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Ranked: David Bowie Albums from Worst to Best

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With the release of the first David Bowie album in ten years, we take a look back on his ever-changing sights and sounds.

David Bowie, once the most reliably retired major rock star, returns after a ten-year absence this week with the album "The Next Day." To celebrate, we are taking a look back at the dozens of incarnations of the ever-changing art-rocker that have come and gone through the years. 

24. Never Let Me Down (1987)
Bowie tries to say something about Chernobyl (on "Time Will Crawl"), street life (on "Day-In, Day-Out") and diminished ’60s ideals (on "Zeroes") but all is lost beneath that ridiculous aerobics-video beat. Two other things to note about this album: the mid-song rap in "Shining Star" was done by Mickey Rourke (yeah, the actor) and "Too Dizzy" is so awful Bowie had it removed from the CD and MP3 album.

Listen: "Day-In, Day-Out" 


23. Tonight (1984)
Iggy Pop has writing credits on five songs on the Tonight, one a cover, two Bowie’s take on songs they co-wrote for Pop ’s album Lust for Life and two new collaborations. Maybe he was trying to add some teeth to an otherwise banal album but Bowie channels Pop with such little menace it only underlines that he’d lost his edge. The single "Blue Jean" has been salvaged on compilations. There is nothing else for us here. 

Listen: "Blue Jean"


22. David Bowie (1967)
The musical equivalent of a horrible yearbook photo, Bowie’s debut recalls whimsical pre-rock British pop. "Rubber Band" and "Come and Buy Me Toys" are almost fun in a precious, Syd Barrett-ish way, but most of this album is just intolerably cheeky (with cringe-inducing uses of sound effects). One thing sets this  incarnation of Bowie apart from all the others: It is in no way cool.

Listen: "Come and Buy My Toys"

21. "Hours…" (1999)
Maybe he was going for minimalism, but the songs on "Hours…" are so plain they’re boring. The older Bowie is reflective, but opaquely so. On "Seven" he sings, "I got seven days to live my life or seven ways to die." Um, what does that even mean? Ace guitarist Reeves Gabrels gets to shine on "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell."

Listen: "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell"

20. Earthling (1997)
As an idol to Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson, Bowie had a right to partake in the  industrial rock scene, despite being too old to blend in at a club that hosts it. But he overdoes it on Earthling with a secession of five-minute tracks that are almost all throb. The social satire of "Looking for the Satellites" and "I'm Afraid of Americans" make for the high points. 

Listen: "I’m Afraid of Americans"

 

19. Reality (2003)
In the late '90s, Bowie settled into a basic, theatrics-free sound that never did much for me. This continues on Reality but the album is not without its moments. "New Killer Star" and "Fall Dog Bombs the Moon" have serious rhythm, and the melancholy "The Loneliest Guy" has his most heartfelt vocal performance in years.

Listen: "The Loneliest Guy"

18. Black Tie, White Noise (1993)
Decent but scatterbrained, Black Tie, White Noise has Cream and Morrissey covers next to a foray into house music next to the maniac funk of "Jump They Say" and the title track. On the latter, he connects the LA riots and his wedding to Iman. Apparently, there was hope for racial harmony because David Bowie was boning a Somali supermodel.

Listen: "Black Tie, White Noise"

17. Heathen (2002)
Heathen is the same meh mix of electric textures, crooned lyrics and middling tempos that made up Bowie’s latter work. He does finally turn these elements into a fine single on "Slow Burn" (with some help from Pete Townsend). Also superb are the covers; Bowie sinks his teeth into songs by Neil Young, The Pixies and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. 

Listen: "Slow Burn"

16. The Next Day (2013)
The single "Where Are We Now?" speaks of the banal, modern-day life of the fugitive couple from "Heroes," which might have worked as a commentary on this comparatively blah stage of world history but comes out as a boring song about hanging out and shopping. Like the album cover, it's so clever it's dumb. The Next Day is redeemed by how dark it gets, with blistering bitterness aired on "Love Is Lost" and a gory chant from Full Metal Jacket serving as a chorus for "How Does the Grass Grow?"

Listen: "Where Are We Now?"

15. Outside (1995)
The cyberpunk rock opera aspect of Outside leads to a bunch of annoying segues and spoken word sections, but it's worth it; the project seems to have reawakened Bowie’s urge to write mind-trip songs with hard edges. A few were licensed to edgy directors of the day; David Lynch used "I'm Deranged" in Lost Highway and David Finch put the utterly sexy "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" in Seven.

Listen: "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" 


14. Pin Ups (1973)
Like most cover albums, Pin Ups is a low-ambition cash-in that sounds like it was recorded in a single afternoon. But Bowie went with singles from the mod era, and these songs sound great in the hands of a pimply garage band, let alone his classic Spiders from Mars ensemble. They own The Kinks' "Where Have All the Good Times Gone?"

Listen: "Where Have All the Good Times Gone?"


13. Young Americans (1975)
It took balls for a skinny British dude to take on American soul, and Young Americans' sublime title track embodies everything great about the genre, from its vision of brash love to its full-bodied smoothness. Soul Train extended Bowie an invitation because of it. Everything between it and the funky closer "Fame" is more style than substance, but damn did he ever have this style down pat.

Listen: "Young Americans" 

12. Let's Dance (1983)
With help from former Chic guitarist and soon-to-be star-making pop producer Nile Rodgers, Bowie took much of the edge out of his sound to create the mega-selling Let's Dance, but it was a long way from here to Tin Machine. In fact, "China Girl" is the one Pop-Bowie collaboration that sounds fiercer in Bowie's hands, and it put some anti-colonialism and ethnic fetishism onto Top 40 radio. A young Stevie Ray Vaughan laid down some great licks throughout, most notably on the title track.

Listen: "China Girl" 

11. Scary Monsters (1980)
Bowie's classic period doesn’t end with a whimper but it does go out with some venting on this moody, rough-textured album. "Fashion" sounds fun (thanks to Robert Fripp’s fantastic buzz-saw guitar) but the lyrics show disdain for shallow pop culture. ("There's a brand new talk, but it's not very clear … It's loud and tasteless and I've heard it before.") On "Teenage Wildlife," Bowie lashes out at his own fans, and on "Ashes to Ashes," he does the meanest thing he could: discredit Major Tom as a hallucinating junkie. 

Listen: "Ashes to Ashes"

10. Space Oddity (1969)
Major Tom’s dispatch may be the most lucid thing on this psychedelic-folk album. Bowie sings of magic books, steam-punk airships and mystical mountain villages, getting his inspiration from sci-fi/fantasy paperbacks and probably his bong. The grittier songs, like "Janine" and "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed," work better than the more sweeping ones. The title track might have faded away as a fad song timed for the Moon landing if Bowie didn’t sound authentically sad over the fate of a made-up space explorer. 

Listen: "Space Oddity"

9. Lodger (1979)
Lacking a hit single or the bold moves of the other two albums in the Brian Eno-produced Berlin trilogy, Lodger has been overlooked, which is unfortunate. Interesting things are happened here. Bowie interacts with a vocal wall of sound on "Move On" and experiments with Arabian rhythms on "Yassassin." It’s surprising the singles "Boys Keep Swinging" and "DJ" didn't stick; they're as catchy as "The Jean Genie" or "Rebel Rebel." 

Listen: "Boys Keep Swinging"

8. Diamond Dogs (1974)
Bowie was at work on a musical based on 1984 when George Orwell’s widow declined to loan out rights to her late husband’s literary masterpiece to a kid with a dyed red mullet. He picked up the pieces nicely to create this trepidation-soaked album. The spattering of Isaac Hayes influence is a bit misplaced, but Bowie nails the creepier songs, like "Sweet Thing" and "We Are the Dead." He also delivers, out of the blue, the most radio-friendly single of his career, "Rebel Rebel."

Listen: "Rebel Rebel"  

7. "Heroes" (1977)
Bowie isn’t known for his sincerity, but the title track of "Heroes" is one of the best odes to the old-school virtues of courage and valor ever recorded. Inspired by attempts to escape the Berlin Wall, Bowie has all the fortitude of Ronald Reagan throwing around the term "evil empire" but a much more humanistic touch. Also, the distinctly windy-sounding guitar of Robert Fripp is unforgettable. For the rest of the album, Bowie and Eno expand the thick art-rock sound to both proper songs and instrumentals. The Eastern-flavored "Moss Garden" is gorgeous.

Listen: "Heroes"

6. The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
Bowie’s wildest album is a Nietzsche-and-Lovecraft-referencing sonic horror show full of savior machines, insane super-gods and war-addled rampage killers. It’s the same kind of comic-book stuff that made up Space Oddity, but the addition of Mick Ronson’s sledgehammer guitar seems to have given Bowie license to go absolutely schizoid in his imagery. At this stage, going big and weird tended to have huge payoffs for him. "The Width of a Circle" is an eight-minute song about meeting a doppelganger in some shady patch of the subconscious and it is fucking awesome. 

Listen: "The Width of a Circle" 

5. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Ziggy Stardust is the best kind of rock opera: the kind that makes you forget you are listening to one. While The Wall (which, admit it, is sorta ridiculous) is cobbled together through songs, snippets and whacky voice acting, Ziggy Stardust consists of eleven solid tracks that all happen to fit into a narrative about an androgynous alien rock messiah. The best songs, like the sex-heavy "Suffragette City" and the Flash Gordon-evoking "Moonage Daydream," have all the loudness and cheap thrills of a grindhouse movie. 

Listen: "Suffragette City"

4. Aladdin Sane (1973)
Aladdin Sane is the first album Bowie made as a marquee rock star, a role he was born to play and walks into with swagger. It has both an ode to fame ("Watch That Man") and the obligatory warnings of its pitfalls ("The Jean Genie," about the drug-battered Iggy Pop, and "Cracked Actor," with its still-scandalous refrain of "suck, baby, suck"). Listening to the way Mike Garson’s fingers dance across the piano on the title track and how guitarist Ronson competes with an orgasmic backup singer on "Panic in Detroit," it sounds like Bowie's sidemen were also going for demigod status.
 
Listen: "Panic in Detroit"

3. Hunky Dory (1971)
Bowie often reinvigorates himself by appropriating a new genre. But when he took on basic pop — the kind that was just being reestablishing after the psychedelic years — it was the style itself that sounded fresher than ever. Hunky Dory is a sassy album with a few moments of sincerity (like "Kooks," a touching tribute to family) amidst a sea of wit. Bowie pawns an icon in "Andy Warhol" and smooths out the jagged riff rock of The Velvet Underground into palpable pop in "Queen Bitch," inventing glam rock in the process. Kicked off by the career anthem "Changes," Hunky Dory laid out the basics of Bowie's sound, one that he'd adapt continually but knew was too good to abandon completely.

Listen: "Queen Bitch"

2. Low (1977)
It's easy to have personality when dressed in multi-color spandex and fake-felating your guitarist, but Bowie shows his quietest work can have as much character as his loudest on Low, the first entry in the Berlin trilogy and the one that shows him the most burnt out on cocaine and fame. Side one features synth-driven songs about boredom and depression that are succinct as if it to drive home the point there is no resolution to this kind of despair. "Always Crashing the Same Car" is the picture of fragility, and on "Be My Wife," Bowie sings the three words as a desperate plea. On the second half, he loses language completely and expresses himself beautifully with icy synthesizer notes. It may be too moody for some, but Low is Bowie's boldest, bravest and most cohesive album-length statement. 

Listen: "Always Crashing the Same Car"

1. Station to Station (1976)
For Station to Station, Bowie spliced together krautrock and Philadelphia soul, one genre defined as clean and automated and another known for its sensuality. The resulting sound is as smooth as polypropylene as harmonious in all its internal intricacies as a locomotive. Bowie is at the height of his powers, capable of delivering a ten-minute epic with occult references (the title track) and then the perfect pop-soul nugget ("Golden Years") without altering his slightly sinister tone in between. The character he embodies, the Thin White Duke, doesn’t follow a storyline the way Ziggy Stardust does, but allows him an artistic channel for all his coke-numbed stare and sense of impeding doom. Here Bowie perfectly executes some of his most tricky ideas and here is where years of experimentation pay off spectacularly.

Listen: "Station to Station"