Photo by Jimmy King
By Erik Thompson
Throughout his innovative career, David Bowie continuously seemed ahead of the times, setting the trends instead of following them. And just as quickly as Bowie altered the direction of modern music, he would abruptly change course and take his sound in a thrilling new direction, leaving the music world chasing after him once again, forever trying to catch up. Bowie left us a lifetime of music to discover and rediscover, being able to lose ourselves in his songs while finding a bit of ourselves in there along the way. Here are just a few of the landmark albums that make David Bowie’s catalog so impressive.
Hunky Dory (1971):
Bowie’s creative partnership with Mick Ronson truly started to blossom on Hunky Dory, and Bowie quickly recovered from the commercial disappointment of The Man Who Sold The World by putting together the most cohesive album of his early career. In addition to standout singles “Life on Mars?” and “Changes,” Bowie also paid tribute to several of his idols. Andy Warhol (“Andy Warhol”), Lou Reed (“Queen Bitch”), Bob Dylan (“Song for Bob Dylan”) and David’s newborn son Duncan (“Kooks”) are all immortalized on this 1971 masterpiece.
Hunky Dory is the thrilling sound of Bowie finding his distinctive voice and his creative direction. Soon enough, Bowie would join the exalted ranks of his heroes, and in an appropriate twist, countless musicians would start writing their own songs honoring him.
Aladdin Sane (1973):
Bowie kept the creative momentum of 1972’s Ziggy Stardust going with this electrifying follow-up, the last record to feature the Spiders from Mars as his backing band. Bowie was thrust into superstardom at this point in his career, but rather than wilting under the harsh glare of the music world, Bowie delivered an assured, adventurous album that tapped into the variety of sonic influences the band were exposed to during their tour of the United States.
Lead single “The Jean Genie” was Bowie’s biggest hit to date, spending 13 weeks on the U.K. singles chart, and the swelling, sax-laden follow-up “Drive-In Saturday” echoed Philadelphia soul and ‘50s doo-wop. Instead of churning out Ziggy Part II, David instead broadened his musical horizons and took one of his signature left-turns. “I didn't want to be trapped in this Ziggy character all my life,” he told Rolling Stone. “And I guess what I was doing on Aladdin Sane, I was trying to move into the next area – but using a rather pale imitation of Ziggy as a secondary device. In my mind, it was Ziggy Goes to Washington: Ziggy Under the Influence of America.”
Bowie fled Los Angeles for Berlin to try and kick a serious cocaine habit, and he quickly drew newfound inspiration from his creative partnership with Iggy Pop (co-writing and producing Iggy’s albums The Idiot and Lust For Life in 1977), Brian Eno, and producer Tony Visconti. The landmark Berlin Trilogy features three albums Bowie recorded between 1977 and 1979 - Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger. Bowie experimented with an ambient, electronic sound on Low, forgoing the catchy, radio-friendly singles of his past in favor of drone tones and lush sonic landscapes.
That divided critics and fans alike, and despite getting little promotion from the record label or Bowie himself (who chose to go on tour as Iggy’s keyboardist instead), hit single “Sound and Vision” proved to be a dynamic entry point to the album. As time went on, the genius of Low gradually revealed itself, inspiring modern musicians like Robert Smith, Trent Reznor and Philip Glass. And it gave Bowie the confidence to continue to radically reinvent his sound and take sonic risks throughout the rest of his career.
Let’s Dance (1983):
The nascent MTV proved to be an ideal match for Bowie in the early ‘80s. David was a natural in front of the camera and his vibrant theatricality was perfectly suited to the short-form storytelling of music videos. That creative partnership helped make Let’s Dance Bowie’s best-selling record to date, with over 10 million copies moved worldwide.
The title track was a number-one single across the globe, while “Modern Love” and “China Girl” were also successful on radio and television, propelling Bowie back into pop superstardom after his experimental run of late ‘70s records. Let’s Dance gained Bowie a brand new set of young fans, won over by the stylish look of his videos and the undeniably catchiness of his tunes. Bowie was back on top once again, but as always, ready to take more chances with his sound.
On Outside, Bowie reunited with Brian Eno for the first time since the late ‘70s. That familiar creative partnership clearly inspired Bowie, who stuffed the 75-minute LP (one of his longest) with a wide array of musical and lyrical ideas. Outside is a concept record centering on the trials and tribulations of Nathan Adler, who investigates a series of art crimes and decides on their legality.
While that highbrow narrative might be lost on a casual listener, the songs themselves bristle with a fresh urgency, as Bowie is backed by his trusty guitarists Carlos Alomar and Reeves Gabrels, both of whom give these potent compositions a restless modern spirit. Outside once again proved that Bowie wasn’t afraid to push the parameters of what a rock record can say and what it can sound like. He filled these songs with a dense, dystopian storyline that requires music fans pay close attention and follow along with the strange adventures of these unique characters he created. Which is precisely what we’ve all been doing with Bowie’s music this entire time.