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 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!