by Nicholas Tristan, Features Editor
1. Station to Station (1976)
Released in between Bowie’s flirtations with blue-eyed soul (1975’s Young Americans) and his stint in Berlin as well as a vehicle for Bowie’s “Thin White Duke” persona, Station to Station is the most quintessentially David Bowie album in existence. Experimental, weird, but also groovy and accessible, Station to Station remains one of the finest rock albums ever recorded.
The sheer number of exceptional songs on the album are staggering: the alien groove of “TVC 15”, the dancey funk of “Golden Years”, the haunting “Stay”, the enigmatic instrumental of a title track. Yet the album works masterfully as a cohesive whole, an album borne from a flurry of cocaine.
There’s little more for me to say about this album except, this is it, folks: the real deal.
2. Ziggy Stardust (1972)
Ziggy Stardust is Bowie’s early career magnum opus, a brilliant and sprawling concept album on humanity, identity, and love in the 1970s. Inspired by outsider art, psychobilly, and the music of Jacques Brel, Ziggy Stardust became a smash hit on the strength of its sheer audacity.
Yet for all its massive impact and lofty roots, the album itself is a relatively subdued affair: there is no orchestral bombast of T-Rex or Queen, here. At its core, Ziggy Stardust is a rock album through and through, focusing more on Bowie’s personality and Mick Ronson’s excellent guitar than any outside elements.
The album is obviously a classic, and manages to somehow be underrated by music writers, who tend to gravitate more to Bowie’s audacious “Berlin Trilogy” over his earlier works. Nonetheless, it remains a revelation to this day.
3. Low (1977)
The first album in Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” happens to be not only the best of the trilogy, but one of the best rock albums of the 1970s. Low is a brilliant mixture of Bowie’s strong pop sensibility (“Sound and Vision” being the best example of this) and his penchant for experimentation and genuine weirdness (the entire second half of the record being an example of this).
Brian Eno obviously needs a huge amount of credit on shaping the album’s sound, not just for co-writing the excellent and weird “Warszawa”, but for his myriad contributions across the album with synthesizers and other sonic tricks.
Disliked at the time of its release, Low has gone on to be considered one of the greatest albums of Bowie’s career, with Pitchfork even going so far as to name it the best album of the 1970s.
4. Aladdin Sane (1973)
The follow-up to Bowie’s massively iconic Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane builds on the glam-rock weirdness of Ziggy while adding an edgier, panicked sound. Aladdin Sane’s grit comes in the form of some of its most compelling songs: the urgent, immediate sound of “Panic in Detroit”, the wild piano backings of the title track, and the hard-rocking grime of “Cracked Actor”.
The album is probably best remembered for its mega-iconic cover. You know the one: Bowie with the lightning bolt. Yep.
5. Blackstar (2016)
“Look up here man, I’m in heaven.” Recorded with Bowie knowing he was close to death as he struggled with cancer, Blackstar is one of the most remarkable mediations on death ever produced. Building on the chilly, brilliant The Next Day, Blackstar finds Bowie teaming up with exceptional contemporary jazz musicians to produce something unearthly, upsetting, and deeply moving.
“Lazarus” is the album’s standout song, with Bowie’s ragged voice wailing over deeply disturbing pads. The title track is a revelation as well, jazzy and bleak.
I’d be lying if I said Blackstar is an easy listen, but it’s a remarkable one. And it’s the best ending to Bowie’s career we could have hoped for.
6. Young Americans (1975)
Bowie moved away from glam affectations and moved into Philadelphia soul for 1975’s rolicking Young Americans. Backed by Philadelphia soul musicians, the album is a triumph start to finish, and is even bookended by two of Bowie’s strongest singles: the title track, and the indelible “Fame”.
Controversial at the time of its release (Robert Christgau called it an “almost total failure”, and the original Rolling Stone review was mixed), Young Americans has aged superbly. The cheesy 70s saxophone riffs may be a little dated, but Bowie’s strong songwriting betrays suprising depths to the material. Shame about that weird “Across the Universe” cover, though.
7. The Next Day (2013)
Probably the most controversial choice on this list, particularly it being placed so highly. But The Next Day is a breathtaking, heartbreaking work, and it should be appreciated as one of Bowie’s finest albums.
Coming ten years after the spotty Reality, The Next Day was released to strong critical and good commercial success. The album is sleek, strongly produced, and shows a forward thinking tendency that is matched by his reverence for styles of the past.
For all the talk of Bowie as someone who constantly reinvented himself, he always had the ability to look back. The Next Day succeeds most when it calls to mind Bowie’s Berlin works -- the euro allusions and nostalgia of “Where Are We Now”, the cryptic disco of “If You Can See Me”, and the sparse bleakness of “How Does The Grass Grow?”
8. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)
Bowie moved from his Berlin trilogy with this layered, dense melding of his 70s sound with cutting-edge new wave influences. The album also provided Bowie with his final mega-hit, the pseudo-sequel to “Space Oddity”, “Ashes to Ashes”.
“Ashes to Ashes” benefitted heavily from MTV’s debut the same year. The song’s iconic video, featuring distinctive solarized coloring, was in heavy rotation during the early years of the station.
The rest of the album is excellent as well, from the spirited, Japanese-tinged opener “It’s No Game (No. 1)” to other great tracks like “Fashion and “Teenage Wildlife”.
9. “Heroes” (1977)
“Heroes” is the second of Bowie’s so-called “Berlin Trilogy”, starting with Low and ending with The Lodger. “Heroes” is famous for its title track, but the whole album is strong, and definitely comes close to reaching the iconic status of Low.
“Heroes” is a fragmented, somewhat panicked album, which keeps with the feeling of 1970s West Berlin, where the album was recorded in its entirety (with Brian Eno and longtime collaborator/producer Tony Visconti). Songs like “Blackout”, “Sons of the Silent Age”, and “Sense of Doubt” invoke paranoia and 70s malaise, as a counterbalance to the unabashedly romantic “Heroes”.
10. Hunky Dory (1971)
After the hard-rock sounds of The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie fully explored the glam world with 1971’s Hunky Dory. Producing stone-cold classics like “Changes” and “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Life Of Mars?”, Hunky Dory regularly tops lists of best records by David Bowie.
Hunky Dory is obviously a hugely important work in Bowie’s canon, building on The Man Who Sold The World and providing the blueprint for Ziggy Stardust. That being said, as classic as the album is, it doesn’t entirely work as a cohesive whole.
11. Lodger (1979)
The final third of Bowie’s so-called “Berlin Trilogy” (along with Low and “Heroes”), Lodger is Bowie’s return to a more mainstream pop sensibility after the more experimental, instrumental-focused sound of his previous two records. Despite this, Bowie continued to collaborate with Brian Eno on the record, with Eno co-writing many of the album’s songs.
Widely panned on its release, Lodger has been reexamined by rock critics and Bowie fans alike. “Look Back In Anger” is sometimes considered Bowie’s best songs, and its lead single “Boys Keep Swinging” is terrific.
12. The Man Who Sold The World (1970)
The first truly great album of Bowie’s early years, The Man Who Sold The World is the beginning of Bowie’s fantastical glam years as well. While it’s not quite on the level of Ziggy Stardust, The Man Who Sold The World is an intriguing step forward in Bowie’s catalogue. One of the hardest rocking entries in Bowie’s canon, The Man Who Sold The World is sometimes compared to work by Led Zeppelin or Jethro Tull.
The obvious standout on the record is the melancholy, grooving title track. It gained new life when Kurt Cobain covered it in his MTV Unplugged session, bringing Bowie (who at the time wasn’t exactly in the zeitgeist) back into the spotlight for the first time in years.
Nicholas Tristan is a Toronto-based writer, producer, composer, and podcaster. He is the Board Chair for Over Easy Airwaves, a digital broadcasting networking specializing in the weird and the wacky.