With the passing of music’s greatest shapeshifter only a few days ago, writers at Nouse have felt it only necessary to look back at the unparalleled variety of David Bowie’s discography selecting a few favourites and key moments that made the man nothing less than an absolute icon.
Hunky Dory – 1971
Hunky Dory finds itself on the boundary between the glam-heavy The Man Who Sold the World and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, where things get really weird. The immutable ‘Changes’ opens this little musical lagoon, Bowie treats us to a collection that’s not only unmistakably seventies in its warm, fuzzy recording tones and timeless in the longevity of its hits but impossible to pin down into a single style or tone.
From melancholy in ‘Quicksand’ and ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ to the dramatic and impassioned ‘Life on Mars’, it offers a window into every possible mood. The album as a whole avoids the label of ‘produced’ so effectively that it seems hard to believe there were multiple takes or mixes at all. The heavy use of acoustic instruments and inclusion of banter between the individuals in the studio in ‘Andy Warhol’ make the whole thing feel like the most musically adept party ever held.
The fact that it was recorded before Bowie even had a label is testament to this. Perhaps humbled by the situation in which he found himself, Bowie reveals himself to be highly in touch with his influences, referencing not only Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol but slipping dark, Nietzschian references into apparently light works like ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. If necessity is the mother of invention, Hunky Dory is Bowie at his most inventive – Jack Richardson
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – 1972
As a twelve year old who’d just been given an iPod shuffle for his birthday, my music was at best eclectic and at worst pretty embarrassing. Mostly lifted from dodgy torrents on my sister’s computer, I had no idea who or what I was listening to. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was one of the few exceptions that managed to endure beyond the shambles that were my early teenage years. I didn’t really know who David Bowie was until a few years later, but somehow the album had staying power. It served as a route into music I had yet to experience, while still holding its own.
The album follows the journey of Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, a bisexual Rockstar who is visited by aliens in his dreams. From the rebirth of Stardust’s career in ‘Moonage Daydream’ and ‘Starman’, explorations of drug use and sexuality, the shallow excesses of ‘Ziggy Stardust’, right up until Ziggy’s eventual on stage death in ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’, the album is in equal parts mournful, hopeful and exploratory. It follows the life and death of an inspired, but fallible, artist who went out performing, and it feels all the more relevant in the light of the past week – Liam Mullally
Aladdin Sane – 1973
David Bowie’s sixth studio album Aladdin Sane is probably more famous for its cover art. An electrifying lightning bolt stretches across Bowie’s face, painted in glossy red and blue paint. This look would later become one of Bowie’s most iconic, along with his Ziggy Stardust costumes and his unforgettable eyepatch phase. It is a look copied over the world by Bowie fans, a badge of recognition and allegiance for his worldwide following. This being said, Bowie’s creative genius shines through his songs as much as through his aesthetic transformation.
When read aloud, it is apparent that Aladdin Sane is a clever pun of the phrase ‘a lad insane’, and truly, this album is insane. Over a mere forty minutes, Bowie manages to encompass a tribute to 1950s doo-wop on ‘Drive-In Saturday’, a futuristic account of a population who must view porn films in drive-through cinemas in order to remember how to reproduce. On ‘Panic in Detroit’, he incorporates salsa beats and conga drums, and ‘Jean Genie’ is a rambling R&B-infused rock anthem. To any other artist it would seem impossible to incorporate so many genres into one album, but of course, Bowie succeeds, and the result is a schizophrenic rock masterpiece – Sophie Worning
Young Americans – 1975
1975’s Young Americans represented David Bowie’s transition from the glam rock Ziggy Stardust days to a soul-inspired, funk-infused sound influenced heavily by black music of the sixties and seventies.
The album was one of the earlier examples of Bowie’s ability to completely change the sound and genre of his music; an ability that throughout his career has seen him encompass an immense number of genres from glam rock to electronic via soul, dance and, of course, pop. Young Americans sees Bowie deliver a number of beautiful, tender vocals such as can be found on ‘Fascination’ and ‘Right’. These slower, soul ballads are accompanied by the likes of ‘Fame’, a fantastically funky collaboration between Bowie and fellow music legend John Lennon. Thanks to this, the record is one of Bowie’s most toe-tapping releases from his illustrious back-catalogue. Finally, there’s the exquisite and epic title track, ‘Young Americans’, which hits out at many issues from the USA’s history including the oppression of black people and Richard Nixon’s tarnished administration as President, ensuring the album’s lyrical genius, and unflinching relevance – Jack Davies
Station to Station – 1976
The cocaine fuelled, soulful David Bowie created the album Station to Station under his final persona of the Thin White Duke. It may not be the most glorified David Bowie album, and he may not remember actually writing it, but in only six (albeit long) songs, Station to Station incorporates glamour, style, emotion and of course the fabulous funk, dance track of ‘Golden Years’. Opening with a synthesised train and moving through powerful rock, choral voices, and avant-garde pop, Station to Station envelops a variety of styles which encapsulate Bowie’s career that is so distinctly shaped around his aesthetic and image.
The structure of the album is decidedly pleasing, and one of his more accessible albums despite it receiving criticism at the time. Many said the album lacked emotion in comparison to his earlier work, but looking back it is clear that Station to Station marks a mid point transition in Bowie’s career, reworking blues and soul, ending the life of Ziggy Stardust and bringing in influences from german electronica before moving onto his Berlin Trilogy. Many now consider it as one of the greatest albums of all time – Martha Wright
Low – 1977
Despite it not containing any of his most popular songs and having been met with a mixed critical reception upon its release in 1977, Low stands out as the quintessential David Bowie album – even if it is his most confounding. It is defined by the fact that it reinvents itself midway through – going from a fractured, fast paced and funk influenced first half to a second half which contains meditative, ambient and largely instrumental songs. This is exactly why Low defines Bowie, despite its inaccessible nature – as an artist who reinvented himself with every album he made in the Seventies and has had a lasting impact on both mainstream and alternative culture, this is a perfect personal statement.
Reinvention aside, however, part of what makes Low so brilliant is the fact that it is extremely sonically rewarding. The use of jazz saxophone in “Subterraneans” and synths in “What In The World” and “Sound and Vision” add dazzling texture to the largely minimalist album. Moments such as the indefinite fadeout after a perfect guitar solo on “Be My Wife” and the falling vocals in the second half of “Weeping Wall”, meanwhile, make this extremely diverse album a cohesive and exceptional whole – Christoph Macdowall
“Heroes” – 1977
Berlin changed Bowie. After retreating to Europe to drop the drugs and push through the dark insecurity that had plagued the recordings of Young Americans and Station to Station, Bowie had begun to resurface stronger, smarter and simply more relevant than he had been in the years leading up to Low. Released only a few months after Low, “Heroes” continues Bowie’s dive into murky yet sharp experimentation with the record bouncing off it’s half pop-song, half ambient experiment structure washed through by the eclectic Brian Eno and kicked sharply by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp on guitar.
Unlike Low and the final record in Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy Lodger, “Heroes” bites and scratches yet at the same time soothes and settles. Tracks including the jiving surrealist opener ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and the driving, Kraut-rock soaked ‘Heroes’ soar and thud before morphing into the ethereal later tracks of ‘Moss Garden’ and ‘Neukoln’ that swell and waltz through Arabic and Eastern experimental production settling a thick, powerful release. “Heroes” moreso than any of his other releases depicts a Bowie that has grown and resurfaced knowing that change was his only option, but thankfully, this change has and will stand the test of time as one of Bowie’s finest – Ant Noonan
Let’s Dance – 1983
Following Bowie’s return with the jagged and heavily layered Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), 1983’s Let’s Dance adopted an incredibly contrasting approach to both song writing and sound that Bowie had yet to display. With co-production being handled by the enigmatic Nile Rodgers of Chic, Bowie emerged with his most popular and commercially successful record yet, blending the explosive pop of ‘Modern Love’ and disco-drenched ‘Let’s Dance’ with the sleek and sultry whispers of Iggy Pop’s ‘China Girl’ and raw fight in ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire).
Out of the disco storm that Let’s Dance kicked up, Bowie found himself once again thrust into the public eye yet on an incredibly mainstream and arguably foreign platform compared to his former artistic and alternative existence. Bowie felt as though he had to pander to larger audiences leaving him uncomfortable with the legacy of said record. Although, despite his personal feelings it is undeniably Bowie’s sexiest and most energetic release and for every time we hear the rising vocal lines of ‘Let’s Dance’ whilst running to the dance-floor, we can thank the man himself – Ant Noonan
The Next Day – 2013
By 2013 most Bowie fans and admirers had believed retirement had struck their idol. Forums flashed up asking of his health and discussing his final performance in 2006, wondering whether he’d return with anything new or simply continue to live privately with his young family in New York. Such heated discussion came to a surprising halt when on Bowie’s 66th birthday it was announced that a new record, The Next Day would be released in the coming year with the record itself dropping in March of 2013.
Bowie had returned once more and saw absolute acclaim for The Next Day, a record touching on memory, the past and observational perspectives about individuals including a high-school shooter in ‘Valentine’s Day’ and a Second World War soldier in ‘I’d Rather Be High’. Bowie’s stark reminiscence is clear to be the high point of the album with the stand out track, ‘Where Are We Now’ detailing the fading memories of his Berlin years in the 70s, highlighted further through the artwork of the record being a manipulation of his 1977 release “Heroes”. The Next Day signified that no matter what, Bowie was here and Bowie had never left, something we should keep in mind now and certainly in the future – Ant Noonan
Blackstar – 2016
The album that will go down as his swansong, but in reality so much more, Bowie proved on Blackstar that he could still be as culturally relevant and sonically innovative as ever throughout an unparalleled career. The album is fantastic in its own right; experimental as always, Bowie delivers a song (‘Girl Loves Me’) entirely in Nadsat, demonstrating yet again his ability to push the boundaries of popular music. This is why the record received rave reviews from critics even before the legend’s death.
But the quality of the record takes on an entirely new level now that the context of it has been revealed, as that of Bowie being a dying man as he wrote and recorded it. It affords the listener a deep understanding of the darkness and spectres of death that loom throughout the record, with Bowie singing on ‘Lazarus’ “look up here, I’m in heaven”. Blackstar provides a powerful snapshot of the thoughts and feelings of a music legend coming to terms with the end of his life, and serves as a final glittering gift from one of the most distinctive, inventive, and masterful figures in the history of pop music – Jack Davies