Thursday, January 14, 2016

Bowie at his Best (Part 1): My favorite albums and songs

When a lifelong fan has to choose his favorites from more than two dozen albums in David Bowie’s catalog, the selections are overwhelming.

David Bowie's 1978 "sailor" concert attire is one of my favorite looks.
In college, I donned my grandfather's World War II Navy hat, a henley and cream-colored  baggy pants
for a similar look to attend a Halloween party. 
But don’t give up hope.

Yours truly, Cary's Comics Craze blogger and webmaster Cary Ashby, a diehard Bowie-obsessed fan, helps readers by doing the heavy lifting.

What an expression!
Bowie rocks out with lead guitarist Earl Slick
during the 1983 "Serious Moonlight" world tour.
(A version of this post was part of my two-part tribute published in Wednesday's NORWALK REFLECTOR newspaper, where I've been a staff writer for more than 11 years. The other part of my Bowie tribute, "The Thin White Duke was classy, cool legend," was on the front page and appears here on CCC. 

(Come back here for the second part of my "Bowie at his Best" mini-series with lists of my favorite live albums/concert videos and his films. I'll wrap up this series-within-a series with Bowie's greatest cover tunes and 10 greatest individual song performances. Although there may be one about DB's music videos; we'll see. I also may have one or two more installments in my tribute to and celebration of the talented, late, great and unsurpassed David Bowie. ...)

Track down these must-have albums and must-see films and performances (in no particular order) from a genre-skipping, barrier-breaking career that lasted more than five decades.

If you're not a Bowiehead, consider the following lists a lesson in “David Bowie 101.” Now let the healthy discussions, conversations and debates begin! (Make sure you write a comment at the end of this op-ed/review.)

Bowie's top-10 albums 

THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1972): The Beatles may have come up with first concept album, but Bowie perfected it. The storyline is truly in the title, although the first side is more apocalyptic in nature than it is about the alien rock-god Ziggy Stardust. Bowie, in the last track, "Rock-n-Roll Suicide," (in 12/8 time no less!) bids an emotional farewell to the singer who "took it too far."

LET'S DANCE (1983): Bowie's most commercial album and the first one I ever owned. (ZIGGY STARDUST was a close second.) Nile Rodgers slickly produces a record featuring Bowie's most talented and tight band that groove in track after track. Bowie's baritone has never sounded so crisp.

SCARY MONSTERS (AND SUPER CREEPS) (1980): As odd and eclectic as it is compelling, SCARY MONSTERS bridges a gap between the end of the Bowie and Brian Eno's experimental Berlin trilogy (LOW, "HEROES," and LODGER) and his radio-friendly, accessible period of the 1980s. There's no other word to describe this album but Bowie-esque.

STATION TO STATION (1976): It's a six-song album that packs a punch. I'm not sure if it's "the side effects of the cocaine" or not, but Bowie and his band -- essentially the same musicians through 1980 -- deliver the goods in each and every tune. I've always appreciated three things about STATION TO STATION: 1) Bowie singlehandedly wrote all the songs (except for his wonderfully dramatic cover of the melancholy Johnny Mathis ballad "Wild is the Wind,") 2) the wide variety of styles and 3) Bowie's vocal range.

LODGER (1979): Ever wanted to take a trip across the world with David Bowie and hear what his soundtrack would be? Here's your chance.

EARTHLING (1997): This is the perfect Bowie album to put in your stereo and just crank -- a doozie of a cruisin' record. This is the techno/dance hall album for fans who hate it. Bowie doesn't break any new musical ground here, but he proves he can still hang with the young crowd -- while still showing them how the master does it.

DIAMOND DOGS (1974): Bowie's 1984-inspired work is an even tighter and wilder concept album than ZIGGY STARDUST -- just using that "real cool cat" Halloween Jack as the main character. As a senior in high school, I wrote my English paper comparing and contrasting George Orwell's novel with Bowie's equally dystopian album. And nailed a B+! "Rock-n-Roll Me" is a preview to Bowie's soulful YOUNG AMERICANS album and "1984" is one of the most underrated songs in his entire catalog.

THE NEXT DAY (2013): Honestly, this album took me multiple listens to get a handle on it, but that's often the case with Bowie's albums. It's possible to break down the root of each song by combing through nearly every Bowie album; now whether that's intentional or not is anybody's guess. Despite a 10-year, self-imposed sabbatical and the tunes being at least an homage to previous material, Bowie proves he still knows how to write catchy, melodic songs and snappy, thoughtful lyrics.

ALADDIN SANE (1973): Bowie admittedly wrote this entire album on the road during the American leg of his seemingly non-stop "Ziggy Stardust" tour. The bass-y production of the rompin' "Watch That Mean" still bothers me, but what remains impressive about this work is how much variety there is: the doo-wop of "Drive-In Saturday," cabaret-calypso of the moody "Lady Grinning Soul" and the ear-worm blues riff of "The Jean Genie" -- to name a few. The 30th anniversary edition with the second CD of unreleased studio tracks and concert footage is well worth the extra money.

BLACK TIE WHITE NOISE (1993): Bowieheads may consider this to be my most unusual choice, but I dare you not to enjoy yourself with each and every track. The band and Rodgers help Bowie get his funk on (always a good time!). His 1992 marriage to Iman and the L.A. riots prove to be great inspirations for killer tunes. Just like LET'S DANCE and EARTHLING, there are many tracks here that will get you on the dance floor -- or at least doing your best moves in the privacy of your living room.

Bowie's top-25 songs

Twenty-five songs may seem excessive, but consider that Bowie wrote, co-wrote and recorded hundreds of songs over 50-plus years. Just like Elvis and The Beatles, it's easy to overlook gems in such a vast catalog of killer material.

These tunes -- all written completely by or at least co-written by the man himself -- aren't necessarily his greatest hits, but are songs I consider quintessential to the Bowie music experience. They show off his deft lyrical ability, his quirkines and the wide variety of genres he tackled in his compositions. And don't forget Bowie's vocal range and singing prowess. (Try singing along with "Golden Years" or "Young Americans" and you'll see what I mean!) DB could rock out with the best of them, yet sing the hell out of a ballad.

As classic as the studio recordings are, Bowie and his always impressive bands took most of these tunes to the next level in concert. I swear I think DB's goal was to make "Fame" funkier with each tour.

"Let's Dance"
"Suffragette City"
"Breaking Glass"
"Fashion"
"Life On Mars?"
"Drive-In Saturday"
"Young Americans"
"Golden Years"
"Absolute Beginners"
"All the Young Dudes" (technically a Mott the Hoople song, but still...!)
"Ziggy Stardust"
"The Secret Life of Arabia"
"Word on a Wing"
"Fame"
"The Man Who Sold the World"
"Jump They Say"
"Beauty and the Beast"
"Dancing with the Big Boys"
"Heroes"
"Blue Jean"
"Changes"
"Space Oddity"
"Loving the Alien"
"1984"
"The Jean Genie"

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