So it’s now been six months since the death of the legendary, inimitable David Bowie, and in light of this, I’ve decided to write something special. In November 2013, I wrote a post where I counted down the “top 5 David Bowie albums”. Back then, The Next Day was the most recent studio album he’d made, and I didn’t really know that many of albums. Now I that I’ve listened to all of them, I think it’s time I made a new list, one that illustrated the genius of the artist who started my love affair with albums in the first place.
Just to make things clear right away, this list was very hard for me to write. In my opinion, the albums shown here are the best of the best, so picking from such an amazing range was extraordinarily difficult. At the end of the day, these were the albums that I enjoyed the most, and at the end of this post I’ll mention the albums that I thought were great but couldn’t compete with the albums that did make it (this will be the “honourable mentions” section).
It’s important to note that any of Bowie’s albums could be radically different to each other, and whatever his best album is, it’s mainly a matter of opinion (and I tend to have particular bias in this topic), so if you disagree with anything on this list, feel free to comment. Unlike on my previous list, I won’t leave YouTube videos on this post, since they have a habit of breaking. If you want to listen to the songs, or even the albums I’ve mentioned, look them up yourself on YouTube, Spotify or iTunes, or you could buy the albums. With that formality done, I think I can start.
10. Ziggy Stardust
Right off the bat, this is the album that everyone remembers. It’s the first album that many people immediately think of when they think about David Bowie himself, and perhaps rightfully so. It had one of the most recognisable concepts in music, and it’s the home of some of the most essential songs in his entire catalogue…and yet on this list it’s only #10.
My reason for this was simple – there were other albums that were better. That doesn’t exactly diminish the album as a whole. Even if Ziggy Stardust isn’t your favourite Bowie album, it’s that album that’s so good that you can’t exactly dismiss it, unless of course you’re Piero Scaruffi, a critic who basically hates all rock music.
Though not the first of its kind, it was one of the first concept albums that was enormously successful. Originally intended as the soundtrack to a TV show, it tells the story of Bowie’s most recognisable persona Ziggy Stardust, an alien rock star who acts as a messenger for mysterious extraterrestrial beings, but ends up being destroyed by the lifestyle he adopts, as well as the adoration of his fans. Kind of ironic commentary, considering Bowie himself would become a huge star after the album was released.
Of course, the album itself endures partly because of the outrageous persona it represented, but mainly because of its classic, finely aged glam rock sound. Though a few tracks sound quite similar, all of them are good, and the overall sound is quintessentially catchy.
Personal picks: Moonage Daydream, Starman, It Ain’t Easy, Hang On to Yourself, Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City
Something tells me this might be a controversial pick, not only because this is one of the more divisive albums, but also because I decided it should come after Ziggy Stardust. Years from now the general consensus will probably be different, but I personally enjoyed the album at first listen.
Another concept album, this record follows a sprawling dystopian narrative, set in an alternate world in the year 1999. In that world, murder had become a new underground art craze, and the main character works for a bureau investigating so-called “art crime”. The story is told in more detail through the liner notes that came with the original album. Bowie himself planned a series of albums to be released from 1995 to 1999, each themed around the impact of the end of the millennium, but for whatever reason, this was scrapped.
When I heard that Bowie had done an industrial rock album, I thought that it was going to be a lot like a typical industrial rock record from the mid-90’s, but what I heard was completely original, and the uniqueness of this album’s experimental rock stylings blew me away. It was a mixture of a range of styles, including art rock, industrial rock, electronic, and jazz-like use of pianos. I listened to tracks from this album more often than Ziggy Stardust tracks, and the album had a particular inspiration on my art project (in terms of writing that is).
I guess the main beef that people had with this album was the intrusive segues that disrupted the flow of the album, and only made the album longer (I personally think that tracks 1 and 2 should have been merged into a single track). Personally, I don’t think length is a problem. The German band Can made an album called Tago Mago, which is 72 minutes long, and is still a masterpiece (in fact, I adore that album). I do wish Bowie would have gone through with his planned series of albums in the 90’s, along with that planned theatrical performance of the album, but c’est la vie.
Personal picks: Outside, The Hearts Filthy Lesson, A Small Plot of Land, Hallo Spaceboy, The Motel, The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty), Wishful Beginnings, We Prick You, I’m Deranged, Strangers When We Meet
After scrapping the planned series of albums relating to Outside, Bowie moved on to create Earthling, which saw him going in one of the most out-there directions in his career. The album fused guitar-driven industrial rock with elements of the emerging drum and bass scene of the mid-1990’s. Naturally, this album was rather divisive, and indeed, it’s unlike any of his other albums, and that’s what makes it so brilliant.
I honestly expected the album to basically drown in drum and bass, but to be totally honest, only a few tracks sound overtly drum and bass, and the whole album is driven by an aggressive guitar-driven sound, kind of like a harsher, edgier version of Outside. It took a bit of time before I got used to it, but when I did, I loved it.
If anything, this and the previous album dispel the myth that later albums by older artists are always worse than the classics. If anything, Bowie’s albums had been constantly improving since the 1980’s, and this album is the proof. Like the previous album, this album is bound to alienate fans who came in during the Let’s Dance era, but if you’re not confused or overwhelmed, I guarantee that this album will be a surefire rocker. It illustrated the boldness of an artist who continued to experiment long after the peak of his career.
Personal picks: Little Wonder, Looking for Satellites, Battle for Britain (The Letter), Seven Years in Tibet, Dead Man Walking, Telling Lies, The Last Thing You Should Do
7. The Next Day
By the time I was starting to get into David Bowie, this was the most recent album that was out at the time. By then, this was the first album he would make in a decade, making this a literal successor to the amazingly raucous Reality. The Next Day continues the alternative rock style of its predecessor, but I find that it’s distinctly darker and a bit more eclectic than its predecessor, incorporating hard rock, ballads, blues (in Dirty Boys), glam rock, and some electronic elements. It is a very straightforward rock album, but it’s one hell of a rock album.
I get the impression that this was very much a transitional album. The first single, Where Are We Now?, signalled Bowie’s return to music, and it was a shock because it took the fans by complete surprise, as did the rest of the album. In essence, the album represents the transition to a newer approach for Bowie – the latter-day contemporary Bowie who kept himself as distant from the public limelight as possible. Even the cover art represents a kind of separation from the previous chapters of his career, with a distortion of one of his most iconic albums.
From here on out, Bowie would record his music in complete secrecy, and this added an element of mystery to it. The legend of Bowie grew greater in his absence than it did when he was out there in the open. Looking back, I remember being excited when The Next Day was on the shortlist for the Mercury Prize, and that was my only reason for watching that vapid ceremony of modern musical garbage. Unsurprisingly, Bowie lost to James Blake, which just confirmed the kind of bias I felt was present in the contemporary culture of the time. It was such a shame too, because this was certainly one of the best albums of 2013, let alone the decade so far.
Personal picks: The Next Day, Dirty Boys, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), Love is Lost, Where Are We Now?, Valentine’s Day, If You Can See Me, I’d Rather Be High, Dancing Out in Space, How Does the Grass Grow?, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die
6. Station to Station
In terms of style, the next six albums all have something in common that is universally appealing to me. If you’re one of the more eagle-eyed fans, feel free to guess. Station to Station is often acclaimed as one of Bowie’s most impenetrable records, and it marks a transitional point in Bowie’s career, marking the beginning of the era where he was making music inspired by krautrock bands (Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk, etc.), with this album developing from the plastic soul sound of Young Americans. Some of my favourites songs and albums have sprung up from this era.
It’s worth noting that while producing the album, Bowie was addicted to astronomical amounts of cocaine, and this affected his state of mind quite drastically. That drug-addled mindset was present in the creation of his last distinct persona, The Thin White Duke. The album itself covered a wide range of themes, but most noticeably was his interest in the occult, philosophy, spirituality, and religion.
At it’s heart, it’s an avant-garde rock album laced with funk, and its sports some of the tightest compositions of his career. The only criticism I’d have would be that the album is relatively short, with only six songs, but the whole album was still great even with only six.
Personal picks: Station to Station, Golden Years, TVC 15, Stay
At the end of Bowie’s golden decade came one his greatest albums. Often dubbed as the last of the “Berlin trilogy” (which is erroneous because it wasn’t even produced in Berlin), this album represents a more pop-oriented approach when compared to its heavily experimental predecessors, but this uniquely accessible record has a very special place in my record shelf.
The album is essentially an avant-garde pop album, rife with experimental forays into world music, along with more straightforward pop songs. The album tends to waver between atmospherically light pop, and rough rock-oriented songs with screeching guitar riffs. In a way, it was an album of its time, when the musical landscape was shifting towards the post-punk scene.
When I first listened to the album, the songs on it were ludicrously addictive. They’re some of the catchiest songs I know, and that’s mostly because of the simplicity. There are no tracks longer than four minutes. Clocking in at 35 minutes, it is the shortest Bowie album on this entire list (shortest Bowie album ever made would be Pin-Ups), and yet I find that this album has such a likeable character that I don’t exactly care. It simply had such an amazing sound, and it could be taken as a bridge between the sound of the Berlin era and the New Romantic era.
Personal picks: Fantastic Voyage, African Night Flight, Move On, Yassassin, Red Sails, Look Back in Anger, Boys Keep Swinging, Repetition
After Station to Station, Bowie relocated to Berlin in order to recover from his cocaine addiction. The irony of course is that he moved from the cocaine capital of the world to the heroin capital of the world, but that’s okay because he wasn’t a big fan of heroin. The album saw him collaborate with Brian Eno in the creation of a heavily electronic sound that reflected the wandering isolation that was his life in Berlin.
One side of the album has seven straightforward pop songs, two of which are instrumentals, and the other side consists of ambient instrumental pieces that are meant to be evocative of Bowie’s surroundings. The insular, futuristic art rock sound, along with its experimental spirit, is precisely why I love this album.
With its cold electronic atmosphere, the album painted a picture of the artist brilliantly, and the sleeve art, taken from the poster of The Man Who Fell to Earth, is a classic image. It’s the kind of album that you rarely see in today’s world. Today, the closest we get to this kind of album, in my opinion, would be from the likes of Winter Severity Index (a dark wave band from Italy. I highly recommend listening to one of their albums, they’re great). With its beautiful instrumentals, straightforward electronic rock, and its unabashed approach, I feel that this album is among the greatest albums ever made, and I’m certainly not alone in thinking that.
Personal picks: Speed of Life, What in the World, Sound and Vision, Always Crashing in the Same Car, Be My Wife, A New Career in a New Town, Art Decade, Weeping Wall, Subterraneans
3. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
After the 1970’s had come to a close, this album came along, and with it Bowie brought himself into the 1980’s, reinventing his sound along the way. By the time this album was released, punk was dead, the charts were dominated by the younger artists that directly took after him. These were the so-called “new wave children” of Bowie, and this is the album that I think was a loving shout-out to those artists, while also taking them all to school.
Minus Brian Eno, it features some of the best musicians to have ever graced his band, including Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis, and the legendary Robert Fripp. It opens with a thrashing hard rocker where Bowie sings the lyrics as if he’s gushing his intestines out (and people thought Kurt Cobain was edgy). The whole album relishes in an aggressive, guitar-driven post-punk sound, but it ends on a noticeably calmer note, with a full reprise of the first track.
To me, the album represents rage and frustration. After all, this was written and released on the year Bowie and his first wife Angie divorced, hence why a few of the tracks are seen as being about that event in his life. Certainly the intensity and sheer rawness of the album could be attributed to that, and that would make sense. The album itself is emblematic of raw artistic expression, even though the intent was to create a more radio-friendly sound.
The album itself has since become a benchmark by which all later albums would be compared to, and I can see why. From start to finish, the album was an amazing sonic journey that is nearly impossible to equal.
Personal picks: It’s No Game (both parts), Up the Hill Backwards, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), Ashes to Ashes, Fashion, Teenage Wildlife, Kingdom Come
When this album was announced, my expectations were soaring in the heavens, and I didn’t think for a minute that this would be his final album. Then again, how else did the song’s two lead singles make sense? Bowie was dying of cancer, and he intended this to be his parting gift to the fans.
The album itself is one of the most experimental albums he’s ever made, dabbling in post-punk, electronica, art rock, balladry, but heavily dabbling in jazz, but I wouldn’t consider it a full-on jazz album. There are elements of Bowie’s best albums in Blackstar, but as a whole, this album was incredibly original. Usually when an established solo artist reaches the late 60’s, they resort to albums where they cover old pop standards. By contrast, Bowie’s Blackstar may well be the furthest he has strayed from pop in many years.
I would say that Blackstar is a lot like Station to Station, but somehow a lot finer musically. The album itself is the equivalent of Bowie’s classic late 1970’s albums for my generation, and it offers a more concise statement than its immediate predecessor. For me, Blackstar was the truest display of Bowie’s character, defiant and experimental to the end.
Personal picks: The whole album, but especially the following – Blackstar, ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, Lazarus, Girl Loves Me, I Can’t Give Everything Away
As powerfully brilliant as Blackstar was, I still think that there’s one album that consistently fares better than any other album by any artist. Yes, the album at the top of this list is my favourite album of all time, the second album in the acclaimed Berlin trilogy.
This was the album that kickstarted my love affair with albums in general, being the very first full-length album that I listened to. For me, it’s an album that has endured the ages. My musical preferences have changed quite a bit, but this album has always been at the top of heap for me.
Stylistically, the album is something of a middle ground between Low and Lodger, carrying the insular bleakness of Low, and hints of a more straightforward song-writing style, with the final song being a subtle hint at the next album’s musical direction. Produced within months after Low, it mixes electronic instruments with a heavier guitar-driven sound, courtesy of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno.
I’ve tried finding like this for the past three years now, and even though I have, none have come close to topping this legendary album in terms of its unbeatable quality. The only thing I would criticise is the fact that Neuköln wasn’t the closing track, despite it having such a dramatic sound that it would make a brilliant ending. However, I’m still very fond of the closing track, so it’s not that big of an issue. With it’s sublime instrumental pieces, brilliant guitar-driven songs, and a triumphant, masterfully-written title track, “Heroes” continues to stand as simply his greatest record, and certainly the best of a magnificent crop.
Personal picks: The whole album, but especially the following – Beauty and the Beast, Joe the Lion, “Heroes”, Sons of the Silent Age, V-2 Schneider, Moss Garden, Neuköln, The Secret Life of Arabia
- Hunky Dory
- Aladdin Sane
- Young Americans
- Let’s Dance