I Listened to all 26 David Bowie's studio albums in Chronological Order this week, and picked my favorite tracks
Update 1/11/2016: I heard the devastating news last night that David Bowie died after an 18-month long battle with cancer. Obviously had no idea that was coming before I set out on this. Thanks for everything, Starman.
From Tuesday till Friday this past week, I made myself sit down and listen to all twenty-five of David Bowie’s studio albums chronologically. I was thinking it would be an interesting and illuminating way to jump into Bowie’s incredible new album Blackstar, and damn, it was. I wasn’t going for any sort of irony or nostalgia or anything like that. I just figured it would be a unique experience that tied the new record into the whole of his fifty-plus year career for me, in a tangible way.
I had rules; I had to finish the marathon by Friday (1/8/16), in order to listen to Blackstar when it released. I couldn’t listen to any other music during the week. I couldn’t skip any tracks, no matter how bad things might get. And of course I had to listen to everything in order. It was all arbitrary, but I had to follow it once the rules were set. On paper it was six and a half albums per day, although I had some days where I listened to nine, some three, etc.
Let it be said, it was a hell of a lot more rewarding and challenging than I expected. It was intense. The ups and downs were mentally and emotionally draining. The first day, by the time I got to around Ziggy Stardust, I started to get a feel for how autobiographical the albums are as a whole, even when the subjects of the songs themselves might be abstracted. By the time I got to around Diamond Dogs or Station to Station, I could really feel that continuity of Bowie’s craft, melody, and rhythm carry through, no matter how much of a left turn he’d take stylisitically. You can hear big chunks of previous albums in the next ones, even making that huge leap from the glam rock of Diamond Dogs to the plastic soul of Young Americans. Hell, if you squint your ears, you can hear the Berlin Trilogy and krautrock influenced stuff in 1987’s Never Let Me Down, or even the much later records in the 90s and 2000s. I had heard everything up till 1983 already so there wasn’t much new there in each album, but hearing them chronologically and seeing all the development in both little and big steps as it unfolded was a pretty singular experience I’d be hard pressed to find otherwise. Before I did this I hadn’t caught nearly as many of the threads.
I don’t want to sit here and review his entire career. He’s got nothing to prove, and doesn’t need my help. He’s David Bowie, and that’s about the run of it. In this crazy, intense, and singular experience, I figured the best way to walk away from it would be to find my favorite moments from each of the twenty six albums and share them with you. Here we go. Listenable media is linked, so I don't crash your browser with dozens of embedded videos and whatnot:
#1: Self-titled. Song: "Rubber Band"
Sonically his first album is a pleasant listen. Nothing crazy going on here, super poppy and fluffy songs. My first time hearing it all. I think it almost gave me diabetes, it was so saccharine. A definite trip. I'm going to go with Rubber Band because I like the chord progression. Otherwise it was a hard choice, over the top in a lot of ways.
#2: Space Oddity. Song: Title track
I don't have to tell you what a solid album this is all the way through. The beginning of the folky Bob Dylan-esque albums, but you can really hear some precursors to his mid-seventies glam phase already. Tough to pick any other song other than the title track because it's so iconic and incredibly crafted, but if I had to choose a second one I would go with Memory Of A Free Festival. Some of these early records it's going to be really tough to stray from the iconic singles, because they really are the best on the albums.
#3: The Man Who Sold The World. Song: "The Width Of A Circle"
Probably one of my top albums all the way through. The verses on this track don't get me as much, but that main riff, and then the ending part with a variation with Bowie singing that descending line, is unstoppable.
#4: Hunky Dory. Song: Life On Mars?
Choosing a favorite song from Hunky Dory is a ridiculous thing to do. Any will do, really. More on the pop side, too many heavy hitters to mention. The craft in songwriting on this one is staggering.
#5: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Song: "Five Years"
Or "Starman", really. Don't make me choose. It's not fair. This definitely has a lot of the elements of the previous three records, but there's a definite transition into the grittier glam/rock feel, unmistakable.
#6: Aladdin Sane. Song: "Panic In Detroit"
I'm not always as big of a fan of this era, when Bowie transitions more into the glam/straight forward rock and roll. That being said, he has some really great riffs going in a lot of these, and he's still got a lot of the same writing sense going on. That riff and the pacing on "Panic In Detroit" just gets me every time.
#7: Pin-ups. Song: "See Emily Play"
This album doesn't really pull me as much as the previous ones did, but then again I don't think I ever had realized it was a cover album on earlier listens. Bowie picks a bunch of staples from fellow British-invasion bands, like The Pretty Things, The Who, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, and The Yardbirds. He does a really neat job with the Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd track "See Emily Play". I love the production, the way the chorus is laid out in particular. That synth line and the singing are perfect.
#8: Diamond Dogs. Song: Big Brother
I love the dystopian future concept on this record. You can definitely feel his style starting to transition here, past the straightforward glam, adding back in a variety of elements from his earlier work. There's also a shift into something resembling soul music. The whole thing fits together pretty well and is surprisingly nuanced after Aladdin Sane. Big Brother is an excellent song with some great details and dynamics.
#9: Young Americans. Song: "Fame"
Holy shit. At first glance, this album is so beyond out of left field, that it's almost unbelievable. This was the first time I listened to this whole record. It's incredible. If one of my friends had such a personality swing, I'd probably ask them "Hey man, are you okay?". But here's the thing: first things first, this whole "plastic soul" thing he went for? Bowie completely owns it. It's one of the few records like this that you can listen to and say, damn, he just killed it. As the album progresses you actually start to hear a lot of the sensibilities from earlier records hidden in there. It's a tough choice between the top tracks, but the syncopation and those guitar lines are just fantastic. The production is A+. And this record, there's points when he just belts better and more confidently than anything he did before. It's almost operatic. Bonus points: John Lennon is hiding on the Beatles cover "Across The Universe", and of course, "Fame".
#10: Station To Station. Song: Title track
There's another pivot here, where he starts to get into the krautrock influenced stuff. There's a really clear transition and you can absolutely hear elements of the plastic soul "Young Americans", with older rock stuff too. A little bit of funk. The production is really interesting here, and I love the dark motifs in the pulsing title track that keeps building up, and delivers. Apparently Bowie was so high for these sessions he doesn't remember them.
#11: Low. Song: Sound And Vision
The Berlin-trilogy era with Brian Eno hath beguneth. Really interesting part of his career, and probably my favorite bunch of albums. There's definitely a lot of that krautrock influence, but you get some of that Brian Eno synth ambience, and funk that seems to come hand in hand with a lot of Eno's production work. The production is fantastic, and I love the way it shines on "Sound And Vision". Another favorite on this album is "Subterraneans".
#12: Heroes. Song: "Sons Of The Silent Age"
Another banger from the Berlin-trilogy. The title track is the obvious choice here, because it's so excellent in every which way. I figured I'd give a nod to "Sons Of The Silent Age" though, because it's just as damned good. The roduction is so good.
#13: Lodger. Song: "Move On"
Last of the Berlin-trilogy with Eno. Still has a lot of those same elements being used from previous records, although this one feels a little more open and ambient. "African Night Flight" is a close second for me. I'm not 100% sure but I think David Bowie might be biting off of Bleubird's rap cadence.
#14: Scary Monsters [And Super Creeps]. Song: "Ashes To Ashes"
Scary Monsters definitely starts to have an 80's vibe in the production, mostly with the digital reverbs. In a lot of ways this is a continuation of the krautrock influenced records that came before, but he definitely brings in more of that soul and funk, in a more muted sort of way. I remember not liking this record the first time I listened to it years ago, but doing this marathon made me like it a whole lot more. The historical context makes such a huge difference. If I'm remembering correctly there's a bunch of references to much older songs in this one. I also had a hard time choosing a favorite song, because there are a lot of great ones. The title track is great for instance, and so is "Teenage Wildlife". The songwriting on that last one seems like a prototype for bands like Arcade Fire.
#15: Let's Dance. Song: Title track
Okay. It is definitely the 80's. This is definitely another large pivot for Bowie, although you can still hear a lot of previous elements here. Mostly from the plastic soul stuff. He sheds a lot of the swagger and swing from his earlier work—the drums almost feel quantized here. But there are some serious bangers on this record, and on the whole it is definitely very solid. Love the rock & roll revival vibe of the title track; I know that was the big thing at this point in the eighties, but he does it well. "Modern Love", etc.
#16: Tonight. Song: "Loving The Alien"?
This one is a tough sell for me. It's mostly covers, although there are some originals. If you squint your ears real hard you can still hear some of the elements brought in from the late seventies, although it's hard to make out through the thick shellac of 80's production. Bowie was trying hard to replicate the commercial success of "Let's Dance", but it didn't fly quite as well.
#17: Never Let Me Down. Song: Day In Day Out
This album was a last attempt to try to build off of the success from "Let's Dance". I think it's actually a much better album than "Tonight". It's unavoidably 80's, and maybe starts to lose most of what's left of that late seventies legacy. Bonus points: Bowie referred to these two albums as his "Phil Collins years".
#18 & #18.5: Tin Machine. Song: "Prisoner Of Love"
This sort of rock proto-grunge-etc project Bowie did was an attempt to get back to his roots. It sounded good in theory but it was probably the only album (actually there were two of them) that I almost didn't make it through. Most of it is that crazy early nineties production, but I also have a hard time with everything being completely riff based, without much chord progression. That being said, I did look up a link for "Prisoner Of Love" that appears to be live, and I like that version of the song a whole lot more than the album version. So maybe it boils down to the production more than anything else?
#19: Black Tie White Noise. Song: "Nite Flights"
Black Tie White Noise is a big breath of fresh air after Tin Machine. Bowie lands on both feet into the 90's here, and it fits. We definitely get into more of an electronic sound here. It's got some elements from Let's Dance, maybe even a little from Scary Monsters. Some breakbeats, drum and bass sorts of stuff. It's definitely got a distinctive and dated sound, but it's a solid record. There's a ballad later on by the name of "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday" that reminds a little of his earlier pre-glam stuff.
#20: Outside. Song: "Hallo Spaceboy"
Bowie teams back up with Brian Eno for old-time shits and giggles on this concept record. It works, even pretty well. It's not a rehash of the Berlin trilogy, though. That song "Hallo Spaceboy" is pretty great, on some industrial level stuff. Some of the songs on this album make me think of John Vanderslice's later albums, for some reason. Bowie hits on some more jazzy, almost trip-hop crooner sort of jams like "The Motel". I dig this, although some of the stuff like the slide bass starts to show it's age on this record.
#21: Earthling. Song: "Little Wonder"
Cheesy? Yes. Dated? Sure. But do I think this is Bowie's most solid record of the 90's? Damned straight. Gets into some industrial and drum and bass territory. It might sound pretty dated at this point, but the record shows David's strength at adapting coming out. I probably would have chosen the "Afraid Of Americans" track if he had used the alternate mix that Trent Reznor made, instead of the more live version on here. It's a great song. I still think they should do a whole record together. "Seven Years In Tibet" is also a killer track.
#22: Hours... Song: "Seven [Beck Mix #2]"
The writing on this one isn't bad at all—the production is super thin though. I got through it and thought, damn, that was disappointing. But then I saw the bonus disc on Spotify, and there's some interesting shit in there. It's the alternate mixes and remixes where the songs really shine (hence the Beck remix link above). The rock alternate mix of "Thursday's Child", for example, is a lot better. The "Seven [Beck Mix #1]" to me is what probably should be on the record. Hell, could you imagine an entire Bowie album produced by Beck Hansen?
#23: Heathen. Song: "A Better Future [AIR Remix]"
Heathen is built on a much more solid foundation. There's a nice mix of electronic and straightforward rock, and for a handful of songs the production really works. Once again the remixes are what really do some of these justice though. The AIR remix of "A Better Future" has me wishing that a Bowie record produced by AIR would materialize itself. It seems like such a perfect pairing. This one gets more quiet and croonerly at times, reminding me of David Sylvian a little. "Sunday" is very solid on that front. "Slip Away" reminds me of "Hunky Dory", "Ziggy Stardust" era songs, and is very excellent.
#24: Reality. Song: Title track
This album seems like he was struggling on different fronts, trying to find his bearings. There's definitely some takeaway songs on it, like the title track. The chorus is a little weird but that one really reminds me of his glam years in the seventies. "Try Some, Buy Some" is a sea-worthy ballad. I think he was dealing with a lot of stuff at this point, between 9/11 (Bowie lived in lower Manhattan, so I think it really deeply affected him), and trying to find his way in the decade. The record is a little bit of a downer, so I'm glad he didn't end his career on this note.
#25: The Next Day. Song: "Dirty Boys"
Forward ahead a decade, and David comes back swinging, both fists. "The Next Day" is kind of all over the place stylistically, but it's so good. A lot more rock oriented. Probably his most solid overall record for quite some time before. The track "Dirty Boys" I linked above is lurking on some Tom Waits tin can blues sort of level. Probably too many to mention, but "How Does The Grass Grow?" and "Heat" are tops for me.
#26: Blackstar. Song: Title track
Here we are, in 2016. It was incredible to be able to span a 50+ year career in four days of intense listening, and I definitely look at all of this music in a different light. It was totally worth it to work up to Blackstar. It's an exciting record, and that title track is just on some other level. It's like if David Bowie and Björk had a baby and Peter Gabriel was the godfather. It's really well crafted, especially for a single that's almost ten minutes long. I feel like only Bowie could get away with a three year hiatus and then coming back with a single like that. The rest of the album is along the same lines, that sort of dark jazz thing. Towards the end of the album it trails off a little, but not enough for me to say I didn't absolutely love it. That title track though. Damn.
Maybe sometime I'll go back and listen to all of the soundtracks and other collections that I missed. I definitely won't do it in a sprint, though. I took a lot away from this experience. If you've got the mettle to do it, I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Thanks for making it this far. Here's hoping for many more chances to hear David Bowie reinvent himself from here-on!