So you’ve never really listened to David Bowie. Now he’s dead and everybody thinks it’s pretty weird that you aren’t sad. You feel out of the loop, but unashamed, like an alien on your own planet. Incidentally, you feel a lot like David Bowie.
But if you do want to understand what all the fuss has been about for the last half-century, take a gander at Bowie’s essential discography.
Space Oddity / The Man Who Sold the World
Bowie’s earlier albums are a wonderful mess of acoustic and electric instruments slapped with all kinds of studio effects. The songs are long and noodly, and the lyrics are often impenetrable. Where another artist might sound like an idiot trying to manage all these components, Bowie manages to uncover the human significance under his obsessions with space travel and Nietzsche.
Hunky Dory / The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars / Aladdin Sane
You can say you never “listened to Bowie,” but you’ve probably heard every last one of these songs at some point. Here, Bowie hits the heights the previous albums had only been attempting. Embracing personae such as Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, he sings about everything from the dawn of the Homo superior to failed actors becoming sex workers. He emulates everything from Bond-movie ballads to Velvet Underground rockers. He engages the listener with poppy choruses and experimental piano solos. Whether their strangeness appeals to you or not, these albums will blow your face off with how well-constructed and addictive they are.
Station to Station
Bowie was so strung-out in this period that he doesn’t even remember making this album. Consider that as you listen to the cold funkiness of “Golden Years” or the full-hearted, empty-handed wailing on “Word on a Wing.” Imagine performing spirit-breaking songs like these with no awareness that you’re doing it. There’s something about being on the lower rungs of your life that allows you to express exactly what’s going on in your soul, and Station to Station is a testament to this.
Low / “Heroes” / Lodger
The Berlin Trilogy, in which David Bowie stops limiting himself to pop music and develops a sad, spooky electronic sound with his pal, Brian Eno. In Low, Bowie asks the question: “Do you wonder sometimes about sound and vision?” Listen, and you will see what he means. This period of Bowie’s discography is characterized by how visceral the sound is. It turns you into a synesthesiac; you will see how the music’s working, you will taste the rhythms, you will smell Bowie’s breath as he chants about fucking up his life. The music becomes you, and you become the music.
Scary Monsters and Super Creeps / Let’s Dance
Though these 1980s albums are very different, they are both responsible for taking Bowie from critics’ pet to international superstar. For example, your dad has one of these in his old record collection, even if he never was a fan. And though these albums are way more accessible than the Berlin Trilogy, they do not compromise the integrity of Bowie’s subversive strangeness. The first track of Scary Monsters features some Japanese spoken word, and Let’s Dance is definitely danceable, but it has “China Girl” on it, and that song will fuck you up. Best enjoyed as a pair.
This is the recent one. All the songs are giants. Bowie knew he was dying when he recorded it. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, you’re already lost. It’s weird that you aren’t sad.