Like most music legends of his era, David Bowie’s recorded works have been wheeled out multiple times in increasingly elaborate and expensive ways, each update giving a little something extra. But in the five years since his passing on January 10, 2016 — just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album — there has been a deluge of beautifully curated, seemingly definitive boxed sets, live recordings, videos, digital singles, Record Store Day specials and more.
It’s one of the most thorough, thoughtful and well-executed archival campaigns in an era full of them, varying presentation and approach — late ‘60s acoustic demos here, some ‘90s concerts there, and on his birthday today, previously unreleased covers of Bob Dylan and John Lennon songs — to unveil a huge amount of material in an unpredictable and non-overloading way, sometimes observing an anniversary, sometimes not.
“David had a very specific vision about how he wished his catalog to be curated and released,” says Kevin Gore, catalog president of Warner Music, which distributes much of Bowie’s music. “We are honored to continue to carry out this plan and promise some exciting new projects to come.” (The Bowie estate, which rarely comments on anything, declined Variety’s request for comment.)
Bowie had essentially retired after suffering a minor heart attack onstage in 2004, settling in New York with his wife Iman to raise their daughter and releasing just two albums of new material in eleven years. But his ever-expanding discography indicates that he spent no small amount of time during that final decade preparing this vast and ongoing archival series. There’s a lot in that archive: Bowie dropped his first single, “Liza Jane,” as a 17-year-old in 1964; his final album of new material, the eerily prescient “Blackstar,” arrived just two days before his death nearly 52 years later.
Bowie gained the rights to the bulk of his material after years of legal battles with former manager Tony Defries, a cigar-chomping impresario who compensated himself grandly for his substantial role in the singer’s superstardom. And like many once-burned superstars, Bowie kept tight control from then on, continually seeking new ways to monetize his creativity (remember “Bowie Bonds”?) and snapping up stray recordings and other items from his career whenever and wherever they became available.
“I don’t know if he ever used the term ‘hoarder,’ but Bowie kept and collected everything,” said Alex Bodman, who was allowed rare access to the singer’s voluminous vaults while working on Spotify’s stunning Bowie photo exhibit that took over the subway station in the singer’s old New York neighborhood for a few weeks in 2018. “We were very privileged to have such incredible access to his archives.”
Bowie began revealing that archive in earnest around twenty years ago, first with a series of deluxe album reissues, then a dazzling video retrospective at New York’s Museum of Television and Radio, and official releases of long-bootlegged live recordings such as the classic “Ziggy Stardust” artifact “Live Santa Monica ‘72” and Thin White Duke-era “Nassau Coliseum ’76.” Next came the “David Bowie Is” exhibit that toured museums during the 2010s with a bounty of outfits, instruments, posters, documents and other ephemera. Then the launch of a lavish series of career-spanning boxed sets, beginning with the 12-CD “Five Years 1969-1973” — and after his death, the floodgates opened. What follows are several, but by no means all, of the highlights from this deep-diving series.
“Five Years (1969-1973)” / “Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976)” / “A New Career in a New Town (1977-1982)” / “Loving the Alien (1983-1988)” These sprawling, multi-disc boxed sets are completist almost to a fault, containing all of Bowie’s studio albums in those eras, along with concurrent live albums (in original and expanded editions), rarity collections, and even new versions of albums he decided to give the revisionist-history treatment. There’s a fascinating early version of “Young Americans” with a different tracklist and a deeper mix; the remixed version of 1979’s “Lodger” has much sharper definition, for better and worse; the music on 1987’s deservedly maligned “Never Let Me Down” has been almost entirely overhauled. However, the series seems to have been paused, possibly due to uncertainty over how to deal with the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, a creative low point in Bowie’s career (summed up by two words: Tin Machine).
“Conversation Piece” Released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “Space Oddity” album, this massive set collects nearly everything Bowie recorded in 1968 and ’69: demos, BBC sessions, acoustic recordings as a duo with his friend John Hutchinson, and two different mixes of the album. The deluxe edition is packaged as a lavish book containing virtually all the information anyone could want to know about Bowie during those years.
“Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74)” / “I’m Only Dancing (Soul Tour ‘74)” Bowie’s 1974 tour (exhaustively detailed by this writer in 2014) found him changing his sound completely over the course of six months, starting off as a rock artist with “Diamond Dogs” material and finishing as a soul singer with “Young Americans.” Following the original “David Live” album, these sets document the second and third phases of the tour. “Cracked Actor” nicely tidies up a long-bootlegged concert, segments of which are featured in director Alan Yentob’s 1975 BBC documentary of the same name, while “Soul Tour” is a relatively lo-fi document of the R&B-flavored final leg of the jaunt. While Bowie’s voice, ravaged by cigarettes, cocaine and overwork, is often raspy, it’s apparently the best extant recording of the fascinating, if flawed, tour. (Released last fall, it is currently only available as a rare, limited-edition Record Store Day vinyl edition, but such releases usually appear on streaming services after a few months of collector-indulging exclusivity.)
“Live in Berlin” EP / “Welcome to the Blackout (Live London ’78)” Bowie’s tour setlists were usually static, and the four-month 1978 jaunt originally documented on the “Stage” live album was no exception. However, these are livelier concerts and “Blackout,” recorded for a still-unreleased film in Bowie’s hometown on the last two dates of the tour, throws in a couple of rarities, including an off-the-cuff version of “Sound and Vision.”
“Serious Moonlight (Live ’83)” Enter Bowie as blonde, suntanned megastar. This tour, in support of his biggest-ever album “Let’s Dance,” rampaged across the globe for much of 1983, and it’s captured in its full 21-song extravagance here. Recorded mostly in Vancouver toward the end of the tour, the concert was released on VHS decades ago but got the full-album treatment for the first time in 2019.
“Ouvre le Chien (Live Dallas ’95)” While Bowie’s mid-‘90s work was criticized at the time for aping the trends of the day — industrial music and drum n’ bass, specifically — history has been kinder to those albums, “Outside” and “Earthling” respectively. This 16-track album drops the sonic trappings so the songs shine through.
“Changesnowbowie” This nine-track, mostly acoustic set was recorded for the BBC to commemorate Bowie’s 50 th birthday in 1997 and features an unusual array of tracks from across his career, including such rarely performed songs as “Repetition” and “Quicksand,” along with stellar versions of “Lady Stardust” and “The Man Who Sold the World.”
“Glastonbury 2000” This nearly two-hour album and video captures another special occasion: Bowie’s return to England’s longest-running music festival, where he’d performed 29 years before. This 22-song headlining set spans that same time frame, from “Life on Mars?” and “Starman” to “Little Wonder” and “I’m Afraid of Americans,” with most of his biggest hits as well. (And while it’s not a recent release, anyone seeking a document of his final concerts from his final 2004 “A Reality Tour” should check out the massive album and video of the same name, which includes up to 35 songs.)
“The Next Day Extra” / “No Plan” (EP) These addendums to Bowie’s final two albums compile (respectively) outtakes and remixes from 2013’s “The Next Day,” and songs from his off-Broadway musical “Lazarus” that were recorded during the sessions for “Blackstar,” his last album. They would seem to cap Bowie’s musical chronology — but “Blackstar” saxophonist Donnie McCaslin has mentioned songs demoed for that album that he’s never heard again. Will we? Like so much else in the Bowie oeuvre, part of the allure is not knowing what’s coming next.