March Through Time: David Bowie

This month, I’m hitting pause on coverage of new artists and releases, focusing instead for a bit on the bodies of work from some of my favorite artists. — bk

David Bowie was easily among the most important music artists of the 20th century. His influence extended far beyond music, into fashion and other media. Like many of his longtime fans, I followed his constantly shifting approach to music with great interest. And like many, I lost interest in the mid 1980s, when (in my view) his output suddenly took a cynical turn toward the ordinary, dull and uninteresting. He certainly rallied again in later years, but after a break of a few decades, I must admit to not having followed those later releases. That said, we’ll always have his prime-era work. Here’s my rundown.

  • David Bowie (1967) – An embryonic artist still searching for his own style. For completists and/or fans of Anthony Newley, really. A curio.

  • Space Oddity (1969) – A great leap forward. Hints of a folk vibe remain, but here Bowie asserts himself as an artist.

  • The Man Who Sold the World (1970) – Perhaps less “commercial” than its predecessor, but in many ways even better. “Black Country Rock” is a stunner, as is the title track (re-popularized decades later by a perhaps-too-faithful cover by Nirvana).

  • Hunky Dory (1971) – Here, Bowie reconciles his shape-shfting persona with his early music hall tendencies, creating an album like no other. Like most all of these records, a must-have.

  • The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) – If you can only pick a few Bowie LPs to own, Ziggy should be at the top of the list. Not a concept album, but it feels like one. And that would be true of many to follow.

  • Aladdin Sane (1973) – My personal favorite. The gonzo piano solo on the title track is some seriously boundary-pushing stuff. The best sounding Bowie album to this point, too.

  • Pin Ups (1973) – Everybody did a covers album around this time, it seems. But Bowie’s is among the best. This LP tells us a lot about his influences, and yet he makes the songs his own.

  • Diamond Dogs (1974) – Not the 1984 concept album he originally intended, but a superbly dark release nonetheless. In many ways, this pairs nicely with Pink Floyd’s Animals from just a few years later.

  • David Live (1974) – While Bowie was a superb live performer, this audio document feels a bit thin. A worthwhile souvenir from the period when every major artist had to release a live set (thanks, Peter Frampton).

  • Young Americans (1975) – Perhaps Bowie’s most jarring stylistic change to this point, it checks the boxes of being commercially accessible and artistically uncompromising. A triumph. With John Lennon and Luther Vandross!

  • Station to Station (1976) – An imposing record, and not for the Bowie novitiate. But easily among his best. Ambitious and arty.

  • Low (1977) – The beginning of his Berlin period, Low is a strange, forbidding and difficult album. It’s also wildly uncommercial. And it’s also quite good.

  • Heroes” (1977) – Every bit as (that word again) uncompromising as Low, this record is somehow more approachable. Lots of instrumentals, which seemed weird to longtime fans. The heart-rending title track is worth the price of admission.

  • Stage (1978) – Less well-known than the first live album, Stage is infinitely better. A world-class band helps, delivering live readings of songs from throughout Bowie’s now deep catalog. They nail the new material as handily as they do the classics.

  • Lodger (1979) – Those who loved the comparatively mainstream output of early ‘70s Bowie might not have known what to make of this one. But with the benefit of hindsight, “DJ” and “Boys Keep Swinging” pointed the way toward the immediate future.

  • Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980) – A triumph, once again balancing Bowie’s iconoclastic inclinations with his instincts for making accessible music. A desert island LP, but be warned that it, too, is weird and demands much of the listener.

  • Let’s Dance (1983) – Bowie’s commercial apex. I must go against the grain on this one; I don’t think Let’s Dance has worn well. It’s too trendy by half, and feels of a piece with albums by Stevie Nicks and Tina Turner.

  • Tonight (1984) – I took a strong and immediate dislike to this record on its release, and 35+ years haven’t changed my opinion. Easily the worst entry up to this point in the Bowie catalog.

  • Never Let Me Down (1987) – Perhaps the title is a joke, because this one was a total letdown, worse even than its predecessor.

I’m sorry to end on such a sour note. I did/do like Tin Machine (even the live album!) and Bowie did have plenty of good work left in him.