Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rock Solid: David Bowie

"If you only own one album by David Bowie it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.


Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best. Rolling Stone serves as a tiebreaker in many cases and as a pain in the ass in others.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Thriller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Shows what I know. Before researching I'd have told you that David Bowie's Rock Solid was definitely going to be Ziggy Stardust, the 1972 album that catapulted him to fame. I was wrong; that record actually came in second place. The real honors go to Ziggy's predecessor, 1971's Hunky Dory.

Bowie actually had 6 albums in the running. In addition to the two I've already mentioned, Station to Station (1976), Low, Heroes (both 1977), and Scary Monsters (1980) also got high marks. Of these, only Hunky Dory received perfect 5 star ratings from both of my sources, the All Music Guide and Amazon.com. Let's get to specifics.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, the grand poobah of the All Music Guide, calls Hunky Dory a "kaleidoscopic array of pop styles, tied together only by Bowie's sense of vision." And then he really gets his prose revved up, labeling the album "a sweeping, cinematic mélange of high and low art, ambiguous sexuality, kitsch, and class." Or something like that.

Fan reviewers on Amazon.com got themselves in a similar lather. Eric N. Andrews claims, "This album still rewrote the rules of pop music." Pieter calls it a "timeless classic." Jerayr Haleblian writes, "I would probably rank it as the single best album of the '70s." Ericross asks and answers, "Want to make an album? Here's your textbook!" Adios_kansas remarks, "Nothing gets me through the day quite like Hunky Dory. Red Bull aside." Morton writes, "Hunky Dory by David Bowie is easily the best lyricly [sic] written album of all time!"And Rygel concludes, "It's very easy to get into, relatively poppy and brilliant." I've always wanted to be relatively brilliant.

So sure, it's a great record, but is it Bowie's BEST? Ruben I. Thaker informs us that "a recent British survey of 'greatest records' accurately and surprisingly rated this the highest of Bowie's masterpieces." Howzat titles his Hunky Dory review "Bowie's Undisputed Masterpiece", heaps generous praise on the album and then says, "I'm not sure if I'd call it his best album but its up there with his finest efforts." Wha-huh? Both of these comments highlight the need for a clear definition of the word "masterpiece." Does it mean a piece by a master, or a piece that is master of all others? I tend to think the latter, therefore there can only be ONE masterpiece, right?

But I digress. Let's put Hunky Dory to the Thriller Test.

1) At least 3 hits
Hunky Dory features no less than 3 stone cold Bowie classics that even your mother will probably know. Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes is traditional and modern all at once. It's also Bowie's theme song, given how many times he has reinvented himself and his music. Plus, it'll forever be immortalized thanks to being quoted in the intro to The Breakfast Club. The piano-driven Oh! You Pretty Things and Life On Mars, with its pleading chorus, also helped to define the Bowie aesthetic (the fixations with androgyny and science fiction, to be specific). Pass

2) Great album tracks
Queen Bitch has gained some notoriety but you're not likely to find it on a Bowie best of. Nonetheless, it's a fun rocker, and where else could you find Bowie copping lines from Disney's Cinderella (bippity boppity bam)? Kooks sounds is equally good but couldn't be more different than Queen Bitch. It's less a rocker than it is an old-English pub song. Quicksand is a pretty power ballad complete with strings. Song for Bob Dylan only makes sense when you know that the revered Dylan of the early-to-mid '60s was in an artistic wilderness in 1971, culminating in the awful Self Portrait album (the song addresses this in the line "Then we lost your train of thought, the paintings are all your own"). Plus, the tune also contains probably the most fitting description of Dylan's singing style as you'll find ("a voice like sand and glue"). Finally, The Bewlay Brothers and acoustic tour-de-force with impenetrable, imagery-filled lyrics. It's captivating until the weird singalong Pink Floyd ending. Pass

3. No filler
This is where Hunky Dory, in my opinion, falters. Fill Your Heart is a cover of a song written by Biff Rose and Paul Williams and previously recorded by, get this, Tiny Tim! It's styled as '20s jazz. Bowie gives it his best falsetto, but it's still fluff. Andy Warhol has an appropriately experimental intro and a great acoustic guitar part from Mick Ronson, but is far from a classic (Bowie later portayed Warhol in the film Basquiat). And the brief 8 Line Poem, which segues from the end of Oh! You Pretty Things, is similarly indulgent. But to make this a little less subjective on my part let's hear from Rolling Stone's John Mendelsohn. In his 1971 review of the album he feels that Hunky Dory "falters" on Andy Warhol and Song for Bob Dylan and writes in his conclusion that Bowie has "a couple of pretentious tendencies he'd do handsomely to curtail through the composition of an album's-worth of material." Fail

4) Memorable cover art
I'd say the unnatural color and fuzzy androgyny of the cover definitely puts it on the list of most iconic Bowie images. Pass

So Hunky Dory gets admirably close, but doesn't quite pass the Thriller Test. Thus, I can't fully support the fans and critics on this one. I'm still more inclined to give the nod to Ziggy Stardust. It's short on hits, but doesn't have a weak moment. Or consider 1983's Let's Dance: Four huge hits (the title track, Modern Love, China Girl, Cat People (Putting Out Fire)), Stevie Ray Vaughn on guitar, and great cover art. My personal favorite, however, is actually Bowie's Rock Bottom, Never Let Me Down. Shows what I know.

Author's Note: This is album review #258.

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