The Good: Great mix of Bowie's songs, Amazing voice, lyrics, instrumental diversity: Everything!
The Bad: There is a more complete and impressive two-disc version.
The Basics: Objectively a perfect album, the one-disc Best Of Bowie is trumped by a two-disc version that gives listeners a better idea of the artist's range and greatness.
It ought to be noted that given how I devour new (to me) materials, I seldom go back and re-rate or re-review works I have already rated. It has, for example, been quite some time since I have listened to a new c.d. just for me, for enjoyment and done a pure listen like I used to. So, I cannot honestly say why I did not think the two-disc version of Best Of Bowie (reviewed here!) did not get five stars from me, outside the fact that many of the songs were not hits (my standards may have evolved some since then). Perhaps I was just cheesed because there were so many tracks that I loved the videos for on the two-disc DVD set Best Of Bowie or I had just not given myself over to the fact that Bowie is one of the coolest artists to ever work in the pop-rock field and the more there is to one of his collections, the better.
So, as I have ended up with my wife's copy of the one-disc version of Best Of Bowie, I have discovered three things as I have played it in heavy rotation over the last few days: 1. If one had to distill Bowie's thirty-five (at the time it was released) year career down to a single album, this is the perfect embodiment of all the best-known Bowie, 2. This is probably - objectively - a perfect album, and 3. I like having more than just the radio hits or well-established songs. There is a sketch on Kids In The Hall where a music buyer wants to get into The Doors by getting a "Best Of" compilation and he is derided as a poseur and after years of listening to all sorts of music, I suppose that is the way I feel about the one-disc Best Of Bowie. Is it great? Undeniably. Are virtually all of the songs instantly recognizable as works of David Bowie? Sure. In fact, if you want only the Bowie you're familiar with, this is the only way to go. And objectively, it is a perfect album. But in recent years, through the Best Of albums of U2, R.E.M., Fleetwood Mac, the Bee Gees and virtually every other artist I have studied, I have developed a serious appreciation for "Best Of" albums that include both the best-known works of an artist as well as some more obscure tracks that help increase my appreciation of the artist by illustrating some of their best, non-radio played singles. It is for that reason that I will acknowledge the greatness of the one-disc Best Of Bowie but only recommend the two-disc version. Yeah, I know, "crank!"
That said, this incarnation of Best Of Bowie is a twenty-song album occupying a full 77:57, making great use of the compact disc medium. There are no tracks unique to this disc, making it the essential compilation, but not compelling those who have all of Bowie's prior albums to shell out for this repeat. Bowie wrote or co-wrote all but "Dancing In The Street," which he performs here with Mick Jagger. The other songs, including originals like "Rebel Rebel" and "Young Americans" or duets like "Under Pressure" with Queen, were written or co-written by Bowie. A few of those tracks come from the collaboration between Bowie and Brian Eno and Bowie frequently produced or co-produced his own songs.
As well, Bowie provides the lead vocals on all of the songs. He plays keyboards and saxophones on a few songs. In other words, this collection is almost entirely Bowie's musical vision as he was intimately involved in all levels of the creation of his music. He is a true original and a great musical artist, with little room to suggest the songs on this album are not the versions he wanted. One of the nice aspects for people purchasing the c.d. because of the familiarity with the David Bowie heard on the radio, Best Of Bowie includes the single version of songs like "Let's Dance," which loses the extensive disco-sounding entrance the album version has. For those who want the familiar great, this album satisfies completely.
So, what makes David Bowie so great? My fiance would argue that the only answer to that is "everything." For those who have not encountered the greatness that is David Bowie's music, the answer is simply "everything," but it can be broken down into more specific elements like voice, instrumentals, lyrics and production experimentation.
First, David Bowie has exceptional vocal range and expressiveness. He is smooth and slick on songs like "Golden Years" and "Young Americans," but he has the ability to go deeper and more evocative on songs like "Heroes" and "Rebel Rebel." He virtually shouts on "I'm Afraid Of Americans," while still making the song thoroughly musical. He modulates perfectly between the mellow vocals of "Ashes To Ashes" and "Space Oddity" and the hip dance articulations of "Let's Dance" and "Dancing In The Street." And performing duets with Mick Jagger (where he harmonizes wonderfully) and Queen, where the rock sound backing him has the potential to be overbearing, illustrates his flexibility and range perfectly.
Instrumentally, Bowie knows how to accompany his lines well. When he plays sax or keyboards, he does so masterfully. But beyond that, Bowie's sound continually evolves on Best Of Bowie. There is no one sound of David Bowie and as a result, his works evolve from a man with a guitar to keyboard-driven to Industrial synths and all of it fits the statement Bowie is making with his lyrics. This is, arguably, because Bowie produces so many of the songs such that his vocals may be heard and easily understood as opposed to obscured. He is articulate and his guitars, keyboards, dance beats, saxes and synths never overwhelm his vocals.
The reason Best Of Bowie endures as a great album is arguably because David Bowie is a great writer. He is a poet who can mix social commentary ("Suffragette City," "Fashion") and songs about emotions both universal and personal (aging on "Changes," fear on "I'm Afraid Of Americans"). He makes all of his statements musical and compelling because his poetry is both easily understood and actually poetic. Take, for example, his hit "Rebel Rebel," where he writes and sings "You've got your mother in a whirl / She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl / Hey babe, your hair's all right / Hey babe, let's go out tonight / You like me, and I like it all / We like dancing and we look divine / You love bands when they're playing hard / You want more and you want it fast / They put you down, they say I'm wrong . . . Rebel rebel, you've torn your dress / Rebel rebel, your face is a mess . . ." He makes a social statement exulting the forces of change while still being realistic about the - often - slipshod methods.
Bowie grew up in a time when folk-rock was popular and it is hard to deny that that had an influence on his songwriting style. Too often neglected in discussions of Bowie's works is his mastery as a storyteller through song. His classic "Ziggy Stardust" could easily have been a folk song and "Space Oddity" is written like a storysong in the folk tradition. Bowie smoothly tells the musical story with the lines "Though I'm past / One hundred thousand miles / I'm feeling very still / And I think my spaceship knows which way to go / Tell my wife I love her very much / She knows / Ground Control to Major Tom / Your circuit's dead, / There's something wrong / Can you hear me, Major Tom" ("Space Oddity") and he is a compelling musical storyteller.
That said, Bowie also has the ability to tap into essential human emotions. While none of the songs on Best Of Bowie are traditional love songs, Bowie explores other emotions infrequently explored in pop-rock music. While he might deride "Modern Love," he is able to capture a strong sense of nostalgia on "Golden Years." Indeed, he pegged it perfectly (and years before Springsteen did with "Glory Days") when he wrote "Last night they loved you, opening / Doors and pulling some strings, angel / Come get up my baby / In walked luck and you looked in time / Never look back, walk tall, act fine / Come get up my baby / I'll stick with you baby for a thousand years / Nothing's gonna touch you in these golden years. . ." ("Golden Years").
So, despite not having "Life On Mars" (I had to find one essential track this album lacked!), Best Of Bowie is a perfect album, but those who truly want to get a diverse idea of the range and greatness of David Bowie's works, only the two-disc version will do!
The best track is "Changes" and while there are no bad tracks, "This Is Not America" is a bit weaker than the rest.
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© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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