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A Beginner’s Guide to Bowie, Pt. 3

Note: bolded items below are links to previous commentaries and/or videos. I’m not going to write that after each bolded entry, so take note!

In the first entry of this series I recommended listening to one of three Bowie albums first— The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps); or Let’s Dance. The second entry identified some of Bowie’s most iconic videos by way as a next step. So, I’m going to assume that you’Ve made it through all three of those albums from the part 1, watched the videos from part 2 and listened to the songs I mentioned along the way. So what’s next?

What’s next are three of Bowie’s classic albums that often make “greatest albums of all time” lists:

Hunky Dory (1971)
Station to Station (1976)
Low (1977)

The first thing you will notice is, hey, Bowie was awfully productive in the 70s. And he was. Bowie made some of the best rock music there is during that time and helped define what we commonly think of as “classic rock” with his albums from this period. I’ve mentioned that some of Bowie’s later works are very strong but not part of what I have been calling the canon of classic rock. This is in part because the classic rock period ended after the mid-80s. But there’s another reason— Bowie was writing music for young people during the 70s, you know, when he was young. His later music is for middle aged people, written by a middle aged person. His last album, Blackstar was written about death by a dying man. Typically, middle aged people and middle aged subject matter do not define musical trends. But these three albums did just that.

I was first introduced to Hunky Dory by a friend who described it, without hesitation, as Bowie’s best album. Its eclectic, with a foot in Bowie’s earlier influences of what can be described as music hall style, torch songs and folk (especially Dylan-inspired folk) (with songs like, “Life on Mars?” and “Song for Bob Dylan,” with a bridge to Glam (“Queen Bitch”). In the mix, Bowie experiments with one of his recurring themes, occultism, with “Quicksand,” and pushing the limits of enigmatic lyrics with the closing track, “The Bewlay Brothers.” Oh yeah, Hunk Dory also includes, “Changes,” which quite possibly is Bowie’s signature song (there are many contenders).

Just as Hunky Dory has one foot in the past and one in the future, so too does Station to Station. Bowie had transitioned from Glam to the disco-adjacent “plastic soul” sound of Young Americans in 1975. While that album includes some great songs, it is far from my favorite. It was, however commercially successful. Station to Station includes at least one throwback to that style with “Golden Years,” which is one of Bowie’s most accessible songs. The title track, like “The Bewlay Brothers” is a long, esoteric song with mystical underpinnings. More significantly, its use of synthesizers foreshadows what Bowie would do in his next few albums. I think of it as the beginning of a sequence that ends with Scary Monsters. Station to Station is one of Bowie’s shortest albums, but it is also widely recognized as one of his most significant.

Low is less accessible than the other two, but is widely considered a work of genius. Half the album consists of short, fractured songs that reflect a paranoid and confused mindset (Bowie wrote what he knew). Side two is entirely instrumental music featuring synthesizers. If that doesn’t sound like fun, well, it isn’t. This is not a light-hearted rock and roll rollick. It’s the first album in this beginner’s guide that I’m not going to say, “if you don’t like this, you won’t like Bowie.” Its tough. That said, studio executives were worried about it too, but it was a surprise hit.

Not to quote too extensively from Wikipedia, but consider the extent to which this album is identified as one of the all time greats:

Ranking the 100 best albums ever made, Sounds placed it at number 35 in 1986 and The Guardian ranked it number 62 in 1997. A year later, Q readers voted it the 43rd greatest album of all time. On lists of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever, Q and The Observer ranked Low numbers 16 and 39, respectively. In 2004, Pitchfork named it the greatest album of the 1970s; Erlewine described it as ‘a record that hurtles toward an undefined future while embracing ambiguity’, as well as ‘an album about rebirth, which is why it still possesses the power to startle.’ Similarly, Paste magazine included it at number 34 in their list of the 70 best albums of the 1970s, and Ultimate Classic Rock later featured Low in a similar list of the 100 best rock albums from the 1970s in 2015. In 2013, NME listed the album as the 14th greatest of all time in their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Larkin ranked it numbers 120 and 47 in the second and third editions of All Time Top 1000 Albums, respectively. In 2003, Low was ranked number 249 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It was subsequently ranked number 251 in a 2012 revised list and number 206 in a 2020 revised list. In 2023, British GQ ranked it the second best electronic album of all time, behind Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine (1978). The album was also included in the 2018 edition of Robert Dimery’s book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

This list of accolades is not exhaustive. So, I’m saying tee up Low as the sixth Bowie album you listen to. If you don’t gravitate toward it immediately, it’s worth contemplating what the critics are seeing.

Next week: part 4, where we’ll get to the first post-80s album I’m going add the first post-80s album to the list (that is to say, the first post 80s album to make the list, not Bowie’s first post-80s album, which is Tin Machine II, which won’t make it to part 4).

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