David Bowie was a pioneer, an artist who didn’t simply ride the tide, but who controlled it. The ultimate chameleon, he shifted effortlessly from one persona to the next without ever losing his identity or his integrity. “If you’re ever sad, just remember the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.” So said Simon Pegg, and so says every other person that’s ever found solace in his music. These are the ten best David Bowie albums of all time. If you haven’t listened to them yet, now’s the time to correct it.
10. The Man Who Sold the World
The Man Who Sold the World wasn’t Bowie’s first album, but it was the first one to make a splash. The reason for that splash had as much to do with the dress he wore on the album cover as the songs themselves (the world has come a long way since 1971), but even so, there’s no denying this is a super album. Kurt Cobain’s performance of the titular song on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged appearance may have bought it to a new generation, but even his spinetingling version had nothing on the chilling bleakness of the original.
9. Young Americans
As Rolling Stone notes, by the mid-1970s, Bowie was done with glam even if glam wasn’t done with him. Always a man to stay two steps ahead of the curve, he laid the glitterball and the platform boots to one side, adopted a suit and a slinky new sound, and in the process, single-handily created plastic soul. With Luther Vandross on background duties and old pal John Lennon tapped for songwriting credits, Young Americans may have challenged fans of his old sound, but it inspired a whole new audience to jump aboard the Bowie express.
Even at the very end of his life, Bowie was still busy reinventing the wheel. As The Guardian says, his final album is a luminous, liminal final statement. It’s thrilling in parts, devastating in others, and never anything less than extraordinary. Even if he’d continue to release music after this, Blackstar would still stand out as a beautiful thing.
7. Let’s Dance
The 80s wasn’t a great period for Bowie, but it wasn’t completely without its merits. 1983’s Let’s Dance is a gem of an album, full of tracks that sound pure pop on the first listen, but show their bite on the second. The titular track is a towering masterpiece, with a big beat, a bluesy lick, and some frisky saxophones. Not everyone got the very deliberate parody of Asian female stereotypes on China Girl, but there’s no denying those smoky vocals. It would be a while before he released another good album, but this at least gave us something to hold on to until he did.
6. Aladdin Sane
Aladdin Sane was the first album Bowie released as a bonafide rockstar. His Ziggy Stardust period had made him a household name from Cape Town to Cape Cod, his face was on the front of every magazine cover, and he had more money than even his prodigious drug habit could eat up. And that scared him. As junkee.com notes, beneath the jubilant production and the witty lyrics lies an album that stinks of fear and the realization that all the fame and the fortune and the success in the world means nothing in the end. It’s terrifying, but masterful.
The only LP of the “Berlin trilogy” to actually be recorded from start to finish in Berlin, Heroes is an atmospheric, strangely romantic album that perfectly captures the spirit of Berlin in the mid-1970s. Its titular song was written after Bowie saw his producer Tony Visconti and his mistress embracing at the Berlin Wall – at 6 minutes long, it’s not your standard 3-minute pop tune, but it’s testament to its greatness that you’re still left wanting more at the end of it.
4. Hunky Dory
By 1971, Bowie was ready to stop playing at being a folk hero and ready to become a rockstar. The result is an album of texture, style, and a boatload of substance. No one else was doing anything like it at the time, no one else has done anything like it since, and whatever muse inspired Life on Mars should be given a warm handshake and a lifetime achievement award. Simply put, it’s glorious.
3. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
David Bowie was always more than Ziggy Stardust. Even so, you can’t say his name without Ziggy Stardust hovering in the background. The reason? The insanely catchy The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a flamboyant piece of rock opera that was always way, way more than the sum of its parts. Intelligent but silly, jubilant but edgy, it’s a kaleidoscope of different stories and different styles, all bought together into one, glorious masterpiece. This was the album that made Bowie. It’s a testament to his genius that it never defined him.
Personally, the mid-70s wasn’t a great point for Bowie. His drug habit had made him paranoid, his relationship with his wife Angie was deteriorating by the day, and he was living on a diet of red peppers, cocaine, and milk. Professionally, he’d never been better. Low, the first LP of the “Berlin trilogy,” is sharp, biting, and experimental, with producer Toy Visconti and keyboardist Brian Eno contributing just as much magic as Bowie. Moody, textured, and utterly absorbing, it’s blissful stuff.
1. Station to Station
Station to Station came at a turning point in Bowie’s career. His interest in Philly R&B was waning and his interest in the new electronic music coming out of Germany was increasing. The result is an album that represents a microcosm of Bowie’s entire career up till that point. There’s pop, there’s rock, there’s rhythm and there’s blues, but most of all there’s Bowie, shedding his previous personas even as he revisits them to emerge reborn as the Thin White Duke. The ambition and the scale of the album are extraordinary. It’s not just a record of songs, it’s a record of a life, and for that reason if nothing else, it deserves the top spot on our list of the 10 best David Bowie albums.