The Bowie Chronicles, Part 4

Ugh, again, I apologize for how late this is – this whole Bowie project was supposed to take a month at most, but I haven’t had the time to actually make these posts. I’ve been listening and writing! But everything is on fire right now and I have neglected this blog. Not only am I done with Bowie, I’m done with the next artist and four albums deep into the next artist, so expect a flurry of these. Ok? Where did we leave off. Oh right, the 80’s. Not a pleasant time for Bowie. Let’s dance jump in.

LET’S DANCE (1983)

I knew going in that this would be an interesting one to write about, since Side A of this album kicks off with three huge hits – including my favorite Bowie track – so naturally I was going to like it. And yeah, hearing them back-to-back-to-back didn’t exactly provide any kind of insight or unique listening experience. The fourth song, “Without You,” didn’t exactly demand or grab my attention, a crashing back down to Earth. What else is there to say about this?

Side B was varied, though it ultimately proved that the album was the top-heavy release that I was expecting. Side A mostly eschews the moderately-uncharacteristic lengthy tracks in favor of more standard pop akin to Scary Monsters. It’s mostly pretty boring, though I really liked “Ricochet.” Also, “Cat People” is a minor classic for a reason. “Shake It” proved to be a decent final track and one that made me realize that Bowie has never really put much focus on closing tracks, something I always find fundamental to albums.

I’m a little surprised at how little I have to say about this one. I always kinda figured this was a key Bowie album based on the triple-punch openers (pun intended). Yet, it just exists, and it feels clear to me why Bowie himself didn’t like this period. It’s also worrying for me, because I know the next few albums are going to be much worse. Oh well. Let’s dive in.

Grade: 6/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Ricochet”

TONIGHT (1984)

Yep. This isn’t exactly great. For the first time since the beginning of his career, Bowie sounds consumed by, rather than predicting, the state of music. This feels very 80’s in a not complimentary way, a collection of cheesy ballads and synthy noodling. It isn’t bad, at all, it’s just…there.

There are some highs! The opening track “Loving The Alien” is one of Bowie’s best vocal performances to date. It’s a ballad – not a great way to open an album to be honest – that strips away theatrics in favor of performance. It’s a crooning song, something that I feel like is associated with Bowie but rarely actually present. There’s a handful of these tracks across the album, but none as good as this. Also, I really enjoyed “Neighborhood Threat,” which kicks off the back half with the first dose of adrenaline on the album. It’s a genuinely fun song, and seems to have fallen into obscurity within a catalog that hasn’t.

But that’s about it. Six of the album’s nine tracks are forgettable pop fluff, reflective of the times and not ideal relics. It’s clear Bowie was running out of juice. The album’s penultimate song “I Keep Forgettin’” is actively bad, a hokey and cringey song that sounds closer to music made for toddlers than anything else. The fact that it’s also the album’s shortest song is both a relief and an insight into how little ambition there was across recording. There’s nothing remarkable about this album, and diehards may get something to glean from it, but there is very little going on. It’s dull.

I’m going to say that this is the worst one yet, but I know that title is largely reserved for the next album. I’m about to hit a weekend, so I get to treat myself Monday morning.

Grade: 4.5/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Neighborhood Threat”


For the record, I was listening to the version on Spotify listed merely as “2018 Remaster” and I cannot tell if it’s the full-album remix or a slight reworking of the original, due to the platform’s continued and nonsensical war on an audiophile’s reliance on accurate data. Anywho. This album is fine. It’s pretty universally regarded as the worst Bowie album, by critics, biographers and the man himself. I don’t think I would go that far, but I also had my expectations set low because of the reviews. The album was supposed to be a return to rock-and-roll Bowie and by that metric, it’s an abject failure. The record mimics the art-pop of Tonight, a collection of quirky and complex pop tracks that sound closer to livelier Kate Bush or MJ than anything else.

For the most part, the record feels kind of lifeless. It’s not uninspired, like some earlier Bowie, but there isn’t really a whole lot going on, no real statement or character work. Each song individually is fine but the album as a whole feels lackluster. It’s clearly a mess, and unlike some of Bowie’s early slapdash albums, there’s no real excuse. He had the time and energy to do something more but the well ran dry. Every song feels like it borders on being fun and danceable but never quite gets there, more of the disposable pop music he had satirized a decade prior.

That’s the album as a whole. As stated, the quality isn’t due to effort, and there are some good tracks. “Zeroes” and “Glass Spider,” both centering the album’s midpoint, grabbed my attention and didn’t let go. There’s enough cool stuff going on in those songs to make them worthwhile listens. Also “New York’s In Love” is hokey, but it features the best guitar work on a Bowie album in a long while. These songs are all fine, but to call them the best on the album is not complimentary to the rest of the songs.

I don’t think this is the worst Bowie album yet, I’m keeping that with the previous entry. But there is a brutal irony to the album’s title, as Bowie has let us down again. Up next is the Tin Machine duo, something I personally am very excited for as it seems like “me” music – but I will tamper my expectations.

Grade: 5.5/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Zeroes”


It’s really funny that people had such strong reactions to this one in any direction. There’s really very little to say about it! A lot of reviews seem to liken it to alternative or even proto-grunge, but to me it’s more of a throwback to bluesy classic rock, released right around the time that “classic rock” became a solidified period of music. It doesn’t really fit the “hard rock” label and it doesn’t really try to, a lot of these reviews are head-scratchers. The album is definitely focused more on volume and vibes than melody, a lot of these songs intentionally eschew any earworm qualities. It’s a proper about-face for a man who was miserable in the pop music he was making.

However, this also means that there’s just very little to grab on to! This album is almost entirely forgettable, the second it’s over. The opener, “Heaven’s In Here,” is a solid rock track and a nice mission statement. The album’s best song is easily “Under the God,” a scathing satirical screed that has the most energy of any song on the album, and feels the most inspired. Otherwise, these are all just pleasantly enjoyable, disposable songs.

I was looking forward to this one despite the bad reviews because it might be something up my alley. It was, but it certainly isn’t an album that left any impression on me. It’s not one that I regret listening to, but I will not be paying a revisit. It’s fine! Time to wash the 80’s stink off of all of this.

Grade: 6/10

Fav non-hit track: “Under the God”


I never would’ve guessed that a Bowie album would be so tough to track down! This album is out-of-print and not available on Spotify. Luckily, it’s all up on YouTube, but it is wild that there’s an album so discarded that’s not even in print, less than a decade removed from his commercial peak.

Anyways, this one is a little better than the first iteration, and I’m surprised it’s been so thoroughly retconned. These songs are much more melodic, a marriage of rock and pop made after the whiplash affairs through both. There’s more energy here, and the band feels more locked in. I’m realizing now that Tin Machine exists mostly as a reactionary statement to pop-Bowie, with the man proving he can still hang in the rock crowd. But this album exists because the band simply wants it to – which is a much better incentive for an album.

To say it’s better isn’t entirely complimentary, because the first one really is forgettable. This is not a classic or totally worthy album, but it is solid. There are some good rock earworms, and a lot of sustained momentum through the album’s slightly-too-long runtime. Songs like the opener “Baby Universal,” “A Big Hurt” and “If There Is Something” are just great, energetic rock tunes. They can’t hang with Bowie’s best, of course, but they’re fun and they help this album a ton. Also, “Sorry” is a great, forgotten ballad; Bowie’s vocals on it are astonishing.

Otherwise, this is standard fare pop-rock stuff. Like the first Tin Machine album, this is a little too long when the quality isn’t stellar. A little less would’ve been a little more. But, it’s an improvement over the first, and it makes me a bit sad that the group didn’t live through the proper grunge era. This is a fine album, even if tough to find, but we’re still well in the wake of Bowie’s peak. Back to solo Bowie next. And one more post to wrap everything up.

Grade: 7/10

Fav non-hit track: “If There Is Something”

Thank you to anyone who is borthering these silly little musings on the worst David Bowie albums! This is part of an ongoing series where I’m deep diving into catalogs by artists I either love but don’t know as well as I should, or artists that are just big blind spots. You can check out the previous Bowie entries Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 as well as the foundational post, Zola Jesus.

The Bowie Chronicles, Part 3

Sooooo sorry for this post being delayed for months, there’s been a lot of unplanned chaos in my life and this has been on the backburner! Truthfully, at the time of writing, I’ve not only been done with the Bowie project for weeks but have nearly wrapped up the next band’s Chronicles, too. So…expect a flurry of posts in the coming days. I’ve not had the time or motivation to actually upload what I’ve written and deal with the boring metadata administrative stuff to get these posts live. Anyways where were we? Oh yeah, BERLIN. We’re about to enter the critical peak of Bowie’s career!

LOW (1977)

Like Station to Station, this was not a first-time listen but a long-overdue revisit. I’ve been a fan of the instrumental opener “Speed Of Life” for quite a long time now. But what was incredibly interesting to me was listening to this (nearly) back-to-back with Station (that’s the point of this exercise!). Separated by only a year, they’re total complements to each other. Both albums venture out of stadium glam rock and into avant-garde territory, but where Station was focused on drawn-out, maximalist nonsensical pop-rock, Low finds its comfort in repetitive bursts of reflective art rock. It all is a reaction, of course, to Bowie’s move to Berlin. Bowie finds the state of Berlin and the state of his own mind in disrepair, and all of the fun of his previous albums is drained out here.

That’s not a negative. This a gorgeous record, and one that absolutely whiplashed people on it’s release. Bowie – first and foremost a singer – rarely actually lends his vocals on the record. The back half is all instrumental, as is the opener. The intent of this album was pessimistic – Bowie was in a bad place physically and mentally, and that’s displayed through distorted and sadder music, often with a repetitive and minimalist tone. But, it had the opposite effect on me. I find Low very peaceful, even in its melancholy. One of the standouts is the longest track “Warszawa,” which sees Bowie enter ambient for the first time. It’s the quietest track on the record (or any Bowie record so far) and feels like the lowest point for David, but a very calming and peaceful track for me. The back half – derided on first release – follows this trend for me, though none of the subsequent three songs hit the same level as “Warszawa.”

As with many other Bowie albums, the lone hit – “Sound and Vision” – feels like an outlier, because it’s the closest thing to a standard rock song. Even then, though, it’s quirky and repetitive and does not feature Bowie’s voice until a little ways in. It’s also nice to hear Mary Hopkin – who against all odds released a good album in 2022 – on backup vocals.

This one is a masterpiece. You’ll find out in a minute that I messed the listening order up, but the issue I had with “Heroes” is not present here – the tone of this record works throughout, on every track. It’s one of the most consistent Bowie records and one that really defies a true explanation. The record was disregarded as being like a soundtrack, but I don’t see why that’s a negative. It feels like the score to a film that can never exist. It’s not the most interesting record at all times, but it’s Bowie reflecting himself and his fractured state, no longer hiding behind plastic characters. You can feel, good and bad, Bowie’s true intentions and how ‘out of the game’ he was feeling here. This is one of the best I’ve done so far, and I love it far more in this sequential context.

Grade: 8.5/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Warszawa”

“HEROES” (1977)

Thanks to my pre-coffee morning brain and Spotify’s ambivalence to detail, I listened to this one before Low, which came out the same year but is alphabetically after “Heroes”. I’ve been saying for a long time that I think the title track is not only Bowie’s best song, but one of the best songs ever. It really does hold up this album and elevate it to seminal status, even with no other hits. Consider me surprised, then, to learn that much of this album was improvised in the studio. It shows, for better or worse, and the immaculately-crafted title track ends up sticking out like a sore thumb. The album’s first two tracks are weary rock tunes that seem to weirdly hearken back to the novelty days, and it’s apparent that there was no plan for them. I’ll be honest – they’re not good. But the rest of Side A after “Heroes” has some great rock tunes with impressive Bowie vocals. “Sons of the Silent Age” is a solid rock tune, and “Blackout” is one of the best Bowie tracks yet. One of his loudest tunes and some of his strongest vocals.

I’m not sure how to really write about Side B here; it’s clear that Brian Eno commandeered this record almost to a fault. Eno is a legend, and the three instrumental ambient tracks here are damn-near perfect, but they don’t fit. They’re pleasant listens, in the way that Music For Airports is. But they’re a huge departure for Bowie (pun intended, let me have it). I enjoyed the music, but I guess I just didn’t really “get” why this was featured unless it was really Eno doing a hostile takeover. All in all though, it does give the listener a calm break before the closer “The Secret Life of Arabia.” I think “Arabia” would probably be a great song on it’s own, but with this ambient section acting as a ~13 minute intro to it, it comes off very powerfully. It’s another great vocal turn from Bowie, and solidifies this as his best vocal album so far.

This record is a lot more confounding than I expected – I thought it was Bowie’s return to ballads. Far from it! I really enjoyed the listen, even though half the record didn’t make sense to me. It’s definitely a top-tier Bowie album, though I think it does a little more for most listeners than me.

Grade: 8/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Blackout”

LODGER (1979)

Okay, I’m returning to this from a long break – well-timed for the mind, poorly timed for the post, as I split the Berlin trilogy up with a week and a half or so in between. Anyways, I have mixed feelings about this one. It’s a solid pop-rock album. I was nervous diving in since the album produced no real hits and simply isn’t celebrated very highly, but it was during his creative peak too. Like the other trilogy entries, the album is split into two ideological halves, but not quite in the same way. This album is more sonically cohesive than the vocal/instrumental complements of Low and the rock/ambient halves of “Heroes.” It’s just two lyrical halves – the first is about world travel and the second is more tongue-in-cheek critiques of Western pop culture. So, let’s split this review in two.

I wanted to like the first half more than I did. There’s some excellent ideas, namely taking inspirations from world music and pairing them directly with lyrics about travel. It’s inherently cultured and some of the most intelligent songwriting of Bowie’s career so far. It’s also just not super fun to listen to? The opener “Fantastic Voyage” is dull, and while “African Night Flight” and “Yassassin” are livelier, they don’t feel like the complete, sophisticated songs they should be. I hear the world influences, but the actual origins of the influences don’t feel as clear as, say, Graceland. That said, the final track of side A, “Red Sails,” is maybe my favorite on the album.

Side B is a lot more fun and definitely a more comfortable territory for Bowie. “D.J.” and “Boys Keep Swinging” are loosely satirical and fun pop-rock songs, while “Repetition” explores a slightly softer but very catchy side. “Swinging” is probably the highlight, but all five of these songs are vibrant and fun. There’s no unexplored territory here, and all five of them are ultimately kind of forgettable, but they’re worthy of a listen, too.

This album is fine. I’m not sure it was worthy of the mixed criticism on it’s release, or the pure reappraisal either. It was recorded on tour and it feels like it, even if it had lofty ambitions. It ultimately feels a little rushed, a little empty and a little plain, while still maintaining a purely fun energy. It doesn’t feel like the album Bowie wanted – both him and Visconti have said as much – and it’s a weak way to close out the Berlin era. And still, I might come back to it. It’s pleasant and digestible, with enough familiarity to be Bowie but enough exploration to not be a slog.

Rating: 6.5/10

Favorite track: “Red Sails”


I felt like I didn’t know much about this album going in and, knowing the downfall that’s coming in just a few years, I was worried. The backstory to this one is pretty interesting, where Bowie felt that his Berlin trilogy wasn’t selling well and that a lot of artists who were directly influenced by 70’s Bowie – namely another guy I love, Gary Numan – were now overpowering him. So this is a back-to-basics pop Bowie. It doesn’t all work unfortunately, but what does work is quite good.

Bowie rings in a new decade with one of most surprising songs, “It’s No Game (Part 1),” which features a female singer in the place of Bowie. The first side of this album is all very unique and often pounding music. Bowie’s pop to this point has often been kind of plastic, but side A of this album feels urgent and adventurous in a way that’s new. The second track, “Up The Hill Backwards” is a surprisingly beating track that feels a little more in place with the hyperpop and alt-pop stuff of today rather than anything from 1980. The third and fourth songs are, of course, the title track and “Ashes To Ashes.” Both are great and the latter will always be a top-5 Bowie song.

Side B is frustratingly bland. It isn’t bad, and it isn’t the artificial pop of past Bowie – it’s a step up from that. There is absolutely ambition here and not quick songs assembled on tour. But, some of them just don’t amount to much. “Fashion” feels kind of lame and “Teenage Wildlife” goes on longer than necessary. The remaining songs certainly aren’t bad, but just don’t leave a real impression on the listener. Still, it’s a solid album, and another important reboot in the career of Bowie. It really is fascinating to me that he’s had so many hold-ups, restarts and critical or commercial failures up to this point. We generally think of the era from Ziggy to Let’s Dance as a run of near-perfection, but it certainly wasn’t viewed that way at the time. This album though finally managed to mix critical and commercial success. I’ve said little about Side B, but I really do recommend this one.

Grade: 7.5/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Up The Hill Backwards”

Thank you to anyone who sought out, or stumbled on this and read it! If you did, feel free to go in order with Part 1 and Part 2 of the series. Part 3 sees the commercial peak and critical nadir of his career, as well as the Tin Machine years. It’s a trip. See you on the other side!

The Bowie Chronicles, Part 2

I really meant to get around to this sooner! Listening wise I’m already well into part 3, but I’ve been busy so I haven’t had a chance to update here. We’re hitting the real meat of Bowie’s career here, the topsy-turvy years of his glam phase-backslide-into-rock-and-drugs era. There’s some heaters in this collection, and some genuine blind spots in my listening history. Onto Aladdin Sane!


Ugh, this is a fantastic album but it’s impossible to look at without context. The point of this series is to watch how an artist transforms over time while also judging all of their albums individually, but there’s no way to listen to Sane as anything but a continuation of Stardust. And it’s a lesser one at that. This was Bowie’s first album as a megastar, written on tour, and it shows – the songs are punchier and slicker, but clearly recorded and mixed hastily and lacking in the substance that made Stardust such a classic.

There’s a deep irony here, in that the songs on Sane individually hit harder and more concisely than those on Stardust, and they come even closer to defining the glam rock sound. And yet, the whole doesn’t match the parts. This is a solid and fun rock album, but the first album in Bowie’s career that’s felt mandatory. Not directionless, not uninspired, but still mandatory. The songs are easy, empty and rushed. This is apparent immediately on the opener “Watch That Man” – a great, boisterous rock song, but one filled with repetitive, shallow lyrics. The album that follows is mostly that, punchy rock songs with tired lyrics and rushed production. It’s even more paradoxical – or possibly not – that the album’s best song is “Time,” a patient ballad with a committed vocal performance. It feels like a sign of the Bowie to come a few years later. The closer, “Lady Grinning Soul,” is an equally great, manic ballad that shows this album would’ve been better with more devotion and patience.

This album was inspired by both America and the Rolling Stones, with Bowie going so far as to include a cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” It feels like DEVO’s cover of “Satisfaction,” in that it takes a signature Stones song and dilutes everything that made it a classic to turn it into a different entity altogether. Unlike the DEVO cover, I wouldn’t go back and listen to the Bowie one again, but it is decent. Anyways, that Stones influence is palpable here, with a bunch of flashy, rough blues-rock songs. I was surprised looking at the track list to see that the album only produced one Bowie classic – “The Jean Genie” – but after listening I understand why. What should have been a landmark album instead feels like a placeholder. On it’s own, it’s a fine record, but it’s Bowie treading water and I don’t think it would’ve made him a star if he wasn’t already. A couple of these songs really do slap, though.

Grade: 7/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Time”

PINUPS (1973)

This one will be quick – if Bowie didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it, why should I? Pinups is a contract-filling covers album, made up of mostly classic rock tracks that influenced Bowie. It’s not bad, really, just a mostly unnecessary listen.

What is curious though, is that this is one of the only albums where we actually get to see the Spiders of Mars in action! Bowie makes an effort to glam up some of these songs, including the great opening one-two punch of “Rosalyn” and “Here Comes the Night.” The songs are mostly older classic rock – Yardbirds, Who, Them, Kinks – which feels antithetical to the Stardust character. Bowie spends some songs ‘updating’ them for a glam era and some doing straight covers, which is very confounding. It can’t help but feel pointless. He tries to outweird Pink Floyd on their “See Emily Play” – and fails. He slows down The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” to make it his own and, well, it’s a lot worse. The beauty of that song is the rocking energy within the crisp, clean instruments and production, not the lyrics or anything.

I actually think I like the tracks where Bowie plays it safe more, although those are even more pointless. His cover of “Sorrow” is genuinely great. He tries another Who track in “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and plays it so close he actually sounds like Roger Daltrey. And, as much as this album is nothing more than contract fulfillment recorded on the road, it is still important in context to the Spiders of Mars and end of the glam era. It’s an era associated with Bowie – yet one he was not active in for very long and with limited successes.

Grade: 6/10

Favorite non-hit track: Uh, N/A?


This record is a mess, but not without some real highlights. It’s clear at this point that Bowie isn’t the solidified superstar I was under the impression he was in 1974; this album has too many directions and characters, loose half-inspired threads and competing influences. It’s very good, but it’s a couple different albums at once. I think it works best when it tries to work within glam but shed the Ziggy Stardust elements. The Spiders From Mars were gone, and the fact that Ziggy makes appearances here just feels somewhat stale. It feels like a step forward, a step laterally and a step back all at once.

The general conceit for this album, an apocalyptic one, works well. It’s a darker direction for the generally poppy sound of Bowie. The fact that he wanted to center it around 1984 but couldn’t get full permission from the Orwell estate is unfortunate and unintentionally funny, especially as the back-to-back tracks “1984” and “Big Brother” come off more like a weird obsession than an album concept. But, the theme really does set groundwork for glam and punk; it’s easy to forget how instrumental Bowie was in the latter. The album is at its best when Bowie is loose and loud. The title track is a fun, bombastic mess. “Sweet Things” rocks, and the song’s reprise leading right into “Rebel, Rebel” is an equally rambunctious sound. Meanwhile, more conventional tunes like “Rock N Roll With Me” are just disappointing. They sound plastic and empty, years behind the time.

This is ultimately a crucial record in the Bowie catalog, as it sees him move away from the glam sound, just as he was really perfecting the lyrical aesthetics. The album’s raw and rowdy elements really are fantastic, and directly inspirational to a forthcoming generation of loud bands. It’s the end of Ziggy Stardust and the end of this period of Bowie’s career. If this one had just been more cohesive than it would be an all-timer. But, it’s a still great listen and one that stamped Bowie as a legend.

Grade: 7.5/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Diamond Dogs”


I’ll never understand when artists don’t put effort into an album cover. The covers of these 70’s Bowie records could not be more indicative of the music underneath. Diamond Dogs has the classic, loud painting of a half-dog-half-Bowie creature. Young Americans? Just a simple photo of Bowie smoking. With the glam era and the Ziggy Stardusted off his shoulders, Bowie is free to embrace an American soul sound. It’s a direction that’s been hinted at already, with some incongruous tracks on other albums that may have worked better here. It’s a pleasant, if forgettable listen.

This is clearly an album that Bowie wanted to make. With the power of hindsight, it’s a wild move to shed yourself of the zeitgeist-founding, sultry and disorderly persona in favor of porno music. But, Bowie has always had soul elements, and he’s finally devoting full time to their exploration. Young Americans is ultimately the most digestible Bowie record yet.

Most of these tracks are pretty similar and not wholly different than other soul songs. “Right,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and “Can Your Hear Me” are the most effective ones, especially due to the inclusion of backing vocalists. Bowie’s voice maybe isn’t the best on this record, and strong arguments can be made that everything sounds thin. It’s not a classic soul record, and if you removed Bowie’s obvious personal desire to record it, it’d probably a failure for the genre. There is also the bizarre inclusion to include a cover of “Across the Universe” – with Lennon! It’s not a good cover, it’s straight up bad, it doesn’t fit on the record, and it follows in the heels of a full covers album. The album’s fascination with the Beatles – Lennon also co-wrote “Fame” and there’s the shoutout on the title track – feels divorced from the American soul influences. It’s yet another Bowie record where competing influences cannot interact peacefully. But, that was not nearly enough to detract me from pleasantly enjoying this one.

Grade: 7.5/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Right”


This I know for a fact was not a first-time listen; my dad had this one on CD growing up and I used to stare dumbfounded at what a ten-minute song could be. This is the result of Bowie in the throes of a cocaine addiction, one so bad that he’d later admit he has no recollection of even recording this album. That’s especially remarkable given how strong it and patient it is.

Americans gave Bowie some freedom to do what he wanted on his next album, and the result is a collection of fewer, longer tracks that incorporate a mix of everything Bowie had done up to that point. It’s a pretty genius album, and easily his most layered and textured so far. Gone are the direct lyrics in favor of dense poetry, gone are the simple guitar or synth rhythms in favor of complex, multi-instrument tracks with healthier runtimes.

The A side is certainly better – all three tracks shine. The title track is one of the most ambitious songs in the Bowie catalog (matched only by “Blackstar” 40 years later), with a 10+ minute runtime and patient, complex rhythms. “Golden Years” was the hit, and for good reason – it’s the catchiest track on the release. “Word On A Wing” is also a pure standout. Side B is less memorable, though it does include the infamous “TVC15,” with Bowie at his most nonsensical.

It’s fantastic, just a brilliant album even if it’s not the easiest one to listen to. Up next: The Berlin trilogy and the pop downfall!

Grade: 8.5/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Word On A Wing”

Thanks for reading! I hope at least one person has as much fun reading these as I do writing them. Feel free to check out the first installment in the Bowie series!

By Andrew McNally

The Zola Chronicles

Welcome to the first ever edition of The _____ Chronicles! In this hopefully ongoing series I’m going to be doing deep dives into the catalogs of artists I like but haven’t explored enough. This is partially a way to jump headfirst into some daunting catalogs I’ve been putting off, but also a way to burn through some smaller ones, too. While the second edition will very much be the former, we’re starting with the latter: Zola Jesus. Imagine if I had titled this post The Jesus Chronicles? How pretentious does that sound!

Zola Jesus is really the moniker of solo singer Nika Danilova, though she’s usually backed by a consistent group. Though a recent artist and someone very much in the current zeitgeist, her music is more indebted to bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Her music is often inspired more by industrial and goth than anything else, but with the incorporation of lush atmospheres and pop vocals. It’s an interesting combo, something that sounds both progressive and timestamped to 1986.

Zola was on my radar for a bit when I become a devotee to Sacred Bones Records, but it wasn’t until Nika started dropping some harsh truths about the state of indie music on twitter that I started paying attention. I’ve heard her most recent release, 2022’s Arkhon – which brought up the rear in my alphabetical-by-artist Best Albums of 2022 list – but I’ve otherwise not heard any releases. So, I’ll be streaming and reviewing the first five studio albums, in order. These are The Spoils, Stridulum, Conatus, Taigi and Okovi.


I really dug this record. The most immediate thing to note is that there’s some earlier songs attached to the end of it, and it does alter the listening experience. The album’s final tracks follow more conventional pop song structures, but with some very rough lo-fi recording. It’s not really an extension of what came first but an attachment, and it doesn’t super work – but the songs are good, so it didn’t bother me! “The Way” is actually one of the best tracks on the album, I think.

Okay, the actual album – I think this one came out of the gates hot. The opening track “Six Feet (From My Baby)” is the best one on the album and, if we’re judging Spotify plays as gospel, the most popular one. It’s got a classically industrial percussion beat but stops just short of the genre’s standard harshness. Nika’s voice brings in some operatic qualities, which is true for the whole record. “Clay Bodies” is a solid tune, enhanced by her best performance across the album. Due to the intentionally lo-fi production, the lyrics are always obscured by both the beautiful operatic vocals and the grainy fuzziness of the studio. It creates an interesting, paradoxical atmosphere of bedroom pop made for a stadium. It also follows a trend in bands like this, to eschew any qualities that might hotshot them into a big spotlight. Indeed, most of these songs are more vibes than anything, not playing into any sort of verse-chorus-verse structure and opting for dreamy soundscapes.

There’s too much – there’s a few too many of these songs and they do start to bleed together. And, with the inclusion of the very solid but different tracks at the end, the runtime is just a little bloated. But it’s still a very engaging and encompassing album – great stuff!

Rating: 7.5/10

Favorite track:“Six Feet (From My Baby)”


This is a perfectly logical follow-up to Spoils. It does exactly what it needs to – ups the production and puts more of a focus on the vocals. Spoils used lo-fi production to make a statement, but it wasn’t a sustainable sound, really. The vocals on this record are crisp and clean, and the lyrics are actually intelligible! Nika’s voice is absolutely the standout, hauntingly operatic and yet compellingly melodic. Her voice is simply forceful and commands each track. There is also a focus on individual instruments, from the sparse drums of opener “Night” to the keyboards on closer “Lightsick.”

But, even with these changes, there is still a distinct lack of palpable pop qualities here. These songs are still very dreamy and hypnotic, even if they come closer to being defined as “ballads.” I’m not sure if the general affect works quite as well here, as it feels like too much of a good thing, and unlike Spoils I think this album is aided by individual standout tracks. “Night,” the title track “Stridulum” and “Manifest Destiny” are all among the best Zola songs I’ve heard so far. Naturally, these are also the songs where Nika’s voice is the strongest. I didn’t like this one quite as much as the debut, but it is still very tantalizing and I’m excited to keep plugging away.

Rating: 7/10

Favorite track: “Stridulum”


This one feels pretty similar to Stridulum, so I won’t spend much energy here. It’s quite good! The biggest difference is a reliance on multi-layered vocals, we hear Nika harmonizing with herself on nearly every track. It’s super effective, and mixed with the crispest production yet, we get an album that is incredibly dreamlike. For all I know, this was recorded inside a cave. This also feels like the closest thing to a solo project, as the album relies even heavier on the vocals.

Where Stridulum really was bolstered by some great songs, this one feels like a more comprehensive record. The vibes work better than ever; this is a great album to throw headphones on and disappear into. I think she and the band are really finding their proper groove here, maintaining a consistent aura without falling into a repetitive trap. There’s pop vocals and traditional sounding ballads, all wrapped up in a completely hypnotizing dreamy wash. By this point the albums are pretty consistent, but this is the best one so far.

Rating: 7.5/10

Favorite track: “Vessel”


Well this is the biggest outlier so far, so it’s fitting that this is the only review I’m writing a few days after listening and not in the immediate aftermath. This one was a frustrating listen, it featured all of Nika’s strengths but in more of a conventional pop direction. It’s a neat left-turn, a bit of a break from the system. You can tell that Nika is doing this as a fun new direction and an experiment to push the limitations of her sound. Her voice lends itself extremely well to pop tracks, as expected. This more than any other ZJ album sounds like the project of a solo star: vocals with a backing band.

All of that said, this really isn’t that pleasant of an album to listen to. A relaxation of the focus on the music makes these songs pretty half-baked and interchangeable. They’re not bad, but they just kind of exist and nothing more. This album feels like the latter half of “one for them, one for me.” I think it was maybe more fun to produce than it is to listen to. Still, it’s a solid record! This album really reinforces the power of Nika’s voice and how it transcends the little niche she’s previously hidden herself in. It’s a decent album, but one that I won’t be revisiting.

Grade: 6/10

Favorite track: “Dangerous Days”


Alright, we’re back on track. I really loved this one. I think this one might actually be my favorite, also taking Arkhon into consideration. Unlike Taiga, there’s no real reinventions happening here, just the best version of the Zola Jesus format we’ve seen yet. Nika’s vocals are particularly operatic, and there seems to be a heavier focus on repeated lyrics. This adds to the already dreamy/shoegaze-y music, which comes in louder than on previous albums. Okovi is the antithesis to Taiga, in that it feels the most like a full-band affair. The two albums likely make for a wonderful back-to-back (unfortunately my listens were separated by a weekend).

I would highly recommend this one to anyone who likes anything in the dream-pop realm, Beach House and beyond. It’s also got some drone elements that chip away at the pop melodies. It’s maybe the most engaging of all the ZJ albums. And as this completes my catalog listen-through, I think I want to call it my favorite.

Grade: 8/10

Favorite track: “Soak”

This was fun! As the first installment I can’t say how often or well I’ll keep doing these, especially since I’ve got some much bigger catalogs planned – but Bowie is up next. I hope someone out there has enjoyed this, and please check out the music of Zola Jesus!