David Bowie‘s surreal opus ★ (pronounced Blackstar) finally arrives today, and critics are hailing it as an absolute masterpiece. “Blackstar is as much a thrilling progression as a discomforting descent into some jazz-tainted underworld a million miles from the shits and giggles of rock & roll.” Rolling Stone‘s Michael Dwyer wrote. The album certainly isn’t without precedent, though, since Bowie has been breaking musical ground ever since he rose to stardom in the late Sixties with “Space Oddity.” As we await the release of ★, here are 10 key Bowie tracks that paved the way for this moment.
‘Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed’ (1969)
This second track from the Space Oddity record is pretty unremarkable except for one thing: It’s the first Tony Visconti–produced David Bowie track the world ever heard. The LP kicks off with “Space Oddity,” but Visconti deemed it lightweight and passed it onto Gus Dudgeon. He did handle the rest of the record, though, kicking off an amazingly fruitful relationship that has lasted all the way to ★. Had they not teamed up way back in the Sixties, Bowie would have had a very different career.
‘Moonage Daydream’ (1972)
The second single from ★, “Lazarus,” is told from the perspective of space alien Thomas Jerome Newton. It was written for the off-Broadway musical Lazarus, which is a sequel to Bowie’s 1976 movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth. But Bowie’s fascination with space creatures dates back earlier than that: On 1972’s “Moonage Daydream,” he was already singing in the voice of a strange creature from another planet. Ziggy Stardust had a very different agenda than Newton, but one led to the other.
‘Young Americans’ (1975)
Saxophonist Donny McCaslin is a key contributor to ★, but this isn’t the first time that Bowie worked with a great jazz saxophonist. David Sanborn played on his 1975 classic “Young Americans,” helping turn the song into an enormous hit. Bowie plays the sax himself, but he’s usually wise enough to bring in true masters when laying down parts on record.
‘Station to Station’ (1976)
The new Bowie album kicks off with a haunting, wildly innovative 10-minute title track that lays the groundwork for everything to come. Bowie first pulled that trick on 1976’s coke-fueled Station to Station. That song ranks up there as one of his great surreal masterpieces, and it took him four decades to create another one that can stand up next to it.
The bold experimentation of Station to Station continued in 1977 when Bowie headed to Berlin to record Low with Tony Visconti. The second side is largely instrumental, kicking off with “Warszawa.” Bowie’s record label was hoping to get another radio-friendly single like “Young Americans,” but they wound up with wildly uncommercial tracks like this. Bowie would drift in and out of this mode over the years, but he’s back there in a big way on ★.
‘Hallo Spaceboy’ (1995)
Bowie re-teamed with Brian Eno in 1995 for Outside. It was an attempt to revive the experimental nature of the Berlin period, but it fell way short of expectations. One of the brighter spots was “Hallo Spaceboy,” yet another return to space where he declares that “moondust will cover you.” It’s an industrial sound clearly influenced by Nine Inch Nails. Bowie returned to more traditional songs after this one — at least until now.
‘Slip Away’ (2002)
After struggling through the second half of the Eighties and the entirety of the Nineties, Bowie finally released a truly stellar album with 2002’s Heathen. A big reason for the comeback was his decision to reunite with Tony Visconti, who hadn’t worked on a Bowie album since 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). “Slip Away” is one of the many great tracks on the album, kicking off a hot streak that continued the following year with Reality. At the time, nobody knew these would be Bowie’s final statements for a solid decade.
‘Where Are We Now?’ (2013)
By the beginning of 2013, it was beginning to seem like David Bowie would never release new music again. He hadn’t performed a concert since a heart attack prematurely ended his 2004 Reality tour and hadn’t even played a single song in public since 2006. He completely avoided the press and was beginning to seem like some sort of rock & roll ghost. Then, on his 66th birthday in January of 2013, he released the song “Where Are We Now?” and announced his new LP, The Next Day. The song is a touching ode to days gone by and a sign that Bowie still had some good days in front of him. Once again, Tony Visconti was the producer, and the album was fantastic, if a little safe at times.
‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ (2014)
The first sign that The Next Day wasn’t a mere one-off work came in the fall of 2014 when Bowie released the career-spanning compilation Nothing Has Changed, which included the brand-new track “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” The jazzy tune was recorded with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and featured a Donny McCaslin saxophone solo. Bowie was so impressed that he recruited McCaslin and his group to serve as the backing band on ★, which includes a new version of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).”
‘Lazarus’ (Michael C. Hall version) (2015)
When Bowie was recording ★ last year, he was also putting together the Lazarus musical. He wrote four new songs for the project, and the title track wound up on the new album. The first time anyone heard it came in November of 2015 when Lazarus went into previews. The opening song of the show is “Lazarus,” which is belted out by Michael C. Hall. It updates the the tale of lovesick alien Thomas Newton, who now has “scars that can’t be seen.” Bowie isn’t appearing in public to promote ★, so Michael C. Hall and others from Lazarus performed it on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Sadly, this is as close to a live Bowie performance as we’re likely to get these days.