15. Young Americans (1975)
That Is a Fact: Recorded in Philadelphia during a period in which Bowie became obsessed with soul music and R&B, Young Americans was an insanely drastic change from Diamond Dogs. Even Bowie’s vocals on the record are barely recognizable as the same person and the music shifted into a pitch perfect encapsulation of the Philadelphia soul scene at the time. Bowie was self aware enough to realize he was co-opting a movement, and deemed Young Americans “plastic soul”, a term given to Mick Jagger regarding a white man singing traditionally black music. Bowie embraced the term, though, and was eventually offered an opportunity to play on Soul Train, one of the few white musicians to get the chance to do so.
Sound and Vision: Perhaps Bowie’s most straightforward album art, Young Americans simply features the rock star gazing longingly into the camera and holding a lit cigarette. Following Diamond Dogs, this cover was tamer than anyone thought Bowie capable of. With a nice plaid shirt and a truly majestic mane of hair, Bowie looks ready to be your friend. What could be more inviting?
Someone’s Back in Town: John Lennon assisted in the production of “Across the Universe” and “Fame”, while a young Luther Vandross contributed backing vocals for several tracks. The real star guest is Carlos Alomar, who would work with Bowie for 30 years after meeting for the first time while working on this record. Besides pianist Mike Garson, no one has worked more with Bowie than Alomar.
Ch-Ch-Changes: This is arguably the biggest genre shift that ever occurred in Bowie’s long and storied discography. For a guy who constantly jumps between genres, that’s really saying a lot. The glam rock of Diamond Dogs is entirely absent, replaced by R&B and soul so convincing you’d swear this is what he’d been doing all along. Bowie’s ability to pick up what is great about a genre and mesh it with his own sensibilities to make something approachable for everyone is as evident as ever here.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Bowie had several ideas for this record before landing on Young Americans and in traditional Bowie fashion, some of them were pretty damn weird. The strangest option is without a doubt “The Gouster”, which is a term for a way of dressing that was popular in Chicago in the 1960’s. Gousters were young black men who dressed like the gangsters of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.
After All: For such a drastic genre shift to be a success is a rare feat, and one Bowie pulls off with aplomb. His immersion into the Philadelphia soul culture helped to craft and contour a record with an immense amount of respect to the scene as well as incredible nuance and some of his most popular songs to date. Regardless of what Bowie record is your favorite, “Fame” and “Young Americans” are most likely in your top ten Bowie songs. They’re just so damn good, and so is this record.