Loving the Alien - Looking Back on David Bowie
Full disclosure, this will be a very biased article. Without a doubt, my all-time favourite artist is David Bowie. Unlike many people's experiences with the artist that they just can't shake no matter how much their tastes change, I didn't discover Bowie until relatively late. That is, about six months before he died. Can you imagine the feeling of falling in love with an artist's discography, hearing that they have another album coming, pre-ordering said album, only to listen to it on release day and have said artist die two days later? Wasn't a good feeling. I wanted to take a look back on the Starman himself and his discography, either as a reminder for those of you who know his work, or an introduction for those who don't. With a total of twenty-five studio albums, and another couple dozen live albums, EPs, and soundtracks, this will be far from a comprehensive list, but rather a short highlight reel of some of Bowie's best work.
Even if you don't listen to classic rock, you've heard at least three songs off this album. This album was a hit machine, with nearly every track receiving at least a bit of radio play. Though it's a "basic" choice, it's still my favourite album of all time.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was David Bowie's 1972 masterpiece, and the one that secured his spot as an all-time music icon. And it's only his fourth album! (Fifth if you count the first of two self-titled albums which even Bowie himself didn't really count). This album is the ultimate glam rock album. It's glamorous, full of debauchery with a sci-fi kick, and chock full of some distinct homoerotic undertones. For those not in the know, this record sees Bowie playing the first of his several famous musical characters. Ziggy Stardust is an alien, sent to this planet to try and save us from ourselves through music. Ultimately (spoilers for a story you wouldn't really know unless you looked into it), Ziggy succumbs to the rock and roll lifestyle, and ends up dying. No happy ending here, but the album is amazing! It has some all-time greatest rock songs in my opinion, such as the untouchable titular track Ziggy Stardust, the sci-fi infused glitzy Moonage Daydream, or the tragic closing track Rock and Roll Suicide.
It was the 70s, and David Bowie was playing a space alien on stage, followed shortly by a brief stint portraying a skeletal-thin fascist known as the Thin White Duke. This is all to say, the man was taking in a LOT of cocaine, and not much else. After a few too many brushes with death, an increasingly unstoppable addiction, and a persistent paranoia that Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page was trying to cast curses on him (and in case you don't know about that particular can of worms, that hypothesis is entirely possible), Bowie decided to get clean. He packed up his home in the United States, and moved with close friend and collaborator Iggy Pop to Berlin, Germany. They rented a small apartment together, and stopped their relentless cocaine addictions cold turkey. The arts scene in Berlin (the West Germany part of it, at the time) was thriving, and it didn't take long for the pair to get involved. They both produced some of their greatest works there, but as I'm focusing on Bowie here, I'm specifically referring to the three albums that are known to all Bowie fans as the Berlin Trilogy. Though not directly connected, they are deeply musically related, reflecting the newborn styles of Krautrock and electronic music they were hearing from the likes of Kraftwerk and NEU!. This sound was achieved with much credit to electronic music pioneer and experimental music icon Brian Eno, who was also living in Berlin at the time and co-produced all three albums in the trilogy. They are all phenomenal albums, but my personal favourite is the first of the three, Low. The album follows a linear path from light to dark, starting off with songs with stronger hooks and catchy grooves such as Sound and Vision, and ending with tracks epic in length and musical scope such as Subterraneans and Warszawa.
"Heroes" and Lodger round out the trilogy and present the same level of experimentation as the introductory album, with a little less emphasis on hooks and familiar melodies. One key exception of this is the title track from "Heroes", one of Bowie's best-known songs and one that has always held a very special place in my heart as the track that made me fall in love with his work.
I could make suggestions from Bowie's discography for ages, so I'll just drop a few further recommendations below that I would encourage you to explore if you're looking for some classic albums or some of the best music to come out of a classic artist's later years.
Hunky Dory - The predecessor to 1972's Ziggy, which started featuring some hints of that alien style with tracks like Life on Mars? and Oh! You Pretty Things. It's got an effeminate, glamourous style that Bowie would lace into his work for the rest of his career. Young Americans - The album that had Bowie appear on classic funk and soul TV program Soul Train, a seminal album in the "plastic soul" genre, calling upon Bowie's longtime inspiration from predominantly black genres. Far and away his grooviest album, featuring tracks such as the title track, as well as Fame featuring backing vocals from John Lennon. You can find a great write-up about his appearance on Soul Train and what it meant here. Station to Station - This sometimes frightening album finds itself during the peak of Bowie's cocaine addiction, and is the hallmark work of the Thin White Duke, a fascist-minded Jack Skellington looking character Bowie portrayed at a time that he was slowly losing grip on reality before his Berlin period. The album is gripping, experimental, and begins to evoke some of the very electronic and mechanical sounds that would be heard during his time as a Berliner.
Labyrinth - Look, it's a great movie. One of the two most popular films which saw Bowie take a swing at acting (which, as it turns out, he's pretty great at as well!), and they were wise to give him a significant share of the soundtrack as well, as this plays pretty much like a solid David Bowie album on its own. If you haven't seen Labyrinth, definitely check it out. It's a Jim Henson company masterpiece, and Bowie is as glamourous and on display at his best. Though fair warning, on display is not far from being literal thanks to a particularly tight costume. ★ - Blackstar is David Bowie's final album, which took a turn into experimental / free jazz territories. The title track is a ten minute epic which has implied connections to his first and arguably biggest hit, 1969's Space Oddity. Lazarus is an absolutely harrowing track that is, in hindsight, his farewell message. Still brings a few tears when I listen to it sometimes.