With the recent passing of David Bowie, people are starting to examine and explore his work. This is a little starter kit for those people hoping to start understanding one of our strangest and most dazzling artists through his classic albums. I’ve chosen four- not necessarily the greatest or most staggering, but four great albums that show Bowie’s range and how he continued to lead the pack of popular music for more than 12 years. (After 1983, things get trickier. Not always bad at all, but trickier to sort out, so we’ll stick to Bowie’s 70s and early 80s peak!)
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
The Lowdown: There are a host of great Bowie albums from his earliest years, but it’s probably Ziggy Stardust that stands as the weirdest, most exciting example. Although a coherent story is not part of the album, its songs are supposed to be coming from the mouth of Ziggy Stardust, an end-times prophet singing the news of the cosmic threats that will destroy the Earth. The music is way ahead of its time, a combination of psychedlica, funk, and dark prog rock that really seems like something from outer space. But, you know, very pleasant and groovy to our human ears.
The Hits: “Moonage Daydream”, “Starman”, “Ziggy Stardust”, “Suffragette City”
The Look and Feel: Around this time, David Bowie dressed and presented himself as Ziggy Stardust incarnate. He died his hair bright and crazy colors, and wore makeup that emphasized his eyelashes and cheekbones. Sometimes he even shaved his eyebrows and wore bright red lipstick to further the look, and frequently wore garish and shiny chest-baring bodysuits. Today, it’s the epitome of what we call the glam look, and for a decade all kinds of rock musicians tried their best to capture the fascinating strangeness of the Ziggy Stardust fashion and music.
Station to Station (1976)
The Lowdown: Bowie’s experiments with funk and soul continued through the mid-70s, where they combined with the electronic and cold influences of German art rock to make Station to Station. If you can’t imagine such a combination, it actually comes together really well, thanks largely to Bowie’s devastated mental state (more on that below.) It feels like, as Bowie himself put it, “ice masquerading as fire,” the passion and heat of soul music being dictated in harsh mathematical German beats.
The Hits: “Golden Years”, “TVC15”
The Look and Feel: At the time, Bowie was, in his own words, on a diet of “peppers, milk, and cocaine”. He was falling apart, frightened and delusional at the things happening around him. In his despair, he took on another persona, that of the Thin White Duke. The Duke was an intentionally terrifying and cruel character hiding behind well-dressed trim handsomeness. Unfortunately, Bowie committed to this character as much as Ziggy, giving grim responses in interviews and expressing an attachment to fascist causes. It’s a horrible character, one that Bowie later regretted and hated giving birth to, but the commitment is admittedly effective in how unnerving it is.
Scary Monsters… And Super Creeps (1980)
The Lowdown: Station to Station had led to a long period of depression and relative reclusiveness. Bowie cut a series of three albums in Berlin that were contemplative critical darlings, but got relatively little commercial recognition. Scary Monsters is Bowie leaving this dark and depressing place for the first time in years and making a big hit, but without leaving behind the things he learned. It’s danceable rock with a red-hot guitar and a sense of humor and fun, but it’s also filled with dark themes and yes, just plain creepiness.
The Hits: “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”, “Ashes to Ashes”, “Fashion”
The Look and Feel: Scary Monsters was the beginning of a less theatrical Bowie who focused less on stage personas, but being more restrained didn’t bring an end to his visual experimentation. In these days David Bowie dressed in stark, bright shapes and colors that were “just off of normal”, like bright red leather jackets and oversized billowing pants, the kind of fashion that would inform Michael Jackson and Talking Heads over the years to come. The music, too, is a key part of the movement known as “first wave” that would later bring us bands like Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and REM.
Let’s Dance (1983)
The Lowdown: Inspired by the popularity of Scary Monsters in dance clubs, David Bowie decided to take on the traditional upbeat genre of dance music and infuse it with the smooth and smoldering instrumentation of blues. Although another wild experiment in creativity, the album was a massive surprise smash hit. The first four tracks are indeed super-listenable toe-tappers, and although a few of the other songs can feel more dated and stale, the whole thing is an absolute blast as an experience. The poppier feel can’t hide some of the cleverest lyrics yet, either, on “Modern Love” and the amazingly disturbing “China Girl”.
The Hits: “Modern Love”, “China Girl”, “Let’s Dance”, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”
The Look: Bowie, wearing a golden-blonde perm and crisp suits and suspenders, was all the handsomeness of The Thin White Duke without any of the creepiness. His smart, sharp look was a standard for pretty-boy popsters for years. The music was ripped off even more, so much so that it feels much more commercial than it did back in 1983. It may not have the critical darling status some of the other albums have, but no other album had such a strong impact on our culture.
What was your favorite Bowie song or album? Tell us which one and why in the comment section below.
Featured image credit: Lionsgate