by Jon Hunt
So you miss David Bowie. Me too, folks. I was a pretty damn big fan, and it definitely has left a pretty big hole in my musical life. What I kept thinking to myself is: well, now what? Who can even fill that void? Who’s that experimental, that interesting, that consistently cool?
The answer is: nobody. Honestly, nobody is. Bowie was literally the coolest fucker who ever lived (or second, after Lou Reed, maybe), and probably nobody will be that cool again. But in terms of artists that push the boundaries like Bowie? There are a few who come close, or who can at least help you fill the void in your life. A few of these you may have explored, at least cursorily — but maybe one of these artists will strike your fancy and you’ll disappear down a beloved rabbit hole that’ll help you feel a little better.*
1. David Sylvian – One of my favorite and most idiosyncratic songwriters of all time is former Japan frontman David Sylvian. In terms of devotion to pure art over commerciality, Sylvian even bests Bowie, who always still had an eye to accessibility even at his most oblique. Sylvian literally doesn’t care, and if his music is beautiful or accessible it’s almost an accident — he’s just following his muse as far as it goes, and if that makes for catchy songs, it’s incidental. Of course, since Sylvian’s roots are in New Romantic dance music, that often means the kind of sly crooning that often characterized Bowie’s work — albums like Gone To Earth and Secrets of the Beehive are filled with catchy songcraft and gorgeous melodies. Meanwhile, albums like Manofon and Plight and Premonition are often sparse and difficult, and traditional song structure and melodies are abandoned in favor of pure experimentation. Even on his strangest records, though, Sylvian’s unique and melancholic vision shines through, and his 80s roots are in full display. Definitely a rabbit hole worth disappearing down.
2. T. Rex / Tyrannosaurus Rex/ Marc Bolan – If your taste runs towards Glam Bowie, or even pre-glam Folk/Toytown Psych Bowie, you may have already ventured over to Bowie’s pal Marc Bolan, the frontman of Tyrannosaurus Rex aka T. Rex. Without Bolan there’s no Ziggy Stardust — Bowie credits Bolan, who was a pioneer of glam and good old fashioned stompin’ rock, as inspiring Bowie’s own glitter shift. It’s hard to picture now, but Bolan inspired the same kind of screaming hysteria the Beatles did in their heyday, even while his music was about as strange as you can get. Mining a kind of amalgam of Syd Barret-esque surreal psychedelia and 50s rock and roll (mixed with oodles of fuzzy guitar), prime-era T. Rex is damn nifty stuff, and you can see where it directly leads to the punk, post-punk and goth subgenres. Later on Bolan would experiment (as did Bowie) with soul and New Wave before his untimely death in a car accident. Definitely, if you’ve not done so, check out T. Rex’s non-Electric Warrior or Slider records — they’re worth it.
3. Brian Eno – frequent Bowie collaborator and ex-Roxy Music keyboardist Eno has made some of the rock era’s most unusual and future-forward albums. Starting out as a kind of pre-New Waveist angular songwriter on albums like Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, he eventually moves into stranger, cooler, more oblique music — Another Green World starts the progression, but he later basically invents ambient music (Music for Airports), sampling (on the David Byrne collab My Life in The Bush of Ghosts) and god knows what else (the angular, weird-by-any-standards Before and After Science). Meanwhile, he’s also recorded some great pop music — the songs on Wrong Way Up (written with John Cale) and Everything That Happens Will Happen Again (David Byrne) are as catchy as anything. Meanwhile, Discreet Music is virtually classical (though hugely minimalist). He’s a guy with some incredible depth and creativity and if you’ve not explored his catalog, now’s your chance.
4. Donovan – It’s safe to say that without Donovan paving the way, there’d be no David Bowie. Donovan was sort of a pioneer of the whole “lone wolf / chameleon/weirdo” pose that Bowie would soon adopt. And while Donovan’s remembered as a kind of gentle folkie of the hippie era, that’s not borne out by his enormously creative albums. The classics, of course, are much rockier than you remember — Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow and Hurdy Gurdy Man all contain some pretty toothy stuff in amongst the balladeering, and some niftily innovative studio stuff besides (and you can kind of see the roots of the glam sound beginning in all of ’em). He begins his chameleonic phase just as his fame began to wane — starting with 1969’s Barabajagal, Donovan started trying to figure out who he’d be in the 70s. He never hit upon the right combination, but along the way he made a sort of underrated glam record (Cosmic Wheels), a very 70s singer-songwriter album (Essence to Essence), a try at synth-inflected psychedelia (Neutronica, which is actually pretty damn interesting) and a couple shots at band-life (Open Road particularly). It’s all much more interesting than his rep has it, and I’ve always felt he was rife for some rediscovery.
5. Brian Ferry / Roxy Music – Of course, Ferry and Roxy Music, who came up right around the same time as Bowie did, never evolved as much or as often as Bowie, but they sure managed some magnificent stuff nevertheless. I adore all the band’s albums (especially the smooth Avalon, which I think is thee sex record of all time). And if you’re looking for a bridge between glam and New Wave music that isn’t Bowie, it’s Roxy — listen to “Oh Yeah” off of 1980’s Flesh + Blood and tell me you don’t hear an entire decade’s worth of stuff within its boundaries. Of course, Ferry continued on after Roxy’s demise, and while he never strayed too far from his comfort zone (sly, loungey, sexy dance music) his quality never waned either — I love 1985’s Boys and Girls which sounds a lot like Bowie’s work from the same era, and damned if his 2014 album Avonmore isn’t just as marvelous as that album nearly 20 years later, with the coy “Loop De Li” being just as sexy and innovative as he’s ever been.
6. George Clinton / Parliament / Funkadelic – I for sure didn’t want to include all white artists, and while I think Prince probably owns the title of “The Black David Bowie” (or Bowie owns the title of “The White Prince?” either way) the black artist with the most stylistic shifts and experimental moments has to be George Clinton. While he’s generally considered kind of a “cosmic clown” figure, far less “serious” than Bowie, there’s no question that he’s the figure who singlehandedly pushed the funk and soul genres forward the hardest from the time he entered the field (on the 1968 Parliament album Osmium) to the time his much-publicized drug problems got the better of him (sometime in the middle 80s). Along the way, he made some killer psychedelic fuzz-funk with Funkadelic (extending what Hendrix did to its logical conclusion) and some funk-disco-into-electro amazingness with Parliament. And when you listen to albums like Mothership Connection or Up For The Down Stroke, you’re struck by how a) strange they are and b) not really as funny as you thought they were they are. Boy are they influential, though: listen to Trombipulation, from 1980, and hear everywhere funk went in the rest of the decade, not to mention where rap would head for the first ten-ish years of its existence.
7. David Byrne – Former Talking Head David Byrne is another guy who has embraced art music for art music’s sake, much like Bowie did. The guy’s career across the Heads was a showcase of how to imbibe diverse influences without appropriation, and even the group’s least-well-regarded albums (like the super-underrated Naked) sound like they’re pushing pop music, hard, all the time. Meanwhile, Byrne’s solo albums have run the gamut from experiments (the string-driven Grown Backwards, the intriguing Catherine Wheel and Knee Plays) to flirtations with different genres (the nifty Rei Momo) to pop tries (like his eponymous 1994 solo album). His most recent turn, a collab with St. Vincent (Love This Giant) harked back to his very best work in terms of structural experimentation and odd rythmic turns. And while everything he’s done hasn’t been awesome (he has a few failed tries in the late 90s and early 00s, like everybody else) he’s certainly been consistently intriguing.
8. John Zorn – coming out of the New York demimonde of the mid 80s, saxophonist Zorn has flirted with about two thousand different genres over the course of his — uh, about two thousand albums — and managed a rich and varied career that spans jazz, avant-garde music, screaming metal and a million other things. There’s literally something for everyone, from the cool soundtrack music of Naked City to the sweetly wild jazz of O’o to the insane metal screaming of his collabs with Mike Patton (Moonchild, Astronome, Six Litanies for Heliogabalus) to the cool prog of Inferno (with John Medeski, Matt Hollenberg and Kenny Grohowski) to — I dunno, klezmer music and Christmas music (Zorn is Jewish!) to an album devoted to each angel in heaven, each featuring a different backup band playing in a different style (I prefer the sly spy-music sound of Lucifer best, but the whole series is worth a listen — he just released Vol. 26, Cerberus, last year). His catalog is completely daunting, so if you want someone with a ton of depth and crazy creativity to explore for the next — oh, 10 years? — Zorn’s your guy.
9. Suede – In terms of modern folks, there’s nobody who more embodies Bowie’s smart pop songwriting and cool androgyny better than Brett Anderson, frontman of Suede (called London Suede in the US for stupid reasons). Stylistically, Suede are nowhere as deep as Bowie ever got — they stick to a pretty great formula for the most part of epic guitar playing and Anderson’s masterful croon. But lyrically? Anderson is a damn poet, and his romantic decadence is very much descended from Ziggy-era Bowie. Best album: 1994’s amazing Dog Man Star, a heartbreaking and perfect work that veers between heartbroken ballads and equally heartbroken ballads. I like the upbeat followup Coming Up almost as much, though — there’s no more Bowie a sentiment as “We’re trash, you and me, we’re the litter on the breeze,” is there? And since the group reunited in 2013, they’ve managed one really great album (Bloodsports, which is as fine as their prime-era stuff) and are about to put out another one (Night Thoughts, due in a week).
10. Kendrick Lamar and………Kanye West – I’m gonna go ahead and guess that, sadly, far too many Bowie fans aren’t also hip-hop fans, and that’s a shame. Because Bowie was listening to Kendrick Lamar’s music while he was working on his last album Blackstar, and you damn well bet Bowie himself saw the parallels. Lamar, like Bowie, is a genre-pushing artist completely unafraid to take risks — you’ve heard me plug To Pimp A Butterfly a million times, and if his career keeps up as it has, it’s just the beginning of what the man might accomplish. And oh — you’re angry that I bring up Kanye West? Even though he’s an arrogant freak, you damn bet Kanye has managed some amazing genre-shoving music along the way, culminating in Yeezus, which was adored by Bowie’s pal Lou Reed. And nobody’s more able to chameleonically imbibe modern trends and spit ’em back out in intriguing forms than Kanye, even though he’s about as hated as — well, Bowie was in Middle America in the 70s.
* And yeah, I’m well aware, and a little ashamed, that all ten of these are dudes. That’s not cool. In terms of artists of Bowie’s magnitude of experimentation, there’s a few women who come to mind — Madonna, Bjork, Laurie Anderson among ’em. Madonna is a little troublesome just ’cause I think her latest stuff has been terrible. But sure enough does Bjork belong (she continues to be just about the most idiosyncratic pop artist out there) and Laurie Anderson is just straight weird, purely art for art’s sake, and totally amazing.