January 29th, 2024
Art rock, pop, experimental, glam rock and electronic, David Bowie covered it all and had one of the longest creative streaks in musical history. Fitting then, that we celebrate his extensive vinyl catalogue and enduring legacy, with a list of his 30 greatest albums ever.
Leading the proceedings is our resident Bowie expert David Perry, Senior Buyer at Rough Trade and member of the most exciting Bowie tribute band in London, Cats From Japan. Let the countdown commence…
Don’t miss our Bowie Deep Cuts playlist on Spotify.
David Bowie spent two prolific years in Berlin’s Schöneberg district in the 1970s where he recorded three albums known as the Berlin trilogy (Low, Heroes and Lodger).
There is much to explore in the thrilling, adventurous sound of European music which inspired one of Bowie’s most creative period and here to help you take a closer look are two fantastically curated Ace Records compilations: Cafe Exil – ‘New Adventures In European Music 1972 – 1980 and Fantastic Voyage – New Sounds for the European Canon 1977-1981, now reissued on Rough Trade Exclusive vinyl.
Compiled by Bob Stanley and Jason Wood, Cafe Exil (named after one of Bowie’s favourite Berlin haunts) imagines the soundtrack that would have informed the Berlin trilogy. An awesome mix of electronica, Krautrock, and experimental treats inspired by Bowie and Iggy Pop’s relocation from LA to continental Europe. One of our Compilations of the Year 2020.
The companion album to the Cafe Exil collection. Fantastic Voyage explores what happened next, a picture of the impact of Bowie’s groundbreaking Berlin recordings and how his futuristic production influenced music across Europe.
@roughtradeuk “I’m not a prophet or a stone aged man, just a mortal with potential of a superman. I’m living on.” The best of @David Bowie in 10 albums? No problem. Check out our list of one of music’s most enduring stars and shout us your faves in the comments. #fy #fyp #davidbowie #roughtrade #recordstore #vinyl #vinyltok #topten #starman ♬ Star (2012 Remaster) – David Bowie
Hard to believe, but having passed through the eye of pop stardom, 1989 Bowie was so disenchanted with music that he considered turning to painting full time. Tin Machine was his response to this dire situation and to be honest, there’s very little to enjoy about this record at all. You can dredge the early version of I Can’t Read, or the still fairly average single Prisoner of Love. The good news is that this is as bad as it gets and so many artists never even get this good.
Top tracks: I Can’t Read, Prisoner of Love
Hidden in the vault for 20 years and finally out as part of Brilliant Adventure, there’s a chilling reason it was bumped off the schedule and followed by the far superior Heathen – it’s not that great. Some gems in the muck (Shadow Man, Conversation Piece) but the final album here is messy and over-cooked in a band setting (The London Boys, Let Me Sleep Beside You) Having said that, it’ll be interesting to see what the stripped down mix promised on the January Toy box set sounds like.
Top tracks: Shadow Man, Can’t Help Thinking About Me
hours… has aged a hell of a lot better than a lot of pop rock of that period (somewhere you won’t need to go to enjoy this one – believe me). Bowie dialled back the weird he’d accrued across festival pleasers 1. Outside and Earthling and placing himself back in the mainstream as an elder statesman: a role he’d pick up and improve with Heathen a couple of years later. Anime Dad brought his songwriting B game for the most part with the exception of saucy rocker The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell and moody closer The Dreamers.
Top tracks: The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell, The Dreamers
Released shortly after Sgt. Pepper which busily rebuilt the world in it’s own image, this chirpy collection of juvenile pop isn’t as bad as people would make out. Plenty of worse albums get much better press. Love You Til Tuesday, She’s Got Medals and the creepy Please Mr. Gravedigger keep the flag flying here. Remember, people have spent the last 50 plus years lionising The Who‘s debut, which wasn’t that much better than this.
Top tracks: She’s Got Medals, Please Mr. Gravedigger
Not normally classed as a proper Bowie album as Trevor Jones’ excellent score takes half the record – but our list, our rules. Outside of the cheesy banger Magic Dance (Bowie makes the baby gurgles as clearly no baby could do it well enough), Bowie’s contributions are top drawer and don’t get the love they deserve. The vocal turn at the end of Within You is simply breathtaking, much like the tight lederhosen on display in the film itself. Careful, you could have someone’s eye out with that.
Top tracks: As The World Falls Down, Within You
Some albums deserve a good thrashing, some albums just a gentle ticking off, NLMD falls into the latter camp. Front loaded with decent 80s singles Day-in Day-Out, Time Will Crawl and the title track – but with a second side you could legitimately improve by dragging a nail across it, it’s the dictionary definition of patchy. He gifted Tina Turner the excellent Girls around this time (it’s featured on the Japanese edition) a song this finished album desperately needs and period B side Julie was no slouch either. C+ could do better, see me after class etc.
Top tracks: Time Will Crawl, Day-In Day Out
Finally some respite. Overlooked at the time, a soundtrack project album unfairly sandwiched between two slightly better albums Black Tie White Noise and 1.Outside, The Buddha of Suburbia has lots going for it and thankfully it’s available on vinyl again as part the Brilliant Adventure box. He’s dipping back into the past here, with Low-esque instrumental pieces (The Mysteries, Ian Fish UK Heir) clash with classic revisits (The title track echoes Space Oddity and After All from Man Who Sold The World) and some funky Black Tie White Noise styled workouts. Underrated and under-appreciated, change that by listening and loving.
Top tracks: The Buddha of Suburbia, Sex And The Church
A slight backwards step before his lengthy public hiatus, Reality found Heathen‘s touring band thrust back into the studio and grinding gears on a mixed bag of covers and arena ready writing almost directly aping Heathen but with a detectable dip in quality. Bring Me The Disco King finally sees the light of day having been attempted for both Black Tie White Noise and 1. Outside sessions. Seek the version from the Underworld soundtrack for arguably it’s best realisation though.
Top tracks: Looking For Water, Bring Me The Disco King
Nile Rodgers returns to helm the desk for an album that was written with the commercial success of Let’s Dance clearly visible in it’s rearview mirror. Get past the (actually fairly cloying) production and it’s so much more than a commercial piece – there’s real depth to the original writes (You’ve Been Around please take a bow) and the covers are on point, with the Walker Brothers‘ Nite Flights, Cream’s I Feel Free and Morrissey‘s Bowie pastiche I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday all given spirited goings over. This is much more like it, a real diggers pick. Again available once more on Brilliant Adventure, thank you capitalism.
Top tracks: You’ve Been Around, Nite Flights
Significant improvements in writing for the second Tin Machine album – too bad the project’s cards were already marked by this point, it’s sub-objective of re-engaging Bowie with his audience complete. Excellent 2 chord wonder You Belong In Rock and Roll is very clearly the standout, but Roxy Cover If There Was Something and Shopping For Girls didn’t come here to play either, even if the album sags a bit at the end you can forgive it a bit after all that excitement – it needs a sit down. Bowie’s almost back to full power here: the sentiment arguably as exciting as the record itself.
Top tracks: You Belong In Rock N’ Roll, If There is Something
Slight and rush recorded far too soon after Let’s Dance dominated 1983, another Bowie album suffering by comparison. Take away the top drawer singles Loving The Alien and Blue Jean there’s less here than there should be, but have the people who slate this album dug deep enough? Admittedly there’s more cod reggae here than you could wave a trawler at, but the icy and muscular take on Neighbourhood Threat needs instant reappraisal – and having Tina Turner duet on the title track saves it from the jaws of defeat by amping up the star power.
Top tracks: Loving The Alien, Neighbourhood Threat
Knockabout and fun covers record, blitzed out in time for Christmas 1973 – keeping the Beatles Red and Blue comps off the top spot that year. Suck on that Fab Four. Every song here has the Spiders From Mars swagger (all Spiders apart from Woody feature). Not top of the tree by for this period by any stretch, but it kept the momentum up between Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs. Highlights all over the gaff but special treat here is Don’t Bring Me Down, the band firing on all cylinders on a Pretty Things song that suits them to the ground.
Top tracks: See Emily Play, Don’t Bring Me Down
A sidestep from the alternative sheen of the proceeding 1. Outside, Bowie crashes the drum and bass party with on the whole excellent results. Little Wonder and I’m Afraid Of Americans obviously bang very hard on an album that has switches between crunchy alternative rock and crisp d’n’b, proving that artistic re-invention wouldn’t be a thing we’d be waving goodbye to just yet.
Top tracks: Dead Man Walking, Battle For Britain (the Letter)
Regal later period work: Bowie’s mojo fully restored. Putting aside good but quite straight covers of solid Neil Young, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy and The Pixies, the Bowie compositions here benefit from returning Tony Visconti’s production. Visconti would righfully remain at the mixing desk for the rest of Bowie’s career. Slip Away and Slow Burn both 10/10 writes, with 5.15 The Angels Have Gone not too far off the pace.
Top tracks: Cactus, Slip Away
The Next Day‘s surprise release and tearjerking lead track Where Are We Now? aren’t the only things to take away from this record. A bravura performance in modern rock, if anything it has too much to give: Stuffed to the gills at 14 tracks. This would be the the last time Bowie would reference his old work (You Feel So Lonely You Could Die) and the Berlin period (The cover. WAWN?), there was still plenty of taut rock thrills under the bonnet.
Top tracks: Love is Lost, Heat
No longer pressured by either commercial success, Bowie started to take serious risks again. Putting all your eggs in the gothier side of alternative rock leaves you in a field of one if you’re a classic rock artist, so it helps that Eno is on hand to bend the fabric of space and time once more. The question here is whether you can take hyper-cycle concept album mythos around classics like The Voyeur of Utter Destruction as Beauty or The Motel. C’mon, it’s only 74 minutes and 36 seconds, everyone has the time for that these days (Shout out to Music On Vinyl for solving this with the re-issue Excerpts from 1. Outside, which if anyone has a spare copy of you just let me know RN).
Top tracks: The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty), The Motel
For most people this is where Bowie begins (certainly his first album proper is fairly inessential). Still clearly in the mood for the epic after the title track, Cygnet Committee and Memory of a Free Festival really stretch out at the end of each side, with plenty of tight folk rock thrills in the middle. The RCA cover is the better of the two sleeves – this version thankfully omits fluff track Don’t Sit Down.
Top tracks: The Wide Eyed Boy From Freecloud, Cygnet Committee
Almost touching classic status and rightly loved, the arrival of Mick Ronson hardens up the guitar sound and brings compositional nous to a thrilling set of rock songs. The straight ahead rockers Black Country Rock and She Shook Me Cold hit the mark bang on, Saviour Machine a sneak peak the Big Brotherisms of Diamond Dogs to come.
Top tracks: Black Country Rock, After All
Having touched the outer limits with the first two chapters of the Berlin trilogy, Lodger was the first time Bowie would have released an album in direct competition with artists he and Kraftwerk had clearly influenced (Gary Numan, Ultravox), so in a sense he was running with the pack for this album. With a return to conventional songs across the whole the album with no moody synth workouts, it’s a fair fight. All the singles exude the confidence of an artist who could do what they wanted at this point – their legacy assured.
Top tracks: Fantastic Voyage, Red Sails
Reviled by purists as the start of Bowie’s decline, Let’s Dance is considerably better than just the massively overplayed singles and stadium fodder looks. Introducing Stevie Ray Vaughn as your sideman, while Nile Rodgers makes everything very shiny indeed? Masterstroke. Admittedly it does include Shake It (the first sign the grand old house was crumbling) but everything else here is precision tooled pop music from a former provocateur and surely that is the best kind.
Top tracks: Cat People (Putting out Fire), Ricochet
Ziggy goes to America, a camp and seedy romp featuring the Spiders From Mars. This is AAA blockbuster material now, we’re getting to the business end of this list. New recruit Mike Garson drizzles magic all over this record, making an already great band superb. Everything apart from the cover of Let’s Spend The Night Together is absolute canon at this point and even that serves to keep the momentum up. Plenty of glam cabaret thrills to be had here, about as sexy as it gets.
Top tracks: Cracked Actor, Lady Grinning Soul
Disclaimer: anything above 20 in this list I could completely understand being your favourite work and anything in the 10 is going to be almost impossible to pick between. Let computers do the heavy lifting. Tired of whorish old rock music and in love with soul, Bowie decamped to Philly and reinvented himself and the 70s once more on the album that broke him fully in the States. Not a weak track on here and Bowie certainly isn’t a tourist inside the genre. Rumour has it his record label asked him for Young Americans 2 after this. A ballsy move, but I can’t say I’m surprised.
Top tracks: Win, Fascination
Dispensing with his long standing band and switching in Donny McCaslin and other NY luminaries, Bowie stares down death with some of the strongest writing of his career. The title track itself is staggering, a successor to the equally complex Station to Station and the standards never drop for a moment, this album is fully essential. Signing off with I Can’t Give Everything away isn’t even the final wink here. The packaging is incredible on this record, and in the age of streaming is a star in itself – plenty of easter eggs for the keen mind to discover.
Top tracks: Blackstar, I Can’t Give Everything Away
Already a mainstream star at this point, Bowie absorbed Krautrock and art rock and minimal composition influences and channeled them (aided by Eno and Visconti) across three incredible Berlin albums. Take a moment to digest that, then think… who came close to doing anything like that? Low is the most challenging of the three with the second side essentially instrumental. Deep Cut: Always Crashing In The Same Car.
Top tracks: Speed of Life, Always Crashing in the Same Car
Saving your piss in the fridge so the witches don’t steal it? No? Then clearly you’ve not huffed as much coke as 1976 Bowie while he trail-blazed through an album that simply put, he couldn’t remember making. Icy funk, complex art rock and if we’re being real here – his best vocal take (Wild Is The Wind) are all present and correct. Earl Slick absolutely wails throughout, his guitar textures unteachable and unreachable.
Top tracks: Station to Station, Wild is The Wind
People love an argue, but I can assure them that Hunky Dory is Bowie’s inaugural masterwork. If you think about it, having to have that discussion is a lucky situation to be in really. Full of whimsy and joy (Eight Line Poem, Fill Your Heart), able to rock out like the Velvets (Queen Bitch) and still come in with big spacey moments (Life On Mars) it is a tour de force that marked his forthcoming full possession of the 70s.
Top tracks: Queen Bitch, The Bewlay Brothers
Bowie finally completed his lifelong dream of authoring a musical with the excellent (if slightly jukebox) musical Lazarus, but it wasn’t his first attempt. Cruelly nixed by the Orwell estate, his proposed 1984 musical was an idea bent and improved by compromise, grand schematics jammed into a rock album huge in scale and lethal in execution.
Top tracks: Sweet Thing, Candidate, Sweet Thing Reprise (in sequence pls), Big Brother
In 1977 few commercially successful albums were as challenging for the casual listener as Heroes, where you get plenty of squonk and skree (Beauty and The Beast, Joe The Lion) and atmospheric synthy gurglings (Sense of Doubt, Neukoln) to go with the one classic single. Time is kind to records that deserve it – Heroes thankfully is one of those records, the artful meanderings of Sons of The Silent Age preserved from the sands of time at least for now.
Top tracks: Blackout, The Secret Life Of Arabia
A classic rock staple now, a cultural milestone then. A whole nation thrilled at the strange alien boy on the television, his arm draped lovingly over Ronno’s shoulder. Everything falls into place on this one – and it absolutely slays. Words don’t do it justice, stick it on the turntable. Even if you’ve heard it as recently as yesterday, it’s still a revelation.
Top tracks: Moonage Daydream, Lady Stardust
Intense and direct, Scary Monsters was a high watermark that would take decades to reach again and for good reason. Visconti guides a distillation of everything that is great about Bowie’s work into a defining statement, his voice a jagged weapon tearing restlessly into classic after classic and it sounds great.
Top tracks: Teenage Wildlife, Kingdom Come