Ever since David Bowie’s late 1960’s hit “Space Oddity,” he has never really left the mainstream consciousness. While he may be primarily known today for his focus on style, appearance, and transformation, he has created a large body of work that stands the test of time. His sprawling discography covers nearly 5 decades worth of material and glides between genres and styles. This guide will serve as a roadmap to Bowie’s strange and daunting career.
Music For Absolute Beginners:
The best place to start listening to David Bowie is via his two-disc set BEST OF BOWIE. This greatest hits compilation contains many of the singer/songwriter’s most accessible work and some of his most famous songs. Assembled in chronological order, these two discs contain songs from every decade of Bowie’s career, and importantly, they give listeners a good idea of what to expect from the artist. For example: listeners who enjoy songs from the first half of the second disc will be wise to seek out Bowie’s early 1980’s work.
For listeners who don’t like the idea of greatest hits compilations, there are other avenues to begin with. Because Bowie’s work is so album-centric (as opposed to single-driven), ignoring The Best of Bowie might not be such a bad idea either. THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS offers a great starting point for Bowie’s discography; it’s incredibly consistent, enjoyable, and accessible. The album focuses on a future version of an Earth threatened by an impending apocalypse. Hope comes in the form of the titular character, a singer that is able to inspire the world to work together to save itself. This concept album has a very clear story-arc, but even without character study, THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST… is an album chock full of great songs. The album solidified Bowie as a creative powerhouse and propelled him past his stale “One-Hit Wonder” status. The 40th anniversary edition includes wonderful remastering of the original recordings — it is currently the definitive version of the album. Essential listens: “Ziggy Stardust,” “Starman,” “Moonage Daydream.”
If The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust pleased you, both of the albums directly before and after should be your next listen. 1971’s HUNKY DORY is a piano-based pop record that is filled with theatrical melodies. This album began a hot streak for Bowie that lasted for years: even some of Ziggy’s biggest hits were written in preparation for HUNKY DORY (“Moonage Daydream,” “Suffragette City.”) Often considered Bowie’s first masterpiece, it contains all of the same great songwriting of Ziggy Stardust without any of the conceptual trappings. Essential listens: “Changes,” “Life of Mars,” and “Queen Bitch.”
After ZIGGY STARDUST, Bowie continued writing in character: the result was 1973’s ALLADIN SANE. The album continued many of the hallmarks that captivated audiences with ZIGGY STARDUST. Bowie would go on to call the album “Ziggy Goes to America” due to its emphasis on more Chuck Berry-esque rock-n-roll influence. While ALADDIN SANE doesn’t contain the same conceptual theme of its predecessor, it maintains the fantastic lineup of Bowie’s backing band, The Spiders From Mars. Notable is Mick Ronson’s soaring guitarwork. Essential listens: “Jean Genie,” “Panic in Detroit,” and “Time.”
Another great next step may be found in 1980’s SCARY MONSTERS (AND SUPER CREEPS). The most jaded of Bowie’s audience will state that this was the last truly great album by the artist — regardless of the validity of this claim, it is, well, a truly great album. Mixing pop sensibilities with many of the art-centric lessons learned in his Berlin era recordings (see below), Bowie was able to perfectly blend artistic integrity and accessibility. It’s more influenced by its time that previous recordings: notably “Ashes to Ashes” was labeled a goodbye to the disco era. The album also finds Bowie in a self-aware and introspective state of writing, with “Ashes to Ashes” touching on many elements of his career. The emphasis on melody and accessibility makes it an excellent addition to the 80’s decade Bowie and his career in general. Essential tracks: “Ashes to Ashes,” “Fashion,” and “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps.)”
By the mid 1970’s, David Bowie was struggling with his success: his addiction to cocaine and erratic behavior were coming more and more notorious. He retreated to West Berlin, Germany with long time friend Iggy Pop in hopes of detoxification and inspiration. The result of this time away from Britain and America produced three of Bowie’s most significant albums, known as “the Berlin Trilogy.” By bringing in Brian Eno and old collaborator Tony Visconti to help produce, Bowie achieved a new sound that surpassed anything he had written in his career. Blending avant garde electronica, kraut rock, and Bowie’s own ear for melody, the first album of the Bowie/Eno collaboration was LOW. The album used expressive instrumentals and art-rock to redefine Bowie’s career. Announced as Bowie’s first attempt to kick his cocaine habit, he would go on to say that the album contained “oodles of pain.” Essential tracks: “Be My Wife,” “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” and “Warszawa.”
The follow up to LOW was created a year later. The second album in this burst of inspiration doesn’t provide diminishing returns. “HEROES” is another dense, textured work of art, and it also contains one of Bowie’s biggest hits in the album’s title track. King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp was brought in to lay guitar work — a job he accomplished in one day. Fripp’s guitar work would be later chopped and mastered in such a way to give the album a more textured sound than its predecessor. The album follows many of the same stylistic trappings as Low but maintains a personality all its own. Essential tracks: “Heroes,” “Joe the Lion,” and “Sense of Doubt.”
The final album of the Berlin Trilogy doesn’t quite live up to the first two iterations, but it is surely an excellent record all its own. LODGER is a more intellectual exercise that LOW or “HEROES,” and it is famous for utilizing Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies card set. This card set offers random suggestions for creativity, such as: “Ask your body,” “What would your closest friend do?” or “Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify.” Bowie and Eno brought in another King Crimson alum, this time in guitarist Adrian Belew. The album represents the final chapter for Bowie’s electronic/art-rock era, but it provides a great conclusion to a fantastic trilogy. Essential tracks: “DJ,” “Look Back in Anger,” and “Fantastic Voyage.”
Before finding refuge in Berlin, Bowie released the strange, experimental, muddled STATION TO STATION. It begins with the 10+ minute title track, a song that wouldn’t sound out of place in a progressive rock band’s oeuvre. Carr and Murray (1981) would go on to label it his most accessible and impenetrable album. There are plenty of fantastic melodies here, but they are often hidden and buried under strange and quirky trappings. With only 6-tracks, it isn’t the best place for new Bowie fans to adventure, but it contains some of the songwriters most interesting work in his career. Essential listens: “TVC15,” “Golden Years,” and “Station to Station.”
1983’s LET’S DANCE revitalized David Bowie’s commercial career. The album was a smash success both in the UK and in America thanks to the blockbuster “China Girl,” and “Let’s Dance.” The album mixed (then up-and-coming) guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan’s blues with dance-rock accessibility. Unfortunately, the album’s sound is a bit more dated than most of Bowie’s other releases, particularly “China Girl.” After recording the terrific theme for the (now obscure) movie Cat People, Bowie rerecorded an inferior version for this album — be sure to seek out the original (as heard in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards.) LET’S DANCE and its massively influential tour in support of the album would eventually push Bowie in a direction that not all fans were happy with however. The record was followed up with Tonight and Never Let Me Down, two albums that weren’t built to stand the test of time. Essential listens: “Modern Love,” “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” and “Let’s Dance.”
In 1995, Bowie return to the concept album with OUTSIDE (sometimes labeled 1.Outside). It’s a double-album that chronicles the diary of a detective in a dystopian future who attempts to solve a serial killing. Based on a short story written by Bowie (The Diary of Nathan Adler) and speckled with monologue, dialogue, and multiple characters singing through Bowie, the album can be dense and esoteric. Many of the skits/monologues on the album become tired after a few listens, but the album works great in absence of these detours. OUTSIDE finds Bowie inspired more than he had been for several years, but some of this inspiration manifested itself in strange ways. Bowie had plans to continue the album’s narrative with a sequel, but these plans were ditched with a diversion in drum-and-bass music with Earthling. The OUTSIDE album is a bizarre creation, but stick with it — it will pay off. Essential tracks: “Strangers When We Meet,” “Hallo Spaceboy,” and “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson.”
This list isn’t exhaustive; Bowie has other releases that are surely worth checking out. The early THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD has some real gems; BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA is an interesting album inspired by a BBC miniseries; DIAMOND DOGS, the final recording from the Ziggy years is hit-and-miss, but has some spectacular highs – it’s a conceptual album that’s about the novel 1984, without the copyright permissions to the novel 1984.
Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie contains all of Bowie’s albums, songs, compilations, etc… It essentially works as an encyclopdia for the singer/songwriter. The Complete David Bowie is a great resource for those interested in the man’s career or those searching for B-sides and other rarities.
LABYRINTH stars Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie, and David Bowie’s gigantic codpiece. Bowie plays an evil goblin king, and of course, he finds plenty of time to sing and dance. It’s a great movie by Jim Henson and worth checking out (even for non-Bowie fans).
There are plenty of cover albums and tribute albums for David Bowie, but the best by far is WE WERE SO TURNED ON. Featuring a good smattering of artists/bands, this two-disc set is hit-and-miss, but mostly really good. Most of the songs here are given an electronic vibe, so it may not be for those Bowie fans who only listen to Ziggy-era albums. Renditions of “Always Crashing in the Same Car” and “China Girl” are not to be missed.
Spots to Avoid:
If you were able to make it through Outside, chances are, you will grow to love most of Bowie’s releases. Here are a few that don’t pack the same punch as most of Bowie’s discography:
David Bowie’s first major label release, SPACE ODDITY, propelled him to widespread attention, but the album wasn’t enough to hold him in the public eye at first. Aside from the title track, this album isn’t characteristic of the same songwriting quality that Bowie would showcase in later releases.
Due to his management, Bowie has a ton of live records under his belt. One of the strangest of these compilations is STAGE, an album that was released during The Berlin Trilogy. While Low and “Heroes” work fantastically on their own right, Stage picks apart these albums, and the result is sometimes jarring. The sweeping instrumental “Warszawa,” for example, sounds bizarre out of its original context.
After the success of Let’s Dance, Bowie decided to jump back into the studio to maintain his newly found audience. The result was TONIGHT, an album that is largely forgettable and uninspired.
TIN MACHINE and TIN MACHINE II are a divisive pair of albums for Bowie fans. Seemingly bored with the control a solo artist exerts, Bowie created a rock band called “Tin Machine.” The band kept a low profile and released two albums. Some fans love it, but most fans seem to try to forget these releases.