That’s 46 CDs—and they take us only to the chronological midpoint of Bowie’s career. If you’re a casual listener, you should be able to save some cash and shelf space while getting what you need from the two-CD The Singles 1969-1993 or a half dozen of Bowie’s best other albums. But if you’re the sort of serious fan who wants it all—OK, almost all, since there are occasional minor omissions—these well-packaged box sets (which are also available on vinyl) are the place to go. They include not only period live and studio LPs but EPs, singles, mono recordings, alternate mixes, and more.
The latest retrospective takes us to a time when Bowie did a rather abrupt about-face. In the late 70s, he had collaborated with musician Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti on a series of dark, adventurous, and critically acclaimed albums, including Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger. All of them had sold reasonably well but perhaps not well enough to suit Bowie, who opted for a much more commercial approach for the trio of studio LPs he issued during the period covered by this box.
Unfortunately, only one of those three contains a significant amount of strong material, and that’s not just one critic’s opinion: most reviewers have been lukewarm at best about the bulk of the music on those records, and Bowie himself later spoke of them with regret. The good news is that there’s much more to Loving the Alien, which includes among other things two long concerts, each featuring generous amounts of first-rate material from earlier periods; and a double album of rarities, singles, and collaborative efforts.
Here’s a look at everything in the box, which like the previous three anthologies comes with a hardcover book packed with notes, credits, and photos:
- Let’s Dance—Bowie teamed with producer and Chic cofounder Nile Rodgers for this unabashedly commercial 1983 set, which ranks among his bestselling albums. It opens with its most powerful ammunition: “Modern Love,” “China Girl,” and “Let’s Dance,” all of which became hit singles. The box’s title notwithstanding, this album sounds less like the work of an alien than of someone who has been spending lots of time at Studio 54. Still, it features great hooks and manages to update Bowie’s sound while retaining enough of his quirkiness to stand out from the crowd. “China Girl,” which Iggy Pop cowrote with him, is particularly successful.
- Serious Moonlight—A fiery 21-track 1983 Vancouver concert delivered on two discs, this was previously available only as a video. It includes lots of then-current and earlier hits (“Golden Years,” “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” “Young Americans,” “Modern Love,” “‘Heroes,’” and more), plus a fantastic reading of the Merseys’ “Sorrow,” the sax showcase that Bowie included on 1973’s Pinups, and a high-octane version of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat.”
- Tonight—The title track is one of five collaborations with Iggy Pop on this commercially quite successful but overproduced 1984 set, which includes a reverent and interesting but ultimately unsatisfying cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” “Blue Jean,” which attempts with some success to recapture the groove that powered the hits on Let’s Dance, is a highlight. The nadir: the title cut and “Don’t Look Down,” both of which sound like what might have happened if Bob Marley had turned to glam rock and then started cranking out Muzak for elevators.
- Glass Spider—Bowie performs live in Montreal in 1987 on this two-disc, 25-track set, which was first released in 2007. There’s some duplication of the Serious Moonlight program but not a lot; Bowie seems less interested here in surveying the highlights of his entire catalog than in running through recent material, which is one reason the show isn’t quite on par with the earlier concert. Still, there are more than a few good moments, including a hard-rocking “China Girl” and a blistering, anthemic “Absolute Beginners.”
- Never Let Me Down—After filling Tonight with covers and songs he wrote in collaboration with others, Bowie turned inward for most of this 1987 set, authoring eight of the 10 songs by himself. The other two are the title track, which he cowrote with his longtime guitarist Carlos Alomar, and “Bang Bang,” an Iggy Pop vehicle. (Another cowrite, “Too Dizzy,” appeared on the original album, but Bowie reportedly disliked it; it was omitted from all subsequent reissues and is absent here, too.) Bowie’s theatrical impulses come out on this record, which, like Tonight, seems overproduced.
- Never Let Me Down (2018 version)—Bowie reportedly talked about rerecording Never Let Me Down, and he got his wish, albeit posthumously: this CD combines his 1987 vocals and some of the original instrumentation with fresh contributions from musicians selected by Bowie prior to his death. Most of the new versions differ noticeably from the originals and most are arguably better. By comparison with the 1987 edition, also, this sounds more like a rock and roll album and less like a production experiment gone wrong. But the rerecording doesn’t change the fact that the material simply doesn’t rank with Bowie’s best.
- Dance—This new compilation collects a dozen assorted long versions, such as dance mixes of “Tonight” and “Blue Jean,” some of which have not previously been available on CD and most of which now sound anachronistic. Bowie fanatics may be glad this material is here, but others will understandably consider it dispensable.
- Re:Call 4—This two-CD, 28-track collection of odds and ends is a mishmash: there are quite a few single, remixed, and vinyl album versions of tracks that appear elsewhere in the box and will be of interest only to completists, and there are some total train wrecks, such as “Magic Dance.” But these tracks share the program with some must-haves, such as the single “Absolute Beginners,” the catchy “Underground,” and the ethereal “This Is Not America,” a collaboration with Pat Metheny that was featured in the soundtrack of The Falcon and the Snowman. Also here: a straightforward reading of the old pop hit “Volare,” which may seem particularly bizarre coming from Bowie until you remember that this is a guy who harmonized with Bing Crosby on Christmas standards; a Live Aid duet with Mick Jagger on “Dancing in the Street”; and two concert performances with Tina Turner, a version of “Tonight” that far outshines the studio version and a medley that combines Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” with the identically named 1962 Chris Montez hit.
So there you have it—some hits, some misses, some gems, some garbage. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would call this Bowie’s best period, but there’s no question that it yielded noteworthy new music, not to mention strong live versions of more than a few earlier classics. You just have to sift through a bit of fluff to find these winners.