Monday, January 18, 2016

The Top 5 David Bowie Albums.

One week ago, rock icon David Bowie left our galaxy for a new interstellar realm. Bowie was one of the few rock artists of his era—along with Neil Young & Bruce Springsteen & a few others—who turned out a remarkably consistent body of work that stands the test of his time. His most influential & creative work is in turn some of rock music's most influential & creative work.

Here are his 5 most legendary contributions to the rock canon.

5. Scary Monsters (& Super Creeps), 1980.

Turns out that it is much harder to pick a fifth greatest Bowie album than a first, second, or third. Aside from the 4 masterpieces that follow, Bowie had a lot of near-masterpiece level albums, such as Aladdin Sane & "Heroes". But Scary Monsters (& Super Creeps) beats the others for its consistency of sound & quality. Here his textural explorations of the '70s met head-on with the challenge of punk, its postpunk aftermath, disco, & hard funk. They would call the result "new wave," but Bowie outstrips nearly all of his peers who would follow. (The promotional sticker that initially put on the album touts it as "punk rock," but this does more to do with the industry's misunderstanding of the term than anything inside of its vinyl grooves.)

"It's No Game (No. 1)" sets the pace with a woman's voice speaking in Japanese & Bowie singing painfully, absurdly badly, missing some notes & turning others into an ugly yodel. "Up The Hill Backwards" is one of the catchiest songs he ever produced, built around a Bo Diddley-style beat & a vibe that is not all that unlike The Clash in their absurd one-offs like "Hitsville UK." "Ashes To Ashes" is at once both haunting & funky—& I still have no idea how it isn't the most sampled hook this side of James Brown—a surreal pop song that brings his beloved Major Tom from "Space Oddity" back to the cold ground of earth. The result was one of the strangest singles ever conceived of, & indeed, was one of the very few songs to hit #1 in the UK while missing the US charts entirely. "Fashion" both celebrates & mocks the industry with which Bowie has always had a special fascination, resulting in another major hit; meanwhile, the title track is a space-age wonderland of sounds & lyrics, held together by stuttering drumming that sounds like it was copped from a Joy Division single. & songs like "Scream Like A Baby" & "Because You're Young" reached back to a classic pop sensibility that dug deeper than their experimental sonic trappings. If it all felt a little jagged & disjointed, but that was the point. After trailblazing his way through the 1970s, Scary Monsters set a solid course for the 1980s—it's just too bad that neither Bowie nor his peers were able to live up to it.

4. Station To Station, 1976.

Bowie's most appropriately-titled album finds him transitioning between the "plastic soul" of Young Americans & the "Berlin Trilogy" of Low, "Heroes", & Lodger. The epic title track—which, clocking in at over 10 minutes, is the longest song that Bowie ever released—is nearly an album into itself: Scattered instruments fall together into the slow yet driving rhythm that introduces The Thin White Duke, Bowie's porto-disco, white suit-wearing icy crooner who would be his most celebrated persona after Ziggy Stardust; things pick up in a second section ("Once there were mountains…") that pick things up into a clipped bridge of plastic soul, before delivering into the final section ("It's too late…"), which ranks among the finest pop music he would ever record—that rare, elusive kind that doesn't fit into any one sound or era but, in seemingly borrowing from them all, transcends into its own. The result is definitely not the side-effects of the cocaine, so I'm thinking that it must be love.

The following "Golden Years"—originally written for Elvis (who turned it down, though it would have been worth it just to hear him sing "run for the shadows"), but loved by Zappa (it was said to be his favorite Bowie song)—resurrects a lovely doo-wop feeling that reminds one that no matter how far afield Bowie would stray, the old-time '50s rock & roll were never that far away. Yet all of the attention it has gotten as a lovely anachronism misses the point—though classic in style & lyric, it was couched in a sound as modern as a spinning spaceship, giving it an extra layer of both underlying depth & superficial style. The first side closes with "Word On A Wing," returning to the futuristic soundscapes that charted the way to Bowie's future. It made for a beautiful, searing ballad that was at once hip & romantic, without crossing over into maudlin dross. If David Bowie never released another song after Side 1 of Station To Station, he would remain near the top of rock's most innovative artists.

If the album's second side didn't quite live up to the first, it's not Bowie's fault—few albums could—but keeps tirelessly venturing onward through the funny hallucination of "TVC-15," the dance-floor plea of "Stay," & the closing dreamlike cover of Johnny Mathis's 1957 hit, "Wild Is The Wind." In the hands of nearly anybody else, the album would be a career-high masterpiece, but for Bowie, it was merely a weigh station between bigger destinations.

3. Low, 1977.

Released to mixed reviews in early 1977, Low has since become a cornerstone of modern rock music: It was one of only two Bowie albums included in Rolling Stone's 200 Essential Albums list, it was the first Bowie album to receive a volume in the 33 1/3 series, & Pitchfork chose it not only as Bowie's greatest album, but the greatest album of the 1970s, ever. Despite popular belief, it was not produced by Brian Eno (Tony Visconti did the honors), but Eno is all over this album, both in terms of a musician playing on the tracks & a muse that inspired them. The work is divided into two halves: Side 1 is five song sketches sandwiched by two sweeping instrumentals; Side 2 is four mostly-instrumental extended soundscapes. Together, they form a singular vision of a rock artist growing in his confidence as a songwriter & at the peak of his powers as a performer. 

Each instrumental track is striking in the way in which it evokes an entirely different world (as it should, since much of it was intended for Bowie's film The Man Who Fell To Earth). The opening & closing instrumentals of Side 1 are decidedly more pop—the soaring, funky "Speed Of Life" is utterly life-affirming & the cinematic "A New Career In Town" sounds like it was copped from a musical montage in a 1980s film (even if it was recorded several years before the 1980s existed)—while the instrumentals on Side 2 are fascinating excursions into art rock: The cold, haunting wasteland of "Warsaw," the sad & stately overarching sky of "Art Decade," the bizarre, bubbling sea of "Weeping Wall," & the menacing, cryptic underworld of "Subterraneans." Each is an epoch unto itself.

But to my ears, it's the five song fragments on Side 1 that make the album, playing like an artist's sketchbook brimming with ideas. "Breaking Glass" is brittle funk led by searing guitar & building to a perfect lyric—"You're such a wonderful person! But you know you have problems!"—that is at once bluntly cruel & devastatingly funny. "What In The World" is a love song that trips over itself earnestly, taking measured steps that collapse into a sudden flowing refrain that simultaneously ties the whole thing together & demonstrates how unfinished it is. "Always Crashing The Same Car" is a somber rumination on life & automobiles sung with a rare beauty—just listen to the way he says "hotel garage"—that is perhaps the best-kept secret in Bowie's catalog. "Be My Wife" is a pop triumph coming out from the other side that reaches for companionship rooted in a confession of loneliness, all with a cold detachment that nearly defies the work that has gone into it. & centering it all is "Sound & Vision," which is probably the best track of them all—& the album's only real hit (at least in the UK)—half-instrumental & half-adorned with lyrics about the elusive creative process: "Blue, blue, electric blue, that's the color of my room…" It is a churning, minor masterpiece that works as the engine for the album, summing up Bowie's career in three words or less: Sound & Vision.

2. Hunky Dory, 1971.

After years of hard work, promise, & potential, Hunky Dory was Bowie's his first triumph. In hindsight, it's a little striking how showtune-sounding it is—thanks in part to an assist by pianist Rick Wakeman, whose work on this album is so good it almost cancels out his King Arthur-on-ice concept album project some four years later. But good pop music is good pop music, no matter which way you choose it & Hunky Dory is no exception. Taking a step back from the psychedelic rock of his first self-titled album & the harder rock of The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory was nearly unclassifyable as a work, which perhaps means it could be the product of any era. It is a singer-songwriter album that sounds pitched halfway between Broadway & The Bowery, filled with weird characters & sounds that are similar only in how unabashed they all are. There is a certain strangeness in the music, but also a little courage too. It would set the course for Bowie's highest achievements.

The opening pop rocker "Changes" would provide Bowie with a signature statement of purpose that he would spend the remainder of his career living out; "Oh! You Pretty Things" was a strutting celebration of the homo-superior that laid the groundwork for his role as a gay icon; & "Life On Mars" was perhaps the best song he ever recorded--a swirling, cinematic whirlwind of sound that carefully builds on itself before unleashing a sweeping refrain that is equal parts beautiful & surreal. The first side's closer, "Quicksand," is a more mysterious ballad that has been often-invoked since his passing for its verse "I'm not a prophet or a stone age man/Just a mortal with potential of a superman/I'm living on," although its refrain is even more telling, perhaps too much so to be quoted for the mourning masses: "Don't believe in yourself/Don't deceive with belief/Knowledge comes with death's release."

The second side contains Bowie's three ritual killings of the father: "Andy Warhol," "Song For Bob Dylan," & "Queen Bitch" (about Lou Reed). All are charming evocations of their subjects—Warhol is a pure pop-as-surface, near-throwaway tune; Dylan takes the "voice of sand & glue" into its own throat, following in the tradition of Dylan's own "Song For Woody"; Reed is a three-chord slasher right out of The Velvet Underground's Loaded, with deadpan lyrics & a relentless charge. All three would figure heavily into Bowie's persona over the rest of his career—Warhol's philosophy, Dylan's lyrical introspection, & Reed's musical daring, all of which Bowie would make into hallmarks of his own. The album ends with the utterly bizarre (even for Bowie) "The Bewlay Brothers," an enigmatic song that was supposedly written to stump the American audience. Yet this song works too, because it contains beauty—a meandering thing that always winds its way back to the unsuspecting title characters, almost as both an afterthought & a logical conclusion. It doesn't so much close the album on a strange note as it does tap into the strangeness that had been there all along. Bowie would get stranger over the years, but many would hold that, song-for-song, he would never get better.

1. The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, 1972. 

David Bowie's masterpiece—& one of the greatest rock albums ever made, period. Oh, where to begin? Probably with the concept--Ziggy Stardust was a rare concept album that was conceived as a conceptual art project & carried out that way, with Bowie deciding to become Ziggy Stardust, such that he looked & acted the part of the red-haired alien glam-rocker for the entire period surrounding the album's release, insisting on reporters to call him Ziggy, not David. In playing the part of the biggest rock star in the world, he tried to literally turn into it, arguably taking rock artistry to its farthest & most ambitious point. & unlike so many others who attempted conceptual coups on various levels, the album Ziggy Stardust demonstrated that Bowie—or rather, Ziggy—had the songs to prove it.

Here was cutting-edge, underground glam rock, filled with electric flash but grounded by the warmth of an acoustic guitar, the sound of T. Rex filled out with the showmanship of Jimi Hendrix. All put together, the album told the story of a rock & roll savior whose come to save the world: In "Five Years," news reaches Earth that the planet has only five years left, built around the malt-shop "Earth Angel" chords (& complete with a scene in an ice cream parlor), that is at once an invocation of rock "oldies" & a statement of purpose; "Soul Love" heightens the scene by laying a foundation for the love that will be tapped into by Ziggy (both heterosexual & homosexual), collapsing into "Moonage Daydream," in which Ziggy seems to emerge from the cosmos over a refrain that is as weird & beautifully otherworldly as Elvis's "Blue Moon"; "Starman," the album's lead single, documents Ziggy's arrival being spread as a word-of-mouth sensation with a tune that borrows from the octave-jumping hook of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"; & "It Ain't Easy," the weakest song on the album, closes its first side with the fatal warning that "It ain't easy to get to heaven when you're going down."

The second side opens with the lovely "Lady Stardust," where Ziggy becomes an androgynous pop idol with some of the finest lyrics about the idol-fan relationship ("I smiled sweetly, for a love I could not obey"), which is in its own way is a worthy successor to "Life On Mars?"; "Star" posits the thesis of becoming a rock & roll star by acting like one (ending with Ziggy's line hushed under his breath: "Just watch me now"); "Hang On To Yourself" is a churning rocker celebrating Ziggy & his band, which so effectively summed up their spirit that it was used to open live Ziggy concerts; "Ziggy Stardust," the most familiar song to listeners today, tells the entire tale in miniature—a wild rock star who "made it too far," as everything came crashing down with loud music, sex, & ego; "Suffragette City" focuses on the women backstage through another Velvets-inspired rocker that is among the most covered songs on the album; & finally, "Rock & Roll Suicide" finds Ziggy committing the titular act over another classic "Earth Angel"-like chord progression, all resonating back to the same message, to both idol & fan: YOU'RE NOT ALONE!

Ziggy would famously end his "final concert" with "Rock & Roll Suicide," which at the time led people to believe that Ziggy—& by extension, Bowie—was retiring from pop music permanently. But they soon learned it was just the ending of an act, to make way for a new one—with a new sound & look to go with it. Bowie would have great albums before & after this one, but Ziggy Stardust is his best album because his music & concept, his sound & vision, come together for the first time in a way that was both exciting in spirit & revolutionary in execution.