Today is David Bowie's 68th birthday, and we hope he is somewhere in the world (possibly NYC!) right now enjoying a shepherd's pie with Iman. In honor of the occasion, we've put together a ranking of all 25 of his studio albums.
He was a weirdo art school hippie who never fit in with the '60s; the most important and mercurial artist of the '70s (h/t Brian Eno); the most popular rock 'n roll sellout of the '80s (not that there's anything wrong with that?); he was the guy who kept chasing after the wrong girl in the '90s (especially if that girl was named Drum 'N' Bass); a recluse in the '00s (despite some of his most popular tours ever); and a beloved survivor so far in the '10s.
Bowie has only made three out-and-out terrible albums; there are six that are imperfect but filled with colorful highlights; there are five flawed but lovely ones; there are six excellent records; and there are six perfect records. Check out the list below, with some light commentary, then debate in the comments.
25. David Bowie (1967): Not every first chapter need be defining.
24. Never Let Me Down (1987): The late '80s were really rough (see: Tin Machine). But the title track is a keeper (albeit the only keeper).
23. Tonight (1984): aka Let's Dance Some More, But Maybe We Can Just Dance Really Awkwardly This Time, And Can We Get A Corporate Sponsor As Well? However, it has two keepers ("Blue Jean," "Loving The Alien"), to balance out the garbage (like the worst cover of his career, "God Only Knows"). The less said about the title track (why did he waste Tina Turner?), the better.
22. Space Oddity (1969): Maybe slightly underrated, but also slightly forgettable (title track aside). The jams weren't quite as fleshed out as they would be on his next album, unless you're the type of person who screams for "Memory Of A Free Festival."
21. Black Tie White Noise (1993): The '90s were weird. Bowie dabbled in a new, sorta-irritating genre with every album. He was rarely great, but he was rarely bad, just like this album (exception: the sublime "Jump They Say").
20. Earthling (1997): Take away the percussion/production, and you have Bowie's best album of the '90s. Unfortunately, it's VERY hard to ignore the constant dinka-dinka-dinka of the drum 'n' bass/jungle beats. There are great songs on here if you squint ("Little Wonder," "I'm Afraid Of Americans," "Dead Man Walking").
19. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993): A minor release (a soundtrack for a television series no one saw, no less), but one of the most consistent of the period. "Strangers When We Meet" goes into the Bowie hall of fame on first ballot.
18. 'Hours...' (1999): In which an alien hits middle-age hard. The rockers are pretty anemic, but some of the ballads ("Seven," "Survive") hit the spot. Trigger warning: this is the David Bowie album most likely to be confused with Phil Collins.
17. Outside (1995): Bowie re-teams with Brian Eno to make a Nine Inch Nails record. It doesn't always work, but it's ambitious and dark, and I'd always rather hear Bowie trying to be weird than trying to be old (see above).
16. Pin Ups (1973): "God Only Knows" aside, Bowie is one of the best song interpreters of his era, whether he's tackling his influences ("Alabama Song," "I'm Waiting For My Man"), peers ("Waterloo Sunset," "I've Been Waiting For You"), or descendants ("Cactus," "Kingdom Come"). A Bowie album without a cover thrown in feels off. This stands as his only all-covers collection (made at the height of Ziggy), and it's an immaculate tracklist rendered hit-and-miss in execution. When it hits ("Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," "Sorrow," "Rosalyn") it's as good as any glam record from 1973.
15. Reality (2003): Upon reflection, this one seems rushed; it came out about a year after the superior Heathen and carried a melancholy mood, as if trying to recapture Aladdin Sane but just too tired to balance the hangover with an actual party. "New Killer Star," "Pablo Picasso," and "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon" are all keepers. Whether you think "Bring Me The Disco King" is the best or worst song on the album (and it is probably one of those), it would have made a very unsatisfying finale to his career. Thankfully he came back with The Next Day.
14. Diamond Dogs (1974): Most overrated album in the Bowie canon. Nobody acknowledges that it's a transitional record: halfway done disavowing Ziggy ("Rebel, Rebel"), halfway to Philly soul. Much of the album started as an adaptation of George Orwell, so hope you like lots of swirly disco-lite songs about "Big Brother." But hey, it's still pretty good nevertheless.
13. The Man Who Sold the World (1970): The first album on which Bowie felt like Bowie. His first collaboration with longtime producer Tony Visconti; his first brush with sexually ambiguous infamy (thanks to the cover); the first album with the musicians who would become The Spiders From Mars; and his first truly transcendent song (the title track, duh). Even more remarkably, it's proto-metal without any heaviness. Start here.
12. Young Americans (1975): The greatest 'plastic soul' album ever? Is there even much competition? People hate this record and I don't understand why. Sure, there are quotation marks around a lot of the tunes, but holy moly do they sound good! The talent packed into this thing (John Lennon, Luther Vandross, David Sanborn, Mike Garson, both Earl Slick AND the incomparable Carlos Alomar) is overwhelming. Sure, there's one really bad cover ("Across The Universe"), but that's offset by the fact that "Win" singlehandedly spawned Beck's Midnight Vultures. Give it a chance.
11. Let's Dance (1983): Ok, this one is seemingly hard to defend, but bear with me: as an album, it probably should come somewhere between 15 and 17. But this is the thing: there are eight songs on here, and four are among the most joyous ones Bowie ever made. Listening to the first side of this album (plus "Cat People") is like watching the greatest TV commercials ever made all in a row. You can't help but respect just how great Bowie was at 'selling out,' at least initially (and yes, they make you want to dance).
10. Aladdin Sane (1973): This was my favorite Bowie album in high school, but the glam magic of songs like "Watch That Man" and "The Prettiest Star" have worn off a bit over the years. On the other hand, Mike Garson's piano playing, particularly on the title track and "Lady Grinning Soul," are ageless. "The Jean Genie" is clever and catchy and "Panic In Detroit" is a classic deep cut. It all feels a little less than the whole, but who cares when "Drive-In Saturday" can still give you goosebumps.
9. The Next Day (2013): If it is his last album, it is not a bad way to go out. There's a little of every Bowie period sprinkled throughout this one (even some dreaded jungle textures on the pretty neat "If You Can See Me"). The supremely poppy tracks ("I'd Rather Be High," "Dancing Out In Space," "Valentine's Day") are his most straight forward songs since the early '70s; but for the record, the best ones ("Heat," "The Next Day," "Love Is Lost") are a genre that can only be described as Bowiesque.
8. Heathen (2002) The single most underrated Bowie album in his cannon, a sonic (if not lyrical) reflection on the anxious period around 9/11 (although Bowie claims he wrote most of the album before the attack, it's hard not to read into tracks like "Sunday"). It's Scott Walker if he really loved the Pixies. It's David Bowie re-engaging with his muse and declaring "nothing has changed/everything has changed." This is the great late period Bowie album everyone should own.
7. Lodger (1979): Oy, scratch what I said before. This is the most underrated Bowie album. The third part of his collaborations with Brian Eno was more of a travelogue, with stops in Memphis ("Move On"), Turkey ("Yassasin"), Germany ("Red Sails"), London ("DJ") and more. It had no true hits ("Boys Keep Swinging" was no "Heroes," though it did spawn an awesome SNL moment), but instead, is an album filled with deep cuts.
6. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980): The platonic ideal of Bowie albums. A dusting of self-referential singles ("Ashes To Ashes"), disco funk totalitarianism ("Fashion"), pure acoustic pop ("Up The Hill Backwards"), guitar-shredding nonsense ("It's No Game"), '80s goth (title track), a dash of Pete Townsend ("Because You're Young"), and to top it off, the addictive, epic, calling-out-the-imitators battle cry of "Teenage Wildlife." Every Bowie album since will be compared to this one for a damn good reason.
5. Hunky Dory (1971): An alien arrives on Earth, listens to a lot of Kinks records, really gets into Nietzsche, and learns to play piano. The rest is all history and blue eyeliner.
4. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972): The concept album was probably the most ridiculously overblown and unimportant development in rock music in the late '60s/early '70s. Rock operas destroyed Ray Davies and are responsible for the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band movie. They're anathema to some of the core concepts of rock and roll (as one elder statesmen once put it, "we learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school"). Ziggy Stardust is not about the concept: it's just the 10 best pop songs Bowie ever wrote (plus one perfectly fine cover) on one disc. It is probably how most people think of Bowie (assuming they aren't thinking about the "Dancing In The Streets" video) for a good reason.
3. Station to Station (1976): The greatest six song album in popular music history (or something). This is evidence A, B, C, D, E, and F that sometimes ingesting massive quantities of cocaine can produce great results (even if you don't really remember making it).
2. Heroes (1977): The title track, on its own, is Bowie's single greatest song; it is a man howling into a blizzard in the middle of a battle that has dragged on much too long. Every other song on the record is a diary entry from this war. It is abrasive ("Blackout") and creepy ("Sense Of Doubt") at times; it is hopeful ("V-2 Schneider") and swaggering ("Beauty And The Beast"). It's someone at the top of their game. And fun fact: virtuoso lead guitarist Robert Fripp recorded all his parts in one day.
1. Low (1977) Synesthesia is a condition by which the senses are all jumbled together to produce magical mixtures; often, people with it can visualize sounds into colors, tastes and feelings. Low, made up of oblique song fragments and half instrumental mood pieces, is synesthesia in the form of a plastic record. It is the Bowie album whose sound remains vibrant and elastic nearly 40 years later. It is an orange popsicle. "Don't you wonder sometimes? Bout sound and vision?"