- Never Let Me Down
- The Buddah of Suburbia
- David Bowie
- Black Tie White Noise
- The Next Day
- Space Oddity/David Bowie
- Young Americans
- Aladdin Sane
- Let’s Dance
- Diamond Dogs
- The Man Who Sold The World
- Hunky Dory
- Scary Monsters
- Station to Station
- The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust
Ranking David Bowie’s Studio Albums
In the 54 years of his career, David Bowie was not afraid to go outside the box of experimentation. His music and aesthetics pushed a threshold for listeners of all demographics. Some were on an identity quest that led to coming across a gender-bending musician with a lightning bolt across their face–discovered in a record shop or by chance on TV in the ‘70s when he first gained prominence. But all were mesmerized.
His music inserts the dramatic themes and antics learned from his experience working as a mime with choreographer Lindsey Kemper, his obsession with American culture, and his philosophical and political concepts into his sound. Bowie took the limits of avant-garde and sci-fi to twist them into rock and pop anthems. His vocals croon with a seemingly unlimited range, and his sound predicts the future of music while frequently covering and collaborating with contemporaries.
Regardless of their quality, or critic’s reviews, Bowie was always surprising fans, rarely disappointing, and forever inspiring. His name continues to burn effervescently like a star as an influencer challenging decades of music, fashion, and gender norms.
26. Never Let Me Down (1987)
Why it’s David Bowie’s “Worst” Album
In 1977, RCA had created a marketing campaign to separate Bowie from musical newcomers during the release of Heroes: “There’s New Wave, there’s old way, and there’s David Bowie.” Bowie had been keeping up with the New Romantics that became commercialized in the early 1980s. Yet a decade later, the wheel was still turning and new genres were emerging that challenged Bowie, who in 1987 was on his third album in-between starring in films such as Labyrinth and Absolute Beginners.
Never Let Me Down represented Bowie’s feelings of outdatedness, another record he claims had better demos than the studio results, guided by his label EMI’s attempt at continuing the Let’s Dance imagery — it’s drum machine-filled fluff that Bowie was interested in, but would later resent.
Never Let Me Down’s use of guitars was a step forward, Bowie even playing on the album alongside lead guitarist Peter Frampton, and having more original songs than on Tonight. Much of the record is a redundancy minus a rap-verse from actor Mickey Rourke on “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love),” reflecting a time when hip-hop was fully mainstream during an experimental era of music. But with not much creative output coming from David, Never Let Me Down turned him into a suburban mall radio hit.
25. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 25th Best Album
Mistaken for a soundtrack, Bowie’s 19th album went from being based on the Hanif Kureishi novel Buddha of Suburbia to a full-length record in collaboration with Turkish instrumentalist Erdal Kızılçay, who had previously worked with Bowie on the track “Let’s Dance.”
Buddha of Suburbia’s premise is about a young English-Indian man finding his identity in 1970s London amid racial and cultural issues. Kureishi had asked Bowie if he could use “Fill Your Heart” and “Changes” on the soundtrack for the novel’s television adaption. But Bowie wanted to do more than that and released the 10-track record that’s sound ranges across the board. There’s the jazz on “South Horizon,” the Kraftwerk-Esque song “Sex and the Church, “Bleed Like I Craze” sounding like ’90s Bowie, “The Mysteries” giving ambient ‘70s influenced by Eno, while the theme “Buddha of Suburbia” sounds like it would land perfectly in London during the early ‘80s emerging techno scene.
Bowie used experimental techniques he would implement on his future albums, mixing songs both backward and forwards tracks and editing them together to sound distorted. Yet, the only song used on the show was title track “Buddha of Suburbia”, while Bowie did zero press for the album, and it became a record wedged in the Bowie vault.
24. ‘Hours…’ (1999)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 24th Best Album
Bowie described his 22nd record Hours… as a retrospective record essentially for fans and contemporaries that lived for all the decades of his career, while also adding some of his own personal life into it. Some of the tracks bear a resemblance to older Bowie–lush rock guitars layered over contemporary rock drum beats and electronic pop with the urge to cross-genre experiment, almost inviting the hip-hop group TLC to do vocals on the first track “Thursday’s Child.”
On the cusp of the new millennium that had him excited and extremely immersed in new technology, he took on various projects and promotions that were virtual-centric. He also took inspiration from religious themes; the cover of Hours… takes from Michelangelo’s La Pietà, where Bowie is superimposed to be cradling himself. What’s most interesting about Hours… is that it was the first downloadable record by a major artist. Bowie’s label Virgin didn’t like the decision, but if anything Hours… brings a legacy in technological history.
23. Earthling (1997)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 23rd Best Album
Bowie’s vocals and lyrics on Earthling sound as if they would’ve been on a record of his in the 70s. But the instrumentals are heavily industrial and alternative rock, a direct influence coming from Nine Inch Nails, his collaborations with NIN lead vocalist Trent Reznor, and his work with Eno on Outside, using sampling, loops, and drum machines.
The synthetic sound of Earthling overrides concepts and his backing band’s talents, focusing more on chopping up those sounds by digitizing recordings and re-working them on a synthesizer. The feel of the record is oversaturated but matches with the times, wherein 1997 industrial rock had become just as mainstream as Bowie’s name.
22. Reality (2002)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 22nd Best Album
Just before his 10-year hiatus Bowie released Reality, sounding like an upbeat extension of his previous record Heathen. Working again with colleague and friend Tony Visconti after 22 years, and merging his label ISO with Columbia records, Bowie was right on track with the creative freedom he needed and returned to his full-band roots with less computerized instruments.
Bowie is continuing to face his own reality, talking mainly about contemporary society’s grasp on it and belting out his message on his singles “Never Gonna Get Old,” and his self-proclaimed manifesto “New Killer Star” that comments in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But Bowie’s true concept was no concept at all, writing songs unrelated and choosing what would fit best on the record. The release was a chart success and Bowie had planned three more records after Reality until he was hospitalized for a heart attack, and decided to go into retirement thereafter.
21. David Bowie (1967)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 21st Best Album
David Bowie was released the same week that the Beatles released their eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The competition was menial for Bowie, although reviewers at the time had made comparisons of both records on their use of a theatrical sound.
Bowie wasn’t necessarily trying to blend in with the bands rubbing off of the British Invasion, but join the likes of the Merseybeat scene with his added show-tune baroque pop that would soon develop into his future personas and otherworldly concepts. The use of the lead acoustic guitar and the London Philharmonic Orchestra behind his baritone vocals were highly influenced by actor and singer Anthony Newly, transitioning his voice in comparison to while playing in Davie Jones and The King Bees.
It is still the lowest-selling record in Bowie’s career, yet critics at the time loved it — the album just lacked the advertisement that could have shifted Bowie’s entire career as a pop star and was soon dropped by his label Deram records. While some of Bowie’s releases scrutinized in their time made comebacks, David Bowie is just stuck in 1967 singing the same old tune.
20. Tonight (1984)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 20th Best Album
In a year that his previous concepts revolved around, 1984 was when Bowie released a rushed album rubbing off of the success of Let’s Dance. Tonight attempts to emulate that same ‘80s pop style that made the last record a hit, now with added reggaeton elements such as on the second track “Don’t Look Down” that has a ska beat accidentally created while Bowie was working with a drum machine, and on the title track “Tonight” a song co-written with Iggy Pop originally for his 1977 record Lust For Life, featuring a duet with Tina Turner. The album comes with a few fillers, a cover of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” that becomes a contemporary pop ballad version unrequested, and Chuck Jackson’s “I Keep Forgettin” a 1962 R&B song that likely influenced Bowie decades prior that becomes a synthesizer-filled, blue-eyed soul song.
Tonight’s biggest hit would become “Blue Jean” and the record would top the charts at no.1 in the U.K, but over the years Bowie has had unfavorable and regretful words about the album, which at the time of its release had barely done any press or a tour for and has claimed that he allowed overs to take the reins on the record, its demos showing the efforts of Tonight in a light that Bowie had much preferred.
19. Black Tie White Noise (1992)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 19th Best Album
In between Never Let Me Down and Black Tie White Noise, Bowie had taken six years off to lead his new side project Tin Machine, which had formed coming off of the Glass Spiders tour for Never Let Me Down, and to marry model Iman. The album had let Bowie down and he had refreshed his creativity by playing a heavier sound than the commercial pop of the 1980s. Bands such as Nirvana and Green Day had become commercially popular and there was a newfound inspiration coming from grunge and alternative rock.
Bowie had recruited Chic’s Nile Rodgers, who worked with him on Let’s Dance, as producer. But Black Tie White Noise is similar to the dance, jazz fusion, and ambient sides of Bowie’s music. He performed saxophone on the album and invited jazz trumpet player Lester Bowie to perform on five songs, including the instrumental track “Looking For Lester,” David looking to represent the artist who bears the same name. He also brought back guitarist Mick Ronson and pianist Mike Garson who hadn’t worked with Bowie since the 1970s. The title track represents Bowie’s take on racial inequality after experiencing the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising, while the opening track “The Wedding” and most of the album reflect on his marriage. Bowie was a changed man in a new decade and ready to reflect that in his new expressive sound.
18. Pinups (1973)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 18th Best Album
If Bowie wanted to go softer, that’s what Pinups provides. A cover record taking on early Pink Floyd, The Yardbirds, Them, and The Kinks, while still dressed up as Ziggy Stardust on the front cover featuring model Twiggy.
Truly sticking to early ‘60s hits that shaped Bowie into who he is today, Pinups sounds more like a best-of compilation album and fits strangely wedged between Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs.
Described as a stand-in record for RCA, Pinups became a number 1 hit, its single a cover of The McCoy’s “Sorrow.” For Bowie, who would continually include song covers on his future records, this was a fun record that looked back on his past, but did not necessarily reflect his present.
17. Outside (1995)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 17th Best Album
Originally titled The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-cycle, 1. Outside, the album Outside would be Bowie’s first concept record in decades, and Eno’s return in co-collaboration since the Berlin trilogy. The pair visited a mental hospital in Vienna for inspiration, interviewing patients who had been known for creating what was deemed “outside art” at the center. The recordings of their interviews sparked newfound inspiration for Bowie and the concept for Outside tells the tale of a detective’s investigation of the death of a 14-year-old in a fictional New Jersey town, influenced by the David Lynch television series Twin Peaks.
Bowie is the narrator to the story, which takes place between 1977 and 1999. Eno also returned with his recording exercises, providing the band with fictional concepts that put them into character for improvising instrumentals. Bowie used computers to reinvent the cut-up lyrical methods that he had borrowed from William S. Burroughs and initially used on Diamond Dogs.
Outside is Bowie’s most experimental record of both the ‘90s and in over two decades that Bowie self-proclaimed as “cyber-noir” music and its industrial sound sounds more Tin Machine than carrying on any legacy Bowie had succeeded in experimenting with. It became his final no.1 on the charts until 2014’s The Next Day.
16. Heathen (2002)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 16th Best Album
With Tony Visconti and Bowie reunited after 14 years, the two developed Heathen. This is the most Bowie album he’d released since Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, reverting back to a progressive rock style that reflects his friend and colleague Visconti, and the band they recruited, both old and new. Guitarist Carlos Alomar returned as well as Pete Townshend’s second appearance on a Bowie record playing a solo on “Slow” and the re-recording of two Bowie songs from his unreleased record Toy.
Bowie even took homage to an old influence who gave Ziggy Stardust its name, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, an electronic cover of “I Took A Trip” as a way to pay the Legendary Stardust Cowboy back literally and figuratively from the song’s royalties. There is a lot of resonance to Bowie’s Berlin days, Visconti using the same microphone techniques as on “Heroes” for the record and Bowie using an EMS Synthi AKS gifted to him by Brian Eno during the production of Low. An additional Bowie’s usual cover songs are included but they are his best covers yet, including a Bowie-fied “Cactus” by Pixies and Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You.”
Production for the record happened surrounding the September 11th attacks, while Bowie’s mother had just passed, and his second child was born. But the concepts on the album stayed the same–instilled with dark themes and Bowie staying concurrent with rising anxieties about identity, age, morality, and the world. Closing out with “Heathen (The Rays)” it is a reflection of the current times and of himself.
15. The Next Day (2013)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 15th Best Album
A decade later is more than a day, but Bowie returns in 2013 with his release The Next Day is marketed like a covert cinematic release. Bowie opens the record with the title track, making a statement in the chorus that sounds as if it directs to fans who thought he might’ve disappeared for good since 2003’s Reality: “Here I am, not quite dying.” It’s a slightly pop, slightly disco track that doesn’t sound like a nostalgia hit but has layers of biblical meaning and presumable influence from dance bands such as LCD Soundsystem.
That’s the only statement Bowie would make – refusing to do press for the album and only appearing in the five music videos for the album, some starring actors such as Gary Oldman, Marion Coottaird, and Tilda Swinton, and releasing a list of 42 words describing the record. Some of those words include: Effigies, Vampyric, Balkan, Osmosis, Manipulate, Mystification. It cryptically clues listeners into what’s been going on with Bowie and shows that The Next Day’s discrete nature is more so the concept; not even Columbia Records’ U.K. marketing team knew about the album until a few days before its release. Members of the band and production team would have to sign non-disclosure agreements while moving recording studios after almost being revealed, and producer Tony Visconti making guesses on song meanings to the press after Bowie would take recorded instrumentals and isolate himself with them for months.
After its release, The Next Day brought Bowie back into the forefront of pop and rock music, creating a resurgence of both old and new fans.
14. Space Oddity/David Bowie (1969)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 14th Best Album
1969 had the “Summer of Love,” but Bowie was on another planet that developed “Space Oddity.” Bowie opened his second record, also titled David Bowie, with the hit song and would forever correlate him with being an eccentric figure that had been banned by BBC during the Apollo 11 landing for “Space Oddity” being an astronaut Major Tom getting lost in space.
Also known as Space Oddity, the album is not as cosmically conceptual as what would soon develop for Bowie, but the record’s themes of unconventionality, whether cultural divides within a relationship, the hippie counterculture movement, or a pariah’s tale, are all lead by Bowie’s acoustic guitar and Tony Visconti’s first time working as Bowie’s producer. Bowie’s attempt at success only came through the “Space Oddity” single, as the rest of the record received mixed reviews and didn’t hit the charts until its re-release in 1975, then lead Space Oddity to reach no. 1.
13. Young Americans (1975)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 13th Best Album
Recorded at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios, 1975’s Young Americans emulates the Philly soul and funk surrounding Bowie that had slowly re-defined his music. Bowie was already immersed in American culture, even searching for a bit of Barry White’s sound on Diamond Dogs, and the record title speaks for itself; “Young Americans” became a massive hit, his first Top 40 hit in the U.S., which Bowie says encapsulates his experiences in the U.S. in one song.
A young Luther Vandross worked alongside Bowie and eventually became his backup singer on the Young Americans tour and kickstarted the 24-year-olds career, while rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar, a former member of Chuck Berry’s backing band at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, would lead him to gigs on Bowie’s albums for three decades.
Young American’s second hit “Fame,” co-written with Bowie’s new friend John Lennon, was the first to reach no. 1 in the U.S. Charts. The country Bowie had admired finally had his attention, singing about a newlywed couple who weren’t sure if they liked each other, and Bowie dawning a new musical style for a new era of sound.
12. Aladdin Sane (1973)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 12th Best Album
The concept of Ziggy Stardust was getting to Bowie’s head, so he retired the alter ego and moved on to Aladdin Sane, which he explained was as if Ziggy Stardust had gone to America. A far more sinister version that may have been inspired by his half-brother Terry, a clever pun for “A Lad Insane.”
Bowie’s obsession with American culture continued on, producing Raw Power at the same time as recording Aladdin Sane and in between Ziggy and Aladdin, Bowie and Mick Ronson produced Lou Reed’s second solo record, Transformer. Three are definitely Reed influences in the album, as it has a more rock musical style to it with a darker feel to it.
The reception was better in the US than the UK and makes sense — it’s an album essentially about America, and really about politics soaked in a sci-fi scenery, as Bowie does. But it was a rushed album, and had the pressure of Ziggy Stardust that it lives off of, but didn’t make the same impact.
11. Let’s Dance (1983)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 11th Best Album
This is Bowie’s funkiest record, in terms of the sound provided by Nile Rodgers’ influence. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) had its commercial success, but Let’s Dance was the epitome of ‘80s era Bowie seeking a radio hit and making it happen. Let’s Dance came off of Bowie working on films The Hunger and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, as well as collaborating with composer Giorgio Moroder for the soundtrack to Cat People.
As upbeat as the album is, there’s a lot of underlying stoic-ness. Bowie was still mourning the death of friend John Lennon, “Modern Love” takes the perspective on the dating world’s ebbs and fluidity, “Let’s Dance” sings more of a metaphor about the dance of live than on a dance floor, and its music video depicts the inequality aboriginals face in Australia. It includes a cover of “China Girl” co-written with Iggy Pop for The Idiot to provide Pop with financial stability from its royalties, and “Criminal World” a cover of the 1976 original by band Metro, which was initially banned by the BBC for its suggestive lyrics. Stevie Ray Vaughn’s lead guitar gave it the blues element that Bowie looked up to, being influenced by artists such as Buddy Guy and Albert King while in the studio.
Nile Rodgers’ style of funk makes “Let’s Dance” sound like a Chic song, and his production is evident with every breakbeat and bassline. And as Bowie’s discography becomes more eclectic, he maintains staying true to his dramatic vocals and sociopolitical lyrics doused in ambiguity, “Is there such a thing?” being Bowie’s response to Niles’ question about putting too much funk into Let’s Dance.
10. Diamond Dogs (1974)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 10th Best Album
Diamond Dogs is Bowie’s reinvention of a 1984 musical that never happened after the idea was rejected by George Orwell’s widow Sonia. Tony Visconti had left and the Spiders disbanded after Aladdin Sane, as Bowie had announced retiring from his Ziggy Stardust alter ego. He attempted to reinvent himself, including a new persona named Halloween Jack. But Diamond Dogs deals with more socio-political overtones during a post-apocalyptic dystopian nightmare set in a place called Hunger City.
Bowie decided to base most of Diamond Dogs on beat author William S. Burroughs’ writings, whose prose are surreal and erratic, and using Burroughs’ cut-up method where the writer would cut up words and rearrange them up to create sentences and concepts. Bowie opens with the spoken-word track backed by synthesizers and shredding electric guitar, an eerie introduction describing the record’s events as a “glitter apocalypse,” and sets the scene for the Diamond Dogs.
If Ziggy Stardust was cinematic, this record was Bowie’s take of a novel-turned-musical. Although his aspirations for the musical aspect never happened, the record is enough to envision what would have been; Bowie crooning scouring dystopia while a group of kids surviving off the rooftops of the destroyed city and intentionally dissonant, but the album itself is tied in tightly as a theatrical and surrealistic piece reflecting the range of his concepts.
9. The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 9th Best Album
Old friend Marc Bolan had just changed his group from the folky Tyrannosaurus Rex to the glam rock T. Rex and found success just before the release of the band’s 1971 record, Electric Warrior. Bowie then decided to form a band called the Hype with drummer John Cambridge, Tony Visconti, who was back to record Bowie’s next record and played bass, and guitarist Mick Ronson was introduced to the group–creating a Ronson-Visconti duo that would collaborate symbiotically as the backbone of The Man Who Sold the Word.
The record still didn’t make Bowie a star, but its concepts were melodic, wide-ranged and the songs were Bowie’s theatrical and rock leader side enhanced. Much of the record is based on his self-reflection on his life and career and about his half-brother, Terry Burns, who had been living with Bowie and wife Angie at the time of The Man Who Sold the World’s production. “All The Man Men” is about his experience with schizophrenia and his stays in mental hospitals.
Influenced by the American poet William Hughes Mearns’ poem “Antigonish” about a ghost sighting, “Man Who Sold the World”’s lyrics parallel Mearns’ writing, and was written by Bowie in 1969 according to him is about the mysticism of searching for the self. Covers performed by Lulu in 1974, a poppier version produced by Bowie and Visconti, and Nirvana’s live cover on MTV’s Unplugged in 1993 made the song garner attention. “Black Country Rock” was a dig at Bolan. Man Who Sold the World feels like the most concept-filled album Bowie had made so far, but his goal was more to top the ranks of his contemporaries.
8. Hunky Dory (1971)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 8th Best Album
Bowie’s first trip across the United States sparked an evergreen culture shock inside of him, filled with big-city thrills, glam, and an introduction to evergreen music he observed with the perspective of an amateur schoolboy. Being shown artists such as Legendary Stardust Cowboy — fellow Mercury Records labelmate who would influence his future moniker Ziggy Stardust — to Kim Fowley, to future collaborator and friend Iggy Pop and his band the Stooges, Annette Peacock, Randy Newman, and more, Bowie returned to England with a big impression and a bountiful amount of records and influence to write three dozen songs that would fill his next two records.
Both that implemented both theatrical and Americana elements, producing a bombastic and theatrical part of Bowie that was the turning point in his life, into an avant-garde rock that sounded part musical and part basic rock n’ roll during the turn of the century, what Bowie describes on the opening track “Changes.” new fatherhood sparked “Kooks,” and the only cover on the record is a more show-tune version of “Fill Your Heart,” the Biff Rose song written by Rose and Paul Williams.
Songs about Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan play back-to-back; “Queen Bitch” was influenced by Velvet Underground, encapsulates the record’s American influence, using a lead guitar rhythm reminiscent to songs off Loaded, while “Life on Mars?” encapsulates his theatrical sound by singing about a girl using the movies as escapism, keeping up with his method of writing solemn songs with an upbeat waltz. Each song is a hit in its own right, although the record still didn’t bring Bowie to the status he was searching for.
7. Lodger (1979)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 7th Best Album
Finalizing the Berlin trilogy and on the cusp of the ‘80s, Bowie was still being heavily inspired by Brian Eno’s recording exercises, becoming a reflection heard in each song on 1979’s Lodger. Eno created Oblique Strategies, a card-based method of clearing creative blocks invented with German painter Peter Schmidt, and had just produced Talking Heads’ second studio album More Songs About Buildings And Food, which had been heavily influenced by world music.
Bowie was in the same boat, influenced by a trip to Kenya, Turkish culture, listening to upcoming artists such The Human League, and likely paving the way for Talking Heads’ 1980 record Remain In Light. But Bowie was also threatened by the new threshold of new wave artists, particularly Gary Numan, who was a Bowie superfan that upsold Lodger with his solo record Pleasure Principle. Lodger has Bowie settling into himself and his tumultuous experiences in the late 1970s.
It has fewer concepts and more experimentation, Bowie and Eno also invented methods such as writing chords on index cards pointing at chords with a preferred style each time that turned into a 2-hour jam session unfavorited by the Lodger band and Eno and Bowie had tracked 20 songs before the rest of the band got into the studio and instructed them to improvise their parts without even hearing the songs. It allowed Bowie to come up with what feels like a balance between the darkness and neo-electronic of Low and the dramatica of Heroes.
6. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 6th Best Album
Over a decade after “Space Oddity” and his time studying mime performance under Lindsay Kemp, Bowie returned to both those concepts lyrically and visually on Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). He had found success but was looking for more, still competing against artists like Gary Numan, who had once idolized Bowie. David relocated from Berlin to New York and cut the improvisation methods to turn Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) into a funky, disco and new wave record that was his final collaboration with Tony Visconti until 2002.
Bowie’s clown persona isn’t another conceptual phase but simply known for dressing as a Perriott on both the album cover and in the music video for “Ashes to Ashes,” which at the time was the most expensive music video with a budget of $500,000. The lead single mentions “Major Tom” from “Space Oddity” also loosely revisiting the lost in space concept and what Bowie describes as a nursery rhyme.
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) would be the second appearance made by Robert Fripp on a Bowie record, his prominent solos taking on the pop sound that seemed to be developing from David and would carry on with him throughout the decade. It remains his best album of the 1980s as a strong release following the Berlin trilogy, and one that Bowie made at a more positive time in his life.
5. “Heroes” (1977)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 5th Best Album
Like the next cart on the same train, “Heroes” transcends listeners into the second part of Bowie’s Berlin story as a direct connection to his previous record. The record continues the same themes as Low with fewer electronic elements but continuing to record with the aid of artistic partner Brian Eno, distinctly heard on tracks such as “Moss Garden” where Bowie plays the koto over an ambient synthesizer composed by Eno.
But the title track of the album is Bowie’s most anthemic song, about lovers divided by the Berlin Wall — imagining their life together if not star-crossed and stars King Crimson’s Robert Fripp as lead guitarist. Bowie had been in Berlin enough to see the political divide and it had a profound influence on him. This was the only record from the Berlin series that was completely produced in the city, and much of Bowie’s lyrics were reportedly improvised.
The songs returned to a more balladeering disco-oriented rock, leaning on traditional eastern music, yet it maintained the Berlin series’ experimental feel and became a commercial success.
4. Station to Station (1976)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 4th Best Album
Station to Station starts out strong with the ten-minute title track continuing on with “Golden Years.” It’s era-defining, as Bowie was able to mix various genres in such a smooth way. Always segueing at ease, but leaving fans in wonderment of “what’s next?” it was the Thin White Duke era after Bowie had claimed to rock journalist and future film director Cameron Crowe that he was quitting rock music. He had become inspired by krautrock and songs such as Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn,” writing “Station to Station” with the group in mind.
Bowie is crooning throughout the record in a telenovela tone that was likely influenced by Frank Sinatra’s recording at Los Angeles’ Cherokee Studios at the same time. “Word On A Wing” truly represents this, implementing both Bowie’s influence of old school music with modern hits; it seems as if he’s aiming at the disco crowd, but he doesn’t remember a thing about recording the album–hooked on cocaine that, alongside peppers and milk, was his diet during the Thin White Duke era–yet it is one of his most memorable.
3. Blackstar (2016)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 3rd Best Album
The darkest David Bowie record yet comes with his passing. Blackstar has been deemed a parting gift that was released three days before his death, but Bowie had hoped he would live longer to write another album. The album’s themes sound like a eulogy, and coming to terms with the end as Bowie had been secretly battling liver cancer — so discreetly that only producer Tony Visconti, family, and a few others knew.
The daunting title track’s drum machine beats against a harrowing Bowie set the scene for the record. Then shifting into a softer, funkier sound that is similar to a song. Bowie had written two separate tracks that were put together to make “Black Star,” the track ending with free jazz-sounding wind instruments, produced by his hired jazz quintet on the record.
Bowie was also heavily influenced by hip-hop and EDM, mentioning albums such as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and the electronic group Boards of Canada. His double-tracked vocals and dark beats make it as solemn as it is, and Blackstar comes out as one of Bowie’s top-selling records in the shadow of the world mourning him.
2. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust (1972)
Why it’s David Bowie’s 2nd Best Album
In the mid-1960s, Bowie had befriended former rockabilly star Vince Taylor, known for his hit song “Brand New Cadillac” (and famously covered by The Clash in 1979). Vince was long retired from his Euro rock star heyday, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and constantly taking LSD. Bowie and Vince would get together amid the London rock craze, Vince proclaiming he was Jesus, or showing Bowie on a world map where the aliens were stationed – Antarctica and Russia was where his finger landed. Bowie was mesmerized by his words and his antics, and took them with him to create one of the most seminal concept records in history.
After a Top of the Pops performance of the first single off Ziggy Stardust titled “Starman,” Bowie finally found his fame. Debuting his choppy red hair to U.K. households and leading with his blue acoustic guitar and a floral jumpsuit inspired by the style in A Clockwork Orange and Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto,
Bowie immediately became a symbol for androgyny, fluidity, and glam rock. This was new and otherworldly for Top of the Pop’s reported 15 million viewers at the time. And that’s exactly what The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was – an alien rock star, named after fellow Mercury artist the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, landing to send a message to earth, which had five more years of existence, that a ‘Starman’ was coming to save the world. The character is then seen as a messiah and torn apart by his worshippers on stage.
The premise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars could have easily been a kitschy ‘70s sci-fi musical, but instead became a prominent album that is lush in its lyrical details, some songs written without the intention of a storyline, to the instrumentals’ funkier sound Bowie had always been keen on.
In terms of style, it is a simple rock record with a detailed concept, although Bowie claims its concept story is just the same. But the aftermath of its release helped define the glam rock genre and changed the lives of whoever encountered it, and almost emulating the rock star pandemonium on the record.
1. Low (1977)
Why it’s David Bowie’s Best Album of All-Time
After learning the soundtrack he had composed wouldn’t be used for the film Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie took his music to Europe and began production on his 11th album. Low describes Bowie’s mindset in its name — he was at a low in Los Angeles, becoming manic, drug-addicted, and disparate from his former wife, Angie.
He looked to Eno to help re-invent his sound, as Eno had just released several ambient albums, having adamant experience using synthesizers to create his serene and otherworldly music. Eno’s imagination would certainly reflect on Low, with Bowie still maintaining the funk that he implemented in Station to Station, still mulling out potential hits like “Be My Wife” or “Sound and Vision” that sound a little jammed in the fading disco era, but with the soaring or distorted guitar solos and industrial drums that could have easily been on Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets three years prior.
Eno’s contributions can be blatantly heard on side two; Bowie’s intention of writing about the different landscapes that he’d been around in Berlin. “Subterraneans” was written for Man Who Fell to Earth and reworked for the album to evoke Cold War East Berlin, featuring Bowie on saxophone.
Bowie comes out from Low sounding like a cog machine of synthesizer experimentation and a pop star creating proto-electronica that is a sound that finally matches up with his dark lyrics, almost composing one of Bowie’s more sonically complex records.
Peaking at number two, although RCA had originally rejected the record saying it was unplayable, its impact essentially created the post-punk genre and from the influence of that album bands such as The Cure and Joy Division developed.