David Bowie

Few artists have had as great an impact on contemporary music as David Bowie. Especially during the ’70s, a decade that in many ways he defined, Bowie’s restless creativity spawned a series of vanguard albums that helped launch such movements as glam-rock, Euro-chic, and New Romanticism. Even as his peers picked up whatever mantel he presented them, Bowie was invariably off on a new path—ever the musical chameleon.
The influence of Bowie’s early work is incalculable, but it was only in the ’80s that he met with commensurate commercial success. Where previous albums had spawned the occasional hit single (most notably 1975’s “Fame”), 1983’s Let’s Dance provided plenty of worthy radio fodder. The nascent MTV generation rewarded Bowie with his first multi-platinum album, and he gradually settled into the role of one of rock’s elder statesman.
In tandem with his songwriting gifts, Bowie has always had a knack for bringing out the best in the guitarists he’s recruited to help shape his sound. From Mick Ronson to Earl Slick to Stevie Ray Vaughan and beyond, Bowie’s six-string sidemen have inspired future generations of players. For all these reasons and more, we wish Bowie a wonderfully happy 61st birthday. To commemorate the occasion, here’s a quick look at his most essential albums.

David Bowie as Ziggy StardustThe Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
With all respect due Marc Bolan, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is the album that most effectively ushered in the ’70s glam-rock movement. Putting aside its loosely conceived theme of the doomed messianic rock star, the 1972 release boasted a tapestry of soaring melodies, concise arrangements, and the searing guitarwork of Mick Ronson. Songs such as “Lady Stardust” and “Soul Love” showcased Bowie’s choirboy tenor, while “Moonage Daydream” and “Suffragette City” unleashed the inspired synergy of one of rock’s most exciting four-piece ensembles.

Upon its release in early 1977, this first installment of Bowie’s renowned “Berlin trilogy” confounded critics with its frenetic song sketches and instrumental mood pieces. In retrospect, however, the album is clearly one of the most personal works in the Bowie canon. Fragmentary compositions such as “Breaking Glass” and “Always Crashing in the Same Car” were in essence snapshots of Bowie’s then-fragile state of mind, while the pastoral beauty of “Warszawa” and “Subterraneans” amount to aural portraits of isolation.

Station to Station
Recorded while Bowie was living a harrowing, cocaine-fueled life in L.A., this 1976 release found Bowie transitioning from white-soul rocker to the brazen experimentalist who would soon emerge in Berlin. Songs such as “TVC15” and the title track synthesized Euro-chic and American disco, and underscored that hybrid with a solid rock foundation provided mostly by guitarist Earl Slick. The funky dance stomp, “Golden Years,” earned Bowie an appearance on "Soul Train"—the first by a white artist.

Hunky Dory
True to the hit single “Changes,” this 1971 release captured a pre-Ziggy Bowie donning a number of guises. “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Life On Mars?” sported transcendent pop melodies laced with cabaret flavors, while the acoustic ballads “Quicksand” and “Bewlay Brothers” were shrouded in mysteries derived partly from Bowie’s immersion in Buddhist philosophy. Bowie paid tribute to two prime influences with “Andy Warhol” and “A Song for Bob Dylan,” while the three-chord rocker “Queen Bitch” offered a sly wink to the Velvet Underground.

Young Americans
In one of his most unlikely stylistic detours, Bowie put aside his theatric inclinations for this 1975 release, and instead embraced an Anglo version of Philadelphia soul music. “Fame” and title track provided him with his first major American hits, while lesser-known songs such as “Win” and “Can You Hear Me” (which Bowie later performed as a duet with Cher constituted weird but wonderful excursions into silky R&B. The album was also notable for introducing singer Luther Vandross to mainstream audiences.

Scary Monsters
Fittingly, Bowie closed out the '70s with an album that slapped an emphatic exclamation mark on the work he had done to that point. His darkest album since 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World, this 1980 release framed themes of alienation in a cacophonous sound often powered by Robert Fripp’s sinewy, brittle-metal guitar style. Bowie alternately sounds desperate (“It’s No Game—Part 1”), disenchanted (“Ashes To Ashes”), resigned (“Because You’re Young”), and a bit crazed (“Scream Like a Baby”).

This 1977 effort found Bowie solidifying Low’s deliberately fragmented musical motifs into something more akin to conventional songs. Still, a sense of exploring new vistas permeates the disc, with tracks such as “Joe the Lion” and the title track layering Euro-industrial sonic textures into ambitious pop arrangements. While not as Spartan as its predecessor, the album approximated Low’s format by devoting nearly a full side to moody, Kraftwerk-inspired instrumentals.

Iggy Pop and David BowieLet’s Dance
Vast though his influence was, Bowie remained largely a cult figure in the U.S. throughout the ’70s. That changed dramatically with this 1983 release. Working with producer Nile Rodgers (mastermind behind the ’70s dance band, Chic), Bowie unfurled a highly stylized, post-disco sound while still managing to retain an artful substance. “Modern Love,” the title track, and “China Girl” (a song composed five years earlier with Iggy Pop helped vault a nascent MTV into prominence, while Bowie demonstrated his spot-on eye for talent by enlisting the guitar services of a then-little-known Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Bowie at the Beeb
This collection of live radio performances—which cover the period form 1968 to 1972—traces Bowie’s evolution from writer-performer of Anthony Newley-style showtunes to Dylan-esque folkie to Velvet Underground-inspired rocker. Some fans might be put off by the child-like whimsy of the earliest material, but those songs were the essential blueprints for the work to come. The addition of Mick Ronson (who makes his first appearance on this set during a February 1970 performance) proved transforming, as the late guitarist put muscle and energy in Bowie’s pop and cabaret tendencies.

Prior to its release in 1999, this comeback effort of sorts was hyped as a return to the simple charms of 1971’s Hunky Dory. The album wasn’t exactly that, but Hours… did present Bowie in a warmer, more intimate guise than his younger fans had come to expect. Ballads such as “Survive” and “Seven” came off as almost diary-esque, while rockers such as “What’s Really Happening?” and “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” found guitarist Reeves Gabrels reining in the six-string pyrotechnics in favor of subtlety and nuance.