David Bowie is not one of the greatest rock n roll artist of all time, he is one of the greatest artists of all-time. Full stop. He's a man who practically turned his life into a performance art piece, redefining what the term "rock star" could even mean.
He is most people's first exposure to "alternative", though he surely pre-dates that term. He acted as a gateway for, quite literally, millions of people into art that didn't quite fit into a neat little box. He made music for everyone who felt just a little bit off-center, and that turned out to be nearly everyone.
His legacy isn't just a brilliant musical catalog, or being one of the few musicians who could actually act. He gave comfort to the odd, the weird, the misplaced, and eventually his disciples took over pop culture. He took the term "rock star" with a veneer of ironic detachment, only to drop the quotation marks and actually become one. His whole life felt like an art project, and his death feels oddly personal for such a gigantic star. There was only one David Bowie, despite a legion of imitators.
I'll admit right off the bat that this list is wrong. It's kind of insulting to Bowie's mammoth legacy to reduce it down to a list. He's much, much larger than that. However, that's the bit I'm committed to, and it's the best way I can pay him tribute. Your ranking of Bowie albums is correct for you, as he connected with everyone a little differently.
His most recent album was already receiving raves as a return to form. Bowie's been fighting cancer for 18 months, but he managed to keep this a secret from nearly everyone. So he made an album, knowing he was dying, released to a public that had no idea. The video for "Lazarus" now reads as a public goodbye.
9 Raw Power
OK, this isn't a Bowie album, it's Iggy and the Stooges. David Bowie produced this album, showing off another of his talents, and had a huge hand in shaping its sound. Raw Power is a great, glorious mess of an album, and a contender for Album Zero of punk rock. That's right, in Bowie's spare time, he helped invent entire genres. And no, I'm not just stuffing the list, as ranking this caused me to cut Young Americans, another great album.
8 The Man Who Stole the World
Bowie's first great album. Now, by the time I encountered Bowie, he was already not just an established star, but one of THE stars of pop music, so it's hard for me to re-contextualize this as the follow-up to the novelty single, "Space Oddity." Bowie's career was no sure thing at this point, and right out of the gate, he makes a hard left turn away from what had come before. He abandons the folk-rock sound of his earlier work, and creates a harsh, gnarled sound that isn't quite heavy metal or prog. This album is often cited as the harbinger of glam rock, so there you go, Bowie creating yet another genre where one didn't exist before.
7 Diamond Dogs
One of his more critically and commercial divisive albums, Diamond Dogs is my personal favorite Bowie. It marked the end of his Spiders from Mars period, and the album is loosely based on the works of George Orwell, but Orwell never could swing like Bowie does in "Rebel, Rebel." He kisses off the era perfectly with the line, "You like me and I like it all." If you can find a copy of the original record without the genitalia airbrushed out of the half-dog/half-Bowie creature on the cover, you could pay off all of your student loans. This is the moment glam transitioned into punk, so of course it's going to be my favorite.
6 Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Upon Bowie's return from Berlin, he looked out on a pop music landscape, particularly in the UK, that openly copied his style, but had largely excluded him from commercial success. He was a founding father and cultural touchstone, but he didn't crank out the hits. He dropped this bomb in 1980, and showed the new wavers how this stuff was done. He also demonstrated his gift in the new form of video with the delightfully weird "Ashes to Ashes." He started playing with his own history, re-casting Major Tom as an addict, trying to chase the high of going to space again.
5 Station to Station
The Thin White Duke. Cultural critics like to toss around the word "problematic" for anything in pop culture that doesn't conform within a socially acceptable range of norms. Station to Station goes so far beyond being merely problematic that it is more accurately described as insanely confrontational. It's hard to tell how much of the Thin White Duke character is meant to be ironic, given Bowie's heroic consumption of cocaine at this point in his life. He publicly mused that Britain should have a fascist leader (they ended up with Margaret Thatcher, proving that these jokes write themselves sometimes), and he started collecting Nazi regalia. This is probably a personal low point for Bowie, but man... the music really is great. Bowie took pop music to its avant garde extremes, and it's unlikely the public would have followed anyone else down this path. This album sounds like what would happen if Kraftwerk tried to make an R&B record. It's truly extraordinary.
4 Let's Dance
Hard core Bowie fans are most likely to hate this album, while casual Bowie fans will likely list it among their favorites. This is not a coincidence. Despite his mammoth commercial success, part of the appeal of Bowie is his outsider status, and in the early 80s, he decided to become a mainstream pop star. He fired his band, hired Stevie Ray Vaughan to play guitar and Nile Rogers of Chic to produce, and proceeded to crank out disco-infused top 40 hits. Yes, it's a blatant sell out, and it did lead him down a path to a creative nadir, but it's also a testament to Bowie's talents as a songwriter. He's telling the world that he could just toss off a bunch of popular singles and sleep on a pile of money, but that's not good for anybody. Bowie is the only guy who could make a simple pop record sound like an art project. Hell, he even turned an Iggy Pop song into a top 40 hit ("China Girl").
3 Aladdin Sane
Ziggy Stardust goes to America, and goes deeper down the hole of drugs and insanity. The iconic lightning bolt on the face cover is perhaps the definitive Bowie iconography for a guy who specialized in that sort of thing. The album was written while touring the US, and America both fascinated and repulsed Bowie. Given his brother's struggles with schizophrenia, he internalized this sort of internal struggle and ran with it. The "A Lad Insane" message is a bit on the nose, but boy, could he deliver it. Bowie showed how comfortable he was on the line of normalcy, and his fearlessness of tipping over.
2 The Berlin trilogy (Low/Heroes/Lodger)
Another cheat, but these three albums work so well together, it's hard to separate them. In 1977, as punk exploded in the UK as Year Zero, Bowie retreated to Berlin to record with Brian Eno (because of course he worked with Brian Eno). He immersed himself into kraut-rock, and experimented with song structures and recording techniques. He started mixing in more instrumental tracks and disguising his voice with synth-infused vocals. While the rest of world seemed to be stripping down to the bare essentials, Bowie moved in the opposite direction and became more interested in adding layer upon layer of studio manipulation. He was a guy completely unafraid to zig while the rest of his contemporaries were zagging. Oh, and then he snuck his best pop song ever into the mix. In the midst of all of the harsh tones and instrumentals, he recorded "Heroes".
1 Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
Because of course. I'd argue Aladdin Sane is a better album, the Berlin trilogy is his artistic prime, and Diamond Dogs, as I've mentioned, is my personal favorite. But that doesn't matter, Ziggy Stardust is the fictional persona that threatened to overtake the real man. Bowie claimed that he created the fictional Ziggy by combining the attributes of two men to make the perfect rock star: the cerebral talents of Lou Reed crossed with the energy and raging id of Iggy Pop. There's some truth to this, but it obscured a truth that would be revealed over the next 40 years... this combination already existed, with no ironic distance required, in David Bowie himself. It took him about a decade to finally drop the imaginary quotation marks around "rock star" and finally become one, but he did it by eventually burying Ziggy and becoming Bowie. This was the shield that allowed Bowie to develop into the star he was born to be, while all the while free to pursue the art he loved to make. Of course, this only worked because the songs are great. While Bowie maintains a proper ironic detachment from Ziggy, the listener does not. This album doesn't require emotional distance, it requires engagement. It is one of the great albums of pop music, and the creation of the persona of Ziggy Stardust is one of the great artistic achievements, as it found life outside of the recorded tapes.
David Bowie may rest in peace, but Ziggy Stardust will never die.