I bought David Bowie’s Earthling album in 1997 as was my duty as a Nine Inch Nails fan. I liked the record, but other than a general awareness of Bowie, that Queen song, his role in one of my favorite films, and that song of his that Nirvana covered, I wasn’t much of a real fan. Then, in 2002 or so, outside of a venue Showbread was playing in Anaheim, a fan pointed out to me that if I was really as big a fan of musicians who polarize audiences with drastic album-to-album changes, there’s really none who fit the bill quite better than David Bowie.
So I pirated The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. (Note: I have since repented of piracy and bought the album several times.)
I grew to love David Bowie very much. Delving into a then 24 album discography (now 26) on the other hand, seemed at the outset a bit daunting. Not to mention no two albums in said collection sound all that alike.
All sorts “beginner’s guides” to Bowie’s musical career are floating around out there on the internet, but many I’ve come across seem either no less intimidating than random selection, or else they seem to understate the broad, robust nature of Bowie’s expansive catalog by highlighting only an elect few. Now, what do I know? I myself was late to the party, and Bowie’s first album came out some 15 years before I was born. But, since it’s his birthday today, and since I’ll enjoy writing it, here is one more beginner’s guide to add to the pile. Rather than divide mine into individual records, I’ve based it on eras and albums therein.
Step One: The Unexpected Return of Bowie Era (2013 – present)
Listen to: The Next Day
Why start at the end without doing the homework? Because The Next Day does the homework for you. Of course, cramming Bowie’s covered spectrum of several decades into one LP is all but impossible, but his abrupt, unanticipated return following a ten year absence of music is about as meta as a David Bowie record gets. Beginning here allows us to treat the preceding albums as wonderful prequels.
Step Two: Glam Bowie (1971 – 1974)
Listen to (in this order): The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane, Hunky Dory
Ziggy era Bowie is arguably his most iconic. Though Bowie fans rarely agree on his best and worst (at least in the specifics), few argue that the eponymous Ziggy record isn’t one his best—if not his absolute greatest—album. I like Diamond Dogs more than the average joe, and Hunky Dory less than, but either way this era acts almost like it’s own self-contained career.
Recovering from cocaine addiction in 76, Bowie moved to Germany to clean up and reassess. His time there brought about the notorious Berlin Trilogy, a stark shift into minimalism and experimental noise. Each album has its moments of accessibility (some more than others) and the occasional pop flourish, but the self-contained congruence of the Berlin Trilogy make it a satisfyingly immersive listen from start to finish.
Step Four: Edgy 90’s Bowie (1995 and 1999)
In the mid and late 90’s, fragments of the strange, transgressive European genre called “Industrial” made their way into mainstream rock. Weirdly, Bowie had a take on the phenomenon. Weirder, it’s pretty good.
Step Six: Elder Statesman Rock Bowie (1999 – 2003)
All of Bowie’s bizarre genre drifting through the years (for much better or much worse) arrived at a sort of adult contemporary conclusion around the turn of the century. What kept this “last” shift from being lame were the shades of prior-Bowie he managed to carry into his “mature” era.
Nearly every Bowie fan loves Scary Monsters, but the jury is thoroughly out for the rest of the decade. In the few albums that followed, he managed a big hit or two, but Bowie himself seems fairly dismissive of much of the era. Like everything before and after, the highs are high but the lows tend to dip a bit lower than usual.
Final Step: The Rest of It
I know, I know, bring out the critics. The mere fact that I’ve included Young Americans and Station to Station in the “other” list is certainly enough to make many a Bowie fanatic fume. It is, as they say, my party. Or, I suppose in this case, Mr. Bowie’s party.
Happy Birthday David Bowie!