David Bowie means something different to everyone. Thanks to the perpetual reinventions that defined his career and ensured his longevity, every Bowie fan can find something special in specific albums that might not appeal so readily to another. With so many albums and distinct sounds to consume across the singer’s extensive discography, it’s only natural that one fan would prefer Bowie’s plastic soul sound to the bombastic glam rock of Aladdin Sane, or vice versa. Bowie not only redefined himself with almost every new release, he redefined what it meant to make popular music. He proved that he didn’t have to pigeonhole himself or sacrifice artistry for the sake of mainstream recognition.
In celebration of his life and impact, let’s rank the Thin White Duke’s incomparable discography, one that spans from piano pop to ambient experiments and from Mars to postwar Berlin. A few albums I’m omitting, for the sake of my sanity: Bowie’s self-titled folk-oriented debut (a curiosity at best), his 1973 album of covers Pin Ups, and the albums he recorded as part of Tin Machine.
Bowie reached his low point in the mid-to-late ’80s, and no album is lower than this nauseatingly slick but commercially successful effort. It’s a little like its far-superior predecessor Let’s Dance, but devoid of melody or interesting ideas.
22. Never Let Me Down
The followup to Tonight doesn’t sound much better. It isn’t as embarrassingly ’80s, but it’s still a mess. It feels as though Bowie couldn’t decide what kind of songs he wanted to write and just crammed all his disparate influences into one noisy effort marred by bad production.
21. Black Tie White Noise
Often regarded as a return to form after his ’80s nadir, Black Tie White Noise still sounds like an underwhelming, oddly soulless effort to my ears. The dance beats shoehorned into every song sound more dated with each passing year, and the songs are weighed down by several boring cover tunes.
Originally intended to be the first in a new trilogy of albums with Brian Eno, Outside comes nowhere close to reaching the heights of their previous efforts together (more on that later). The techno-tinged production is as muddy as Never Let Me Down and at 74 minutes, the album is simply far too long, thanks in part to unnecessary transitional tracks.
Heathen is another well-liked latter effort from Bowie that I simply can’t get into. It sounds far too much like standard boring adult contemporary pop, particularly with the guitars mixed so low beneath the omnipresent synths.
18. Space Oddity
The title track is a flat-out triumph, wholly deserving of its classic status, but the rest of the album is Bowie before he truly became Bowie (whoever that is). The album melds the folk and psychedelia of the late ’60s to create a good, if not wholly original sound, but the songwriting just isn’t there yet.
Released in 1997, Earthling is obviously Bowie trying to keep up with the times, but in this case, it actually works. The melodies aren’t as strong as his best efforts, but the Aphex Twin-style industrial beats are well-integrated into the mix and create some truly interesting sonic landscapes.
When he discarded all his pretensions of keeping up with the times, Bowie could write some great, straightforward rock songs. He doesn’t reinvent the wheel with Reality, but he offers a collection of strong tracks that pull you in and offer something new upon each listen.
Similar to Reality, this album has an emphasis on piano balladry over mid-tempo rockers. These songs are rich with melody and emotion and seem to come naturally, rather than the forced excursions into electronica that characterized Bowie in the ’90s.
14. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
Coming off the stellar Berlin trilogy, here Bowie sounds a little lost without any clear artistic direction. In addition, the production value is already starting to decay due to that unique musical virus called “the ’80s.”
13. The Man Who Sold the World
This album marked the beginning of Bowie as a glam icon. After an uncertain start, The Man Who Sold the World created a strong sound defined by glam guitarist Mick Ronson, even if the songs weren’t as uniformly strong as albums to come.
12. Diamond Dogs
The weakest of Bowie’s ’70s glam classics is still a triumph in its own right. Diamond Dogs boasts irresistible tracks like “Rebel Rebel” or “1984.” It simply lacks the same drama, urgency, and strong central concept that characterized his best efforts within the genre he helped to define (more on those later).
11. Let’s Dance
This is the height of what slick ’80s Bowie could do. Despite the often dated production (a common complaint, I know, but a valid one), the songs are uniformly strong, fulfilling the prose of its title with a collection of songs that don’t let danceability distract from craftsmanship and great hooks.
10. The Next Day
Bowie enjoyed a major return to form with 2013’s The Next Day, which doesn’t really need the central theme of Bowie’s most celebrated works to be great. It’s simply a collection of strong, intelligent rock songs with the sort of vitality no one expected after his decade-long gap between albums.
9. Aladdin Sane
This is probably what most people think of when they think of Bowie — larger-than-life guitars, theatrical vocals, killer hooks, and gaudy face-paint. Aladdin Sane is a bombastic rock masterwork that sounds quintessentially ’70s but remains as thrilling today as it was upon release.
The final entry of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy is likely the most straightforward of the bunch. It forgoes the ambient excursions in favor of easily distinguishable songs that still boast a whole lot of interesting electronic touches and rich textures, courtesy of Brian Eno. It’s a little disjointed and muddy in parts, but far better than the album’s initial response might have you believe.
7. Young Americans
Bowie’s “plastic soul” record is far more lively than that semi-derisive label might have you believe. From the title track onward, the album is a joy to listen to, co-opting the sounds of soul and R&B while imbuing the sax-heavy proceedings with enough of his own style to distinguish it from its influencers.
Bowie managed one last reinvention before his death earlier this year with the indescribable Blackstar, a truly unique album that seems to exist in the purgatory between life and afterlife. The lyrics are cryptic but heartbreaking, the saxophone beautiful but menacing, and the moody atmosphere perfectly realized.
The mercurial masterpiece of the Berlin trilogy, “Heroes” begins with some of the most rewarding and well-realized songs Bowie ever committed to record (particularly the powerful title track). The second half isn’t quite as strong but far more audacious for its commitment to atmosphere over traditional songwriting. It doesn’t always work, but it’s always fascinating.
The first and best of the Berlin trilogy found Bowie and Eno fusing rock with electronica long before the new wave movement made the combo so commonplace — and what’s more, he managed to outdo most everyone else with songs as brilliantly realized and evolving as “Sound and Vision.”
3. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Bowie’s brand of glam sounds best with a strong story and concept behind it, even if that story is often baffling. Songs like “Suffragette City” and “Hang On to Yourself” are energetic hard-rocking triumphs, but they wouldn’t shine nearly as bright without the emotionally-affecting theatrics of “Five Years” or “Rock n’ Roll Suicide.”
2. Hunky Dory
Bowie would never again sound so in control of his sound than he did for this 1971 triumph. Hunky Dory is all about unassailable vocal hooks and bouncy piano melodies complimented by orchestral arrangements that sound both simple and endlessly complex at the same time.
1. Station to Station
For me, Bowie hit a sweet spot somewhere between his plastic soul, glam, and Berlin periods. Station to Station is an ambitious album too often overlooked. It’s as funky and rhythmic as Young Americans but with better melodies, killer guitar parts, and unpredictable compositions so richly realized I wouldn’t mind if the 10-minute title track went on for another 10 minutes — it’s just that good.
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