Every David Bowie Album Ranked From “Worst” To Best
There are no bad albums in Bowie's catalogue - but that doesn't mean there are no clear winners.
Let’s be clear from the outset: David Bowie never released a single bad album.
The man was a chameleon, each of his records serving as experiments in how far one could push the boundaries of a pop persona. It’s definitely true that some of those experiments paid off more than others. But over the course of his five decades in music, Bowie never sat still or went for the easy goal.
He was a singularly driven man, forever trying new things, even if they were unfashionable. As a result, his back catalogue is littered with surprises, rather than any outright failures.
Of course, that’s not to mention the litany of successes. There is perhaps no other modern pop songwriter who produced as much truly, earth-shatteringly great music as Bowie. For years, his was an impeccable track record, moving from one high to the next with an ease that made everyone else look practically comatose.
Which is all to say, organising and ranking David Bowie records is a doomed exercise — they’re all good, none of them are bad, and I could wake up tomorrow and re-order this list pretty much at random. But that’s the joy of such rankings: being forced into making agonising decisions that you regret as soon as you settle on. And reckoning with one of the most impressive and strange catalogues in all of music, album by album.
Here then is the complete list of full-length David Bowie studio albums, ranked.
#27. Tin Machine II
Tin Machine, the band that Bowie briefly led for two years in the late ’80s, was something of an escape plan. Bowie was sick of being Bowie — sick of the baggage that came along with being the man who wrote ‘Life On Mars?’ — and so he used the rock group in an attempt to obscure and sidestep his own legacy.
It didn’t exactly work. Tin Machine II still sounds quintessentially Bowie, down to the high, arch vocals to the flirty chorus of ‘You Belong in Rock ‘n’ Roll’. But there’s just something missing, a certain energy and integrity. By the time its 13 tracks are over, listeners will walk away with the distinct sense that they have been cheated, somehow. And you can’t say that about literally any other Bowie record.
#26. Pin Ups
Pin Ups barely even counts as a David Bowie record. A collection of covers, the thing is absent of the musician’s usual charm and energy. No wonder that critics of the time savaged it, comparing Bowie’s versions unfavourably to the originals: his take on The Yardbirds’ ‘I Wish You Would’ might hold the distinction of being the most anodyne song to ever be released under his name.
But hey, it’s not all bad. A cover of Jacques Brel’s ‘Port of Amsterdam’ resounds with fire and fury, while Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’ is given the appropriately whimsical treatment. It’s just mostly filler, not very much killer.
#25. David Bowie
The world was officially introduced to David Bowie with ‘Uncle Arthur’, the very first song off his very first album. And boy, what an introduction. A dizzyingly strange song about a man who reads comics and “follows Batman“, the thing’s a disjointed, keening piece of absurdity, the kind of whimsy you’d expect to catch soundtracking a Saturday morning cartoon.
Then things get even weirder. ‘Come and Buy My Toys’ is a Donovan rip-off, ‘Love You Till Tuesday’ is a string-laden catastrophe, and ‘Maid of Bond Street’ is an almost two-minute long string of puns. The roots of Bowie’s eclectic style and desire to keep things weird are both here. It’s just bizarrely saccharine and toothless. Consider it a run-up to future glories, rather than an all-out success itself.
#24. Space Oddity
Bowie’s early work often hovers thrillingly on the border between ingenuity and kitschy, reductive novelty. Honestly, Space Oddity is the album that walks that line the most clumsily: for every ‘Space Oddity’ there is a ‘God Knows I’m Good’, the inspired often rubbing against the off-puttingly tricksy and artificial.
Then there’s ‘Cygnet Committee’, the diamond in the rough. The almost ten-minute long song nestles in the middle of the record like a snake in the bracken, worming around a repeated chorus as Bowie’s voice rises and falls like it’s intoning curses. It’s one of the true masterpieces of his very early career, and elevates what might otherwise be an irritatingly confused collection of aborted attempts.
#23. Never Let Me Down
These days, Never Let Me Down is probably best known as the record that spawned the Glass Spider Tour, Bowie’s huge string of shows that combined his greatest hits with kitsch theatricality. That’s unfortunate. Never Let Me Down is bigger and better than its reputation might suggest, a thrilling collection of saxophone solos and colourful choruses.
‘Time Will Crawl’ is the man’s attempt to make an all-out, late ’90s banger, and it rules — drenched in screams and a back-and-forth piano riff, it sounds like no other song from the era. Don’t let the naysayers turn you off. This is a mini-masterpiece, well deserving your attention.
Hours was a forward-thinking album in exactly one way: it was the first major label record ever released first over the internet, the digital download proceeding the physical release by a whole week. By contrast, the songs themselves are oddly nostalgic, layered in thick, reverb-heavy production and sanded flat of the experimentation of Bowie’s work in the ’70s and ’80s.
Which is not to say that it’s bad. Far from it. Opening track ‘Thursday’s Child’ is Bowie’s take on easy-listening, while ‘The Dreamers’ sounds like an ornate queen-sized bed getting pushed down a flight of marble stairs. It’s just thoroughly anachronistic, a return to the sheen and humour of his debut, and a rare backtrack from an artist who mostly only ever pressed forward.
Unlike the musicians he rose up alongside in the ’60s, Bowie showed a rare interest in the contemporary as he got older. His records of the 2000s show a fascinating willingness to learn; to listen. Just take Reality. A layered and shimmering take on the Britpop and electro that was becoming ever more popular around him, it’s the sound of an old dog learning very new tricks, and pushing the understanding of what pop could do in the process.
Which makes it even weirder that the record contains not one but two nostalgic covers, including a version of The Modern Lovers’ classic ‘Pablo Picasso.’ Is there any popstar that contains more multitudes than David Bowie?
#20. Let’s Dance
Years after its release, Bowie would dismiss Let’s Dance as being Phil Collins’ fault — his own empty attempt to ape the music of the one-time Genesis bandmember. And sure, in terms of its pop culture reputation, the record is probably best known for its titular single, a work of springy pop with a music video shot in a rural NSW bar.
But both Bowie and the critical consensus frequently get Let’s Dance wrong. No simple grab-bag of singles, it is instead the sound of a musician swirling themselves in cloaks of production, creating something echoey, sexy and strange, like an orgy in a church. ‘China Girl’ is one of the most intoxicating songs of Bowie’s career — and that’s not even to mention the perennially underrated ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire).’
#19. Tin Machine
To say that the first Tin Machine record caught Bowie fans unaware might even be an understatement. A hard rock group that Bowie formed in the late ’80s in an attempt to throw even his most fervent admirers off his tail, the band combined scuzzy blues with deranged, sun-baked rock’n’roll. Bowie was also clearly trying to use the project to do less as a songwriter: though he has sole writing credits on a number of songs across the first Tin Machine record, he handed over more creative control than ever before to bandmember Reeves Gabrels, best known for being a one-time member of The Cure.
As a result, the record is a thrilling push-and-pull game, as the Bowie that fans will know pokes his head up through Tin Machine only occasionally. It’s very odd, of course, but far more entertaining than critics of the time would have you believe. Opening track ‘Heaven’s in Here’ is B.B. King all churned up and spat back out again, while the band’s take on John Lennon classic ‘Working Class Hero’ is admirably bugnuts.
After years in the experimental wilderness, with Lodger, Bowie tried to contort himself back into regular song structures once more. He wasn’t entirely successful. Although the album is free of the instrumentals that had come to define his Berlin years, it’s still ultra fucking weird, rolling around in excess like a pig cooling itself down in a mud bath.
Weirder still is the album’s eventual legacy. Though reviled when it first came out, Lodger went on to bolster the obsessions and interests of the Britpop era. Blur owe their entire sound to the exploding choruses of ‘Fantastic Voyage’ and ‘Look Back in Anger’. Somehow, the album that pop rejected like a virus went on to inspire some of the biggest British acts of the next decade. Like I said: weird.
#17. Black Tie White Noise
Black Tie White Noise might be Bowie’s most pained and autobiographical record after Blackstar. Which is surprising, given that its surfaces are glossy and thin. But that’s the double feint of the thing — it’s a horror show slathered in velvet and wailing keyboard solos, an artist hiding their most pained secrets in plain sight.
The summation of that style? ‘Jump They Say’, a song inspired by the hip hop that Bowie’s son Duncan Jones loved, as well as the suicide of Bowie’s own step-brother Terry. “They say he has no eyes,” Bowie intones, the song breaking itself down into its most essential parts around him. Critics at the time weren’t quite ready for it, but these days Black Tie White Noise sounds downright ground-breaking.
Once, many years ago, when I interviewed a cult Australian musician who was taking part in a David Bowie tribute night, I mentioned that you could pick any Bowie record as your favourite and it’d make sense. The musician scoffed. “Not bullshit like Tonight,” he said, laughing rudely. To which I say: rubbish. Sure, Tonight is a left-of-field David Bowie pick, but it is as rich with sensuality and intelligence as almost anything else that the musician ever recorded.
Take ‘Loving The Alien’, a seven-minute long ballad that recycles the opening strains of ‘China Girl’ and combines them with the sensuality of his work in the early ’80s. Or how about ‘Dancing with the Big Boys’, the wet-lipped and homoerotic final track that sends things swerving right into the territory of high camp. Snoots might have rude things to say about Tonight, but they ignore this record at their own risk.
After the chaotic experimentation of 1. Outside (more on that later), Bowie seemed ready to take on the mantle of the King of Pop once again — kind of. A combination of the rich vein of American throwback pop he had previously explored on Young Americans with a new “scary magician” visual look Bowie was pioneering, Earthling is an avant-garde wolf in upbeat clothing.
It shouldn’t work, of course. But somehow it does, switching between abstract horror and glistening electro beats at the drop of a red velvet hat. And then there’s ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, a caustic scream against the machine of imperialism that might be the musician’s best song of the ’90s.
Thirty years into his career, you would have forgiven Bowie if he had wanted to drop something a little lazy; a retread of past glories. Instead, the man came up with Heathen, an astonishingly inventive work of slow motion art that oscillates between the sped-up mania of ‘I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship’ and the wave of molasses that is ‘Sunday’.
And that’s not even to mention his take on the Black Francis classic ‘Cactus’, an explosion of art rock nonsense that takes the loud quiet loud style of the Pixies’ frontman to its natural conclusion. It’s astonishingly odd, and deserves to be talked about a great deal more than it ever is.
#13. Scary Monsters…..and Super Creeps
Scary Monsters‘ place in the canon is assured by ‘Ashes to Ashes’, a work of self-mythologising genius that sees David Bowie peel back his own metaphors and reveal exactly what was going on with Major Tom of ‘Space Oddity’. But that song and ‘Fashion’ aside, Scary Monsters might be Bowie’s vaguest and most knotted work, a series of subdued songs of heartbreak that fold into one another almost imperctibly.
The result is a record that draws almost no attention to itself whatsoever; a work of art that will slink into the background if you let it. But that’s not a bad thing. Sure, Scary Monsters‘ pleasures are subtle, but that makes them so much more rewarding when you finally pin them down. ‘Kingdom Come’ will give out whatever you bring to it. All you have to do is listen.
It’s odd that “Heroes” is sometimes considered one of the most accessible records of Bowie’s Berlin period. Sure, ‘Heroes’ is an all-time great pop song, this rich testament to the power of the human spirit when placed under pressure. But the rest of the record is far from open and easy. On ‘Sons of the Silent Age’, Bowie affects a singing style that makes it sound as though he is sneering at his listeners, while ‘Sense of Doubt’ builds up like an anti-depressant in your liver.
And sure, Bowie’s other Berlin records are more successful. But precisely in its hostile, threatening nature, “Heroes” reveals its ugly pleasures. Even as it pushes you away, you can’t help but find yourself wanting more.
#11. Diamond Dogs
A glam take on George Orwell’s paranoid classic 198, Diamond Dogs marries the horrendous ugly of fascism with the sequinned joy of rock’n’roll. The result: the closest that David Bowie ever came to releasing a concept record, and an album that tries to transform a novel about rats eating off people’s faces into the kind of thing that you can dance to.
And somehow, against the odds, Bowie succeeds. ‘Candidate’ is a political flyer drenched in blood, while ‘Big Brother’ goes full musical in its explication of the creeping threat of dystopian governments. In our troubled era of surveillance and deep state government, Dogs feels like a glaring spotlight, trained right on the forces that have us subjugated. Drink up every last note of the thing.
#10. Hunky Dory
Few albums ever written open with as outstanding a run as Hunky Dory: ‘Changes’ fades into ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ which explodes into ‘Eight Line Poem’ before crashing into ‘Life On Mars?’ It’s the string of songs that turned David Bowie from a hitmaker into an all-time great musician; a man with the energy and capacity to forever change pop.
And that’s not even to get into the record’s back half. ‘Andy Warhol’ is a beating heart’s worth of love and empathy; ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ is a cascading serve of sleaze; and ‘The Belway Brothers’ emerges out of the rubble with a mad glint in its eye. Hunky Dory is the summation of an entire way of making art. On the CV of pretty much any other artist, it would be the greatest accomplishment. So take it as a sign of Bowie’s genius that it’s not even in his top five.
#9. The Next Day
The cover for The Next Day is enjoyably sacrilegious: it’s the image that once adorned “Heroes”, but this time with a great, big white square cut out of the middle of it. The album’s theme is thus established from the very outset — this will be a popstar pulling apart their own legacy, salvaging the past for scraps and dispatching with that they have lost interest in.
The penultimate record of any great artist tends to be forgotten, as a general rule. But that doesn’t mean that The Next Day being quite so underrated is any easier to take. Sure, Blackstar is a masterpiece. But The Next Day is thrilling, bizarre, and beautiful in its own way too.
Outside, AKA 1. Outside, AKA Outside (The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-cycle) is a big, bloated attempt at world-building. Obviously inspired by the gothic fiction and sci fi that David Bowie had loved since adolescence — Gormenghast and the work of George Orwell, most obviously — the thing is 19 tracks of souped-up dance and electro. ‘A Small Plot of Land’ is a skittering car crash; ‘No Control’ is a nu-metal adjacent superhero theme; and ‘The Motel’ is ten miles of bad road.
A lot of the record’s strange, abstract textures presumably belong to Brian Eno, who co-wrote many of the songs, and whose shadowy marks are left all over the proceedings. In that way, it’s an indication of the fascinating things Bowie was capable of when he handed over at least some of the reins to a collaborator — proof positive that the man worked magic even when there was someone else present to tamper out his most oversized ideas.
#7. The Man Who Sold The World
It’s Kurt Cobain who made the titular song famous, recording an acoustic version on his beloved MTV Unplugged appearance. But while Cobain’s rendition is pained, Bowie’s version is downright terrifying, loping into your ears from the opposite side of the room, and doing something awful to you in the process.
Same goes with the rest of the record. It’s an album that won’t stop checking that all the windows in the house are locked, full of a fitful energy and convinced that the worst rumours about itself are true. ‘The Supermen’ plays with the fascism latent in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, and ‘Savior Machine’ makes a joke of empathy, valorising the cruelest intentions of humankind. No wonder it doesn’t get talked about it much — saying its name out loud feels like inviting something deadly into your bed.
#6. Young Americans
Weirdly enough, the one artist who truly gets the agony lying at the heart of Young Americans is Danish auteur Lars Von Trier. The hostile filmmaker behind such gruelling works of art as Antichrist and Breaking The Waves used the titular song to score the end credits sequences of his films Dogville and Manderlay, overlaying Bowie’s nostalgic blues on top of images of American horror and suffering, ranging from poverty in New York to records of the Transatlantic slave trade.
Von Trier’s point: underneath the brash and exuberant textures of the song is a sentiment Bowie would later express in ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, a fear of progress and a sinking feeling that the country is leading the world into ruin. In the age of coronavirus, that is clearer than ever, elevating Young Americans above being simply a collection of great pop songs, and turning it into a comment on our distinctly fucked, capitalistic nightmare.
By the mid ’70s, David Bowie was strung out and paranoid. Convinced that witches were attempting to steal his semen and use it to raise the devil’s son, he subsisted on nothing but milk, red capsicums, and a great deal of cocaine. Which is why it’s fascinating that his best album from that period, the lopsided Low, is deeply open-hearted and kind. Made by a man who saw hell and damnation in the faces around him, Low is a work of surprising life and wit.
‘A New Career in a New Town’, the howling of a lone dog, makes beauty out of pain, while even the stretched-out and thin ‘Warszawa’ has its arms wide open. No musician has ever been in such a bad place and made a record quite so uplifting. Which is just one of the countless magic tricks that Bowie would pull over the course of his career.
Bowie’s death was crushing for a host of reasons, obviously. But one of them was the timing of the passing. To longtime fans, the album that he was dropping singles from right up until his death, Blackstar, seemed like a brand new phase in his career — a thrilling period of reinvention that saw the man coat the skeletons in his closet with an array of jewels and a layer of gold leaf.
A single like ‘Lazarus’ could only be made by a musician drawing energy from their past while preparing to propel themselves into the future, and it seemed as though there would be a great deal more masterworks to come. Instead, before the music video for that song was even released, Bowie was dead. And in the aftermath of that passing, the opening line of ‘Lazarus’ seemed more cutting and devastating than ever: “Look up here man, I’m in heaven.”
But even if Blackstar wasn’t the last record David Bowie ever released — even if he dropped a dozen more; even if he was still with us today — it would still be a masterwork. It feeds off the context of its sick and dying creator, but it’s not defined by those contingent facts. Instead, it’s an all-time great look at mortality and pain; a trembling cry, cutting up into the air. It’ll live forever.
#3. Aladdin Sane
“Time is waiting in the wings,” David Bowie howls on ‘Time’, singing like a blindfolded man awaiting the crack of the firing squad’s guns. Of course, the man had all the time in the world — he wrote Aladdin Sane while in his new position as a genuine, internationally-renowned superstar. Anyone else might have relaxed, or allowed themselves to rest on their own laurels a little bit. Instead, Bowie panicked.
Even on the record’s more upbeat tracks, ‘The Jean Genie’ and ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ amongst them, he still sounds like a man possessed, walking awkward circles in his bedroom while shadows amass behind the door. And then there’s the true nightmares, from the giddy sci fi horror of ‘Drive-In Saturday’ to the erosion of the mind plastered all over the album’s title track.
Don’t let the pun of the title, nor its iconic cover, nor the sheer exuberance of the production throw you off. This whole record stinks with an almost Lovecraftian fear, weighed down by the knowledge that all that fame and success and beauty means nothing when you’re facing down the great gaping maw of death. Let it overwhelm you.
#2. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Song for song, there’s no pop record more perfect than Ziggy Stardust. Of course, all the classics are untouchable — ‘Starman’, a thrilling song to the stars; ‘Sufragette City’, with its pummelling chorus about empowerment and freedom; ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, the last word on the myth of self-destructive pop icons. But even the songs that don’t get quite the same airtime rattle with a singular intelligence and energy.
‘Five Years’, a document of a world on the brink of total collapse, pulls a post-modern perspective switch halfway through that should be studied in schools for decades to come, while the “church of man love” nestled in the centre of ‘Moonage Daydream’ is one of the most towering testaments to the beauty of queer sex in the modern pop canon.
Which is just the thing. Sure, Ziggy Stardust is ostensibly the story of an alien coming to Earth and burning out. But the record’s true magic is that it’s about no one thing. It’s a mosaic, a kaleidoscope, and whichever part of its glimmering surface you want to focus on will tell you an entirely different story. It’s one of the defining artworks of the 20th century, and we should kneel before it at prayer every goddamn day.
#1. Station To Station
What to make of a record like Station To Station? It’s not a collection of songs, it’s a freight train loaded up with razor blades making a hard left; it’s not a pop record, it’s an entire way of life. Each phase of Bowie’s career is contained here, in microcosm, from the abrasive experimentation of the opening and titular track, to the jazzy sexuality of ‘Golden Years’ to the doomed romanticism of ‘Wild Is The Wind.’
But the album doesn’t work as well when pulled apart. Rather than trying to dissect the thing like a frog in a high school science classroom, it’s much better to put it on and let it happen to you; to be overwhelmed by the capacity for reinvention and change demonstrated by one of our era’s most important artists. Only then does the totality of Bowie snap into focus, his sheer ambition made clear by the number of styles and textures that he nails here, almost without trying.
For a few years after Bowie dropped Station To Station, he used to open his sets with its first track, ‘Station To Station’, and close his sets with its last, ‘Wild Is The Wind’. And that’s still how it sounds: the man’s first and last desires are all contained here, his whole life laid out like he’s writing a roadmap to his own soul. To borrow a turn of phrase from another chameleonic popstar, it’s not the record of the decade. It’s the record of a life.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.