Ultimate Classic Rock NOVEMBER 29, 2014 - by Bryan Wawzenek


David Bowie is not just rock's greatest chameleon; he's also one of music's most imaginative conceptual artists. As a writer and musician, Bowie usually attempts to convey a larger story within an album, whether it involves a total change in persona (Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke) or a shift in musical perspective ("plastic soul," "the Berlin trilogy").

But which one is best - both in terms of music and concept? We've delved into the twenty-five studio albums Bowie has released as a lead artist, leaving aside Tin Machine records and Labyrinth, in which Bowie splits compositional credits. Here's a journey through his ch-ch-ch-chchanges, as Ultimate Classic Rock ranks David Bowie albums from worst to best:


There is no greater let-down in Bowie's catalog than the nadir of what he later called his "Phil Collins years." This is just bad idea after bad idea: a self-serious concept piece about a glass spider, impersonations of John Lennon and Neil Young, a mid-song "rap" from Mickey Rourke, plus glossy production better suited to a Pepsi commercial. Never Let Me Down also marks the only instance when Bowie deleted a song from his oeuvre. Too Dizzy was removed for all CD re-issues and digital releases. Not that its absence made the record any better.


It's an indication of how lost Bowie got in the '80s that Black Tie White Noise was hailed by some as a comeback. His first solo album of the '90s (following Tin Machine) hasn't aged well. Grooves stolen from the C+C Music Factory, jazzy trumpet solos and synthetic textures sound more like a lost Pure Moods compilation than a dispatch from one of rock's great artistes. On the title track, Bowie was trying to comment on racial tensions in post-L.A. riots America ("I've got a face, not just my race"). Well, at least he was trying.

23 TONIGHT (1984)

Following the massive success of 1983's Let's Dance, Bowie felt compelled to keep record stores plied with product, but found himself creatively bankrupt. He squeezed out a couple new tunes, collaborated on a pair with his buddy Iggy Pop and filled the rest of the LP with covers. Some were slick versions of Pop's old songs, as well as wretched takes on The Beach Boys' God Only Knows and Leiber and Stoller's I Keep Forgettin'. The album's one saving grace is the Motown-inspired Blue Jean - an empty-headed wonder featuring Bowie's desperate shrieks... and a marimba!

22 DAVID BOWIE (1967)

Before Bowie lost his edge, he had to find it in the first place. And how twee he was back in '67. This inauspicious debut, chock-a-block with cutesy-poo baroque pop, seems to borrow the whimsy of The Small Faces and The Kinks, but forgets the wit and energy. Bowie sounds like a preening children's show host, mugging for the microphone (if that's possible) and making corny jokes at the end of songs ("well I might stretch it to Wednesday" he winks on Love You Till Tuesday). The Thin White Duke would eat this guy for breakfast.

21 HOURS... (1999)

Bowie made history with this album, the first record released by a major artist on the Internet. Too bad the music couldn't live up to the milestone. He sounds as tired as he looks on the cover of Hours..., floating in a haze of moody melancholy that only occasionally wanders into an interesting melody (Seven, Thursday's Child). And just when he's put you to sleep, he abruptly busts out the forced Stooges tribute The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell. The change in tempo is welcome. That song is not.

20 PIN UPS (1973)

In the midst of Ziggymania, Bowie put out this covers record, containing tunes from his mid-'60s heroes (The Who, The Kinks, Them, etc.). His choices are excellent, from The Easybeats' Friday On My Mind to the Merseys' Sorrow. The latter was the sole single released from Pin Ups and for good reason: It's the least overworked cover on the album. Bowie goes way, way, way over the top on the rest of the tracks. (See Emily Play could be mistaken for a Monty Python goof.) In spite of all the effort, Pin Ups remains a slight affair.


A soundtrack in name alone, The Buddha Of Suburbia album contains only one song from its namesake (a BBC TV series). The rest is composed of music that Bowie created as a result of his work on the show. It's his least mannered '90s album and it allows the musician's creative juices to flow freely between ambient works, electropop experimentation and the satisfyingly simple ballad Strangers When We Meet. Bowie (wisely) thought enough of the song that he re-recorded it for his next album, mostly because Buddha virtually disappeared upon release and wasn't reliably available until a 2007 reissue.


Bowie's second album has been released under three titles: David Bowie (original U.K. release and 2009 re-release), Man Of Words/Man Of Music (original U.S. release) and Space Oddity ('70s, '80s and '90s reissues). Under any name, this is the record that effectively launched Bowie via the leadoff track Space Oddity. The majesty of that classic remains worlds apart from the ignominious, Dylan-indebted troubadour stuff on the rest of the album. However, his epic closer Memory Of A Free Festival is a harbinger of the winning storytelling and sonic creativity to come.

17 1. Outside (1995)

A reunion with Brian Eno (who collaborated on the vaunted "Berlin trilogy") forged one of Bowie's most ambitious concept pieces. Due to the musician's lack of interest in a linear narrative, we stumble upon mere fragments of his bleak vision of 1999 where murder has become art and Bowie gets to act out all the parts. The music is equally as bleak, taking its cues from the hard beats and sharp corners of industrial music. It's a solid framework for Bowie and Eno to get creative within - the backgrounds are reliably intriguing, if not always satisfying.

16 DIAMOND DOGS (1974)

Bowie has a fetish for dystopian visions, including Diamond Dogs, a mess of a concept record. Under a very loose premise involving alter-ego Halloween Jack, Bowie mashes together his last stabs at glam (the slamming boogie-woogie of the title track, the blazing Rebel Rebel) with portions of his rejected 1984 musical (the white boy funk of 1984, the slo-mo R&B of Big Brother). Bowie would better hone his "plastic soul" skills for his next record, on which he'd focus his efforts on the music and not some silly post-apocalyptic cartoon.

15 EARTHLING (1997)

Earthling has taken its shots over the years, namely that it emphasises sounds over songs and finds Bowie being late to yet another sub-genre party (in this case, it was drum 'n' bass.) Both are valid complaints, but what outweighs them is Bowie's palpable excitement as a performer. He stands tall inside of the music, and if he doesn't have a whole lot to say (Little Wonder was inspired by the Seven Dwarves) at least he's singing with edgy conviction. And there are great soundscapes here, from the mechanical slow-burn of Seven Years In Tibet to the paranoid android that is I'm Afraid Of Americans.

14 THE NEXT DAY (2013)

Everyone thought David Bowie was retired. By 2013, he hadn't released a new record in a decade and had sworn off touring. But then Bowie returned, bellowing "Here I am! Not quite dying!" on The Next Day. If a return to genuine greatness was too much to hope for, then fans could certainly appreciate a return to form. Strong songwriting (about ageing, celebrity and love) and full-bodied rock and roll makes for a pretty electrifying listen. It's not innovative art; it's just good music. More, please.

13 HEATHEN (2002)

After the listless Hours..., it was galvanising to hear Bowie sneering his way through The Pixies' Cactus on Heathen. There are other great covers on the record (Neil Young's crunchy I've Been Waiting For You is a highlight) and some fantastic originals (the charging, slightly spacey Afraid sticks out), but the biggest takeaway from Heathen is how comfortable Bowie sounds. It's as if, in the early aughts, he suddenly became OK with the long arm of his legacy. This isn't "new wave Bowie" or "industrial rock Bowie," it's just Bowie. Heathen is distinguished, thoughtful and spirited.


Halfway through the '70s, Bowie tossed glam to the dogs in favour of his new inspiration: the slinky "Sound of Philadelphia." He coined the Bowie-fied version of R&B "plastic soul" - although it was real enough to land the singer a spot on Soul Train. His addled version of Philly soul is compelling, with Bowie's enigmatic vocals creeping around wah-wah guitars and David Sanborn's sax. But album-closer Fame takes soul far beyond plastic, somewhere into outer space. Funky, angry and irresistible, the Number 1 smash (created with an assist from John Lennon), is still ahead of its time.


Forsaking his folk fascination, Bowie dove into the deep (purple) end of the rock pool with his third LP. The Man Who Sold The World remains one of the artist's most muscular sounding albums - which is amusing, seeing as Bowie's in a dress on the cover. The music is hard, but the lyrics show a beguiling vulnerability. All The Madmen ranks with Bowie's best material, as the artist sings about insanity with incredible empathy. (The song was inspired by his schizophrenic half-brother.) And there's the title track, a more layered and haunting sci-fi experience than Nirvana's rather excellent Unplugged cover.

10 REALITY (2003)

If much of Bowie's late-era work is about anxiety, Reality is his anxious opus. Leadoff track New Killer Star takes on post-9/11 New York City. In the best way, the driving song offers elliptical commentary before settling on a solution: "Let's face the music and dance." Elsewhere, Bowie goes very simple, crooning over distant guitar strains and simple piano chords on the faded film noir of The Loneliest Guy. He kicks a hole through The Modern Lovers' clever Pablo Picasso. As with Heathen, Bowie sounds comfortable - while sounding anxiety-riddled. How's that for Reality?

9 LET'S DANCE (1983)

As the beginning of Bowie's decline into commercial mediocrity, Let's Dance gets lumped in with the two awful albums that followed. But the LP is a gem. Sure, some of these songs are incredibly poppy, yet each has an edge. Modern Love is a bouncy trifle that takes on God and the church. This smoky version of China Girl is threaded with ethnocentrism. The title track is a startlingly creative work of synthesis - blurting saxophones, clicking enhancements and a big beat behind Stevie Ray Vaughan's bluesy licks - that only strengthens Bowie's towering vocal.

8 LODGER (1979)

Sure, it's the least of the "Berlin trilogy" but Lodger is also a fantastic collection of experimental songs. Its freewheeling genre-bending gives it an air of daring. At any moment, the album's mix of reggae, R&B, funk, Afrobeat and roving rock and roll might collapse under Bowie and Eno's endless quest for creativity. In the process, we get some of Bowie's best songs: the sly D.J. and its melting synthesizers, the galloping Look Back In Anger and the haphazard Boys Keep Swinging. The worst thing you can say about Lodger is that it's almost as good as two of the best albums ever made.


The capper to Bowie's almost uniformly excellent decade might feature the best side of music in his career. Side One begins with Bowie screaming in confusion (It's No Game) and ends with him mixing fashion and fascism (Fashion). In between, he discovers a choral groove, dons a Cockney accent and takes a swipe at his own mythology by writing a sequel to Space Oddity. Of course, Ashes To Ashes is much more than that - a requiem for the '70s that takes place in a dimension which exists somewhere between Sam Cooke and Pink Floyd.


Bowie took Ziggy to America and came back with this rifftastic collection of hardrocking glam. Guitarist Mick Ronson is on fire throughout, charging through Panic In Detroit and digging a deep groove on The Jean Genie. Bowie acquits himself just as well, delivering the sweeping, bizarre Drive-In Saturday in which citizens of the future watch old porno flicks to re-learn how to have sex. Better than any specific thing he does, Bowie just seems fearless on Aladdin Sane, stretching his brand of glam to include the jazzy title track, a rollicking Rolling Stones cover and even a dash of doo-wop.

5 "HEROES" (1977)

The most "Berlin" LP of the trilogy, "Heroes" was the only album fully recorded in the German capital. (Its namesake song was inspired by Bowie's glimpse of producer Tony Visconti embracing his mistress at the Berlin Wall.) Recorded in a city split down the middle, this is a record of dichotomies, from the gargantuan duality of Beauty And The Beast to the gloomy yet gorgeous ambient tracks on Side Two. Art, beauty and romance exist, although never without the threat of menacing villains. Love won't conquer all, but maybe it "can beat them, just for one day."


Station To Station is the transition between Bowie's R&B fixation and his interest in German electronic music. But this album is more than a way station. It's a transfixing hybrid of African-American music and European rigidity, giving birth to Bowie's latest persona: the icy Thin White Duke. The character was a manifestation of Bowie's twisted state of mind - thanks, in part, to a diet of cocaine, milk and peppers. That's best reflected throughout Word On A Wing, in which the singer yearns for the protection of religion without the requirements of belief. Bowie got better, but he made this fascinating album first.


When people think about David Bowie, the name Ziggy Stardust is never too far away. This silly rock opera, with its wonderful, catchy songs, is what made Bowie a genuine superstar. The shocking red mullet did its part, but the music prevented Bowie from becoming just a glam fad. Starman, Five Years, Suffragette City, Soul Love - who cares about their places in the thin storyline? These are fabulous, epic-sounding tracks. The best thing on the album might be Moonage Daydream. Ziggy played guitar, but Ronson made you forget all about him - beginning with the freakout solo found on that majestic wonder.

2 HUNKY DORY (1971)

This was Bowie's shoot-the-moon moment. After scoring a solitary hit (Space Oddity) and little else in the course of three albums, the artist packed everything he had into Hunky Dory. There's gleaming pop (Changes), sinister folk (Quicksand), boisterous dance hall (Oh! You Pretty Things) and whatever the hell Life On Mars? is - other than one of the best songs ever written. Bowie pays tribute to his heroes Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed (the grimy Queen Bitch) and, somehow, this all makes sense on the same album. No wonder Bowie always thought he could do anything - after all, it worked on Hunky Dory.

1 LOW (1977)

Made mostly in France, this nevertheless is the first LP of the "Berlin trilogy." The title describes Bowie's mood when, while attempting to kick his cocaine habit, he opened up to new modes of artistic experimentation. Bowie kept his lyrics simple and sharp, whether writing about his lack of inspiration (Sound And Vision) or his knack for repeating mistakes (Always Crashing In The Same Car). He also delved into free-associative writing or cut up lines of his lyrics, reordering them into a non-linear whole. Meanwhile, he worked in remarkable collaboration with producer Visconti (who created that splatting drum sound) and keyboardist Eno (whose synthesizer textures became a defining feature of the album, certainly Side Two). But Low is more than songs and sounds. The creative partnership behind the record forged a feeling, a mood, a place. Like very few of the best albums ever recorded, Low contains a universe you can inhabit, for forty minutes at a time. It's Bowie's masterpiece.