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 Bowie Chronicles, Part 1

This is the second installment in this series, where I burn through an artist’s catalog in a quick manner. I’m doing these for three reasons – to get better at listening through catalogs in a quick way, to fill in some big gaps in my music knowledge, and to justify my continued payment towards this blog! I’m going to save time on any kind of artist intro and just tell you that for round 2, I’m listening to David Bowie. I’m a huge Bowie fan – always have been – but there’s plenty of his albums I’ve actually never listened to in full. For this exercise, I’ll be listening to all of his studio albums up to his original retirement. Some of them I’ve heard, but not in a long time, and listening to them will help contextualize his whole career. I will be stopping before The Next Day and Blackstar because I know those albums well enough as it is.


I knew his first couple albums were middling misfires so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I wasn’t expecting this. This debut album is pretty fun, but it’s a real head-scratcher as well. It’s an innocent collection of baroque pop songs that feel like they were supposed to be jokes with no punchlines. Nicely, they sound a lot like some of the wild Syd Barrett contributions to early Pink Floyd, with straightforward vocals and nonsensical, surreal lyrics. These songs aren’t as memorable as Barrett’s, but they are pretty fun.

It’s not fair to compare this album to the ones that came later – any song on this release is an absolute turd compared to “Heroes” – but it is difficult to not make the comparison. And this definitely lowers this album to a state of forgettable novelty tracks. Still, it’s an intriguing listen. It almost sounds like outsider music at times, which is something Bowie never really wandered into after this. It’s a confounding listen that is a fun gem to listen to once, but probably not worth a revisit.

Grade: 6/10

Favorite track: “Love Me Til Tuesday”


There was something off about the debut album that I didn’t quite work out, until I put this record on: he lacked confidence! I think that’s a second reason why the self-titled debut is the biggest outlier in his catalog. It’s apparent pretty immediately on this record that he’s gained the studio confidence he would obviously maintain for decades. That said, this is an album lost in time. I saw one review while I was listening that said something to the effect of, half of this album belonged in ’67 and half of it in ’72, and I agree. We get some fun, novelty type songs – including “Space Oddity” – that feel like an extension of his debut, and some softer folksy rock tunes that sound very indicative of the decade to come, though not something Bowie would really touch again. There’s plenty of fine tracks, but it doesn’t really gel well.

Alongside the increased confidence comes a patience – these songs are longer than the ones on the debut album, significantly. The closer “Memory of a Free Festival” hits the 7-minute mark, a repetitive and middling but catchy tune akin to “Hey Jude.” “Cygnet Committee” is seconds short of 10 minutes, actually one of Bowie’s longest tracks, though it isn’t really efficient with that time. “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is nearly 7 minutes and, bewilderingly, kind of a Southern rock tune which, even more bewilderingly, is great. There is more depth to the lyrics here too. “Space Oddity” sounds like a novelty track, much like the ones on his debut, but it doesn’t take a wordsmith to work out the song’s drug addiction allegory. “God Knows I’m Good” is also a tongue-in-cheek tune that wouldn’t have existed on the saccharine debut.

On the whole, I’m glad I listened to this record. There’s some tunes that don’t fit anywhere else in his catalog in a way that feels like retroactive experimentation. It’s not a great record, but it’s got a couple real standouts.

Grade: 7/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”


I think this one is going to be short. This album feels simultaneously important and insignificant, an important step and a bore. This is the first album that feels properly Bowie, and the first that feels super cohesive – two statements that aren’t necessarily intertwined but certainly do make sense together. This one adopts more of a rock approach than the scattershot, novelty folksy-baroque self-titleds. You can hear plenty of glam glimpses here. I wouldn’t call it “hard rock” like the reviews all seem to, but it does have a loose roughness to it that contemporaries like Mott the Hoople and T. Rex had as well. It’s a tight collection, bolstered by the stunning opener “The Width of a Circle” and the classic penultimate title track. It’s a massive step-forward for an artist finally finding his identity. Well, his first one.

It’s also kind of…boring, really. It sounds pretty interchangeable with a lot of classic rock, with tracks like “Black Country Rock” and “Running Gun Blues” falling out of my memory immediately; I’ve only just finished the album and I’ve forgotten half the songs already. “After All” has a unique theatrical vocal rhythm that really didn’t work for me. Mid-album track “Saviour Machine” is a standout. It’s really just another rock song but it’s one that I really dug. Otherwise, I’m struggling to really find much to say here. From a standalone perspective, this is a standard rock album with a few stellar cuts and some filler.

Grade: 6.5/10

Favorite track: “The Width Of A Circle”


Finally…a Bowie masterpiece. This is one of the big albums that I’m pretty certain I’d never actually listened to in full. I was surprised at how sparse it is, given that the three biggest tracks – “Changes,” “Life On Mars?” and “Queen Bitch” – don’t follow the trend. But “Dory” really is a sparse, piano-driven album. Songs like “Kooks” show a playful side to a softer Bowie, where “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Eight Line Poem” are more somber affairs. All in all, this is a super cohesive album – only the rollicking “Queen Bitch” feels truly out of place.

This album is also a logical advancement from Man Who Sold the World, even if it doesn’t particularly sound like that record. Bowie is still, four albums in, finding his footing, managing to both diversify and solidify his sound. It acts as an accompaniment to “World,” as it is a much softer and melodic album, but is also miles better in quality. All of the songs on this record are near perfect, although the hits are very much the best tracks. This is the finest collection so far by far. It really is a remarkable leap from novelty singer/passable rock singer to ethereal artist. These songs all have tremendous depth and emotion and half of them do it with very few components. Bowie’s voice has yet to sound this good, he’s truly at all cylinders. Damn near perfect album.

Grade: 9/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Fill Your Heart”


I have absolutely listened to this album before but it’s been embarrassingly long since I’ve done a full run-through. Just remarkable, so much more of a masterpiece than even Hunky Dory, this one is just on another level. I have claimed for a while that “Starman” is Bowie’s best vocal performance and it sounds even better on the context of the record. The album is loose, piano- and guitar-driven bluesy rock, a sound perfected on the title track. Incredible concept record where every single second of tape is used well.

I won’t spend a lot of time here, there’s little point in pointed praise of one of the most famous records ever, but a little gushing is necessary. The album produced four iconic Bowie songs, but the album tracks are just as good. “Five Years” and “It Ain’t Easy” are every bit as good as “Moonage Daydream” and “Ziggy Stardust.” Like some previous Bowie albums, one of the hits feels out of place – “Suffragette City,” tacked on as the penultimate song and louder than any other track. But it also makes for a great, late-album banger. Hunky Dory was a classic, but it is still a stepping stone to the actual, fully realized Bowie. This is that Bowie. From a novelty singer to a generational artist, it’s quite a journey. It also feels like the perfect place to wrap up part 1.

Grade: 10/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Five Years”

Check out my previous and first installment in this series: Zola Jesus

By Andrew McNally