The Best of Bowie: 5 Essential Bowie Albums
**This article was written and published before we heard the sad news that David Bowie had passed away. You can read our staff's tributes to the great man here**
When 'Where Are We Now?’ the lead single from David Bowie’s last album, The Next Day, suddenly appeared without warning in January 2013 after a decade in which chameleonic artist seemed to have completely removed himself from public view, many had thought that we’d already seen the best of Bowie – perhaps even the last of the man who has variously been known as Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, or just plain old David Jones from Brixton.
It is, then, a testament to his enduring ability to create a sense of intrigue and wonder in the public consciousness that The Next Day should become his biggest-selling album since 1983’s Let’s Dance, all without giving one interview, one live performance or even a single public appearance of any kind to promote it. It also proved that Bowie’s influence on other artists had not diminished in his absence - since The Next Day’s release, several A-list artists from U2 to Beyoncé have tried to replicate the album’s ‘sneak attack’ approach, with varying degrees of success.
It was with slightly more advanced warning when the announcement came in October that his next album would be arriving on January 8th, coinciding with Bowie’s 69th birthday. This time around there had at least been rumours – some had speculated that his next release would be a soundtrack album to his musical, ‘Lazarus’, while others thought it would consist entirely of the music Bowie composed for Jack Thorne’s new crime drama, The Last Panthers. When the announcement finally came via Bowie’s website, it bemoaned the need to correct the “inaccurate reporting” around the album; while Blackstar’s title track does indeed serve as the opening theme for the series and the album does in fact contain a song named ‘Lazarus’, this is no soundtrack. This is a proper, full-on David Bowie studio album. And what an album it is; longtime friend and producer Tony Visconti has once again brought out the best of Bowie, and the results are incredible.
Another Essential Bowie Album
One of the most surprising aspects about The Next Day wasn’t just the fact that Bowie was suddenly back, but that in returning he’d delivered another essential Bowie album, considered by many to be his best in a long, long time. Blackstar continues that return to form, but this is a very different beast. Everything from the artwork to the lyrics on The Next Day indicated an artist in retrospective mood, looking back over his career and trying to distil the best of Bowie into one record that some described as a “straight up rock album.” For Blackstar, Tony Visconti says that the aim was to get “as far from rock & roll as possible”, revealing that they had been drawing inspiration from the likes of Kendrick Lamar.
For any long-term Bowie fans worrying that this might be his hip-hop album, it isn’t. Here Bowie is pushing the boundaries of everything that he is as an artist, while still retaining a sense of identity. For anyone familiar with Scott Walker’s recent output, Blackstar offers a similar tendency to meander from one style to the next, sometimes even within the same song (the title track being a case in point, restlessly shifting and shuffling its way through its hefty 10-minute running time).
With only seven tracks in total, Blackstar is a much more concise offering than The Next Day. Of these, fans will recognise ‘Sue (or In A Season of Crime)’, released as a single in 2015, and the title track. The rest you’ll be able to hear when the album arrives in stores today, but taken as a whole this is as challenging and brilliant an album as you’re likely to find anywhere this year, and one that sits comfortably alongside the best of Bowie's back catalogue.
You can find the incredible video for the ‘Blackstar’ single below, beneath that we’ve taken up the near-impossible task of picking five essential Bowie albums. It wasn’t easy, but if there was a fire at hmv towers tomorrow, these are the ones we’d go back in to rescue…
Up until the release of Hunky Dory, Bowie had a handful of hit singles to his name – the most notable being the title tracks to ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ – but this album represents an artist on the cusp of realising some of his untapped potential. Recorded with the musicians who would soon become known collectively as ‘The Spiders from Mars’, Hunky Dory was the last album Bowie release before adopting his Ziggy Stardust persona, and with songs like ‘Changes’. ‘Oh, You Pretty Things’, 'Life on Mars' and ‘Queen Bitch’, it still stands up as one of the best of Bowie's albums.
By the time Young Americans was released, Bowie had emerged from the Ziggy Stardust era of his career and was evidently becoming restless with the urge to reinvent himself - a trend that has been a hallmark of Bowie’s long career. Bowie had been living in New York, then Los Angeles, and his previous album, Diamond Dogs exhibited a fascination with the sleazy underbelly of American life. For Young Americans, his focus had shifted to funk, soul and gospel music, apparent on tracks like ‘Fame’, recorded with John Lennon at New York’s Electric Lady Studios. The recording sessions also produced the song ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, although it wasn’t included on the original version of the album, but the stylistic elasticity present on this album shows the best of Bowie, with his magpie-like ability to adopt and translate these influences into his own musical language.
Bowie’s career is of such a length that it needs to be talked about in ‘eras’, and Low definitely marked the beginning of a new one. Fed up with America, Bowie moved to Switzerland before eventually settling in Germany and hooking up with Roxy Music’s Brian Eno, with whom he would record the three albums that became known as the ‘Berlin Trilogy’. Low was the first of these and, fascinated by the city’s emerging ‘Krautrock’ scene and the electronic experimentation of bands like Kraftwerk, Bowie took a very different direction to his previous albums, one that not all of his fans were entirely enamoured with at the time. In retrospect it has proved one of his most vital and influential albums, particularly the largely instrumental second half, but it also includes the magnificent ‘Sound and Vision’, which is almost reason enough to include this album on our best of Bowie list.
After the release of the other two Berlin albums – ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’ – Bowie’s restlessness was once again beginning to show itself. Whether it was this alone or his record company’s pleading for a more radio-friendly album that prompted a change of direction, we’ll never know, but on ‘Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’ Bowie manages to find the perfect balance between the two, perfectly illustrated by the bafflingly brilliant ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and the searing, funk-laden ‘Fashion’. Some call it his last great album and many artists would have had a hard time topping ‘Scary Monsters’. But this is David Bowie…
It seems odd now, but at the beginning of the 1980s some in the music industry were beginning to suggest we’d already seen the best of Bowie and wondered if his time was up, even as he signed a record-breaking new deal and enlisted Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers as producer for his next record. They needn’t have worried – ‘Let’s Dance’ is still one of Bowie’s most commercially successful albums and with hits like ‘Modern Lovers’ and ‘China Girl’, not to mention the title track, it’s easy to see why. It would take some years for Bowie to recapture the balance between artistic integrity and sheer, unit-shifting commercial viability, but by then he was probably past caring about the latter, and looking back now at albums like The Next Day and Blackstar, who would blame him?
What’s Your Essential Bowie Album?
10 Facts You Didn’t Know About David Bowie
- David Bowie was born on 8 January 1947 and shares the same birthday as Elvis.
- He learnt how to play the saxophone when he was 12 years old.
- He released his debut album, the self-titled ‘David Bowie’, in 1967.
- Before his world tour in 1990, Bowie suggested that his fans should vote via phone which tracks he should play. ‘The Laughing Gnome’ was the most requested - He didn't play it.
- Bowie’s first UK hit ‘Space Oddity’ was used in the BBC’s coverage of the moon landing.
- Over his career Bowie has sold in the region of 140 million albums.
- In 2000, Bowie declined a CBE, as well as a knighthood in 2003.
- In 1996, Bowie opted for an internet-only release of his single ‘Telling Lies’, which would have taken more than 11 minutes to download through a dial-up connection.
- Bowie turned 69 in January 2016 and released ‘Blackstar’ his twenty-fifth studio album on the same day.
- His twenty-fourth studio album 'The Next Day' was created without even his PR team knowing about it, after Bowie planned to keep it a secret.