The Man Who Sold The World (1970)
Perhaps even more overlooked than its predecessor, Space Oddity, this was by far Bowie's "heaviest" album. Led Zeppelin and Free were strutting all around in 1970-71 so I guess Bowie felt the need to go heavy too. Pity that his reedy voice couldn’t really match the heavy backing in the way that Robert Plant’s or Paul Rodgers’ could, though. Nevertheless, this is still a little-mentioned gem. Musically it is excellent, Tony Visconti's production similarly so. Mick Ronson and Mick Woodmansey from the future Spiders From Mars are in place now, with Visconti on bass. This was, to all intents and purposes, despite the album's lack of hit singles, the start of Bowie's classic seventies period that would lead to super-stardom in a matter of years.
Hunky Dory (1971)
Personally, I got into Hunky Dory in the early summer of 1973, after having bought Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane previously. At fourteen, I was now retrospectively starting to explore Bowie's music. After the "heavy" vibe of 1970's comparatively unsuccessful The Man Who Sold The World, David Bowie returned to his often-favoured acoustic poppy approach used in his early sixties recordings for 1971's breakthrough Hunky Dory album. This time, however, he married folky acoustic sounds with a streetwise rock edge, provided mainly by Mick Ronson's searing lead guitar. Producer Tony Visconti had left (somewhat frustrated by the Man Who Sold The World experience, apparently and replaced by Ken Scott) to concentrate on his other project - Marc Bolan and T. Rex. On to bass duties came the gloriously side-burned Trevor Bolder and, unnoticed at the time, the now legendary Spiders From Mars line-up of Bowie, Ronson, Bolder and Mick Woodmansey was born.
The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars (1972)
This was, undisputedly, the album that broke it big, real big, for David Bowie. It was also the first “serious” album I ever bought. Therefore, I have an incredible emotional attachment to it, and know it back to front. Every last note. Every lyric. For that reason it makes it strangely difficult to write as much about it as I would other albums that I don't know so well. Like so many supposed “concept albums”, the “concept” is a somewhat vague one - about a “glam” rock star, Ziggy Stardust, who is maybe from another solar system, suddenly appearing on the scene, forming and leading a band an subsequently falling victim to the pitfalls of fame and “when the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band” and it all came to an end, as quickly as it had began. Bowie himself, of course, followed the same path with his real-life Spiders From Mars.
Aladdin Sane (1973)
In the spring of 1973, David Bowie was the name on everyone's lips. As a teenager, I waited with bated breath for that warm early April day when I held his latest album in my hands, took it home and my friends and I sniggered at every schoolboy's favourite line from Time. Heady days indeed. Aladdin Sane was the album where the character of Ziggy Stardust supposedly "went to America" (by Bowie's own admittance) to make himself an even bigger star. Bowie was simultaneously attracted and appalled by America and this comes over in the songs. It is like being on a tour bus taking in sights, experiences, good and bad, along the way. New York, Detroit, Los Angeles...what you get from this transatlantic trip, most importantly, though, is ten wonderful tracks that sees Bowie at the height of his "glam rock" phase. To this day it is my favourite Bowie album.
Pin Ups (1973)
In late 1973, when this album came out, many of us, bathing in the glorious light of Hunky, Ziggy and Aladdin were, to be honest, a bit bemused by this seemingly throwaway collection of covers of (comparatively) obscure sixties rhythm and blues tracks. We made out we loved it, but we didn’t really. However, as time progressed, I personally grew to love this 30 minute slice of seventies nostalgia for the sixties. It seemed to be de rigeur to put out a retrospective covers album as Bryan Ferry released These Foolish Things at the same time. Bowie went back to the British r'n'b boom of 1964-67 to source his material. Some of it was well-known, but certainly not all of it. The album was hurriedly put out due to contractual obligations to Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder, the remaining Spiders From Mars who Bowie had legendarily dumped on stage at Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, I believe. For all that, Ronson still shines brightly throughout. Aynsley Dunbar’s drumming isn’t half bad either. Indeed, it is one of the standout points of the album. The music is played with a vibrancy and enthusiasm that certainly doesn't suggest going through the motions. It all sounds great and is an enjoyable forty minutes and also very nostalgic for me.
Diamond Dogs (1974)
Many felt that Diamond Dogs was Bowie’s “return to form” after the underwhelmingly-received Pin Ups album of sixties cover versions. It had a lot of the guitar-driven glam rock essence of Aladdin Sane. Notably, however, tiny bits of wah-wah funky guitar were creeping in to the sound. A pointer to the mid-seventies “soul” phase Bowie went through, only a small one though. For all the many commenters who have labelled this the album that saw Bowie start to discover soul, one has to say that it is very much a rock album and far more his last glam album than his first soul album. It is one of those loosely-conceived albums with a supposed concept - that of a futuristic, run-down post-apocalyptic urban setting and the characters who inhabit it. To be fair, the theme runs pretty constantly through the album, but there is no continuing "story" as such. The character of "Hallowe'en Jack" was said by some to be the continuation of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, but I was never really convinced of that. Having said that, though, stylistically, Bowie still had a lot of Ziggy about him in the spiky, mullet-y red coxcomb hair-do and musically, glammy songs like Rebel Rebel and the title track certainly kept the spirit of Ziggy alive.
Young Americans (1975)
In 1975, David Bowie supposedly “got soul” and “reinvented himself” for the third time in as many years. I was never really convinced by the soul thing. Yes, the glam rock guitars had gone and the outlandish costumes too. In came double breasted suits, like something The Four Tops would wear on stage. Musically it was backing singers, funky guitars, muffled drums, congas and a throbbing bass. Whatever it was, though, it was certainly not pure soul, in my opinion. It was a kind of slowed down soully rock, sung with a higher pitched white man’s voice too. Quite what the Soul Train TV show aficionados made of this coked-up white dude is anybody's guess. It was not The O’Jays, Billy Paul or The Meters. That said, it still has an infectious, atmospheric sound and contains two of Bowie's finest singles in the title track and Fame.
Station To Station (1976)
By 1976, the cocaine-addled David Bowie had start to leave behind his supposed "white soul" experiment that resulted in 1975's Young Americans album and, ditching the powder blue suits, reinvented himself as "The Thin White Duke" complete with accusations of giving Nazi salutes at London's Victoria Station and giving out various pretentious pronouncements about the state of global politics and so on. Bowie's persona was not a particularly pleasant one at this time, however, indulged by an adoring media (despite the goldmine that punk was about to give them) and still extremely drug-ravaged he managed to come up with this work of genius. Ever the enigma inside a riddle or whatever the saying is. The great chameleon changeling had done it again. It was, though, a somewhat difficult album to analyse. It is simultaneously accessible yet darkly impenetrable, a merging of "krautrock", white funk, white soul and a bit of pop sensibility. Influences are clear, from Neu! and Kraftwerk especially, that chugging, electronic "motorik" metronomic beat that those groups utilised. In my view, and indeed that of many others, the supposed "Berlin Trilogy" began here, for sure. Station To Station really should be included alongside Low, "Heroes" and Lodger. Then again, however, those European influences are only really obvious on the title track. The other songs still carry quite a bit of the funk, rhythmic and soulful feel of the previous album. It is, despite its obviously dark, dense and intense opener, not quite as oppressive and sparse an album as popular opinion would have it. It is certainly no "Heroes". What it does provide, I guess, is the bridging point between the funk/soul of Young Americans and the sparse soundscapes of Low. It was recorded in sunny Los Angeles too, not dreary Berlin.
Low, released in January 1977, has long divided opinion. At the time, many were perplexed by the original "side two" of dense, metallic, sombre ambient instrumentals conjured up by Bowie and Brian Eno. Let's be brutally honest, not many of us liked it at the time. Also mystifying to many were the six "semi songs" contained on the original "side one", most around two to three minutes in length and having a somewhat "unfinished" feel to them. The semi-instrumental chart hit Sound And Vision with its "blue, blue electric blue" catchline, was the most accessible, along with the slightly poppy Be My Wife. I clearly remember the reaction at the time of a lot of fans was "what the fuck..." and there were lots of moans about "wasted money" etc. Indeed, RCA executives wrote Bowie a letter upon hearing the album, requesting another Young Americans-style album. Bowie is said to have framed the letter and hung it on his wall. Bowie had visited Berlin in 1976, trying to get off the drugs (possibly unsuccessfully as his companion was Iggy Pop). He also was worried about his sanity due to his unpredictable, odd behaviour during 1975-76. It definitely provided a boost. Bowie's influence from krautrock groups like Tangerine Dream, Neu! and Kraftwerk grew even stronger as well as he met various German musicians while there. It certainly suited Bowie, and resulted in three inventive, ground-breaking albums that saw a complete re-invention of his career. For many, this period saw the artist at his innovative, creative peak.
Never Let Me Down (1985)
I know, I know. I am putting what is widely considered to be Bowie's worst album in my list of "ten great Bowie albums". I have never quite understood the bad press this album gets. Yes, I accept that it is no Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane or Low, but I have to admit that I prefer listening to it to either of its two predecessors, Let’s Dance or Tonight. It brings back happy memories for me of 1987 and I guess that always helps, but I genuinely feel it is a more than acceptable album, given the paucity of classic material being produced at the time. So, we have an album that its composer sometimes disowns, and the listening public also do to a great extent. Is there anything good about it? Personally, I have always liked it and feel that there is plenty of good material on there.
Read my in-depth take on David Bowie's entire recording career here :-