The most compelling document of systematic decline since Gibbons became curious about the Roman Empire, The Best of David Bowie 1980/1987 gathers the singles and soundtrack efforts that David Bowie made during the decade that saw many of his contemporaries desperately trying to mesh with the times, sonically and philosophically. If Bowie managed to stay aloft longer or more successfully than his flailing peers, it had much to do with his near pathological ability to remain if not ahead of than completely in tune with the times.
Although this allowed for the massive success of his glam period and the artistic achievement of his late-1970s work, that same instinct to align himself with outside trends is what drove him to his nadir in the mid-1980s. In the ’70s, Bowie absorbed movements at rock’s fringes or near future, leading the way into new territories of sonic adventurousness. The ’80s, however, found him incorporating the contemporary mainstream — if the music here sounds neutered or tame (and it does), it’s because Bowie was no longer moving forward, no longer creating myriad new musical trends as he did within his fertile ’70s sandbox of artistic eclecticism. Moreover, the plasticity of most of his ’80s work is heightened by the knowledge that he was aping movements he himself inspired, such as the gothic dance pop of “Let’s Dance” or the new-romantic lull of his Never Let Me Down (1987) era, with the music consistently devolving into blurry copies of imitations of what once was as he continued to make one lateral slide after another.
If this disc marks the decline of Bowie as a relevant figure in the pop world, it also, paradoxically, contains some of his greatest work. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), his first album of the 1980s (and last classic), does this comp a favor, lending it four brilliant singles: the hippie elegy and ’70s-era Bowie epitaph “Ashes to Ashes,” all cascading synth strings and slithering bass, second only to “Heroes” as his finest recorded moment; the borderline fascistic pulse-throb and robo-glam of “Fashion”; the reptilian treated vocals of the swinging title track; and the forgotten near-classic “Up the Hill Backwards,” a soaring slice of new-wave divorcee-rock. Along with the simultaneously jittery and joyous Queen duet “Under Pressure,” these songs are the only means of redemption for Bowie’s Me Decade output. The artificiality-chic he cultivated at that time may have once worked for a pop artist like Andy Warhol, but it certainly failed the artist who once wrote the pop song “Andy Warhol.” So, why not allow the dance-schlock clatter to die a quiet death in the thin filaments of pop memory, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, funk to funky, hitting an all-time low.