288 – Bowie albums ranked

Since David Bowie’s death a couple of weeks ago, I’ve playing his albums pretty incessantly. Playing them all within a short time made me think about which ones I prefer. I’m sharing, in case it’s helpful to others thinking of expanding their Bowie collections.

David Bowie is in my second rank of favourite musicians: not someone whose music I’m completely obsessed with, but definitely one of the greats. He fits into mainstream rock, but like the most original and creative rock artists (The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Radiohead) he was renowned for making radical changes in his music from time to time. In fact, Bowie’s changes were more radical and more frequent than any other major artist.

My decade-by-decade summary would be:

  • The 1960s: An awkward debut, one brilliant single, and a very good second album.
  • The 1970s: Mostly stunningly good, progressing through five utterly distinct phases.
  • The 1980s: Starts with one very good album. After that, several dreadful albums that I can’t bear to listen to it.
  • The 1990s, 2000s and 2010s: Everything from 1995 on was very good to excellent.

You can see that I have a strong preference for his more adventurous work, and a very strong dislike of his most commercial work (from the mid 1980s).

To be more specific, here is my ranking of all his albums, from best to worst, with some comments about each.

1. Low (1977). The second of three albums in a row that are just amazing. Low is the most radically unusual album by any mainstream rock artist that was actually meant to be listened to. It’s strange, fragmentary, and quite unique in its sound, but it’s absolutely compelling. Brian Eno helped make it that way.
2. "Heroes" (1977). This follow-up to Low has a darker feel, and the songs are more like traditional songs. Brian Eno is back, and Robert Fripp on guitar really stars, especially on the magnificent title song.
3. Station to Station (1976). A bit of the white funk/soul of the previous album Young Americans continues, but it’s much more sinister and challenging, especially the title track. Wonderful, memorable songs.
4. Hunky Dory (1971). Here is another group of three consecutive brilliant albums, this time from the start of the 1970s. They each sound completely different. Hunky Dory is the album to play to someone who likes relatively traditional songs and needs to be convinced about Bowie. Many highlights but "Life on Mars" is incandescent.
5. The Man Who Sold the World (1970). Utterly different from the albums before and after it, this one is sort of heavy metal/prog. Dark, apocalyptic and sinister, and mostly pretty heavy, but exciting throughout.
6. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). Most serious fans consider this his best album. I’ve got it at number 6. It’s still brilliant, but not as brilliant as the others above it. It’s off-centre pop-rock with great songs.
7. Black Star (2016). It’s hard to properly assess the worth of an album that’s only been released for a few weeks, especially a Bowie album, but at the moment at least this one seems outstanding. The title track is creepily uncomfortable in a way that only Bowie at his best can do. The album sounds like an artist thriving, rather than one on the brink of dying.
8. Diamond Dogs (1974). Excellent production, excellent songs, a great unified feel for the album. This was the last of his run of four early-70s glam rock albums before he started heading off in radically different directions (again).
9. Lodger (1979). This was the third of the Berlin trilogy (after Low and Heroes). It has some excellent tracks, but not quite the sustained brilliance of the other two.
10. The Next Day (2013). Given Bowie’s ill-health and a 10-year gap, fans were not expecting to see another album, let alone one this good. Surprisingly, my top 10 consists of eight albums from the 1970s and two from the 2010s.
11. Heathen (2002). One of five very good Bowie albums released between 1995 and 2003. This is my favourite of the five. It’s interesting and consistently good.
12. Earthling (1997). Almost as good as Heathen, though it’s very different. He’s being creative with “Drums ‘n’ Bass”, an English genre of electronic music.
13. Space Oddity (1969). The title track is such a standout that it boosts my ranking of this album, but the rest of the album is good too, in a folky sort of way.
14. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980). Like Space Oddity, this contains an outstanding track ("Ashes to Ashes" this time) and a set of other very good tracks. This was the last really good album he made for 15 years.
15. Outside (1995). This was the next very good album he made after Scary Monsters (there were seven others in between). He reunited with Brian Eno, who was such an important part of Low and Heroes, for another album that is quite strange. It’s not as artistically successful as those earlier gems, but it is definitely worth having.
16. Young Americans (1975). One of his most radical departures: from the glam rock of Diamond Dogs to the white funk and soul of this one. Contains two of Bowie’s very best songs, "Young Americans" and "Fame", but the rest of the album is not as strong.
17. Reality (2003). His last album before health problems and other activities kept him away from recording for a decade. It would have been a very good final album, though his actual final album is substantially better.
18. Hours (1999). My least favourite of the albums he released after his mid-1990s return to form, but it’s still pretty good.
19. Tin Machine II (1991). Tin Machine was Bowie’s attempt to break away from the hyper-commercial dross of his mid-1980s albums. It partly worked. It sounds like an American, heavy-guitar-based rock band with Bowie as singer – because that’s what it was. I quite like both Tin Machine albums, but something was lacking. Originality, probably.
20. Tin Machine (1989). See Tin Machine II. This was the first of the two Tin Machine albums. Also quite good but not compelling.
21. Aladdin Sane (1973). Many Bowie fans would gasp at me putting this below Tin Machine, but it has never really connected with me. I think it’s by far the weakest of his 1970s original albums. "Jean Genie" is great, but the rest is just good.
22. Black Tie, White Noise (1993). The first hint that a return to something like his best form might be possible, after a decade of mediocrity. It’s still too commercial sounding in an American way, but there are some interesting and enjoyable parts.
23. Toy (2001). This album was made for commercial release but it never came out (I guess it will at some stage). It was leaked online in 2011. It mainly consists of re-makes of old Bowie songs from the 1960s. It’s OK, but not great.
24. David Bowie (1967). His debut was completely different from everything that followed. It now sounds very dated. There are a few nice songs but too many novelty songs that make me cringe.
25. Pin Ups (1973). Disposable. Mostly not-very-good cover versions of some of Bowie’s favourite songs from the 1960s. "Sorrow" was great, but the rest weren’t.
26. Buddha of Suburbia (1993). Some soundtrack music, with words added to some pieces. Not very interesting.
27. Let’s Dance (1983). Bowie’s most commercially successful album by miles. It’s slick, but creatively dead. The death was even more obvious on his next two albums (which are the final two in this list) but it was already there on this one. Even his hair was awful in this period.
28. Tonight (1984). It’s hard to know which of these two mid 80s albums to put last. They are both execrable. Over-produced, boring, and lacking any good original songs.
29. Never Let Me Down (1987). See Tonight.


287 – Farmers like trees

In many parts of the world, the original establishment of farms required removal of the existing vegetation, creating a different, much less natural, environment. There can be a tendency for some people to view farmers as people who don’t value the environment, but rather seek to destroy it for economic gain. In fact, many farmers have a strong affinity for nature. They have to make a living from their land, but that doesn’t mean they are indifferent to the environment around them.

In a recent study in the Australian state of Victoria (Polyakov et al. 2015), we found that farmers and other rural landholders, on average, pay more for land that includes a proportion of woody native vegetation on it compared with land that is fully cleared. They could, perhaps, make more money from land that is fully cleared, but the price of such land in the market is lower than land that includes some native vegetation – generally native forest or woodland.

Of course, this is only true up to a point. They don’t prefer land that is fully wooded because that leaves no room for agricultural production. Figure 1 shows the pattern we discovered.


Figure 1. Effect of the proportion of native woody vegetation on land value by property size

As the proportion of farm area devoted to woody native vegetation increases above zero, the average value of farm land increases. Eventually it reaches a maximum value at some level, beyond which futher increases in native vegetation reduce land value. Beyond a certain proportion of woody native vegetation, we reach a point where the land value is lower than the value with no trees at all.

While the general pattern is the same for all farm sizes, the numbers are quite different. For a small 1-hectare property, land value is highest when it includes about 45% woody native vegetation. Such land is about 25% more valuable than fully cleared land. These high values reflect that the owners of such small properties are probably there mainly for lifestyle reasons, not to make money from farming (Pannell and Wilkinson, 2009).

At the other end of the spectrum, large landholders (e.g. 1000 hectares) are probably mainly conducting commercial agriculture. However, they still like trees. For them, land value is highest when it includes about 20% native vegetation. At this level, land value is about 4% higher than for fully cleared land. For these farmers, land with anything up to 40% tree cover is worth more than fully cleared land.

For other property sizes, the results fall in between these cases but follow the same pattern.

Interestingly, if we look at the absolute area of native vegetation instead of its proportion, the optimal area is larger on larger farms. For example, the optimal area of native vegetation is 0.45 ha on a 1-ha property, 4 ha on a 10-ha property, 30 ha on a 100-ha property and 200 ha on a 1000-ha property.

farmtreepicjpgYou might be surprised that the optimal area of woody native vegetation for large commercial farmers is so high. I was. We think that there are several contributing factors: the high amenity value of woody native vegetation in this region, its contribution to agricultural production particularly through provision of shelter for livestock, and the presence of areas of low-fertility land on many farms meaning that there is little to gain from clearing it. In some cases it may be that farmers are anticipating breaking the land up into small parcels and selling them to lifestylers who value trees highly.

These results are based on statistical analysis of 7,200 property sales in the region since 1992. Of course, not all farmers with the same farm size have the same assessment of the benefits of native vegetation. However, even those who don’t think it is valuable need to be prepared to pay extra for partly wooded land, or else they will be outbid by other farmers who do see value in trees.

The current extent of native woody vegetation in the region is lower than the extent that would maximize its amenity value to many landowners. In other words, the welfare of many people living in this area could potentially be increased by restoring native vegetation on cleared lands. Of course, whether this is worth doing also depends on the costs of restoration.

There is some public investment in vegetation restoration in the region. Because there is high heterogeneity in the private benefits of native vegetation, there is scope for targeting of this investment. Landowners with high private benefits from re-vegetation would be willing to participate at relatively low public cost.

I did an interview with ABC Radio about this post on 27 November 2015. Listen to it here.

Here is a related video from my free online course, Agriculture, Economics and Nature. It’s an interview with farmer Mike McFarlane about his investments in environmental improvement on his farm, and his support for other nearby farmers to do likewise.

The course will become available again soon. To receive information about when and how you can register, email mooc-are@uwa.edu.au.

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. and Wilkinson, R. (2009). Policy mechanism choice for environmental management by non-commercial “lifestyle” rural landholders. Ecological Economics 68, 2679-2687. Journal web page  ♦ Ideas page

Pannell, D.J., Marshall, G.R., Barr, N., Curtis, A., Vanclay, F. and Wilkinson, R. (2006). Understanding and promoting adoption of conservation practices by rural landholders. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 46(11): 1407-1424. Journal web site

Polyakov, M., Pannell, D.J., Pandit, R., Tapsuwan, S. and Park, G. (2015). Capitalized amenity value of native vegetation in a multifunctional rural landscape, American Journal of Agricultural Economics 97(1):299–314.  Journal web page  ♦ Ideas page