Here are my reviews of David Bowie’s studio albums.
1967: David Bowie (3/10)
In 2011, I wrote the following:
Ugh. It’s hard to believe that one of the greatest artists of the ’70s and one of the great British songwriters could begin so low. I don’t know where to begin. This is so overly theatrical it’s not even funny, but there are no other elements to balance the theatricality. Bowie sings in accents, all which could only go over well in an English music hall. The arrangements are bizarre and often utterly inappropriate. The songs are mostly throwaways and then there’s the one totally out of place dystopian song, but done in the same music hall arrangements. Honestly, it’s really really difficult to see genius here. If I had heard this in 1967, I might have never bought another David Bowie album for the rest of my life, it’s so bad.
I doubt I would be so mean now. It’s among the worst ratings I’ve ever given an album. But then, I haven’t heard it in a few years.
1969: David Bowie [Space Oddity] (6?/10)
Review lost to time, though I have heard this album multiple times.
1970: The Man Who Sold the World (9/10)
Whether or not the final product represents Bowie’s intentions – as multiple people involved in the sessions have claimed he didn’t do much beyond sing and play some rhythm guitar – this is the first (nearly) essential Bowie album. The first album to present a solid set of songs that display many of his preoccupations – philosophy, theatre, god, dystopia and so forth. And the presentation of these songs as Hard Rock just makes the album unique in his discography.
I can’t tell you how much I like this album. I know it’s not his best but it might be his most fun, despite the seriousness of his lyrics, if only because of the full-bore rock music that surrounds the songs. A personal favourite.
1971: Hunky Dory (10/10)
This is the first essential David Bowie album. I love Man Who Sold the World, but if you never listened to it, you wouldn’t be missing out. However, if you’ve never heard Hunky Dory, that’s a problem.
This is probably one of Bowie’s best set of songs – no weird experiments here and every idea is accessible, even when it’s weird. He manages the rather incredible feat of pairing philosophical musings about the literature he was reading with extremely catchy music. I don’t know too many other records that manage this marriage so well.
And his artiness is so accessible it’s almost not obviously arty. So much of what he does here has become so much a part of “art pop” that we don’t notice it now but, at the time, it was unusual.
Anyway, not my favourite, but one of his very very best.
1972: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (10/10)
Bowie’s most famous and iconic album finds him at his glammiest and perhaps the closest he ever got to achieving his famed “future nostalgia” aesthetic. Bowie and band combine a super vague story of a sexually ambiguous rock star, 5 years before the end of the world, with music that is basically just a louder, rawer version of traditional rock. It’s basically the platonic ideal of glam rock, with stronger songs than just about every other glam rock band/artist. In another way, it’s like what the New York Dolls were doing at the same time in, um, New York, but with none of the camp, the utmost seriousness – no tongue in cheek here – and a lot more intelligence (for better or ill) and record production.
But, as a David Bowie fan, this is not my favourite album by a long shot. The songs are not as good as Hunky Dory or Aladdin Sane (or on some later albums) and the album does not feel as daring as the music he was making in the late ’70s. In some ways Ziggy may be near perfect, but it’s somehow not as good as like 6 other Bowie albums (Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, Station to Station; much of The Berlin Trilogy and Scary Monsters).
I guess it deserves full marks, but only because of how enduring it is culturally.
David Bowie albums from 1973:
Aladdin Sane (10/10)
Though some consider this a step back from Ziggy Stardust, it has long been one of my favourite Bowie albums. (It vies with Scary Monsters.) Far more ragged and rough than Ziggy, it’s like the façade has dropped away. There’s no framing concept (beyond “Ziggy does America”) and you could easily argue that Ziggy is more coherent and a better album but I like these songs better. And, frankly, I appreciate the greater stylistic diversity here, and the ragged edges.
Also, some of Bowie’s greatest moments are here including some of my favourite Bowie songs, such as “Drive-In Saturday,” perhaps the perfect encapsulation of his famous “future nostalgia.”
And then there’s the title track, which contains the greatest piano solo in the history of rock music – I ask you to find a better one – and which is worth the price of admission alone. (Bowie always has great sidemen and Garson is at his absolute best on this record.)
Some days I prefer Scary Monsters, but if I was making a desert island list, this is often the Bowie album I’d put on it.
Pin Ups (5?/10)
Review lost to time. I’ve only listened to this covers album a few times and I guess never properly reviewed it. Read my reviews of music from 1973, the Annus mirabilis of prog rock.
1974: Diamond Dogs (7/10)
Once upon a time I wrote the following:
Caught somewhere between the Spiders and his new plastic soul thing, and somewhere between an aborted concept album and a bunch of decent songs half of which have nothing to do with it. It’s a mixed bag, that’s for sure. There are some classics here, but there are more misses. The misses are at least interesting. For an ego trip – and an aborted concept album at that – it’s relatively unpretentious. Relatively I say.
That’s the thing about this record. It’s clearly a misstep compared to the records that came before and the records that will come after, but it still has some pretty great songs on it. I’m not sure they fit together and I’m not sure Bowie could have convincingly pulled off a 1984 album even if he had gotten permission, but that doesn’t take away from how catchy his songs are.
1975: Young Americans (7/10)
The critic’s cliches about this album seem to be true. This is more of an enthusiastic tribute than it is any kind of Bowie album of the quality of most of his other ’70s albums. Those albums embrace various emerging styles but still manage to sound like Bowie; that is innovative and traditional at the same time. This album lacks a lot of that, and comparing it to Station to Station, for example, it is clear that Bowie hadn’t quite figured out his unique take on “blue eyed soul” yet.
That being said, there are many fine moments. As has been pointed out many times before, “Young Americans” is fantastic and features probably Bowie’s greatest vocal performance ever (though the end of “Can You Hear Me” is also pretty impressive). “Fame” is also pretty classic. It’s weird that an album trying to recreate certain aspects of American music would be so full of the Beatles.
1976: Station to Station (10/10)
From the very opening of that train sample, it’s obvious that things are going to be different than Young Americans. Whereas that album felt like a flirtation with something Bowie was only interested in passing (albeit good at), this feels like Bowie again.
Opening an album with your longest track ever sends a really interesting message, as does opening with a sample. With the exception of “Golden Years,” the soul and R&B here is filtered through Bowie’s artsy lens in a way that it wasn’t on Young Americans and, with hindsight, we can see the genesis of the Berlin Trilogy in this weird amalgam of American R&B and art rock (with just a hint of Krautrock – or is that hindsight speaking?).
Whether or not this record is the artistic achievement that is Ziggy, or Aladdin Sane, or any of The Berlin Trilogy, or Scary Monsters…well, I’m not sure. But it’s among his best, and it’s among my very favourite Bowie albums (probably #3).
David Bowie albums from 1977:
This record starts with an even more robotic, even artier, even more sterile version of Philly Soul and R&B than we got with Station to Station and slowly transitions to Eno-esque ambient pop. If Eno hadn’t made music like this himself already, this record would be revolutionary. But it’s still pretty damn revolutionary for two reasons:
First, Bowie is a better songwriter than Eno, and his experiments with indeterminacy work better as popular music than Eno’s, especially Eno’s completely ambient pieces.
Second, Bowie had an audience already as he was one of the most popular musicians in the UK (if not the world) by this point. And here he suckers us in, by leading with music that is at least a little bit reminiscent of his last record, until it evolves (or devolves) into something that most people had probably never heard before.
Bonus: Iggy Pop: The Idiot (8/10)
Recorded before Low but released afterwards, The Idiot feels in many ways like the missing link between “The Berlin Trilogy” and Station to Station. Though it’s Iggy’s solo debut, it is the least Iggy Pop album he recorded, as far as I know. I do think the criticism that Bowie hijacked Iggy for his own ends is fair.
But that doesn’t mean the record is bad; far from it. This is a different side of Iggy but it’s one he handles just about as well as the maniacal rock and roll demon that he usually inhabits. The songs are generally strong – also, I prefer this version of “China Girl” – and full of the same kind of invention Bowie had already deployed and would continue to deploy, though it’s less experimental than Low.
It’s also worth thinking about all the stunned Stooges fans (however few that would have been) who would have bought this only to hear something so manifestly un-Stooges. That’s cool.
I like the sequel better for two reasons: the first is that it feels like it’s more of an actual Iggy Pop record. The second is that I think songs are, on the whole, significantly stronger.
Note: I included this album because Bowie cowrote every song, played numerous instruments, sang backing vocals and produced the record.
Bonus: Iggy Pop: Lust for Life (9/10)
Sometime between now and 2010, I wrote the following:
This is a pretty fantastic album.
It’s way tamer than The Stooges but that doesn’t matter at all.
Obviously, “Lust for Life” and “The Passenger” are clear highlights. But there’s more here than just the hits.
The background vocals on “Success” are ridiculous. The best part is at the end when Iggy sings something he thinks they won’t bother to try and they try singing it anyway, and then he laughs “Oh Shit” and they sing “Oh shit.”
But the masterpiece of the album is the soul song “Turn Blue.” It features Pop’s best vocal performance and it is coupled with a fantastic, semi-traditional-but-still-fresh-sounding arrangement (or series of arrangements), including the backing vocals, which changes a number of times. The lyrics are also standout, which suggests that maybe Iggy would have done even better to have co-written more lines with Lacey. It’s a great song in every way.
Also, it’s pretty incredible that Bowie could have been in the midst of creating such incredible music of his own and then making this album at the same time. It’s kind of mind-blowing.
I agree with my previous assessment but would add that, instead of being tamed, maybe Iggy was showing the way to the new punks, showing you could still make vital rock music while honouring rock tradition instead of trying to destroy it all.
Note: I included this album because Bowie cowrote all but two songs, played keyboards, sang backing vocals and coproduced the record.
This is the second “Berlin Trilogy” record, though it is the only one recorded entirely in Berlin. It marks Bowie’s second collaboration with Brian Eno, resulting once again in a blending of American R&B with Krautrock and more esoteric things, which, much like Low, helped invent the dominant sound of post-punk that would soon take over the UK.
I get a definite sense of deja vu when I listen to this record immediately after Low or The Idiot and there is a degree to which the overall stylistic similarity of the “Berlin Trilogy” records works against the individual albums.
But Bowie has arguably combined the two primary disparate influences here better than on the first record, at least in the sense that, when things get slow, moody and instrumental on the second half of the record, we’re ready this time.
Also, bringing Robert Fripp out of retirement was an inspired choice, as he adds more of an aggressive rock feel that was perhaps lacking on Low.
I think you could also make a claim that this is the stronger set of songs.
All of this adds for me to the very near equal of its predecessor, even if it is very much Low 2.
1979: Lodger (9/10)
I know this record is viewed by just about everyone as the worst of the “Berlin Trilogy” albums, and the rational side of my brain generally agrees with that assessment. It is arty, less weird and certainly less important than Low and maybe even “Heroes” too.
But I love it. It’s a catchier set of songs, if only because the instrumentals are gone. But I also love these songs – there are many of my favourite late ’70s Bowie songs here and there aren’t any that I want to skip. Moreover, I love how what was once radical is now subtle – listening to this record is a little bit like listening to the next record in that there are a bunch of accessible songs based, in part, on unconventional music ideas, and full of weird sounds, but which are still extremely accessible.
One of my favourite Bowie records even though I know that, objectively, it’s not his best.
1980: Scary Monsters (10/10)
Full disclosure: this may be my favourite Bowie album, so I have a hard time being objective. (The other contender is Aladdin Sane. Hot take, I know.) I’m not saying it’s his greatest. There are a number of albums that he’s recorded over the ’70s that probably qualify as “greater.” But it’s pretty damn close.
Whether or not the “Berlin Trilogy” was really as ground-breaking as most of us assume, it was certainly the first time a lot of people were exposed to both indeterminacy in music (especially popular music) – rather than just strict “improvisation” – and it was some of the earliest pop music to be so reliant on emerging electronic instruments. Other people may have got there first, but nobody listened to them. Bowie’s great innovation (as always) was bringing this stuff to the masses.
But of course the “Berlin Trilogy” didn’t really sell. And the thing about this record is that it has the hooks that those albums didn’t. Sure, those records had their share of catchy songs, but also their share of confounding impressions and song fragments. Here, Bowie has integrated his deliberate avant gardism of that period with his knack for writing extremely catchy melodies. It’s a marriage made in heaven.
Sometimes the avant gardism is subtle – such as whatever is wrong with his vocals on the title track – and sometimes it’s not – such as with virtually every note Fripp plays on the record. But because it’s all married to strong melodies, we don’t really notice how difficult the record is (in relation to contemporary pop rock, if not in relation to his “Berlin” records).
The other thing that, I think, is worth admiring, is Bowie’s continued relevance in the face of post-punk and new wave, the former which he had a vital hand in the creation of. Listen to other music (made by much younger musicians) from 1980. This sounds as forward-thinking, as vital and it still sounds good (i.e. it doesn’t sound dated). (That’s because Bowie was a better songwriter than most of the people he influenced.)
Like everyone says, this is Bowie’s last truly great album. But, for me, it’s also among his very greatest. It’s perhaps the closest he’s ever come to balancing his desire to be both popular and brave at the same time.
1983: Let’s Dance (6?/10)
Review lost to time.
The beginning of Bowie’s full-on dabbling with mainstream pop rock is better than the future albums because he actually wrote songs and Stevie Ray Vaughan is here. But it’s the first sign of his bizarre ’80s period where he stopped caring about being himself.
1984: Tonight (5/10)
I wrote the following in 2011:
There is some really weak shit on this (the reggae stuff, for example). There is also the odd gem. The really glaring sign that this is a tossed off effort is the sheer number of covers and old songs. It’s pretty transparent. Bowie can sing with all the emotion he wants to but he wasn’t all there. It’s not horrible but it’s so below his ’70s standard it’s kind of shocking.
I really thought I had written a new review. I re-listened to it awhile ago but I guess I didn’t write down my thoughts.
1986: Labyrinth Motion Picture Soundtrack (???) with Trevor Jones
I have never listened to this.
1987: Never Let Me Down (4/10)
In 2011 I wrote the following:
A real mixed bag but I dislike it less than Tonight. I’m glad that Bowie decided to help out Frampton because he livens things up a bit. Every time he plays I think “maybe it isn’t the 80s?” for a brief second before those drums and keyboards bring me back down to earth.
I totally forgot about the Mickey Rourke rap. Half of me thinks I should give this 1/10 for that alone. But I like enough of the rest of it that I can sort of forgive it.
When I re-listened I upped the Tonight rating and dropped the rating of this one but I didn’t write reviews.
1989: Tin Machine (6?/10)
For some reason I’ve never reviewed this. Read my reviews of music from 1989.
1991: Tin Machine II (5?/10)
I also never reviewed this. I have listened to them both though only briefly. Read my reviews of 1991 albums.
David Bowie albums from 1993:
Black Tie, White Noise (6?/10)
It seems like I’ve basically failed to write reviews for a lot of Bowie’s ’90s work, despite having listened to it.
The Buddha of Suburbia Soundtrack (???)
I have never listened to this.
1995: 1. Outside (7/10)
Despite the out-of-control pretension and the muddled (and later unfulfilled) narrative, this is the most engaging and interesting, if scattershot, album he made in nearly a decade and a half. Credit must go to Eno, and if it is a little too reminiscent of the late ’70s – except when the ’90s styles surface – at least it isn’t reminiscent of the mid ’80s.
1997: Earthling (6?/10)
Another ’90s Bowie album I’ve listened to but never reviewed.
1999: ‘Hours’ (5?/1)
My memory is that this is his worst solo album of the ’90s.
2002: Heathen (6/10)
What I wrote in 2011:
This is very pleasant. There’s not much outstanding here though I do love Townshend’s guitar. It’s just well made and sounds good. It’s not really anything we haven’t heard before. I liked it better when he went back to trying to push himself. Sounds like everything is fine and dandy now which just results in something…pleasant.
2003: Reality (???)
I’m pretty sure I’ve never listened to this one. Read reviews for albums I actually listened to from 2003.
2013: The Next Day (6?/10)
I don’t know why I didn’t review this one when I listened to it. I may have listened to it only once, though. Read my reviews of 2013 albums.
2016: ★ [Blackstar] (7?/10)
I can’t for the life of me tell you why I didn’t review this album when I listened to it right after Bowie died. I do feel like the world was overrating it just a touch due to his death but I also feel like it was his most interesting album since Outside.