Waking up on January 11th to the unexpected loss of David Bowie was the saddest thing I’ve experienced in a while. The impact that he and his music had on my life is something that’s very hard to express. The night he passed away, before the news broke, I was reading a Billboard article ranking all of Bowie’s albums, and I thought I’d make my own list. I had no idea at all that my hero was most likely already dead at that point. I went to bed with Mr. Bowie fully on my mind, his complete catalog buzzing around my brain, and woke up the next morning to discover that he was gone. It was staggering.
Here’s the list that I put together along with some thoughts on each album. Keep in mind that there are NO bad Bowie albums! Just because I rank something low on the list doesn’t mean I don’t love the album, it just means that I think there are others better than it.
I’d love to hear your feedback and what you think the greatest Bowie albums are! And even which of my rankings you think are completely wrong! Leave a comment!
28: Pin Ups (1973)
Let me start by saying that this is in the bottom spot only because there’s no actual David Bowie music on it. But aside from that, it’s certainly not a bad album. Bowie has never been afraid of covering a good song, he’s done so many times over his career, even in his earliest shows as a solo artist. This album is most successful when he takes liberties with the songs and adds his own touches to them, like on the Who classic “I Can’t Explain” which becomes a slower, mid-tempo brooder. A very enjoyable album, but the least Bowie-ish one in the catalog.
27: Tonight (1984)
The very quick follow-up to the massively successful Let’s Dance doesn’t quite gel as a cohesive album, and in fact suffers a bit due to lack of available material. In fact, Bowie described it as being kind of like Pin Ups. He described “Neighborhood Threat” as “disastrous”, and he said that “Don’t Look Down” went through numerous permutations before settling upon a reggae-tinged arrangement. My favorite track on the album is “Dancin’ With the Big Boys” which has a rawer, more classic Bowie sound to it with an interesting lyric. And I know it’s the cheesiest of his hits, but I absolutely adore “Blue Jean” and think it’s one of the best pop songs he ever wrote. But the album’s strongest moment is the opener, “Loving the Alien”, which Bowie revived on the Reality tour in 2003 in a powerful stripped down version. The album is stylistically all over the place and seems thrown together.
26: Young Americans (1975)
David Does Philly. Hearing “Fame” on the radio as a young 12-year-old kid was my introduction to Bowie. It struck me as different from everything else happening on the radio at the time (all of which was quite new to me so I didn’t really have a way of evaluating what I was hearing). Other than the title song and the big hit single, I’ve never been able to connect to this album. Which is odd, because not only do I love Bowie, I also love a lot of soul music. And it’s certainly not a bad album at all. “Young Americans” is a virtual snapshot of America on the world stage in the mid-seventies. The remake of “John I’m Only Dancing” is quite fun, with its funky rhythm guitar that puts it squarely alongside so many of the radio hits of its time. I rank it ahead of Tonight because it’s a solid, cohesive album, but the two could easily swap places as this is actually the album I listen to the least. It’s a very good album, well-written, well-produced, great performances . . . it just doesn’t grab me. Never has.
25: Black Tie White Noise (1993)
A difficult album to listen to, for me. It’s a weird mix of joy and depression. First you have music that Bowie wrote for his wedding to Iman. Then there’s the title song, inspired by Bowie being in LA at the time of the Rodney King riots. Then you have a song in which he finally deals with the suicide death of his mentally ill step-brother years earlier. Plus, Bowie reconnected with his Spiders From Mars partner Mick Ronson, who at that point was suffering from cancer and would be dead later in the year. In spite of all this, its a solid album that represents Bowie reclaiming his identity as a solo artist after his stint with Tin Machine. Its R&B and very mild hip-hop leanings make it stylistically a drastic departure from the more raucous and noisy Tin Machine albums that precede it.
24: ‘Hours…’ (1999)
When ‘Hours…” came out, I’ll admit I was pretty disappointed by it. It sort of felt flat after the high art concept of Outside and the frenetic brilliance of Earthling. It’s like Bowie without his edge. Even now, when I listen to it all in one go I find it a bit boring and sleepy. But taken individually, there are some great songs here; “Thursday’s Child”, “Seven” and “Survive” represent a more mature Bowie seemingly having embraced the Adult Contemporary radio format. But the album ends with three fantastic songs that hearken back to some of Bowie’s weirder earlier material – “New Angels of Promise”, “The Dreamers”, and the short instrumental track “Brilliant Adventure”, which sounds like it’s an outtake from Low. A very mellow album.
23. David Bowie (1967)
Bowie’s debut album as a solo artist. If you’re familiar with his far-better-known later work, you might find this first album a shock. And you’d be hard-pressed to recognize the artist who recorded his far-better-known later work in this. It has elements of folk rock, of music hall, of vaudeville, and all sorts of other things. My favorite song is the opener, “Uncle Arthur”, which is a playful story of a man who seeks refuge and comfort in his mother, and lyrically is one of my favorite Bowie tracks ever. “Love You ’til Tuesday” is equally lighthearted, sounding like it might be a track discarded by the Partridge Family, but there’s a surprising darkness to most of the rest of the album, ending with the absolutely macabre and twisted “Please Mr. Gravedigger”, which is a track you really have to hear for yourself.
22. Hunky Dory (1971)
Here’s where things start to get really difficult, because when ranking so many good albums, it’s hard to say which one is better than another one. But in spite of the fact that Hunky has so many really solid, classic songs on it, I do think its a tad weaker than a lot of his other albums. After his first two albums — one which was music hall and the other folk rock — Bowie’s sound suddenly underwent a drastic shift with the addition of Mick Ronson on the third album. Suddenly, Bowie decided he wanted to be a rocker and not a “folker.” But with his fourth album, it sounds like Bowie shied away from that move. He brought in Rick Wakeman and told him that he wanted the songs to be piano-led. Lyrically, though, this is one of Bowie’s strongest early works. It has the huge hit “Changes” of course, and the career-defining “Life on Mars”, but arguably the best lyric on the album is “Quicksand” (“I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thoughts / and I ain’t got the power anymore”). The album’s greatest strength is a trio of songs on Side 2 inspired by some of his fellow artists: “Andy Warhol”, “Song for Bob Dylan” and “Queen Bitch”, which is inspired by the Velvet Underground and is just about the only song on the album that sounds like a rock song.
21. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
Not exactly a soundtrack, it’s more a ‘companion album’ to the television series of the same name. Bowie did compose a soundtrack for that series, but kept writing and recording additional material, which is what is included in this album. The title song — the only thing appearing here taken from the series — is a fantastic song, with a musical quote from “Space Oddity.” The album as a whole is very experimental, with songs (except for the title track) unlike anything else in his catalog. Very strong jazz leanings can be heard in a few places (like the instrumental “South Horizon”, one of four instrumentals). Two of the stranger songs are “Sex and the Church” and “Bleed Like a Craze, Dad”. There’s a creative spontaneity to this album (it was written and recorded in six days) which lends it an energy and an excitement. Aside from the title song, there’s only one other “traditional” pop song, and that’s “Strangers When We Meet” (“all your regrets ride roughshod over me”), which is a really strong song, but will undergo a transformation a year later when it’s reused on Outside.
20. Never Let Me Down (1987)
This album takes a lot of heat. And yes, some of it is deserved, but not all of it. It sounds to me like a transitional album. Bowie would grow tired of the excesses of 80s hitmaking and would rebel against it with his side project Tin Machine. This album, to me, sounds like it’s wanting to be commercial in the vein of Let’s Dance and Tonight, but wanting to do away with the slickness of the production. This is Bowie trying to regain his edge, with songs about homelessness, Thatcher’s England, and the Chernobyl disaster. The opening song, “Day-In Day-Out”, is my favorite, with “Time Will Crawl”, “Shining Star”, “New York’s In Love”, “’87 and Cry” and “Bang Bang” being other highlights. Honestly I think with different production this album would have been better received.
19. Heathen (2002)
Following the sleepiness of Hours… comes another rather mellow album. What differentiates the two is the sense of darkness on Heathen. It opens with “Sunday”, one of the moodiest and most atmospheric songs he’s ever recorded, and ends in similar fashion with the title track. Between those two there’s an odd mix of original and cover songs, many of which are reused from previous proposed projects (some of the covers were originally intended to be included on a second Pin Ups album; a couple of originals were from an aborted album called Toy from a couple years earlier). Even the more uptempo songs sound rather downbeat. There’s sort of a sense of doom around this whole album. A lot of people assume its because of 9/11, but all the songs were written and recorded before that. Aside from the first and final song, my favorite is “5:15”, a song that sounds of loss or missed opportunities to me. At this point, with two rather dreary albums in a row, it was starting to sound to me that Bowie was mellowing out, settling into old age. Luckily, his next album would prove me wrong on that! Which leads us to . . .
18. Reality (2003)
This was more like it! After two sleepy albums, Reality had a youthfulness, an energy, a drive to it. Including two more songs that he’d originally considered for Pin Ups 2, the rest of the album is newly written songs. The two previous albums opened with very good but very down-tempo songs, so it was a relief to hear Reality open with a bit more exuberance; “New Killer Star” comes out swinging with a catchy chorus and a good beat. Bowie seems to address my fear that he was giving in to old age with “Never Get Old”, a groovy little hook-laden tune with a great lyric (“There’s never gonna be enough money / never gone be enough drugs / and I’m never ever gonna get old”). His cover of “Pablo Picasso” is raucous and sexy. The title song is loud and angry with a very strong vocal; there’s a refreshing aggression that we hadn’t heard from Bowie in years. And to close out the album, Bowie totally changes the pace with a long, drawn out, slow cooker of a song – “Bring Me the Disco King“. Clocking in at nearly 8 minutes and relying heavily on the piano of the brilliant Mike Garson, this song is different from everything else on the album, but its absolutely amazing. Front to back, Reality is a strong return to form for Mr. Bowie. Unfortunately, following a very successful tour, he suffered some health setbacks, and it would be 10 long years before we’d hear anything from him again.
17. Earthling (1997)
In a nutshell, this is Bowie’s drum and bass album. The album was begun almost immediately after the Outside tour, the idea was to capture a snapshot of what Bowie and Reeves Gabrels were listening to and influenced by at the time, which was Prodigy and American industrial music. The Outside tour was co-headlined by Nine Inch Nails, and Bowie found himself adjusting his approach to his show for this new audience. The result was an aggressive album that was written and recorded very quickly to make it as honest and immediate as possible. The whole album is rather frenzied, and occasionally the songs become a bit buried under the production. But while the idea was to capture the drum and bass / industrial movement, it starts with the songs, which are quite good, and there’s a smashing acoustic performance of “Dead Man Walking” from an MTV show called The 10 Spot to prove it. The albums highlights are “Little Wonder”, “Battle for Britain”, “Telling Lies”, “Law”, and the concert staple “I’m Afraid of Americans”, one of the best songs to come out of Bowie’s later period.
16. The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Mick Ronson. Seemingly overnight, Bowie’s sound changes from music hall, folk and lightweight hippy fare to a harder-edged guitar driven rock sound. This is immediately evident on the 10-minute opening track, “Width of a Circle”. This must have come as something of a shock to anyone who’d been following his early career. This is the first major reinvention of his sound, and a sign of what’s to come, both his transformation to rock god and his constant reinvention. If you listen to Bowie’s albums in order, this is the first time that you start to hear the Bowie that everyone thinks of when they think of “Bowie” (“Space Oddity” on the second album not withstanding). Aside from the excellent opening song, highlights include “All the Madmen”, “Black Country Rock”, “Savior Machine”, and of course the one every knows, the title song.
15. Outside (1995)
A concept album with a fascinating premise – a near future in which “outsider art” had progressed to the point where murder and mutilation become artistic expression – originated as a diary project that Bowie was asked to do for Q Magazine. The songs are sung from different characters’ POV: detective Nathan Adler, the “artists”, the victims, etc. Taking place in 1999, the goal was to fictitiously capture how the end of a century seems to herald panic over the end of civilization and moral decay. The songs are interspersed with musical interludes and short bits of dialogue. To be honest, its a tad bloated, and there are a few songs that aren’t quite up to snuff. But the majority of the album is made up of some of the best songs Bowie has ever written: “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”, “The Motel”, “No Control”, “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction”, “I’m Deranged”. . . it’s really amazing stuff. The album closes with two of Bowie’s strongest pieces ever: “Thru These Architect’s Eyes” and “Strangers When We Meet”. The latter originally appeared on The Buddha of Suburbia, but Bowie re-recorded it for this album with better production, a better vocal, better playing, etc. It takes a great song and makes it a truly exceptional one. A very strong concept and reconnecting with Brian Eno inspired Bowie to one of his most creatively rich projects ever.
14. Space Oddity (1969)
Originally title David Bowie, like his debut, as this was the first album on a new label. Stylistically, Bowie hasn’t quite become “Bowie” yet, but this is a remarkable album nonetheless, with some incredibly strong material for a second album. It opens with what is possibly the most recognizable and defining song of his entire career, the hauntingly beautiful and lonely title song. But as incredible an achievement as that song is, it’s just one amongst many here. Literally everything here is a highlight in its own right. The second track, “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”, is essentially Bowie’s first foray into guitar rock. “Letter to Hermione” is a beautifully sad song with a gorgeous, textured, even scratchy, vocal. “The Cygnet Committee” is Bowie’s first epic, and reflects a maturity that is drastically different than anything on the debut album. “God Knows I’m Good” is an arresting (no pun intended) tale of a desperate shoplifter justifying her actions to herself. All-in-all, this is a truly remarkable album that deserves to be heard and loved, even if its not quite the Bowie of Ziggy, Heroes, Scary Monsters or Earthling.
13. The Next Day (2013)
Following a pretty serious health scare in 2003, Bowie laid low for a long time, and his fans came to accept that they’d probably heard the last of him. No more new music, certainly no more tours. But then, on his 66th birthday on 8 January 2013, Bowie shocked the world with the release of a new single and the news that he’d been secretly recording a new album that would be released two months later. And that album turned out to be a pretty straightforward rock album that reclaimed Bowie’s past glory with some very strong songwriting and performances. This album is more confident, more comfortable than anyone expected it would be. It opens with the rocking title song and then moves into the rather odd sax-driven “Dirty Boys.” The best tracks are “Love is Lost”, “Valentine’s Day”, “I’d Rather Be High”, “Set the World on Fire” and on the deluxe edition, two of the bonus tracks – “So She” and “I’ll Take You There.” The best birthday gift after a 10 year break any artist could ever gift to his fans.
12. Tin Machine II (1991)
Bowie’s side band was sort of a reaction to and rebellion against Bowie feeling trapped by the 80s hit-making machine and the drive for commercial success. It is distinguished by noisy guitars, loud trashcan drums, and driving rhythms. The second album uses that same approach, but with somewhat more melodic and accessible songs. So in other words, slightly more commercial. The combination of catchy songs with aggressive guitar work creates a very compelling package, with standouts like “Baby Universe”, “One Shot”, “You Belong in Rock ‘n’ Roll”, “If There is Something”, “Shopping for Girls” (about the sex trade in Taiwan), “Goodbye Mr. Ed” and the instrumental finale “Hammerhead”. I hate to say it, but the only two missteps that the album takes are the two songs written and sung by drummer Hunt Sales. A third TM release – a live album – was still to come, but none of the albums sold very well, and received incredibly mixed reviews. But guitarist Reeves Gabrels would remain in Bowie’s band for the next batch of albums.
11. Blackstar (2016)
I still have a very hard time listening to this album, Bowie’s goodbye to the world. Released on his 69th birthday, he was dead two days later. Like the creation of The Next Day, Bowie had kept his cancer struggle a secret. He spent his final two years recording a new album, made plans for its follow-up, and creating a stage musical based on one of the songs. The first inkling we got of new material was the release of the opening title sequence for new series The Last Panthers, which featured a remixed 45-second excerpt from the song “Blackstar”. The release of the video for the full-length song, clocking in at 10 minutes, was revelatory: A bizarre (what else would you expect from Bowie?), colorful work of art that showcased an extraordinary and somewhat experimental song and a new character that has been called “Button Eyes.” Traces of techno mixed with acid jazz can be heard throughout the song, which goes through a couple of mutations before reaching its end. It was an extremely bold artistic statement from a man that seemed to have no limits to his creativity and his drive to produce. The second single, “Lazarus,” was released shortly before the album, with a second appearance from Button Eyes, and what none of us knew then was that it was Bowie’s final goodbye, both in terms of the lyrics and the video’s imagery. The rest of the album contained some really bold songs like “Girl Loves Me”, “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”, and what is seemingly Bowie’s final message to fans seeking meaning in his songs, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (“Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent / I can’t give everything away”). It’s a truly extraordinary album made all the more poignant by his death two days after its release.
10. Station to Station (1976)
With only six songs, and all of them great, Station is a near-perfect album. A transitional stage from the Philly soul of Young Americans and the far more experimental krautrock and ambience of The Berlin Trilogy, Station incorporates disparate influences and fuses them into one of Bowie’s strongest collections of songs ever. From the chugging locomotive of the title song to the incredibly beautiful rendition of “Wild is the Wind” which closes the album, there’s not a bum note to be found. “Golden Years” was a huge hit in both the US and the UK, and even though my first exposure to Bowie was hearing “Fame” on the radio in 1975, “Golden Years” the following year was the first Bowie song I really loved. And while I normally have less love for the ballads than I do the rockers, “Word on a Wing” is quite possibly the most beautiful song Bowie has ever written and sung. It blows me away every time I hear it.
9. Let’s Dance (1983)
Bowie’s biggest commercial success. In a way, its kind of an uneven album, in that it’s Four Big Songs and . . . four other songs. But those Four Big Songs are so monumental that they carry the whole album. This is the slickest, most polished album Bowie ever recorded, and it sounds crafted specifically to be a radio hit. Three of those Four Big Songs are ubiquitous on radio, greatest hits collections, video compilations, etc. The Fourth, the reworking of the theme song from Cat People, is one of the most forceful Bowie songs from this period. Of the remaining tracks, “Criminal World” and “Ricochet” are the best (even though Bowie was not happy with how “Ricochet” turned out, he felt it had an awkward and ungainly feel to it); “Without You” and “Shake It” are lightweight throwaways, easily forgotten (I just had to play them again to remind myself what they sound like). They’re fine songs, they just don’t really amount to much. But still, when you have Four Big Songs as powerful as “Modern Love”, “China Girl”, “Cat People” and the title song, who cares about the rest of the album, right?
8. Tin Machine (1989)
After spending much of the 80s crafting pop hits on his own albums, in collaboration with other artists, and for movie soundtracks, Bowie felt trapped by the hit machine he found himself a part of after the massive success of Let’s Dance. Tin Machine was Bowie breaking free of that commercial prison and doing a raw, noisy, rebellious album. In an interview in Q Magazine at the time, he said of this ablum: “It’s almost dismissive of the last three albums I’ve done. Getting back on course, you could say.” The songs were written fast, on the spot in the studio, no demos before and no overdubs after. The band wanted the songs to sound live, to sound like the band, as Gabrels described it, “screaming at the world.” The best songs to come out of this new project were “Heaven’s in Here”, the title song, “Prisoner of Love”, “Crack City”, and two of my favorite Bowie songs ever: “Bus Stop”, in which he expresses comical suspicion over religious convictions as well as his own doubts (“Now Jesus he came in a vision / and offered you redemption from sin / I’m not saying I don’t believe you / But are you sure that it really was him / I’ve been told that it could have been bleu cheese / or the meal that we ate down the road / I’m a young man at odds with the Bible / but I don’t pretend faith never works / I’m down on my knees / prayin’ at the bus stop.”), and “Baby Can Dance” with its infectious chorus.
7. Diamond Dogs (1974)
A concept album that turns Orwell’s novel 1984 into a glam rock anthem and anticipates the punk movement while at it. This album features some of Bowie’s starkest imagery ever; its a desolate depiction of a crumbling post-apocalyptic society. Bowie had originally wanted to compose a musical based on 1984, but when Orwell failed to grant the rights, the material Bowie had been composing was incorporated into Diamond Dogs. The resulting collection of songs includes things like the major gender-bender hit “Rebel Rebel”, “Sweet Thing” (a suite of three songs), the plaintive “Rock and Roll With Me”, and the closing run of songs, “1984”/”Big Brother”/”Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”. Its a bizarre album that paints a disturbing picture, but the music is engaging and gripping.
6. Lodger (1979)
The third of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, Lodger is far less dense and a bit more accessible than its two predecessors, but is possibly more musically diverse. There are no instrumentals on this album, where the previous two put heavy emphasis on their ambient, more abstract fare. This album included more commercial moments, like “DJ” and “Boys Keep Swinging” but also produced some of Bowie’s darkest material, like “Reptition”, the story of an abusive spouse, and the beautiful “Fantastic Voyage”, expressing fear over impending nuclear war. Also included are two of Bowie’s oddest songs with slight world music influences, “Yassassin” and “African Night Flight” (inspired by a recent trip to Kenya). And finally, we have “Red Money” which started life as a song Bowie and Iggy Pop were working on; Iggy took the music and added his own lyrics, become “Sister Midnight”, and the following year Bowie added new lyrics of his own and created “Red Money”. Its interesting to hear the two songs together, comparing and contrasting. While not the powerhouse that the two previous albums were, Lodger still reflects Bowie’s need to expand, to grow, and to create.
5. Low (1977)
An album dominated by instrumentals is not what one expects from an artist primarily thought of as a singer. The album opens with its first instrumental, the cute ditty “Speed of Life.” It’s a fairly dancey song, as is Side One’s instrumental closer “A New Career in a New Town”. In between are nestled some fairly traditional tracks, but with some groundbreaking sounds and instrumentation to them. The best song here is an ode to repeating one’s mistakes, the dark and brooding “Always Crashing in the Same Car.” But Side Two – Side Two is where its at. All instruments. All of them dark, atmospheric, richly textured, seemingly abstract. This is Bowie at his most challenging, daring his audience to accept whatever he lays before them. “Warszawa” is possibly the greatest single track Bowie has ever recorded. It demands to be heard loud, in earphones, with no distractions, to let the waves of dark sound wash over your mind. It’s an amazing experience. In fact, just do that for the entirety of Side Two to really appreciate the sonic landscape that Bowie and Brian Eno crafted. It’s one of the most rewarding listening experiences Bowie gave us.
4. Aladdin Sane (1973)
Riding the wave of hysteria created by Ziggy Stardust and the previous tour, Aladdin Sane came out of the box a winner. But its immediate success would not have sustained had the album not been good. Luckily, it’s stellar, with incredible songs powered by Mick Ronson’s meaty and muscular guitar sound. Paired with the most iconic of album covers, this album was a sure hit. The title song (“A lad insane”) was inspired by Bowie’s half-brother, who’d been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, but also depicts kids on the eve of wartime. It’s a solid, stately song that is distinguished primarily by a most extraordinary piano solo by the brilliant Mike Garson, in which he bangs out a loud solo with no regard to tempo, rhythm, key, etc. It’s jarring and unattached, but that’s the point. Garson’s incredible skills are also prominent in the album’s closer “Lady Grinning Soul”. “Prettiest Star” is something of a musical throwback to the vaudeville kitsch of the first album. “Time” is my favorite lyric Bowie has ever written (“The sniper in the brain, regurgitating drain / Incestuous and vain / And many other last names”). Everything here, right down to the cover of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, is perfect.
3. Scary Monsters (1980)
Viewed by many as Bowie’s last great album in the early part of his career, saying goodbye to the excesses of the 70s and opening the door to new adventures in the 80s. Numerous positive reviews of later albums would describe them as “Bowie’s greatest album since Scary Monsters.” Producer Tony Visconti described Heathen as his greatest production after Scary Monsters. It sort of takes all the best elements of the Berlin albums and applies them to commercially viable songs to create one of the most unique albums ever. The leading single “Ashes to Ashes”, a modern update on the saga of Major Tom, became an enormous hit on both sides of the Atlantic, due partly to its catchy groove and its striking music video. The imagery on the back cover reference four earlier Bowie albums, and the product as a whole can be seen as him closing the door on a major chapter of his creative life (and look at how far he’s traveled: Play the cutesiness of “Love You til Tuesday” from the first album and the screaming cacophony of “It’s No Game (No. 1)” from Monsters and you’d never imagine both songs having come from the same artist). There is no end to amazing songs here: “Up the Hill Backwards”, “Fashion”, “Teenage Wildlife”, “Scream Like a Baby” are all among Bowie’s greatest artistic expressions. Literally, drop the proverbial needle anywhere on this album and you’re going to hear something amazing.
2. “Heroes” (1977)
The middle and strongest album in the Berlin Trilogy, it’s arguably the most coherent and cohesive album Bowie ever crafted. Even though I’d been exposed to Bowie’s music many times before, it was hearing a friend play “Heroes” that really solidified Bowie as a musical presence in my life. In fact, it was the opening song, “Beauty and the Beast”. I’d never heard anything like it before. It commanded my attention, demanded that I like it. And once that song hooked me, it was “Sons of the Silent Age” that did me in. A dark, rather slinky little song with disjointed imagery and a chorus that sounds desperate and yearning. “Heroes” continues Low‘s trend of ambient instrumentals — “Sense of Doubt” is a sonic mire from which one struggles but cannot escape; “Moss Garden”, with it’s oriental trappings and Bowie’s koto performance; “Neuköln”, with Bowie’s squawking, abrasive sax parts. But let’s be honest: It’s the title track that makes this album special, that rises it up above all the others. “Heroes” is Bowie’s crowning achievement. His greatest song. His most important statement. Were it for that song alone, this album would have found its way into my Top 5. But the rest of the album is so great that I argued with myself whether to put it in the top spot or leave it at number 2. Ultimate, I think this is right. Because that top spot can only belong to . . .
1. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Were it not for this album, we might not still be talking about Bowie in the terms that we do. Innovator, chameleon, alien rock god. This album, and in particular Bowie’s performance of “Starman” on Top of the Pops, introduced the world to Ziggy, a figure that would capture the hearts and minds of the British youth and transform Bowie into a superstar. An announcement on the television news that the world would be ending in five year’s time leads to panic and desperation. But luckily, there’s a Starman waiting in the sky to start a rock band and bring us a message of peace and love. Or something like that. The loose storyline may be a tad muddled, but the songs are incredible. “Five Years” is an amazing song that captures the public and personal reaction to impending doom. “Moonage Daydream” is weird, talking of space invaders and ray guns; its the first glimpse in song form that we get of this new Bowie, and it would remain a defining song for him for decades. The album ends with the most perfect run of four songs imaginable: “Hang on to Yourself”, the anthemic “Ziggy Stardust”, “Suffragette City” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”. Even after Bowie put Ziggy to rest because he felt he was losing himself to the persona that he created, it would continue to be his most identifiable incarnation for the rest of his career. There was no escaping Ziggy. “Heroes” is a truly phenomenal album, worthy of claiming the top spot as the greatest of Bowie’s albums. But come on — come on — it has to be Ziggy. It’s always Ziggy.