- The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust
This one is the king. When Bowie wanted to brand himself as a “rock god” he created none other than Ziggy Stardust. This was one of many alter egos, but probably his most famous. To those not so acquainted with the more eclectic sounds in his catalogue, Ziggy Stardust is probably the best place to start. It’s a perfect album all the way through, from star to finish. Ziggy Stardust opens up with the somber, apocalyptic “Five Years,” straddles on to pop-jazz-infused “Soul Love” with just a singular touch of heavy guitar, then moves into full-on rock with the spacey (literally) “Moonage Daydream” before slowing down once more to the beautiful, melodic “Starman”. Every track is really a diamond in the rough here. And Bowie’s impeccable voice carries through all of them, start to finish.
2. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Number two would be number one, if not for Ziggy Stardust. It’s another all-around perfect album. Scary Monsters is pretty much a reflection piece of David Bowie looking back on his past. He’s seen his highs and lows. “Ashes to Ashes” is a perfect example with the reference to Space Oddity: “We know Major Tom’s Junkie/Strung out on heaven’s high/hitting an all-time low”. And now he closes the decade with something that encompasses a bit of everything: rock, funk, pop, and a bit of soul. It’s his farewell to the 70s, before he would transition to doing mainstream pop with albums such as “Let’s Dance”. And it stands out as one of his particularly shining achievements in a catalogue of already shining achievements.
This is where Bowie went through his ambient phase. The album is mostly instrumental, infused with eerie, electronic tracks, such as the harmony-filled, beautiful, but tragic “Warszawa,” somber “Subterraneans,” which almost sounds as if it’s playing somewhere deep inside your head, and other atypical numbers scattered throughout. Brian Eno provided the unique sound for this album and would later go on to collaborate with Bowie on two more albums (Heroes and Lodger). This was the first entry in Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy. And also the best (in my opinion).
4. Station to Station
David Bowie had officially left his Ziggy Stardust phase and created a new alter ago: the Thin White Duke. This is the album that made my friend a believer. It starts off with the fresh and funky “Station to Station,” a 10-minute track filled with beautiful bass guitar notes that gather very rhythmically at the start and then build up to a full-blown, upbeat conclusion. “Golden Years” continues the funky tone of the album (one of Bowie’s most famous songs), while a crooning Duke in “Word on a Wing” explores a lifelong struggle with faith and spirituality. “TVC15,” another funky number, is about a girl getting eaten by a tv, while the final song “Wild is the Wind” is a homage to Nina Simone (the original song’s performer). With Station to Station, Bowie showed the full range of his talent.
The second entry in the Berlin Trilogy continues the trend of “Low,” featuring more electronic, ambient sounds by Brian Eno. Its title song is one of Bowie’s most famous. The first half is mainly a combination of electronic and rock, while the second is primarily instrumental, in the same tradition as “Low”. The tone is very dark and ethereal, almost evoking the sound of Vangelis, the composer of the Blade Runner soundtrack. Parts of it even sound like Blade Runner. The album ends on a high, upbeat note, with “The Secret Life of Arabia,” a funk-flavored, Arabian-style jam, complete with Bowie’s mesmerizing vocals.
6. Young Americans
This is the Rodney Dangerfield of Bowie albums: it gets no respect. At least by Caucasian standards. This is the one where Bowie officially trashed his Ziggy Stardust alter ego and decided to become a soul singer (watch the documentary Cracked Actor). At the time he was nearly on death’s door, weighing in at a meager 97 pounds, and constantly strung out on cocaine. Carlos Alomar, one of his guitarists, famously quipped “You look like shit, man: eat something.” Bowie delved into R & B here and, unlike so many others, proved himself equally adept at mastering yet another genre of music. One can hear the soul in his voice through tracks like “Young Americans,” “Fascination,” “Right,” and “Fame” (another one of his most famous). Bowie was best when he was at his most eclectic, adapting sounds from a wide range of cultures. This one derived from African American soul. Which is probably why a lot of music critics don’t like it. Everything in this album is black, including-yes-even including Bowie himself. I might as well say it. “It’s Gonna Be Me” is like a church song, featuring backup vocals that sound like a gospel choir. I would be fooled myself if I heard it playing during a worship service. That’s how good the imitation is.
7. Aladdin Sane
This one’s personal for me. I just love the sound, all the way through. Like other albums the sound is mixed, featuring rock, pop, and other funky manifestations. My favorite is “Aladdin Sane,” with its beautiful, haunting piano melody, infused with reverberating guitar in all the right places. And, not to mention, Bowie’s beautiful octaves. In the straightest, more heterosexual way possible, I have to say I’m in love with the man’s voice. “The Prettiest Star” is another beautiful entry, featuring not only electric guitar, but jazzy saxophone as well. It just sounds sexy when you hear it. His most famous track on the album is “The Jean Genie”.
8. Hunky Dory
This is Bowie’s folk-rock period. It’s also back when he used to be really into cross-dressing. Bowie was always an enigma to most of the public, but gender androgyny was probably his weirdest outlet. He was still hanging out with Warhol’s bunch at this point, realizing the genius of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. Most of the tracks are very soft and easy, yet very harmonious in a light, almost pastoral sort of way. Like you could almost imagine Bowie running through a field of flowers with long Goldilocks hair and a fluttering dress. Some of the best songs include “Changes,” “Life on Mars,” “Kooks,” where Bowie reflects on parenthood, “Quicksand,” and the sassy-vocaled, heavy-handed guitar of “Queen Bitch” (one of my favorites).
9. Diamond Dogs
This is the midpoint between Bowie’s transition from Ziggy Stardust rock god to the Thin White Duke. So you would expect it to feature both rock and roll elements, as well as the funky “plastic soul” Bowie was beginning to adapt to his music. “1984” is a perfectly funky track, while “Rebel Rebel” is more reminiscent of old Ziggy Stardust days. At this point he still sported the red, spiky hair and lighting face mark that would put even Harry Potter to shame. But, like I said, you can clearly hear the transition. The three best songs run straight together in a Pink Floyd sort of formation: “Sweet Thing,” “Candidate”, and “Sweet Thing (Reprise)”.
This is Bowie’s last album, released several days before his untimely departure. While recording he was already sick with cancer. And the album shows it. Not from weakness: Bowie’s vocals are still sharp as ever, almost frighteningly so that after years of drugs and performance, his tone still hasn’t diminished. But in the scary way that Bowie acknowledges his last days, almost playing into premonition. It’s as if he’s writing his own epitaph. Songs like “Lazarus” feature lyrics such as “Look at me/I’m in heaven,” while other songs like the somber “Dollar Days” feature the lyrics “I’m dying too”. Bowie wanted to make a jazz album before he died and Blackstar accomplishes this on so many levels. After making “The Next Days” pretty much just to appease his fans, Bowie officially bowed out by getting back to his roots: experimentation. And mastering whatever the hell he put his hand to, with a Midas touch. But this was sadly the final touch. And all throughout the album you can hear it’s somber farewell tone, like something precious slipping away. But letting you savor it one last time. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is where he talks about putting his all into his art and still wanting to dedicate more, but coming to the sad fact that he can only do so much in the time he has here. In the end, Bowie gave much more than his music: he gave himself. The album still leaves a tear in my eye when I hear it.