Today is David Bowie's 69th birthday (69!!!!!!!), and hopefully he is somewhere in NYC indulging in a delicious shepherd's pie (his favorite food) and contemplating whether to blow his fans' minds tonight.
To mark the occasion last year, we put together a definitive list ranking all 25 of his studio albums. But seeing as how Bowie decided to release his 26th studio album today, the fascinatingly jazzy seven-track Blackstar, we thought it would only be right to update the list. Plus, after having another year to listen through Bowie's oeuvre, we really wanted to fiddle with our rankings a tiny bit. (As you'll see, Outside and Diamond Dogs benefitted the most, while The Next Day and Let's Dance were bumped back to more reasonable positions.)
So just like last year, no live albums, no compilations, no soundtracks (except the all-original, all-new The Buddha Of Suburbia, sorry Labyrinth), and no Tin Machine (oy vey baby indeed).
Bowie has only made three out-and-out terrible albums; there are five that are imperfect but filled with colorful highlights; there are six pretty good records; there are six excellent records; and there are six perfect records. Check out the list below, then debate in the comments.
Happy birthday, boo pic.twitter.com/xIqoez2oS5
— sideshow (@sideshow) January 8, 2016
26. David Bowie (1967): Not every first chapter need be defining.
25. Never Let Me Down (1987): The late '80s were really rough (can you imagine him becoming a rhythm guitarist in Tin Machine during any other point in his career?). But the title track is a real keeper, make sure you put it on your Bowie '80s mixtape (and "Time Will Crawl" and "Julie" are, ya know, not terrible).
24. Tonight (1984): aka Let's Dance Some More, Aren't We Having A Great Time, Dance Dance Dance, Can Someone Get Us A Corporate Sponsor? It's not a good album, but it has two big keepers ("Blue Jean," "Loving The Alien") that 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.
23. Space Oddity (also known as "David Bowie") (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." But even if the songwriting isn't quite in place yet (it sounds like he was listening to a lot of early hippie-period T Rex at the time), there are still charming moments on songs such as "Letter To Hermione" and "God Knows I'm Good."
22. 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"). Having said that, this album sounds a lot better to me post-Blackstar, so if you're looking for more deep cuts, check out "You've Been Around," "Miracle Goodnight," and the very LiteFM "Don't Let Me Down & Down."
21. Earthling (1997): Take away the percussion/production, and you have Bowie's (second) 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"). Note: some fans are very passionate about this album, as I learned the hard way last year ("stop shitting on Earthling"). So while it is a fun album, the production has aged really, really poorly (see: "Telling Lies"). Whoops, I just shat on Earthling more!
20. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993): A minor release (a soundtrack for a much-forgotten British television series), but one of the most consistent of the period. "Strangers When We Meet" goes into the Bowie hall of fame on first ballot.
19. '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. The worst part is that this is the most tired Bowie has ever sounded, causing a bit of whiplash just two years after the over-caffeinated rush of Earthling. Trigger warning: this is the David Bowie album most likely to be confused with Phil Collins.
18. 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 though ("Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," "Sorrow," "Rosalyn"), it's as good as any glam record from 1973.
17. Reality (2003): Upon reflection, this one seems rushed; it came out about a year after the superior Heathen and carried a sugary-but-melancholy mood, as if trying to recapture Aladdin Sane but too tired to balance the hangover with an actual party (another interpretation I've read: it's Bowie trying to redo Never Let Me Down, but get it right). "New Killer Star," "Pablo Picasso," and "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon" are all keepers. "Bring Me The Disco King" is also a towering achievement (all praise to Mike Garson), but it would have made a somewhat unsatisfying finale to his career.
16. 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. If you're going chronologically, start here.
15. Outside (1995): Bowie re-teams with Brian Eno to make a Nine Inch Nails record, and comes away with his best album of the '90s. This album deserves way more praise than that description would have you believe (even though...it's pretty much accurate). The album is too long and the segues don'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: 'Hours...'). Make sure to check out "I Have Not Been To Oxford Town," "Thru' These Architects Eyes," "The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction," "The Heart's Filthy Lessons," and the title track.
14. Let's Dance (1983): Last year, I let my love for the first half of the record cloud my judgement a bit. This is not a great Bowie album, but it is the vehicle for four of the most joyous songs 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).
13. The Next Day (2013): 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. It may have been a bit overrated on last year's list (it came in at #9), but if you threw out "Boss Of Me" and "Dancing Out In Space" and put on two of the excellent shoulda-been-on-the-album bonus tracks (such as "Born In The UFO," "I'll Take You There," "So She" or "Atomica"), it makes the top 10.
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. Blackstar (2016): Sure, it's waaaaaay premature to rank this album, which was officially released today. But where's the fun in leaving it out?
At first this sounded like a more tasteful, but still hard-to-love update on Black Tie White Noise—but two weeks worth of subsequent listens have proven that this is Bowie's most disarming album, and the spiritual successor to Station To Station. That's most clear in the epic title track and the album-closing "I Can't Give Everything Away," the latter of which is like his own strange (but still vulnerable) "Wild Is The Wind." The jazz quartet backing band, the song lengths, and the unconventional structures all have a veneer of impenetrability, but this adventurous album is still packed with hooks all around (especially "Girl Love Me," "Lazarus" and "Tis A Pity She Was A Whore"). Unlike The Next Day, which seems more and more like it's plateaued as a Very Good Bowie Rock Album, this is an album that might seem even mightier in a few years.
10. Diamond Dogs (1974): This is an album that grows on you over the years, especially the epic "Sweet Thing"/"Candidate"/"Sweet Thing (Reprise)" trilogy. 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 hopefully you enjoy the occasional swirly disco-lite song about "Big Brother."
9. Aladdin Sane (1973): David Bowie, still in Glam Alien mode, reflects on a year of roaming Nixon's America. There's a fair amount of Stones-inspired tracks ("Watch That Man," "Let's Spend The Night Together") for a good reason: this remains his most fun album. And Mike Garson's piano playing, particularly on the title track and "Lady Grinning Soul," is 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.
8. Heathen (2002) The single most overlooked 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): This is the most underrated Bowie album. The third part of his late-'70s collaboration 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 entirely 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"), shuffling 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 drove Ray Davies batty 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 though: 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. 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 far 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.
2. Station to Station (1976): The greatest six song album in popular music history (probably). 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).
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, elastic and surprising nearly 40 years later. (I listened to side two of this record three times last night alone.) It is an orange popsicle. "Don't you wonder sometimes? Bout sound and vision?"