Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#3)


We've landed at #3. Find out who it is after the break.

bowie1The cliché is “chameleon,” but it fits. Even more fitting, though, is “trendsetter.” Still more fitting? “Idiosyncratic iconoclast.” It wasn’t enough for David Bowie to keep changing, to keep sliding in and out of roles like he was showing off that he could do damn near anything. It wasn’t enough for him to capitalize on the seeds of a movement or start his own or pave the way for a whole new landscape in pop. But it was enough for him to always be who he was—whether roleplaying or hiding or bucking convention, he was always just David Bowie.

There was no one else like him even when he was being like his friends and heroes. No one did soul music like him. No one did early heavy metal like him. No one did better dance music fit for boogying in the discos. No one devised a better glam rock album than Ziggy Stardust, not even close. No one could outdo him as a pop aesthete when he sprang to life. No one rocked with that same kind of style. No one in pop could croon the way he did. No one was as daring or novel or inventive or brash as he was at his peak. Pop music would be an ugly, repetitive wasteland without Bowie. It almost nearly is, except even bad pop has to borrow an idea or two from the Thin White Duke.

Personas like the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust shaped this notion that Bowie was obscure as a man but lacking no bluntness as a rock star. Being a showman and an enigma is really hard to find today. It was hard to find then, too. It’s hard to attain a rabid cult following without letting the fans in for a peek at what drives you. All we got were glimpses of his brain always hard at work, spinning and racing and anticipating and dodging, crashing high art and low art like a vulgar elitist. No one can keep up with him at that wavelength, though. How insane would it be if Ziggy Stardust was the closest we ever got to really knowing who Bowie was? That he actually was the bowie2manifestation of an alien being? That he came to this planet armed with a message of hope and a supernatural understanding of rock music? That he could perceive its potential and gave us that gift before we expired? Frightening, but no more insane than any other plausible or implausible answer.

As admired as he is today, he still doesn’t always get his due as both a singer and a songwriter. His voice was as agile as his sound and stage repertoire—you not only always know if it’s David Bowie singing but you can roughly identify the year based on the tint of his tongue. The Ziggy voice was not the same as the Duke voice, and his baritone croon didn’t match his delicate cabaret-pop swing. However he was singing, though, the listener is hooked. And adaptability as a songwriter is important, especially for someone who slinks into one phase after another with fluid ease, but having a diverse set of skills isn’t enough. Listen to songs like “Life on Mars?” and “Space Oddity” and “Time” and see how economical he can be with slanted verbiage and how basic most of the instrumental parts are, but how strange, complex and flamboyant the elements are lined up and packaged. Those are beautiful compositions but loaded with quick, breathless shifts from one movement to the next, and no one ever even thinks of Bowie as a prog rock guy.

He’s responsible for as many great original studio albums than any figure in pop music, and they all came in an eleven year span that produced at least one dud and two iffy collections. The dud was a covers album made by a music fan who simply couldn’t top songs that were already perfect from the likes of the Kinks, Who, Easybeats and Pink Floyd. The iffy ones (Diamond Dogs, Young Americans) still provided entertainment in short bursts (including classic singles like “Rebel Rebel” bowie3and “Young Americans”). In fact, excepting only his career nadir in the late-80s, Bowie could always be counted on for a quality tune or two. The same pop genius who delivered “Space Oddity” to raves in the 60s also scored a UK Top 20 single in 2002 for “Everyone Says Hi”—and that’s not even one of the album’s two or three greatest recordings! Any artist who can do Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and thirty years later deliver Heathen and Reality is not an artist to take lightly.

With most artists that survive (and thrive) as long as Bowie has, interest in new material wanes slowly over the years. Even as a gushing fan, I wasn’t greeting albums like The Weirdness, Endless Wire, and 20Ten with endless enthusiasm. And had that Led Zeppelin reunion actually led to new studio material, I would have anticipated it with more-than-slight skepticism. Rock n’ roll simply doesn’t age all that well, and we’re all bitter purists who’ve memorized the classics and demand perfection from our musical heroes. Music nerds are no “cooler” than Star Wars geeks that still haunt message boards bitching about Greedo shooting first, and dammit are we serious about this shit. But with Bowie, it just pisses me off that we haven’t heard anything new from him in the last eight years. We’ve seen his recent concerts, his Reality Tour…we know he’s still got it in him. So what’s the hold up, David?

Yet as good as he’s been in my lifetime—with underrated albums like Heathen and underappreciated singles like “Little Wonder,” “Hallo Spaceboy” and “Seven,” not to mention that good stuff on Tin Machine’s first album and his experiment in industrial music, and naturally his superstar pop stuff in the early part of the 80s when I was just a wee one—it was that run in the 70s that makes him so much bigger and more important than people today often give him credit for. Too many young people just don’t appreciate what he did and who he was and how much acclaim he deserves (my apologies to any kids reading this right now while trying to paint red streaks down their face so they can mirror the cover of Aladdin Sane). I was in the same boat myself as a pre-teen and even actively resisted him because he was so strange and fey and pop, bowie4but no matter how many times I pretended like I thought he was just “okay” when my mom was playing his albums on long vacation car trips, I knew that guy could write some really sophisticated music that can work on just the gut level of a completely basic earworm. And after I did get hooked, I loathed people like my younger self, but at least I always knew who Bowie was—when someone asked, “Who’s David Bowie?” in a college class, it took a lot of effort not to throw a book at her.

People weren’t always up to date on Bowie during his day, either. Although today he’s racked up more than a hundred million records sold, he was relegated to the “fringe” for most of his career, especially outside of the UK. He made a rather sizable splash at the end of the 60s with “Space Oddity,” rushed into stores to coincide with the furor over the upcoming Apollo 11 mission. Because it was his first hit (and still one of his all-time best), it remains his signature tune, but that consideration can also be attributed to what followed in its wake—little of commercial merit. The Man Who Sold the World, a venture into the realm of the new-fangled heavy metal world (in a way that only Bowie could approach heavy metal), garnered little interest. The delicate glam-folk and art pop of Hunky Dory, now widely considered one of his finest efforts, was also a commercial miss, failing to chart high in the US and unable to convert some of his most popular tunes, including “Life on Mars?” and “Changes,” into hits of much note; although he was getting generally high marks from the few critics paying attention, charges from the sourest of reviews from three years back that “Oddity” was indeed an oddity of “novelty” proportions were starting to sound like reflections of public interest. It required an “outrageous stunt” like The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, transforming his brassy androgyny into trashy alchemy, to garner him any attention.

Nobody really knew what to make of this Ziggy character. Even at a time of over-sized rock personalities and the rise of garish glam rock, it was on a whole different level. But despite all of the attention, the album still wasn’t flying off the shelves in the US beyond the East Coast—it wouldn’t be for several years that the album was even certified as a gold seller in the US. Although he’d sell out a major show at Carnegie Hall in the aftermath of Ziggy, he was still getting more bowie5notice for his gender bending than his genre bending. And perhaps to prove it was not another of his so-called novelties, he kept up the persona for another album (the successor alter ego on Aladdin Sane) before shifting gears once more.

He’d jump around constantly for the rest of his career and he never repeated himself. If he wasn’t playing a new role or submerging himself in a new genre, he was in a transitional phase, which in itself, became a new outfit to wear—the Thin White Duke idea (from his transition from a “young American” soul man to the “low” electronic shadow) that was Station to Station is a prime example. Even his Berlin trilogy (recorded with the aid of Tony Visconti and Brian Eno), while rooted in similarities across all three, exhibited noticeable swings in tone and temper in each phase (Lodger’s “Boys Keep Swinging,” for example, could have never fit into Low). By the time he reached that electronic/kraut-influenced chapter, he had built up a sizable English following and a bevy of “outcast” American youths eager to follow the radical pop maverick into whatever role he’d choose next—helpful, since mainstream audiences would have been left cold by his artiest diversions. It was more than fifteen years into his career with 1983’s Let’s Dance (his only US multi-platinum LP) that he would become a proper superstar in the States beyond his passionate sect; bizarrely enough, it was the first album released after his creative peak ended.

But despite his failure to reach a mainstream audience for so many years, he was arguably the biggest cult sensation in the world and one of the critical pieces in ensuring that the future of pop music was safe in the right hands. He produced Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople and Iggy Pop, worked with Brian Eno, played with the likes of Mick Ronson, Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp, did songs with bowie7stars like Mick Jagger and Queen, sang with Bing Crosby for one of the most surreal readings of a Christmas carol I’ve ever seen, and not only advanced the theater-in-rock notion but also returned it to obscurity with unforgettable exercises in proto-industrial and fractured post-punk. As someone ahead of the trends, it was only natural for him to be largely ignored for so many years before the world caught up to him. And he never actively pursued it—on the brink of massive fame (courtesy in no small part to his first US #1, a song coincidentally called “Fame,” co-written by John Lennon), he escaped into a cocaine-hurricane flurry for some of the most difficult and obstinate music of his career.

In addition to all of his work as a musician, singer, songwriter and producer, he’s also acted in several films, performed on Broadway, influenced fashion and flaunted taboos to a degree rarely touched in the years since, been active judging male model walk-offs in the “real world…they don’t show you in magazines or the E Channel,” and served as the Sovereign of the Guild of Calamitous Intent (if you’re confused, try google). As the cliché goes, he’s a bonafide Renaissance Man. His feat of being so difficult to pin down is especially unusual because most of the roles he played were larger than life figures—hedonists and rock stars and messiahs. And no matter how believable he was in each incarnation, they always remained avatars. Underneath the makeup and outfits and personas, the man didn’t change his core traits—brilliant songwriter and fearless innovator.

bowie6You know what’s kinda overrated in pop music? Plain honesty and sincerity. There’s a time and a place for that sort of thing, and those that do it well fill the niche perfectly. But beyond the ability to carry a tune, tell a story well, and devise a nice melody, the only thing required is the will and candor to do it. But there’s a difference between courage and artistry. That’s what makes David Bowie a real, genuine, fascinating artist. He may frequently be an emotional fascist, as Elvis Costello might declare, but he’s more creative and motivated than nearly anyone else on this list. And he’s immensely flexible, capable of doing more with a point of view or pamphlet of moves in one or two years than most are able to accomplish in an entire career. He didn’t get bored; he was simply too restless and enthusiastic to ever linger. Reinvention can be just as admirable as “sticking to one’s guns,” and it’s certainly harder. If we had only one “David Bowie” to memorize over the decades, he might have gotten a little dull. But instead he’s slippery, evasive, and consistently succeeds at remaking his image and status. He’s bold enough to be a traveler when his peers just want to settle down. His imagination simply cannot be contained. He has whims that outreach most of our wildest dreams.

Space Oddity
Running Gun Blues
The Man Who Sold the World
John, I’m Only Dancing
Panic in Detroit
Jean Genie
Rebel Rebel
Young Americans
TVC 15 [edit]
Always Crashing in the Same Car
Sons of the Silent Age
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
Cat People (Putting out Fire) [edit]
Modern Love
I’m Afraid of Americans [V1 mix]
Slow Burn
…and the albums Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust

Also endorsed: T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, the Psychedelic Furs

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Matt Medlock


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