Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every David Bowie Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Diamond Dogs (1974, RCA)

B +

If it seems like this album – Bowie’s first since disbanding the Spiders, Bowie handling near all of the guitar duties this time around in Ronson’s absence – is less coherent than his previous albums, there’s a reason for that: the disc was originally intended to be a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, but that concept was jettisoned after just a few songs due to difficulties obtaining rights from the Orwell estate. But while its patchwork history may mean that it doesn’t hold together as a concept album quite as perfectly as a disc like Ziggy Stardust, this is certainly both a more essential and artistically stronger album than the all-covers Pin Ups, and its best songs are far catchier and much more easily approachable than most of the material on more insular outings like Low or The Man Who Sold the World. For starters, the punchy glam-rock of  “Rebel, Rebel” – arguably the best rocker Bowie penned during the early part of the ‘70s and sporting one of the best guitar riffs in all of classic rock – is here, as is the oft-covered title track. There are also quite a few overlooked fine tunes to be found here, namely the ballads “Sweet Thing” and “Rock’n’Roll with Me” and the lushly-orchestrated paranoid soul-pop of “1984,” which calls to mind a fusion of Isaac Hayes’ Shaft theme and Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses.” [While the cut would strangely be passed over as a single in the U.S., Tina Turner would later cover the song on the best-selling album of her career, Private Dancer.]  And while “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeleton Family” isn’t much of a song, its ending rivals that of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s “Karn Evil 9” as the most bone-chillingly terrifying close to an album by any major artist of the ‘70s. There’s undeniably some filler here, yes, but the occasional weak cut aside, this album is still much better than most critics make it out to be and is a bit underrated. 

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Young Americans (1975, RCA)

A

Hurt only by the fact that it’s only eight tracks long and, even in its brevity, isn’t entirely devoid of filler (the remake of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” in particular smacks of being pure padding), Young Americans (which marks the return of Tony Visconti as co-producer) is easily Bowie’s best outing since Aladdin Sane, even if it’s stylistically worlds away from that disc, Bowie having jettisoned glam-rock for what he dubbed “plastic soul,” a heavily R&B-and-funk-influenced twist on Bowie’s own particular brand of pop. (He’s immersed himself so fully into this sound, in fact, that he even cedes all the sax duties this time around to David Sanborn!) The disc spawned two sizable Top 40 hits – and enduring classic-rock-radio favorites – in the piano-driven, heavily-gospel-flavored title track (arguably the most soulful vocal performance of Bowie’s career and perhaps his greatest moment as a lyricist as well, the post-bridge breakdown in particular nearly rap-like in its meter and turns of phrase) and the ominous robotic funk of the reflective “Fame,” co-written with John Lennon (and featuring the former Beatle himself on background vocals!) and one of only two Number One hits Bowie would ever have in the U.S. (the other being “Let’s Dance.”)  Other highlights include the underrated, sensual, clavinet-driven slow jam “Right” (which may be lyrically slight but is nonetheless one of Bowie’s most soulful songs and sports some wickedly fun vocal interplay between Bowie and his backing singers) and the funky “Fascination,” co-written by a very young, pre-fame Luther Vandross, who not only appears all over this disc as a background vocalist but also handled all the vocal arrangements. The fact that this is easily the least willfully weird and the most commercially accessible album Bowie made during the ‘70s tends to make it a hard disc for most critics to warm up to, but that very thing also makes it one of Bowie’s most underrated albums and a good starting place for new Bowie fans who enjoy his radio hits and are looking for more of the same.  

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Station to Station (1976, RCA)

A +

Though Ziggy Stardust is certainly the more famous album of the two, you could make an equally strong case for Station to Station (co-produced with Harry Maslin, who’d go on to greater commercial success as the producer behind Air Supply’s long string of hit singles in the early ‘80s) as being the best album Bowie ever made. It’s certainly more experimental than Ziggy, but never in a completely off-putting way; in fact, Bowie strikes the perfect balance here between the more commercial fare, i.e. Young Americans, that finally made him a radio star in America and the avant-garde pop he’d proceed to spend nearly the entire remainder of the decade crafting, so this is an especially appealing album for those who like Bowie’s weird and experimental side but not when it comes at the expense of his ability to write strong, easily memorable melodies. Taking the plastic soul sound of its predecessor (the lyrics of the album-opening title cut even begin by heralding “the return of the Thin White Duke”) and fusing it with synth-laden art-rock for a truly unique disc that manages to be both futuristic-sounding and soulful at the same time, this disc only sports six cuts, but every last one is a winner. The ten-minute album-opening title cut, which begins with a brilliantly-engineered simulation of a speeding train, is the longest of all of Bowie’s songs but surprisingly still has just enough pop appeal in its complex structure to hold the attention of those who usually gravitate towards shorter songs, while the art-disco of “Stay” is one of the most danceable songs in the entire Bowie catalog and the gentle “Word on a Wing” one of his very prettiest. The album boasts a major hit single in the soulful Top Ten hit “Golden Years,” reportedly written for (but turned down by) Bowie’s RCA labelmate Elvis Presley (the song certainly sounds it!), and one of Bowie’s all-time most underrated singles in the quirky-but-highly-infectious “TVC15.”  This disc is not to be missed.

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Low (1977, RCA)

A + / B + (depending on your degree of interest in avant-garde music)   

Probably the most influential album he ever made but also his most polarizing, many Bowie fans consider Low to be his greatest album, while just as many play it with far less frequency than they do less critically-acclaimed albums like Let’s Dance or Young Americans. This isn’t merely the least commercial album Bowie ever made – it’s one of the most blatantly uncommercial albums ever issued by any major rock star at the height of their fame. [Indeed, the album (his first to miss the Top Ten since Pin Ups) would have a devastating effect on Bowie’s standing on the charts in the U.S. – not counting his guest turn on Queen’s “Under Pressure,” it would be six years before Bowie would either score another Top Ten album or even another Top Forty single!] But Bowie also never got more musically adventurous and challenging than this, and the album’s notorious back half, while likely to completely alienate most listeners upon first listen, is actually quite beautiful and not nearly as depressing as some make it out to be (Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut and Lou Reed’s Berlin are just two far more guilty offenders), though it’s not exactly great music to put on at a party, either, unless you’re trying to compel people to go home. The album’s first side is comprised of seven brief, twitchy art-rock numbers – more fragments than fully-realized songs and two of them instrumentals, a very rare feature on Bowie albums prior to this outing – while the entire second side is devoted to heavily Brian Eno-influenced atmospheric, moody, brooding instrumentals like “Warszawa” and “Subterraneans.” But the album isn’t entirely without its mildly pop-friendly moments; the thunderous art-funk of “Sound and Vision” (featuring Mary Hopkin on backing vocals - no, really!) is the biggest standout and still sounds incredible and ahead of its time to this very day – the drum sound on the cut is particularly awe-inspiring – while “What in the World” and “Be My Wife” have their share of commercial appeal as well. The album is ultimately too insular and experimental for its own good, though, to be recommended as a good entry point into Bowie’s catalog except for those with decidedly non-mainstream tastes, whereas the equally masterful Ziggy Stardust and Station to Station at least make some effort to have some appeal beyond just a small niche audience. This disc is definitely essential listening for the hardcore Bowie buff and sums up this period of his career better than anything else he made for the rest of the decade, but it’s also hard not to think that this album’s reputation has a little more to do with its sheer weirdness than the actual compositional strength of its songs.

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“Heroes” (1977, RCA)

A –    

Recorded entirely in Berlin, this album is practically a cousin in its formatting to Low, right down to containing an almost entirely instrumental, heavily Brian Eno-influenced second side (though the disc thankfully closes with one last vocal outing.) But “Heroes” – which not only features all the same major players from Low, Eno included, but also adds King Crimson bandleader Robert Fripp to the fold, Fripp making a major impression with his lead guitar work on the disc – also has slightly more conventional songs and isn’t nearly as moody or depressing a listen as its predecessor, either. Even the most casual of Bowie fans will be familiar with the album’s title cut (later covered to great success in the late ‘90s by the Wallflowers for the movie Godzilla), which would eventually become one of his signature songs with time, though it technically wasn’t all that big a chart hit for Bowie. (It only reached #24 in the U.K. and missed the Hot 100 altogether in the U.S., but then, none of his singles between “Sound and Vision” and “Under Pressure” hit the Hot 100, either, with the sole exception of “Fashion.”) Though nothing else here can really be considered a Bowie classic or is likely to be recognizable to anyone but diehards upon first listen, there are plenty of overlooked fully-realized songs here, especially the funk-tinged grooves of the album-closing “The Secret Life of Arabia,” the neurotic new-wave of “Joe the Lion,” and the danceable nightmare of “Blackout,” and you can definitely make out the influence that this album would have on such artists as Talking Heads (Bowie even sounds remarkably like David Byrne on the verses of “Joe the Lion”) and even Double Fantasy-era John Lennon. Low definitely makes the more convincing album piece of the two discs and makes the more grandiose artistic statement, but you can actually make a very solid case for this being the better album in terms of the strength of the songwriting.  

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Lodger (1979, RCA)

A  

Usually cited as being the third and final installment of Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy,” it’s not quite accurate to call this disc a clone of Low or “Heroes,” even if the supporting cast is mostly the same. (Fripp sadly doesn’t return for this latest outing, but the lead guitar role here is filled by a future member of King Crimson in Adrian Belew.) For starters, unlike its two immediate predecessors, there are no instrumentals here. And though Bowie’s still doing plenty of experimenting here – not in the least the incorporation of exotic sounds and rhythms into world-beat-influenced cuts like “Yassassin” and “African Night Flight” – he seems a bit more interested in writing more conventional songs than he did on either of his last two albums. Though the album is the least conceptual and ambitious of the three in terms of making an overall artistic statement, it’s also one of the most underrated albums in Bowie’s catalog. The mellow piano-and-mandolin-driven “Fantastic Voyage” hearkens back to the days of Hunky Dory and is one of Bowie’s finest post-Spiders ballads, while the new-wave-tinged stomp of “Red Sails” is simply just great fun. But it’s the album’s back half that’s the real monster, boasting such fabulous cuts as the funk stutter of “Red Money,” the much-loved “Boys Keep Swinging” (covered by everyone from Duran Duran to Susannah Hoffs), the heavily Talking-Heads-like “DJ,” and, best of all, the fierce and highly percussive “Look Back in Anger,” one of the most underrated singles in Bowie’s catalog. The album wasn’t much of a success, either commercially or critically (the grotesque album cover certainly couldn’t have helped sales any), and still tends to be rather overlooked compared to the rest of his ‘70s work, but that makes discovering the many gems on this album all the more fun.   

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Scary Monsters (1980, RCA)

A  

Both the last album Bowie ever made for RCA and the last record he would make with Tony Visconti at the helm until over two decades later, Scary Monsters is often cited as being the last album of Bowie’s golden era. That’s not an entirely fair assessment –  Let’s Dance might be a very different type of album and a much more obviously commercial endeavor, but it’s still fantastic – but it would be a while before Bowie would ever get quite so deliberately weird again (you’d have to fast forward all the way to Outside for that), and this disc does play like something of a summary of all the different sounds that Bowie embraced over the prior decade, from folk to funk to new-wave, making it a nice way to wrap up this era of Bowie’s career before he jumps labels. Its back half (highlighted by the fun “Because You’re Young,” featuring a guest turn from Pete Townshend and one of Bowie’s most underrated album cuts from this time period) is noticeably weaker than the first, but the first half of the disc is utterly masterful, containing such great cuts as the insistent march of “Up the Hill Backwards” and the haunting “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” (which makes great use of the returning Robert Fripp, who pops up repeatedly throughout the album) and closing with an absolutely first-rate pair of singles: the pinging art-pop of the “Space Oddity” sequel “Ashes to Ashes” and the slippery, stuttering funk of “Fashion,” arguably the most infectious single Bowie had crafted since “TVC 15” four years prior.