The clichéd stance of the casual observer is that Bowie has not released anything of value since the 80s, specifically ‘Let’s Dance’. And yes, the two albums with which he said goodbye to the decade – ‘Tonight’, ‘Never Let Me Down’ – were not amongst his finest work (the latter of which Bowie himself has even declared: “Such an awful album”).
Those two albums, followed by a further short succession of lukewarm ones in the ’90s, made it easy to dismiss The Dame as a spent force. But for all those not dumb enough to compare everything he does to ‘Ziggy…’ / whichever Berlin album is cool to namedrop this week, there were fleeting moments of glory on all of those records. The title track from ‘Never Let Me Down’ is absolutely brilliant. ‘Tumble And Twirl’ (an Iggy Co-write) from ‘Tonight’ may be hampered by of-the-era production, but there’s a remix out there somewhere that highlights what a genius pop song it is: if a new band want to appear cool with their Bowie references, here’s a song that they should cover.
But mostly: in the late-’90s through to the first few years of the new millennium, Bowie hit… if not another golden period, then certainly a highly polished silver one. ‘…Hours’ was good, signifying the point at which this chameleon settled, after the dalliances with drum and bass, into just being him. ‘Heathen’ and ‘Reality’, meanwhile, are both brilliant records.
So ignore those who say Bowie’s alleged retirement has come at the right time. As he left us in 2003, there was plenty of gas left in the tank. Here are 10 greats from his latter days.
1 – ‘The Dreamers’
The closing track on ‘Hours…’, and a great, ever-evolving Bowie rock song. Also lends its title to the fictional band who make an appearance in the 3D adventure game Omikron: The Nomad Soul. The Dreamers feature a familiar face as lead vocalist, and play illegal concerts in the fictional world.
2 – ‘Safe’
This was composed in 1998 for a ‘Rugrats’ movie, though it never made it onto the silver screen. Though it did not appear again until 2002 (as a B-side to ‘Everyone Says Hi’), it did reunite Bowie with Tony Visconti for the first time in two decades, so for that alone was important. Plus, it’s a satisfyingly dark song, that drifts along at a very ‘Hunky Dory’ type pace, that would have scared the shit out of toddlers.
3 – ‘Slow Burn’
Great, great lead single from ‘Heathen’ that has Pete Townshend on guitar (and you can tell). Listen out for some lovely sax playing from Dave, too!
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4 – ‘Fly’
Bonus track on ‘Reality’ that, with its blend of fuzz bass, electronic noise, and off-kilter harmonies, is superior to a lot of the songs that made the final album. Mixes couplets like, “The kids are alright but they don’t smile much/They sit up in their garage with their decks and their stuff” with a nice soaring chorus.
5 – ‘Shadow Man’
OK OK, before the obsessives start, yes, this dates back to 1971, when it was left on the cutting room floor during the ‘Ziggy…’ era. If you haven’t heard it, the original version is well worth tracking down: incredible that songs this good were being left on the cutting room floor. Bowie obviously agreed, as he revisited this for the aborted ‘Toy’ album in 2001 and turned it into a spacious piano ballad.
6 – ‘Heathen (The Rays)’
Beautiful closing track from ‘Heathen’, that takes a classic doo-wop chord sequence and swamps it with layer upon layer of fuzzy keyboards. Great lyrics, too.
7 – ‘Thru These Architect’s Eyes’
From ‘Outside’, that came out in 1995. A big, lumbering groove, with some absolutely brilliant, modernist lyrics: “All the majesty of a city landscape/All the soaring days in our lives/All the concrete dreams in my mind’s eye/All the joy I see thru these architect’s eyes”.
8 – ‘Your Turn To Drive’
Another song that was destined for ‘Toy’ – in fact, it was originally titled ‘Toy’. Making an appearance in public eventually as a free download for those who ordered the ‘Reality’ album online, this is a low key, almost whispered shuffle, with all kinds of electronics drifting around in the background.
9 – ‘Try Some, Buy Some’
Bowie has always been a great interperator of other people’s songs, and his version of this George Harrison song (from ‘Living In The Material World’) is further proof of this: the storyteller lyrics and epic, dramatic chord changes perfectly suited to his voice. You can get this on the ‘Reality’ album.
10 – ‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’
For some reason, the inferior ‘Thursday’s Child’ was selected as the first single in the UK from ‘Hours…’, whereas Australia and Japan got this: a noisy, adolescent rock song that presents a vastly different first impression of the album. Listen to those guitars!