Illustration by Rachel Gordon.
Exactly a year ago today, I stayed up until four in the morning with news I did not quite understand (even with the extra hours I had to process this information). Blackstar was just released, and I was mid way writing my review on a Sunday. That’s when the news broke out over social media. It seemed surely like a hoax, because there was no real way this could be real. The album was just released, it was just David Bowie’s birthday, and the Lazarus musical was receiving much attention. Then, as quickly as possible, the news spread all over the world wide web. It was news that I still refuse to fully understand even to this day. I quickly tried to piece together a tribute to cope with the tweets, updates and posts that swirled around in a confusing fashion.
It’s been about a year since David Bowie passed away from a cancer he hid from the world. The entire world has had a chance to spin his music again and again in memories. Blackstar won many accolades as a wonderful parting gift. Homages and tributes have been sprawled all over 2016: a year that had enough of its own celebrity deaths, political conflicts and media scandals. A common meme that has been passed around is that David Bowie held the fabric of space and time together, as 2016 was an indication of the world falling apart. That may not be so, but Bowie held the world together even after his death. His fanbase extends through almost everybody in a way that simply would not exist anymore with modern artists. He was one of the last of a disappearing breed: the ultimate living, breathing rockstar.
He conquered the legal system with Bowie Bonds. He shifted into the film industry with enigmatic performances that could have only been pulled off by David Bowie (Pontius Pilate, Andy Warhol, Nicolas Tesla, an alien being and a mythical Goblin King). In the music world, Bowie revolutionized the concept album, the live show, the public persona and the shift of genre. He dabbled with many styles, many artists, and many characters. To us, he was David Bowie. To some very lucky few, he was David Jones: a child who got his iconic eye in a fist fight in grade school, a father with the luxury of writing a song to welcome his child into the world (Kooks), and a support figure who always championed those he was closest to. These were the closest resemblances Bowie had to being a human, despite the fact that his stage name came from another human being (James Bowie the frontiersman).
His identity was so specifically calculated to break through the stratosphere. He tackled gender bending, sexuality, race separations and more. His music, fashion, voice, make up and hairstyles had nothing to do with a single person. He made music for outcasts, and thus made music for all. Now that I have had a chance to take in the death of this all time great, of whom meant the world to many, I have put together the final tribute of this series. While I did rank a top ten albums list before, that was in the wee hours of the morning and without the means to truly research these albums more than what I personally could reflect on from years of listening. This time around, I have ranked every album in order (ending in the best album), and while the top ten may seem a bit similar to the last list, there are some differences after I extensively went through his discography again. This list includes the two Tin Machine releases, the unreleased Toy album (the album found as it was leaked), and the two soundtracks that featured original material (and not Christian F.).
I hope I didn’t neglect to include anything this time around, and if I did, there are millions of other David Bowie tributes that cover it all. This man did so much for contemporary music, and I can only say so much. This is my list of every David Bowie studio release in order.
- Pin Ups-5/10
It’s interesting hearing these songs from an extraterrestrial rock band with a different way of musicality. However, David Bowie has done way better covers before and after this release. The only cover that sticks out is Friday on my Mind, and yet it isn’t as good as the original. An interesting take on cover albums, and not much more. Pin Ups is for the biggest of Bowie fanatics.
As he did with many other genres, Bowie tackles adult contemporary here. Like the album cover, Hours did not age well (pun not intended). Hours feels dated not even with its construction but with the writing as well: the guitar playing is so heavily lodged into the late ‘90s. Essentially the ‘90s version of Never Let Me Down but without the heart and with more of a soul. Parts of this album are heartfelt and earnest, so that works as a saving grace.
- Never Let Me Down-5/10
There are some highlights here (Bang Bang, Time Will Crawl, Zeroes), and there is an electric energy here that brings the album up. However, the lows here are a lot lower than on Let’s Dance and Tonight (the other two ‘80s pop releases). These moments can be a bit of a drag sometime. However, the charisma on this album is definitely a saviour. It helps make this overly theatrical album turn into an audible play of sorts. Bowie says that this album was the most alive he felt in years, and at least that shows.
- Tin Machine II-6/10
Tin Machine II is essentially what it sounds like: a rehashing of the first Tin Machine album, but a lot less impressive. Not an awful album, but indicative of the kinds of hard rock bands you’d find around this time. Tin Machine II is quite forgettable and monotonous, but none of it is terrible in a way that is harmful.
- David Bowie-6/10
You can see where Bowie’s imagination starts, but this is one whacky release. While Bowie has other albums that can be considered eccentric, this self-titled beginning feels a bit all over the place. The music can be catchy and the lyricism deserves some credit for being experimental (for folk pop), but all of these ideas aren’t filtered or roped in nicely. David Bowie is an interesting start, and that’s about it.
I’m going to confess here: Tonight is not nearly as bad as people have said. Yeah, some of the album is a bit bland, but there are some real show stoppers here (Blue Jean, Tonight). Some of the not so great moments actually don’t add up creatively: what was the purpose of the flow of the album that feels so disjointed? Either way, no part of this album was cringe worthy bad or awkward, and it is not as terrible as it is made out to be. I will champion this album’s quality moments for as long as I need to.
The drum and bass approach sometimes works and it sometimes doesn’t. What it does do, however, is make the majority of the album feel similar throughout. There isn’t too much breathing room as a result, and it’s unfortunate on an album this risky. Earthling may have stood out more in the 90’s, but this release feels like a product of its time for the most part. Nonetheless, the few times this experiment works are definite checkmarks in Bowie’s catalog.
A commendable effort with Trevor Jones. This soundtrack is half Bowie ‘80s madness, half Jones’ wizardry. The extra dialogue cues and the references are most likely better enhanced by watching the cult favourite, but otherwise this soundtrack can be separated as any typical 80s pop record.
- Tin Machine-7/10
As this was a way to get his ideas out after his ‘80s stints, Tin Machine is clearly a different beast from Bowie. This is more straight forward hard rock based more around stationary jams than exploration. This album is definitely geared towards a separate audience, yet it has some deeper soul searching than Never Let Me Down had, and, to some extent, the rest of his ‘80s catalogue outside of Scary Monsters. It’s interesting to hear Bowie not just in a different genre but a different setting altogether.
- Toy (Leaked Version)-7/10
This won’t be too accurate of a representation as this album technically doesn’t exist. However, we’ll take whatever Bowie we can get! Like his Tin Machine stuff but much more latter career Bowie oriented (basically like mixing Tin Machine and Reality in a blender). There’s some substance here, but it’s mostly a standard rock album. It is interesting to hear some demoes of songs that ended up elsewhere and/or new takes of songs written many years before.
- Black Tie White Noise-7/10
Black Tie White Noise is a bit overlong, but definitely a bold and rewarding move on Bowie’s part. This album subsumes the electronic pop music that won new fans over with the adventurous stuff he was putting out in the ‘70s. The result is a house party in a palace: an ambitious yet fun ride. A nice departure from his slow period in the ‘80s, and a spark in the creativity that flowed through his ‘90s work.
Reality is a much more pleasant adult contemporary album compared to Hours. The background layers are very tastefully done and the centred structuring is a bit safe but still interesting. It may have been ten years until his next album after this, but fans were left with a delightful album until his triumphant return.
- David Bowie (Space Oddity)-7/10
David Bowie begins to gain an identity here. None of the songs are as sprawled as the ideas on his first self titled album, but some of his folk tales here just don’t create quite a spark. When they do (Space Oddity, Cygnet Committee, Memory of a Free Festival, etc), it’s bliss. Space Oddity left a mark, and so the magic began.
- The Buddha Of Suburbia-8/10
This is the biggest surprise of Bowie’s discography. The Buddha of Suburbia
is so much more than just a soundtrack. This feels like a mixture between Black Tie White Noise and his Berlin Trilogy, with the use of electronic music and ambient textures. Not a single dull moment here. Bowie was hellbent on this album and was upset with the little reaction people had with it. I can see why: It’s a lost Bowie treasure. Definitely give this one a listen, as it is the most overlooked release in his canon.
- The Next Day-8/10
The liveliest Bowie has been since even the early ‘80s. The Next Day may be the great comeback album of our times. Not a single dull track, hit after hit and a huge series of refreshing sounds in an overflowing 14 songs. This somehow works when the album is based on the sounds of Bowie’s past. The Next Day is deep, well constructed and the best answer to give when people ask if it’s ever worth it to keep going after so many years.
- Let’s Dance-8/10
Let’s Dance is a great invitation as its title states, as it is filled to the brim with radio goodness. Out of all of the albums where Bowie tried to appeal to the masses as a chart topper, Let’s Dance is the best result. A nice splash of disco and funk on top of a meaty rock base (he employed both Stevie Ray Vaughan and Nile Rodgers here). Maybe more of a series of songs than a complete album, but still a delight and a good time.
- The Man Who Sold the World-8/10
The Man Who Sold the World is often considered where Bowie truly started, and it shows. This release is flamboyant, inspired and colourful. There is a charm and a confidence here. While we haven’t reached the full transition into his masterful period (almost there), it’s only a stones throw away with this sharp album. This is also considered a glam rock staple, and this pinpoint can be considered a reliable source for those wanting to explore the style.
I remember giving this album a spin and being pretty bored and disinterested (this initial listen was shortly after Bowie’s passing). Having given this chore of an album another listen with a fresh perspective, I have no idea why I felt that way the first time. Sure, Outside is a bit longer than it should be, but it is a fascinating mosaic of tones from start to finish. This is an eerie web of interconnecting stories and skits laced by charged beats and haunting soundscapes. Outside is worth the patience, and its recent rediscovery from others makes perfect sense.
Now this is an album that is also deeply rooted within the time that it came from, yet it does not sound poorly aged. If anything, the relations to the September eleventh attacks have planted this release even more. Yet, it sounds even better after all of this time. A precursor to the maturity found on Blackstar and a progression he had been itching to have since Outside. Heathen was a hint at what Bowie was capable of even after all of this time.
- Diamond Dogs-8/10
Diamond Dogs contains one of the best Side One’s in Bowie’s catalogue. This is not to say the second half is lacklustre in any way, however. Diamond Dogs is more showy and theatrical than Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. This will be Bowie’s last time sounding this glam, and it is a nice send off to a sound that catapulted him into stardom, especially with some of Bowie’s edgiest songs.
The final album in the Berlin Trilogy, and the one that sticks out the most as being radically different. This is Bowie crushing the art rock movement with world music, new wave writing and funky progressions. As weird as this album is, it is equal parts poppy and challenging. Lodger is a great way to wrap up his evolving phases in the 70’s.
- Young Americans-9/10
A soulful album full of funk, grace and spirit. Bowie will genre hop a lot from this point on, but Young Americans is such a clean jump from Diamond Dogs that it barely feels like it’s from the same artist when his albums are listened to in succession. From start to finish, Young Americans is a transportation into a different era, world, and state of mind. It is calming and empowering. David Bowie’s mature side starts from now, and it is a stunning transition into a new era.
I can safely say that never has an icon of this stature with this amount of longevity ever had a more significant send off (save for the last release of Leonard Cohen’s). Blackstar is not just the best Bowie albums in years, it’s one of his best ever. Acidic jazz oozing into miserable rock music. The tales of desolation, despair and fatality are almost too hard to take in at times, especially with the haunting music behind it all. The ultimate swan song; a challenge worth all of the tears.
- Scary Monsters… and Super Creeps-9/10
The last masterful album in this winning streak throughout Bowie’s discography. Scary Monsters sounds metallic like a chrome sheen melded on top of a wild animal. It runs wild and mechanically. There is something ferocious underneath it all. Part future, part 60’s throwback, and it’s all gorgeous. Scary Monsters would be one of the last times Bowie would dominate with a clear aesthetic that embodied both the music and his own person.
- Aladdin Sane-10/10
Right here is easily Bowie’s filthiest sounding album. Aladdin Sane is all of the party from Ziggy Stardust magnified and left to rot. It is loud, rusty and the most badass Bowie ever was. It’s a beautiful mess; an accident you cannot take yourself away from. Aladdin Sane is an album I didn’t quite get at first but only gets better with time (no pun intended). It was released as one of the more divisive Bowie albums, but I think this remains a fan favourite.
Heroes, aside from the lead singles that would lead you to believe otherwise, is his most alien album. You get catapulted to a whole new universe, especially on the latter half of the album that features very little structure. The album is less organic than Low (the previous Berlin Trilogy release), but it is certainly more confident in the isolation it dwells in. A perfect companion piece, and an excellent rock album that dives into the unknown head first. Heroes is one of the greatest all time albums to connect mainstream listeners and experimental music aficionados.
- Station to Station-10/10
One hell of a a transportation into a drug rattled mind coping with philosophies and addictions. While Low will cover Bowie’s depressing comedown, Station to Station records his preachings while he spastically begs to be heard. It’s sensational on the surface, but kind of frightening deep down. More of a daring release than Young Americans, but more commercial than Low, Station to Station is a departure, a reminder, and a leap of faith.
- The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars-10/10
I think it goes without saying that this here is one of the most fascinating stories in concept album history; a fitting metaphor of the wild ways of rock n’ roll, and the life and death that both come with it. Bowie has explored new worlds both outer body and inner body here with his second classic of many (and his most well admired). This remains the go-to album for people wanting to discover Bowie’s legacy. With the glam nature, the sci-fi fascination, the commentary on the world, and the fear of inevitability, Ziggy Stardust encompasses many aspects that add to its longevity.
- Hunky Dory-10/10
The definitive album for outsiders and black sheep. The many perspectives of loneliness, perseverance and the kind of creativity generated in the corner of a bedroom here are stunning. Everything from the melodies, the lyrics and the passionate vocal work is stuffed with emotion and drive. This is Bowie’s first sign (of many signs) of pure genius. Never did a lyricist write about isolation quite like this; with such wonder, imagination and surreality. Hunky Dory was Bowie’s chance to be Bob Dylan, Nick Drake or Leonard Cohen, and thus we see the result of a misfit channeling their inner secrets as a voice of his generation.
We have finally reached this position. This is it: Bowie’s masterpiece, and just simply one of the most majestically profound albums in contemporary music. The first half is plagued with addictions and the second half is a frigid world during the withdrawal. Despite its electronic structure, Low is one of the most humanistic albums ever recorded. The cryptic lyrics sound like a cry for help and not indecipherable. The ambience speaks volumes despite the lack of vocal tracks. Low is abstract yet too identifiable. It is rare for an artist of any sort to truly capture a human emotion on this level, and yet Bowie did it during his times of suffering (heartbreak, recovery and suffering). The best way to describe David Bowie’s all time greatest release is with two simple words: simply breathtaking.