Black Stars

Time for my personal verdict on David Bowie’s studio albums (and one or two honorary ones), after a month of re-listening, listening for the first time, and listening properly for the first time. Ratings are Rolling Stone-style, out of five stars. Anything given three stars or more I’d happily listen to again; four stars or more I’d listen to a lot. Two or two and a half, I’d listen to on a good day. I have no plans to listen to Tonight ever again, especially as its two decent songs are on Nothing Has Changed.

Early On (1964–1966) (singles compilation) ★½
David Bowie (1967) ★★½
Space Oddity (1969) ★★★½
The Man Who Sold the World (1970) ★★★
Hunky Dory (1971) ★★★★★
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) ★★★★★
Aladdin Sane (1973) ★★★★★
Pin Ups (1973) ★★★
Diamond Dogs (1974) ★★★★½
Young Americans (1975) ★★★★
Station to Station (1976) ★★★★★
Low (1977) ★★★★★
“Heroes” (1977) ★★★★★
Lodger (1979) ★★★★½
Scary Monsters (1980) ★★★★★
Let’s Dance (1983) ★★★
Tonight (1984) ½
Soundtracks* (1986) ★★½
Never Let Me Down (1987) ★★
Tin Machine (1989) ★★½
Tin Machine II (1991) ★★★
Black Tie White Noise (1993) ★★★½
The Buddha of Suburbia (1993) ★★★½
Leon (1994, unreleased) ★★★★
Outside (1995) ★★★★★
Earthling (1997) ★★★★½
‘Hours...’ (1999) ★★★
Toy (2001, unreleased) ★★★★
Heathen (2002) ★★★★½
Reality (2003) ★★★★
The Next Day (2013) ★★★★
★ (2016) ★★★★★

*Bowie’s contributions to the soundtracks of Absolute Beginners, Labyrinth and When the Wind Blows amounted to an album’s worth, and there were enough decent tracks (and one stellar one in “Absolute Beginners”) to make them his mid-’80s peak, though that isn’t saying a lot.

My catching-up on Bowie’s albums over recent weeks has been more scattershot than Tom Ewing’s, hopping back and forth across his eras.

Hunky Dory was the first Bowie album I fell for unreservedly, and I love it all. My love for it might be what delayed my engagement with other key albums, particularly in the 1975–1980 era; there was so much to discover and consider in each fresh listen that I was happy with that. Even Ziggy couldn’t match it for me. So I didn’t hear Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station to Station, Lodger or Scary Monsters in full until this year; I only knew the (excellent) singles. And to be honest, I didn’t even listen to Low and “Heroes” properly before now.

The New Yorker obituary called Young Americans Bowie’s “first masterpiece”, which I found baffling, given what comes before it. There’s plenty to like on Young Americans (though “Across the Universe” falls flat for me), but it seems such a slight on Hunky Dory, Ziggy, Aladdin Sane—and, I now know, Diamond Dogs. To declare it Bowie’s first masterpiece in one of America’s journals of record surely needs more justification than even calling it a masterpiece would. (It can’t only be because it was the first one America paid much attention to, can it?)

It was their writer’s first Bowie album, though, and I can understand the first holding a special status in one’s mind. When I was 15, Let’s Dance came out, so for a long time I thought that was “the” Bowie album. That seems mad now; it doesn’t even have Young Americans’ benefit of being good of its kind, it just has some big hit singles on it. But I didn’t have the resources to buy up the old albums to see what I’d been missing, and Let’s Dance (which I didn’t even own, but heard via friends) wasn’t enough to prompt me to try. Nevertheless, once I actually heard some earlier Bowie, I quickly demoted Let’s Dance to the lower reaches in my personal ranking, and didn’t think much about it again.

I’m pretty sure that at some point I had a C90 of Let’s Dance and Tonight taped off a friend, but it quickly fell off my playlist and ended up wiped. When I re-listened to Tonight last month it must have been for the first time in 30 years. And no wonder I gave up on Bowie at the time: Tonight was his absolute nadir. But it got better from there, even including the much-maligned Never Let Me Down. I was put off hearing that by its caning in Slipped Discs: The Worst Rock’n’Roll Records of All Time, but it’s not as bad as Tonight.

Tin Machine was also a stumbling block at the time; I actually bought that on CD, when CDs represented quite an investment, but ended up giving it away to a friend. Re-listening to it last weekend, it still wasn’t perfect, but wasn’t as bad as I’d remembered. Plastered with a heavy guitar sound that bears little relation to previous Bowie work, it has a lot in common with the end-of-’80s rock of Jane’s Addiction and Guns N’ Roses. The opening song is okay, if too long, but the title track is a bit hard to get past. When you do, there are some more painful moments ahead: I really dislike the Lennon cover (and 1988 was when I discovered and adored John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, so I must have hated the cover then), so that’s two-for-two for Bowie-covering-Lennon-badness. But I quite liked (this time around) “I Can’t Read”, “Under the God”, “Amazing”, “Bus Stop” and “Baby Can Dance”. “Video Crimes” was also fascinating to hear in January 2016: it clearly shares its DNA with Blackstar’s “Girl Loves Me”.

Tin Machine II (new to me, again) feels like a lost Bowie album. It’s patchy, with a couple more awful moments on it, but its highs are better than their first album’s, and Reeves Gabrels’ guitar is toned down a fair bit (I like his playing, but you can have too much of a good thing). Reading Chris O’Leary’s Tin Machine entries tipped me off to “The King of Stamford Hill”, a Reeves Gabrels solo track with a Bowie vocal recorded alongside the first Tin Machine album, which is better than anything on either. Imagine yer “Let’s Dance” fans wrappin’ their ear’oles around that.

After that, things get better and better, including at least one genuine classic in Bowie’s ’90s work in the form of Outside, and a close second in Earthling. This piece makes a good case for the period, and also this, which speaks to some of the issues Tom Ewing raised after listening to Tin Machine.

Mainstream Australia, like America, seemed to forget about Bowie after Tin Machine, but I remember “Hallo Spaceboy” and “I’m Afraid of Americans” getting a fair amount of JJJ airplay, so was aware at the time that he wasn’t to be written off. I bought into the marketing line that Heathen was the true renaissance, but now know that it came much earlier. The vibe in the ’90s was that Bowie was a kinda cool dude, and a couple of his singles got some attention on alt-radio, but that was about it. But the albums, the albums... look at this David Fricke review of Outside at Rolling Stone. I would have read that at the time, and it would have given me no reason to check out an album actually worth two stars more than he gave it; the album that really was “the best since Scary Monsters“. They were a star short on its sequel, too.

Bowie’s post-1990 work wasn’t uniformly brilliant—Hours feels too safe after the rush of Earthling—and it doesn’t have the sustained peaks of 1971–1980, which was marred (relatively speaking) only by Pin Ups, “Across the Universe” and one or two other less-than-stellar tracks—but it’s still extremely enjoyable. The first disc of the 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed, with its brilliant backwards sequencing, makes a good case for later Bowie, even if it misses out a lot of great stuff.

Nothing Has Changed also misses out Bowie’s most notorious ’60s song—which isn’t on any of the albums above—“The Laughing Gnome”. This supposedly terrible track is “terrible” in the way that Syd Barrett’s early Pink Floyd tracks like “Bike” and “The Gnome” were terrible—that is, not terrible at all. It just isn’t rock music. It’s a particular brand of late-’60s pop.

And without Bowie’s erratic early work of the late ’60s, would we have had everything that followed? Listening to “Fame” on my way into work last week, I realised that the part where his vocals are manipulated from very high to very low—“Fame, Fame, Fame, Fame”—could only have been done by the man who had recorded “The Laughing Gnome”. It certainly wasn’t one of co-writer John Lennon’s contributions.

Diehard Bowie fans, it turns out, have been pointing this out for years. Which can only mean that I now am one. Listening to little else for a month does that to you, I suppose.

So, now... it might be time for some new music.

Blackstar, perhaps.

7 February 2016 · Music

Oh all right, ★★★½ for The Man Who Sold the World. But I can tell I’m not going to listen to it much.

Added by Rory on 8 February 2016.

What a list of star ratings doesn’t give is a ranking, so I tried sorting them into one. Sorting the five-star albums was the tricky part. I expect ★ might drop a bit over time, but at the moment it still seems pretty amazing. I also realised, after listening to it again yesterday, that I love Heathen even more than its rating above suggests, and need to bump it higher... or else dock Station to Station and Ziggy half a star each, which just wouldn’t do. This is why we invented percentages.

Hunky Dory (1971)
★ (2016)
Scary Monsters (1980)
Low (1977)
Outside (1995)
“Heroes” (1977)
Aladdin Sane (1973)
Heathen (2002)
Station to Station (1976)
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Earthling (1997)
Lodger (1979)
Diamond Dogs (1974)
Reality (2003)
The Next Day (2013)
Young Americans (1975)
Toy (2001, unreleased)
Leon (1994, unreleased)
Space Oddity (1969)
The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
Black Tie White Noise (1993)
The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
Tin Machine II (1991)
‘Hours...’ (1999)
Let’s Dance (1983)
Pin Ups (1973)
Soundtracks (1986)
Tin Machine (1989)
David Bowie (1967)
Never Let Me Down (1987)
Early On (1964–1966)
Tonight (1984)

Added by Rory on 9 February 2016.