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By James Cerche
7th July 2015

David Bowie Is... one of popular culture’s most acclaimed and prolific artists. He rose to fame in the late 60s using music as his primary medium before also pursing successful work as actor and painter. With 25 studio albums to his name, it’s tricky to pin down one or two so I’m sharing what I believe to be Bowie’s ten most essential records. These works display Bowie at his sonic and visual best, showcasing the finest markers in the long and vivid history of music’s greatest chameleon.

10: ‘HUNKY DORY’ (1971)
If "Ground Control to Major Tom" wasn't the first phrase you heard from David Bowie, it was very likely something from his fourth LP ‘Hunky Dory’. Following hot on the heels from ‘Space Oddity’ (1969) and ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (1970), ‘Hunky Dory’ is a cheeky record bristling with quirky pop songs that no one at the time knew quite how to place.
“I wasn’t an R&B artist, I wasn’t a folk artist and I didn’t see the point in trying to be that purist about it...” Bowie recalled of the time in 2011. Singles like ‘Changes’, and ‘Life On Mars?’ with its androgynous video have since become synonymous with Bowie’s sprawling mythology, and there are more than a few surprises hidden amongst the well known cuts. This is the sound of Bowie developing the shifting identity and style that would fully emerge the following year when he unveiled Ziggy Stardust; the first of many fascinating characters he would occupy throughout his career.


9: ‘THE NEXT DAY’ (2013)
Recorded secretly in the lead up to its surprise announcement on his sixty-sixth birthday in January 2013, ‘The Next Day’ was Bowie’s first release in a decade and considered by many to be his finest in 20 years. The cover art readapts the famed ‘Heroes’ portrait by erasing it under a stark white box to create an image that is telling of the album’s contents. ‘The Next Day’ is indeed a revisitation of Bowie’s earlier periods and styles, sitting comfortably beside his 70s catalogue albeit with a modern twist. ‘Where Are We Now?’ packs the same emotional punch as Johnny Cash’s late efforts, laden with emotion and time, while ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’, ‘Love Is Lost’ and slinky sax-driven ‘Dirty Boys’ reaffirms his continued possession of great vocal power.
8: ‘ALADDIN SANE’ (1973)
‘Aladdin Sane’ was largely written on the road while Bowie toured America with his Spiders and held the difficult role of following up the tectonic success of ‘The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars’ (1972). He delivered a stylish set of theatrical rockers packaged within the instantly iconic Masayoshi Sukita portrait. The bright red mullet and hairless brow cut with a jagged lightening bolt remains one of the most enduring images in rock history. The rollicking ‘Jean Genie’, ‘Drive In Saturday’ swagger and piano flourishes of ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ perfectly encapsulate the sound of Bowie’s glam superstardom as it continued to sweep the world. He was 26 years old.

Bowie strode in the 80s with all guns blazing. Fresh from the brave sonic tapestries he wove on ‘Low’ and “Heroes” (1977), Bowie sharpened the point of his pop knife into the inescapably catchy ‘Ashes To Ashes’. ‘Scary Monsters’ fuses a harder rocking squall with some of his most conventional pop writing. The Pierrot clown outfit Bowie appears in on the cover guides listeners through the return and final expulsion of Major Tom. Bowie has always been a stylistic and thematic magpie, borrowing and reshaping from major forces past and present, including himself. The ‘Ashes To Ashes’ promotional video has regularly been cited as a game changer in its field, and Bowie’s concurrent appearance on Broadway at the time of the album’s crafting emphasises the rich creative vein had tapped into at the time.
6: ‘LET'S DANCE’ (1983)
There were few artists who managed the transition from the boldly inventive period of the 70s into the new wave pop obsession of the 80s half as well as David Bowie. ‘Let’s Dance’ is his attempt at penning a hip-shaking, body-rocking, balls out pop record. Of course he succeeds spectacularly with the help of Chic mastermind Nile Rogers, who provides much of the guitar textures and production credits. ‘Modern Love’, ‘China Girl’ and the immediately infectious title track scored Bowie a slew of hit singles and prompted the enormous Serious Moonlight world tour that would cast him in the role of pop mega star.

5: ‘LOW’ (1977)
‘Low’ marks the beginning of a trio of albums known as The Berlin Trilogy, referring to the period in which Bowie relocated to Berlin from LA to rejuvenate and clean up. Berlin would yield both ‘Low’ and 'Heroes' in 1977 and ‘Lodger’ in 1979 as he fought to get well and continue his artistic thrust. The first two records were chilly, synth-heavy affairs that created vividly atmospheric soundscapes around the post-rock pop tunes he was investigating. Collaborating with sonic wizard Brian Eno and King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, Bowie implemented experimental methods of writing, such as cutting up and rearranging his lyrics sheets on top of unorthodox chord progressions. ‘Low’ is notable for its fusion of funked-out jams like ‘Sound And Vision’ and ‘What In The World’ with moving instrumentals like ‘Warszawa’. Icy and textured, ‘Low’ was the spectacular beginning of yet another pivotal phase.
Growing tired of extended touring, Bowie found himself immersed in the Philadelphia soul scene whilst promoting ‘Diamond Dogs’ (1974) in America. Spending time in largely black neighbourhoods and attending shows by the likes of Marvin Gaye, his infatuation manifested in the spontaneous cutting of ‘Young Americans’. This love letter to rhythm and blues grooves with punchy horn arrangements and bright harmonic backing vocals alongside a team that would become regularly fixtures by on Bowie’s recorded and live outings. The soul phase was short but intensive, bleeding into his masterful followup (1976’s ‘Station To Station’) before being broken down in The Berlin Trilogy. The presence of John Lennon on ‘Young Americans’ only adds to the record’s quirky appeal. The former Beatle contributes writing credits and backing vocals on the grinding ‘Fame’ and accompanies Bowie on guitar through a reimagining of the classic ‘Across The Universe’.

Bowie’s most famous LP. This is the one that quite aptly placed him in the stratosphere. It’s essential for the Bowie beginner to hear where he takes off on this grand conceptual work that achieves more than most other sets of 11 pop songs could possibly conceive. Each track is a quintessential glam rock banger. From the first percussion taps of the emotional ‘Five Years’ to the acoustic finale of ‘Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide’, Bowie transports and excites. Cuts like ‘Moonage Daydream’, ‘Starman’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ captured the youthful imagination with cosmic imagery and huge choruses, sparking in the mode of the Beatles before him: the first bout of national Bowie-mania.
2: 'HEROES' (1977)
Given the universal familiarity with the title track, many forget that, like ‘Low’, the back end of 'Heroes' is composed of atmospheric instrumentals. The A-side is packed with muscular, lively rock cuts and Bowie’s most revered love song, while the cover art serves up another classic Sukita study. There’s a sense of triumph deeply stitched into the fabric of this record along with a hope and a heart that can’t be ignored. He continues to experiment hungrily with instrumentation, form, and electronica’s growing role in the popular rock sphere. 'Heroes' was hardly a hit track or record on its release but has since risen to reverential prominence to be regarded as one of Bowie’s finest works.

Frank Sinatra, Nazis and the occult. An obsession with the good, the bad and the ugly facets of humanity would help fuel Bowie’s slick mid-70s persona. The Thin White Duke emerged from the plastic soul hangover into a excessive, yet desolate world driven by cocaine and paranoia. Conceived in a mansion beneath mountains of white powder, ‘Station To Station’ is Bowie’s ultimate statement in six tracks. “The return of The Thin White Duke” on the title track heralds a woozy, hard rocking riff that menaces and astounds as the man himself bends sound in a sharp black suit and white shirt beneath orange hair swept back over a skeletal frame. This epic album opener spans 10 minutes and cracks open in the middle to a glorious refrain. It reaches blissful heights when the tambourine sets in and the piano hammers away relentlessly. This bold opening is followed by the slinky hit single ‘Golden Years’ and the emotional hymn ‘Word On A Wing’ to round out the first half. Jaunty ‘TVC15’, R&B/funk-soaked ‘Stay’ and an intimate cover of ‘Wild Is The Wind’ complete the record in show-stopping fashion. Each cut is crucially distinctive and unique, without a second spent in dead stasis or a wasted moment. It’s frankly inhuman that someone as consistently inebriated within a two-year period was able to produce such a vivid and truthful record... yet there it is.
ARTIST: David Bowie
BEGAN: 1962
FROM: Brixton, London
SOUND: Rock / Pop / Experimental
FACEBOOK: davidbowie
TWITTER: @DavidBowieReal
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