Few artists seemed to take as many risks during their career as David Bowie. And, sadly, for every sonic high of ‘Hunky Dory’, Station to Station’ or ‘Heroes’ there was a misjudgement in the shape of ‘Never Let Me Down’, ‘Black Tie, White Noise’ or his foray into the band that was Tin Machine.
But not every poorly taken step was a total disaster, along the way were some shining moments of brilliance proving that even when the creative juices weren’t flowing as they should, Bowie could still create something memorable.
This list takes a look at some of those less-loved albums and highlights a track or two that sank in the mud along with its place to the bottom of the pile.
Listed in order of album release.
Space Oddity (1969) – Memory of a Free Festival
After years of trying to be famous, Bowie struck gold with the track ‘Space Oddity’ and seemed in danger of becoming a one-hit-wonder, but among the guitar-friendly album came this little beauty of a song with its early synth intro and lyrical mood that would work to great effect on later work like ‘Hunky Dory’. Raw vocals, strange lyrics and a singalong chorus that starts midway through the track disguises a level of storytelling that would underpin this stage of his career.
Pin Ups (1973) – Sorrow
Following on from trio releases of ‘Hunky Dory’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’, it must have come as a bit of a shock when Bowie, who was fast becoming a layer of golden eggs for his record label, released a covers album of songs by The Who, Pink Floyd and this little known McCoys track, ‘Sorrow’.
By now every fan of Bowie knows this song, it features on Greatest Hits collections, but it is still a cracker of a track from its cello opener to cool vocal delivery and groovy finish.
Diamond Dogs (1974) – Rebel Rebel
This album is a strange mix of songs and it has never struck me as sounding very cohesive, but the album continues to divide fans. There are some good stuff, from the title track and the 70’s New York cop show soundtrack of ‘1984’ that sounds like Isaac Hayes was banging at the studio door. But I had to go with ‘Rebel Rebel’.
For the guitar riff alone, this song is worth a mention but there is a pomp and strut about the whole song that proves Bowie had a belief in what he was doing and where he was heading. Ziggy was dead but the song writing wasn’t about to let up.
Tonight (1984) – Blue Jean
After switching moods and releasing ‘Young Americans’, Bowie relocated to Berlin and produced some of his best work and it would be another decade until he took a wrong turn. With the double-whammy of ‘Scary Monsters’ and ‘Let’s Dance’ Bowie was riding the wave of being an eighties heartthrob and toured extensively. Perhaps this was the reason that ‘Tonight’ was below par, but there is a glowing light in the form of ‘Blue Jean’. It’s hip, radio-friendly vibe meant fans flocked to the record stores, but it’s commercial sound is just on the right side of falling into catchy pop and is possibly the only saving grace of an album that featured Tina Turner, Iggy Pop and a cover of ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys.
Black Tie, White Noise (1993) – Jump They Say
The album that marked a return to form after the poor Tin Machine offerings sold in large numbers and featured old Ziggy-era guitarist Mick Ronson, but it’s low on fans’ lists of best albums for the reason that too many songs miss the spot. There are high points from the cover of Scott Walker’s ‘Nite Flights’ to ‘You’ve Been Around’ and the title track, but ‘Jump They Say’ is the seller, from its MTV-friendly video to its production, it stands out as the best track on the album.
Buddha of Suburbia (1993) – Strangers When We Meet
A forgotten album in some ways, it is classed as a soundtrack yet only one song appeared in the BBC drama of the same name. Apparently recorded in under a week but the album spawned a little-known classic in ‘Strangers When We Meet’. The song was rerecorded for 1995’s ‘Outside’ album with Brian Eno at the helm where the mood of the sound was changed to fit the album’s atmosphere but most of the song remained the same. Personally, I love this song, I prefer the ‘Outside’ version, but as it first featured here, it gets the nod.
Outside (1995) – I’m Deranged and Through These Architects Eyes
Bowie and Brian Eno wanted this album to be the first in a series of concept albums (hence the 1. on the album cover) focussing on a story of a detective solving murders that were seen as art. The album is a mish mash of songs and narrations performed by Bowie himself with various software to disguise his voice.
As a concept, it doesn’t really work, if you skip passed the narratives (I think there are five of them) and listen only to the songs, it works much better. Eno’s dystopian soundscape is industrial, dirty and grim, but it acts as a perfect springboard for Bowie to perform.
‘I’m Deranged’ is frantic, informative for the story of the album and urgent, and deserves higher praise than the album has gathered over the years. ‘Through These Architects Eyes’ is a change of pace slightly, it sits in the playlist and acts as a shower from the grimy sounds from before. It’s bouncy, foot tapping and almost feels as if it were recorded separately from other parts of the album and features a discordant piano solo that shouldn’t fit but does.
Hours (1999) – Seven
Hours is an easily forgotten album and seemed to point to an artist with little direction. After twenty albums under his belt, Bowie had done everything and had little to prove and this album feels lacklustre but ‘Seven’ is a worthy song to take away.
It features a simple production of guitar, vocals, percussion and simple synth. Add in a nice slide guitar and there is enough going on to support the clever melody.
Just goes to show that underneath the production tricks and gimmicks, Bowie could still write great songs.
Reality (2003) – New Killer Star
There would be another decade between the release of Reality and A New Day and if it weren’t for this track (that has always reminded me of a track by Britpoppers Blur) Reality would have sunk without a murmur.
It is definitely a postcard of what was popular of the time, but there is a layer of class that Bowie brings to it. To say this song would have fitted into the Ziggy/Aladdin Sane era would be the best compliment I can give it.
So there you have it, it would have been easy to pick out great tracks from his best known albums, but where would be the fun in that?
Also, the list would have been ten times as long and we would be revisiting those classic albums for the umpteenth time. Instead, have a little delve into the forgotten albums…
Oh, and not a Tin Machine or a Jim Henson puppet in sight!