Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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David Bowie

  • Hunky Dory [RCA Victor, 1971] A-
  • The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars [RCA Victor, 1972] B+
  • Aladdin Sane [RCA Victor, 1973] B+
  • Pin-Ups [RCA Victor, 1973] B-
  • Diamond Dogs [RCA Victor, 1974] C+
  • David Live [RCA Victor, 1975] C-
  • Young Americans [RCA Victor, 1975] B-
  • Station to Station [RCA Victor, 1976] A
  • Changesonebowie [RCA Victor, 1976] A
  • Low [RCA Victor, 1977] B+
  • "Heroes" [RCA Victor, 1977] B+
  • Stage [RCA Victor, 1978] B+
  • Lodger [RCA Victor, 1979] A-
  • Scary Monsters [RCA Victor, 1980] B+
  • Let's Dance [EMI America, 1983] B
  • Tonight [EMI America, 1984] C
  • Never Let Me Down [EMI America, 1987] C+
  • Changesbowie [Rykodisc, 1990] A
  • Black Tie White Noise [Savage, 1993] B-
  • Outside [Virgin, 1995] Dud
  • Earthling [Virgin, 1997] Dud
  • Essential David Bowie: Best of 1969-1974 [EMI/Capitol, 1997] Choice Cuts
  • Hours . . . [Virgin, 1999] Dud
  • Heathen [ISO/Columbia, 2002] C+
  • The Buddha of Suburbia [Virgin, 2007] Dud
  • Station to Station (Special Edition) [EMI, 2010] A-

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Hunky Dory [RCA Victor, 1971]
After two overwrought excursions for Mercury this ambitious, brainy, imaginative singer-composer has created an album that rewards the concentration it demands instead of making you wish you'd gone on with the vacuuming. Not that he combines the passion and compassion of Dylan (subject of one song) with the full-witted vision of Warhol (subject of a better one) just yet. But he has a nice feeling for weirdos, himself included. A-

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars [RCA Victor, 1972]
In its own way, this is audacious stuff right down to the stubborn wispiness of its sound, and Bowie's actorly intonations add humor and shades of meaning to the words. Which are often witty and rarely precious, offering an unusually candid and detailed vantage on the rock star's world. Admittedly, for a long time I wondered who cared, besides lost kids for whom such access feels like privilege. The answer is, someone like Bowie--a middlebrow fascinated by the power of a highbrow-lowbrow form. B+

Aladdin Sane [RCA Victor, 1973]
The pubeless is-he-naked? illustration inside the doublefold suggests not bisexuality but asexuality--the affliction of a romantic for whom love turns nasty, awkward, and exploitative when touched by lust. So maybe the bleak future Bowie likes to scare his fans with is a metaphor for his own present, the American phase of which is reflected by these hardrocking mechanisms. But the cover, "Let's Spend the Night Together," opens other possibilities: its lyric suggests an alternative to the brutality of "Cracked Actor" and its music can help you through the bitterest realities. As a result, this is more interesting thematically than Ziggy Stardust, and it's also better rock and roll. B+

Pin-Ups [RCA Victor, 1973]
The idea of reviving these British oldies is the great one, but most of those fanatic enough to know all the originals aren't very excited either. I mean, it's good to recall the screaming-frustration-on-the-nine-to-five of "Friday on My Mind," but when Bowie screams he sounds arch. And that ain't rock and roll. Yet. B-

Diamond Dogs [RCA Victor, 1974]
In which a man who has always turned his genuine if unendearing talent for image manipulation to the service of his dubious literary and theatrical gifts evolves from harmless kitsch into pernicious sensationalism. Despite two good songs and some thoughtful (if unhummable) rock sonorities, this is doomsday purveyed from a pleasure dome. Message: eat, snort, and be pervy, for tomorrow we shall be peoploids--but tonight how about buying this piece of plastic? Say nay. C+

David Live [RCA Victor, 1975]
The artiste at his laryngeal nadir, mired in bullshit pessimism and arena-rock pandering--and the soul frills just make it worse. C-

Young Americans [RCA Victor, 1975]
This is a failure. The tunes make (Lennon-McCartney's) "Across the Universe" sound like a melodic highlight, and although the amalgam of English hard rock and Philly soul is so thin it's interesting, it often overwhelms David's voice, which is even thinner. But after the total alienation of Diamond Dogs and the total ripoff of David Live, I'm pleased with Bowie's renewed generosity of spirit--he takes pains to simulate compassion and risks failure simply by moving on. His reward is two successes: the title tune, in which pain stimulates compassion, and (Bowie-Lennon-Alomar's) "Fame," which rhymes with pain and makes you believe it. B-

Station to Station [RCA Victor, 1976]
Miraculously, Bowie's attraction to black music has matured; even more miraculously, the new relationship seems to have left his hard-and-heavy side untouched. Ziggyphiles can call it robotoid if they want--I admire the mechanical, fragmented, rather secondhand elegance of Aladdin Sane, and this adds soul. All of the six cuts are too long, I suppose, including the one that originated with Johnny Mathis, and David sounds like he's singing to us via satellite. But spaceyness has always been part of his shtick, and anybody who can merge Lou Reed, disco, and Huey Smith--the best I can do with the irresistible "TVC 15"--deserves to keep doing it for 5:29. A

Changesonebowie [RCA Victor, 1976]
The way La Bowie's vaunted concept albums reduce to greatest hits is a revelation. Non-dross form the likes of Diamond Dogs and Young Americans holds its own with the best discrete songs from Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, and what's more, chronology resembles progress--like the Supremes regressing from "Where Did Our Love Go" to "Love Child" in reverse, although not as important aesthetically. A

Low [RCA Victor, 1977]
I find side one's seven "fragments"--since the two that clock in at less than 2:45 are 1:42 and 2:20, the term must refer to structures rather than length--almost as powerful as the "overlong" tracks on Station to Station. "Such a wonderful person/But you got problems" is definitely a love lyric for our time. But most of the movie music on side two is so far from hypnotic that I figure Bowie, rather than Eno, must deserve credit for it. I mean, is Eno really completely fascinated by banality? B+

"Heroes" [RCA Victor, 1977]
When I first heard the Enofied instrumental textures on side two, as background music, they struck me as more complex than their counterparts on Low, and they are. Low now seems quite pop, slick and to the point even when the point is background noise; in fact, after I completed my comparison, I began to play it a lot. But what was interesting background on "Heroes" proved merely noteworthy as foreground, admirably rather than attractively ragged. Maybe after the next album I'll get the drift of this one. B+

Stage [RCA Victor, 1978]
If James Brown is the only rock and roller who deserves more than one concert album, then the Bowie to ban is David Live. Stage kicks off with some well-chosen Bowie oldies before moving into refreshingly one-dimensional versions of his best songs since 1975, including the key Eno collaborations, which were often oversubtle to begin with. For fans only, of course. I'm one. B+

Lodger [RCA Victor, 1979]
I used to think Bowie was middlebrow, but now I'd prefer to call him post-middlebrow--a habitue of prematurely abandoned modernist space. Musically, these fragments of anomie don't seem felt, and lyrically they don't seem thought through. But that's part of their charm--the way they confound categories of sensibility and sophistication is so frustrating it's satisfying, at least if you have your doubts about the categories. Less satisfying, actually, than the impact of the record as a whole. A-

Scary Monsters [RCA Victor, 1980]
No concepts, no stylistic excursions, no avant collaborations--this songbook may be the most conventional album he's ever put his name on. Vocally it can be hard to take--if "Teenage Wildlife" parodies his chanteur mode on purpose the joke's not worth the pain, and if you think Tom Verlaine can't sing, check out "Kingdom Come"--though anyone vaguely interested has already made peace with that. Lyrically it's too facile as usual, though the one about Major Tom's jones gets me every time. And musically, it apotheosizes his checkered past, bringing you up short with a tune you'd forgotten you remembered or a sonic that scrunches your shoulders or a beat that keeps you on your feet when your coccyx is moaning sit down. B+

Let's Dance [EMI America, 1983]
Anyone who wants Dave's $17 million fling to flop doesn't understand how little good motives have to do with good rock and roll. Rodgers & Bowie are a rich combo in the ways that count as well as the ways that don't, and this stays up throughout, though it's perfunctory professional surface does make one wonder whether Bowie-the-thespian really cares much about pop music these days. "Modern Love" is the only interesting new song, the remakes are pleasantly pointless, and rarely has such a lithe rhythm player been harnessed to such a flat groove. Which don't mean the world won't dance to it. B

Tonight [EMI America, 1984]
What makes Bowie a worthy entertainer is his pretensions, his masks, the way he simulates meaning. He has no special gift for convincing emotions or good tunes--when he works at being "merely" functional he's merely dull, or worse. With Nile Rodgers gone, the dance potential of the second album of his professional phase is negligible, and he's favoring the tired usages that have been the downfall of an entire generation of English twits. In this setting, not even Leiber-Stoller's long-neglected "I Keep Forgetting" makes much of an impression. C

Never Let Me Down [EMI America, 1987]
Maybe he's lost touch so completely that he's reduced to cannibalizing himself just when the market dictates the most drastic image shift of his chameleon career. But maybe this is just his way of melding two au courant concepts, Springsteenian rock and multiproducer crossover. After all, why pay good money to outsiders when your own trunk of disguises is there for the rummaging? Of course, crossover artistes can generally sing. When Bowie wants to play the vocalist, he still puts on a bad Anthony Newley imitation. C+

Changesbowie [Rykodisc, 1990]
It isn't just the usual useless bonuses that make the self-serving Sound + Vision unlistenable--Bowie's personal reissue program monumentalizes a monumentally inefficient music machine. Sure he can hit the nail on the head, sometimes for a whole side (first five tracks of Hunky Dory, which now yields a prev unrel good song) or even album (the just-out Station to Station, though these days I find myself making allowances for "Stay" as well as the Johnny Mathis cover--and welcoming the prev unrel live bait). But he's always churned out pomp and dreck, especially in theatre mode. So given his nonstop chameleon act, the consistency of this 18-cut best-of--the superb Changesonebowie plus not much Changestwobowie and too much Let's Dance--is an industrial marvel. Just goes to show that when he lowers himself the man does understand how music works. And that sometimes horrible vocals are all the stylistic unity you need. A

Black Tie White Noise [Savage, 1993]
Having erected a whole label around this piece of history, the legendary artiste and his new management returned triumphantly to the corporate scene of the artiste's salad days. But within a few months it had stiffed irretrievably, whereupon BMG-né-RCA dumped both artiste and label for a comeback as spectacularly ignominious as any rock and roll has known. Oddly enough, the music is the artiste's most arresting in many years; the dancebeats and electrotextures make you prick up your ears and wonder where they'll lead. Then the artiste begins to sing--often lyrics of his own devising, as in the title tune, a metaphor for race relations. B-

Outside [Virgin, 1995] Dud

Earthling [Virgin, 1997] Dud

Essential David Bowie: Best of 1969-1974 [EMI/Capitol, 1997]
"All the Young Dudes" Choice Cuts

Hours . . . [Virgin, 1999] Dud

Heathen [ISO/Columbia, 2002]
The "Bowie's back" huzzahs that accompany every one of this music mill's new releases beg the question of what he's back to and from. The reason Englishmen have actually touted him as the greatest rock artiste of all time is that he's the least American major rock artiste of all time, which is one reason his careful brand maintenance isn't filling any arenas over here. Just to be mean I compared his latest phoenix imitation to 1979's Lodger, a certified nonclassic I always kind of liked. Lodger won easy. He has indeed Learned to Sing, thus rendering himself more the chansonnier only art-rockers ever wanted him to be, and the strain is hell on his sense of humor. The textures are nicer now, but whose aren't? And while the songwriting ain't bad, it also ain't that good. Just switch between the Black Francis cover and any other track and you'll know exactly what I mean. C+

The Buddha of Suburbia [Virgin, 2007] Dud

Station to Station (Special Edition) [EMI, 2010]
Normally I ignore "enhanced" classics, as should you, so to distinguish among iterations, this is the three-CD boxlet released in 2010. It includes three color photos of the Thin White Duke, a flier hawking Geoff MacCormack's "signed, limited edition" Travels With Bowie 1973-76, informative notes, the original album in its own wee sleeve, and--the bait, in a wee double sleeve--Bowie's March 23, 1976 performance at Nassau Coliseum, warm New York Times review by John Rockwell included, hot Village Voice review by Robert Christgau not. In addition to an echoing momentum with no precedent or aftermath in Bowie's melodramatic oeuvre, highlights include "I'm Waiting for the Man" with blues uptick, "TVC-15" with New Orleans accent, and a set list that stumbles only on the stone in his passway that is "Word on a Wing." It nails a galvanizing arena-rock that you can almost hear hitting a groove that had dissipated disappointingly just three days later at Madison Square Garden. But please note that I said "almost hear." As we all should know by now, rarely do galvanizing performances live on in artifact the way they do in memory. Whether this one you missed is worth your 25 bucks depends, I suspect, on just how seriously you credit the artiste's Anglophiliac legend. A-

See Also