If you don’t know who the late and great David Bowie was, you’re one of the lucky few whose heart wasn’t torn out on the 10th of January 2016. Due to his illustrious career, there aren’t many who don’t at least know his name. More than just his music he was an icon.
A catalogue of music spanning almost 50 years sounds impossible to boil down into 5 essential albums. For a newcomer to the Starman this is will be the 5 most quintessentially “Bowie” albums you should own.
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
The brightest jewel in the crown of Bowie’s glam rock days. The 1972 debut of titular character Ziggy Stardust seemed to elaborate on musical ideas incepted in Hunky Dory (released only six months earlier), Even though much of the album was written at the same time.
Made to be a good album to tour with, the album offers a loose concept as another its selling points. As to what this story is remains unknown. You stay spellbound with Ziggy.
Punchy, powerful, captivating, David Bowie’s vocals change depending on what song he’s singing. Channeling Marc Bolan in ‘Hang On To Yourself’ or giving a more natural tone for ‘Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide’ really sells the characters on this story. Ken Scott, the producer, has even been quoted saying “he’s the best vocalist I’ve worked with, so all his vocals were first take.”
This album is an uplifting journey through David Bowie’s most colourful character and has cemented its place as one of the most iconic rock albums not only in Bowie’s canon but the overarching history of rock.
Highlights: Moonage Daydream, Ziggy Stardust, Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide
Station to Station
This 1976 EP is a treasure. An album he doesn’t remember recording station to station was released only 4 years after Ziggy made his debut the Thin White Duke comes out from the darkest depths of David Bowie’s mind.
The album cannot be discussed without the setting it was created in, as it seems to amplify the brilliance and the pain in this album. Moving to Los Angeles, he picked up quite the diet of milk, bell peppers and the most important ingredient cocaine. He even went on to say he’d found a “soulmate” in the drug. In this time he was delving into readings of philosophy, religion and fascism saying ‘I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler.”
All the while Bowie was filming The Man Who Fell To Earth whose main character bore heavy likeness to the Duke. Bowie was not going quietly insane, he was burning out with the heat of a star.
Antics of the Duke are infamous and include David Bowie stoping jars of his urine to hide them from witches.
The album draws on this insanity opening with 10 minute magnum opus ‘Station to Station’ showing Bowie’s new obsessions with religion referencing the Tree of Life in Kabbalah. Sporting ironic lyrics such as “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love” it is a triumphant and mournful moment as you hear the Duke try and make heads or tails of his life.
A mess of art rock, funk and soul this album exceeds expectations and is a memorable journey even if Bowie doesn’t remember it himself.
Highlights: Station to Station, Golden Years, TVC15
The first album of the Berlin Trilogy, which saw David move to Berlin with Iggy Pop to kick the cocaine habit.
Low marks the moment that the persona shed and David Bowie was in the forefront of his music. Choosing to try and shed the rockstar life he lived above a shop and ate in cafés.
Affectionately placed on many Bowie aficionados number 1 Bowie albums, he seemed to partly agree telling NYRock “It was one of the better things I’d ever written – Low, specifically. That was the start, probably for me, of a new way of looking at life.”
Working with Brian Eno and long time collaborator Tony Visconti created beautiful ambient landscapes of music. Using the Eventide H910 Harmonizer which when asked what it does Tony said “It fucks with the fabric of time.”
Bowie was not only alienating himself from his social sphere but the rock heavy sounds of his past as well thus creating an experimentally lush and unmissable chapter in his discography.
Highlights: Sound and Vision, Be My Wife, Warszawa
The eeriest and saddest of Bowie’s albums, released on his 69th birthday, mere days before his death comes another experimental and lavish album.
Produced again by Tony Visconti comes album that draws from all of his previous work; the occult of the Thin White Duke, the obsession with space, the glam, the introspection, the chameleonic tendencies and then adds the Jazz of Donny McCaslin into the mix.
Listening to the album, David battles with mortality, the dissonance and theatrics emphasising this. Bowie’s voice noticeably older and frailer but never failing to hit its mark and pulls all emotion from the very depths of his diaphragm.
Incorporating not only Nadsat but Polari in ‘Girl Loves Me’ is beyond genius. “Where the fuck did monday go” being the lyrics that pull us back into the narrative of this song. Nadsat being the language of 1962 book Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange and Polari being a language used by homosexuals in the 70s to protect their identities when it was illegal. This calls back to the formative years of Bowie and also his Bisexuality.
All the while you can’t shake the feeling that this is David Bowie’s goodbye. It sends shivers down your spine and stands up as so much more than his farewell. Telling us ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’
Highlights: Blackstar, Lazarus, Girl Loves Me, I Can’t Give Everything Away
Scary Monsters And Super Creeps
The day Major Tom came back to life in “Ashes to Ashes” was not a happy day for poor Tom. Reimagined as a junkie, used to reflect the addiction and lifestyle of the decade before. 1980’s Scary Monster and Super Creeps showcased the seething anger below the surface of Bowie’s introspection.
Recorded in New York City, the album seems to capture some of that hustle and bustle. This also marked the last time David would work with Tony Visconti for almost 20 years. Tony has gone on record saying Bowie wanted the record to be more commercial.
Never before and never again would Bowie sound so full of vitriol with songs such as ‘Fashion’ that talked about people following trends that would be out of trend in the blink of an eye. This album never lets up it’s pace until ‘It’s No Game (No.2)’ where David sings an exasperated version of the opening track.
Bowie’s first foray into the 80’s ended up being the last time David Bowie would engage in art rock for a very long time and he ends this era of artistry with a brilliantly executed punch to the gut.
Highlights: It’s No Game (No.1), Ashes to Ashes, Teenage Wildlife
Camille Saint Seana