A Masterful Discography: David Bowie
Updated: Nov 25, 2022
David Bowie is my favourite artist. He was a pioneer in rock music, perfecting the sound of glam rock in the 70s and going on to make some of the most creative and engaging art rock albums of all time. But David Bowie is far more than just Ziggy Stardust. In this list, I will go through his lengthy discography, and highlight the numerous masterpieces under his belt.
1. David Bowie (1967)
David Bowie's debut album is, as one may expect, not perfect. In fact, while this album is full of heart and charm, I wouldn't say there is a single song here worth going back to. From the childlike, lullaby-esque melodies to the array of uncomfortable and irritating sound effects layered over his unimpressive vocals, it's an entertaining experience, but perhaps not in the way he intended. This is far from essential in his catalogue, but an interesting listen for any long-time fan.
2. David Bowie (Space Oddity) (1969)
However, it did not take long for Bowie to vastly improve his sound. This album begins with the famous 'Space Oddity', one of Bowie's most iconic hits, and a phenomenal song in its own right. The instrumentation is crisp and his vocals are passionate, with a handful of outstanding songs here. Highlights include the long and epic 'Cygnet Committee' and the fiery 'Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed'. While it isn't perfect, it's a great album nonetheless, and I recommend it.
3. The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
This album takes every idea from Space Oddity and uses them to their fullest potential. If you're a fan of classic rock albums with fiery lead vocals, amazing guitar work and stories of wild and creative characters, you will love this album. It's nothing revolutionary for the genre, but in its simplicity is an amazing album. Highlights include 'Width of a Circle', 'Running Gun Blues', and the explosive 'Black Country Rock'. While it isn't flawless, Bowie was continuing to shape his own sound.
4. Hunky Dory (1971)
In my opinion, this is the first of many masterpieces from David Bowie. It fuses the hard rock of his past albums with the soft, folk sound of Bob Dylan. This album is beautiful, with elegant piano and guitar work over tracks like 'Quicksand', 'Queen Bitch', and the iconic 'Life On Mars?'. From start to finish, this is Bowie at his most passionate and creative, using his influences to help hone his own unique sound. It's a brilliant starting point for any newcomer - it was his first album I heard!
5. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)
There is not much I can say about this album that hasn't already been said. It's a classic, Bowie's most accessible album, and glam rock at its finest. The concept of the Starman Ziggy Stardust being consumed by fame as he sees himself as the world's musical saviour is fantastic. Bowie does not hold back with some of his strongest vocal performances ever on songs like 'Five Years' and 'Rock n Roll Suicide'. An undeniable masterpiece.
6. Aladdin Sane (1973)
This is my favourite David Bowie album. It's got the same flashy glam rock sound of Ziggy Stardust, but it hits so much harder, with crisper production and darker themes. The guitars are harsh and abrasive, the piano wild and unpredictable, especially on the title track. It takes the theme of fame and its consequences from Ziggy Stardust and builds on it, creating a darker album conveying so much more misery and pain as Bowie's fame continued to skyrocket.
7. Pin Ups (1973)
In the same year, Bowie released a covers album. While it had the potential to be fantastic - having been released in the prime of his glam rock era - the result is lackluster. The production is nowhere near as colourful or engaging as on Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane, and unfortunately Bowie's performance isn't enough to save it. While some enjoy this project, I see it as a lukewarm throwaway best ignored when listening through his catalogue.
8. Diamond Dogs (1974)
This is the final glam rock album from David Bowie, and generally agreed to be the weakest in the unofficial trilogy. Nonetheless, I still love this album. Bowie originally intended to make a musical based on the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, but when those plans fell through, he used those ideas and created Diamond Dogs, describing the oppressive and dystopian ideas of the novel over some polished and sparkling production. It doesn't get the love it deserves.
9. Young Americans (1975)
As soul music gained momentum through the 70s, Bowie decided to experiment with the sound, and the result is Young Americans. Described by many as "plastic soul", it doesn't reach the same heights as most legends in soul music, but it's still interesting to hear Bowie tackle the genre. 'Young Americans' is one of his best songs, and tracks like 'Fame' and 'Fascination' are excellent. It isn't perfect, nor does it hold the replay value as his other albums, but it's still worth a try.
10. Station to Station (1976)
The last few albums showed signs that Bowie was struggling with fame and addiction problems, and at this point he was at his most miserable. He was so hypnotised by drugs that he cannot recall the making of this album. Even so, this is still a genius work of art. In six lengthy tracks, Bowie makes allusions to his suffering over some of some unforgettable funk and intricate art rock production. 'Station to Station' is his best song for me, and the other tracks aren't far behind.
11. Low (1977)
To get sober, Bowie and a few fellow musicians travelled to Berlin to focus solely on making music. The result was the Berlin Trilogy, with Low being the first in the series. It's an incredible art rock album split into two parts: a summery, fast-paced first half with beautiful production; and a cold, ambient second half where Brian Eno leads production and creates some of the most atmospheric tracks in Bowie's catalogue. It's brilliant, and I could not recommend it more.
12. "Heroes" (1977)
This album acts as the sequel to Low, and follows the same structure. The first half consists of some of the best art rock songs ever like 'Heroes' and 'Joe the Lion', while the second half is filled with dark and sinister ambient tracks. The songs have more time to breathe on this album than on Low, so while it doesn't go by as fast, the songs feel more whole and independent. They are both masterpieces for me, and I would struggle to pick my favourite between them.
13. Lodger (1979)
While Lodger acts as the final installment in the Berlin Trilogy, it does not feel related to Low or "Heroes" aside from the fact Bowie is telling us it is. There are some amazing songs on here like the cinematic 'Look Back in Anger' and 'D.J.', or the strange and repetitive 'African Night Flight'. The album has such a diverse sound, partly thanks to its concept of a lodger travelling the world and adopting the sounds of different cultures. It's great, but can't compare to Low or "Heroes".
14. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)
This is another hard-hitting art rock album from Bowie, described by many as an essential in the New Romantic movement. It features gritty guitar work from King Crimson's Robert Fripp, making it one of his most abrasive and dirty-sounding records. The lyrics are often dark and tongue-in-cheek, with highlights being the quirky 'Fashion' or the epic 'Teenage Wildlife'. Many cite this as Bowie's last great album, but I would strongly disagree.
15. Let's Dance (1983)
As Bowie tackled pop music, some consider this the point that he sold out and lost all artistic value. To that, I would strongly disagree, and implore any fan of his music to go into this catchy pop rock album with an open mind. While the lyrics are not as compelling as his other releases, and there is no interesting concept to analyse, I just can't resist the catchy pop production and earworm choruses throughout Let's Dance. It's not experimental; it's just a lot of fun.
16. Tonight (1984)
Tonight is Let's Dance but without the catchy production, passion and heart. It sounds like a soulless cash grab to capitalise on the success of Let's Dance, and that's because it is. While no song is unbearable, it just sounds so sterile and bland. Songs like 'Blue Jean' and 'Loving the Alien' are fantastic, but the rest of the record falls short, making this one of Bowie's dullest and worst albums ever.
17. Never Let Me Down (1987)
This trend of lackluster pop continued with Never Let Me Down. This album suffers for different reasons than Tonight. While Tonight sounded like it had no ideas, this album sounds full of potential, but the result is so unfinished. The mixing can be so unpolished, the instrumentals so messy and many tracks rushed. 'Day-In-Day-Out' and 'Glass Spider' are excellent, but as a whole, this album once again falls short of the level of quality Bowie was now known for after releasing so many classics.
18. Black Tie White Noise (1993)
Bowie took a hiatus to work with his band Tin Machine, and after its disbandment, he returned to his solo career, full of ideas. This album draws inspiration from a range of sounds, be it jazz, soul, electronic, rock, and even elements of hip hop. With Nile Rodgers assisting production, it has a clean and catchy pop sound, but the song concepts and writing are far more interesting than anything since Scary Monsters. This is a great album, and severely underrated by Bowie fans.
19. Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
When I first heard this album, I loved it. However, as time as gone on, I've soured towards this record. It has a handful of decent tracks like the title track 'Buddha of Suburbia', but overall it feels drab. The soft acoustic production on some tracks is nothing noteworthy, and the more ambient and dance-influenced songs laced throughout the track-listing sound more interesting on paper than the final product. It's nothing brilliant, nor anything terrible - it's just tolerable.
20. 1. Outside (1995)
Conversely, Outside is an album I was not so sure about at first but have come to appreciate as one of Bowie's most ambitious and creative outings. It's a complex concept album about the detective Nathan Adler investigating the murder of a 14 year old girl, described through the perspectives of a range of characters over some of the most industrial and abrasive production Bowie was ever involved with. It's so strange, and takes multiple listens to fully appreciate.
21. Earthling (1997)
Bowie's creative streak carried on with Earthling. Unlike anything Bowie had made previously, it's a full on drum and bass album filled with blaring synths and loud percussion. It's so full of energy that, even for the weaker tracks, it's difficult not to be engaged. There are so many fantastic songs here like 'Little Wonder', 'Dead Man Walking', and especially 'I'm Afraid of Americans'. It's such a fresh and exciting sound for Bowie, and I wish he had explored it more.
22. Hours... (1999)
Hours... is, by far, Bowie's most forgettable album. It's generally agreed to be one of his weaker releases, but unlike Tonight where there are standout tracks or Buddha of Suburbia where I can remember my criticisms with it, Hours goes in one ear and comes out the other. I recall enjoying a few tracks here and there, but I'm never encouraged to return to them. It's a basic alt rock album with tranquil production and some solid writing, but beyond that, it's nothing special.
23. Toy (2000)
For this album, Bowie rerecorded old songs from before his debut album to compile into a single project. After a dispute with his label, the album was never released until recently. Overall, it's a mixed bag. This album contains my least favourite Bowie song ever, 'Baby Loves That Way', but also a handful of highlights like the bright and summery 'You've Got a Habit of Leaving Me' and 'Karma Man'. Each track has that carefree charm from Bowie's debut, but it also lacks the overall quality of the material he would go on to produce.
24. Heathen (2002)
Heathen is the album Bowie made in place of Toy, and in my opinion it's a far more compelling album. There are dark themes of death and legacy, over some spacey and hypnotic art rock production which hearkens back to the sound of the Berlin trilogy. This album receives little praise from long-time fans, but for those who want more of that art rock sound Bowie embraced through the 70s, this is a great release I highly recommend.
25. Reality (2003)
This is yet another quality album so late into Bowie's career. It's more of a pop rock album, with amazing production ranging from hard rock to sensual jazz. Overall, it isn't one of his best, but there are fantastic gems to be found here like 'New Killer Star' or 'Pablo Picasso'. Bowie sounds so invigorated here, making this such a fun and lighthearted album, especially compared to the grim Heathen before it.
26. The Next Day (2013)
On tour for Reality, Bowie suffered a heart attack, leading him to take a hiatus which lasted a decade. He returned with The Next Day, a masterful return to form for Bowie drawing inspiration from his own 70s work, as the album cover suggests. You can hear his age in his voice, but nonetheless, he sounds so motivated and alive, with so much fire in his voice this late into his career. It's a near perfect album, and his best since Earthling, or perhaps even Scary Monsters.
27. Blackstar (2016)
This is David Bowie's eulogy. He wrote and recorded this album while he knew he was dying of cancer, and used music to convey his fears and look back on his legacy. It's such an upsetting and unsettling listen, hearing how vividly he describes death. Shortly after its release, Bowie passed away. It fuses the art rock he was known for with elements of jazz and electronic, bringing it all together into David Bowie's final masterpiece.
David Bowie has a long and intimidating discography, but I could not recommend exploring his catalogue more. For a starting point, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Low are all excellent choices. Then listen to all his 70s material, and listen to what interests you from there. If you want his final masterpiece, Blackstar, to be the most impactful, I recommend leaving it to last. While his discography has its low points, the sheer number of classics and groundbreaking albums under his belt makes his catalogue nothing less than masterful.