‘hours…’ (1999). Bowie used the cover art of ‘hours…’ to signal another stylistic change. The “new” Bowie held, Pieta style, an exhausted— or dead— looking Bowie much as he had appeared over the past few years. The loud period was over, as was Bowie’s final (overt) attempt to appeal to a younger audience. From here on out his music would typically be slower, softer and more contemplative. The middle-aged Bowie had arrived. Unfortunately, the first manifestation of this latest incarnation was uneven — ‘hours…’ is Bowie’s weakest later album. But it’s not all bad, and I’m going to say “Survive” is its best song. The worst is “If I’m Dreaming My Life.” Long and plodding, this song almost single-handedly sinks the entire album. If that wasn’t bad enough, it also manages to be forgettable, and its appearance upon repeated listening the the album comes as an unpleasant reminder.
Heathen (2002). If ‘hours…’ was weak, Heathen was strong. Bowie managed to capture the feeling of dread that permeated the turn of the century and followed 9/11, though some of the apparent references to that event were coincidental. Once again Bowie achieved an album with no truly bad songs. Amidst many very good ones, on this day I’ll say “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” is the best, but I could easily select any number of other ones tomorrow. As for the worst? The album has a mix of tense, ominous songs and more upbeat, hopeful ones. Maybe “A Better Future” is a little much in that context. Again, this is not a bad song, and Bowie sings that he’s demanding a better future, not that he’s predicting one. Bowie wisely did not end his album with this one but chose instead, the excellent “Heathen (the Rays),” which is both a more appropriate way to end the album and more characteristically impressionistic.
Reality (2003) Reality is to Heathen what Aladdin Sane was to Ziggy or Tonight was to Let’s Dance. Its similar but not quite as good. Fortunately, by this point, Bowie had become so polished that his floor was only so low. But the ceiling as also only so high. So I don’t know that there’s either a near-great song on Reality or a truly terrible one. I’m going to say “Reality” is the best— it’s certainly the most energetic, and “Bring Me the Disco King” is the worst. “Disco King” is celebrated by some fans and critics, but for me its another unnecessary long, slow song and it caps the album with a down note.
The Next Day (2013). Bowie’s surprise return has a lot of music on it, especially if you count The Next Day Extra as part of the same album. I get the sense that Bowie had multiple, pent-up ideas that he just let spill-out after a decade-long break from recording. I listened to The Next Day over and over when it was released, to the point that I got somewhat tired of it, however having since taken a little break from it myself, I actually think it has aged quite well over the ensuring decade. There are many good songs, and I’m tempted to list the title track as the best, but it’s hard not to choose “Where Are We Now?” As for the worst— I don’t especially like “The Stars Are Out Tonight,” though it has an innovative video.
Blackstar (2016) Bowie wrapped up his career and his life with a work of staggering genius. Blackstar was not only the culmination of Bowie’s final phase but really of everything he ever did. His own death became part of his art. There’s much I like about this album, but I’m going to select the title track as the best. Can an album be great with seven songs and still have a bad one? Well, I don’t like, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” but the album version is better than the single, that was released months ahead of the album. And its not terrible, but that’s what I’ll say is the worst.
Toy (2021) Toy was Bowie’s attempt to give new life to some of his pre-fame material, plus a few new songs. He recorded it in 2000, and has existed as a very common bootleg ever since, but it wasn’t officially released until 2021. I’m glad it was released, but as a bookend to Bowie’s awful 1967 debut, Toy is my second-least favorite Bowie album. Some of the same bad 60s songs reappear and are still bad, though true to his intent, Bowie’s performances are improvements. The extent to which his voice changed is moderately interesting, but at the end of the day, I don’t like most of these songs. Making matters more confusing, different versions of the album contain different songs. I’d say the best song is, “Afraid,” which is on my version and would reappear on Heathen, but I think its left off the 2021 official release. I might then choose “Conversation Piece,” which I’m familiar with from an earlier version on Space Oddity, but that one isn’t on my edition. So I’ll go with another “new” song, “Toy (Your Turn to Drive).” Anything but those early-60s remakes. As for the worst, there’s many to choose from. I’ll say its the hippy-dippy “Karma Man” and leave it at that. Hopefully there’s some other unreleased studio album out there that can come after Toy, so Toy doesn’t have to be Bowie’s last (The Leon Suites, maybe?). But for now, that’s it— the best and worst from every album.