Tomorrow – January 8th – would have been David Bowie’s 75th birthday.
It’s a moment to look back on his work, and celebrate the man’s life – an icon, a trailblazer, he left an almost incalculable impact on popular culture.
Amid the hit singles and seminal performances, however, lie some lesser-heralded gems – after all, with almost 30 studio albums to his name, only a select few will gain the headline slots.
So, a number of Clash writers got together to focus on Bowie’s slept-on moments, the albums that perhaps deserve a little more light shone upon them.
Here’s what we came up with.
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The number 13 is lucky for some but for David Bowie, luck wasn’t necessarily on his side when it came to the initial reception of ‘Lodger’ his 13th studio album. He was riding a strong wave with the two preceding albums and it was the final release of the Berlin trilogy which had included 1977’s ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’. ‘Lodger’ saw Bowie explore genres like art rock, new wave and experimental rock.
To many this collection of songs was a brave move by Bowie, but to others it was a step too far into incoherence which included a slightly baffling running order which was not in keeping with the singles released which included ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ which reached number seven in the UK charts. The album attained a top four position in the UK charts and only reached 20th place in the Billboard chart in America.
‘Lodger’ is an album that is somewhat all over the place, but it also feels raw, authentic, exciting and progressive.
Thematically, ‘Lodger’ is centered around two primary themes: travel and Bowles’s opinions of Western civilisation. Upon first listen, ‘Lodger’ does feel like a journey through uncharted lands but over time it starts to feel somewhat familiar and certainly more accessible.
Whilst initially, ‘Lodger’ didn’t receive entirely positive feedback and it was considered to be the weakest of the Berlin Trilogy, over time the love and gratitude for this album has grown. It is now widely considered to be among Bowie’s most underrated albums – and I have to agree with this sentiment. It’s experimental for sure, but it is also daring and bold and provides an endearing and fascinating insight into Bowie’s bold transition into the 80s.
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‘Tin Machine II’
Unwanted by EMI, beset by daft artwork controversy due to the presence of stone penises, physically out of print for well over a decade (until a 2020 reissue) and still not available to stream digitally, Tin Machine II feels like a lost Bowie album.
Some might say that’s for the best – Dave’s just-a-guy-in-a-band years have long been an easy punchline – but this second and final Tin Machine record is far better than its reputation suggests. Positioned awkwardly between the all-the-hits Sound+Vision tour and the start of his 90s creative renaissance proper, ‘Tin Machine II’ was the wrong album at the wrong time for many. And yet, you can audibly hear Bowie starting to rediscover his creative mojo after the disastrous ‘Tonight’ and ‘Never Let Me Down’.
Opener ‘Baby Universal’ is fierce and thrilling, a clear predecessor of tracks like 1: Outside’s ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ and Earthling’s ‘Little Wonder’. ‘Amlapura’ and ‘Shopping For Girls’ hint at the more socially conscious themes he would wrangle with in his later albums. The latter, especially, also has a terrific vocal performance and a memorable guitar hook, courtesy of Reeves Gabrels, whose work adds an unpredictable edge to the album. ‘Goodbye Mr. Ed’ is a genuinely lovely closer that later became the band’s epitaph when Bowie called time on the project. A good chunk of the other tracks – ‘You Belong In Rock N Roll’, ‘You Can’t Talk’ and ‘Betty Wrong’ particularly – are perfectly decent songs, usually elevated by either an engaging vocal or a bracing guitar solo.
Few would claim that it’s a true lost classic – the presence of the irredeemably corny ‘Stateside’ and, fucking hell, ‘Sorry’ (both written or co-written by drummer Hunt Sales) instantly nuke that prospect – but there is good stuff here. Listened to now, it feels like stumbling across a hidden stash of Bowie songs that most have either forgotten or have never heard at all.
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If you’re looking for incontrovertible proof that David Bowie was ahead of his time, consider that his 1999 album for Virgin, ‘Hours’, was originally recorded to accompany a computer game with a name very similar to the viral variant playing havoc with our contemporary lives – Omikron: The Nomad Soul. If that seems a bit of a stretch of prescience, even for Bowie, perhaps focus instead on the fact that ‘Hours’ was the first album by an artist of his stature to be offered up as a download before a physical product was put into circulation.
‘Hours’ was the last album Bowie would work on with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, who he had collaborated with since assembling a new arrangement of ‘Look Back In Anger’ for a performance at London’s ICA in 1988. Far less experimental and esoteric than his writing across the 1990s, the sessions for ‘Hours’ that took place in London, Bermuda and New York found Bowie relaxed and collaborative, but disagreements with Gabrels over the album’s direction undoubtedly hastened their separation.
If ‘Hours’ met with a slightly quizzical reaction from the critics compared to the albums that preceded and followed it (‘Earthling’ and ‘Heathen’ respectively), the record contains more than its fair share of Bowie gold-dust. ‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ (a nod to his old pal Iggy Pop’s Stooges-era ‘Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell’) captures the insistent white light / white heat of some of his urgent punk- anticipating glam material, ‘Brilliant Adventure’ recalls the understated instrumentals from the ‘Low’ era, and the angular shapes and oblique lyrics of ‘What’s Really Happening?’ exudes an art-rock / art- pop sensibility that Bowie had ruled over unchallenged for so much of his career.
A mangled, strained optimism could be found on the love song centrepiece ‘Something In The Air’, which would, in remixed form, find a perfectly unsettling, chilling and strangely logical place on the soundtrack to Mary Herron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ ‘American Psycho’.
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The beautifully baffling and overreaching concept album released in 1995 is perhaps Bowie’s most slept on record. The concept of the album came about in the most wonderful of ways, after Q Magazine asked Bowie to write a ten-day diary, he quickly shrugged off the idea and decided instead to write a diary of the fictional Nathan Adler, a non-linear Gothic Drama. The album is a conceptual cocktail of creative genius: The intrusive spoken monologues, the jury-rigged cybernoir narrative and the cleverly crafted characters all serve to make it one of Bowies most ambitious releases.
The criminally underrated release is presented in novella form, detailing a delightfully ambitious sci-fi plot. ‘Outside’ marked the reconnection of Bowie and Brian Eno, who had not worked with each other since the late 1970s. The standout release has strong smatterings of ‘Diamond Dogs’, taking place in what feels like a claustrophobic London, a deeply uncomfortable setting of post-apocalyptic anxiety. In 2016, one day after Bowie’s death, Eno recalled:
“About a year ago we started talking about ‘Outside’ – the last album we worked on together. We both liked that album a lot and felt that it had fallen through the cracks. We talked about revisiting it, taking it somewhere new. I was looking forward to that.”
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‘The Next Day’
Now, considering the music world – hell, the world in general – lost their collective minds when Bowie returned after a decade of near inactivity, this penultimate album may seem an odd choice. Bear with us. Rumblings of a big Bowie announcement were happening in the music industry in early January of that year, with grim guesses and ‘leaked’ reports declaring ill health. Had his 70s era excess finally got him? After all, he’d stopped performing due to heart issues back in 2005.
Understandably, all of this is now made eerier with the Starman’s actual passing around the same date three years later. Ever one to blindside fans, single ‘Where Are We Now’ was dropped on his 66th birthday (8 January 2013) along with the announcement that ‘The Next Day’ would be arriving in March. Featuring a melancholic and frail sounding Bowie reminiscing on his Berlin days, the lead single added more fuel to the fire that this was his swansong.
Now we know 2016’s ‘Blackstar’ would take that title. A beautifully timed and judged goodbye that saw the Thin White Duke leave on an artistic high while breaking new ground. Such was the shock and awe of his passing two days after its release that now, nearly nine years on, ‘The Next Day’ has become somewhat neglected. After all, we remember how he suddenly left us, and his 1971-83 run is a peerless legacy constantly revisited by old and new fans. However, ‘The Next Day’ remains a potent reminder of Bowie’s genius and unpredictability.
Over its fourteen tracks, an older but no less muscular-sounding Bowie examines his legacy with trademark wit and wonder. Rather than trying to relive his iconic glam period or 80s pop stardom, ‘The Next Day’ sees the songwriter play with his whole toybox of previous styles to serve a smörgåsbord of fun. With ‘Where Are We Now’ baiting listeners into expecting a sad crooner album, the opening three songs bring out the sass for some art-rock stompers. After a clutch of somewhat tepid albums, it was a thrilling delight to see Ziggy himself grab some sax, synths, and slinky guitars and create music to get down to.
Numbers such as ‘Love Is Lost’ embraced Bowie’s weirdness with its gothic organ and whacked out rhythms while ‘Valentine’s Day’ had the space oddity go full Spider’s From Mars era without embarrassing himself. In short, ‘The Next Day’ is a victory lap. It sees Bowie reminding the world why we fell in love with him in the first place while, for once, embracing his past rather than running from it.
It’s a late-career gem and the best thing he’d done in easily two decades.
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