A one-man band with an appetite for change

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The Independent Culture

I was once asked to review 17 of David Bowie's albums in one go. Part of a splendid EMI reissues drive, this was everything he had put out from the cross-legged Space Oddity in 1969 to the garage-band workout Tin Machine 20 years later. My conclusion: of those 17, six are undisputed classics; five guarantee enormous pleasure to anyone who cares about post-war music; three are inessential but better than anything by the Red Hot Chili Peppers; and the remaining three will stink the place out. Not bad for the output of one man over two decades. And for the record, the three stinkers came at the end - Tonight (1984), Never Let Me Down (1987) and Tin Machine. At which we might have filed Bowie alongside Elton John and Rod Stewart: well-liked middle-aged artists who never reclaimed the creative peaks of their 1970s. But unlike that pair of Queen Mums, Bowie rediscovered his mojo in the 1990s through magpie-like experimentation with drum 'n' bass, industrial rock and other young people's music. On 1995's pivotal Outside, as he neared 50, he was reunited with Brian Eno, some 15 years after the fruitfully collaborative period that gave us Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979).

Note that Low, with its gloomy ambient side and its wonky, ramshackle pop side, and Heroes, an austere, decadent rock odyssey, were released in the same year. Even if you'd never heard the vast sweep of atmospheric, barrier-pushing sounds contained therein, Bowie's sheer on-paper prolificacy would make him unique among pop's indulgent sloths. And these experimental albums yielded hit singles too. No other performer has produced such a lot of various and shifting music in such short order.

Midway through touring the apocalyptic Orwellian opera of Diamond Dogs across the States in 1974, Bowie found time to visit Sigma Sound studios in Philadelphia and record Young Americans - not just another blinding album, but a completely new direction, soul. Oh, and he weighed eight stone at the time, subsisting on a diet of orange juice, coffee and cocaine.

Gloriously post-Beatles, Bowie's restless appetite for change has always been his trump card. Few albums faithfully cleave to one sound (even the conceptual Diamond Dogs moves from the Weimar cabaret of "Candidate" to the funk of "1984"). That and his incredible voice, which developed from cockney whimsy through sleazy rock operatics and belting soul to the unique, branded instrument it is today.

Bowie is a one-man band whose shared writing credits remain rare, with a sixth sense for storming, inventive musicians: the guitarists Mick Ronson, Earl Slick, Carlos Alomar and Reeves Gabrels (also a co-writer), the pianist Mike Garson, the drummer Dennis Davis, and his recurring muse, producer Tony Visconti, who was back on the last two albums, Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003). Neither of which you'd sensibly swap for an Elton John.

Andrew Collins presents the 6 Music Chart and the Saturday afternoon show on BBC 6 Music

Finest moments

* 'Life On Mars?' (from Hunky Dory, 1971)

Cosmic, piano-led epic, inspired by 'My Way' and one of the most lyrically obtuse pop hits of all time: "From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads".

* 'Five Years' (from Ziggy Stardust, 1972)

Show-stopping, chest-beating vocal performance over an ascending, string-assisted apocalyptic ballad. Oh, and it opens the album.

* 'Station To Station' (from Station To Station, 1976)

Kraftwerk-acknowledging, 10-minute, trans-European mutant symphony that introduced the "Thin White Duke" alter-ego.

* 'Ashes To Ashes' (from Scary Monsters And Super Creeps, 1980)

A bonfire of his vanities ("Major Tom's a junkie"), this No 1 helped invent the New Romantic movement.

* 'Little Wonder' (from Earthling, 1997)

Drum 'n' bass-driven rocker with a lovely cockney vocal Andrew Collins