Compilation albums are often a little tricky to get right – they typically miss off one or two of the most important things, either due to differing preferences or misguided focus. Looking now, there’s relatively little difference between Best of Bowie (2002) and Nothing Has Changed (2014). It seems the template for the perfect David Bowie compilation is fairly well set in stone.
Both albums start with the exceptional Space Oddity, slightly unbelievably originally released in 1969. Although Bowie had released a handful of things before this, as the perplexingly sequenced triple CD version of Nothing Has Changed attests, but this does seem to be where his story really begins.
After the sad news of his death a month ago, like most people, I set about listening to as much as I could of his back catalogue, and the singles seemed a good place to start.
When I was looking for a David Bowie singles collection, I had decided on the double CD version of Nothing Has Changed – the tracks are in a sensible order, it’s a digestible amount of music, and most of the key tracks are there. As it turns out, it covers, to some degree, the entirety of his career too, although I’m sure other compilations are on their way. The early key hits – The Man Who Sold the World, Changes, and Oh! You Pretty Things very quickly build a picture of Bowie’s repertoire.
Many people have written more eloquently than I ever could about how Bowie was a man out of his time (possibly on a different planet too), and how he was able to speak to pretty much everybody in a language that they could understand. But what’s particularly striking here is just how varied he was. Some of his early 1970s hits would have been very clearly contemporary. Others, like Life on Mars? and Starman, were years ahead of their time.
You don’t have to like everything here. I can’t help but wonder if All the Young Dudes was the result of a few too many controlled substances, and Sorrow falls a bit flat for me. I also find myself feeling a little underwhelmed by the trio of Fame, Golden Years, and Sound and Vision – he seemed to be playing it a little too safe. But that’s OK – I imagine even the most ardent of fans struggles with a few things here. Anyway, there’s always “Heroes” to pick things up.
Disc one of this set takes us up to 1980, ending with the iconic Ashes to Ashes, leaving the remaining 35 years to squeeze uncomfortably onto the second disc. This is probably fair – he made his name in the 1970s after all – but it does feel like a bit of a whirlwind tour at times.
It starts well, with the trio of Under Pressure, Let’s Dance, and China Girl, and actually the quality never really lets up. But by the time we get to the 1990s with Jump They Say, there’s only room for one track from each studio album. Not even that in some cases actually – I’m inordinately fond of the 1996 collaboration with Pet Shop Boys Hallo Spaceboy, but it’s hardly representative of the Outside album, and other albums from this period are omitted in their entirety.
But what this collection has, which others did not, is some of Bowie’s more exquisite later moments – particularly the deeply introspective Thursday’s Child and the glorious Where are We Now? I’m not hugely keen on the exclusive Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), but it’s nice to have it here too, to complete the cross-section of a five-decade career.
For all the failings it may have, and they questions you might come up with, Nothing Has Changed is an exceptional collection, by one of the most important musicians ever to have lived. If you don’t already have his entire back catalogue, this is an essential purchase.