(EDIT: It has been brought to my attention that Bowie’s “The Buddha of Suburbia” was indeed a studio release, and has thus been added to the ranking)
With the tragic passing of David Bowie, I have taken it upon myself to re-explore his entire discography and rank all of the albums among each other by my “personal preference”. I must iterate, that this is purely an exercise for fun, and to give me an excuse to listen to all of the albums again. This is by no means some kind of official list.
The first eight or so picks on this list are all beloved by me and have a permanent spot in my album rotation. Your choices may be wildly different than mine and that’s a testament to how influential David Robert Jones has been on all of us. How each of us have our own history of Bowie listening. I’ve known Bowie’s pop cannon since I was a little kid, but I didn’t explore his wider body of work till I was a teenager in the mid-90’s. Since then he is consistently ranked among my all time favorite and most influential artists.
To figure out this ranking, I went through two different steps. First, I listened to each album. About one a day, for several weeks. Sometimes two, and towards the end there, I crammed in the last four in one day (at that point I was feeling Bowie burnout.. if that is even possible).
From there I noted how many songs on each album were engaging enough that I would want to listen to them again. Or would be unlikely to skip them / space out and ignore them if they came up in a random playlist.
Unsurprisingly this left me with a lot of tied albums. To settle these ties, I then sat back and decided which album, I would be more likely to listen to first.
With all that out of the way, here are all twenty four studio albums of David Bowie ranked:
25. Never Let Me Down (1987)
What an ironic album title. Because I can’t think of another way of explaining my feelings regarding this album. A total let down. The one or two somewhat ok songs aren’t enough to get me to rank this any higher than last place. I actually like it even less now after listening to it all the way through the other day. This is really the only Bowie album that I would personally call “bad”.
24. David Bowie (1967)
Like Blackstar, I didn’t really think it was fair to rank this album. After all, this is Bowie before he found his own voice. Here he is simply aping Anthony Newly, and dressing up the album in the Baroque Pop sheen that was all the rage in 1967's Pop music. Again not really any bad songs, just mostly forgettable, and uninteresting. With the exception of “Please, Mr. Gravedigger”, and “Little Bombardier” which are just bad ass songs. And I have a special place for “The Laughing Gnome”.
23. Hours (1999) & 22. Reality (2003)
I’m going to rank these two together, because to my ears they are barely different. This is the sound of a tired Rock Star, who feels obligated to continue releasing new albums. None of these songs are “bad”, just painfully boring and mundane. Each album though does contain one or two songs that I could almost see listening to again in the future.
21. Earthling (1997)
I heard this when it came out (at a time I was completely immersed in his 70's material). I discovered Bowie’s wider catalog around 1996. So this was his most current release at the time I stumbled into the mystical realms of David Bowie. I didn’t really care for it then. And I care even less for it now. To be fair, I’m not a big fan of Drum n’ Bass or Jungle. So that kind of ruins about 95% of this LP for me. His Industrial/Edgy schtick was way more convincing on “1. Outside”.
20. Young Americans (1975)
Bowie gone to Philly. Bowie trying to write Soul music. Results are mixed at best. Now perhaps it’s because I’m actually a HUGE fan of the Philly Soul groups David was emulating here, that I am so critical of any attempts at aping their sound. But I really wasn’t sold on Bowie the Soul singer. A few songs get it right, and come across as almost authentic. But most of the productions are bogged down in tons of layers with too much going on. (I blame the cocaine for this). 70's Philly Soul music speaks to the listener, through a lush yet minimal arrangement of music. Which to his credit, Bowie pulls off once or twice on this LP.
19. Space Oddity (1969)
Title track and a few others aside, I was never a big fan of Bowie’s hippy-dippy phase. None of these songs I would classify as bad, or boring though. It’s just not my preferred style of songwriting.
18. The Next Day (2013)
Definitely a step up from his incredibly mediocre albums “The Hours”, and “Reality”, but still nowhere near the grandeur of his past triumphs. A couple songs on here are pretty engaging though. Enough that it barely beats the following albums.
17. Lodger (1979)
As much as I love Bowie’s other Berlin trilogy albums, this one just started going off the rails a little for me. Yes David, I get it. You want to incorporate world music into your repertoire. Good for you. But could you at least make it interesting? With that criticism aside, Lodger still contains some of his best individual songs.
16. Tonight - (1984)
In the past, I used to lump this one and Never Let Me Down together as “the albums I like to forget Bowie released”. But upon re-assessment, I actually enjoyed this one quite a bit. I’ve always loved “Loving The Alien”, but turns out I liked some more of these songs than I remembered. I also didn’t realize that Bowie played with Ska on any of his albums. But he does it here and it sounds pretty good.
15. Let’s Dance (1983)
This album is really weird to me. Essentially introducing Bowie to a whole new generation of listeners. By far his most commercially accessible album of all time. But damn the filler tracks, really don’t go anywhere, while the singles shine as some of the best music of the 80's.
14. Black Tie, White Noise (1993)
Another album I never even really listened to that much in the past. But I actually really liked it a lot upon re-examining it! There were again, a few kind of meh moments. But the good stuff is really good, and recalls some of my preferred experimental albums. It sounds strangely like a New Order release from the same period, and that’s totally ok with me. The instrumental tracks also really shine here. Also kudos to Bowie for covering one of his bigger influences here, Mr. Scott Walker.
13. Hunky Dory (1971)
It’s a shame I didn’t rank this one higher as it contains some of my all time favorite Bowie cuts. But it also contains some pretty boring noodling, and non-engaging material (IMHO). And unfortunately the boring sing-songy tracks almost equal the engaging catchy ones. Still a great album, and it’s quite clear that Bowie was about to become a major international star here.
12. Blackstar (2016)
I almost didn’t rank this one. At only 7 tracks and a running time less than 45 minutes, it barely qualifies as an LP. Also it’s far to soon to really “rank” this release. With that said, I really enjoyed the first few listens. One or two tracks are once again “just ok”. But the standouts really stand out. With the title track and Lazarus basically outing Bowie as an occult practitioner (or at least someone with a deeply vested interest in it). Which can be seen scattered throughout all of his albums (especially Station to Station).
11. Heathen (2002)
This was basically Bowie’s fifth comeback album, and unlike most comeback albums, he’s sounding really fresh and interesting here once again. A few songs aside, I can listen to about 80% of this album without skipping a track. And there aren’t any “bad” songs, just a few that never really grabbed me. I generally prefer his darker efforts, and this one ranks up as one his darkest.
10. 1. Outside (1995)
For some reason I never really listened to this entire album in the past. Perhaps it’s because it came out a year before I first really dug into his back catalog. And spent so long with his older albums, I just never got around to this one. Whatever the case, I’m glad I went back and gave it a ful listen. Because it’s a pretty killer album. Once again a few songs are just mediocre, but nothing is outright bad (IMHO).
I love how like with Scary Monsters, Bowie is in full creative mode here. Lots of interesting soundscapes, cacophonous beats, and Industrial inspired rhythms. Bowie manages to take most of it and make it engaging. Also interesting to note this was his first “consistent story” album in many years.
9. The Man Who Sold The World (1970)
Some seriously rocking tracks are in here, and a lot of it is really dark and brooding. Definitely an influence on the coming Goth-rock/Deathrock styles of the early 80's. One or two songs are a little middle of the road for me personally, but I could definitely just throw this LP on, and let it play out, without skipping a track. I must also note that the only reason this one is so far down the list is because it is a little bit less musically diverse than the above choices, which just tips the scale enough to make it fall behind (IMHO of course).
8. Scary Monsters (1980)
The last of Bowie’s really stellar albums for many years. Here he pulls off his chameleon like abilities to blend into and simultaneously influence a newish genre of music. In this case, New Wave and Post-Punk. These songs are far more interesting musically than his later New Wave pop on Let’s Dance.
You can tell Bowie just wants to make engaging, off-kilter Art-Rock here. A lot of the rhythmic patterns and melodies are very unusual. Which just makes the whole thing even more interesting to listen to. With that said, there are a grip of songs here that tend to get skipped when I listen to the album in it’s entirety. Still a great, great LP.
7. Heroes (1977)
The second of Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” with Brian Eno. To put it simply, this album is basically “Low”. But not quite as epic. The pop songs are mostly pretty catchy (with one or two more mediocre/busy/boring ones). And the instrumentals start to feel a little less inspired here. Though there are a few standouts from those tracks. Regardless though, the overall album is still a standout, and contains arguably Bowie’s most beloved song.
6. Diamond Dogs (1974)
Halloween Jack, Bowie’s post-apocalyptic personae on Diamond Dogs brings an album that somewhat combines the last three albums in Bowie’s discography. While also hinting at multiple phases of his coming evolution’s. Taking the dark, harder edged proto-metal feel of The Man Who Sold The World then tossing in the 50's influences from Aladdin Sane. And the glammy hooks of Ziggy Stardust. Diamond Dogs manages to straddle the line of Pop, Rock, and Experimental music almost perfectly.
5. Station To Station (1976)
A dark, funky, and strange trip. Chalk full of esoteric, and occultic imagery compliments of David’s most disturbing personae, The Thin White Duke. Whose name could be a “thinly” veiled nod to David’s out of control cocaine addiction at the time. Or it could be a character he created to point a critical finger at the growing fascist attitudes in England at the time. Who could be certain? Cocaine is a hell of a drug.
It’s also interesting to note that David claimed to have no recollection of ever recording this album. Now that could just be a clever publicity stunt, but it also raises the question... just who did write it? Whoever that entity was that was possessing Bowie, wrote one hell of an album. But I couldn’t be happier that he was exorcised after the album was completed. RIP The Thin White Duke.
4. Aladdin Sane (1973)
In the early 70's David was on a roll. This album took the concepts of Ziggy Stardust, and expanded even further on the musical influences. There was a “bit” of a 1950's nostalgia in 70's Glam Rock, and you can hear it all over this LP. From the rocking Saxophones, and pianos, to the straight up Doo-Wop harmonies. But again, Bowie wasn’t a one trick pony. He dabbles in Music Hall, Flamenco, Blues and much more here.
3. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
A recent discovery for me, but this album quickly leaped to the top of the list, thanks to some incredibly strong songwriting. This is the sound of a hopeful, refreshed David Bowie. The vibe of this album is just so positive, If you’ll excuse me, I need to go listen to it again!
2. Low (1977)
It could be that I have heard this album, more times than I could possibly recall, that this ranks so high. But then that begs the question, why have I listened to this album so much?
Probably because Low is once again a perfect LP. And once again it incorporates a wide range of influences, while also breaking tons of new ground its self. Bowie, Eno, & Visconti are all at the top of their game here. Crafting weirdly off kilter pop songs on side A. And experimental soundscapes on side B. that all manage to hold the listeners attention for the entirety of the album. What more could we ask for?
1. The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars (1972)
Pretty much a perfect rock album, and one of the shining representations of Glam, Hard Rock, Soft Rock, Top 40 Pop, etc. It transcends genres, and plays with influences from all across the history of popular music. Couple that with cryptic, alien messages from the first of David’s many personae’s, Ziggy Stardust. And you have one of the most influential albums of all time, in multiple genres.
Addendum: I did not review any soundtracks, spin-offs, or cover albums in this ranking.
In conclusion, I am really glad I took part in this musical re-assessment. It really opened my eyes to some of Bowie’s material I had taken for granted in the past. It also made me realize that some of the albums I used to think were so great, weren’t as engaging as a whole as I once thought. It also reaffirmed what I already knew. That Never Let Me Down was a terrible, terrible album.