Since David Bowie’s death in 2016 he’s become a marbled figure in pop’s pantheon.
Working to the last, his catalogue is littered with Everest like peaks, soaring documents that re-configured what pop music could achieve.
These iconic moments – inspired as they are – also leave huge shadows, though, and sometimes block out some flawed but by no means lesser work.
Today – January 8th – would have been David Bowie’s birthday, so Clash dug out five unjustly slept on Bowie albums…
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Black Tie White Noise (1993)
Bowie’s first solo album in six years was a big deal. It marked his second collaboration with Nile Rogers (following ‘Let’s Dance’) and a departure from the divisive Tin Machine project. It had a huge promotional campaign and went straight to number one in the UK album charts – the last time that would happen until 2013’s ‘The Next Day’.
And yet, if you’re a casual listener, there’s a fair chance you’ve never heard it. Partly that’s down to circumstance – Bowie declined to tour the album at all and his US label, Savage Records, went bankrupt shortly after its release, making the album a rarity within weeks – and partly down to his then dwindling commercial appeal in the States.
All of which is a shame, because ‘Black Tie White Noise’ is brilliant – a uniquely personal record from a man who had previously preferred to hide behind masks and personas. It tackles the LA race riots, his brother’s suicide and, most directly, love and his marriage to Iman. It has a startling cover of his idol Scott Walker’s ‘Nite Flights’ and a surprise club banger in ‘Pallas Athena’. And while it mostly looked to the future with its slick pop production (thank you, Nile), it also nodded to the past by reuniting Bowie with pianist Mike Garson after a 20 year break.
It’s far from perfect – at 57 minutes it’s too long and we could have happily lived without the turgid cover of Morrissey’s ‘I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday’ – but for the first time since ‘Let’s Dance’, Bowie sounded engaged and excited again. The creative resurgence that would continue throughout the rest of his life started here. (Will Salmon)
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‘Live At The BBC’
Live albums are easy to shrug off, especially when it comes to artists like Bowie who already have a huge discography. But ‘Bowie At The Beeb’ is criminally slept-on, capturing Bowie’s essence in its purest form.
Maybe it’s the stripped back versions or maybe it’s the inclusion of his rarely performed early tracks, but these recordings feel so humble and real, remaining as a time machine back to when David Bowie was just a man before he was Ziggy, or the Thin White Duke, or any of his enigmatic personas.
This is especially the case for disc one, taking us through tracks from his debut with recordings so crisp you can hear the blossoming potential in Bowie’s rich voice before the whole world knew about it.
But even putting Bowie himself aside for a moment, this is a masterpiece of musicianship. Moving through a changing line-up before his Spiders From Mars assembled, the record features acclaimed musicians like Herbie Flowers and long-term collaborator Tony Visconti.
So many power players in one place, you get a sense of the creative energy in the room as Bowie’s immortalised voice excitedly introduces us to tracks that would go on to become timeless anthems. (Lucy Harbron)
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Released in 2002 and initially considered a return to form after a string of more forgettable projects, ‘Heathen’ should be considered one of the great albums of David Bowie’s career. The album itself is a masterclass in the line between pop sensibility and off-the-wall experimentation that only Bowie could walk. Despite this, it’s vanished from the Bowie canon in recent years, falling into the fallow period between ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘The Next Day’ which receives little attention.
Covers including ‘Cactus’ by Pixies and ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’ by Neil Young are scattered through the album, each offering a completely different experience to the originals. They’re well worth a listen, but it’s on the original compositions where Bowie really shines. Spaced out and icy in a way which gestures towards the first half of ‘Low’, The bleak outlook on life which formed the backbone of much of the Ziggy Stardust era resurfaces on ‘Slow Burn’ and ‘Afraid’. This is often attributed to Bowie’s state of mind after the 9/11 terror attacks (although this was denied by Bowie himself).
Meanwhile songs including ‘Slip Away’ and ‘Everyone Says Hi’ foreshadow the almost nostalgic approach of later work, ethereally slipping into memories and abstract “what if”s. ‘Heathen’ is not just an album which fits into the Bowie timeline, it’s a seriously underrated project which easily stands shoulder to shoulder with the selective classics which most people reach for when listening to Bowie. (Jake Hawkes)
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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 cyber-noir narrative and the cleverly crafted characters all serve to make it one of Bowie’s 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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Bowie’s Berlin trilogy is perhaps a misnomer – few people, after all, bother to look beyond the genre-shifting ‘Low’ and the glacial synth pop of ‘Heroes’.
1979’s ‘Lodger’ closes the triptych, and despite being overlooked it could well contain some of that period’s most fascinating aesthetic statements. A turn away from the oblique openness that dominates the second side of ‘Low’, it finds David Bowie re-engaging with pop, absorbing the lessons of new wave – the bulk of which he inspired, anyway – into his experimental palette.
As a result, it’s a curiously transitional listen. ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ is a preening slice of oddball pop music, its otherworldly glamour finding it immediately picked up by the nascent New Romantic movement. The bulk of the album’s rhythmic chassis, however, points towards Bowie and commander-in-arms Brian Eno’s burgeoning interest in world music – the skewed reggae that tilts ‘Yassassin’ on its side, for example, or the Turkish sounding violin parts performed by Simon House.
It’s not all magpie-like pilfering, though – ‘Red Sails’ is sheer motorik abandon, channelling the fading voices of Neu! While ‘Move On’ is (quite literally) ‘All The Young Dudes’ played backwards.
‘Lodger’ may well be a stepping stone, but it’s also a key destination point in understanding the confluent of influences that enraptured Bowie as the 70s closed.
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