Ranking David Bowie albums

To think there was a time when David Bowie was considered a singles artist! I can only think this orthodoxy took hold in the grim eighties because his albums outside used record stores simply weren’t available; it took the early nineties Ryko editions to unleash the re-evaluations. This explains the predominance of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in greatest-of-all-time lists, most famously Rolling Stone‘s in 1987. Even through the glitter-eyed moonage daydreams, Ziggy was an easier sell — he dies for rock ‘n’ roll! — than Station to Station, beloved by Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, and other critics more sympathetic to its startling hybrid of Neu!, soul, Sinatra balladry, and grade-A coke.

I owe U2 for recording Zooropa, in whose reviews Eno’s Bowie albums formed a crucial part of the skein of allusions. That fall I bought the so-called Berlin Trilogy in a mall record store. It was 1993, the nadir of Bowie’s American reputation despite the late spring release of Black Tie White Noise, an expensive, glistening transitional album on which he vacillated between appealing to the yuppie and pre-yuppie Sinatra Duets crowd (check out the promotional art and the emphasis on his sax playing) and experimenting with what made his ears twitch in a house-dominated dance scene. Consensus judged 1. Outside an overwrought failure; to my ears it’s an overwrought near-triumph, a bouquet to new fans like me who wanted material that could sit beside his classic work. I write enough about 1. Outside here.

As gaunt, desiccated, and searching as its creator, Low tops this list because he hired a band capable of the most recombinant musical shapes and for whom he assembled — a key verb — the catchiest, zippiest music of his career. Even the instrumentals wear their ponderousness lightly; “Weeping Wall” and “Art Decade” are the equivalents of sitting in a steam room, sweating out the evening’s indulgences. Everywhere he turns in Low he sees himself reflected in mirrors whose glass he blew himself — and now wants breaking. When he sings about a little girl with grey eyes on “What in the World,” he’s the little girl. “Such a wonderful person, but you got problems”? Hi, David! In many ways Low is the most Christian of records: thirty-eight minutes of expiation, with the penitent humming Little Richard in the confessional. Low is a Robert Bresson script filmed by Samuel Fuller.

Other rankings shouldn’t surprise readers. After gingerly wading into ★ , I embraced it the weekend before his death, a period coinciding with a new school semester. At last he’d recorded His Best Album Since Scary Monsters, and, in Bowie style, he outsmarted us: in the density of its grooves, the singer’s enthusiastic delving into performance art, and the sense in which one’s impending demise inspires a motley and deliberately inscrutable range of responses, ★ is a better album than Scary Monsters; but like that great run of albums beginning with The Man Who Sold the World and ending with — it’s my list, not yours — Let’s Dance, ★ apotheosizes the career of an artist who never shirked from sharing songwriting credits, genuinely grateful for the inspiration of an Iggy Pop here, a Luther Vandross there.

I suspect I’m not done with David Bowie. Who would be? In a career whose ethos was turning and facing the strange, even leaden albums like Never Let Me Down emit a strange fascination: the queer sensibility attempting to straighten itself produces bizarre permutations. NLMD is like a flamboyantly gay man appearing at your wedding with a woman on his arm, unable to stop kissing her.

Don’t get me started on Tonight.

1. Low
2. Station to Station
3. ★
4. Lodger
5. “Heroes”
6. Hunky Dory
7. Aladdin Sane
8. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
9. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
10. 1. Outside
11. Young Americans
12. The Buddha of Suburbia
13. Black Tie White Noise
14. Diamond Dogs
15. Reality
16. Earthling
17. Heathen
18. The Man Who Sold the World
19. Let’s Dance
20. Pin-Ups

9 thoughts on “Ranking David Bowie albums

  1. Jukebox

    You have some peculiarities with Bowie, I see. I have mine. His “cabaret phased” Hunky Dory and “glam-phased” Ziggy Stardust are my favourites albums, just because I discovered him there. First inpressions are hard to pin down.

    I like Station to Station but let me tell you the lone song in my list from that album is “Word on a Wing”, which hinted at Hunky Dory the most and was the B side of “Golden Years”. The introductory piano riff might be within the most memorable things he’s ever done. And I find “Golden Years” groovy but perfected (doctored!) in the even more spared and funky “Fashion” off Scary Monsters, which, a propos, has the most songs in my list with “Ashes to Ashes”. “Fashion” and “Up the Hill Backwards” (and the Tom Verlaine-collab “Teenage Wildlife” fighting to replace the latter). Meanwhile, “Oh! You Pretty Things”, “Changes” and “Life on Mars?” gets the most singles off a Bowie album. Second: “Ziggy Stardust” with the title track (whose guitar riff, honestly, launched the WHOLE career of Billy Corgan as Can’s “Moonshake” did for Stereolab) and the deathless “Starman”. Whats’s left is “Young Americans”, the titular track off that album and, surprise, “Who Can I Be Now?”, a spectacular outtake from that album which resumes David Bowie himself like no other song until he got confessional in the haunting (but not musically groundbreaking) “Black Star”. Leonard Cohen had a similar swan song. So did Warren Zevon.

    I won’t attempt to rank his albums. It is a hard task to me as his highs are terribly high. Speaking of which, “Low” might deserve the higher spot on boldness and influence alone. I won’t disagree, but I honetly will say it’s not the album a enjoy the most. I won’t lie.

    Either way, Bowie, along with Prince and Madonna are the solo artists with the most number of tracks/singles in my list; with Stevie Wonder not too far. That’s as high a praise I can have for them all. They made memorable, distinctively songs which span three or four decades, and at the same time, they made terrific albums. Wonder would have joined them if not for the horrible slump he had in the 80s onwards. Prince kind of “lost it” with the arrival of new jack swing and hip hop (both genres he helped created with his minimal funk). Bowie and Madonna, instead, adapted a little bit better, I think: Talking about Chameleons!

    Keep the good work. I feel like a stalker, sorry. Why there’s no more people commenting?

    1. Jukebox

      Well, in the Prince case he didn’t “help” create hip-hop. It helped with the evolution of it by artist taking a cue with his peculiar use of spare percussion and use synths as so did Stevie Wonder. You know what I mean. Prince couldn’t cope with rapping himself (neither did Madonna) but I have a sof spot for “Sexy MF”. I might be the only one.

    1. Jukebox

      WOW! I just did!

      This: “After “My Name is Prince,” yet another track deeply nervous about hip-hop” resumes his problem really well. But perhaps I have the advantage of English not being my mother tongue? So I only payed attention to the staccato strut that I find lovely on that song? I truly think you have a point in saying there’s nothing to say besides “shaking that ass”. I can’t tell you anything to disagree. But you might have a soft spot for something that is musically irresistible yet lyrically pointless?? There must be something!
      Huh, I don’t feel better about liking that song NOW. And I agree “The Morning Papers” is the better song. The “problem” being that, musically, I found that song was the “de facto” power ballad in a Prince album I was growing tired of by then. He started that trend in 1999 with “Free”; then, followed with the mighty “Purple Rain”, “The Cross”; the one in Lovesexy, the other one in Graffitti Bridge, “Diamonds and Pearls”…

      I’m not saying these were bad. I’m saying by the time the “Morning Papers” arrived, it was so previsible. There’s nothing previsible about “Sexy MF” in Prince’s ouvre beside the lyrics. Well, not up until that point he was channeling jazz through a song that I’m aware of!! He even tried reggae with “Blue Light” in the same album!! But, for me, The New Power Generation were a step backwards in terms of thinking forward musically. It was a terrific back up band, but Prince was Mighty for the revolutionary minimalistic approach with funk, and NPG was expansive, even “orchestral”. It’s “Kiss” that is sampled now; not, say, “Gold”. “Sexy MF” was the sound of Prince being as minimal as could be at that time (just horns decorating the song). That’s why I liked it more than the other, better songs.
      I was just missing the “old” Prince.

      Am I sounding like I am looking for an alibi for liking it??:))

      You make me think. I hope you notice that, at least.

      1. Jukebox

        Ok, I scanned some of your archives now. You have perhaps my favorite 90s R.E.M song ranked first on the AFTP list: Find the Fucking River! You made a case with one of my all-time favs and often scorned power girl-ballad “Slow Hand” by the Pointer Sisters! We do agree more than disagree. You can whip me now with ginger, lemon, vergamot and vetiver and call me names for liking Sexy MF. I don’t care!

  2. humanizingthevacuum Post author

    “The New Power Generation were a step backwards in terms of thinking forward musically” — this.

  3. humanizingthevacuum Post author

    “You can whip me now with ginger, lemon, vergamot and vetiver and call me names for liking Sexy MF. I don’t care!” Don’t get me excited!

    1. Jukebox

      Ha, ha! Anytime!:) “Find the River” was the icing on the cake of an album that, for the first time ever, made me emotional. By the time the final, plucking cords of this pastoral beauty played, I was a wreck in tears! Never happened before to me. (pastoral: I didn’t knew at that time what he was talking about. I just felt it. Hard. When I scanned the lyrics and found out all the herbs mentioned, I went like: “Son of a bitch! (Stipe) YOU MADE PASTORAL LITERALLY, you hypersensitive genius!” It surpassed coyness into the realm of… well, life passing through your “weary eyes of poetry naiveté”. I cried even more. Nick Drake was found alive and kicking again. And bested. Best closer of an album ever to me. The fact that is was the final single of AFTP got the job done. To the “list” and there since 1992. I had no doubts with this one!

  4. James Doherty

    Late to the conversation here – steered by the bad covers entry.
    I find myself thinking that Bowie is largely overrated, but it is likely that this opinion is based on the fact that there are so many of his albums that I can largely live without ever hearing again (or at all, really – a number of them I have never heard) but if I look at his highlights, holy cow are they high. Listening closely to Low now based on the list. I had always preferred Heroes from that trilogy but it is likely because it was the first Bowie album I bought myself. My dad had Station to Station and I found it intriguing. I love love love Scary Monsters, Ziggy, Station and Hunky Dory. I have fond feelings for a small handful of them and then no use at all for a wide swath. I anticipated that this list would be clumped like some of the Pazz n Jop lists.

    Thanks for prompting me to take another dive into Low and for such fun writing in general!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s