David Bowie is and has been one of the most innovative and brilliant artists in the world of popular music. His constant reinvention of himself, his sound, and his style keep listeners glued to their stereos and televisions to see what he will do next. He has produced, as an artist, over twenty-five albums of material, and that’s not even including his Tin Machine albums, soundtracks, and his DERAM works pre-“Space Oddity”. Not to mention the fact that Bowie, now over fifty-five years of age, is still producing quality work, with an album forthcoming this year! So how do we begin to eliminate from such a large body of work?
Well, we begin with the above mentioned titles, excluding anything from DERAM, which is now at times, not even considered to be `must haves’ among even his biggest fans and collectors. His soundtracks for Labyrinth, Christiane F., and Buddha of Suburbia, although having moments of merit, should also be on the chopping block as they are not `albums’ in the context of our purview since they were created to accompany a particular director’s vision and not as songs created as songs in themselves. Need I go into an explanation of why to exclude Tin Machine? (Critic’s note: “I Can’t Read” and “Under the God” are good songs, especially the slowed down version of the former which appears at the end of the film The Ice Storm but let’s not get nuts).
What next? We must exclude any Greatest Hits or singles compilations. Any fan or critic worth his salt knows this and I shouldn’t have to explain this choice either, although there is always some yahoo who claims these as an artist’s best album for the mere fact that it contains every “best song”. Phooey. That’s right, I said phooey. Don’t get me started on Greatest Hits packages as marketing gimmicks. This brings us to live albums, which are next for the gallows. These moves eliminate David Live, Stage, and in a strange double elimination, Ziggy Stardust the Motion Picture as both a live album and soundtrack. I hear moans and groans already as the latter is a fan favorite, but we have to make tough choices here. Along these lines I will remove Bowie at the Beeb from the running as it is for all intents and purposes a live or `alternate versions’ album. As the last of the “technical” eliminations, we must exclude “Pin Ups” as it is a `covers’ album and I believe that only albums with a majority of the artists own work should be counted.
What we are left with is a selection of twenty albums from Bowie’s storied solo career. This is still too many and we must continue to eliminate before we even get to the mathematical portion of the process. One easy way is to cut out two out of his four albums from the eighties, not his strongest period by far, Tonight and Never Let Me Down. “Blue Jean” is the only hit from Tonight and the fact that the best songs on the CD are its bonus tracks, “This is Not America” and “Absolute Beginners”, proves that the original album tracks do not hold up. Never Let Me Down is a tad better than Tonight with a few more listenable tracks (“Day-In Day-Out” and “Time Will Crawl”), but as the rest of the album is mediocre, it’s time for it to go.
I think we also have to sadly eliminate any of his more recent work from the nineties to now, as they haven’t had a chance to stand the test of time quite yet. So we start with Black Tie White Noise. Why they are re-releasing this album in England as a two-disc, plus a DVD set is beyond me. While I don’t doubt its merit as a watermark in a change of his sound and style, it is not one of his best. (This being said, I’m sure I’ll be one of the first people in line if it is ever released on this side of the Atlantic). Outside has its moments and has some of my favorite songs on it (“The Hearts Filthy Lesson”, “Hallo Spaceboy”, “I’m Deranged”, and “Strangers When We Meet”), but after you take out all of the segues and tracks that add to the album’s theme, you end up with a good EP. Hours had a neat moving image cover…moving on. Heathen quickly became one of my favorites as it hearkened back to a time when Bowie was at his best, but it is just too new to include. Sorry, I hurt too. Earthling is the toughest one out of this group to leave behind as I LOVE this album from beginning to end. This album renewed my love for David Bowie’s music and is one of his most inspired works. I would like to make an exception, but this process requires tough decisions to be made and it has to go, only being six years old and all. Sob. Sniffle.
As I stated earlier, Bowie has gone through a lot of transformation over the years and a lot of his work can be grouped into specific looks or styles (i.e. the Ziggy years, the Eno years, the Thin White Duke era, etc.) One of the worst looks he has ever had was his blonde pompadour, excess of the eighties’ image with Let’s Dance. Although this album had some of his biggest hits, it has to go. Besides, the album only had eight tracks on it! And now we are down to twelve. The game steps up another level and becomes harder and harder. Where to next?
Space Oddity is next, that’s what. Most people would want to include this one as one of his best for sentimental reasons as it is his real first album, but let’s face it, even his biggest fans, myself included, only listen to maybe three songs from it. Those three are different for different fans, mind you. Mine are “Space Oddity”, “God Knows I’m Good” and “Memory of a Free Festival”. In that same vein, we can remove The Man Who Sold the World. Oh, shut up Nirvana fans! This is another case where the Ryko bonus tracks are better than the original album as a whole and is probably more recognized for having its cover changed in the U.S. because of his appearance in a dress on the original. This doesn’t make it a great album, only a controversial one.
I only want to include one album from the Eno trilogy as I think you can really almost arbitrarily judge them all as one album. So I choose to take out Heroes and Lodger. Lodger is the easiest of the three to remove as it just doesn’t stand up to the other two in content. Heroes, albeit a little tougher, still doesn’t hold up to Low track for track, although the title song is probably one of my all-time favorites. (And the Wallflowers should be punished severely for ruining it).
Scary Monsters has three incredible tracks in “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”, “Ashes to Ashes”, and “Fashion”. These three are easily some of the best he’s ever written. But three songs do not a great album make.
The same can be said for Young Americans. This is another album that is a departure stylistically for Bowie as he was seeking a more soulful sound. And this album contains one less incredible song than Scary Monsters. (“Young Americans” and “Fame” are its two standouts.) Although the portion of “Young Americans” in which he sings “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry” while the backup singers intone “I read the news today oh boy” from the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” is one of his finest moments EVER.
What can I say about Station to Station? One of my personal favorites for sure, but the album only has six tracks. Six quality tracks, yes, but we have to draw some lines people. What throws this off is that “Golden Years” would have probably fit better on the “Young Americans” album which makes the rest a great EP.
Diamond Dogs is about half brilliant, but the other half drags it down just enough to keep it out the top three. (Critic’s note: “1984” is just about as damn cool and funky as “Shaft”)
I’m going back on what I said earlier and am eliminating Low. While I love the Eno era, half of the album is experimental weirdness and while has its own merit, we’re judging on consistency.
And then there were three…
Now we can begin the mathematical portion of our little pageant. The remaining three albums are 1971’s Hunky Dory, 1972’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and 1973’s Aladdin Sane. Two of the albums have eleven original tracks and one has ten, so they are pretty evenly matched mathematically. Let’s get started shall we?
Changes = 5
Oh! You Pretty Things = 4
Eight Line Poem = 2
Life on Mars? = 5*
Kooks = 2
Quicksand = 4
Fill Your Heart = 3
Andy Warhol = 2
Song for Bob Dylan = 4
Queen Bitch = 3
The Bewlay Brothers = 4
Five Years = 4
Soul Love = 3
Moonage Daydream = 5
Starman = 4
It Ain’t Easy = 3
Lady Stardust = 3
Star = 3
Hang Onto Yourself = 4
Ziggy Stardust = 5*
Suffragette City = 5
Rock `n’ Roll Suicide = 4
Total = 43
Watch That Man = 4
Aladdin Sane = 3
Drive In Saturday = 3
Panic In Detroit = 5
Cracked Actor = 5
Time = 3
Prettiest Star = 3
Let’s Spend the Night Together = 3
The Jean Genie = 5*
Lady Grinning Soul = 3
Total = 37
(Notes: -1 point on “Queen Bitch”, “It Ain’t Easy” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” for the fact that they’re covers).
So, there you have it, David Bowie’s best album, by no surprise to most, is 1972’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. On second thought, while I’ve been writing this, I’ve been listening to Black Tie White Noise and have decided that screw all this math stuff, that is his best album ever…Just kidding.
*denotes Bowie’s best track per album