I found out the next morning from the heartfelt post of a friend, which is the way I would have wanted to hear it rather than some blog post (although I did check immediately to confirm the horrible news). The verbs in the past tense tipped me off. It was shocking, but not altogether surprising. Most knew that his health had been poor in recent years. I didn’t cry and I didn’t post anything either. I didn’t have time to process or articulate my emotions. Real life and its responsibilities gave me an excuse to build a protective callus. I understood the need for most people to post tributes and videos on social media. It’s a way to console one another in the face of a shared loss. I didn’t partake myself because I wasn’t ready to face it and because David Bowie was too personal for me to feel comfortable grieving in such a public forum.
When people talk about denial being the first stage of the grieving process it sometimes gets confused as meaning a simple rejection of the fact of death. I think it more often manifests itself as a refusal to acknowledge the emotional impact of death. It’s denying oneself the chance to accept and register the pain. I actually joked to a few friends, “I guess this means there won’t be a tour for the new record.”
It’s easy to distance yourself from the death of one of your idols. You tell yourself that this is someone you’ve never met; it wasn’t the person themselves that meant something to you but their work; you’ve got real problems that take priority; people die every day, why is this one person so important; etc. All of these reasons are smokescreens to keep the hurt at bay. Whether we know our idols personally or not, we personalize the influence their work had on us. Their death is personal not because they knew us but because they allowed us to know ourselves better.
I made it most of the day before I cracked. I had avoided listening to any Bowie while at work, but since the Current were running an all-day marathon I turned it on in the car on the way home. They had made it to the Young Americans era. The music sounded great and it didn’t trigger anything other than happiness. Then, at the break, Mary Lucia came on to talk about the day and the news. She was gamely doing her best to keep it together for the sake of professionalism, but she was also open about how tough it had been all day. The hurt was just under the surface of her voice, occasionally breaking through. The raw honesty and courageous vulnerability of it got to me and I started to tear up. I recognized my own voice in hers and I couldn’t hide it from myself any more. It bothered me to admit that the death of Bowie the person grieved me as much as the death of the man as an artist. I didn’t mourn David Bowie, the actual person whom I never met. I mourned my own conception of an artist who had been a personal symbol and inspiration to me since adolescence. It didn’t matter that my David Bowie wasn’t the real person. Without the real person and his work, I would have never had my personal version.
I’m not going to claim I’m the biggest David Bowie fan in the world. I know I’m not. There are people who like far less or a far smaller range of music than me, making room for a more intense obsession than I have. That said, he is my favorite artist and he always will be. It’s no accident that one of the first pieces of writing on this blog is on Bowie. No one’s music has meant more to me than his and finding it in adolescence I can track my pathway to adulthood with his songs as my milestones. Everyone has their Bowie discovery story. Mine goes like this.
I had been aware of David Bowie as a kid starting with the singles off Let’s Dance, then later as the Goblin King in Labyrinth. I rented the video of the Glass Spider tour from Blockbuster and heard a few of his older songs. I casually thought he was cool at that pointI mean; he was a rock star that looked like a Sindar elf. The breakthrough for me was hearing “Changes” on the classic rock station in the kitchen of my dad’s restaurant where I was a dishwasher. I went out and bought Changesbowie on cassette the next day, took it home, brought it upstairs, and listened to it behind closed doors. I formed an immediate connection with what I heard, the first three tracks pulling me further and further in. I couldn’t believe I had never heard this music before. How had such incredible music remained a secret? Why hadn’t everyone told me about it? As the piano and saxophone outro of “Changes” faded, I was about to hit rewind to listen to that song again when the opening G and Dsus4 chord progression that opens “Ziggy Stardust” rang out from my little boombox. Something about the combination of Mick Ronson’s Les Paul and Bowie’s acoustic 12-string cut to the heart of me; and I’ve never been the same since.
I understand that reads as overdramatic, but the number of tributes across social media the week after his death indicates I’m not alone in my experience. After that first compilation I began to explore a catalog that seemed inexhaustible. I took my time collecting his albums, giving myself a chance to absorb and obsess over each one before moving on to the next. I started with Ziggy, then Hunky Dory, then Man Who Sold the World, and so on – exploring each album based on how well I liked the hit or hits I knew. From there I went on to read as much as I could about him and sought out all archived footage (pre-YouTube). It was during this time that I constructed my own Bowie with personalized signifiers that were particular to me. Interestingly I discovered Bowie in the middle of his work with Tin Machine which means I’m one of the few people you’ll meet you doesn’t make apologies for those records.
Reading the remembrances from celebrities and friends who knew him personally has painted a picture of a warm, friendly, creative storm of a person who seemed genuinely interested in supporting new talent. He was a role model to many, and an incredibly generous one, at that. Tony Visconti has called Blackstar Bowie’s gift to his fans. He spent the last months of his life not only fighting cancer, but working furiously in order to accomplish as much as he could with the time he had left. The videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” must have been utterly exhausting for him. And yet, it must have been important to him to communicate what he needed to say to his audience. As I saw a friend comment, Bowie art directed his own death. He remained an artist to the last.
The tales of Bowie’s frantic work ethic at the end of his life are inspiring and speak to the integrity he had. Yet, it also made me wonder what it meant in terms of how much time he spent away from his 15-year-old daughter as well as his wife of more than 20 years in the last few months of his life. Of all the people rending their garments the past couple of weeks, I doubt anyone will miss him more than Iman, their daughter, Lexi, and Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones.
Speaking of Duncan, his mother Angela Bowie had her own strange experience hearing of Bowie’s death. She was a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother when she found out. Angela Bowie is a controversial figure for Bowie fans. She strikes a very shrill, opportunistic, and overly dramatic profile. Her tell-all book, Backstage Passes, is seen as crassly exploitative and trashy gossip by many Bowie fans. And yet, she was there during Bowie’s ascendancy, supporting his art and his genius. When first told the news, she put on a brave face, trying not to make a big deal out of the death of a man who wanted nothing to do with her for more than 35 years. She couldn’t hold in her sorrow though and broke down with grief. To have known him so intimately at the beginning, there’s no way it couldn’t have profoundly affected her. I saw my own reaction a bit in hers and it humanized her for me.
Bowie played with some of the best musicians of the past 45 years. Most of them wrote tributes to him in the days after his death. Brian Eno’s was particularly touching – the details of a personal and emotional goodbye. Adrian Belew’s memory of Bowie filching him from Frank Zappa’s band is both illuminating and hilarious. Bowie tried to be civil about it, but Frank was apparently none too happy. I guess he was still sore from Bowie stealing Aynsley Dunbar.
I’m glad I can say that I saw Bowie live before either of us died. It was on his Reality tour in 2004. He had a great band and was playing both big hits and more obscure album cuts (“Fantastic Voyage”!). His duet with bassist Gail Ann Dorsey on “Under Pressure” made me tear up. Within six months of that show, Bowie would suffer from a blocked coronary artery on stage and then never tour from that point forward.
We will never see the like of him, or others of his generation again. All of the giants are dying off and the industry that facilitated their greatness is no longer in place. The music business that subsidized such creativity has been replaced with a star-making machine built to create disposable, temporal pop stars, not career artists. Society, too, has changed. As Joe Boyd pointed out in his book, White Bicycles, the cultural and social infrastructure that existed in the 60s is no longer around to support emerging talent. Funding for music and arts education has been decimated in the last 30 years. The emergency of the internet has both created amazing opportunities for young artists, but also worked as a great leveler by making every voice with no talent as equally loud as those voices that are gifted. There are no gatekeepers in this Wild West and very possibly the true visionaries of our time are currently being drowned out by the millions of mediocre voices around them.
I had planned on writing a review of Blackstar, but his death has given me an additional opportunity to re-assess his back catalog and give a glimpse what each record means to me. Listening to all of them again in the wake of his death I’ve noticed some common trends throughout the oeuvre: his predilection for cover songs, his frequent use of death as a theme, and his tendency to close his albums on strong songs. The list follows chronologically although I’ve just stuck to the studio albums. With roughly one album per year during the 70s there was more than enough to analyze without getting into the soundtracks (except one) and live albums. That said, Stage is his best live record. My preference is for the Rykodisc reissues with the bonus tracks. Those were the ones I bought when I was younger and sound, packaging, and extra tracks make them still the best buy if you can find them. I’ve rated each album a score out of 10 which is something I don’t do often, but since this is such a comparative study of one artist I thought it might be useful. Considering I’m such a fan, some of my ratings might seem oddly low. I’ve tried to be as objective as possible. Not everything Bowie touched turned gold. On the other hand, few artists have released such a rich body of work that I would grace with so many 8s, 9s, or 10s. At the end, of course, is the newest (last) album. You can skip to it directly by clicking here.
David Bowie (1967): I don’t care what anyone says. This is the worst David Bowie album. I think people like the idea of a ‘67 mod Bowie album, but in reality this is just rote Sixties pop with little distinction other than being incredibly influenced by Anthony Newley. This is a Bowie album in name only. He had yet to develop the voice that we all know. Only “Please Mr. Gravedigger” shows the way forward. It was also the first of many strong, album-closing tracks. (Score: 1)
Space Oddity (1969): Even without the hit title track, this is a huge improvement on his debut. It adds Tyrannosaurus Rex as an influence, but there’s also a new, unique voice that begins to break through the hippie space-folk utopian-isms. The Gus Dudgeon production gives this album a cinematic sweep and a grandeur that elevates it above a lot of similar cosmic folk of the time. In some ways this album is a bit forgotten in the shadow of its hit single. “Janine” is a great rocker that points to the formation of the Spiders. (Score: 6)
The Man Who Sold the World (1970): Thanks to the Nirvana cover of the title track this album has gotten more exposure. It’s a strange hard rock entry featuring a proto-Spiders band (no Trevor Bolder yet) coming between the folky Space Oddity and the high camp of Hunky Dory. This one still has some patchouli stench on it as shown in the eastern mysticism of “Width of a Circle,” which has one of Mick Ronson’s best riffs. The aforementioned title track, “All the Madmen,” and “After All” round out the highlights for me. (Score: 7)
Hunky Dory (1971): Hunky Dory is the first time Bowie displayed real greatness in the album format, a nearly front-to-back masterpiece. It was also the first album with all the Spiders on it, although only “Queen Bitch” hints at the sonic blueprint of the type of glam rock Bowie was moving towards. Hunky Dory is a more of a singer songwriter record, with songs built around Bowie’s acoustic and piano. Speaking of piano, Rick Wakemen plays on this one. Lyrically, this is some of Bowie’s best work: “Changes,” “Life on Mars,” “Quicksand,” and “The Bewlay Brothers” all describe the disaffection of youth better as well as any other pop songs you could bring to mind. (Score: 9)
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972): Whether or not this is the best Bowie album is up for debate. However, it is my favorite album of all time, Bowie or otherwise. It was the first full album of his I bought after the Changesbowie, my first taste of Bowie in an album format. There’s really not a weak song here. I harbor only two small quibbles with the record, one being “Starman”’s dated Bolan-isms (“hey, that’s far-out” and “let all the children boogie”) which still doesn’t kill the track. The rest of the song is magical and serves as maybe the most narrative-driven, story element of this concept record. The other tiny complaint is the inclusion of “It Ain’t Easy,” the only song on the album not penned by Bowie. “It Ain’t Easy” isn’t a bad song in and of itself; in fact, it has a nice dark, heavy vibe to it. However, considering the caliber of songs recorded during those sessions which could have taken it’s place – Bowie’s own version of “All the Young Dudes,” “Velvet Goldmine,” or the re-recording of “Holy Holy” – it’s strange that Bowie chose to close Side One of the album with a song already covered by Three Dog Night and Long John Baldry. Maybe it’s for the best. Any of those aforementioned songs would have made the album too stunning for its own good. At least it’s better than “Sweet Head.” The concept and story of Ziggy Stardust, an alien rock star who falls to earth to warn the Earth of its imminent demise and save its disenfranchised youth in the wake of his self-immolation, is really David Bowie’s greatest and most original contribution to culture. Everything about the postmodern romance and redemption of rock and roll is contained within it. Musically it’s not his most ambitious, experimental, or progressive record. Lyrically and style-wise, it is very much of its time (though to some degree, outside of time). And yet, it is some of the most expertly written, performed, arranged, and produced rock and roll of any era. It is a symbol of everything alluring about rock and roll – it’s fast and young, sexy and fatalistic, and romantically charging towards oblivion to keep from the internal death of adult compromise. (Score: 10)
Aladdin Sane (1973): This is a pretty great record, but it doesn’t have Ziggy’s thematic drama (which one might see as a plus). I’ve never been a fan of “Jean Genie,” the album’s big hit. It’s the epitome of a boot-stomping glam rock track, but it feels a bit like Bowie’s artistically treading water on it. As if he were merely proving he could write a straight-ahead rock song like T. Rex, Slade, Sweet, or Gary Glitter. It’s low-hanging fruit in my book when he could (and did) aim so much higher, even on the same album. Now, “Panic in Detroit” and “Cracked Actor” are really where it’s at. One thing you can say for “Jean Genie” is that at least it’s better than the insanely over-the-top cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” (Score: 8)
Pin Ups (1973): Frankly, this record is not very good, which is a shame since this was the last record to feature most of the Spiders from Mars (Aynsley Dunbar replacing Woody Woodmansey). Bowie has always done great covers so a covers album where none of the versions are particularly memorable seems like a wasted opportunity. The album cover’s nice to look at, but none of these tracks come close to the originals. (Score: 2)
Diamond Dogs (1974): This is an odd record for all kinds of reasons. With some songs that began life as a musical adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 (he never got the rights to do it), Bowie developed a post-apocalyptic sci-fi opera influenced by both Orwell and Burroughs. The lyrics are full of amazing freak show details of mutant grotesques out on the edge. The music has a woozy, drunken quality to it that feels like drugged-out circus music – the title track lurches around like an inebriated pony. Part of this can probably be explained by the fact that Bowie played nearly all the lead guitar himself. I wish Bowie had played more guitar on his own records. Plenty of people have commented how amateurish his playing sounds, but I always thought he sounded great with a completely distinct style. The album had a hit in “Rebel Rebel,” and “1984” hinted at his next move towards soul/funk, but the album’s true highlight is the “Sweet Thing/Candidate” suite filled with suicidal desperation strung out from some gamma-ray afterburn. (Score: 7)
Young Americans (1975): I’ll be honest and say that it took me a while to get into this record as I’m sure it must have for so many Ziggy-philes at the time. However, Bowie was once again a step ahead of the game anticipating the rise of disco by assimilating the Philadelphia sound and exposing it to a new white audience. Rob Sheffield thinks “Young American” is Bowie’s greatest moment, but I don’t even think it’s my favorite song on this album. The following three songs on the first side, “Win,” “Fascination,” and “Right,” all sound fresher to me. They don’t have as big of moments as the singles, but they’re tougher and funkier, deeper. (Score: 7)
Station to Station (1976): It’s pretty amazing that Bowie was able to create a record as great as this one while he was under the sway of a seriously debilitating cocaine addiction and filming The Man Who Fell to Earth. This is the Thin White Duke record, a character of elegant decadence that really stands as an artist on the precipice, crying out for help. This album began a run of great albums that is almost unprecedented in rock. The Beatles, Stones, and Prince have all had such runs, but it’s interesting to note that Bowie’s album sales during the late 70s were not, by even his own standards, very robust. Station to Station was commercially solid on the back of the single “Golden Years.” A lot of this album feels introspective, soul searching even. This probably shouldn’t be surprising for an artist who had built a career wearing not just one, but a series of masks. “Word On A Wing” is maybe one of best “secular” pop songs about coming to terms with god ever written. Why Al Green has never covered this is anyone’s guess. (Score: 9)
Low (1977): Objectively speaking, this is probably Bowie’s most perfect record. There are no missteps and it still sounds ahead of its time today. Conceptually bold, the album presents two opposite sides: one futuristic avant rock, one mournful electronic soundscapes. Part of the credit can go to Eno who challenged Bowie to create something truly new and encouraged the album in a distinctly electronic direction. Another more unheralded part of this album’s success is its fantastic rhythm section of Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis, George Murray, and Ricky Gardiner, most of whom played on Bowie and Iggy Pop’s records of the time. They provide a perfect futuristic funk template which bolsters the record up from being such a heavy downer. Visconti’s production on this is a big part of its influence. The big, distorted drum sound on “Sound and Vision” (Visconti used an Eventide Harmonizer) could be said to have made the way for the gated 80s drums that Hugh Padgham developed on Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins records. And yet, Low is truly Bowie’s. It’s the sound of an artist spiritually rejuvenating himself, fighting for his life, after nearly destroying himself with chemicals. In short, it’s the sound of Bowie kicking cocaine while living in Berlin. As I said, objectively it is a more perfect record than Ziggy Stardust, but subjectively it doesn’t feature Bowie the songwriter to the same degree. It has very little in the way of traditional songs. Only five of its eleven tracks have vocals with discernible lyrics. Sometimes flawless doesn’t always mean the best. (Score: 10)
“Heroes” (1977): At least half of Low was recorded in France, but “Heroes” was all Berlin. The heaviness of the Berlin Wall is baked into this album, emotionally cold like a Minnesota winter, and spiritually hollow like the meat locker in Slaughterhouse 5. It’s a beautiful downer though. “Beauty and the Beat,” “Joe the Lion,” and “Blackout” are great rockers built on the funk rhythm section of Alomar, Davis, and Murray, with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp blasting sonic mercury over the top. The title track is Bowie’s great romantic epic, two chords and a dream of love against impossible odds. The instrumentals on the second side are sparer than Low’s doomed electronic ambience, but they have their own futuristic weight. The album ends with the faux-exoticisms of “The Secret Life of Arabia” which sounds like Bowie slapping himself awake from his melancholic slumber, off to a distant land in search of new adventures. (Score: 9)
Lodger (1979): This is in some ways the hidden corner of Bowie’s career. The last of the Eno-trilogy, it doesn’t have the same songs/instrumental structure as its predecessors. Side One takes up where “Heroes”’s “Secret Life” left off, with a series of travelogue songs. Side Two deconstructs and critiques modern culture. A lot of the experimentalism of this record came from a more academic approach (everybody in the band switching instruments, for instance). The result is like a cross between cubism and abstract expressionism. “Look Back in Anger” and “Boys Keep Swinging” are pretty straightforward “hits,” but they seem a bit off and tortured (in a good way). “Red Money” ends the record by recycling Iggy Pop’s “Sister Midnight” riff which he wrote with Bowie only two years before. Lodger still sounds fresh and undiscovered in a way that his other, more iconic records do not. (Score: 8)
Scary Monsters (1980): This is the last great Bowie album. Everything else that would come later would forever be measured against it. During his post-Tin Machine artistic renaissance, every record review would begin with “his best since Scary Monsters.” It was a burden he would be saddled with for the rest of his career. Such is the price of greatness, I suppose. Despite that great weight, the album remains wonderful. Bookended by two versions of the same song, like a great Neil Young record, this album is a shaking off of all the cultural and psychic detritus of the previous decade. Bowie’s voice throughout is often at an atonal, histrionic wail. There’s a real feeling of personal desperation and emotional exhaustion here. The two singles, “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion,” are classics – the former a song of choosing life over legacy, the latter a deadpan indictment of pop itself and Bowie’s own culpability for crimes of disposable culture. “Teenage Wildlife” and “Because You’re Young” show him taking on the role of the elder statesman. The cover on offer, Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come” (only a year old at that point), is pure burned-out bliss. (Score: 9)
Let’s Dance (1983): Bowie became a global megastar with this album. You can reject this record on the basis of its open overture to mainstream commercial success, but it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a good album. At the very least it was his bestselling by a huge margin. Nile Rodgers would go on to make many non-Chic blockbusters throughout the 80s, but this was his first. Let’s Dance is the quintessential 80s album. It’s big on bluster and loud production, and makes no secret of its commercial ambitions. The track sequencing bears this out. The album opens with the three singles in an obvious effort to hook the listener. Opener “Modern Love” is the best song and uncharacteristically for Bowie the closer, “Shake It,” is the worst. “Without You” is the hidden gem, the cover of Metro’s “Criminal World” lends some (unneeded) new wave cred, and the version of “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” is interesting, but inferior to the soundtrack version. Playing Bowie’s weirdest guitar-foil ever, a pre-Texas Flood Stevie Ray Vaughan shoots some blooze over the proceedings. This is the least Bowie-like album in his catalog which makes it the easiest to listen to without getting choked up in the wake of his death. The success of the album came at a steep price. With this record Bowie turned his back on his artistic instincts. It was the ax to break the ice and no matter how hard he tried to get it back later he never fully recovered his gift. (Score: 6)
Tonight (1984): This record almost feels like Bowie was on superstar autopilot after the gargantuan success of Let’s Dance. It feels rushed and lacking in original ideas. Five of the nine songs here are covers, no less than three of which are Iggy Pop tunes (one with a Tina Turner cameo). They’re not great cover versions either. The version of “God Only Knows” is pretty horrible. “Loving the Alien” and “Blue Jean” are terrific though and keep this one from being a complete waste. (Score: 4)
Never Let Me Down (1987): Most people consider this Bowie’s worst record. It does truly represent the worst aspects of his big 80s commercial era. And yet, it still contains a few quality songs even despite the terrible production. “Time Will Crawl,” “Never Let Me Down,” and “Zeroes” are all good, if not great. “Glass Spider” and the cover of Iggy’s “Bang Bang” aren’t bad. The single, “Day In Day Out,” is disappointing though, and “Shining Star (Making My Love)” – complete with a deadpan Mickey Rourke rap – is Bowie’s worst song ever. Bowie was more invested in his film career at this point, and it’s worth noting that Bowie’s soundtrack contributions were some of his best work of the decade. The Baal EP, “Absolute Beginners,” “This Is Not America,” “When the Wind Blows,” “Underground” and “As the World Falls Down” are easily as good or better as anything on Never Let Me Down. More than that, these songs showcase a singing style and melodic sense that marked a real change from his 70s work. The melodic structures of his 80s songs have the melancholic nostalgia of doo wop paired with a Sinatra croon. It was a style that he retained until the end. (Score: 3)
Tin Machine – Tin Machine (1989): I’m not going to convince most people of Tin Machine’s worth. People were frustrated with the idea of Bowie joining a group, but the truth is that Bowie may have never recovered artistically without Tin Machine. My biggest complaint with this album is that it has such a chip on its shoulder trying to prove how tough and rocking it is that it foregoes a lot of melody in favor of angular, bluesy noise. It’s worth noting that Bowie was a bit ahead of the curve playing angry, rock & roll at the same time grunge was at its pre-mainstream, underground zenith in the era of hair metal. A few tunes connect, “Tin Machine,” “Prisoner Of Love,” and “Under the God” among them, but most of this sounds like an exercise. “Working Class Hero” is the obligatory cover. What the group lacks in tunes they make up for it in chops. The Sales brothers were Iggy’s rhythm section on Lust for Life, after all. A lot of people dislike Tin Machine largely because it began Bowie’s long association with Reeves Gabrels (over ten years). Gabrels plays in a kind of hypertechnical, shred style that went out of vogue as soon as Nevermind dropped. Well, he plays with The Cure now, so that makes two rock geniuses who dig his licks, so who are we to judge. (Score: 5)
Tin Machine – Tin Machine II (1991): I actually rate this album higher than the group’s debut. Sure, Hunt Sales sings lead on a couple of the tracks, but the album as a whole is more diverse stylistically and has higher peaks. “Baby Universal” and “Amlapura” are high points that show real growth from the debut. It’s like they felt more comfortable being tuneful this time out. The cover of Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something” doesn’t match the original’s sense of drama, but it has a more frenetic rush, brimming with giddy enthusiasm. Bowie’s voice is great on it and Reeves Gabrels actualizes his playing in a way that he never did again, fitting somewhere between Phil Manzanera and Robert Fripp. “Goodbye Mr. Ed” is a great closer despite the silly title. It’s maybe the most Bowie track of all the Tin Machine songs. (Score: 6)
Black Tie White Noise (1993): Bowie’s effort to resuscitate his solo career began with the same producer that oversaw the advent of its artistic decline a decade earlier. Not as dynamically hit-driven as Let’s Dance, Black Tie nevertheless has more in the soul department. Like Scary Monsters, the album is bookended by two versions of the same song, “The Wedding” and “The Wedding Song,” written in tribute to his new bride who he would remain with for the remainder of his life. It’s a beautiful acid-jazz (in the early 90s club sense) ballad that begins and ends the record with a high point of unfettered romanticism. Black Tie marked the return of Bowie’s saxophone and jazz styles are evoked all over the record, not the least being the horn duet of “Looking for Lester,” featuring the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Lester Bowie. Bowie covers Cream, the Walker Brothers, and Morrissey on this album all to varying degrees of success. The singles are all decent: “Black Tie White Noise” (featuring Al B. Sure) sounds a little cheesy, “Jump They Say” – his tribute to his half-brother Terry who had recently committed suicide (Terry was the original Aladdin Sane) – fares better, and “Miracle Goodnight” the sweetheart standout. (Score: 6)
The Buddha of Suburbia (1993): Although technically a soundtrack for the BBC show, this works as an album in and of itself, and it’s a good one. The title track, like Black Tie, both starts and ends the album although to a lesser effect (Lenny Kravitz solos on the end of the second version). The electronic production is slightly less dated than Black Tie, but there is plenty of the same dance beats that were already a couple of years past their prime time. Watching Bowie following trends instead of setting them is the most disappointing part of these records. This album does have a couple of really great tracks, “Dead Against It” and the original (and in my opinion, superior) “Strangers When We Meet.” (Score: 6)
1. Outside (1995): Rob Sheffield thinks this record stinks. He likes ‘Hours…’ better. I guess it shows what he knows. This is the last Bowie/Eno collaboration. It’s by no means a perfect record, but it’s cohesive in its style and structure. It’s a non-linear detective murder mystery set in an alterna- art world of the future. It’s maybe one of the only albums takes advantage of the compact disc format’s randomization feature as a method of telling a story. Sheffield, along with many critics, probably doesn’t care for the story or the in between-song spoken word monologues acted out by Bowie in character. Regardless Outside carries songs that sound new and original, twisted and dangerous even. (Score: 7)
Earthling (1997): This score will confuse people. This was a very popular record when released and was the first Bowie record some younger people heard via the Trent Reznor-staring video for “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Sorry, the industrial meets drum and bass arrangements are ridiculous and the songs are just okay. “Little Wonder” is cute but easy to tire of. “Seven Years in Tibet” is tolerable. “Dead Man Walking” is a good song with a terrible arrangement. The acoustic version he played on Conan O’Brien is far superior. “I’m Afraid of Americans” is the hit off of this one and I really don’t like it. This album is pretty unlistenable for me. I realize I’m in the minority, but this is nearly Bowie’s weakest record. (Score: 2)
‘Hours…’ (2000): I was severely disappointed with this record when it came out. “Thursday’s Child” is a terrible song. It sounds like a faceless Sting song. Too much of the album sounds like adult alternative. I’ve warmed to this album a bit more over the years. There’s nothing great here, but “Something in the Air,” “Survive,” “If I’m Dreaming of My Life,” “Seven,” “New Angels of Promise,” and “The Dreamers” all have decent melodies worth remembering. The penultimate track, “Brilliant Adventure,” even recalls a “Heroes” Side Two cut. I still think the artwork is horrible though. (Score: 4)
Heathen (2002): This album was incredibly welcome after the two that had come before it. It has several really good songs, creative production that’s not trendy, and avoids any real embarrassments. There are three cover songs: the Pixies’ “Cactus” (the highlight of the record), Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s “I Took a Trip on A Gemini Spaceship” (the worst song on the album). “Sunday,” “Slip Away,” “Slow Burn,” “Afraid,” “5:15 the Angels Have Gone,” “A Better Future,” and “Heathen (The Rays)” are all pretty great. Together with “Cactus” they would make the case for a really strong album. Like The Next Day a decade later this one has too many songs on it. Condensing it would have made for a stronger whole. For instance, “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” was a single and it’s not really necessary to be on the album at all. (Score: 7)
Reality (2003): This album feels a bit rushed, like Bowie was trying to capitalize on the artistic momentum of Heathen. The first song (“New Killer Star”) and the last (“Bring Me the Disco King”) – both singles – are the best tracks on the record. The rest is mostly forgettable if not terrible. The cover of the Modern Lovers’ “Pablo Picasso” is totally unnecessary – just a retread of the John Cale cover. I saw Bowie on this tour. It was a great band. Bowie suffered a heart attack on the tour and he went into hiding, not releasing any music for a very silent decade. (Score: 5)
The Next Day (2013): You can read my thoughts on this record here. I still maintain that the record would have been better with the bonus tracks replacing the third of four quarters of the album. My reimagined version would have been a very good album. Although I’ve scored it equal to its follow-up, I would still sit it slightly below his last, which I would give the nod due to its concentrated brevity. (Score: 7)
Blackstar (2016): Even divorced of its role as a parting gift from its composer, this is a heavy and dark record. There are moments of light here and there, but ultimately this is an album about death, about the sensation of frantically trying to express yourself as an artist and a human being as you are being lowered into the grave. Much of Bowie’s career and work has dealt with death. It’s all over his work: “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” “Quicksand,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” “We Are the Dead,” etc. It’s a jazzy record which surprised some people. However, Bowie has always had that element to his music. The musical tone of the album is somewhere between Man Who Sold the World’s erie mysticism, Low and “Heroes” second sides, Black Tie White Noise’s jazzy interplay, and 1. Outside’s doom. The nearly ten-minute “Blackstar” is a trippy psychedelic goodbye to his starman alter-ego, Major Tom. It is a ritual embrace of death, like “Width of a Circle” played by a jazz band. My favorite song on the record is the second track, “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore,” a veteran’s sweet remembrance of a fleeting love that could have been more had fated decided otherwise. It sounds like Bowie is addressing his own pop muse here, laughing at the temporal nature of any man’s legacy in the face of death. It is a genuinely whimsical tune, the tinkling descending synth melody (around “for that was patrol”) mirrors the piano one in the chorus Labyrinth’s “Chilly Down.” There are other echoes of Bowie’s past: the sax lines on “Lazarus” remind of those on “Neuköln” and the harmonica bit on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” recycles the harp licks from “Never Let Me Down.” As the last song (in many ways), “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” is Bowie’s final closing album cut and it’s beautiful. It’s a last defense of rock’s greatest chameleon. Although he shared so much of himself through his art throughout the years, Bowie remained essentially unknowable to his fans. Behind all of his personas was a man who wanted to protect a part of himself, for himself, to salvage some sense of privacy behind the icon he had created. In the end, the artist bowed out gracefully, waving goodbye while closing his inner door forever. (Score: 7)
After he died, many of David Bowie’s albums re-entered the charts, including the Best of Bowie collection. To illustrate how deep his body of work is, I’ve put together a playlist of my own that doesn’t include any of the tracks from the Best of. That an artist could put together such an equally great alternate collection is a testament to both the depth as well as the breadth of the work.