The Essential David Bowie – Part Two
Our exploration of the back catalogue of one of the most pivotal artists in popular music continues with the top 20 David Bowie records. Here’s we’re getting into the really essential territory for those just getting into collecting his work on vinyl…
20: Let’s Dance – 1983
The 1983 Nile Rodgers-produced juggernaut was another successful transition for David Bowie, musically at least, from the edgy art-rock of Scary Monsters to bombastic, danceable and family friendly fare.
Though Let’s Dance ostracised vast swathes of Bowie’s audience with its thematic simplicity and transparent mainstream appeal, it also brought many new people to the fold who previously found Bowie too peculiar an artist.
The Chic-inspired title track, the frenetic Modern Love and the vocally weighty Cat People are particular high points.
Latest 1983: EMI AML 3029 £20 – Rarest 1983: EMI AMLP 3029 (picture disc) £30
19: Lodger – 1979
The final record of the Berlin trilogy (actually recorded in Switzerland and New York) is also the most divisive, sandwiched between the towering Heroes and the juggernaut Scary Monsters,
Lodger is often seen as the black sheep of Bowie’s golden era, but does contain some fantastic, quirky music, including the embryonic rap of African Night Flight and the garage-rock gender bending of Boys Keep Swinging. We’ll likely get a reissue of this in the next year or so.
Latest 1991: EMI EMD 1026 £25 – Rarest N/A
18: Hours – 1999
Bowie’s last album of the 90s is another transitional one, moving away from the hedonistic d’n’b influences of Earthling and back towards stripped-down introspection, the arrangements are largely more straightforward and many of the standout tracks are acoustic orientated.
Some great songs litter Hours: Survive, Seven and If I’m Dreaming My Life are wonderful, yet the production is a little too clean, and the album peters out with some sub-par offerings. It was issued on vinyl recently alongside the vastly superior follow-up, Heathen.
Latest 2015: Music On Vinyl MOVLP1400 (180gm) £40 – Rarest 2015: Music On Vinyl MOVLP1400 (coloured) £50
17: Starman (Single) – 1972
Starman is listed here for both its value (the newer 40th Anniversary picture disc version is more valuable than the original) and for the single’s importance to the Bowie story.
Arguably ‘the moment’ David Bowie arrived, his performance of Starman on Top Of The Pops influenced a generation musically and culturally. There were only 1,000 of these picture discs printed and it was the first of a 7” single reissuing campaign back in 2012. Starman is the rarest among them.
Latest 2012: EMI DBSTAR 40 (Anniversary picture disc) £300 – Rarest 1972: RCA 2199 (non-coloured label) £70
16: David Bowie (AKA Space Oddity) – 1969
Bowie’s second eponymous debut was his attempt to rewrite history and excise the memory of the Anthony Newley-esque persona of the first.
Assuming a more earnest bohemian identity, Bowie’s first full album proper sees him decry hippy idealism on Cygnet Commitee, yearn for his lost love on the gorgeous Letter To Hermione and evoke drug-addled euphoria on closer Memory Of A Free Festival. It’s the album’s first track Space Oddity that would become part of music history.
Latest 2016: Parlophone DB69731(180gm) £20 – Rarest 1969: Philips SBL791 £800 to £5,000
15: Ziggy Stardust:The Motion Picture – 1983
This live album captures the final, iconic performance of Bowie in his Ziggy persona (albeit on the final night of the Aladdin Sane tour). The live album (in its 2003 remixed form) is an energetic journey through mostly Hunky Dory to Aladdin Sane-era material.
Highlights include the maelstrom of Width Of A Circle, a Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud/All The Young Dudes medley and the calculated real-life end of Ziggy.
Latest 2016: Parlophone DB69739 £25 – Rarest 2003: EMI 07243 5 4197918 (red disc) £60
14: Diamond Dogs – 1974
Following the dissolution of the Spiders, Bowie’s next project was even more ambitious, to stage a musical based on George Orwell’s seminal 1984. Though ultimately he couldn’t get the rights, there’s an Orwellian tinge resonating throughout Diamond Dogs, consisting of tracks initially envisaged as musical numbers of his production.
The highlight is the Sweet Thing cycle showing the finest example of Bowie’s vocal dexterity on record. Diamond Dogs also features Rolling Stones pastiche Rebel, Rebel, one of many signature songs of the decade.
Latest 2016: DB74761 (‘Who Can I Be Now?’ box) £190 – Rarest 1974: RCA APL 1 0576 (gatefold) £30
13: Outside – 1995
This under-appreciated record reunites Bowie with Eno, and works well. The ‘art-crime’ concept may be incomprehensible and the bizarre voices Bowie adopts for the spoken-word tracks are a cringey turn-off, but musically, Outside delivers.
The stomp of The Heart’s Filthy Lesson, beauty of The Motel, tortured funk of I Have Not Been To Oxford Town and masterful closer Strangers When We Meet – are arguably Bowie’s finest song of the 90s, too-frequently neglected and ripe for reapprasial.
Latest 2015: US Friday/Sony 88875045311 (white) £100 – Rarest 2013: MOV MOVLP500 (V&A green) £150
12: Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) – 1980
In contrast to the mainstream-alienating Berlin trilogy, the Brian Eno-free Scary Monsters aimed its sights at appealing to a wider range of audiences.
Packing the irresistible one-two combination of Ashes To Ashes and Fashion to close Side One in masterful, well… fashion, Bowie took stock of the then-dominant subcultures and musical trends and created what many believe to be a perfect balance between edge and mainstream, chart-bothering appeal.
Latest 1984: RCA PL83647 £15 – Rarest 1980: RCA BOW LP 2 (purple disc ‘custom’ pressing) £1,000 to £5,000
11: Heathen – 2002
After a decade of experimentation, a higher profile public persona than ever before and the phenomenal headline slot at Glastonbury 2000, you’d think Bowie would be cheerful as the 21st century dawned.
Yet 2002’s Heathen finds Bowie at perhaps his most introspective, nostalgic (early sessions included re-records of long-lost 60s-era demos) and questioning.
It’s full of great songs: the stately Slip Away and the searing Slow Burn are early highlights, as is the baritone opener Sunday and the existential whimsy of Everyone Says Hi.
Latest 2013: Music On Vinyl MOVLP470 (180gm) £25 – Rarest 2013: MOV MOVLP470 (V&A orange disc) £175
10: Young Americans – 1975
Bowie’s evolution from gender-bending alien to suited Philly soul boy was a feat of unprecedented genre-hopping. Young Americans is cool and accomplished, astonishingly released just a year after the glam-theatrical excess of Diamond Dogs.
It was a massive success in the US, a market where his work’s homoerotic subtext had hindered his profile. Featuring a wealth of vocal talent (including a young Luther Vandross!) and No.1 single Fame with John Lennon, Young Americans was Bowie’s first, and best, ‘mainstream’ record.
Latest 2016: DB74765 (‘Who Can I Be Now?’ box) £190 Rarest 1991: EMI EMD 1021 £45
9: The Next Day – 2013
The comeback album no-one was expecting was greeted with universal acclaim, and saw Bowie in uncharacteristically reflective mood. Musical and lyrical references to his life and work abound: Where Are We Now? evokes the imagery of Berlin; I’d Rather Be High looks back to 60s hippy pop, Valentine’s Day recalls his Ziggy-era pomp and the title track harks back to the malevolence of the Scary Monsters era.
The Next Day is a moving journey through his life, and feels like a man reclaiming his legacy for himself.
Latest 2013: Sony Music 88765461861 (180gm) £35 – Rarest 2013: N/A
8: Blackstar – 2016
We’re still finding this a difficult listen. Even before he died, we’d concluded this record would be in the Top 10 of any future ‘best of’ list. Blackstar’s sound is most defined by the kinetic frenzy of Donny McCaslin’s ever-present jazz combo.
The 10-minute title track, the mortally fragile Lazarus and the sorrowful Dollar Days are superb and heartbreaking. Blackstar is Bowie’s final masterwork and its gatefold vinyl presentation, with art from Julian Barnbrook, adds to the listening experience.
Latest 2016: Sony Music 88875173871 S1 (180gm) £30 – Rarest 2016: Sony Music 8887513871 (180gm, 1st press) £100
7: The Man Who Sold The World – 1970
Often regarded as Bowie’s first truly ‘great’ album, TMWSTW is a vital piece of Bowie’s career narrative, dwelling on existential menace, psychological torment and schizophrenia.
The hard-edged blues-rock sound is handled with aplomb by the prototype Spiders From Mars, fresh off the bus from Hull! The funereal title track, opener Width Of A Circle and the jubilant All The Madmen are high points.
Latest 2016: Parlophone DB69732 (180gm) £20 – Rarest 1970: Mercury 6338 041 (dress cover) £1,000 to £2,000
6: Aladdin Sane – 1973
Ziggy…’s follow-up is rockier, but also more musically diverse, the standout instrument on the record being the piano playing of Mike Garson. The influence of Americana dominates, as does the spectre of insanity.
The sci-fi doo-wop of Drive In Saturday and the vaudevillian Time remain highlights, as does haunting closer Lady Grinning Soul. Like all Bowie’s early 70s albums, it was recently remastered and is readily available.
Latest 2016: Parlophone DB69735 (180gm) £20 – Rarest 1973: RCA RS1001(Fan Club membership version) £70
5: Hunky Dory – 1971
Bowie’s 1971 album is a confident, ironic and highly camp journey through his pre-Ziggy cultural touchpoints. From the career-manifesto Changes, the Frank Sinatra inspired Life On Mars? to Velvet Underground pastiche Queen Bitch – Bowie establishes his eclectic range of influences and his songwriting chops.
With guitarist/arranger Mick Ronson, he lays the foundations for the sound and swagger, of Ziggy, though many still prefer the uncomplicated purity of Hunky Dory.
Latest 2016: Parlophone DB69733 (180gm) £20 – Rarest 1971: RCA SF8287 (1st press) £350 to £400 or the BOWPROMO (see Top Five Rarest Bowie Feature)
4: Low – 1977
The first record in the ‘Berlin’ triptych, Low is crafted with the vinyl format in mind: Side A and Side B are split between songs and instrumentals.
The instrumentals are more eclectic than on Heroes, but contain astounding synth-heavy arrangements, worked
out with collaborator Brian Eno; while Side A contains scattershot, futurist sketches. An influential album that paved the way for the synth-pop of the following decade.
Latest 1991: EMI EMD 1027 £55 – Rarest 1977: RCA INTS 5065 (red vinyl) £500
3: Station To Station – 1976
Though Bowie was in a dark place, medically and spiritually, across just six tracks, Bowie (as the Thin White Duke) redirects the soul of Young Americans into unique, angular funk.
The moody schizophrenia of the title track and Golden Years are remarkable, as is the hymn-like Word On A Wing and quirky Stay. Perhaps the ‘coolest’ record in the Bowie canon, Station To Station is getting a nice double re-issue soon as part of the Who Can I Be Now? boxset, in both original and remixed form.
Latest 2016: DB74766 (‘Who Can I Be Now?’ box) £190 – Rarest 1976: RCA APL 1327 (with original colour sleeve) £500
2: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars – 1972
In 1972, this propelled Bowie, or rather his alter-ego, to the status of glam-rock demigod. Sonically, it feels like a coherent and confident evolution of Hunky Dory.
The cinematic, visual quality of the album and its cultural impact have cemented it as a true masterpiece; the punchy 2012 remaster recently got a reissue on vinyl.
Latest 2016: Parlophone DB69734 (180gm) £20 – Rarest 1972: RCA SF8287 (1st press) £200
1: “Heroes” – 1977
“Heroes” is a superlative experience on vinyl, with the title track among the greatest compositions ever. It’s an impassioned love letter to Bowie’s then-adopted home of Berlin and its myriad cultures and the second side’s ambient, haunting instrumentals are key high points.
It remains, for us, his finest LP. We’ll likely get a reissue either this year or next, but previous pressings are quite easy to find secondhand.
Latest 1991: EMI EMD 1025 £45 – Rarest 1977: RCA PL 12522 £50