by Jon Hunt
I refuse to eulogize David Bowie.
Every attempt to sum up “what David Bowie means” or even “what David Bowie means to me” seems pathetically underwhelming. The news sources were calling him “pioneer in music and fashion” — even that simple phrase remarkably reductive for an artist of his magnitude. He was just a pioneer? Just in music and fashion? Not in, you know, life?
So I’m here for the one thing that mattered the most, all through the man’s career, even during those fallow years in the 90s where people stopped caring (why? why did you stop caring, people? Why did I have even one argument in the 90s about whether he was still important?) — his records. His awesome, amazing, mind-blowing, life-changing, challenging-ass records, some of which are still at the beginning sweep of being understood, let alone properly appreciated.
This ranking is, of course, my own — I make no claims that this is anything like definitive, or “official.” As with any ability to rank someone’s work, your mileage may wildly, wildly vary, and it should — we bring so much emotion and experience to bear on our listening experiences there’d be no way for us to have anything approaching a truly shared experience on this stuff.
It’s for fun. Someone we love is dead — we need to have fun and play his records. It seems like the only thing we can do to fight off the darkness. Rules: only the studio albums, no live albums, no outtakes, no box sets, no greatest hits.
27. Tonight – It’s a measure of the man that even his worst album is totally worth owning because it has at least three songs you absolutely need — “Blue Jean,” “Loving The Alien” and the Iggy Pop collab “Dancing With the Big Boys” (and on the 90s-released extended edition, “Absolute Beginners.”) The issue with this one is that he rushed the writing, and far too many songs are just dull, fallow reggae or Bowie-by-numbers. Like I could totally live without the oh-so-mid-80s “Tumble and Twirl” which sounds like any Bowie-influenced anybody doing anything at the time. Sweet album cover, though.
26. Never Let Me Down – Definitely his most maligned album; again, still totally worth owning for a series of high points (“Day In, Day Out,” “Glass Spider,” the title track, “When the Wind Blows.”) The problem on this one is the production — it’s aged very poorly, and the shrill drums, terrible synths (and believe me, I love synths — it takes a lot for me to call them “terrible”) and gated, reverbed everything was what people hate about the mid-80s in general. And Jesus H. Christ, some of the songs — “Shining Star (Making My Love)” is a tune I never need to hear again, and “’87 and Cry” kind of makes me cry.
25. David Bowie – Bowie’s first album from ’67 is kind of adorable but kind of not very great. You can tell there’s something here with this fey-voiced kid, but everything is that particularly British brand of twee that passed for psychedelia at the time, and it all kind of sounds like the outtakes from an early Bee Gees album. Even moreso than Never Let Me Down, it sounds of its time and not much else (like seriously, “Who’s that hiding in the apple tree? Hiding in a branch? Don’t be afraid, it’s only me” sung in thee twee-est voice ever). Nevertheless, his singing voice is fully intact, and if you like toytown psych — some people do! Some people really do! — you might enjoy this more than me.
24. …hours –…hours finds our man trying hard to find a direction after the brash experimentation of Earthling and not really succeeding. It has good songs for sure (“What’s Really Happening” sounds like a Man Who Sold the World outtake, “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” is just nifty, the driving “New Angels of Promise” and odd “The Dreamers” definitely show the man’s experimental side) but the production is brittle and odd, the song selection is pretty weak comparatively and the whole thing smells a tad of confusion. You’ll understand when I say it doesn’t much sound like anything. It’s just kind of there.
23. Reality – I know some folks who swear by Reality. And it’s sure better than …hours. It again just suffers slightly from a vaguely unmemorable song selection (he looked for a while like he was gonna fall into a pattern of “a few originals, three interesting covers”) and a general feeling of disengagement. I’m not sure at all about his cover of the Modern Lovers’ “Pablo Picasso,” but his cover of George Harrison’s “Try Some, Buy Some” is interesting and there are some truly killer rock tunes on here (“Never Get Old,” the throbbing “Looking For Water,” the super-visceral title track) as well as a few moments of genuine interest (I love the Steely Dannish album closer “Bring Me The Disco King” quite a lot). It’s not a bad album, really; not at all. It’s just not a great one. low point: the terrible album cover, his worst.
22. Tin Machine – from this point forward, all of Bowie’s albums are good-to-amazing, and everything is just a matter of degree. Tin Machine came after a series of dull 80s Bowie records and to these ears at least sounded like a re-embracing of the stuff that made him cool to begin with (great songwriting, rock edge, smooth-ass fashion). At the time, critics saw it as a baffling turn, which is a measure of just how fucked up the late 80s were — the fuzzy guitars, excellent rock tones and great songwriting just sound cool to modern ears, but it was a weird time filled with New Kids and Vanilla Ice, and Tin Machine seemed like aliens, of course. The only problem with this album is that a few of the songs sound dashed off, which was kind of the point — it was definitely a raw “in the studio” creation, and if “Video Crimes” or “Under The God” sounded a little underdeveloped, well, who really cared? I remember playing it over and over again and wondering why the hell the press had turned on him.
21. Heathen – By far the best of the 00s Visconti records, an album every bit as beautiful and strange as his late-70s stuff, suffering only slightly by comparison. He was in an introspective mood on this one, which always bodes well — “Sunday” sounds like a Scott Walker outtake, “Slip Away” could have lived on any of his early 70s high watermark albums, “I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship” is a cooler electronica turn than anything on Earthling. Perhaps best of all, “I’ve Been Waiting For You” is the kind of sax-driven sexy thing that would have been a highlight on Diamond Dogs, perhaps, all cool riffing and bass thump. I remember defending this one vehemently when it came out against people who were calling him “boring,” and I still think this sucker is gonna seem like a high point twenty years from now.
20. Earthling – A truly strange album, even by Bowie’s already strange standards, and that’s saying something. It’s Bowie’s embrace of “electronica” which was hot back then — you can hear him adopting drum ‘n’ bass, hip-hop and other electronica trends and bending them to his will, which is cool. But then the songs are just straight-up weird, which is — well, awesome, but it’s not an easy/fun/stupid listen, which is kind of a thing you have to be in a mood for. I’d say “I’m Afraid Of Americans” was his best song of the 90s and I could probably defend that position, too — it’s got a marvelous melody, some really skittering electronic moments and a very true sentiment that’s as right on today as it was back then.
19. Tin Machine II – I’ve always found II the better of the two Tin Machine albums. The band had refined their ability to craft songs, it was tougher and harder hitting and I think filled with more memorable songs. Heck, “Betty Wrong” is a contender for one of Bowie’s best songs, and I’m damn fond of the snappy “One Shot” and the nifty “Shopping for Girls” and the heartbreaking “Goodbye Mr. Ed.” For some reason, the critics of the time found the album execrable, which is inexcusable — Spin Magazine’s “Four dicks on the outside, four dicks on the inside” review should be in a class of “how not to review albums lest ye look like an asshole twenty years later.” Bowie took it to heart, however, and the album remains (alas! Sadly!) out of print, unique amongst his entire catalog. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating it.
18. Let’s Dance – I guess it’s a popular notion to underrate Let’s Dance because it was staggeringly popular, perhaps moreso than any of the man’s other albums. Hell, four major hits — “Modern Love,” “China Girl,” the title track and “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” — suggests the album couldn’t possibly be anything close to “bad.” The only issue: that’s fully half the record right there. And while the remaining songs are pretty alright — I love “Without You” a lot, and “Criminal World” coulda probably been a hit too — its brevity only adds to the perception of slightness. Meh — I dig Nile Rodgers’ snappy production and the album’s major exuberance, and I think of all of Bowie’s albums it just sounds like he had a fucking blast making it. It’s infectious.
17. Outside – One of a couple of staggeringly underrated albums from Bowie’s career slump, Outside finds him working with Eno on a very challenging and weird selection of songs (originally the first of three parts of a massive concept undertaking). It’s not an easy listen — weird-ass songs like “A Small Plot Of Land” and bits of dialogue sit amongst obvious hits like “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” and the exquisite “Hallo Spaceboy” and “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town.” But despite being one of Bowie’s densest and freakiest albums, it’s also enormously rewarding, and when you get to the soaring Bowie-classic melody of “Strangers When We Meet,” you’ll feel like you’ve been through something, and that’s a cool thing to be able to say about any album.
16. Lodger – All three of Bowie’s Berlin-era Eno collabs are excellent, of course, but I’ve always found Lodger the least of them — sure, it has amazing songs like “Look Back In Anger,” “Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ,” but it definitely has the sound of the end of a collaboration (heck, he even sings, in “Move On”: “Sometimes I feel the need to move on, so I pack my bags and move on.” They sound a little tired, frankly, which adds to the feeling of “coming to an end” that kind of permeates the entire affair. Which is not a bad thing — all three of the Berlin albums have their unique sound, and if this one feels like a 3AM exhausted-from-life album, well, it’s all the better for it, probably.
15. Station to Station – Another album that suffers only for being too short, Station to Station is a strange transitional album that sits between Bowie’s soul try — Young Americans — and his Berlin/futurist era, and contains aspects of both. “Golden Years” is about as soulful as he ever got, swinging like mad — meanwhile, “TVC 15” and the title track sound beamed from some post-apocalyptic future where soul has morphed into something much weirder. I guess you could play “Wild Is the Wind” on Soul Train and get away with it, but it’s a much stranger/freakier soul music than almost anybody else was trafficking, and you can hear Kraftwerk hammering at the door outside.
14. The Next Day – Yeah, I’m willing to rank Bowie’s first post-long-hiatus-where-he-might-have-been-ill album as a straight-up classic. Unlike his comfortable 00s Visconti albums, The Next Day is filled with a kind of desperate, restless energy that propels the music — rock, nominally, but the strange angular stuff he used to play — straight into the future. There ain’t a dud song on it, and some of the songs — “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” “Valentine’s Day” and “Love Is Lost” particularly, but also the stunning, heartbreaking “Where Are We Now” — sit right up there with the best stuff he’d ever done. Given that it was also an album we didn’t think we’d ever get — hell, I thought he was gone forever — it has the feeling of a love letter from an old friend, and a very welcome one.
13. Space Oddity – Bowie’s second album is a massive leap forward from his first one. In the two ensuing years, Bowie found his songwriting voice and appeared on this album fully formed, a gloriously weird futuristic dude who loved loud guitars and marvelous melodies and strange chordal turns. The title track is a stone classic, of course, but I sure love the forward-looking “Cygnet Committee” (listen to those 70s-ish echo-laden drums!) and the pastoral/epic “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” which manages to out-Donovan Donovan. Sure, he’s still prone to the occasional hippy moment — “Memory Of A Free Festival” is as hippy/trippy as the title suggests, and “Janine,” though it sounds like a Ziggy outtake, is still a little bit frippy. No matter – it’s fascinating to hear the man basically shed his influences and become David Bowie in one fell swoop.
12. Pin-Ups – Nothing more and nothing less than the Spiders From Mars, a completely killer live band, ripping into a bunch of Bowie’s favorite songs by other artists. It’s a modest album for sure, but that’s its charm — it feels off-the-cuff and cool as hell, and of course the band literally destroys the tunes in the best possible way. I think their slow, languid, super-heavy version of “I Can’t Explain” tops the Who’s (and I’ve argued it bitterly), but for sure their version of “Shapes of Things” is up there with both the ‘birds and Jeff Beck’s, and “Sorrow” and “Rosalyn” both at least equal their originals. Oh, and his “See Emily Play” was definitely an intro into the cult of Syd Barrett for me, so thanks, Mr. Bowie.
11. Black Tie, White Noise – of all his albums I’ve revisited since his death, this one seems the brightest, the coolest, the wildest and for sure the most under-appreciated. I think people viewed it, and maybe still view it, as a transition album between the 80s pop work and his more difficult later albums. And maybe it is, but there’s something about the midpoint between those two things that make it quite wonderful. It has a slick, stylish sound top to bottom (thanks to Nile Rodgers), and Bowie is in fine fettle songwise, but there’s a darker, introspective sound that turns everything a little moody and creepy. Special moment: his cover of Scott Walker’s transformative Nite Flights, turned into a smooth pop song. I think we missed out on a masterpiece at the time, folks.
10. Blackstar – I’m still not quite sure what to say about this, his self-delivered eulogy/death-as-performance-art-piece record, but I can say: it is absolutely gorgeous, as inventive as anything he’s ever done (that he was influenced by Kendrick Lamar surprises me not one bit) and would have been the next stop along a trail that was leading him into some Scott Walker-y post-rock territory if he hadn’t, you know, died. I’m still in the process of absorbing it, but I know for a fact that it has not a moment of duff across its brief eight songs, and that it’s one of the man’s most immediate and heartfelt albums. Let’s talk in ten years.
9. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) – Perhaps his most consistent record, if not his most inventive, Scary Monsters sees him falling smoothly into a New Wave-influenced sonic place, bringing with him his love of weird-ass guitar noise, Japanese culture, electronics and dance music. There ain’t a bad song anywhere near this record, but even though “Fashion” is dance-floor awesomeness and “Ashes to Ashes” a stone classic, there’s nothing on here quite as mind-blowing as he’d just managed during his Berlin era. Special Moment: the quite underloved “Because You’re Young,” which could almost be a Springsteen song in terms of scope and sweep.
8. Aladdin Sane – The moodier, piano-driven, evening to Ziggy Stardust’s bright, bold daytime. Driven top to bottom by Mike Garson’s twinkling keyboard runs, Sane sounds like a kind of twisted, alien torch-song album when it’s not busy rocking your face off (see: “Watch That Man,” “Jean Genie,” “Cracked Actor”). Perhaps the album’s highlight is the magnificently louché “Lady Grinning Soul,” which sounds like the last song in a Brecht musical, but I also love the 50s-riffing on “Drive In Saturday” too.
7. Heroes – A pretty marvelous album (the second in the “Berlin” cycle) elevated to awesome status by the presence of one of the finest songs known to mankind — of course, I’m talking about the epic, gorgeous title track, which you all know like you know the back of your hand. But man, so many killer Eno-driven rockers on this one (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Joe the Lion”) and so many cool Eno-driven instrumental numbers (“V-2 Schneider” is the best, of course, but the creepy “Neukoln” is marvelous too). Special moment: “The Secret Life Of Arabia,” secretly the best song on the album, with its mysterious rhythms and gorgeous vocals. Destroys me every time I hear it.
6. The Man Who Sold The World – The first of Bowie’s several stone-cold masterpieces of the 70s, The Man is a strange album even by today’s standards. It’s big and dramatic and weird and tight/rocking in equal measures, and the band is heavy even as the songs are dense and occasionally impenetrable. It really sounds like nothing else from the era — like somebody had taken a singer/songwriter record and goosed it up with half a pound of amphetamine and a brick of pancake makeup. The cover shot of Bowie in a dress was certainly an eye-opener in 1970, but songs like “The Supermen” were equally so — anybody dismissing him as a gimmick had to deal with the fact that he’d obviously read every science fiction book imaginable, plus Neitzsche (of course) and the Bible (more shockingly). Even still, there’s not another album like this in rock’s history — mannered and self-consciously bizarre and quite damn beautiful besides.
5. Diamond Dogs – What? Diamond Dogs this far up the list? Yeah. I know it’s considered the least of the three (well, four) Ziggy albums, but I beg to differ. This was my first Bowie album, and it scared the living piss out of me when I heard it, so much so that I demanded, probably crying, that it be taken off the stereo. Of course, as always when something creeps you out, it becomes a fascination — and man, this is one creepy-ass album. Beginning with the phrase “And in the death,” passing through rock and roll as genocide and “We Are The Dead” and a couple of songs from a proposed 1984 musical that didn’t happen and ending with the Ever Circling Skeletal Family, this is Grand Guignol rock as effective and fucked-up as anything Alice Cooper ever managed (and fuck Marilyn Manson, too — this is far creepier than anything he ever mustered). Oh, and “Rebel Rebel,” simply one of the best 3-minute rock singles penned by a human. Perfect.
4. Young Americans – Was just talking to my friend Tom (who introduced me to Bowie via Diamond Dogs, see the previous entry), and we both agree that Bowie’s “Across The Universe” beats Lennon’s. It has a certain overwrought soulfulness that totally belies the wide-eyed hippy stance of the original, and I love that. Meanwhile, this little soul gem finds Bowie appropriating like mad, turning soul music into theater and happening on one of the best grooves of the decade (“Fame” — aw, hell, “Fascination” too) and one of the best commentaries on youth culture of any decade (the title track). The only thing that could improve it would have been to make it longer — the album was originally slated to be a double which would have probably contained the sweet-ass “John, I’m Only Dancing (again),” one of his niftiest singles and disco before it was cool. Fake soul? Hell yeah, but of the best variety imaginable.
Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Low — fuck it, I’m cheating. If I ranked any of these three over the others, you know somebody would have told me I was dead wrong, and I might have been wrong depending on what day of the week it is/was. All three of these records are amazing as fuck in their own particular way, and all three contain not a single duff moment, so how can you rank ’em? I know Ziggy means more to me personally but that has more to do with where I was in life when I discovered it and what it meant to me, rather than quality: it gave me that rush of “freaks can do anything” that I know he intended and let me know that rock could be smart, weird theater rather than just mookish neanderthalism. My favorite song from the record is certainly “Moonage Daydream,” perhaps his most decadent/sexy moment, period. Hunky Dory is every bit as good, but way more piano driven and theatrical and as such maybe just a hair stranger, at least in the era it came out. Favorite from that one: “Life On Mars,” probably true for a lotta people, but boy do I love the bouncy piano of “Oh! You Pretty Things” too. And Low basically invented the 80s — every sound you’d hear in that entire decade can be found on this album, from angular guitars to weird gated drums to synth textures from top to bottom. It’s still the sound of the future, this one — “Speed Of Life” could come out today and you’d wonder what pocket of what dimension the author had gotten it from.