The 8 Ball 03.09.13: The Top 8 David Bowie Albums
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 03.09.2013
From "Heroes" and Heathen to Let's Dance, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 David Bowie albums of all time!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Next week, David Bowie releases his twenty-sixth studio album The Next Day. It is the first album by Bowie since 2003's Reality and came as quite a surprise to nearly everyone, as there were pretty much no indications that he was working on an album until the first single "Where Are We Now?" was released in January 8th. Bowie is one of the longest-running rock stars alive today, with his first solo album releasing in the UK in 1967. In honor of the man's new album I thought this week would be a good one to look at the best albums of his storied career.
Caveat: The main caveat here is that, while I have listened to it a couple of times, I decided not to include The Next Day as I want to absorb it a bit more before deciding where it ranks among Bowie's other works. I also did not include his work in The Tin Machine, preferring instead to look at his solo work. As a side note, I originally set out to do the top 8 Bowie songs but realized once I got into ranking how utterly futile it is to cut down to just eight songs; the man has 109 singles alone and easily 200 songs. I could easily do a five-part top 40 Bowie songs and still be missing a huge number of songs.
Just Missing The Cut
Young Americans (1975) Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980) Lodger (1979) Earthling (1997) Outside (1995)
#8: Let's Dance (1983)
In general, the 1980s were probably Bowie's weakest decade. Bowie is nothing if not a skilled chameleon as an artist and he melded to the '80s sensibility well, but many of his albums from that era simply lack the depth and quality of his other works. Let's Dance, on the other hand, is a prime example of the power in Bowie's versatility. The album is clearly more in line with the dance-pop sound of the era but there is a greater musical depth than a lot of what was going on at that time; the work of Stevie Ray Vaughn on guitar is a particular bonus and the first three tracks in particular made for an incredibly satisfying but one that also had lyrical depth such as "Modern Love's" religious themes. The album has the incredibly catchy feel of a dance pop album but with Bowie's unmistakable voice and lyrical talent; it makes for one of my favorite pop songs of the early '80s with ease.
#7: Low (1977)
Low, recorded in France with Brian Eno producing and mixed in West Berlin, is the first album in the duo's "Berlin Trilogy" and is widely considered to be one of his most influential works. Bowie took on a very experimental sound here that managed to be accessible, a skill that the rock icon has shown throughout his career. The album starts off with "Speed of Life," a song that revels in its dissonant sound and makes for a great kick-off to the disc and then moves through essential Bowie tracks like "Sound and Vision" mixed in with the likes of "Breaking Glass," which has a strange mix of rock and pop that shouldn't work but does, or the piano-led "Be My Wife." In fact, "shouldn't work but does" describes almost every song on this album; there is every reason why they should fall apart but they do the exact opposite. This is a forward-thinking album that was a daring undertaking for Bowie and shows exactly why he is one of the great innovators of pop-rock.
#6: Heathen (2002)
Many people think that Bowie has never recovered from his creative fall-off in the mid-to-late 1980s, but I absolutely do not agree. Bowie changed his sound and while it's been almost exactly twenty years since he last topped the album charts, he has remained a vital part of the music scene as he's explored electronica, alternative rock and more. Heathen is, for my money, his best album since the 1970s. The album was, as many things from 2002, said to be heavily influenced by the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States (which Bowie himself has denied). It is Bowie's most direct album of the last thirty years and that alone gives it a strong resonance with people. But is also an incredibly diverse album on a musical level, taking in such sounds as low-fi garage rock in his cover of "Cactus" along with remnants of his electronica period in the opening track "Sunday" and the ethereal-sounding title track. With Heathen, Bowie proved that even at fifty-five he had a lot left to offer the music industry, a fact he is proving this year with The Next Day as well.
#5: Hunky Dory (1971)
Hunky Dory is the earliest Bowie album on this list; while Space Oddity showed signs of his brilliance and The Man Who Sold the World got even closer, it was his third LP that truly saw him maturing into one of the great musical stars of the 1970s. Leading off the album is one of his most well-known songs in "Changes," and the pop-rock elements there are undoubtedly great but it isn't the best song on the album by a long shot. That would belong to "Life on Mars?," which was inspired by Bowie's relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. The song is perhaps one of the best pop songs ever assembled, with all the elements coming together beautifully: Mick Ronson's guitar work, Rick Wakeman's fantastic piano work and Bowie's strange, evocative lyrics. Amidst those two songs are a bevy of great album tracks including the stripped-down "Andy Warhol" and his ode to one of the greatest American poets in "Song for Bob Dylan." This is a classic album in every sense of the word.
#4: Station To Station (1976)
Many people consider Station To Station to be Bowie's greatest album, bar none. Obviously I didn't go that far but you cannot deny the brilliance behind the work, which saw the creation of the singer-songwriter's 1976 persona of the Thin White Duke. The album isn't exactly his most accessible work; the combination of funk with German electronica makes for strange bedfellows, to be sure. But like many of Bowie's best works, it is this strange melding that makes it so unique and unforgettable in a positive manner. Bowie's ambitious style has never been a secret, but here he lets it all out and it coalesces together in an epic mix of his operatic rock style and the sound that he would further develop as his career progressed. This album is Bowie at crossroads as a performer and as an artist, and unlike many people even when he was at such a turning point he never lets his work dip. "TVC15" remains one of my favorites of his and the rest of the album is very nearly as good.
#3: Diamond Dogs (1974)
Diamond Dogs saw Bowie create an album inspired by George Orwell's 1984, focusing on a post-apocalyptic world in which he was Ziggy Stardust no longer and instead took on the persona of Halloween Jack. Diamond Dogs was, as many of these albums are, a stylistic departure for Bowie; here he left a lot of his glam rock sensibilities behind and adopted a more mainstream rock sound. He wasn't totally done with the genre to be sure and its resonance still hangs heavily over the album at times, but when you listen to songs like "Rebel Rebel" you realize that Bowie was kissing not only Ziggy Stardust goodbye, but also everything that Ziggy embodied. Bowie displays a very strong Rolling Stones-like streak here and in some cases almost manages to out-Stones the Stones themselves. It's not quite what you would call a pure concept album, but there are strong elements of that and the conjoining theme makes for an album that manages to be much more than its already-impressive parts.
#2: "Heroes" (1977)
Most people hear "David Bowie" and "Heroes" and they immediately think of the title track to this, the second album in the "Berlin Trilogy." For my part, I think of the album as a whole because there is nothing on this disc that I would consider bad or even merely "decent." Every track on "Heroes" is pretty much top-notch work; John Lennon was famously-quoted as saying that his dream as a solo artist was to "do something as good as 'Heroes'" Of course, the title track is an essential Bowie song and obviously one of his best-known but everything from "Beauty and the Beast" and "Joe the Lion" all the way through to "Neuköln" and "The Secret Life of Arabia" is just art-rock bliss. The album is regularly considered to be one of the best rock albums of all time and for very good reason. Do yourself a favor: if you only know this album by the title track, check out the whole thing. There's something amazing in there for everyone.
#1: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)
You had to know this would be #1. Ziggy Stardust was Bowie's ultimate triumph, an epic glam-rock album whose quality almost cannot be overstated. Even people who don't like 1970s rock generally love this disc; Bowie's showmanship was at its absolute peak and it put the stamp on what glam-rock was possible of at its absolute highest point. Name any song off the album and I find brilliance in it; when I was initially assembling this week's 8 Ball as a Top 8 Bowie Songs I found five songs right off the top from this disc that were strong contenders for the top eight. When you consider how great the rest of Bowie's catalogue is, that is a profound statement. Bowie's most famous stage persona is everything that a hundred or more who followed him aspired to be and never quite hit. It's one of the true great albums of rock and the best in Bowie's career.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
It didn't quite make the list this week (it is in the Honorable Mentions), but I actually rather like 1997's Earthling and consider it one of his most underrated works. Here is the most well-known song from that LP, his Trent Reznor-featured "I'm Afraid of Americans":
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.