by Nicholas Tristan, Features Editor
13. Black Tie White Noise (1993)
David Bowie has “returned to form” by many count, no less than five times. And Black Tie White Noise was certainly one of these, with Bowie coming out of the wilderness after his campy 80s run. If Tonight was Batman and Robin, Black Tie White Noise is Batman Begins. That’s a laboured metaphor, huh?
Black Tie White Noise showcases Bowie adapting to 90s trends, as he always has. It’s not a perfect album, by any means, but it showcases Bowie performing some electrifying, spellbinding music. The lead single, “Jump They Say”, is a dark odyssey, and I love the rocking cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free”
14. Diamond Dogs (1974)
In many circles, Diamond Dogs is known as “the one with the horrifying cover”. And these circles are correct -- yeesh.
The album itself is good, but again, a bit of a let down when compared with the insanely high heights of Bowie’s 70s career. A few key cuts are on the record -- I’m particularly fond of “Sweet Thing”, and “Rebel Rebel” is Bowie doing some classic proto-punk, but as a whole it’s much less interesting than Bowie’s 70s output.
15. Pin Ups (1973)
We’re into the Golden Age of Bowie, with what I consider to be his weakest from the 70s. For one thing, it’s a cover album. The song choices are impeccable (Them’s classic “Here Comes the Night”, The Who’s “I Can’t Explain”, and The Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things” being stand outs), but the whole thing lacks a certain coherency. Cover albums can be exceptional, but Pin Ups seems like a bit of a diversion compared to the albums that preceded it. Not much else to say about this one, really.
16. Heathen (2002)
Heathen has one of the best album covers in Bowie’s canon, and that puts it in some pretty rarified air. The album itself is less memorable, but it’s still a worthy addition to late-era Bowie. The songs are good, more muted than even the pretty laid back Reality, but full of twisty, jagged melodies and unsettled chord progressions.
The album works because, after so much genre hopping and redefinition, it’s good to get an album that is so clearly defined as just being about the songwriting and the beauty of Bowie’s voice. Bowie has always had a love of covering other songs, and his cover of Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You” is gorgeous here.
Heathen also marked the return of producer Tony Visconti, who had been a crucial part of Bowie’s team since Space Oddity. The last album the two had worked on together before this was the classic Scary Monsters in 1980, so the album’s “return to form” may be augmented by Visconti’s involvement.
17. David Bowie/Space Oddity (1969)
In 1969, Davie Bowie fully embraced psychedelic folk and recorded one of the most enduring pop-folk songs of all time: “Space Oddity”. The album that served to reinvent Bowie after his debut was received less than rapturously is also a mixed bag, but it’s so much closer to the brilliance of his 70s albums. “Space Oddity” is obviously the standout track, but “God Knows I’m Good” would have fit right in on the superior The Man Who Sold The World.
It’s hard to believe that such a competent and compelling album comes in at 16th -- but that’s just how good Bowie is.
18. Let’s Dance (1983)
I have a love-hate relationship with Let’s Dance. On the one hand, it’s Bowie’s goofiest album and it inspired a lot of shitty imitators throughout the 80s. On the other hand, it’s a pop masterpiece that spawned four unstoppable singles: the title track, “China Girl”, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”, and best of all “Modern Love”.
So even though the production values make me cringe, it’s hard to deny the impact of a song like “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” (used by Quentin Tarantino to absolutely sublime effect in Inglourious Basterds), and unlike Tonight or Never Let Me Down the passion is clearly there.
Other than these four amazing songs, though, the album is a whole lot of nothing. This is clearly an extremely important album that helped shape pop music in the 80s, but I’m happy to just rock out to the singles when they come on the radio.
19. Reality (2003)
This album is probably best remembered as “the one where David Bowie is an anime”. As well it should be.
In the 2000s, after the decidedly mixed bag of his electronic experimentation of the 90s, Bowie went “back to basics” by focusing on the song writing. The result is much closer to his pre-Berlin albums, with “New Killer Star” in particular sounding like an unused track from Diamond Dogs or Aladdin Sane.
The limp production lets the songwriting down, though -- like a lot of the music being produced in this era, production decisions could be characterized as “whatever works”. Flat, uninspired mixes that tended to veer towards squashing everything into the middle register dominate the album.
Reality is worth checking out for sure, though for some reason it is one of the few Bowie albums not available on Spotify.
20. Earthling (1997)
It’s David Bowie’s drum and bass album! Why? Because it was the 90s, of course!
There’s a lot to like on the album. It features Bowie’s excellent collaboration with Trent Reznor, “I’m Afraid of Americans”, which was used to great effect on the soundtracks to both David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. “Little Wonder” is so comically 90s that it sounds like it should playing on the loading screen for FIFA ‘99, but it still works.
The album works if you feel like some classic 90s techno with David Bowie warbling over it -- if that sounds unbearable to you, don’t bother. The songs are, for the most part, nothing special; so let yourself be overwhelmed by the electronic style.
Fun fact: this is the first David Bowie album I ever listened to in its entirety, having borrowed it from the Red Deer Public Library when I was about ten years old. Because all the kids those days were super into Bowie’s drum and bass stuff and I just wanted to be cool.
21. David Bowie (1967)
Back in time! It’s David Bowie’s debut album, released in 1967. Here David Bowie is somewhere in between the troubadour folk singer in the Donovan mold and the strange glam idol he would soon become. While the songwriting isn’t awful, the songs are for the most part painfully provincial, full of inane lyrics and childish rhymes.
And even though his voice isn’t yet up to snuff either, there’s a lot that would have separated him from other folk singers at the time. Bowie imparts the childish lyrics with a lot of wit and warmth, and songs like “She’s Got Medals” feel almost like a lost Syd Barrett track. Even when he was trying to be a teen idol, David Bowie was unsettling and weird.
22. Outside (1995)
Outside is from a very interesting stage in Bowie’s career -- one where he clearly wants to return to being an innovator and experimenter. The album is angular, frequently strange, and wildly inconsistent.
Outside marks the return of Brian Eno into Bowie’s life, the two men having not worked with each other since Lodger in 1979. Eno’s influence is pretty clear on the album, which makes extremely effective use of ambient sounds and heavily overdubbed synthesizers. “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” is a good representation of the album -- Bowie muttering a half-written tune overtop of a pulsing industrial beat.
For all the album’s production bombast, Bowie seems pretty restrained vocally here. “Hallo Spaceboy” literally begins with an explosion, but Bowie’s sleepy vocal brings the entire track down. He seems to be very inspired by Nine Inch Nails throughout the entire album (Reznor and Bowie would record together -- we’ll get to that soon), but there’s a difference between Bowie’s half-hearted vocalizing here and Trent Reznor’s urgent whispering.
23. Never Let Me Down (1987)
Never Let Me Down came directly after the disaster of Tonight, and the best thing that can be said about it is that it’s at least an improvement. It manages to be an even more 80s experience than Let’s Dance or Tonight through the Mark Knopfler-esque guitar solos, nightclub-ready beats, tight horn sections, and the Springsteen-aping vocals on “Beat On Your Drum”. It’s all very slick and inoffensive.
This is probably the album I’d be most likely to describe as a guilty pleasure -- akin to bopping along to a not very good 80s cover band at a dive bar. The title track inexplicably has an obtrusive harmonic part, “New York’s In Love” sounds like it should be scoring a speedboat chase in an episode of Miami Vice (...New York Vice?), and the whole album just barely works. Worth your time if you’re getting hyped up for your “Wall Street” themed party.
It should also be noted that Mickey Rourke raps on this album, because say it with me kids: it was the 80s.
24. ‘Hours’... (1999)
Okay, we’re out of the woods here. Nothing compares to the embarrassing disaster that is Tonight, and from here on out we’re dealing in, at the very worst, interesting missteps. ‘Hours’ is an unsuccessful album, ending a particularly spotty decade for Bowie, but it swings for the fences in a way Tonight doesn’t even attempt.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: yes, it’s “New Age” Bowie. The production is regrettable and was probably even pretty dated in the late-90s. The key difference between this and Tonight is that the songs are just...better. “Seven” is a genuinely good pop song, and “Thursday’s Child”’s melody twists and turns just enough to keep it interesting.
Unfortunately, the average song on the album is pretty dull. This is an album for the Bowie diehards only. Or for fans of the video game Omikron: The Nomad Soul, which many of the songs were originally written for, and is it today fondly remembered by all good children of America.
25. Tonight (1984)
Some days I think David Bowie has never made a terrible album -- even his less successful albums are conceptually strong, and they’re made all the more admirable by their failed ambition.
But then I remember Tonight exists. Oh boy.
This is not a good album. This is not an admirable failure. This is an excrementally conceived album that somehow manages to be executed even worse.
This is the Ronald Reagan version of David Bowie. All the wit, danger, and passion that populate his earlier albums (even his earlier 80s pop collection Let’s Dance) are gone, and they’re replaced with slick, cocaine-fueled visions of a nightmare decade. There isn’t a good song on the album, and if there was it would be almost impossible to tell, since the entire album sounds like it was recorded and mixed by the same guy who records Disney Channel original musicals. This is not only Bowie’s worst album, it’s in the running for one of the worst albums of the decade.