Five Essential David Bowie Albums

A guide to get you into David Bowie's Music

| January 8, 2018

When you hear the name David Bowie, what do you think? What songs/albums come into mind? What would do if you want to get into the man’s music. It’s really difficult task as Bowie released 25 albums from 1967 to his death in 2016. And in that time, he has managed to take on various sounds and genres that would leave the world shocked time and time again. So I managed to pick five albums that can not only help you get into Bowie, but also see how diverse he was.

1. Hunky Dory (1971):

Album Artwork courtesy of RCA Records

“Hunky Dory” was the moment when Bowie’s songwriting was coming into shape. Many would say that this was the blueprint of what Bowie’s future would be at the time. While making baroque pop tunes, they’re filled with thought-provoking topics.

While the three previous albums (1967’s “David Bowie,” 1969’s “Space Oddity” and 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World”) has some great moments, “Hunky Dory” takes things to a higher level.

“Life On Mars?” for example, is a song about a girl attempting to escape from the realities of Earth and wondering if Mars can provide a new life that is much better than the one on Earth. She tries to escape reality through movie she loves, but even that is starting become very routine and unable to help her escape. With this grim topic backed by a dramatic orchestra and soaring lead vocals, it reminds me of a Broadway musical. This brings the question if humans can ever truly escape from the realities of life.

“Oh! You Pretty Things” is a personal favorite of mine from this album. I love piano and mellotron melodies that leave me all jittery every time I hear them. The lyrics refer to Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of “Übermensch” (translated as “Superman” or “Overman”), the idea of going above and beyond of what other people have achieve; try to do things no one would ever have thought of and change the world.

“Changes” is a famous track that pertains the impending changes (no pun intended) that come into our lives as we get older. In Bowie’s case, he was wanting to change the norms among rock stars. Keep in mind, Bowie was in his mid-20s during the making of this album and was soon getting ready to shock the world with his characters that would turn heads and change how people present themselves to the public. According to Bowie in a 1979 interview, “I got tired of… the lie of the rock performer is exactly the same onstage as he is offstage.”

Other great tracks feature some tributes to Bob Dylan (“A Song for Bob Dylan”), Andy Warhol (“Andy Warhol”) and The Velvet Underground (“Queen Bitch”).

“Hunky Dory” didn’t have commercial success, but I think it was important in Bowie’s history because he pretty much showcased the potential his songwriting showed in this record. It feels so idealistic and so relaxing to listen to, which made sense considering his age during the making of this record.

Undoubtingly one of the first albums to listen to, very easy to listen to with great lyrical topics.

Track Picks: “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Life On Mars,” “Fill Your Heart,” “Andy Warhol” and “The Bewlay Brothers”

 

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

Album Artwork courtesy of RCA Records

The follow-up to “Hunky Dory” was where Bowie has reached stardom. There was where we are introduced to the character Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous, red haired individual who has a message for the people. Along with Ziggy was his band, the Spiders from Mars, which consist of Mick Ronson (guitar), Trevor Bolder (bass) and Mick Woodmansey (drums).

“Ziggy Stardust” is considered one of the greatest albums of all-time. This is often considered Bowie’s magnum opus. And with good reasons as well. They’re filled with these anthemic and energetic rock songs that will be stuck inside your head for hours.

Opening track “Five Years” introduces Ziggy and his foretelling of humanity’s impending doom that builds up to the cathartic refrain at the end that sends shivers down my spine. I love the observations of the people and how it overwhelms Ziggy that sets the up the whole album.

“Moonage Daydream” sees Ziggy basking for the attention from the people. Put their Ray guns against his head and use him as a means to escape from reality. I love the soaring guitars from Ronson, it emphasizes the Ziggy’s ability to gain all of the attention. You could almost imagine him using this power while Ronson pulls off his solo.

Throughout the album, “Ziggy Stardust” seems to have a satirical take on fame during the early 1970s. While it seems to be all fine and dandy in the first half of the album, the second half starts to show the price that is being paid when the fame starts to get ahold of you and begins to destroy you.

The title track for example, sees the other members of the Spiders from Mars begin to feel jealous of the attention Ziggy has been receiving. They began to complain about his fans and Ziggy starts to inflate his ego, leaving his fans to be disgusted by this behavior and turn against him.

This madness culminates in the final track, “Rock n’ Roll Suicide.” Here, we Ziggy begin to see his demise with him screaming “Gimme your hands!” with a crunching guitars and the ascending orchestra following suit behind him to see his end.

With “Ziggy Stardust,” Bowie has become a icon and also challenged the norms in the UK at this time period. It was during this time period that Bowie had come out as bisexual, which led the media to endlessly ask him if he really is to the point that it left him annoyed. What he was trying to get at is that his sexual orientation shouldn’t get in the way of the music that he makes.

The big problem for me writing about this album, is the fact this album has been covered so many times that it feels I’m basically repeating what has already been said. The best thing to do here is obviously listen to this.

Track Picks: “Five Years,” “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman,” “Hang On to Yourself” and “Rock N’ Roll Suicide”

 

3. Station to Station (1976):

Album Artwork courtesy of RCA Records

And here we arrive at my personal favorite Bowie album, “Station to Station.” This was a very odd time for Bowie, while he had received fame in the US with the success of the previous album (1975’s “Young Americans”) and starred in the film “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” he was not very healthy state. This was the time period where his cocaine addiction was at its height and he was living on a diet of consuming only peppers and milk.

This lifestyle is emphasized as Bowie himself claims he has no recollection of making this album. Furthermore, he was living in Los Angeles where the drug culture influenced him to participate in such behavior. Retrospectively, Bowie would later comment that Los Angeles is “a blister in the backside of humanity.”

This was also the time period where the public was introduced to the Thin White Duke persona. A character would sing about love but have no personal feelings. Thin White Duke was a drastic departure from Ziggy Stardust. Gone was the androgyny and make-up, in comes this well-dressed figure with slicked-back hair that gives this intimidating and aristocratic presence surrounding him.

The album serves as a platform of Thin White Duke as the opening title track presents his personality and beliefs. The first half of this 10-minute epic shows his cynicism and detachment that is backed by the slow tempo, the dreary guitars and the bitter tone in Bowie’s vocals. And then the second half explodes to this danceable, funk-rock suite that showcases how well-rehearsed the musicians were.

The second half shows the side of the Thin White Duke on his desperate search of trying to find someone to be connected to and be immersed in these feelings. Ironically, one lyric in the second half goes “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine, I think that it must be love.”

“Station to Station” is considered a middle road to the “Plastic Soul” of “Young Americans” and the experimentalism in the final three albums Bowie made in the 1970s. “Stay” is a good example of this transition. The drums play in this idiosyncratic beat that drives the song forward backed up with the funky guitars and bass. “Golden Years” displays the soul side of this album as we can see Bowie reaching up to falsetto vocals and do-wop backing vocals.

Then we get to the closing track “Wild is the Wind,” Bowie was particularly prompted to record his rendition of this song after meeting Nina Simone. Once again, the longing for love in the Thin White Duke is at its height, the somber guitars, the desperate and aching falsetto brings the album to a dramatic close which features one of Bowie’s finest vocal performances.

This is my favorite Bowie album because of these reasons; the combination of experimental, funk and soul music makes this album a hard to one to categorize which genre this falls into. The inner conflict of being cold and detached but yearning for an emotional connection to someone really hits me that has prompted me to play this album over and over again. None of the tracks feel out of place here for me, they’re perfectly sequenced and compact (only six tracks).

That and of course where Bowie was at in this time period, which is why I think this is an essential for anyone who is new to Bowie. Please listen to this one!

Track Picks: Just play the entire album! Seriously!

 

4. Low (1977):

Album Artwork courtesy of RCA Records

Following the release of “Station to Station,” Bowie wanted to move away from Los Angeles as aforementioned, the drug culture and his cocaine addiction was taking a toll on him. Initially, he went to Montreux, Switzerland with his wife Angie and his son Duncan. But he would not live with them as he would later head off to West Berlin in attempt to end his cocaine addiction.

Bowie’s reasons for choosing Berlin was the fact that it had a “sanctuary-like situation.” The city provided him a chance to roam around in anonymity. According to Bowie, “People are very serious there and don’t care too much for flippancy. It’s a very tight life there, surrounded by the wall with machine guns.”

Bowie would share an apartment with Iggy Pop and became fully immersed in Krautrock and Ambient music. It was also where Bowie and producer Tony Visconti would begin a famed collaboration with Ambient music legend Brian Eno.

This partnership with Eno led to the creation of a trilogy of albums that was mostly recorded in Berlin. The Berlin Trilogy consisted of three albums; “Low” (Jan. 1977), “Heroes” (Oct. 1977) and “Lodger” (May 1979).

“Low” is the first part and immediately you can already see the change in how experimental this was compared to “Station to Station.” This album makes it clear that the direction Bowie is going isn’t similar of what he has done in the past. First of all, no more characters like Ziggy Stardust so that meant that Bowie would never have to dress up when performing at gigs. Secondly, the music in this album is primarily instrumental, short and features minimal vocals.

“What in the World” for example, features blip sounds that are reminiscent to 8-bit era video games that repeats over and over again. “Sound and Vision” would have repeating guitar riff that features only one verse and a semi-spoken word chorus.

With “Low,” Bowie decided that music, the instruments should be the forerunners rather than his lyrics. With that, he provided some really eerie and vivid sounds that can take you to places with the usage of your imagination.

“Warszawa” is one of my favorites, the droning and grim synthesizers give me the fear that something will go wrong and it would cause the end of the world. This track was supposed to recreate the oppressive mood Bowie felt when he visited Warsaw. The chants in the middle of the track, are influenced by a recording of a Polish folk choir, Śląsk. Hearing those chants intensifies the fear as it startles you, because you are so focused on the synthesizers.

“A New Career in A New Town” gives the imagination that I have just arrived in a new town that looks so lovely and peaceful. The harmonica that is prominent throughout the whole track solidify that optimism I feel when listening to this. I also find that how interesting that is right before “Warszawa,” you come off with this highly optimistic mood only for it to be dropped into an oppressed mood when “Warszawa” comes on.

Although “Low” initially left both fans and critics divided, the album is now considered one of Bowie’s finest albums for the fact he was willing to challenge his musical ability in the midst of fighting with his addiction.

It’s definitely one of the harder albums to get into due to how experimental this one is compared to the others; but a very rewarding experience as this album can give listeners an appreciation for experimental music.

Do check out the other two albums in the The Berlin Trilogy; it was really hard for me to leave out “Heroes” as it is a good album as “Low.”

Track Picks: “What In the World,” “Sound and Vision,” “A New Career in a New Town,” “Warszawa,” “Weeping Wall” and “Subterraneans”

 

5. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980):

Album Artwork courtesy of RCA Records

After the Berlin Trilogy, Bowie began to head towards a more accessible route to his music once. While the Berlin Trilogy gave a new sense of creativity, it lacked the commercial success. As the 1980s dawned, a new generation would once again be introduced to Bowie with “Scary Monsters.”

While this album was a commercial success, it didn’t mean that Bowie wasn’t able to completely abandon his desire for artistic freedom. One can view this album as another transition in Bowie’s discography. He was leaving the creativity found in the Berlin Trilogy and was starting to head for a more commercial sound. “Scary Monster” is right in the middle of these two eras for Bowie.

The hit single, “Ashes to Ashes” had a famous music video that saw heavy rotation on MTV. The slap bass, the return of Major Tom (an old character of Bowie’s), the quirky synths, really cemented the audience and renewed the public interest in Bowie.

The music video was deemed to be a foreshadowing of the New Romantic scene that would emerge early on in the decade. The video was considered to be one of the most expensive music videos of all time as it cost around $500,000.

“Fashion” feature funky, distorted guitars and pounding, groovin drums that show the balance of creativity and accessibility. The rhythm in this track really implores you to get up and move. The song also is a commentary on the New Romanticism of that time period and it’s done so in a very mocking manner. “It’s big and it’s bland. Full of tension and fear. They do it over there but we don’t do it here. Fashion! Turn to the left. Fashion! Turn to the right. Oooh, fashion! We are the goon squad. And we’re coming to town.”

“It’s No Game (Part 1)” features someone speaking Japanese of the exact verse Bowie would later sing in a very screeching manner. Something that I found odd when I listened to for the first time. I almost thought I accidentally clicked on some sort of video. The song also featured Robert Fripp on guitar that whales and screams and plays in this very odd tuning that is not of the Standard E tuning of a guitar.

While a break from the experimentalism of the Berlin Trilogy, “Scary Monsters” is still an amazing album and considered maybe the last Bowie classic. Some may blame this album for its willing to make accessible music as later on the 80s Bowie would take this path even further in some very lackluster albums.

But I disagree, there’s still an enough of eccentricity inside the record that makes it stand out from what was popular in 1980.

Track Picks: “It’s No Game (Part 1),” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Fashion,” “Teenage Wildlife” and “It’s No Game (Part 2)”

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