Friday, January 8, 2016

David Bowie Studio Albums Ranked


Throughout the month of December, I celebrated "Bowie Advent" in preparation for David Bowie's new album "★" ("Blackstar") coming out January 8th, 2016.  This meant listening through an album, or sometimes two, every day from December 1st through December 24th.  Of course, being me, it was a requirement that I rank them as I go.   So here is my personal ranking of Bowie's 27 studio albums, on a scale of 1-5 ★'s, with some brief notes and some essential songs.   Hope you enjoy!

27. Tonight (1984)


This album and "Never Let Me Down" are both kind of tied for the bottom spot on the list.  This one loses out simply by virtue of the abysmal cover of "God Only Knows", which I maintain is the worst recording David Bowie has ever done.  Following the release of "Let's Dance", Bowie went through a major funk and this is the prime example of it, as on top of the aforementioned Beach Boys cover, he throws in a couple of songs he wrote with Iggy Pop from the golden Berlin age.  Iggy did them much better.  "Loving the Alien" is quite good though, stop after that track and then flip straight to "Blue Jean" on side 2.

Essential Song(s): Loving the Alien, Blue Jean


26. Never Let Me Down (1987)

Most of what can be said about "Tonight" is applicable to this album.  The difference is instead of doing some mediocre new songs and some ill-advised covers, he writes all new music and then copies other people's styles.  This album is painfully 80's pop.  That being said, "Time Will Crawl" is one of my favorite Bowie tracks, both this album version and the MM Remix from 2008.    

Essential Song(s): Time Will Crawl, Never Let Me Down


25. David Bowie (1967) 


Everyone has to start somewhere and David Bowie started by releasing an album of quirky pop tunes (on the same day as The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" -- fun fact).  The songwriting wasn't quite there yet, nor was the style, or really any of the charm and creativity that made David Bowie who he is today.  Its nothing like what was to come, even two years later on his second self-titled album which leaned more towards folk than this.  "Rubber Band" and "Love You till Tuesday" are both good songs, though the best song from the era, "In the Heat of the Morning" is absent on this album.  

Essential Song(s): Rubber Band, Love You till Tuesday
(BONUS: Look up "In the Heat of the Morning", which is from around this era but didn't make the album.  Its the best early Bowie song)


24. Tin Machine (1989)

What happens when you're in the middle of a major career slump in the 80's?  Start a band and try and make it rock harder than your failing dance pop albums.  Honestly, parts of it work, parts of it don't.  It is certainly miles ahead of the "Tonight"/"Never Let Me Down" days.  Bowie was re-finding his way after a decade when he was able to reinvent himself every single year and put out classic albums at an insane rate.  You can hear some of the influence Reeves Gabrels would have on Bowie's 90's output, which I say mostly as a positive.  

Essential Song(s): I Can't Read, Under the God


23. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)

It's up for debate whether or not this should count as an album on this list since its technically a soundtrack, but since it is all original material and contains some proper songs, it is definitely fair to be ranked.  There are some super cool electro-jazzy instrumentals on here and a couple of interesting songs, but most of it serves as little more than background music.  Its not that its bad, its just not a terribly exciting Bowie release.  

Essential Song(s): Bleed Like a Craze Dad, Dead Against It


22. Tin Machine II (1991)

I've seen a few rankings online that lump this album with the Tin Machine debut album and I don't consider that an entirely fair analysis.  It is definitely the same band, but I feel like they progressed between albums a bit.  "Baby Universal" is the best song they recorded as a band.  This is just a lot less straightforward and is really the start of Bowie beginning to be comfortable enough making music again to get back to his signature creativity.  

Essential Song(s): Baby Universal


21. 'Hours...' (1999)

Most of 90's Bowie is very solid and back to his usual ways of reinvention and creativity, so it was a little surprising when he came out with what seems to be a mostly uninspired rock record.  "'Hours...'" definitely has its moments, particularly some of the singles from this album such as "Thursday's Child" and "The Pretty Things are Going to Hell", but about half of it feels like filler.  

Essential Song(s): Thursday's Child, The Pretty Things are Going to Hell


20. Pin Ups (1973)

A 70's album down all the way in the 20's? Yes.  "Pin Ups" is Bowie's cover album (with a great cover).  Some of the songs are really creative glam reimaginings of Bowie's icons, such as "Here Comes the Night" and "Sorrow".  Some of them just don't work.  Its not that its a bad listen, it just happens to be sandwiched right in between a run of classic albums and really, Bowie is best at doing Bowie songs.  

Essential Song(s): Sorrow, Here Comes the Night, I Can't Explain


19. Black Tie White Noise (1993)

"The best album since 'Scary Monsters'" was how almost every album was described in the 90's, starting with this one.  (A lot of people forgot how good "Let's Dance" actually is, but otherwise, yes, this was the best album since "Scary Monsters".)  It is the start of Bowie's renaiscience period.  It is a mature pop/rock album from a man who is married (hence songs such as "The Wedding Song" and the awesome opener, "The Wedding") and who is more confident in his own skin recording the type of music he wants to record.  Also, the Morrissey cover is really amazing when you consider it is from the album "Your Arsenal", which was the last album produced by Mick Ronson, one of the original Spiders from Mars, who died the same month this album was released. 

Essential Song(s): You've Been Around, Jump They Say, Pallas Athena, I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday


18. Reality (2003)

2000's/2010's Bowie has been incredible so far through 3 albums, and to say this is the weakest link isn't really an insult.  It's quite good actually, for the most part.  "New Killer Star" and "Days" are two of my favorite songs, and "Bring Me the Disco King" finally being released was amazing.  It does sadly lack the style of flare of some other releases and feels rushed at times, coming off as more of a collection of songs than a proper album.  

Essential Song(s): New Killer Star, The Loneliest Guy, Days, Bring Me the Disco King


17. Outside (1995)
A lot of people consider this Bowie's greatest 90's outing and it was hard for me to put it higher, but I've never been quite as fond of "Outside" as everyone else is.  That's not to say I don't enjoy it, I love that Bowie and Eno got back together to go for another try of the Berlin trilogy magic, but the extended narrations always take me out of the album.  The songs themselves though, for the most part, are some of the coolest experimentation Bowie had done since the 70's.  And don't let the popular Pet Shop Boys remix "Hallo Spaceboy" turn you away, it's an incredible song in its original form.

Essential Song(s): Hallo Spaceboy, The Hearts Filthy Lesson, Strangers When We Meet, We Prick You


16. David Bowie (1969) 

[AKA "Man of Words/Man of Music" and "Space Oddity"]

Most, including myself, consider this Bowie's real debut album (the 1967 one barely counts and sounds nothing like him).  "Space Oddity" is likely the only thing any casual Bowie fan has heard from this album (hence the 1972 rerelease with that as the title), and that song alone makes the whole album worth a listen.  But there are certainly some other great folk tunes on this one, including "Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud" and "Letter to Hermione".  Also, "Cygnet Committee" is great if you've got 10 minutes to kill listening to some experimental 60's folk.  

Essential Song(s): Space Oddity, Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud, Cygnet Committee


15. Earthling (1997)

David Bowie listened to a lot of industrial music and decided to make his own spin on it.  That will happen if you spend enough time touring around the country with Trent Reznor (their matching goatees in the "I'm Afraid of Americans" video is classic).  The thing is, Bowie actually does a great job of it.  I personally love the hard electronic sound he really masters for this one album, never to be touched again.  On top of that, from a songwriting standpoint, all the songs are quite well written, which makes it work even better.  This is the true highlight of 90's Bowie in my opinion.  

Essential Song(s): Little Wonder, Seven Years in Tibet, Dead Man Walking, Telling Lies, I'm Afraid of Americans


14. Let's Dance (1983)

Shockingly, this is Bowie's best selling album of all time.  A little hard to believe, yes, but he had just gotten out of his contract with RCA, so a new label was ready to promote, and in the beginning days of 80's dance pop, Bowie put out the classics "Modern Love" and "Let's Dance".  It doesn't always have the best reputation as it is a very pop oriented album, but dismissing it for that reason would be a mistake.  "Let's Dance" is a marvelous album start to finish.  Its follow up albums? Not so much.

Essential Song(s): Modern Love, China Girl, Let's Dance, Cat People (Putting Out Fire)


13. The Man Who Sold the World (1970)

This is an album of transition, and a damn good one at that.  After releasing a mediocre pop album and a good folk album, this is a much heavier album thanks to the addition of Mick Ronson on guitar.  It is both a good tribute to the style of "Space Oddity" and a good preview of what was to come on "Hunky Dory", while remaining its own unique sound throughout.  Plus, it contains one of Bowie's best songs in the title track (also check out Lulu's cover version produced by Bowie and Ronson). 

Essential Song(s): The Man Who Sold the World, The Width of a Circle, All the Madmen, She Shook Me Cold, Black Country Rock, The Supermen


12. Lodger (1979)

The last of Berlin trilogy and the most proper album of the three, in that none of the songs are instrumentals (as compared to the earlier two).  Honestly, this album is quite underrated and forgotten about due to its two perfect predecessors.  Even though it lacks the ambient instrumentals that defined the first two, it still maintains the great combination that is Bowie and Eno.  Its a proper sendoff to the greatest era in music history (if you don't believe me on that, you haven't heard "Low", "The Idiot" (Iggy), "'Heroes'", "Lust for Life" (Iggy) or "Lodger")

Essential Song(s): Fantastic Voyage, Yassassin, DJ, Boys Keep Swinging, Red Money 


11. Diamond Dogs (1974)

Another album that suffers in reputation simply because of its predecessors, this one is the end of the famous glam era.  It combines some really unique ideas, including stories of a dystopian city, similar to Orwell's 1984, and the sound that would become the Blue-Eyed Soul styling of "Young Americans".  From the title track, you know that this darker approach to glam is going to be interesting, and it certainly delivers.  This album sounds a lot more raw than previous ones, mostly because it is the first one where Bowie does all of the guitar himself.  "1984" and "Rebel Rebel" are both classics.

Essential Song(s): Rebel Rebel, Diamond Dogs, 1984, Rock 'n' Roll With Me, Sweet Thing


10. Heathen (2002)

"Nothing has changed/ Everything has changed".  The chorus to the opening track "Sunday" really describe why "Heathen" is such an important Bowie album.  Sure, there was some really good stuff in the 90's, but nothing on par with the sheer creativity of the 70's.  But then comes this album, which takes what Bowie had done so well during that time, combining outstanding songwriting with style and creativity that was always way ahead of what anyone else was doing.  For the first time in quite  a while, this album was original and fresh, just as the ones in the 70's felt.  Nothing has changed, he still has it.  But everything has changed, because Bowie is always changing and we're just along for the ride.  

Essential Song(s): Sunday, Slip Away, Slow Burn, Afraid, I've Been Waiting For You, , Everyone Says 'Hi', Heathen (The Rays)


9. The Next Day (2013)


After a ten year hiatus, Bowie drops his best album in decade out of the blue.  Worth the wait?  I would say so, since it seems we're entering a second creative renaissance.  "The Next Day" is, unlike most Bowie albums, really nothing fancy.  Its probably the most straightforward rock record he has ever released.  But the songs he wrote in those ten years are all such outstanding songs that you don't even notice, particularly the first 6 songs.  If you're David Bowie and you're going to have a comeback album, mights as well make it perfect.  

Essential Song(s): The Next Day, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), Love is Lost, Where Are We Now?, Valentine's Day, I'd Rather Be High, Boss of Me

8. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)

How do you follow up an amazing experimental trilogy?  By making your 80's masterpiece and the standard that all future albums will be held up to.  One would think that after leaving Berlin and abandoning the total experimental style of the previous three that Bowie would fall back on his laurels and make Ziggy 2, but he doesn't.  He makes something completely new that almost sounds like a melding of the previous 10 years.  You hear the electronic stylings on songs like "Fashion", and there is even a song about Major Tom ("Ashes to Ashes").  Another record that is great from the opening moments right to the end.

Essential Song(s): Up The Hill Backwards, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Ashes to Ashes, Fashion, It's No Game Pt. 2


7. Young Americans (1975)

"Young Americans" is an album that features a song written by a young Luther Vandross, a song co-written with John Lennon and Bowie becoming the epitome of Blue-Eyed Soul.  From the opening of "Young Americans" to the classic "Fame", you know that this is a brand new Bowie and its an amazing Bowie at that.  Philly Soul has never sound better than when David Bowie takes over, and I can guarantee it will peak your "Fascination".  

Essential Song(s): Young Americans, Fascination, Right, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Across The Universe, Fame


6. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

I honestly feel bad having "Ziggy Stardust" this low on the list, as it is considered the classic Bowie album, but I just couldn't justify moving it higher than any of the albums in my Top 5 (he just wrote too many masterpieces).  It, along with so many of these, is a perfect album start to finish, thanks to the rare combination of killer songwriting, unbelievable originality and style that nobody will ever be able to imitate.  This takes the amazing ideas that "Hunky Dory" started and expands upon them with the Ziggy character and concept.  From the brilliance of the opening track, "Five Years", right down to the heartbreaking ending that is "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide", Ziggy Stardust is everything you expect the quintessential Glam record to be.  Attempting to pick a favorite song is nearly impossible.

Essential Song(s): Five Years, Moonage Daydream, Starman, Lady Stardust, Hang On to Yourself, Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City, Rock 'n' Roll Suicide


5. "Heroes" (1977)

Part 2 of the infamous Berlin trilogy, which sports the most famous Bowie album cover, is known mostly for its title track.  Really, the whole album is a masterpiece and that just serves as a nice central tune.  Unlike "Low", which has one side primarily of songs and one side primarily of instrumentals, "'Heroes'" has them assorted throughout which flows surprisingly well.  This album contains more proper songs than its predecessor, which seemed like fragments all strung together, making it more accessible for first time listeners.  Just don't turn it off before "Secret Life of Arabia", one of the best lesser-known Bowie songs.  

Essential Song(s): Beauty and the Beast, Joe the Lion, "Heroes", Sons of the Silent Age, V-2 Schneider, Sense of Doubt, Secret Life of Arabia


4. Aladdin Sane (1973)

Ziggy Stardust comes to America is what this album was advertised to be, and really that is a great summary.  I am one of very few people who would likely put this album so high on the list, but there is a reason to love this album and that is the addition of Mike Garson's piano playing.  "Ziggy" is so well written and really furthered the Glam rock sound from "Hunky Dory", but "Aladdin Sane" perfects it with the addition of this incredible piano work, most evident on the songs "Lady Grinning Soul", "Time" and "Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)" (which interestingly enough, is named so as 1913 and 1938 were the years the first two World Wars began).  "Lady Grinning Soul" in particular is one of the great forgotten Bowie songs and deserves mention amongst the classics, as does the opening track, "Watch That Man", which may be the most glammed up rock anthem ever. 

Essential Song(s): Watch That Man, Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?), Drive-In Saturday, Time, The Prettiest Star, The Jean Genie, Lady Grinning Soul


3. Hunky Dory (1971)

It is up for debate what Bowie's best glam-era record could be, between this, "Ziggy Stardust" and "Aladdin Sane".  They all have similar musical elements, Bowie's same flare for theatrics, and exceptional songwriting.  That latter is what puts this one over the top and makes it the king of the Bowie glam-records.  This is mainly due to him still incorporating his earlier folk-rock elements into his newfound style to craft an in-between album as both a tribute to what he had done and an incredible preview as to what he would be doing.  "Changes" is the best pop tune ever written besides maybe "Life on Mars?" and you've already heard both of them before you even have to flip over the record. 

Essential Song(s): Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things, Life on Mars?, Quicksand, Andy Warhol, Song for Bob Dylan, Queen Bitch, The Bewlay Brothers


2. Station to Station (1976)

To me what makes this (almost) the greatest David Bowie album is how entirely unique it is in music history.  Sure, there are elements that were borrowed from "Young Americans" and elements later expanded upon in the Berlin trilogy, but overall, there is no other album in the world that sounds quite like the futuristic-disco-funk-R&B-soul-whateveryouwanttocallit of "Station to Station".  I've listened countless times and still am impressed with the unexpected transition in the middle of the title track.  Its almost as if Bowie took two or three of his best songs, combined them into one ten-minute epic and let the world sit back and attempt to comprehend his masterpiece.  That song alone would put it in the Top 10, but every other one on here, while less lengthy, are all nearly as impressive.  

Essential Song(s): (The Whole Album) Station to Station, Golden Years, Word on a Wing, TVC 15, Stay, Wild is the Wing


1. Low (1977)
Low is the most perfect album ever written, though it might be one of Bowie's hardest to access at first.  Side A of this record is filled with incredible short songs, such as "Breaking Glass", "Sound and Vision" and "Always Crashing in the Same Car" to name a few.  Most of these are so atypical in song structure that they seem to almost be fragments of songs. As the album develops, it is clear that Bowie's experimentation that began with "Station to Station" continues here with the help of Brian Eno and his vast array of synthesizers.  This experimentation comes full circle on Side B, which is nothing but ambient instrumental compositions (except for the occasional chant).  These beautiful compositions, "Warszawa" in particular, are hauntingly beautiful beyond compare.  I have always considered this a record that needs to be experienced on vinyl, because you have never felt such a stark change in sound and direction during the 15 seconds it takes to get up and flip the record.  It is the most unique album of an incredible career and something that will never be challenged or bested. 

Essential Song(s): (The Whole Album) Speed of Life, Breaking Glass, What in the World, Sound and Vision, Always Crashing in the Same Car, Be My Wife, A New Career in a New Town, Warszawa, Art Decade, Weeping Wall, Subterraneans

1 comment: