I haven’t recently looked up the last time I did this— ranking Bowie’s albums. If you are reading this and are interested in seeing how my thinking has changed between then and now, this blog is fully searchable. I’ll do it again, later, at some point.
Before I get to the list, though, I need to wring my hands about what counts as a Bowie album. I have commented on more than 100 albums, but only about a quarter of them will make this list. For sure, I’m not including live albums. If Bowie wasn’t the featured singer, but he produced an album— that’s not making the cut. Bowie appears on many soundtracks that won’t make this list because with a few exceptions such albums contain between one and three original Bowie songs, which is not enough. Similarly, I’m not including other peoples’ album on which Bowie makes one or two guest appearances. I’m also not including soundtracks that contain Bowie songs that originally appeared elsewhere, and here I have in mind the Christiana F soundtrack, which is a good compilation but doesn’t have original music.
Studio albums are in. Tin Machine’s two studio albums are in.
That leaves a handful of types of records that are a tougher call. Bowie released a few EPs containing original music. The original music EPs include the BAAL soundtrack and the posthumous No Plan. I have seen The Next Day Extra identified as an EP, though it is album length. I’m not counting a few EPs he released, or were released after he died, of live versions or alternate versions of previously released songs. Some of Bowie’s CDs included bonus CDs which can be considered EPs. Aside from The Next Day Extra, those are out. I’m going to include the three with original music. They are at a disadvantage because, regardless of the quality of the component songs, they just don’t have as much music as Bowie’s full-length albums (well, except again for The Next Day Extra, but we’ll get to that).
Finally, there is the question of the Labyrinth soundtrack. It contains five original songs performed by Bowie and a sixth song he wrote. It also contains several instrumental pieces by Trevor Jones, but if you took those out, you’d have a Bowie album with as many songs as Station to Station and one short of Blackstar. So Labyrinth is in. And with all that said, here’s my list:
1. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980). My long time favorite album. No surprise here. The standard against which everything he subsequently released would be judged and the culmination of an amazing series of records beginning with Station to Station, or looked at through a wider lens, Space Oddity.
2. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). There’s a good reason this is widely considered Bowie’s most beloved album. It never gets old. A near-perfect piece of art.
3. Diamond Dogs (1974). “Having so much fun with the poisonous people, spreading rumors and lies and stories they made up.” I’ve always liked Diamond Dogs, but I have to say this album has helped me get through the last few years.
4. Station to Station (1976). Bowie’s most economical album— he makes every song count. “Stay” has emerged as one of my favorite Bowie songs in recent years even though I’ve been listening to it for a very long time. There’s still new aspects of this album to be discovered after endless hearings.
5. Blackstar (2016). Bowie turned the process of dying into his final album, which managed to wrap up the entirety of his career (or thereabouts). I very much think you can listen to his studio albums in chronological order (skipping his forgettable debut), starting with the song, “Space Oddity,” and ending with the final song on Blackstar, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” and it all makes sense. I am coming to think of Blackstar as the Rosetta Stone of David Bowie.
6. Hunky Dory (1971). Less coherent than Bowie’s other great albums, the sum of the parts of Hunky Dory make it one of his best.
7. 1. Outside (1995). There, I said it. In terms of albums I like listening to, yep, 1. Outside is firmly in the top 10. Though this was not uniformly well received among both fans and critics, this is my list and I like it. A lot.
8. Aladdin Sane (1973). Bowie’s most iconic album cover. Contains some great songs, like “The Jean Genie” and “Panic in Detroit.” The strength of the good far outweighs the weaker elements of the album, but it does include weaker elements. I don’t much like Bowie’s cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” or, at least in the context of what is otherwise a rollicking rock album, the jazzy, avant-garde title track. But as a package of songs, Aladdin Sane is hard to deny.
9. Lodger (1979). Lodger is rarely considered the best of the Berlin Trilogy but I’m going to make the case it is, if for no other reason that Bowie sings words on each song, so we get to hear, you know, Bowie. Also, I have found myself listening to the whole album more than the others. So, yeah, it’s the best.
10. Heathen (2002). The best of what I have come to think of as Bowie’s music for middle aged men. Surely makes my top ten in terms of how many times I’ve listened to it since its release. Bowie managed to capture the anxiety of the time, and also his time of life (which is about where I am as I write). And oh, the music is really good.
11. “Heroes” (1977). Sacrilege! “Heroes” doesn’t make my top 10? Yes, the songs on which Bowie sings words are among his best. His voice arguably is at its absolute strongest on this album. But there’s almost an entire side of instrumentals (that, in fairness, include Bowie vocalizing…sounds…) And I’m not saying that the instrumentals are bad— they are good and serve their purpose. But I’d rather listen to Bowie sing.
12. Low (1977). See “Heroes.” Yes, yes, Low is usually ranked as the best of the Berlin three and often finds itself on lists of best albums of all time. This is in part because it was innovative and influential rather than because it’s the type of album you put on and listen to over and over again (which, I suppose I have). Not a party album. Still, it is a work of genius. Maybe the last such album on this list, but yes it is.
13. Space Oddity (1969). Though Bowie had been performing for years, this is the album that really began the continuum. Well structured and containing more good songs than the title track, it’s really quite a nice record to hear all the way through.
14. Let’s Dance (1983). Derided by some fans as a sell-out, there’s a reason this is another of Bowie’s most popular and successful albums. Side one is especially strong. Everything doesn’t have to be profound (and, by the way, there’s some profundity here if you look for it).
15. The Next Day (2013). Bowie re-emerged after a decade off the scene with this strong and complex collection of songs. Not necessarily instantly digestible, there’s a lot here to contemplate. A lot of music, and high replay value.
16. Never Let Me Down (1987, 2018). Widely thought of as one of Bowie’s worst, I went through a period earlier this year of playing this over and over. It’s much better than you think, especially if you pay attention. The 2018 re-recording, with new instrumentals to accompany Bowie’s original vocals was a big improvement and should become the standard version (which, sadly, I don’t think it has become).
17. The Man Who Sold the World (1970). Bowie still hadn’t figured himself out in 1970, so he took a detour and made a heavy metal album. Really. Not every song, but listen to it— it’s a heavy metal album. It largely works, but for whatever reason I don’t really listen to the album all too much, but its good.
18. Earthling (1995). I was initially disappointed by this album following 1. Outside, but it has aged well. “I’m Afraid of Americans” is probably Bowie’s best known song from the 90s, and “Little Wonder” made for one of my favorite videos.
19. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993). This almost ambient album is good but low impact. Along with Tin Machine 2, it’s a contender for Bowie’s great lost album because it was never promoted well, at least not in the U.S.
20. Pin Ups (1973). Between albums of (mostly) his own songs, Bowie pumped out Glam covers of songs he liked from the 1960s. I kinda wish he did more of these.
21. Young Americans (1975). A lot of people like this album much more than I do. “Fame” and the title track are great, and there are a few other interesting aspects of his “plastic soul” sound, but overall this isn’t my favorite Bowie album.
22. Reality (2003). Nothing really wrong with this album but it seemed a little like Heathen, Part 2. And that’s not bad, but Heathen is better.
23. Hours… (1999). My appreciation for this album is on the rise. It’s Bowie’s first that really meditates on middle age, or at least many of the songs do that. It also contains some stinkers, so despite its upward trajectory in my estimation it still doesn’t rise to the level of one of his greats.
24. Black Tie White Noise (1993). This uneven album contains some good songs and some pretty bad songs (notably the title track) but not a lot of coherence. Many of Bowie’s albums are pulled together by an overall theme, even some of those that are not actually concept albums. This is more a collection of songs.
25. Tin Machine 2 (1991). There’s enough good music on the two Tin Machine albums for one good album. Today I’m saying Tin Machine 2 is the better of the two. Perhaps I can say or write the number “two” a few more times. Anyway, this is the other contender for the great lost Bowie album in part because it is out of print and my understanding is that it isn’t even streaming anywhere. It was savaged when it came out and suffers from horrible marketing (I known Tin Machine was supposed to be a band, but Bowie’s name and face appear nowhere on the cover at all). Add to that two songs on which Bowie is not the lead singer and this is a flawed work. But it has redeeming features and could be a happy surprise for someone who never heard it before.
26. Tin Machine (1989). My biggest problem with this album is that it contains multiple very overt songs that come off as preachy about social ills. It’s not that I disagree with the positions taken by songs like, “Crack City” and “Under the God,” but Bowie is better when he’s a little more ambiguous. He works best in double meanings.
27. Tonight (1984). Tonight gets a rough treatment by critics and many Bowie fans, and while I agree it is far from Bowie’s best, I actually think it remains an entertaining piece of work. You probably know more songs from Tonight than you know from some of Bowie’s better-received more recent albums. There is value here.
28. The Next Day Extra (2013). The best ever bonus disc, The Next Day Extra more or less stands up as its own album. On a song-by-song basis, the component parts of this collection would rank higher, but as a collection of what didn’t make it to the main album it lacks coherence. Still, Bowie had a lot to say after a decade away, and one long album called The Next Day just wasn’t enough.
29. Labyrinth soundtrack (1986). The Bowie songs are, at the very least, not bad. I particularly like “Underground.” Nonetheless, this soundtrack loses points because it is essentially half a Bowie album and half a Trevor Jones album. Though I like many movie soundtracks, Trevor Jones is no John Williams.
30. No Plan (2017). Released a year after Bowie died, No Plan is a four-song EP of original songs from the Lazarus soundtrack. One of the songs is Lazarus, which had already appeared on Blackstar. So The EP has as many original Bowie songs as the Absolute Beginners soundtrack (which didn’t make this list). That’s the main reason I’m ranking this near the bottom— there just isn’t much here. The three new songs are decent enough but not really contenders for a greatest hits album. Its a nice memorial and worth hearing, but not a towering achievement.
31. Baal (1981). This is the short soundtrack to the televised version of Bertolt Brecht’s 1918 play of the same name, in which Bowie starred as the lead. I don’t like the songs, though I listened to it again recently and am reminded that Bowie’s voice was at its strongest when he recorded them. Brecht translated into the rock and roll era in that both Bowie and the Doors famously covered, “Alabama Song,” which Brecht wrote, and Bobby Darin had a massive hit with “Mack the Knife,” for which Brecht also wrote the lyrics. I think the Baal EP will be more satisfying for Brecht fans than for Bowie fans, though it’s enough of a curiosity for the Bowie fan to hear at least once.
32. Toy (2021). I think of this as Bowie’s failed experiment. Some people think of Tin Machine that way, but I like Tin Machine, whereas Toy really doesn’t do it for me. The experiment was in Bowie trying to make something out of his earliest songs from the 1960s. He improves them here, but they remain bad. In truth, the version I’ve heard was a bootleg that included new (good) songs that eventually made it on Heathen. Their absence from the official release doesn’t make me want to go out and buy it. I guess the 2021 version has three discs, including multiple versions of some of these bad old songs. While it’s true that some Bowie takes a few tries to really appreciate, I don’t think repetition helps here. Also, I’ll acknowledge that some of these songs are worse than others, and the official release includes the decent new song, “Toy (Your Turn to Drive),” which seems to have no relation to the rest. Overall, though Bowie was upset that he couldn’t find anyone to release this album while he was alive, there was a reason for that.
33. David Bowie (1967). What prompted me to write this list was my recent comments on Bowie’s terrible debut album. Despite the hints at themes Bowie would pick up on later with good songs, this album has no redeeming features. It just isn’t very good. While some might want to grade it on a curve because Bowie was just getting started, at the end of the day it is his least enjoyable album.