David Bowie is one of the most widely known rock musicians in the canon and has had a major hand in popular music since the early 70s. And yet, nearly everyone you typically talk to about Bowie’s music will only have a few words to say about him. Whether it’s rock-heads who say that Ziggy Stardust is one of the best albums to 80s babies who like to sing along to “China Girl” and “Let’s Dance” to hipsters who can’t be restrained in their adoration of albums like Low or Station to Station.
But with a catalog as long, diverse, and plainly good as David Bowie’s, these quick, focused adorations do not do it service. So, let’s do our best to set the record on Bowie’s career with an overview of the man’s career over the last third of the 20th Century.
Self-Titled Album: Your Dad’s Hilarious Prom Photo
Every true Bowie fan will, at one point, get curious about that very first album he put out and want to see where it all began. This may or may not be a good idea, depending on your perspective. What you get is a full album of bizarre, British-invasion pop music. Very flowery, very cheeky, and of course, very cheesy. But, it’s hard to call these songs “bad.” In the way that many early Beatles albums are cheesy but still somewhat beloved, the titular Bowie album works in such a way. Songs like “Rubber Band” and “She’s Got Medals” are enjoyable and I’ve still got friends who love to bring out “The Laughing Gnome” and giggle along to the ridiculous tune. In general, the self-titled album can be a fun look at where such a massive artist began, especially if you snicker “oh no” through a clenched smile.
Hunky Dory: The Most Underrated Overrated Album
Hunky Dory is a great album. It really is. And it doesn’t get much of the attention it deserves in Bowie’s catalog. But it also has several flaws that need to be addressed immediately. First and foremost, “Changes” is a horrible song and its popularity is baffling. Hunky Dory has many good spots, but there are plenty of pretty cheesy songs. If the self-titled album was Bowie’s Beatles for Sale, Hunky Dory is his Revolver. Some goofy bits, but the clear beginning of great music. “Life on Mars?,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” and “Queen Bitch” push Bowie into his more lyrical direction and start to show the stripped down instrumentation that would follow into his next few albums. And he still remained experimental with odd songs like “Quicksand” and “Andy Warhol.” It is certainly not as sophisticated as many fans claim, but it was a clear, strong step in the right direction.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the rest of the long album name
Yes, the one people usually know! I prefaced this article half-complaining that less savvy Bowie fans usually point to this as his best album, but…they’re kind of right. Ziggy Stardust is one of his most consistent and interesting albums. The concept is relatively easy to follow, the hard-rocking parts flow in and out in a way that makes sense, his lyricism is in display throughout nearly every track. The quality of every song is hard to argue. And here, we see the beginning of the “funky” Bowie sound that’s so present throughout his career. “Hold On To Yourself” and “Suffragette City” have a magical rhythm about them and tracks like “Moonage Daydream” and “Ziggy Stardust” have this inherent motion about them. And that’s not to underscore lesser-known songs. “Soul Love” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” are some of Bowie’s most gorgeous songs and “Star” a consistently overlooked great, weird rock tune. As an album, Ziggy Stardust serves as a sterling flagship in Bowie’s career.
Diamond Dogs: The Real Best Album?
Imagine an album with all of the hard-rocking elements of Ziggy Stardust, but then carried over throughout an entire album. That’s Diamond Dogs. The title track is an anthemic, grimy rock track, “1984” is a perfect example of what disco got right, and “Big Brother” is a darkly poetic song that’s hard to pin down. And, of course, everyone gets a little excited when the guitar melody to “Rebel Rebel” first comes in. Diamond Dogs also shows the beginnings of Bowie’s most experimental composing, with the “Sweet Thing” and “Candidate” medley, which serves as a long, perfect mix of minimalism and maximalism in Bowie’s composition. Bowie fans would be remiss to overlook the entirety of the Diamond Dogs album, which it unfortunately seems to usually be.
Station to Station: The Easiest Listen
Station to Station is the second big shift in Bowie’s catalog, Hunky Dory being the first. From the opening title track, he gives us a 10-minute song with a lengthy, bizarre, soundboard beginning. The rest of the song is one of his strangest lyrically and it relies on even more jazz sounds than the previous, lackluster Young Americans album had. And, of course, it’s all-amazing; truly one of his best songs. The rest of the album is a little less bombastic, but the heavier reliance on funk sounds and a sharp turn away from rock music is still prevalent. “Wild is the Wind” is almost an R&B song and when the little drum fills come in, it can take your breath away. Songs like “Word on a Wing” and “Golden Years” are kind of corny, but that’s balanced by the ambitious, funky “Stay” and the truly bizarre “TVC 15.” Station to Station is a relatively short album, dominated by its opening title track but contains numerous other songs that don’t slouch.
Low and “Heroes”: The Inseparable Duo
Ah, the “cool” albums. Part of the “Berlin” trio that saw heavy involvement by Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and Tony Visconti. But the last part of the trio, Lodger, isn’t too note-worthy. But Low and “Heroes” live up to their hype…somewhat. Low especially heralds a lot of ambient music and the album’s second side sounds like something made by Daniel Lopatin. “Heroes” has its own ambient sections, but its incorporated more with rock and especially jazz so it has a more specific “Bowie” sound. And both albums have plenty of engaging funk and rock songs as well. “Breaking Glass” is a cool little song and “Be My Wife” is a perfect example of minimalist rock music. “Heroes’” first half is filled with amazing rock songs, like the title track of course, but songs like “Joe the Lion” and “Blackout” are absolute bangers. And “The Secret Life of Arabia” is an addictively rhythmic hidden gem at the end of the album. Low and “Heroes” are both great albums, but in both cases, especially Low, they may not live up the high lauds it gets from some sections of music fans, depending on your love for ambient music.
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps): The All-Over-The-Place Album
Scary Monsters is a difficult album to pigeonhole, which is definitely not a bad thing. But this album hit the highs in each of Bowie’s styles of music. The title track is one of his most bombastic rock songs, “Ashes to Ashes” is his most screwed-up weirdo tracks, and “Fashion” steps up the tongue-in-cheek disco music to amazing, hilarious extents. He also takes more odd steps with the opening and closing songs and in “Scream Like A Baby,” which sounds like a mix of Bowie’s earlier, concept-album era and the grimier sounds he started to move toward on this album. Overall, Scary Monsters is a return to Bowie’s rock sound and a showcase of how the genre has changed over active 70s.
Let’s Dance: The Embarrassingly Good Album
It would be the easiest step in the world to just skip this album altogether. Although Bowie hit some of his biggest popularity heights in the 80s, his real impact on music dropped off pretty sharply at this point. And most people know the songs on the album as his real “pop” songs, so there’s not a lot to say. But here’s the thing: the reason everyone knows the songs from this album is because they’re great. “China Girl,” “Let’s Dance,” “Modern Love,” “Cat People.” They’re all here and they’re all amazing. “Let’s Dance” has an undeniable groove that can really move people to dance. “China Girl” is a shifting, difficult pop song and the Iggy Pop version should definitely be listened to as well. “Modern Love” is cheesy, sure, but it is engaging and has dazzling, coke-fueled saxophone. Let’s Dance as an album can be easy to put down and overlook, but its impact is undeniable and a revisitation can be eye-opening.
Outside and Earthling: Please Hear Me Out
Everyone loves to rag on 90s Bowie. And it makes sense. He tried to do the whole Tin Machine experiment, which crashed and burned, and he put out some of his most embarrassing albums. But Outside and Earthling were the decades’ two big works he put out and they’ve been debated healthily by critics. But Outside has some impressive songs, like the exciting “Hallo Spaceboy” and the creepy, anthemic “Voyeur of Utter Destruction.” Outside is often put down as an imitation of “industrial” music, but the only band that ever seems to apply to is Nine Inch Nails. And sure, the album kind of sounds like NiN, but it still carries Bowie’s iconic voice and his little flourishes of eccentric arrangement. Earthling, the “electronic” Bowie album is a harder case to sell. I…I like it, I dunno. Just try it even though it’s really not defendable.
The Next Day: It’s Not Bad
The rest of Bowie’s career was pretty rocky. Heathen, in the early-2000s is not a bad album, but it’s hard to really write about. But after a long hiatus that everyone assumed would be a permanent stop in music, Bowie announced The Next Day and it was not just a cheap cash-grab album. It was a real attempt at a return to music and a last note of what Bowie has to give. So, since this will likely be his last album, it’s important to look at what The Next Day has. And it’s just…hard to really summarize. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s just rock music. Some tracks are easier to see Bowie’s earlier styles, like “Dirty Boys” has some of the Scary Monsters-era grime and the best song, “Set the World on Fire,” is a return to the same uniquely-arraigned rock music that was seen on “Diamond Dogs.” But overall, The Next Day is a bit of a sad final note. This is how the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper.