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.
DAVID BOWIE (1967)
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.
Favorite track: “Love Me Til Tuesday”
DAVID BOWIE/SPACE ODDITY (1969)
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.
Favorite non-hit track: “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”
THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD (1970)
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.
Favorite track: “The Width Of A Circle”
HUNKY DORY (1971)
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.
Favorite non-hit track: “Fill Your Heart”
THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1972)
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.
Favorite non-hit track: “Five Years”
Check out my previous and first installment in this series: Zola Jesus
By Andrew McNally