Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every David Bowie Album (Part 4)

by Jeff Fiedler

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


Earthling (1997, Virgin)


Not quite as polarizing an album as Low but still one of Bowie’s more divisive efforts, Earthling – assuming you’re not put off by the heavy industrial and rave influences at play here – is, with the sole possible exception of Outside, arguably Bowie’s finest album since Let’s Dance, and it’s certainly the catchiest batch of songs Bowie has written since at least Never Let Me Down. It’s an easier album to warm up to than Outside, for sure, not merely because of the lack of spoken interludes but also because Bowie’s wise enough here to take his newfound obsession with club music – particularly of the jungle and drum-and-bass variety – and weld it to a more commercial approach to the songwriting than he had employed on the preceding album, so not only do the songs work better as individual moments (whereas many of the cuts on Outside make little sense outside of the storyline of that concept disc) but the hooks hit harder, too. The skittering beats of “Little Wonder” can admittedly be alienating at first, but it’s the strongest lead-off single from any Bowie album since “Day In-Day Out,” while the paranoid rock of the Nine Inch Nails-like “I’m Afraid of Americans” (fittingly later remixed for single release by Trent Reznor himself) is even better. The ominous “Seven Years in Tibet,” the trippy “Looking for Satellites,” and the heavily electronica-tinged “Dead Man Walking” (one of the most danceable cuts in Bowie’s entire discography) are all fantastic as well. It should be pointed out that Bowie’s Tin Machine cohort Reeves Gabrels (who also co-produced the album and co-wrote most of the tracks here) is back on lead guitar again, but the rave and industrial underpinnings of this album make for a far more fitting setting for Gabrels’ unorthodox guitar playing than the art-rock of Tin Machine, so his return to the fold here is surprisingly a welcome one.  Like Station to Station, this disc – while still falling considerably short of reaching the brilliance of that 1976 platter – strikes the perfect balance between Bowie’s weirder, artier impulses and his more commercial side.  


Hours … (1999, Virgin)

C +

Arguably the worst of Bowie’s post-Tin Machine albums, there are actually some moderately decent songs to be unearthed here assuming you have the patience to get to them, namely the hard-rocking “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” and the wistful folk of “Survive” and “Seven,” the latter the best song here by far. The problem isn’t so much the songwriting, though, which is generally fine, or even that Bowie seems a bit unsure which direction to move in next, seemingly wanting to return to his roots while also reluctant to forego the electronica influences of his ‘90s work, as the mind-blowingly awful sequencing, the album beginning with a seemingly never-ending string of ballads. [The seven-minute “If I’m Dreaming My Life” has some up-tempo sections, but it’s not until the seventh track – the aforementioned “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” – that Bowie truly starts to rock out and stick with it for something more than just a brief passage.] Worse still, the ballad that opens the album – the lifeless “Thursday’s Child” – is arguably the worst lead-off single of Bowie’s career, not only taking an absolute eternity to get to its primary hook but also boasting a bizarre arrangement that fuses a lovely melody that could have been the basis for a first-rate wistful, acoustic tune and juxtaposes it against a trip-hop backing that gets annoying really quickly with its incessant faux ride-cymbal noises. Assuming you can get past the first few cuts, the album does get steadily better, if never exactly particularly good, either, but the album doesn’t have much of a pulse. Essentially, if Earthling is the sound of Bowie momentarily delving head-long into rave culture, Hours … is the sound of him coping with the next morning’s hangover. It can be a slightly appealing listen if you’re in the right mood, but it sure isn’t a whole lot of fun.


Heathen (2002, Columbia)


Bowie’s first album of the new millennium found him not only walking away from club sounds entirely but returning to the introspective pop-rock of his early years and even reuniting with former producer Tony Visconti, who Bowie hadn’t worked with since 1980’s Scary Monsters. It can’t really be called a complete return to form – Bowie’s melodies aren’t nearly as strong and immediate at this point as they used to be, and there’s also at least one cover too many here (Bowie covering the Pixies’ “Cactus,” Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” and most bizarrely of all, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s “I Took on a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship”) – but it’s a huge improvement over Hours …, and it’s refreshing to hear Bowie – ever the chameleon – actually come nearly full-circle here and sound so thoroughly at ease with his decision to do so, at that, as if he at last realized his legacy – not just as a rock legend, but as something who was always on the cutting edge – was cemented and that he had nothing left to prove but that he could continue to make fine albums. It’s certainly not his catchiest batch of songs, but there are still many appealing moments to be found here. The gently-rocking “Slow Burn” (featuring Pete Townshend on guitar) recalls Aladdin Sane, while the chorus to “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” is breathtakingly gorgeous, as is “Slip Away.” But best of all is the breezy acoustic pop of “Everyone Says ‘Hi’,” the warmest and most easygoing Bowie has sounded in decades and a cut that’s especially fun to listen to alongside such early folk outings as “Letter from Hermione” and “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud” and hear how Bowie has evolved over time. Heathen may stop short of ranking among Bowie’s best, but it’s a very admirable bounce-back after the confused experiments of Hours …, and it finds Bowie aging more gracefully than most other veteran rockers of his generation.  


Reality (2003, Columbia)

B +

Visconti remains on board, as he would for all of Bowie’s remaining albums, and there are, once again, several covers included here (in this instance, the Modern Lovers’ “Pablo Picasso” and Ronnie Spector’s  “Try Some, Buy Some,” the latter penned – and later recorded – by George Harrison), but otherwise, Reality has little in common with Heathen. Whereas that album was largely on the mellow side, Reality finds Bowie in a lighter mood (except, that is, for “The Loneliest Guy,” which is even more depressing a listen than you might assume from the title) and rocking out more. The hard-rocking “New Killer Star” is easily Bowie’s best single since “I’m Afraid of Americans” and arguably even the best single in Bowie’s entire post-Earthling output. “She’ll Drive the Big Car” and the irrepressible stomp of “Looking for Water” are nearly just as good, while the closer, “Bring Me the Disco King,” a song dating back to the Black Tie White Noise sessions, is one of Bowie’s most heavily jazz-influenced ventures and features Mike Garson’s greatest piano work on a Bowie side since the title cut of Aladdin Sane. The lite funk-rock of “Never Get Old” and the toe-tapping acoustic groove of “Days” both add to the album’s aura of fun as well. Coming as quickly on the heels of Heathen as it did, Reality got a bit overlooked and wasn’t received by critics with nearly as much excitement or enthusiasm, but it’s arguably an even better album than its predecessor and is also easily the most downright fun album Bowie’s made since Earthling.   


The Next Day (2013, Columbia)

B +

It might have one of the all-time worst album covers by a major rock star, but the ill-advised packaging aside, the covers-free The Next Day continues Bowie’s string of well-crafted late-career outings and is a more lively listen than its poorly-chosen lead-off single, the incredibly lovely but very slow “Where Are We Now?” (an even slower-moving lead-off single than “Thursday’s Child,” astoundingly enough), might have led many to believe. Mind you, this isn’t as playful an album as Reality was, but there’s a greater mix of tempos and stylings here than you’ll find on Heathen, and the songs are slightly catchier than those from Heathen as well. At fourteen tracks long, it’s inevitable there’s some filler here, but the best cuts here definitely more than make up for it, highlighted by the title cut (which boasts the album’s most unforgettable chorus), “Valentine’s Day,” “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (try putting this one on a mixtape sometime with The Church’s “Under the Milky Way”; the songs go together fabulously), and the hard-rocking “(You Will) Set the World on Fire.”    


Blackstar (2016, Columbia)


Fair warning: if the likes of Let’s Dance or Young Americans rank among your top favorite Bowie albums, you will almost certainly dislike this album upon first listen. This reviewer did. This is almost every bit as uncommercial a David Bowie album as Low is – mind you, it doesn’t have a side’s worth of moody, ambient instrumentals like that album did, but the music is just as uncompromising, lacking much of anything in the way of choruses or hooks (whereas Low at least had its occasional moments of immediacy like “Sound and Vision”) and reveling in its own weirdness, especially on cuts like the spaced-out, fragmented ten-minute epic that serves as the album’s title cut and the deliberately nonsensical “Girl Loves Me.” It’s certainly not one of the better Bowie albums to put on at a party. But Bowie – a rocker who was always several years ahead of his time and was the first major rock star who could truly be called otherworldly, not in the least since he kicked off his career with the very futuristic folk of “Space Oddity” – has other things on his mind here. [It should be noted that Bowie was in the advanced stages of his battle with cancer while he made this album – he’d pass away just days after the album’s release – and seems to have deliberately crafted this album as his farewell to the world.]  Mind you, there’s not actually all that much music here – only seven songs in all, two of which had already been released in alternate versions [“Sue (in a Season of Crime)” had been included as sales bait on the hits package Nothing Has Changed, while “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” was that song’s B-side] – but it’s captivating all the same. However jarring the album might be initially, Bowie and Visconti have packed the arrangements of these songs with so many interesting – and often downright hypnotic – instrumental touches that you’ll find yourself coming back to these songs just to admire the little bits of ear candy, and the tracks eventually grow on you, even if there are no individual moments here that at all sound like obvious singles. [The slow-burning “Lazarus,” with its haunting sax fills, is nonetheless strangely alluring and became an unlikely – if posthumous – Top 40 hit, becoming Bowie’s first song since the title cut of Never Let Me Down to do so, while the less experimental and more acoustic-flavored “Dollar Days” hearkens back to the sound of Bowie’s earliest albums.]  Regardless of whether you prefer Bowie’s more pop-oriented fare or his more avant-garde outings, it’s impossible not to be fascinated by the disc and impressed by Bowie’s sheer fearlessness – ever the explorer, he’s determined to go out on the strangest, if not the most futuristic, note of his career here, and he does exactly that, and as an album piece, the album succeeds brilliantly. Sure, it’s hard not to at least partially miss Bowie’s pop instincts as you listen to the disc, but Bowie is the “Starman” for a reason, and there really was no more fitting way for him to say goodbye to us all than he did here.


The number of Bowie compilations to choose from is utterly daunting, but this should help keep things simple. For vinyl enthusiasts, the 1976 package Changesonebowie is a fabulous summary of Bowie’s earliest work for RCA, including all the major hits from “Space Oddity” through “Golden Years”; it’s also one of the few compilations available where you’ll find the full-length version of “Young Americans” (the badly-edited single version of which doesn’t do justice to the song) and the tough-to-find non-LP single “John, I’m Only Dancing.” Its less-recommended sequel, the all-too-brief Changestwobowie, attempts to both summarize his final years with RCA and collect earlier essentials left off of the first package but stops well shy of feeling complete, leaving out such critical items as “Heroes,” “TVC15,” and “Boys Keep Swinging.” For CD collectors, you can’t do much better than the 1993 Rykodisc double-disc set The Singles Collection 1969 to 1993, which compiles nearly all of Bowie’s singles from “Space Oddity” through “Jump They Say”; why the Top 40 hit “This Is Not America” is not included here is anyone’s guess, but otherwise, the anthology is utterly fabulous and great proof that Bowie was every bit as a great a singles artist as he was an albums artist, and it’s also one of the few compilations where you’ll find such underrated singles as “Never Let Me Down,” “Day In-Day Out,” and “Look Back in Anger.” If you can’t find that disc, the double-disc edition of Virgin’s 2002 package Best of Bowie is a reasonably good substitute and also includes “This Is Not America” (as well as “The Man Who Sold the World,” which was left off the Rykodisc package only because it was never technically released as a single) but excludes a lot of songs (including “Boys Keep Swinging” and both of the Top 40 hits from Never Let Me Down) in order to include a half-dozen highlights from Bowie’s post-Never Let Me Down work, some of which are good (“I’m Afraid of Americans,” “Slow Burn”) and others not so much (“Thursday’s Child” and Tin Machine’s “Under the God”). Be cautious of the boxed set Sound + Vision – the packaging is first-rate, and there are also a handful of worthwhile rarities included (especially “London Bye Ta Ta” and an unlikely cover of Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” from the Station to Station sessions), but it’s not a particularly comprehensive career retrospective, bypassing some fairly big hits (including, bizarrely enough, “Fame”) and devoting most of its running time to lesser hits and deep album cuts like “Red Sails” and “Joe the Lion.”

Live Albums:

There is no especially great Bowie live album, as nearly all his official live discs suffer from either poor sound (David Live) and/or poor song selection (A Reality Tour, which is way, way too heavy on new material and skips over way too many hits, including, bizarrely enough, of all things, “Let’s Dance”), though the performances themselves are mostly fine. For sheer historical worth, RCA’s 1983 package Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture leaves a lot to be desired sonically but should nonetheless appeal to diehard Bowie fans not merely for capturing Bowie onstage at the height of his initial incarnation as a glam-rocker but for serving as an audio document of the momentous night Bowie killed off the Ziggy Stardust character for good. (The 2008 package Live Santa Monica ’72, a very belated official release of a concert that had been bootlegged for quite some time, isn’t quite as historically significant as the aforementioned Ziggy soundtrack, but is an equally great performance from the same tour and has better sound.) Perhaps the most interesting Bowie live album is 1978’s Stage, which doesn’t include a great deal of hits (in fact, “Fame” is the only one of his American Top 40 hits up to this point that’s actually present here, astoundingly enough) but is extremely heavy on songs from Station to Station and the Berlin trilogy – hilariously enough, he even incorporates more than one instrumental from the second side of Low! – and features a sped-up version of “TVC 15” that is arguably even better than the original studio recording of the song.  


It’s not exactly an essential listen, not in the least since its best song (“Strangers When We Meet”) was re-recorded for Outside, but hardcore Bowie buffs will still want to track down a copy of the soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia. It was a commercial flop and remains very little-known to this day, but it’s comprised entirely of Bowie recordings and Bowie himself even once referred to it as his favorite of all his albums.