David Bowie - Five Essential Albums
By Sacha Robinson 28/01/2021
Image Courtesy of Armaan Latif
With the fifth anniversary of David Bowie’s death having just passed, now seems an opportune time to celebrate some of the shape-shifting musical genius’ greatest, most influential, and most surprising works. I, a self-anointed Bowie expert, have condensed his comprehensive discography into five must-have albums for any self-respecting music fan. This is not to say that there is no artistic value in other Bowie albums—quite the opposite. The beauty of his discography is how stylistically varied it is. The old cliché about having ‘a little bit for everyone’ has never been more applicable than in regards to this most forward-thinking of artists. So without further ado, here are my five essential David Bowie albums:
Hunky Dory (1971)
The first album to prove that David Bowie could transcend his artsy transgressive niche, with better songs and more concentrated thematic preoccupations than anything he’d done before. The rewards and perils of ousiderdom are explored on ‘Kooks’, as is pop-art ideology on ‘Andy Warhol’, but classics such as ‘Life On Mars?’ and ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ are filled with sky-scraping ambition and boast a compositional universality the like of which Bowie hadn’t managed to capture until ‘Hunky Dory‘. Even the blatant homages are tasteful: ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ eloquently conveys Mr. Zimmerman’s cultish appeal, and ‘Queen Bitch’ is as rich with grimy observation as anything the Velvet Underground ever did. In terms of pure songcraft, this is as good a place to start as any in Bowie’s discography.
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The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)
The pinnacle of both ‘70s glam and Bowie’s oeuvre up to this point. As a budding music critic, I have read many rock-star autobiographies and the number of would-be musicians who cite the Ziggy period as a formative influence is quite mind-boggling, everyone from Elton John to Madonna to Morrissey to Duran Duran. It’s not hard to see why. Every base is covered: preposterous theatricality, sartorial exuberance, a tenuous concept about an alien falling to Earth, and most importantly, electrifying, canonical rock ‘n’ roll songs. With a transcendental performance of ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops catapulting him into British popular consciousness, and legendary axeman/arranger Mick Ronson by his side, arguably the most iconic incarnation of David Bowie had arrived on Earth.
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Station to Station (1976)
Despite being out of his mind on cocaine and becoming increasingly detached from reality (his words, not mine), Bowie’s first and only album as the notorious Thin White Duke is remarkably cognisant, from a musical perspective at least. Though the majority of tracks breach the five-minute mark, Bowie made the most compact record of his career at six songs. As for the sound of the record, it’s quite hard to describe, a kind of paranoid, messed-up approximation of contemporary American soul music, danceable but tempered with an air of darkness. The title track is a muscular, groovy beast of a song, broodingly, seductively repetitious throughout each of its ten-minutes, whilst ‘Stay’ features some of the most air-tight musicianship of Bowie’s career, chugging along like a well-oiled funk machine.
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Arguably the defining album of the ‘70s in the way it expanded upon Kraftwerk and consolidated electronic as the new popular music; thus whilst others were jumping on the superficially iconoclastic punk bandwagon, Bowie was already anticipating the New Wave. Part of the critically revered Berlin Trilogy, Low is split into two halves: off-kilter oddball synth-pop songs, and wordless ambient mood pieces. It’s difficult to know what ‘Low‘ is about—Bowie infamously used William Burroughs’ cut-up technique, where one writes phrases on a piece of paper, cuts them into pieces and sticks them together at random to form strikingly surrealistic imagery—but in conjunction with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, Bowie devised a sound that was futuristic, otherworldly and entirely inspiring. And, my God, that snare-drum sound is satisfying to listen to.
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One of the many generally accepted laws of pop, as proven by almost every artist that has ever made music under this broad stylistic umbrella, is that it is a young person’s game. But David Bowie was never one for subscribing to tradition. At the age of 69, Bowie released his final album—and his final great one. Rather than ingratiating himself to a more adult-contemporary audience, ‘Blackstar‘ contains some of the man’s most ingeniously experimental work: from the chaotic sax of ‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’, to the frenetic jazz percussion of ‘Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)’. The most arresting thing about this album however is the vulnerability with which Bowie sings, as if anticipating his death and doing everything he can to make ‘Blackstar’ his last opus. Even at his most transparent, Bowie’s true self always seemed hard to reach, so the unbridled humanity of his performances here renders ‘Blackstar’ a singular achievement in the Bowie canon.
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