The music world mourns the passing of a legend, as David Bowie died this past Sunday after an 18-month battle with cancer.
He kept his illness private, but poured all of his energy into his musical “Lazarus,” currently playing a sold-out run of shows in New York City, and his brilliant final album, “Blackstar.” Bowie died only two days after the release of “Blackstar,” which was on his 69th birthday. A day prior to the album’s release, Bowie debuted the haunting video for the track “Lazarus,” which in retrospect is clearly a goodbye. Bowie has left behind an immense and vastly influential catalog of timeless music spanning five decades.
For someone looking to explore Bowie’s catalog for the first time, the size and scope of it can be daunting. He’s recorded with so many different personas and characters, and in so many different styles, that it can be difficult to know where to start. There are a few excellent compilations, including last year’s reverse-chronology set “Nothing Has Changed,” a good starting point. But to really get into Bowie’s amazing musical universe, one has to dive into his 28 studio albums. All of them, even his weakest (“Never Let Me Down” from 1987) have worthwhile moments and most are exceptionally good. So where to begin? Here is a primer for music fans looking to dive a bit deeper into Bowie’s extraordinary body of work — 10 essential albums that span his entire career and provide a good overview and starting point. This is just a taste, of course. Many more of his albums are essential classics.
‘Hunky Dory’ (1971) After the folksy meanderings of “Space Oddity” (1969) and the blazing rock of “The Man Who Sold the World” (1970), Bowie took a huge leap forward as a songwriter with 1971’s superb “Hunky Dory.” More piano and acoustic-guitar heavy than its hard-rock predecessor, “Hunky Dory” includes some of Bowie’s greatest works: “Changes,” “Life on Mars?,” “The Bewlay Brothers” and “Quicksand.”
‘Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars’ (1972) The glam-rock opus about a dystopian future and an alien rock star hero who frazzles out before Armageddon can arrive. “Ziggy Stardust” is the album that launched Bowie into the stratosphere of stardom from which he never descended. Classic tunes include the title track, the hard-rock opus “Moonage Daydream,” the frenetic “Suffragette City” and the dramatic closing track, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.”
‘Station to Station’ (1976) Bowie’s shift from the soulful influences of his “Young Americans” album toward the more edgy, experimental vibe he’d pursue on his next three albums, the famous “Berlin Trilogy,” is evident here. “Station to Station” begins with its epic 10-minute title track, a locomotive rocker that takes up a quarter of the album. “Golden Years” provided Bowie with one of his biggest hits in America, and his dramatic take on the standard “Wild is the Wind” is one of the greatest vocal performances of his career.
‘Low’ (1977) The first of the “Berlin Trilogy” is the icy, minimalist “Low,” a huge left turn for a major artist. Bowie collaborated heavily with experimental music icon Brian Eno. Fans and critics didn’t quite know what to make of it at the time, but it is now considered one of his finest albums. Side one consists mainly of short, jagged rock song fragments loaded with disturbing imagery while side two is largely ambient instrumentals. It’s a spellbinding listen from start to finish. The album yielded two classic singles in “Sound and Vision” and “Be My Wife.”
‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ (1980) Bowie’s first album of the ‘80s was his best of the decade. Working with producer Tony Visconti, Bowie created elaborate soundscapes with dense and complex vocal arrangements that often sound completely unhinged. It’s a cliché that when a new Bowie album is released, at least one critic will say it’s his “best album since ‘Scary Monsters.’” The album includes one of his all-time classic singles, “Ashes to Ashes,” along with key tracks like “Fashion” and “Teenage Wildlife.”
‘Let’s Dance’ (1983) Working with producer Nile Rodgers and a young guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bowie entered the MTV age with a slick dance/pop album that would represent the apex of his commercial success in America. The title track became his second No. 1 single (after “Fame”) and both “China Girl” and “Modern Love” also became substantial hits. Some critics and fans disdain “Let’s Dance” as a supposed sell-out, but it’s a well-crafted collection of first-rate pop with some terrific vocal performances.
‘Outside’ (1995) Bowie renewed his collaboration with Brian Eno for this dark song cycle about a grisly murder and the strange cast of characters caught up in the circumstances of the crime. “Outside” updated Bowie’s sound for the ‘90s, incorporating electronic elements as well as heavier industrial sounds inspired by artists such as Nine Inch Nails. Unrelentingly dark but brilliant, “Outside” features several standout cuts including “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” “Strangers When We Meet” and “Hallo Spaceboy.”
‘Heathen’ (2002) Bowie’s first album of the new millennium is a dense and richly layered collection of emotional and intense rock that frequently has a bit of a retro vibe. The album wasn’t a massive hit upon release and has been overlooked somewhat as fans and critics tend to focus on Bowie’s “glory days” of the ‘70s. The hard-charging soulful rocker “Slow Burn” was the first single, and other key tracks include the heartbreaking expression of loss, “Everyone Says ‘Hi’,” the emotional ballad “Slip Away” and raucous covers of the Pixies’ “Cactus” and Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You.”
‘The Next Day’ (2013) Bowie’s return to the studio after a decade-long absence following a heart scare prompted him to close the tour in support of his 2003 album “Reality” before he had planned, “The Next Day” was a surprise that nobody in the public or press knew about until the first single, the melancholy “Where Are We Now?,” appeared on Bowie’s 66th birthday. “The Next Day” was a staggering return, a dark and harrowing collection of first-rate material. Subsequent singles included “The Stars (are out tonight),” which features a stunning video featuring Tilda Swinton, and “Valentine’s Day,” a chilling song about a would-be mass shooter.
‘Blackstar’ (2016) Released on Bowie’s 69th birthday, “Blackstar,” as we know now, was goodbye. Bowie died only two days after its release. It’s almost as if he was holding on until the album could be unleashed, and then was able to let go. Producer Tony Visconti called it Bowie’s final gift to fans and the entire album was recorded while Bowie was ill. It’s a dark and experimental collection with incredible musicianship thanks to the New York City-based jazz collective that Bowie brought in to collaborate on the album. The 10-minute opus “Blackstar” opens the album with mystical power, and it never lets up from there. “Lazarus,” with its chilling video of Bowie writhing on a hospital bed and then disappearing at the end into a large wardrobe, closing the door behind him, is clearly a goodbye. In the context of his passing, it’s a difficult album to play, but “Blackstar” is David Bowie at his best. It’s an honest portrayal of a man facing the end and a stunning finalé for one of the greatest artists rock ‘n’ roll has ever known.