a radio. I’d rather go out and be a color television set.”
Station to Station (1976)
Like all 1970s rock stars, Bowie was required to troop out to L.A. and spend a year or two face down in a punchbowl of Peruvian flake. Yet unlike most of them, he actually made a great album this way. Station to Station has his trippiest epic in the title song, a 10-minute occult robot-funk groove. Bowie was living on milk and raw peppers, staying up for days at a time in his mansion. As he recalled, “My whole life would be transformed into this bizarre nihilistic fantasy world of oncoming doom, mythological characters and imminent totalitarianism. Quite the worst.” “TVC15” shows off the metal-machine guitars of Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar along with the piano strut of the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan. For the finale “Wild Is the Wind,” he nicks a Fifties movie theme from Nina Simone and manages to make it his own. Bowie confessed he could barely remember making Station to Station – but given the dark mental state it depicts, that was probably a lucky break.
Out of the blue, Bowie announced he was dropping Blackstar on his 69th birthday. It immediately registered as one of his most powerful musical statements, stretching out in jazzy meditations like “Lazarus” and “Blackstar,” taking inspiration from Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo. But just two days later, the world was shocked to learn Bowie had been keeping another big secret. His death revealed Blackstar as his grand, pained farewell, facing mortality with the bittersweet “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” An innovator right up to the end.
Aladdin Sane (1973)
“This decadence is just a bloody joke,” Bowie insisted in 1973. “I’m very normal.” Right. After a year of touring America in his Ziggy persona, living out all his sordid dreams of sybaritic rock excess, Bowie’s music got heavier in Aladdin Sane, with Mick Ronson’s power-sleaze guitar and Mike Garson’s avant-jazz piano. It has sex, drugs and decadence galore, from the Hollywood teen-junkie-hooker satire “Cracked Actor” to the cabaret fantasy “Lady Grinning Soul.” “Watch That Man” is the funniest and kinkiest of Bowie’s many Rolling Stones rips – it sounds like a Bette Davis/Joan Crawford remake of Exile on Main Street.
Bowie fled to Berlin to escape the L.A. celebrity drug hellhole – and started his whole life over, renting a flat above an auto-parts store, in an immigrant neighborhood where he could walk around unrecognized. With his new partner in crime Brian Eno, he also started over musically with an album that summed up his frazzled state of mind. Low was split between oblique rock blurts and synth instrumentals, heavy on the fuzz guitar, with Bowie brooding over what a disaster he’s made of his life in “Always Crashing in the Same Car.” Low kicked off his famous “Berlin Trilogy,” even if he recorded it mainly in France. The crashing drums of “Sound and Vision” and “Speed of Life” practically invented the Eighties – producer Tony Visconti warped drummer Dennis Davis’ snare to create what Bowie called “that depressive gorilla effect.” Low remains one of his most influential records – and the most emotionally accurate turning-30 album ever.
The second chapter in the Berlin Trilogy – except it sounds completely different, thanks mostly to guest guitar hero Robert Fripp, who damn near steals the album. Fripp flew in for the sessions, came straight from the airport to the studio, and zipped out all his guitar parts in one night – Bowie and Eno made him play along to each song the first time he heard it, without even telling him the chords first. “Heroes” became Bowie’s most beloved standard, inspired by two lovers he saw kissing by the Berlin Wall. (Much later, he revealed he’d accidentally spotted his producer sneaking off with one of the back-up singers.) But “Blackout” is one of his great buried treasures – a chaotic pile-up of disco bass and guitar murk, as he shrieks “Get me off the streets!” in response to the notorious NYC blackout of 1977. The Bronx was burning, and so was Bowie.
Scary Monsters (1980)
It’s the end, the end of the Seventies; it’s the end, the end of the century. Bowie looks back over a decade he helped define and rips it into pieces, with futuristic post-punk lampoons like “Fashion” and “Teenage Wildlife,” where he bitches about “the same old thing in brand new drag.” Once again, Robert Fripp shines on guitar – along with King Crimson’s Red and the Eno collabo No Pussyfooting, it’s his finest album-length showcase. Bowie revisits the Major Tom story with “Ashes to Ashes,” where he screams along with the New Romantic synths, acting out the sad story of the lost astronaut who finds the higher he gets, the lower he feels.
Bowie celebrates 10 years of wedded bliss with his soulmate Iman, the Somali supermodel he married in 1992 – a relationship that fueled his creative resurgence, at a time when the mainstream audience had lost track of him. Bowie ignored any commercial rock trend circa 2002. (He didn’t even attempt a rap-metal jam.) Instead, he reconnected with Tony Visconti for an edgy set of guitar-driven meditations on fatherhood and adult romance, like “Sunday,” “Slow Burn,” and the majestic “Slip Away” (“Down in space it’s always 1982”) while covering the Pixies, Neil Young and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
A surprisingly bluesy hard-rock record, a taste of how Bowie might have sounded if he’d decided to turn into Led Zeppelin instead of Ziggy Stardust. The eight-minute “Width of a Circle” is Ronson’s zenith as a guitar hero, while moody acoustic tales like “All the Madmen” and “After All” giving a frightening glimpse into a mind slipping into insanity.
Young Americans (1975)
“Plastic soul,” Bowie called it – instead of milking his own rock formula, Bowie high-tailed it to Philadelphia to make a state-of-the-art R&B album. It shouldn’t have worked, but it does, with newfound guitar sidekick Carlos Alomar, who became his key lifelong collaborator. Bowie sounds downright sincere, especially in the shoulda-been-a-hit Stevie Wonder sunshine vibe of “Win,” where he purrs, “Wear your wound with honor.” The album has vocals from a very young Luther Vandross, then just a kid hanging around the studio – Bowie heard him singing along, recruited him on the spot and cut him in on the songwriting credits. At the last minute, Bowie added a couple of slapdash collaborations with his idol John Lennon – the Number One funk squawk “Fame” and a version of “Across the Universe” druggy enough to make the original sound like Minor Threat.
The final installment of the Berlin Trilogy is the most divisive – some fans don’t like Lodger at all, most notably co-composer Brian Eno. Yet it’s an insanely underrated treasure, with guitar madman Adrian Belew wreaking havoc all over these witty tales of jet-lagged midlife malaise. Bowie’s vocals hit new comic heights in “D.J.” and “Red Sails,” while protesting the nuclear arms race in “Fantastic Voyage.” Lodger also boasts his most hyperbolically funny send-up of sex roles in “Boys Keep Swinging,” which he performed on Saturday Night Live in a pencil skirt: one of rock & roll’s prophetic gender-is-over anthems.
Let’s Dance (1983)
In the age of MTV, Bowie decided to try a role he’d never shown much interest in playing before: a pop star. Let’s Dance is high-gloss Eighties hitcraft, with a smoothed-out groove courtesy of producer Nile Rodgers and blues guitar from Stevie Ray Vaughn. Bowie strutted his stuff with a blond pompadour and shiny new teeth, along with videos where he put on his red shoes and danced the blues, but nobody would have cared if the songs hadn’t been great – especially “Let’s Dance” (“Under the moonlight! The seeeerious moonlight!”) and “Modern Love.” Let’s Dance made him a very rich man, but it wasn’t long before he found this new role a bore – and spent years fighting to escape it.
Earthling was marketed as Bowie’s drum ‘n’ bass record – a couple years late in the game. Nobody took it seriously at the time – and the awful production has made it way too easy to ignore ever since. But once you bear down and get past all the corny guitar glop, you find a disarmingly passionate set of songs on marriage, the great topic of his final years. Maybe somebody will eventually cover this album all the way through – the songs deserve to get rescued, especially “Dead Man Walking,” one of the truest and boldest love songs the man ever wrote.
Bowie at the Beeb (2000)
Bowie made a few great live albums – like the Berlin-era Stage or the Ziggy-meets-California bootleg fan fave Live Santa Monica ’72. He also made some truly terrible ones, like the 1974 David Live, which he once admitted should have been retitled David Bowie Is Alive and Well and Living Only in Theory. But these BBC recordings show what a powerful live performer he was from the beginning (his acoustic Jacques Brel homage “Amsterdam”) into his glam years, as in his fierce version of “White Light/White Heat,” where he boasts, “White light make me sound like Lou Reed/White light gonna fill my every need.”
The Next Day (2013)
After Bowie suffered an onstage heart attack in 2004, he quietly dropped out of the rock scene – after a few years of silence, fans slowly realized he’d found a dignified way to retire. Until his January 2013, when he broke years of silence with the out-of-nowhere birthday announcement that he’d made a new album in secret, and released the magnificently moody ballad “Where Are We Now” as a teaser. Compared to his swan song Blackstar, The Next Day is a relatively stripped-down rock album – short and punchy songs with an aggressive bite to his vocals, especially the bittersweet “The Stars Are Out Tonight.” What a pleasure to have Bowie back – on whatever terms he chose.
“Holy Holy” single, 1971.
A glam ode to dazed gnostic egomania – a sign of things to come for Bowie. He cut it twice – the keeper is the lean-and-mean second version, with the Spiders from Mars.
“See Emily Play,” from Pin Ups, 1973.
A tribute to one of his early heroes, Pink Floyd’s doomed Syd Barrett – turning his jauntiest tune into an orchestral psychic meltdown.
“Growing Up And I’m Fine,” demo, 1973.
He donated this perfect piece of girl-group-style pop to Mick Ronson to launch his solo career, which sadly bombed. In terms of potential hits Bowie gave away to his mates, “Growing Up and I’m Fine” ranks up there with “All the Young Dudes.”
“Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise),” from Diamond Dogs, 1974.
A nine-minute suite with an invitation no one could resist: “We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/Then jump in the river holding hands.” Who says romance is dead?
“Candidate (Demo),” outtake from Diamond Dogs, 1974.
A sketch he left in the vault unheard for years – but a sinister night-prowler of a song that anyone else would have jumped at the chance to release. The ultimate Bowie manifesto: “I gazelle onstage to believe in myself.”
“Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” from Cat People soundtrack, 1982.
A goth sex-and-death dirge produced by disco king Giorgio Moroder for the soundtrack of a horror flick starring an oft-naked Nastassja Kinski, who was currently turning heads nude on the cover of the Rolling Stone. Quentin Tarantino used it brilliantly in Inglorious Basterds.
“Tonight,” from Tonight, 1984.
One of the most catastrophic career-killing albums of the Eighties – but with this glimmer of morbid beauty, turning an Iggy death trip into a hideously poignant Tina Turner duet. The one moment where Bowie really got the Phil Collins sound right.
“Absolute Beginners,” from Absolute Beginners soundtrack, 1985.
One of the revelations from last year’s theater production Lazarus: this long-forgotten doo-wop torch song, tossed off as the theme song to a Patsy Kensit film.
“As the World Falls Down,” from Labyrinth soundtrack, 1986.
All hail the Goblin King. At the time, nobody would have predicted that Bowie’s role as a slinky villain in a freaking Muppet movie would become a cornerstone of his legend for future generations – with a lovely lament embalmed on the soundtrack.
“No Control,” from Outside, 1995.
His heavily hyped reunion with Eno was mostly a well-meaning dud, except this synth-pop ode to urban paranoia.
“Thursday’s Child,” from Hours, 1999.
Like so many of his masterful late-period albums, Hours got slept on by a rock audience that couldn’t get past preconceived ideas of what Bowie stood for. But it’s superbly autumnal soul – especially “Thursday’s Child,” which could be prime Babyface.
“Bring Me the Disco King,” from Reality, 2003.
So you always wondered how a Bowie/Steely Dan throwdown would have sounded? This eerie eight-minute piano ramble is where the Thin White Duke meets The Royal Scam.
Lady Gaga transformed into many David Bowies for a celebratory homage to the late star’s career at the 2016 Grammy Awards. Watch here.
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