After releasing a since disowned self-titled first album for the Deram label that's best remembered for its overt Anthony Newley influence, David Bowie released this charmingly dated period piece, which is a far cry from his best work but which is enjoyable nevertheless. Don't get me wrong, it's very dated sounding, and certainly "psychedelic folk" isn't what anybody remembers him for, but that's the best way to describe much of this album. Aside from the boring love ballad "Letter To Hermoine" and the pointless 40 second filler "Don't Sit Down," I like every other song here, though it took awhile for "An Occasional Dream," an airy ballad with fluttering flute, and "God Knows I'm Good," a nice if simplistic acoustic ditty, to grow on me. Elsewhere, the 6+ minute, harmonica-heavy "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed" has a raucous, raggedy quality reminiscent of vintage '60s Dylan only more groove-based and less lyrically sophisticated, and the even longer 9+ minute, dirge-like "Cygnet Committee," though not always convincing, has some nice buildups and agreeably passionate (reedy) vocals from Bowie. "Janine" is an appealingly catchy and melodic pop song with some good guitar, while "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud" is an ornate, overblown but enjoyable orchestral ballad. Last but not least, "Memory Of A Free Festival" takes awhile to get going but once it adopts a gospel-like "Hey Jude" sort of vibe, count me in, as it has an anthemic quality that's hard not to sing along to. The superior single version (the first true glam rock song?), on which Mick Ronson is unleashed on guitar, was recorded as a standalone single a year later; you can get thisversion on the Rykodisc reissue along with "Conversation Piece," a pretty country-ish number. Oh, I almost forgot the title track, which is only probably Bowie's most famous song ever, and his first successful single (successful enough that this album was retitled from David Bowie (again) to Space Oddity after its success). Produced by Gus Dudgeon whereas the rest of the album was helmed by Tony Visconti, this haunting story song is simply an all-time classic, with its memorable lyrics about poor old Major Tom being lost in space, matched to an echoed orchestral sound (Rick Wakeman helping out on Mellotron) that perfectly evokes the vastness of space, with Bowie's dramatic vocal supplying the icing on the cake. Simply superlative, and the song not only spawned Bowie's own classic sequel many years later "Ashes To Ashes" but also clearly inspired Elton John's equally classic "Rocket Man" (also produced by Dudgeon) and (less importantly) Peter Schilling's campy, fun Euro-disco hit "Major Tom (Coming Home)." Anyway, back to this album, Space Oddity is a bit inconsistent and a lot overblown, and it certainly brings me to the hippy-ish late '60s while I'm listening to it, but hey I generally like music that brings me to the hippy-ish late '60s (probably my favorite era of music actually), and overall I consider this album to be an enjoyably minor footnote within a major career (title track aside which is clearly among his career highlights).
The Man Who Sold The World (Mercury ’70, Rykodisc ’90) Rating: A
Though the history books seem to rarely regard it as such, this was David Bowie’s first great record. This album also introduced his most fondly remembered backing band (the Spiders From Mars), whose prime contributions here are the strangely psychedelic Moog decorations of Ralph Mace and the flashy guitar wizardry of Mick Ronson, a legit guitar hero. In fact, this artsy hard rock album is almost as much Ronson’s as Bowie’s, since his heavy riffs and solos dominate several songs, including the excellent, epic album opener “The Width Of A Circle,” which is atmospheric, rocking, and memorable, both musically and lyrically ("then I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree, and I looked and frowned and the monster was me"). Ronson also shines on the straightforward, funky riff rock of “Black Country Rock” and the metallic “She Shook Me Cold,” whose heft could compete with the likes of Cream, Led Zeppelin, and even Black Sabbath (drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey absolutely terrorizes his drum kit here). Indeed, although rarely mentioned as such, this album is an early hard rock touchstone, as well as Bowie's heaviest album ever. Other personal favorites include the catchy title track (later popularized by Nirvana) and spacey mid-tempo numbers like the hauntingly emotional, brilliantly dramatic “All The Madmen” (about Bowie's schizophrenic step-brother Terry), the inutterably strange, impossible to describe, but strangely effective “After All,” and “The Supermen” (also quite strange but more epic and like "After All" influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and enhanced by high-pitched backing vocals). There are definitely some weird ones here, not the least because of Bowie’s oddly affecting (high-pitched, cracked, and extremely British) vocals, the gothic overtones and claustrophobic intensity of the darkly atmospheric music, and some chillingly violent (the tuneful anti-Vietnam “Running Gun Blues”) and science fiction-based (the synth-embellished “Savior Machine”) imagery. The otherworldly effects and glammy trappings (he and Marc Bolan must’ve shared some notes in addition to producer Tony Visconti, who also plays bass here) makes the album sound dated at times, while themes of rampant madness and paranoia also won’t appeal to everybody. However, this is the album where Bowie first found his own voice, and the vast majority of it remains riveting over 40 years later. Note: This is the album with the infamous cover featuring Bowie wearing a dress, though the original U.S. version replaced it with a much different cartoon drawing; the Rykodisc reissue reinstated the dress cover.
Hunky Dory (RCA ’71, Rykodisc ’90) Rating: A
An album in the eclectic singer-songwriter tradition, Hunky Dory is probably best remembered for the outstanding Beatles-esque piano ballad “Changes,” which wasn't an actual hit at the time but which has become a firm radio favorite over the years. “Oh! You Pretty Things” is likewise a catchy, theatrical piece of Beatles-esque piano pop rock that’s first class all the way (Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits actually had a hit with it before Bowie's version), while Mick Ronson’s melodic guitar then graces the modestly unremarkable “Eight Line Poem,” a harmless interlude that's exactly what it claims to be. Bowie’s emotional vocals makes the soaring, dramatic orchestral ballad “Life On Mars?” unforgettable (a strong case could be made that this is Bowie's greatest song ever), while a catchy shuffle groove and some sweet vocals lifts “Kooks,” a charming nursery rhyme-like number about Bowie’s son and the album’s most light-hearted and optimistic track along with “Fill Your Hearts,” the album’s lone cover song (Biff Rose who wrote it with Paul Williams). “Quicksand” is a strong Kinksy piano/acoustic guitar/strings-led song that’s very British, a trait that’s shared by the powerful finale “The Bewlay Brothers,” which also features one of Bowie’s most personal lyrics (again about Terry). I've heard both of these big, dramatic ballads be described as "overwrought," and the latter track in particular gets a bit strange at times, but I've grown to greatly appreciate both of these songs over the years, with the caveat being that they're grower tracks as opposed to say "Changes" and "Life On Mars?" whose brilliance is immediately apparent. Anyway, elsewhere Bowie pays tribute to “Andy Warhol” with some vigorously strummed acoustic guitars and an annoying if catchy chorus, Bob Dylan (“Song For Bob Dylan,” which is memorable for its sad guitars and boisterous “here she comes” chorus), and the The Velvet Underground (“Queen Bitch,” a riff-driven rocker that glam-ily tackles another private obsession (drag queens) and is the album's only overt rocker, a far cry from the hard rock of The Man Who Sold The World). Mick Ronson supplies some nice guitar, Mellotron, and string arrangements throughout, but his place of prominence is shared by piano wizard Rick Wakeman (later of Yes fame). After all, for all of Bowie’s undeniable individual talent (in addition to singing he plays guitar, alto and tenor sax, and piano here), his best work has generally featured at least one inspired co-collaborator, and here he has two supreme sidemen firing on all cylinders. It should also be noted that new bassist Trevor Bolder rounded out the Spiders From Mars lineup here, and that Tony Scott capably replaced Tony Visconti in the producer's chair. Also, while some might complain about Bowie's at times over the top vocal affectations, personally I find his early vocal style, when he had that reedy, keening, high-pitched voice and a melodramatic sense of theatricality, to be my favorite. Most importantly, Hunky Dory, which has charted high on several U.K. “best albums of all-time” lists, has consistently strong and several superlative songs, making it another absolutely essential early ‘70s David Bowie album. Note: The four bonus tracks on the Rykodisc reissue are worthwhile as well, in particular the catchy non-album track "Bombers."
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (RCA ’72, Rykodisc ’90) Rating: A+
Returning to a harder edged rock sound, this futuristic concept album about an androgynous alien rock star was the ultimate glam rock album, as well as an incisive critique of pop stardom. It was also the album that broke Bowie big, at least in the U.K (it took him a bit longer to break through in the U.S.). After all, the glittery stage persona of the flaming haired Ziggy Stardust made for great theater - remember the confusion caused when Bowie “retired” Ziggy? - and, more importantly, this album contains some truly great rock songs. Included among those are the unforgettable riffs and strange yet catchy chorus of the title track, and the relentlessly surging rock drive and hilarious lyrics of “Suffragette City,” the album’s two most famous songs, at least in the U.S. where both still make the regular rounds on classic rock radio. In addition, the hard rocking “Moonage Daydream” features some killer Mick Ronson guitar and otherworldly atmospherics, while the wide-eyed wonder of “Starman” (a U.K. top 10 hit) is a wonderfully catchy, evocative, and dramatic space ballad a la “Life On Mars?” Also notable are the lushly orchestrated chants of album opener “Five Years,” which brilliantly harks towards Armageddon and which features one of Bowie’s best vocals ever, the lovely, melancholic piano ballad “Lady Stardust” (the “lady” in question being glam friend/rival Marc Bolan; all together now: "he was alright..."), the slinky groover “Hang On To Yourself” (which always makes me wanna move), and “Rock 'n' Roll Suicide,” the dramatic, theatrical finale which ends the album as perfectly as "Five Years" had started it. Even the lesser tracks, such as "Soul Love," with its overly accented soulful pop vocals, and the upbeat if comparatively generic rocker "Star," are enjoyable if not quite as necessary, as is the Ron Davies cover "It Ain't Easy;" I know that I always sing along to its big chorus in any event. Sure, there are some dated elements to the album's early '70s sound, but Ronson’s razor-sharp guitar playing and Bowie’s passionate if reedy vocals ensure that this sci-fi extravaganza delivers a one-of-a-kind experience. Hell, even the evocative album cover is legendary, and all these years later Ziggy Stardust remains both Bowie’s most beloved and flat-out best album. Note: The overtly gay single “John I’m Only Dancing” (another big U.K. hit that wasn't released in the U.S. until many years later due to its risqué lyrics) and “Velvet Goldmine” (later the title of a major motion picture about the good old glam days) are essential bonus tracks on the reissue. Note #2: During this time Bowie also made major contributions to the careers of Lou Reed and Mott The Hoople, producing Transformer and All The Young Dudes, respectively. Bowie also wrote the classic “All The Young Dudes” for Mott, only one of my favorite songs ever, with a truly great vocal from Ian Hunter.
Aladdin Sane (RCA ’73, Rykodisc ’90) Rating: A
A gloriously trashy romp that closed the curtain on Bowie’s glam rock period, the underrated Aladdin Sane was Bowie’s last major album with Ronson, whose edgy guitar playing played a prominent role in making Bowie’s glam era so great. Fortunately, Mick didn’t go quietly into the night, as his raging guitar runs highlight the rollicking Stonesy rocker “Watch That Man,” the manic, rhythmic, riff-driven hard rock of “Panic In Detroit,” the also-manic high-octane sleaze-rocker “Cracked Actor,” and the stomping funk of “The Jean Genie,” the album’s lone hit single. Also memorable is the subdued melodicism of the title track, which featured sparkling piano work by new recruit Mike Garson, whose jazzy, experimental playing also dominates the lush, lovely “Lady Grinning Soul.” Elsewhere, “Drive-In Saturday” and “The Prettiest Star” both add dashes of '50s doo-wop and sax to soulful, catchy, and campy mid-tempo melodies, while the cabaret-influenced “Time” (on which Garson also stars) is the album’s big (some would say overwrought but I'd beg to differ) ballad, with one of Bowie's best vocals ever, as well as excellent backing vocals, which are skillfully employed throughout the album. And Bowie had so much fun supping up the Stones’ “Let’s Spend The Night Together” with glam guitar, futuristic synths, and boogie piano that he then decided to do a whole album's worth of cover tunes called Pin Ups (a la Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things). Aladdin Sane was written during “Ziggy’s” zany U.S. tour (it's been described by Bowie as "Ziggy goes to America") and though it lacked the conceptual unity and epic sense of grandeur of Ziggy, it nevertheless was a filler-free, hard-hitting platter that was primarily comprised of excellent songs. It may be overshadowed by Ziggy and to a lesser extent Hunky Dory, but Aladdin Sane was another great album, one of Bowie’s very best in fact. Note: This was the year that Bowie also resurrected the Raw Power of Iggy and the Stooges, though his production work for their album would be found wanting by nearly everyone.
Live Santa Monica '72 (EMI '08) Rating: A-
This much bootlegged live album featuring Bowie and the Spiders (also including Garson) was taken from an FM radio broadcast of a show recorded at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on October 20, 1972. And an exciting live showcase it is, featuring Bowie's best, most beloved backing band tearing through the cream of his glam era catalog ("Starman" being a notable omission) while also throwing in "Space Oddity" and a couple of covers (Jacques Brel's "My Death" and The Velvet Underground's "Waiting For The Man"). The album isn't perfect, as the sound quality is a bit rough around the edges, Bowie's attempts at engaging with the audience are often awkward, and some of the ballads fall a bit flat. What makes this a really good live album despite its flaws is the exciting, hard-hitting rockers, on which Mick Ronson again reminds us why he was such great guitarist, as well as one of the all-time sidemen (his backing vocals are often excellent as well). Among the early highlights are the raging, grungey opener "Hang On To Yourself," as well as a fittingly epic "Ziggy Stardust." After a mellower, less enticing stretch in the middle of the album comes the album's centerpiece song in the 10+ minute "The Width Of A Circle," again more of a Ronson showcase than Bowie, before the band hits the listener with a barrage of hard-hitting highlights: "Queen Bitch," "Moonage Daydream," "John, I'm Only Dancing," "The Jean Genie," "Suffragette City." Included within this batch is "Waiting For The Man," on which Bowie does a good Lou Reed impersonation while Ronson unleashes his inner rock 'n' roll animal. As for the mellower tracks, most of them are pretty good as well, they just fail to measure up to the studio versions and as such I tend to skip them, preferring to use this album for rocking out above all else. Bowie would rarely if ever rock so hard again, and I prefer this album to the other official live release from this era, the also-good Ziggy Stardust - The Motion Picture. To put it simply, Live Santa Monica '72 is the best live album from Bowie's best backing band.
Pin Ups (RCA ’73, Rykodisc ‘90) Rating: C+
I tend to make believe that Aladdin Sane was Bowie's last real album with the Spiders (hence my prior “closed the curtain on Bowie’s glam rock period” comment), because this weak, half-baked album of cover songs was no way for such a great band to go out (p.s. the talented if well-travelled Aynsley Dunbar replaced Woodmansey on drums here). It may have sold well, going all the way to #1 in the U.K., but the majority of these British songs originally recorded between 1964-67 are vastly inferior to the originals, sometimes laughably so as Bowie's vocals are often ill-fitting for the material. Also, too many of these songs are too well-known; I'd prefer such an endeavor to shine a light on lesser known bands and songs. By and large the best songs here, the ones that do actually work, are raw, grungey, garage-y performances of lesser known songs such as "Roslyn" and "Don't Bring Me Down" (both by The Pretty Things), "I Wish You Would" (The Yardbirds and probably my favorite hard rocking song here), "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" (The Who), and "Where Have All The Good Times Gone" (The Kinks). Alas, other songs such as Them's "Here Comes The Night," Pink Floyd's "See Emily Play," The Who's "I Can't Explain," The Easybeats' "Friday On My Mind," and The Yardbirds’ “Shapes Of Things” completely miss the mark. Fortunately, the catchy, rollicking "Everything's Alright" (The Mojos), featuring Bowie's Elvis-like delivery, and the #3 U.K. hit "Sorrow" (The Merseys), a classy soft soul ballad with sweeping string arrangements and an effective, controlled vocal from Bowie, are much better. I don't have much more to say about this mostly underwhelming album, which is only recommended to Bowie fanatics; the quality of the original songs may confirm Bowie's good taste, but Pin Ups also shows that some things are best left alone.
Diamond Dogs (RCA ’74, Rykodisc ‘90) Rating: B+
After Pin Ups Bowie had planned to create a musical based on George Orwell’s novel 1984. However, when Orwell’s widow refused to grant him the rights, Bowie instead created the horrific post-apocalyptic Hunger City, a place where “fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats.” Sans Mick Ronson and the Spiders (though Mike Garson is back in impressive form), this is less of a guitar driven album, on which Bowie admirably handles most of the lead guitar duties himself. As such, Diamond Dogs was a transitional album on which Bowie attempted to move beyond glam rock. Given a mixed reception by critics but a sleeper favorite of many hardcore Bowie fans, I’ve grown to quite like this unique creation, which begins in earnest with the rollicking title track, a strong if over-long opener that continues the Rolling Stones/r&b debt that was so evident on Aladdin Sane. Bowie’s emotive vocals then enhance the dramatic, soulful, experimental, and at times rocking “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” suite that forms the heart of the album, and its edgy ending segues perfectly into “Rebel Rebel,” a great straight up rocker that became the hit single that helped make this Bowie’s first top 10 album in the United States. Next comes the campy (and cheesy) sing along “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me,” before the Orwellian nightmare begins in earnest on the gothic “We Are The Dead,” a sinister, atmospheric song about a pair of doomed lovers a la Winston Smith and Julia. Finally, the catchy "1984" sees Bowie going into an entirely new disco direction that owes as much to Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes as to George Orwell, before “Big Brother/Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” ends the album with Bowie under the spell of Big Brother, a fitting ending to a fine, underrated album. On the whole, individual songs may fail to stand out, and the musical backing can be strangely anonymous, but this album creates a uniquely paranoid, decadent, darkly atmospheric world that listeners can easily get lost within, and the album adds up to more than the sum of its interesting if only occasionally truly inspired individual parts; I already mentioned the segue into "Rebel Rebel," but the lead-in from "Big Brother" into "Chant Of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family" is another great moment that one easily remembers. Again secret weapon Garson shines throughout the album, much like he had on Aladdin Sane, but so does Bowie on sax, guitar, synths, and of course vocals (less reedy and more soul-based than previously), and old friend Tony Visconti is also back in the fold mixing the album (Bowie self-produced). The end result, though flawed, is a memorably bleak yet theatrical release, though I can't help but feel that it would've been better had Mick Ronson and the rest of the Spiders returned for one more go 'round. Note: Though "Chant Of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family" is where the album should end, conceptually speaking, the Rykodisc reissue continues with the minor (if catchy) “Dodo” and a radically different version of “Candidate” that arguably trumps the original.
Young Americans (RCA ’75, Rykodisc ‘91) Rating: B
Never one to be pinned down to any one style, this major detour saw Bowie entering into his self-described “plastic soul” period. No, this wasn’t the sweaty soul produced by the likes of Otis Redding or Sam and Dave, as Bowie instead emulated the slick, lite soul sounds coming out of the Philadelphia International (The O’Jays, The Stylistics, etc.) and disco camps. True, Bowie isn’t a traditional soul singer by any means, and from a songwriting standpoint this album is pretty hit-and-miss, but at its best Young Americans is an assured and enjoyable collection that showed off the man’s mastery at assimilating and inhibiting (however temporarily) different styles. In particular, the ultra-catchy title track and the funky #1 hit “Fame” (co-written with John Lennon) were classic singles that are the album’s enduring high points. But that’s not all, as “Win” uses a lovely guitar, piano, and sax led groove and sexy female backing vocals to effortlessly entice, while the hot percolating dance groove of “Fascination” (a collaboration with a young, then unknown Luther Vandross that also prominently features sax and female backing vocalists, as do most of these songs) and the soulful, lightly funky “Right” also hit the right pleasure points, even if they’re more modestly enjoyable. Elsewhere, lesser efforts include “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” which exhibits only average songwriting and lingers too long but has some superb sax playing from David Sanborn, a forgettable and unnecessary cover of The Beatles “Across The Universe” that like “Fame” also features Lennon, and the boringly crooned “Can You Hear Me,” whose lush musical canvas could use a dash of energy and conviction. True, Carlos Alomar’s supple guitar playing, lots of wailing saxophone, and more sexy female backing vocals help boost Bowie’s cause here, but when the raw hard funk of “Fame” comes next with its strutting riffs and memorably cynical lyrics, it’s painfully obvious just how flaccid the former song is by comparison. As for “Young Americans,” it’s my father’s favorite Bowie song and an absolute triumph of blue-eyed soul craftsmanship, from its hooky Sanborn sax intro, singable female backing chants, Bowie’s own expertly crooned vocals (deeper and less melodramatic than in the past), and of course choice bits (like the Beatles lyrical lift and the “ain’t no one damn song…” breakdown) that are pure fun. On the whole, this Tony Visconti-produced album (aside from “Fame” and “Across The Universe”) would prove highly influential on the later likes of Simply Red, Spandau Ballet, and so on, and though many of his fans denounced this new direction as a calculated attempt to crash the U.S. charts (hey it worked), I find it to be a mostly pleasurable period piece, an interesting anomaly. Note: The reissue includes two soulful ballads (“Who Can I Be Now?,” “It’s Gonna Be Me”) that are perfectly in line with, and arguably superior to, much of the material that made it onto the original album (especially “Who Can I Be Now?” with more spectacular sax work and easily singable female-enhanced backing vocals). Also included is "John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)," a funkier extended discofied re-recording of his 1972 track "John, I’m Only Dancing." Note #2: This album is also notable in that it began his long association with rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar, who shines throughout the album and who would go on to play on more David Bowie albums than any other sideman.
Station To Station (RCA ’76, Rykodisc ’91) Rating: A+
After his most commercially successful and American album, Bowie shifted gears by adopting a more European-based sound that built on Young Americans’ you gotta move momentum, while also adding layers of chilly effects and a coolly detached aura to some great grooves. As Lester Bangs said about the album: “it has a wail and a throb that won’t let up and rolls roughshod over the words.” And though he said that in part to make a point about how awful a lyricist he thought Bowie was (“TVC 15” is about a carnivorous TV who ate his girlfriend!), the criticism is more useful as an accurate account of the album’s undeniable musical momentum. The ambitious 10-minute title track starts things off slowly, with harsh synthesizers, bright hooky keyboards, and hard rock riffs. These seemingly contrasting elements somehow mesh together into a broodingly atmospheric whole, but the song surprisingly changes completely halfway through into an excellent, surprisingly catchy (and far more upbeat) dance track that’s capped off by some great Earl Slick guitar soloing. After this song’s fabulous success, Bowie then takes the listener into “Golden Years,” a big transatlantic hit that exudes a detached cool and sports an easygoing, eminently danceable funk pop groove. Later on, the lightly funky “TVC15,” which is probably the album’s second best known song, is also enjoyably groove-based and danceable if not quite as substantial as the surrounding tracks. Far weightier are deeper album cuts like “Word On A Wing,” a hymn-like ballad on which Bowie brings forth a smooth and passionate vocal delivery that he likely would’ve been incapable of but a few years before, and “Wild Is The Wind” (a cover song originally done by Johnny Matthis!), another beautifully spiritual ballad that sees an intense Bowie singing quite wonderfully and (seemingly) most sincerely. “Stay” is even better, being a supreme guitar showcase that stays in a white hot funk groove for 6-minutes and shows off his great backing band, in particular funky rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar and slick guitar soloist Earl Slick (pun intended); the rest of the band was comprised of drummer Dennis Davis, bassist George Murray, E. Streeter Roy Bittan taking over for Garson on piano, and of course the “Thin White Duke” (Bowie’s new alias) himself on various instruments and vocals. Comprised of a mere six mostly exceptional songs, all but one exceeding five minutes and most exceeding six, Station To Station is probably Bowie’s most guitar-centric post Mick Ronson release, and it pulls off the difficult task of being both extremely adventurous and radio friendly. In some ways, this is a “post-punk” album before punk even happened, and though it was recorded during a period of personal turmoil and deep drug dependency, you’d never know it by the superb end result, which many fans and critics still regard as his best work; Bowie then headed off to Berlin for a famous trio of albums with Brian Eno.
Low (RCA ’77, Rykodisc '91) Rating: A
This shockingly experimental album confirmed Bowie’s status as a serious avant garde (a.k.a. “alternative”) artist, and it was certainly a far more effective retreat from the demands of stardom than, say, Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait or Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. In fact, though it didn’t sell well, Low is an immensely influential, highly respected classic that (along with Kraftwerk who certainly were an influence on this album) paved the way for the future prominence of electronic music, in particular the synthesizer. The first installment of his renowned “Berlin trilogy” in collaboration with producer/auteur/musician Brian Eno, Low plays like 2 EPs. The first seven songs are comprised of short, catchy (though hardly commercial in the conventional sense) pop rock songs that were pieced together via fragmentary cut and paste techniques but which still work surprisingly well together. By and large these songs are anchored by insistent guitar riffs (this is a great riff record) and darkly angular yet accessible synthesizer grooves that are best exemplified by the undeniably catchy and melodic “Sound And Vision,” one of Bowie’s best songs ever. In addition, great guitar (by Carlos Alomar and Ricky Gardiner) throughout helps make Mick Ronson a fond but distant memory; has any solo artist gotten more great guitar performances than Bowie? It's hard for me to single out other "side 1" highlights because I like all of them, from the excellent instrumentals ("Speed Of Life," "A New Career In A New Town") that bookend the five vocal tracks, and including said vocal tracks. I mean, I love the riffs and hooky synth swooshes on "Breaking Glass" and only wish that the song was longer (1:53), the frantic "What In The World" is less memorable but is still quite good and oddly catchy, the more atmospheric "Always Crashing In The Same Car" is appealingly Pink Floyd-like, the dramatic "Be My Wife" is more conventional but still edgy and has more great riffs, and "A New Career In A New Town" has yet more catchy riffs with treated synths only it adds hooky harmonica interjections to the equation. Vocally, Bowie's detached, emotionless singing is as different from his glam heyday as is the experimental electronic music, but where Eno’s presence is really felt is on the album’s entirely different, mood-based second half, which features four coldly beautiful but subtly powerful instrumentals. The gorgeous yet vast and chilly “Warszawa,” which attempts to evoke images of the Polish countryside, actually features striking, wordless vocals but these act almost as another instrument. The last three songs, the best of which is “Subterraneans” (mostly because I'm a sucker for some sax), attempt to evoke images of Berlin and are best listened to intently, together. Taken together, these four songs are a far cry from the admittedly more immediate first half, which I prefer, yet they’re also quite fascinating in their own foreign ways. Many future bands would seek to emulate both musical styles, while Bowie’s anti-commercial stance in following his muse and pursuing a totally new musical direction was equally important in the evolution of alternative rock. Note: The reissue bonus tracks, “Some Are” and “All Saints,” fit right in with the otherworldly overall mood of the album’s second side; there’s also a far inferior version of “Sound And Vision.” Note #2: During this time Bowie also simultaneously resurrected (again) the career of Iggy Pop by collaborating with him on his first two solo albums. Note #3: Pitchfork selected Low as the best album of the 1970s.
"Heroes" (RCA ’77, Rykodisc ’91) Rating: A-
This was the incredibly prolific Bowie’s second album of 1977, and his fourth if you count the two albums he produced for Iggy Pop, since he also co-wrote and played on most of the songs on The Idiot and Lust For Life. Recorded with most of the same musicians (though the great Robert Fripp replaces Ricky Gardiner on lead guitar) and again produced by Tony Visconti, "Heroes" follows a similar blueprint to Low but isn’t as groundbreaking or as great, making it something of an inferior sequel. Still, it’s yet another really good, easily recommendable David Bowie album, even if it’s less hook-filled and less easily graspable than its superior predecessor. Again dividing the album into vocal and instrumental tracks only this time sticking an ill-fitting vocal track at the end, "Heroes" features longer songs and is definitely an album that you need to live with for a while in order to fully appreciate. The more song oriented first side begins with “Beauty And The Beast,” which delivers angular, discordant funk with female backing vocals (a la Young Americans), and “Joe The Lion” continues with a lively dissonant track with some good guitar; both are songs that I didn’t like at first but which I’ve significantly warmed up to with repeat plays. Of course, this album is essential for the dreamy title track alone, as the markedly inferior edited single version on his “greatest hits” collections simply don’t do it justice. The greatest David Bowie song and I’d argue one of the greatest songs ever, period, “Heroes” features his best vocal performance by far, inspiring lyrics (“we could be heroes, just for one day”), and Robert Fripp’s insistent, gliding guitar melody. Romantic, timeless, tragic, heroic, epic, majestic; these are just some adjectives that can be used to describe this remarkable song. The other highlight from the first side (aside from Fripp’s consistently stellar guitar playing) is “Sons Of The Silent Age,” an evocative, spacey sax-led ballad with another dramatic lead vocal. The next song, “Blackout,” has never really clicked for me, but like Low before it, most of the album’s second side is comprised of (mostly) instrumental Eno-ized soundscapes that are interesting (if not quite as interesting as the ones on Low) but which function best as background music. “V-2 Schneider,” my favorite of these, is an oddly hooky synths-and-sax-led effort whose vocals in the background work almost like another instrument, before the alternately soothing and ominous “Sense Of Doubt” segues into the lovely, Japanese-influenced (that’s not an acoustic guitar but a koto you’re hearing) “Moss Garden.” The foreboding mood then returns on the not particularly pleasant “Neuköln” (particularly its atonal sax interjections) before the album surprisingly ends with the rhythmic, danceable, comparatively conventional if still synth-drenched vocal track “The Secret Life of Arabia,” another song I found irritating at first that I've grown to quite like. Note: The Rykodisc reissue includes “Abdulmajid,” another haunting ambient groove that really fits the album’s mood, plus an unnecessary remix of “Joe The Lion.”
Stage (RCA ’78, EMI/Virgin ’05) Rating: B+
Bowie’s second official live album released in the ‘70s is an improvement on the first (1974’s David Live), even though most involved with it consider it a disappointment. Having not attended any of the supposedly excellent shows that this allegedly fails to properly capture, I don’t have any such reservations about this album, and as such I can readily enjoy it even though I acknowledge that it’s geared for the hardcore Bowie fan. The version of Stage that I’m reviewing is the 2005 reissue, which is the best version because it sequences the songs in the order that they were actually performed (the original stupidly ordered them chronologically) and it includes three “bonus tracks” including a version of “Stay” that may well be the best song on the whole album. The main criticisms of the album are that it actually sounds “too good,” meaning that it lacks the ambiance and excitement of a true live performance, plus most of the songs don’t sound that different from the studio versions which are generally superior, and the song selection is too reliant on too few albums, primarily Low, “Heroes”, Ziggy Stardust, and Station To Station. Still, though I too would’ve preferred a more career encompassing retrospective, Bowie is in fine voice throughout, and it’s impressive how his excellent band - including Alomar, bassist George Murray, drummer Dennis Davis, violinist Simon House (best known for being a member of space rockers Hawkwind), pianist Sean Mayes, synth specialist Roger Powell (also a member of Todd Rundgren’s band Utopia), and amazing guitarist Adrian Belew, who Bowie had “stolen” from Frank Zappa - can recreate the complex “studio concoctions” from Low and “Heroes” in particular, even if most of the instrumental tracks aren’t best suited for a live setting. Still, the band pulls off the coldly majestic “Warsawzawa,” an unusual choice for an album opener, extremely well, and there are plenty of other potential highlights here, plus House’s prominent violin adds an interesting new element that differentiates some of these songs from their studio counterparts. Disc one is comprised primarily of Low and “Heroes” tracks aside from “Fame,” with “Heroes” the song unsurprisingly serving as the centerpiece and the high point of the set; like most songs here it may not be as good as the original, but this version is still epic and wonderful in its own right. Disc two goes back in time for five straight Ziggy songs (not the obvious ones, either), and though there are some problems with the arrangements (where are the guitars on “Ziggy”?), it’s an enjoyable romp down memory lane even if Live Santa Monica ’72 better captures this particular period. “Art Decade” doesn’t really fit here, and I prefer The Doors’ version of “Alabama Song,” but the album ends strongly with three Station To Station tracks, where Belew in particular shines, especially on the aforementioned extended version of “Stay” (7:17 whereas a fine “Station To Station” is “only” 8:55). On the whole, this album doesn’t really provide anything new other than to show that Bowie and company could pull these songs off in a live setting; still, there’s nothing wrong with that, and I for one enjoy listening to the majority of this album. That said, Bowie is a highly visual artist so that aspect of his artistry can’t be properly captured by an audio-only CD.
Lodger (RCA ’79, Rykodisc ’91) Rating: B+
The third and final installment of Bowie’s "Berlin trilogy" collaborations with Brian Eno (who co-wrote six of these ten songs), Lodger, actually recorded in Switzerland not Berlin, is eclectic, uncommercial, and oddly catchy. It’s also one of the most groove intensive records of Bowie’s career, and though I would’ve preferred a few more hooks the album’s strange sonics and tightly adventurous rhythms offer their own rewards for those willing enough to make the effort. An added bonus is the otherworldly guitar playing of Adrian Belew, later to join Fripp in King Crimson, and the album also contains some of Bowie’s best lyrics and vocal performances, for example on the excellent opening ballad “Fantastic Voyage,” the tongue-in-check transexualism of “Boys Keep Swinging” (a U.K. hit which swings musically as well, with a fabulously discordant Belew solo), and the disturbingly mundane domestic abuse tale “Repetition,” which is rendered all the more chilling by its matter of fact delivery. Elsewhere, there are some African (the decidedly different if not especially good “African Night Flight”) and Middle Eastern (the catchy and creative but also kind of annoying “Yassassin”) musical influences, plus another catchy, quirky discofied funk song (“D.J.”). In general, this album is considered the least essential among the Bowie/Eno collaborations, and I'd agree with that assessment. For one thing, it lacks an all-time classic track like "Sound and Vision" or "Heroes," though the propulsive groover "Look Back In Anger," with its angel of death lyrics, excellent vocals, and more great Belew/Alomar guitar playing, probably comes closest; it's probably my favorite song here in any event along with "Fantastic Voyage," D.J.,” and "Boys Keep Swinging." The propulsive "Red Sails" (drummer Dennis Davis is a real standout throughout the album) is another largely unheralded winner, though I'm less enamored with "Move On" and "Red Money;" the former came about by playing "All the Young Dudes" backwards, while the latter lazily recycles Iggy Pop's superior "Sister Midnight" (which Bowie had co-written, of course) though I like Belew's guitar playing as per usual. On the whole, the second half of the album considerably outdistances the first, and though this was a more conventional and more varied song oriented album than the prior two efforts, it was still highly experimental and decidedly uncommercial. As such, it's definitely a "grower album" that's easy to admire but difficult to love, though it remains somewhat underrated and deserves plaudits for not being another sequel but rather a standalone album that's utterly unique within the Bowie oeuvre. Note: On the Rykodisc reissue, the two bonus cuts are the strong previously unreleased track “I Pray, Olé” and an elongated version of “Look Back In Anger” recorded in 1988; both tracks offer good further inducements.
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (RCA ’80, Rykodisc ‘91) Rating: A
Without Brian Eno but with producer Tony Visconti, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) – generally shortened to simply Scary Monsters – was very much a song-oriented album that saw Bowie embracing new wave and disco while also rocking out forcefully. Like his Berlin albums this one contains at times jarringly discordant yet strangely accessible sonic textures, but it was also a much more commercial album (and not coincidentally his biggest hit in some time), as Bowie strikes a near-perfect balance between art and commerce. Filled with strong album tracks, this is an album where I can just press play and thoroughly enjoy it from start to finish. That said, some tracks take some warming up to, for example the album opener "It's No Game (Part 1)," a strange duet with the female Japanese singer Michi Hirota who repeats Bowie's screamed vocals back to him in Japanese! It's much better than it sounds on paper, believe me, especially when you add Robert Fripp's edgy guitar playing to the mix. Pete Townshend and guitar synth specialist Chuck Hammer also help out on the album, but it is the fantastic Mr. Fripp who really outdoes himself throughout. "Up The Hill Backwards" is an excellent album track which, like the overall album itself, presents a nice mix of singable pop and edgy post-punk, while the darkly atmospheric yet agreeably catchy groove-based title track has more edgy soloing from Fripp. The albums big hit was “Ashes to Ashes,” one of Bowie’s very best songs, which contains new wave touches and features one of Bowie’s most affecting vocals ever. In addition, its lyrics about what happened to “Space Oddity”'s poor old Major Tom (“we know Major Tom’s a junkie”) made it the rare sequel that arguably topped a classic original. The album's second single, "Fashion," was another funky, danceable hit that was fittingly timely given the rise of the new romantics and the subsequent dawn of MTV (which helped make Bowie an international superstar, not to mention filthy rich). The epic, utterly wonderful "Teenage Wildlife" is not only the albums second best song but in my opinion this gem of an album track, with its soaring guitar work, is among Bowie's best songs ever, while "Scream Like A Baby" is another strange winner, this one bringing back sci-fi lyrics and new wave elements (mostly with the keyboards which here and elsewhere do have a bit of a dated sound to them), as well as groovy beats and eccentric, singable vocals. The last few tracks are also good if perhaps not quite as impressive, but the Tom Verlaine cover "Kingdom Come" features more melodic, soaring riffs, prominent female backup singers (in general the album makes good use of backup singers both male and female), and excellent drumming from Dennis Davis, whose booming drums impress throughout (Alomar thought that Dennis and bassist George Murray was the best rhythm section Bowie ever had, and they make a pretty convincing argument throughout the album along with Alomar himself who is stellar as usual on rhythm guitar). Anyway, I like the Townshend assisted "Because You're Young" and the mellower, more standard reworking of "It's No Game (Part 2)" as well, and on the whole the album was both easily likeable and delightfully strange and eccentric, which is quite a uniquely satisfying combination. Really, this album marked the consolidation and culmination of Bowie's most adventurous phase, as one of the greatest artists of the '70s entered the '80s in prime form. Alas, it was not to last, and in retrospect this was Bowie's last truly great start-to-finish album. Note: The four bonus tracks on the Rykodisc reissue are all fairly negligible.
Let's Dance (EMI ‘83) Rating: B+
Bowie was quiet for 1981 and 1982 aside from his wonderful collaboration with Queen, "Under Pressure," which for my money is one of the best songs either party was ever involved with, though I'm tempted to give it demerits for giving Vanilla Ice a career. With demand for new product high (back then a 3-year gap between releases, especially for an artist who had been as prolific as Bowie, was considerable), and with a new record label to please, Bowie wanted a hit, so he ditched his former band and hired producer (and former Chic member) Nile Rodgers. The resulting album was the most commercial of his career, and of course the more dance oriented nature of the album disconcerted older fans who cried "sellout." Still, the album became the crossover smash that Bowie had envisioned, spawning three major hit singles, and it was a quality work overall, even if it's a bit inconsistent and lacks the sense of adventure and excitement of his best work. What's interesting about this album is how it creates a sort of dance-blues rock hybrid, as Bowie had "discovered" a hot young blues guitarist, the soon to be legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan (SRV), whose pure, emotional, more straightforward playing style was far removed from the recent likes of Fripp and Belew (Rogers, an excellent guitarist himself, helps out as well). This frontloaded album peaks immediately with the three aforementioned hits, which you're still likely to hear regularly on classic rock radio. "Modern Love," with its spoken word verses, good chugga chugga riffs, hooky keyboards, squawking sax, and especially its catchy call and response choruses, is simply one of Bowie's most effortlessly fun singles ever (not to mention the favorite Bowie song of my friend Doug). "China Girl," a more accessible remake of an earlier Iggy Pop song co-written with Bowie, isn't as good (as “Modern Love” or the Iggy original) but is still very good, primarily due to its memorable synth-based Asian ambiance, Bowie's dramatic crooned vocals, and Vaughan's guitar soloing. The title track, a #1 U.S. hit and one of the biggest songs of his career, is more a head bobbing toe tapper than a get down and dance number, but it's still an extremely impressive dance pop song, with its memorably slinky riffs and singable vocals, plus more cool sax and guitar work. Also keep in mind that this album version is almost twice as long as the well-known single version, and sometimes I prefer this extended play depending on my mood. Alas, the rest of the album can't keep pace with the singles, though "Without You" is a nice little (danceable) love song, even if it’s not nearly as memorable as the three singles. It’s certainly better than "Richochet," whose overly synthetic sound yields merely pleasant, overly busy blandness, though it is at least elevated by some more good SRV guitar. The album upswings on the next two tracks, both covers, as Bowie's low-key take on The Metros' "Criminal World" is almost Dire Straits-like (that's a compliment), while his remake of his own "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," originally the title track of the 1982 film Cat People, is understandably more aggressive and rock-based, what with there being less Georgio Moroder and more SRV. Anyway, the album ends with "Save Me," which like "Ricochet" has a dated '80s sound, plus it's so overtly poppy that it's a bit disorienting, though it's still catchy if also rather silly. On the whole, this album accomplished what Bowie and Rogers set out to do, as it sold by the bucketful and took Bowie to a whole new level of commercial success and stardom, but it's a good rather than a great David Bowie album. Then again, Let's Dance is a masterpiece compared to his terrible next two albums, 1984's Tonight and 1987's Never Let Me Down, as one of the greatest artists of the '70s seemed to completely lose it as the '80s wore on. Aside from "Time Will Crawl," the best song on Never Let Me Down, the few decent songs that Bowie delivered during this time period ("Loving The Alien," "Blue Jean," the soundtrack song "Absolute Beginners," and "Never Let Me Down") can be salvaged on The Singles (1969-1993).
Changesbowie (Rykodisc ’90) Rating: A
David Bowie was inarguably one of the most important artists of the ‘70s. Among other things, Bowie brought a sense of theater to rock n’ roll by introducing the concept of role playing, he introduced a generation of white boys to soul (albeit “plastic soul”), and he brought a chilly European glaze to some truly revolutionary electronic experiments. He was also the cross dressing king of glam, he brought pianos, saxophones, and science fiction to a high level of rock n’ roll prominence, and he always had a killer band backing him up. But for all of Bowie’s stylistic innovations, what ultimately mattered most was the great music that he produced. Though Bowie was a consummate album artist, many of his greatest songs were singles, and this 18-track CD compilation (which appends six songs to 1976’s Changesonebowie LP) is a neat summation of David Bowie the singles artist, beginning with 1968’s “Space Oddity” and ending with 1984’s “Blue Jean.” As such, it contains almost all of Bowie’s best known (and in many cases best) songs. Whether as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, or simply David Bowie, these are the songs that even most non-fans know by heart. Reeling off classic after classic, Changesbowie offers surefire listening pleasure, though big Bowie fans who already own most if not all of these songs can probably live without it. Negatives: no liner notes, a lame “Fame ’90 remix” in place of the classic #1 hit, and an edited single version of “Heroes” that's far inferior to the full-length album version. Also, the LP and tape versions of the album add three essential songs omitted from the CD ("Starman," "Life On Mars?," and "Sound and Vision"), presumably due to time constraints.
Black Tie White Noise (Savage ‘93) Rating: B-
After his improbable dalliance with the "democratic" hard rock group Tin Machine, whose much-criticized two studio albums were inessential but actually not half bad (certainly better than his prior two solo albums), Bowie got married to the Somalian supermodel Iman Abdulmajid, joined forces again with producer Nile Rodgers, and then released Black Tie White Noise six long years after his last solo album. And while it is his best solo album since Let's Dance, let's face it that's not saying much, as this album still has significant problems. For one thing, the album sounds very dated to when it was recorded, many of the songs are over stuffed instrumentally, and it's barely a rock album at all, being his most dance oriented album ever; I'm trying to come up with a label for this type of music and "jazzy techno plastic soul pop" is about the best I can come up with. The jazzy part is usually supplied by Bowie's sax or the trumpet of Lester Bowie (no relation), who generally adds a touch of class to the proceedings, but the rest of the band is rather anonymous; there's no SRV around this time to prop up the lesser moments. Also, congrats to Bowie for getting married, but do we really need to hear not one but two songs he composed for his wedding? Actually, "The Wedding" and "The Wedding Song," which bookend the album, are basically the same song, the former basically a sax solo with lightly funky backing, the latter a reprise with sappy lovey dovey lyrics; needless to say I prefer the former. Also, raise your hand if you think that Bowie doing a techno cover of the Cream song "I Feel Free" sounds like a good idea? I didn't think so, though at least old pal Mick Ronson guests on guitar here (Ronson would succumb to cancer later that year). Elsewhere, "You've Been Around," another lightly funky, repetitive, groove-based dance pop song, isn't half bad even though like too many of the songs here it doesn't stick out either. The title track, a rather irritating duet with Al B. Sure! that was inspired by the L.A. race riots, does stick out, but for all the wrong reasons! Fortunately, the middle of the album is quite good, and had the rest of the album been of a similar quality, I'd have more positive things to say about it. "Jump They Say" was the album's hit single and for good reason, as musically its percolating dance groove (with busy synth swooshes and sax interjections) satisfies, plus its lyrics, about step-brother Terry's 1985 suicide, do as well as Bowie reveals a more personal, reflective side than usual. His cover of the Walker Brothers' "Nite Flights" is also good, with Bowie's deep voiced croon enticingly multi-tracked alongside a good groovy rhythm track, while the mostly instrumental "Pallas Athena" has an atmospheric Eastern vibe that somewhat harks back to his Berlin albums. Though not especially substantial, "Miracle Goodnight" is a hooky, singable should've been hit, while "Don't Let Me Down and Down," another cover supposedly (one of four on the album) though I don't know the original, is a pleasingly melodic soft soul number on which Bowie (Lester, that is) adds spice. Alas, the instrumental named after him, "Looking For Lester," is an overly busy techno-jazz hybrid that doesn't really work, but I quite like the Morrissey cover "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday," which Bowie described as "me singing Morrissey singing me." Maybe, but the gospel backing vocalists, horns, and some soaring guitar make this version enjoyable if not exactly a highlight. Actually, I enjoy about half of this album, the problem is that the rest of it is either mediocre or worse, and the album on the whole seems to lack direction and doesn't flow as naturally as it should. Still, on Black Tie White Noise Bowie at least sounds like he's trying again, though he's still not quite out of his wilderness years yet.
The Singles (1969-1993) (Rykodisc ’93) Rating: A
Excellent though 1990's Changesbowie is, if you’re going to forsake the original albums (such a cliché, but that really is the only way to fully appreciate any album oriented artist), you might as well go the extra mile, because that’s exactly what The Singles does. It’s still not perfect, as again there are no liner notes, “Heroes” is still the edited single version, there’s nothing from The Man Who Sold The World, and several mid-'80s songs pad out the second cd (then again, you could argue that this rescues some good if not quite classic songs from truly dreadful albums). However, earlier album tracks like “Life On Mars?,” “Starman,” and “Sound and Vision” are absolutely essential Bowie songs that aren’t on Changesbowie (at least not on the CD version of the album), and the original “Fame” is also thankfully restored. The great Queen duet “Under Pressure,” the memorable “Cat People” soundtrack song (the original not the revamped version on Let's Dance), and the (admittedly uninspired though the video is inspired in its awfulness) Mick Jagger duet “Dancing In the Street” also make their first appearances on any David Bowie album, making The Singles a singularly satisfying purchase even for big Bowie fans. Note: Further David Bowie explorers might also want to also try Sound And Vision, a fine 3-cd box set that serves as an excellent companion piece to The Singles by concentrating on good album tracks and rarities. I also recommend Bowie at the Beeb: The Best Of The BBC Radio Sessions 68-72. Other latter day compilation options instead of this one are 2002’s double-disc Best Of Bowie, which has considerable overlap but extends through Heathen, and 2005’s 3-cd The Platinum Collection, which covers from 1969-1987.
Outside (Arista ‘95) Rating: B+
After recording a soundtrack album, Buddha Of Suburbia, David Bowie reconnected with Brian Eno (as well as old friends Mike Garson and Carlos Alomar) and re-found his muse on Outside, his most ambitious, darkest, and most experimental album ever. Actually, this was supposed to be the first in a series of albums that Bowie has never followed up on, which is just as well because this album holds up very well all by its lonesome. Before listening to the album, I'd suggest that you read the short story that comes with it, "The Diary Of Nathan Adler," which outlines the albums loose concept. Then again, the concept is convoluted and never quite coheres, which would be more of a problem if the music wasn't so interesting. Personally, I tend to skip past the spoken word segues, of which there are several, and a couple of the more expendable mood pieces ("I am With Name," "Wishful Beginnings") because at 75 minutes the album is overly long. Fortunately, the majority of it is very good, and the album to me recalls Diamond Dogs due to its alternate world building, and naturally the Berlin trilogy as well, though more modern influences seep in too such as Nine Inch Nails-styled industrial, grunge, and electronica. The music is dense, unsettling, ominous, and often harsh, and for the first time in a long while not a single cover was included, as Bowie didn't need any outside help this time. The fact that songs such as the NIN-influenced "The Hearts Filthy Lesson" and the groovy techno of "I'm Deranged" were successfully used in major motion pictures (Se7en and Lost Highway, respectively) exemplifies the album's cinematic feel, as it creates its own fascinating world that you can easily get lost within. Among the other highlights are the intense, powerful, and quite heavy title track, the also-rocking techno-grunge of "Hallo Spaceboy," the lighter, more lively and catchy "I Have Not Been to Oxford Town," the also-catchy and anthemic "Thru' These Architect's Eyes," and the epic finale "Strangers When We Meet," which features one of Bowie's best vocals and which originally appeared on the Buddha Of Suburbia soundtrack but which was re-recorded for this album. Elsewhere, you get a pair of longer (6+ minutes) tracks in "A Small Plot Of Land," which is jumbled and chaotic but also quite interesting (drummer Sterling Campbell shines here and elsewhere, as does guitarist and ex Tin Machine bandmate Reeves Gabrels, who played an important role in Bowie's '90s work), and "The Motel," a mellower, slow building dirge that's a bit boring at times but which also features Garson at his best (which as you'll remember is very good indeed). "No Control" delivers more atmospheric, groovy (in this case mid-paced) techo that impressively throbs along, and the word "groovy" is also an apt desription for "The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty)," on which Bowie exhorts "I say!" throughout. All in all, Outside is not without considerable flaws, as Bowie over conceptualizes the album with a muddled storyline and simply includes more music than was really necessary (the album can therefore get a bit boring at times). It's still easily his best album since Let's Dance if not Scary Monsters, and it was certainly nice to have Bowie back producing good work after such an extended period of underwhelming productivity.
Earthling (BMG ‘97) Rating: B-
After Outside Bowie increased his "hip" rating by touring with Nine Inch Nails, which seemed strange at the time but not really after listening to Outside. Anyway, Bowie took that touring band (Reeves Gabrels on guitars and synthesizers, Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and vocals, Zachary Alford on drums and percussion, and Mike Garson on keyboards and piano) minus Carlos Alomar plus co-producer Mark Plati, his primary collaborator along with Gabrels, and released Earthling, a less than satisfying follow up to Outside. Part of the problem, to me anyway, is that at this point Bowie seemed like such a shameless bandwagon jumper; with industrial and grunge going out of style, Bowie jumped onto the latest fads: drum 'n' bass and electronica. Remember, this was back when the likes of Goldie, Roni Size, Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, and Underworld were briefly media darlings, and though it was nothing new for Bowie to synthesize different styles into something all his own, the aggressive dance-rock hybrid he came up with here simply isn't that appealing to me. On the whole, the songs are repetitive and over-long, the arrangements are too chaotic and cluttered, and the hyper warp-speed percussion is generally annoying. There are several solid songs here, but even the best ones are good not great, and I can't help but feel that Bowie tried to shoehorn his songs into styles that didn't come to him as naturally, that he forced it this time. Still, contrived though the album may be, it has several good songs, starting with album opener "Little Wonder," a hyper electro-groover with a catchy "so far away" chorus and amusing Snow White lyrics. "Looking for Satellites" is a bit chaotic but this grower track coalesces into an oddly hooky chorus and has an epic Gabrels guitar solo. "Seven Years in Tibet" is highlighted by its big riffy chorus, "Dead Man Walking" is fast paced, groovy, and melodic, with good riffs, a catchy chorus, and some spicy female soul diva vocals, and the Brian Eno collaboration "I'm Afraid Of Americans" delivers catchy electro-funk with tongue in cheek lyrics. Maybe some of the other four songs not mentioned are good too, but they tend to blend together for me, and not in a good way as this monotonous album adds up to less than the sum of its individual parts. Again, Earthling isn't a bad album, but it was a disappointing one after the unexpected high-quality of his previous release.
'hours...' (Virgin ‘99) Rating: B
I actually think this one is kind of underrated, as Bowie delivers a fairly straightforward singer-songwriter album, albeit a typically bipolar one as the superior first half of the album is comprised primarily of melancholic, spacey ballads and the second half attempts to rock out, with inconsistent results. Still, even the weakest songs here are generally boring or bland rather than being annoying or flat-out bad like the worst stuff on Black Tie White Noise or Earthling. Many people seem to comment about how this is Bowie's "old man album," as he hit the big 5-0 and the resulting quiet, reflective album (side one anyway) is befitting a man of such an advanced age, or so he thought it would seem. Anyway, like I said before, I prefer side one which is consistently solid, my favorite efforts probably being the mellowest entries ("Survive" and "Seven," both quite good), while songs such as "Thursday's Child" (the album’s first single) and "Something In The Air" have their moments as well (Holly Palmer's prominent backing vocals on the dreamy former song, Bowie's passionate vocals and Gabrels' soaring guitar solo on the latter track). I'm less fond of "If I'm Dreaming My Life," especially since it doesn't do a whole lot for over 7 minutes, and side two is filled with similarly forgettable if inoffensive songs, the obvious highlight being "The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell," a convincing, hook-filled rocker with great riffs and powerful drumming (from Mike Levesque who shares drumming duties with Sterling Campbell on the album), though for all its quality it doesn't seem to really fit in with the rest of the album. "What's Really Happening" is semi-famous because the lyrics were written by the winner (Alex Grant) of an Internet contest Bowie had where his fans wrote lyrics to an instrumental backing track Bowie provided. Regardless, neither the music or the lyrics are especially impressive (makes me wonder about the lyrics some of the non-contenders might’ve submitted!), and the last few tracks, including the short Berlin-like instrumental "Brilliant Adventure" which sounds as out of place as "The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell," are likewise atmospheric enough but simply aren't very memorable. Part of the problem is with Bowie himself, as he sounds a bit bored at times, probably because he was. Still, though Gabrels is probably my least favorite among Bowie's high profile guitar hotshot sidekicks, he probably puts in his best performance on any Bowie album here, in part because his playing is more conventional than previously, which works for these more traditional sounding songs. In addition to his previously mentioned standout performances on "Something In The Air" and "The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell," Gabrels also adds memorable solos to the melodic soft rock of "Survive" and adds pretty weeping guitars to the oddly R.E.M.-like "Seven;" not coincidentally, these are probably my favorite songs on the album. Anyway, I consider this album underrated because most people don't seem to rate it highly at all. It's still far from a classic David Bowie album, but 'hours...' is at least consistently listenable and there are enough standout tracks and memorable moments to keep me coming back to it.
Heathen (ISO ‘02) Rating: A-
hours… was a step in the right direction, as Bowie stopped chasing fads in his seemingly desperate attempts to stay hip and current. A far superior follow up, the shockingly good Heathen is Bowie’s best latter day effort and is arguably even worthy of comparison to his prime ‘70s work. The return of co-producer (with Bowie) Tony Visconti likely focused Bowie to simply do what he does best, and needless to say he helped with the album’s stellar sound quality, while excellent contributions from guest musicians like Pete Townshend, Tony Levin, and Dave Grohl (among others) also add to the overall experience. It’s hard to pinpoint what makes this album so good, but for one thing it is very consistent, plus the three cover songs are actually among the best tracks here unlike usual when they feel like padding. Whereas prior albums could sound overly cluttered or lifeless, Heathen strikes a nice balance between experimentation and accessible songs, and appropriately world weary (the ballads) and lively (the rockers) performances, and though it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, neither does it sound like any other David Bowie album. Also, although at the time it was Bowie’s best-selling and best-reviewed album in ages, only a decade later it seems to be something of an overlooked gem, as people too easily simply dismiss Bowie’s latter day career, much of which is disposable let’s face it but this album was the payoff for those who had patiently persevered through prior failures. The album begins with “Sunday,” a mellow synths and electronics-led, melancholic ballad whose lyrics (“nothing has changed, everything has changed”) evoke 9/11, though Bowie insists that these songs were written before then; regardless, this song and several others do bring that tragic day to mind, which only gives them an added emotional resonance. Next up is his faithful and quite excellent cover of the Pixies’ “Cactus” (great gonzo lyric: “Bloody your hands on a cactus tree, Wipe it on your dress and send it to me”), while “Slip Away” is a spacey piano ballad that Major Tom himself would’ve been proud to have created! And man oh man I instantly loved “Slow Burn,” a great exciting glam rocker on which guest Pete Townshend expertly channels Neil Young in his guitar playing. Speaking of, Dave Grohl does the same on a cover of Neil's “I’ve Been Waiting For You,” another album highlight as it was an inspired cover choice with a well-rendered performance, while sandwiched between that song and “Slow Burn” is “Afraid,” which delivers symphonic up-tempo pop rock. Actually, several of these songs have symphonic or electronic elements, but these add depth and texture rather than being obtrusive like say on Earthling. Anyway, “I Would Be Your Slave,” a symphonic electro-ballad, isn’t bad but is a bit nondescript, but "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship," a cover song originally written by Norman Carl Odam (the "Legendary Stardust Cowboy" who inspired the Ziggy Stardust name) is a fun, campy, drum-driven number with delectably eerie keyboards and sumptuous strings. Now, I’ve never heard the original so I can’t compare, but I feel pretty confident that I’d prefer Bowie’s version if placed side-by-side, and “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” is another standout track which proves that epic balladry is alive and well, plus it has excellent lyrics about unrequited love and a great lead vocal as Bowie is in fine voice throughout the album. “Everyone Says Hi,” a catchy electro-pop number with doo wop elements, was a minor U.K. hit, and “A Better Future,” which is charmingly low-key but threatens to become an epic at times, is really good too, while “Heathen (The Rays)” provides a low-key but effective finale. Really, every song here is at least solidly listenable, most far more than that, and if the album lacks a certain excitement (like hours… the majority of this is still something of a dignified “old man album” only it’s a really good one!) and the groundbreaking sense of adventure that was present in his classic period, that doesn’t prevent this album from being an excellent effort in its own right.
Reality (ISO ‘03) Rating: B+
Surprisingly, this album is almost as good as Heathen, and if this turns out to be his last album (it’s 2012 as I write this) it will have been a classy, dignified exit. He has since been silent recording-wise as he is seemingly retired and enjoys a hip elder statesman status. He strikes me as a true music fan, too, as evidenced by his outspoken enthusiasm for newer bands like the Arcade Fire and TV On The Radio. In any event, he certainly doesn’t need the money, so if he chooses to enjoy his retirement and not make any more new music, well good for him, his legacy is certainly secure in any event, and both Heathen and Reality both only helped enhance said legacy. Anyway, I digress, sorry about that tangent; this is supposed to be a review of Reality, a supremely satisfying follow up to Heathen that was released a mere year later and was again co-produced by Tony Visconti. If forced to compare, I’d say that this album is more rocking (fittingly Earl Slick is back helping out on lead guitar) and upbeat but is less atmospheric and emotionally resonant than its slightly superior predecessor. Regardless, this is a fine album that starts with an excellent trio of songs: “New Killer Star” is a flat-out killer first track with a great groove, his fast-paced, dreamily melodic cover of The Modern Lovers “Pablo Picasso” is a complete reinvention and a completely successful one at that, and “Never Get Old” is a passionate, uplifting, somewhat funky rocker. By contrast, “The Loneliest Guy” is a dreary, dispiriting, boring ballad, as is the album’s disappointing final track, “Bring Me The Disco King,” which has moments of interest but drags on for almost 8 mostly boring minutes. Fortunately, the rest of the album is consistently solid: “Looking For Water” is an intense, stomping rocker that satisfies, “She’ll Drive The Big Car” is a catchy toe tapper, “Days” is a delightfully low-key acoustic charmer, “Fall Dog Bombs The Moon” may be strangely titled but it’s another wonderfully melodic, riff-driven winner (in fact it's probably my favorite song here along with "New Killer Star"), his big ballad cover of George Harrison’s “Try Some, Buy Some” is another inspired choice expertly executed (the song has a real sense of grandeur about it), and the title track is a hard-hitting, glammy riff rocker that’s a lot of fun. So is the majority of this album, the aforementioned morose ballads excepted; truth be told, I tend to program around those two tracks since they don't really fit in with the rest of the album, which sees a contented pro at a near-peak level of pop-rock craftsmanship.
The Next Day (ISO – Columbia ‘13) Rating: A-
Bowie seemed to have settled into contented retirement, so it came as a surprise, if not a downright shock, when The Next Day appeared suddenly, with little to no advance notice. What’s equally surprising is how good the album is given that he’d had such a long layoff, as Bowie continues the impressive late career resurgence (after two decades of mostly underwhelming work) that had started on Heathen and Reality. Again produced by old friend Tony Visconti and featuring many contributing musicians, the album uses the core rock instrumentation of guitar, bass, and drums but also expertly incorporates synths, saxophones, and backing vocalists. Even more importantly, the songwriting is extremely strong; this is a very consistent 14-track, 53 minute album that scores well in the repeat playability department. Whether delivering propulsive, oddly catchy rockers (“The Next Day,” “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” “How Does The Grass Grow,” “(You Will) Set The World On Fire”), dark funky numbers (“Dirty Boys,” “Boss Of Me”), or beautiful ballads (the excellent first single “Where Are We Now?” and the effectively sedate album closers “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” and “Heat”), Bowie and his cast of collaborators are at (or at least near) the top of their game. About that first single, in addition to its excellent music “Where Are We Now?” has deeply personal lyrics whereas the rest of the album is mostly comprised of third-person observations; “Valentine’s Day” is about a school shooting (but for me it’s mostly about its edgy guitar playing), while the catchy, hook-filled “I’d Rather Be High,” a clear album highlight for me, is about numbing oneself trying to forget about the horrors of war. Musically, even a chaotic number like “If You Can See Me” is oddly catchy (I guess I could’ve added this to the “oddly catchy rockers” above) and features creative drumming, and the effective mood piece “Love Is Lost,” the trippy space rocker “Dancing Out In Space,” and the eccentric (also war-themed) “How Does The Grass Grow” (with more powerful drums and high-pitched Flo and Eddie-ish backing vocals) all show Bowie to still be endearingly strange yet strangely accessible. All in all, as a longtime Bowie fan I’m very pleased that this album exists and I’m thrilled that it’s as good as it is (my only complaint is that perhaps the album lacks truly classic tracks, my favorites at the moment being “Where Are We Now?,” “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” and “I’d Rather Be High,” though that can certainly change). P.S. I’m not sure what I think about the “Heroes” themed album cover, but sad to say in this MP3 age album cover art is less important than ever anyway. It certainly didn’t hurt Bowie at the box office, as this became his first U.K. #1 album in 20 years.
Blackstar (ISO – Columbia ‘16) Rating: A
It's impossible to listen to David Bowie’s last studio album without considering the background; Bowie knew that he was dying of cancer, though this was certainly well hidden from the public, and the album was finished and released just two days before his death (on his 69th birthday). Unsurprisingly, his death resulted in an upswing in sales, and Blackstar (or simply ) became his first #1 U.S. album ever (let’s face it death is always a great career move sales-wise, sad to say). Amazingly given the circumstances, this album, again co-produced by Bowie with Tony Visconti, is fully deserving of its success and the acclaim it has received, as it’s arguably the best of the bunch among his impressive late career comeback albums. Musically, most of these songs are built around skittering percussion (primarily Mark Guiliana), some exemplary saxophone work from Donny McCaslin (also flute and woodwinds), and Bowie’s crooned vocals, while the lyrics can’t help but allude to his present situation, albeit often abstractly. If I could complain about the mood-based music, it would be that it too is sometimes a bit too abstract and experimental (i.e. inaccessible), though on the whole the album is wonderfully atmospheric and it contains a handful of truly excellent songs, plus it smartly includes only 7 long-ish songs that run on for a sensible 41 minutes, which leaves you wanting more rather than less, a wise strategy that’s too rarely used these days. This album peaks immediately with the celestial, otherworldly 10-minute title track, whose multi-sectioned majesty recalls his prior benchmark “Station To Station” (in scope if not in sound), while the also epic-scale (6:22) “Lazarus” is a melancholic marvel (I believe this was the album’s most successful single). Again, some of the songs are more growers than instant classics, but I also really like “Dollar Days,” a lovely ballad that may be McCaslin’s signature song here, and “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” a more lively (even if it’s still pretty mellow like most of the album) sax/beat-driven groover that impressively ends the album. Simply put, though imperfect, this album, among Bowie’s least rock-based album ever, was a great goodbye that transcends the backstory behind it simply by virture of its sheer quality, as this is the work of true artist who left us all too soon on his own terms. Bravo for you, Mr. Bowie, and thank you for generously leaving us this one last gift.
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