5 Essential David Bowie Albums

Posted 12 January 2016 in The Mix (comments)

Originally, I wanted to make this a list of 5 essential David Bowie songs you should be listening to as you reflect on the singer's tragic and untimely death from cancer at the age of 69. But then I tried to limit myself to just 5 of Bowie's timeless hits and quickly realised it was a completely impossible task.

And so I decided to choose 5 of his finest albums instead. This is barely any easier - the man's back catalogue is so substantial and eclectic that, were you stuck on a desert island with nothing else to listen to, you'd still most likely starve to death before you'd even made it up to Hunky Dory. In the '70s alone, he released a staggering 11 full length albums, several of which are now regarded as classics.

Let me make this clear: this isn't a list of Bowie's 5 greatest albums - his music is so open to interpretation and subjectivity that I would never pretend to have a definite idea of his top 5 works. But these 5 will hopefully give you an idea the breadth and quality of his music, and make you realise what a loss he is...

 

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)

We may as well start with what is generally regarded as his greatest record - both critically and commercially. Ziggy Stardust, as it's more commonly known, revolves around the story of Ziggy, a superstar guitarist who deals with various psychological and sexual issues, and believes he can communicate with aliens. If that isn't enough to reel you in, it's worth noting that the album is jam packed with some of Bowie's finest pieces of songwriting - the ultra-cool title track, the punky (several years before punk even existed!) 'Suffragette City'. And, best of all, the magical opener 'Five Years', which imagines a day when we're informed that the end of the world is nigh, and features Bowie emitting some of the most haunting wails you'll ever hear on a rock song.

Low (1977)

It's hard to focus on just one album from Bowie's time in Berlin - generally considered to be the most innovative and influential period of his career. Heroes came close, but in the end it had to be Low. After the cocaine-drenched, LA-recorded Station to Station (1976), Bowie moved to Berlin and began work on Low. As a result, the album aches with the pain of a recovering drug addict, as the 'Thin White Duke' - Bowie's mid-seventies persona - came tumbling back to earth. Ironically, this emotionally difficult period for Bowie resulted in some of his most transcendent work. Low brims with elements of krautrock, disco and art rock. Brian Eno's contribution on synth and keyboards can't be understated, but Bowie himself is responisible for most of the experimentation - particularly on the haunting 'Warszawa'. It's an album way ahead of its time.

Let's Dance (1983)

Perhaps it's not suprising that, after the experimentation of his Berlin trilogy, Bowie was ready to get back to basics. Let's Dance is as poppy as he ever got throughout his entire career. He ditched the genius, art rock production of Tony Visconti, and teamed up with Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers. The result is a funk- and disco-inspired pop record, featuring some of Bowie's most accessible and catchy songs (most notably the super-funky title track). Rodgers succeeded in maintaining some of the dense textures of Bowie's work in the late '70s, and allowed several of the tracks to meander off in a creative stream. It's hardly one of Bowie's finest records, but it represents an important stage of his career, as he returned to the commercial arena following his time in Berlin.

Hunky Dory (1971)

I had to include Hunky Dory, not least because it's my favourite Bowie album. And how could I view my personal favourite as anything other than essential in an introduction to the man?! Hunky Dory encapsulates the moment immediately before the commercial explosion of a superstar - all the hints at his musical and songwriting talent are there, and you can just hear the raw elements that would make Bowie so great over the coming decades. It helps that, much like Ziggy StardustHunky Dory is chock-a-block with some of Bowie's absolute best tunes - 'Queen Bitch'; the brilliant 'Changes', encouraging us to "turn and face the strange"; and perhaps his greatest ever song, the stunning 'Life On Mars?'. There's not much in the way of frills or experimentation here, just generation-defining songwriting.

The Next Day (2013)

If Hunky Dory allows us a glimpse of the beginning of Bowie's story, The Next Day - his penultimate record - is an apt bookend. We join Bowie as he looks back on his incredible life in music: there are memories of his time in Berlin on heartbreaking single 'Where Are We Now?'; recollections of time spent in the vice of addiction on "I'd Rather Be High"; and various space-related phrases that seemingly nod to his Ziggy Stardust days. There's sadness here, for sure - the repeated use of words like 'lost' and 'lonely', and the tone of 'Where Are We Now?' reveal that much. But, in general, The Next Day can be enjoyed as a celebration of the career and life of David Bowie, just over two years before each would simultaneously end.

 

What do you think is Bowie's best/most essential album? Let us know in the comments section

Benjamin Taylor

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