The man born David Jones adopted the stage name David Bowie in 1966, avoiding confusion with The Monkees’ Davy Jones. But then he just kept on adding more aliases to his roster of identities: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, The Thin White Duke, the list goes on and on. Had he not been rock’s greatest shapeshifter, Bowie would be remembered for his more subtle musical reinventions, pioneering glam rock but also absorbing and putting his own twists on folk, soul, punk, drum’n’bass, and jazz.
Since Bowie’s 2016 death, his artistic stature has only grown, and his voluminous discography has continued to reward close listening. Last year, his shelved 2001 album Toy was finally officially released, and the documentary Moonage Daydream will hit theaters this fall. Meanwhile, one of Bowie’s most iconic albums, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Spiders From Mars, recently turned 50. To mark the occasion, here’s a look back at his entire catalog, ranked from worst to best:
29. ‘hours…’ (1999)
JOHN MELLENCAMP, PAINTER
‘hours…’ was available for download on Bowie’s official website, BowieNet, two weeks before the CD hit stores, making it one of the first internet album releases by a major artist. But while Bowie was embracing new technology, the album saw him step back from the cutting edge. After a couple of darker, electronic-tinged projects, ‘hours…’ finds Bowie in a more reflective acoustic mood for the first time in decades. Unfortunately, it’s also an uninspired slog, somehow sounding more dated than his other ‘90s albums that were more overtly engaged in contemporary sounds. Worst of all, the token rocker, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” is sort of a drab mashup of a couple of better ‘70s songs by The Stooges and Bowie himself.
28. Never Let Me Down (1987)
Released a year after his campy appearance in Jim Henson’s The Labyrinth, Never Let Me Down marked the end of Bowie’s Top 40 hitmaker period, at least in America, as the momentum of Let’s Dance finally dissipated. Like many big-budget albums of the mid-‘80s, the overstuffed production and gated snare drums do the songs no favors, nor do flashy cameos like Mickey Rourke’s deeply unnecessary mid-song rap on “Shining Star.” Still, there are bright spots, including the title track and “Time Will Crawl,” which Bowie singled out as a personal favorite in a 2008 Daily Mail piece. Noting his intentions to someday re-record the song, Bowie added ruefully, “Oh, to redo the rest of that album.” After the Glass Spider Tour, far more successful than the record it was supporting, Bowie formed Tin Machine and abruptly changed course.
27. David Bowie (1967)
Bowie started his career in earnest with two self-titled albums in the late ‘60s. The first, the one that didn’t contain “Space Oddity,” is a curiosity at best, the 22-year-old singer tentatively toying with folk rock and music hall. Bowie’s vocal style was already surprisingly well-developed on his debut, though — even if his songwriting wasn’t. Still, the dystopian narrative of “We Are Hungry Men” foreshadows Bowie’s interests in sci-fi and storytelling that would soon shape some of his most popular work.
26. Tonight (1984)
Tonight is, a little paradoxically, Bowie’s most going-through-the-motions pop album and one of his most significant collaborations with Iggy Pop, who co-wrote over half the songs and guested on “Dancing With the Big Boys.” The slick reggae grooves of “Don’t Look Down” and the Tina Turner-featured title track have a certain charm, but much of the record simply doesn’t land, especially the ghastly “God Only Knows” cover.
25. Reality (2003)
Reality’s title track and “New Killer Star” are some of the most inspired rockers from Bowie’s later years, and these days “Bring Me The Disco King” sounds like a preview of the sound Bowie would explore more fully on Blackstar. “Bowie remains the greatest living rock artist, even if what he does isn’t rock so much as swing, think a big, then swing again,” Chris Roberts wrote in Uncut. But whatever momentum he was gaining on Reality and its lengthy, lucrative tour would not continue. In 2004, nine months after the album’s release, Bowie suffered a heart attack, and he took a step back from public life: He’d never tour again, and he wouldn’t release a new album for nearly a decade.
24. Tin Machine (1989)
Bowie reinvented himself many times, often in part by changing the ensemble of musicians around him. But only once did he actually become a member of a band that released its own work, instead of merely supporting Bowie on his solo albums. With virtuoso guitarist Reeves Gabrels and, surprisingly, a rhythm section featuring the two sons of comedian Soupy Sales, Bowie formed Tin Machine as sort of a necessary course correction after the blandness of his mid-‘80s albums. The band’s Pixies-influenced alternative rock clatter, coming from a boomer icon in his 30s, was greeted with a lot of skepticism, and Tin Machine was often dismissed as an indulgent side project. But the band’s debut has aged well, in part because it so cannily anticipated the dominant sound of ‘90s rock before the decade started.
23. Tin Machine II (1991)
Tin Machine was a relatively brief blip in Bowie’s half-century career, but for three years, they really made a go of it. The band released two studio albums and a live record, and they toured smaller venues than Bowie would’ve headlined on his own, eschewing his solo material to further develop Tin Machine’s own distinct identity. Tin Machine II was a small step forward, their collaborative chemistry gelling on a more emotional set of songs, but the band would soon split after another commercial and critical failure. “There’s nothing wrong with David Bowie fronting a rock band, but neither he nor his bandmates rise to the occasion,” wrote Bill Wyman (the Entertainment Weekly critic, not the Stones bassist).
22. Pin Ups (1973)
The last album Bowie recorded with the Spiders From Mars and producer Ken Scott was his first and only covers album, a capper to the Ziggy Stardust era. Bowie was never shy about acknowledging his influences, and many of his albums contain a cover or two, but Pin Ups has a specific aim: a sort of salute to a teen idol’s teen idols. Every song was released by a British band between 1963 and 1966, when David Jones was a teenager, including two songs each by The Kinks, The Who, The Yardbirds, and the comparatively obscure Pretty Things. It doesn’t always quite work to cast songs from the mid-‘60s in the style of early glam rock, and Pin Ups is by design a minor work. But it’s still rollicking fun, great songs played by a great band that wouldn’t be together much longer.
21. Toy (2001 / 2021)
Like Pin Ups, David Bowie conceived Toy as a way to revisit his formative years. But instead of covering songs he loved in the ‘60s, the project features new recordings of songs Bowie wrote between 1964 and 1971 that never made it into albums, trickled out over the years on B-sides and bootlegs. EMI/Virgin expressed no interest in releasing Toy when it was completed in 2001, and it finally received a posthumous release by Parlophone in 2021. The songs can be slight – there’s a reason none of these tunes wound up on Honky Dory – and the polished performances by Bowie’s touring band can feel a bit anonymous. But it’s a fascinating glimpse at Bowie settling unfinished business in his later years.
20. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
In 1993, Interview magazine arranged a conversation between Bowie and Hanif Kureishi, whose ‘70s-set novel The Buddha of Suburbia took inspiration from Bowie and other rock stars of the period. Bowie decided to record a soundtrack for the BBC miniseries based on the book, combining new songs and instrumentals that contained several musical allusions to his ‘70s work. Released in the U.K. seven months after the more highly promoted Black Tie White Noise, with no U.S. release at all until years later, The Buddha of Suburbia is one of Bowie’s most obscure albums. But it has a relaxed charm that sets it apart from the more deliberate aesthetic exercises of his other ‘90s work.
19. Outside (1995)
At 74 minutes, Outside is David Bowie’s longest studio album and perhaps his most ambitious: a Twin Peaks-inspired rock opera about a detective in a fictional New Jersey town. Fully dubbed 1. Outside – The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-cycle, the project reunited Bowie with Brian Eno for the first time since the ‘70s, and it was envisioned as the first in a series that would continue the storyline. But the many spoken interludes, where Bowie manipulates his voice to portray a variety of different characters, can make the album a rough listen. And the re-recorded Buddha of Suburbia track “Strangers When We Meet” feels like a breath of fresh air at the end of Outside.
18. David Bowie aka Space Oddity (1969)
Bowie’s second self-titled album, later reissued and renamed after its most famous song, was the beginning of a long, fruitful collaboration with producer Tony Visconti. The latter actually didn’t care for “Space Oddity,” however, and delegated the recording of the song to Gus Dudgeon, who’d soon become Elton John’s longtime producer. Time has been extraordinarily kind to the “novelty song” that Visconti dismissed, and less so to the more conventional folk-rock on the rest of the album. “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” written after the death of Bowie’s father, has a little of the rock star swagger that would become second nature to him in a couple years. But the uneven LP shows Bowie still grasping for a clear identity.
17. The Next Day (2013)
Bowie’s first album in a decade was recorded in secret and revealed as a total surprise in early 2013. In that context, The Next Day felt like an urgent dispatch from a major artist that fans had begun to assume they’d never hear from again. In retrospect, the project can’t help but pale compared to 2016’s Blackstar, Bowie’s far more unique and stirring final album. But The Next Day has a confident air to it that was lacking in some of his pre-hiatus albums, ranging widely from the stately comeback ballad “Where Are We Now?” to the frantic, rhythmically complex “If You Can See Me.”
16. Earthling (1997)
Released a month after David Bowie turned 50, Earthling is a noisy and hyperactive album with a lead single, “Little Wonder,” that paired Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels’ squealing leads with of-the-moment drum’n’bass beats. “’Little Wonder’ was the last time Bowie went for it: his last go at speaking rock’s current dialect, to get on MTV and make the cover of Spin and play summer festivals where kids take E and get drunk, rather than the ones where people bring their kids,” wrote Chris O’Leary in one entry of his excellent Bowie Songs blog. Bowie never quite became a dull Eric Clapton-grade legacy act, but after Earthling, he retreated to subtler and perhaps safer experiments, and in retrospect, it’s fun to hear his arguably final attempt to chase the zeitgeist.
15. The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
In its moment, The Man Who Sold the World probably felt like a failure, at least to Bowie and the few people invested in his career at the time. The album didn’t chart or spin off any hit singles, and it appeared that the success of “Space Oddity” had been a fluke. But as Bowie began to find an audience, his ignored third LP eventually did as well. In 1972, it was reissued, charting in both the U.K. and U.S. One of the record’s biggest fans was Kurt Cobain. Nirvana would cover “The Man Who Sold the World” during their MTV Unplugged session. It became a hit in the mid-‘90s and turned it into one of Bowie’s most recognizable early songs. The album is dragged down by songs like “After All” and “Running Gun Blues” that reek of cheesy ‘60s Bowie, but his chemistry with new guitarist Mick Ronson is immediately apparent on the epic eight-minute opener “The Width of a Circle.”
14. Black Tie White Noise (1993)
After disbanding Tin Machine, Bowie reunited with Nile Rodgers to make a big splash with his first solo album in six years. But Black Tie White Noise was hardly a Let’s Dance sequel, presenting jazzier melodies and Lester Bowie trumpet solos over muscular breakbeats. While the album’s lead single, “Jump They Say,” reflected on Bowie’s half-brother Terry’s suicide, is propulsive and haunting, it’s hardly an easygoing pop hit.
13. Aladdin Sane (1973)
The Ziggy Stardust tour spanned nearly 200 shows over 18 months. And during breaks in that hectic schedule, Bowie and the Spiders From Mars managed to record and release Aladdin Sane, introducing a punny new alias and continuing their hit parade with “The Jean Genie” and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Aladdin Sane may be the best Bowie record that probably isn’t anybody’s number one: While it’s lacking in a distinct sound to call its own — the iconic cover art arguably casts a bigger shadow than the music itself — it’s still teeming with excellent deep cuts like “Panic in Detroit” and “Cracked Actor” that hint at darker, more adventurous albums to follow.
12. Lodger (1979)
The so-called “Berlin trilogy” is a bit of a misnomer. While Low and “Heroes” were recorded near the Berlin Wall, Lodger was the first of many Bowie albums recorded primarily in Montreux, Switzerland, where he’d bought a home in 1976. Nonetheless, Lodger does share a sound and personnel with its predecessors. And even the weak link of Bowie’s late ‘70s triptych includes stunners like “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Look Back in Anger.”
11. Heathen (2002)
A high point of the string of albums before Bowie retreated from the spotlight for a decade, Heathen saw the return of Visconti into the fold after a couple of decades. Pete Townshend and Dave Grohl make appearances, and covers of Neil Young and Pixies songs appear alongside impressive originals like “Slow Burn” and “Sunday.” “Heathen is the sound of acceptance. He’s relaxed, even serene, and the songs clearly reflect this with a nonchalant charm reminiscent of the Bowie of old,” wrote Eric Carr in the Pitchfork review.
10. Let’s Dance (1983)
Thriller kicked off pop music’s blockbuster era, and legacy artists benefitted through bumps in sales and budgets. Bowie, who’d spent several years in a relative commercial wilderness with a series of artier albums, got back to the business of being a superstar, uniting with Chic’s Nile Rodgers for a post-disco masterpiece of MTV-ready pop. “Rodgers & Bowie are a rich combination in the ways that count as well as the ways that don’t, and this stays up throughout, though its perfunctory professional surface does make one wonder whether Bowie-the-thespian really cares much about pop music these days,” wrote Robert Christgau in The Village Voice.
9. “Heroes” (1977)
Today, “Heroes” stands tall as David Bowie’s top streaming song, but it took decades to grow into its stature as one of his defining anthems. When originally released as the title track from the middle chapter of the Berlin trilogy, “’Heroes’” only got to No. 24 on the U.K. singles chart and missed the Hot 100 entirely. From the Kraftwerk tribute “V-2 Schneider” to the stretch of instrumental tracks, Heroes is a relatively uncommercial album, but a great one — arguably the height of Bowie’s collaborative stretch with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp.
8. Blackstar (2016)
Bowie died two days after releasing Blackstar, and it quickly took on a greater significance as the world learned that he’d crafted it as his final statement while dying of liver cancer. But even in those two days when it was simply a new Bowie album, Blackstar was immediately greeted as some of his most vital and surprising work in decades, a haunting yet groove-driven collection that felt like a 180 from his other 21st century albums. Backed by a band of New York-based jazz musicians, Bowie sings cryptically about his own demise on the title track and “Lazarus,” and they even kick up a more ferocious fast groove on “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” “The results evoke John Coltrane’s 1963 collaboration with Johnny Hartman, the singer occupying a nocturnal world peopled with private fantasies and drafted in a purple demotic that the band can translate,” wrote Alfred Soto in the SPIN review.
7. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)
Although Scary Monsters featured Fripp and some other key players from the Berlin albums — and was in parts just as strange — it represented a major commercial comeback for Bowie in the U.K., bringing him back to No. 1 on the album and singles charts. There’s a funhouse mirror quality to the many effects and distortions on Scary Monsters, from the clipped drum sounds on “Up the Hill Backwards” to the filtered vocals on the title track and the guitars run through synthesizers on “Ashes to Ashes.”
6. Young Americans (1975)
Bowie consummated his love affair with the U.S. on the aptly titled Young Americans. It was his first studio album recorded in the states (barring two tracks on Aladdin Sane), tracked in part at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound in homage to Philly soul producers like Gamble and Huff. And “Fame,” a blown-out James Brown salute co-written by John Lennon, was his first No. 1 song on the Hot 100, finally giving him the kind of American pop profile he’d enjoyed in the U.K. since Ziggy Stardust. Future stars Luther Vandross (here on backing vocals) and David Sanborn (sax) also left an indelible mark on the album, with Bowie rewriting Vandross’ song “Funky Music (Is A Part of Me)” into “Fascination.” And though Young Americans is in some ways a classic example of a White artist thriving commercially by channeling Black influences, Bowie’s “plastic soul” put a distinct spin of his own on contemporary R&B, at once deliberately inauthentic while also funky enough to land him an appearance on Soul Train.
5. Diamond Dogs (1974)
“Diamond Dogs is a ‘concept album’ that combines at least three concepts,” wrote Glenn Hendler in his excellent 2020 book for the 33 1/3 series. Those concepts included an unrealized adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, a post-apocalyptic narrative inspired by William S. Burroughs, and a potential Ziggy Stardust stage musical. In spite, or perhaps because of, Bowie’s attempts to stuff so many ideas into one album, Diamond Dogs is dense and rewarding, mixing straightforward glam anthems like “Rebel Rebel” with darker story songs about Halloween Jack and his gang of mutants. Bowie himself handled more instrumentation on Diamond Dogs than perhaps any other LP, playing most of the guitars, as well as keyboards, sax, and stacks and stacks of backing vocals.
4. Station To Station (1976)
Albums are often called “transitional” because they feel like brief rest stops between more fully realized works. But some of David Bowie’s very best records bridge the more distinct eras of his career. Foremost amongst those is Station to Station, which manages the impressive trick of straddling the wide gulf between the Philly soul homages of Young Americans and the icy Berlin electro-rock of Low, making the pop hit “Golden Years” and the 10-minute art rock masterpiece “Station to Station” sound like natural neighbors. Amazingly, these dynamic and deeply original songs came from a low point in Bowie’s life, as he was dangerously underweight, addicted to cocaine, and contemplating retiring from music as his first marriage was falling apart.
3. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)
In another universe, a less restless Bowie might have embraced the Ziggy Stardust phenomenon wholeheartedly: spending the rest of his career building on that mythology and making Spiders From Mars albums with Mick Ronson’s strutting glam rock riffs. But Bowie would’ve been a legend in that universe too off the strength of unassailable songs like “Suffragette City,” “Starman,” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.”
2. Low (1977)
Although Eno has produced dozens of great albums by the likes of Talking Heads, U2, and Devo, he was not the producer on the famous late ‘70s trilogy for which he was Bowie’s primary musical collaborator. (Visconti produced all three albums, though Eno eventually did co-produce a Bowie project, 1995’s Outside.) The title of Low appeared on the cover above a photo of Bowie’s profile — a pun on the “low profile” he was courting with these less accessible new songs. But the futuristic synths, unique percussion effects, and unpredictable song structures have made Low more influential on future musicians than some of his biggest sellers. Scottish guitarist Ricky Gardiner, a crucial component of the ensemble that recorded Low and Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, died in May.
1. Hunky Dory (1971)
Bowie spent much of his life trying to make sure that Ziggy Stardust wouldn’t completely define him and overshadow the rest of his career. But he’d already made the album that ensured that was possible. Hunky Dory, released to little fanfare in late 1971, became a hit in its own right after Ziggy blew up six months later — it actually charted the highest of the two, peaking at No. 3 in the U.K. While a handful of great songs peppered Bowie’s first three albums, Hunky Dory represented his greatest songwriting leap, with “Changes” “Life On Mars?” and “The Bewlay Brothers” and other classics pouring out of him in rapid succession. Before he spent several years in space alien rock star guises, Bowie was just a young English musician: paying tribute to his creative heroes on “Andy Warhol” and “Song For Bob Dylan,” coming to grips with becoming a father on “Kooks.”