The Ultimate Collection (Motown ‘96) Rating: A-
Whipped into shape by their dictatorial tyrant of a father, young siblings Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and (of course) Michael became Motown’s last truly dominant singles act. They made an immediate splash because of their young ages and flashy dance routines (not to mention some great songs), while youngest sibling Michael was clearly a major star in the making. Though only 11 years old at the time of their first hit, Michael was already a seasoned performer and surprisingly soulful lead vocalist, while his brothers came through with impeccable harmonies and the legendary Motown house band fleshed out their sound. Under the careful supervision/tutelage of Motown supremo Berry Gordy and a songwriting team (which included Gordy) called “the Corporation,” in 1969/1970 Michael and the gang strutted through “I Want You Back” (one of the best songs ever, period), “ABC” (almost as good), “The Love You Save” (less impressive but still pretty great), and “I’ll Be There” (co-sung by Jermaine and featuring a different musical director/producer in Hal Davis), each of which shot straight to the top of the charts, making the youngsters instant celebrities (no group since has had their first four singles all hit #1 in the U.S.). These snappy songs were irresistibly infectious, utterly joyous slices of bubblegum pop on which the youngsters’ instantly likeable enthusiasm shines through, though “I’ll Be There” was actually a tender adult-themed ballad that has since been much-covered, most notably by Mariah Carey who also had a #1 hit with it. A cartoon series brought the band to larger than life status, though in truth they (as a group) never topped their initial burst of creativity, making this single cd collection slightly over stuffed at 21 tracks. After all, there is a certain sameness to several of these songs, but there are quite a few other notable efforts, such as "Who's Lovin' You" (a Smokey Robinson cover), "Never Can Say Goodbye" (a #2 hit), and "Got To Be There" (actually a solo Michael Jackson song, one of four on the album), all of which feature great lead vocals from Michael. Indeed, perhaps the most striking thing about this album is what a terrific singer young Michael was, so assured and worldly beyond his years, though some may weary of his hyper, high-pitched declarations over the course of this entire cd. Later on the group moved beyond bubblegummy dance pop and earnest ballads to embrace funk ("Get It Together") and disco ("Dancing Machine," a #2 hit in 1974), while the 7-minute "I am Love (Part 1 and 2)" showed an increasing experimentation; "Part 1" starts as a moody slow burning ballad before "Part 2" delivers a guitar-heavy jam with a percolating up-tempo groove. Pretty surprising given the group's reputation for kiddie fluff, and some of this stuff is kiddie fluff to a degree, especially in the nursery rhyme/puppy love quality of the lyrics. Still, The Ultimate Collection includes most of the group's prime work with Motown, and aside from a questionable selection here and there (Michael's #1 hit "Ben" should've been included instead of Jermaine's solo song "Daddy's Home"), this compilation provides strong evidence that the first big "boy band" is still the best one.
Destiny (Epic ‘78) Rating: B+
The Jackson 5 left Motown in 1975 to strike out on their own, signing with CBS's Philadelphia International Records and renaming themselves the Jacksons since Motown still owned the Jackson 5 name; Jermaine, who was married to Berry Gordy’s daughter, stayed with Motown, to be replaced by youngest brother Randy. After two albums under the legendary Gamble and Huff production team, Destiny, the group's first album for Epic Records, was the album on which the brothers assumed control of their own (dare I say it?) destiny by writing, producing, and performing on the album themselves, with talented young multi-instrumentalist Randy (then 17) and of course Michael (now a wizened 20 years of age) doing the lion’s share of the writing. Comprised primarily of smooth, catchy up-tempo dance tracks with tight, punchy horn arrangements, and lush, soothing ballads, Destiny can be seen as a precursor to Off The Wall, though both this album and its successor Triumph have been greatly overshadowed by Off The Wall and Thriller. Still, unlike those Michael Jackson solo albums these two Jacksons albums haven’t been played to death and therefore still sound fresh, and Destiny paved the way for MJ’s future success, spawning a minor hit single with the sunny dance pop of “Blame It On The Boogie” and a major top 10 hit with “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground),” which perhaps lingers too long at 8-minutes but which nevertheless expertly offers the simple pleasures of losing yourself in its hooky grooves. Other up-tempo tracks include “Things I Do For You,” a high energy, horn heavy, oddly singable dance number, and “All Night Dancin’,” another long groovy jam that shows the increased funkiness of the band since their early Jackson 5 days. Heck, there’s even a notable guitar solo here and on several other tracks as well, as the musicianship on the album is quite accomplished throughout (of course, much credit there goes to the session pros who helped out), while the richly layered sound of the title track attests to the group's solid production abilities. On the ballad front, the lush, dreamy “Push Me Away” is quite strong, while airy efforts such as “Bless His Soul” and “That’s What You Get (For Being Polite)” are also good, especially the former, a duet with Michael (who of course shines brightest) and Jackie that also perks up and is pure pop at times. On the whole, this is a consistent, filler free album whose main faults are that some of the songs are too long, and that aside from the two known hits most of these tracks are good-to-very-good-but-not-great and are somewhat interchangeable at times. Still, Destiny was a consistently enjoyable statement of independence that has aged pretty well.
Off The Wall (Epic ‘79) Rating: A-
Forever distancing himself from his big brothers and shedding his kiddie persona, Michael Jackson delivered this assured and enjoyable album, which set the stage for his unprecedented commercial success soon to follow. The album immediately peaks with “Don’t Stop To You Get Enough,” which shows off Jackson and producer Quincy Jones' strengths: silky smooth strings, horns put in just the right places, funky Nile Rodgers-styled rhythm guitar, synthetic beats that all but beg you to get up and dance, and Michael's falsetto vocals add up to a smashing success despite the fact that the song sounds a dated to the disco era. The other classic singles here, written by Rod Temperton, are “Rock With You” and the title track, both of which are almost as good, in part because of the undeniably adult sexiness that Jackson exudes (this was before the words "Michael Jackson" and "sexy" became mutually exclusive). None of the other songs quite equal the hits, but horn heavy, energetic dance tracks such as “Working Day And Night” and "Burn This Disco Out" try to match “Don’t Stop To You Get Enough;” neither succeeds but the former in particular is a game attempt (the latter is also good but is too reminiscent of "Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)"). "Get On The Floor" delivers smoothly sexy dance pop along the lines of "Rock With You," while his cover of Paul McCartney's "Girlfriend" and "It's The Falling In Love" are lightly melodic and extremely catchy pop songs. Rounding out the track list (which I've described out of order), the droopy ballad "She's Out Of My Life" is redeemed by Jackson's great vocal (when his voice cracks at the end it is arguably the single most emotional moment on any Michael Jackson album), and Stevie Wonder's airy "I Can't Help It" is pleasant but is probably the least essential track here. Still, the album boasts three stellar singles and several other very good songs, some of which admittedly haven't aged all that well. They still sound good, but they're definitely tied to the late '70s/early '80s, though Jones' ultra-professional production and Jackson's charismatic vocal performances make all of these songs enjoyable anyway. Thankfully, the annoying vocal ticks and production gimmicks that would mar later solo albums are kept in check here, and Off The Wall was a highly accomplished effort from an emerging artist who would soon be crowned “The King Of Pop.”
Triumph (Epic ‘80) Rating: B+
With Michael rejoining his brothers after his solo success, Triumph was another fine effort that arguably saw The Jacksons at their peak as a unified group, though it didn't have any singles as formidable as “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” or "Blame It On The Boogie." Still, the album actually peaked higher on the charts, hitting #10 in the U.S., and certainly the much-sampled, anthemic (if a bit cheesy) album opener "Can You Feel" should sound instantly familiar. Heavy on synths and orchestral arrangements but featuring plenty of funky guitars too (some played by Jacksons, though the session pros again lend a helping hand), this album is even more dance oriented than Destiny, as only the pleasantly melodic and singable "Time Waits For No One" (no, not the Stones song) and the airy "Give It Up," with its stellar vocals, would qualify as ballads. On the flip side of that coin are "Your Ways," a smooth, groovy dance track with falsetto flavored vocals, "Walk Right Now," a really funky toe tapper, and "Wondering Who," another enjoyable, guitar heavy dance track. "Lovely One" and "Everybody" are solid efforts as well but are overly reminiscent of “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” and "Get On The Floor," respectively, while "This Place Hotel" (originally and more fittingly called "Heartbreak Hotel" but renamed to avoid confusion with the famous Elvis Presley song), possibly my favorite song here, is more pure pop but is still danceable. On the whole, this is another consistently strong collection that lacks the transcendent peaks of Michael's best solo albums; ironically, he actually wrote or co-wrote more songs on Destiny and Triumph than either Off The Wall or Thriller, but judging by the results I'd say that he saved his best stuff for his solo albums (or maybe Quincy Jones just brought out the best in him?). For his part, Randy again steps up in the songwriting department, co-writing five songs, and Jackie does too, writing or co-writing four songs and even singing lead on "Wondering Who." As usual, Michael sings the vast majority of lead vocals, however, and as usual he puts in a strong, highly individualistic performance, while his brothers' harmonies remain assets as well. Like all Jacksons/Michael Jackson albums from this general time period, Triumph is perhaps a bit too glossy for its own good and sounds a bit dated at times, but on the whole the album earns its title, as The Jacksons (all of them, not just Michael) continued to grow as writers and performers while again delivering consistent quality throughout.
Thriller (Epic ‘82) Rating: A
Jumpstarted by the success of Off The Wall and a mind blowing, show stopping performance on national television during Motown’s 25th Anniversary Special, where he introduced the "Moonwalk" to an astounded audience, Thriller became a phenomenon, and to this day it's still the best selling non-greatest hits album of all time. What made Thriller such a runaway success was its massive hit singles. For starters, “Wanna Be Starting Something” was an upbeat dance track to rival “Don’t Stop To You Get Enough” (its mindless "ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa" lyrics became a much repeated catchphrase), while “Thriller” is a lightweight but supremely fun pop song that became legendary in large part due to its groundbreaking video, a mini-movie with eye popping special effects. In truth, without the visuals the song isn't as impressive (for example, the Vincent Price cameo sounds hopelessly hokey), and even the video seems considerably less earth shattering today. Of course, this was back when Michael was young and good looking (not to mention before he became white and his creepy habit of sleeping with children came to the fore), so people were able to take him seriously in the role of a leading man. Anyway, “Beat It” was a hard hitting rock song that still used dance beats. Of course, it had another classic video, but this one is equally impressive on the radio, as Michael manages a tough, gritty vocal and the song is boosted by a knockout Eddie Van Halen guitar solo. Rounding out the singles that have inarguably achieved classic status, “Billie Jean” is probably Jackson's signature song: its notable features are its adult lyrics (“but the kid is not my son”), dramatic delivery, and Chic (i.e. Nile Rogers-like) guitar solo. Needless to say this song formed the basis of another unforgettable video that showcased Jackson’s spectacular dance routines. In addition to the great singles, the album tracks here are better than on Off The Wall, as "Human Nature" is a gorgeously hooky dance ballad, while "Baby Be Mine" and "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" are upbeat, melodic pop songs. Unfortunately, the Paul McCartney duet "The Girl Is Mine" and "The Lady In My Life" are basically bland adult contemporary ballads, and these songs are the primary reasons why Thriller doesn't quite live up to its legendary reputation. After all, take away the album's cultural significance, which came about primarily because of Jackson's imaginative videos, then what you have here is simply a mostly-terrific pop album that's fun to sing and dance along to. Of course, like Off The Wall the album sounds very much of its time (i.e. it sometimes sounds dated), but for all its flaws there's a reason why with this album Michael Jackson hit a peak of popularity (without sacrificing his art, it should be noted) that has yet to be duplicated, by him or anyone else. Note: Jackson became the first black artist to achieve such mass popularity, and he was also the first black artist to be showcased on MTV. Note #2: As on Off The Wall, Rod Temperton wrote three songs here ("Thriller," "Baby Be Mine," "The Lady In My Life"), which bears mentioning since he tends to be an overlooked contributor to Jackson's enormous solo success.
Bad (Epic ‘87) Rating: B+
Facing the impossibly daunting task of following up the biggest selling pop album of all time, Michael Jackson took his sweet time before delivering Bad. Of course, he wasn't exactly idle in the five years between albums, as 1983 saw the release of his #1 hit duet with Paul McCartney "Say, Say, Say," 1984 the half-hearted Jacksons Victory album and its controversial, consumer unfriendly tour, and in 1985 Jackson co-wrote (with Lionel Richie) the monstrous #1 all star benefit single "We Are The World." Returning to his solo career, on Bad Michael shouldered a larger burden of the songwriting duties, writing 9 of its eleven songs. Despite a plethora of hit singles, five of which (“Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man In The Mirror,” “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Dirty Diana”) topped the U.S. charts, a feat that not even Thriller achieved, Bad was a very good album that simply failed to live up to the high standards set on Off The Wall and Thriller (sorry, but comparisons are inevitable). That said, part of the albums negative critical reception at the time of its release was because Jackson’s unparalleled popularity was held against him, as many people felt that with his immense popularity and pull he should’ve approached more socially relevant subjects. The closest he comes to showing a social conscience is when singing the excellent “Man In The Mirror,” a catchy pop song (which he didn't write!) that preaches self-improvement and is a built in answer to those critics to mind their own houses. Elsewhere, Michael sticks to personal topics he feels more comfortable with, though the sappy sentiments of love songs such as “Liberian Girl” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” (a duet with Siedah Garrett, who co-wrote "Man In The Mirror" with Glen Ballad and who sounds just like Michael!) contrasts with the hard-edged "Dirty Diana," a moody techno-metal excursion that could've used a little less fake crowd noise and a little more Eddie Van Halen. Actually, in all fairness Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens does a fine job here and the song itself is an impressively dramatic hard rock move. However, none of the singles here quite excite me like "Beat It" (insert joke here) or "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough," and the album tracks are mostly mediocre. To quote the All Music Guide: "songs three through six, from "Speed Demon" to "Another Part of Me," (form) a sequence that's utterly faceless, lacking memorable hooks and melodies." Also, the album is totally of its time (programmed electronics are everywhere as Michael sought to modernize his sound), making it sound dated, albeit in different ways than Off The Wall or Thriller (which for all their greatness had similar problems). Also worth mentioning is that this album is harsher lyrically and musically than past efforts, whereas most of his earlier triumphs were upbeat and joyous; indeed, paranoia is starting to sink in on songs such as "Leave Me Alone" (actually a CD and digital download-only bonus track but one of the best songs on the album). Of course, considering his enormous talent, which few people have ever doubted, it's not surprising that Bad is still a high quality album. Sure, Michael’s over-reliance on vocal coos and hiccups starts to become intrusive on songs such as “The Way You Make Me Feel,” but that's still a fun dance pop song, and I'm also partial to "Smooth Criminal," a mysterious, funky number that also cracked the top 10 and arguably had the album's most memorable video (unsurprisingly, the album spawned several impressive videos, though none were as iconic as the best Thriller ones). The image conscious title track, on which Michael gets tough, is also fun, and though the album failed to attain classic status, it still delivered highly professional dance pop, with quite a few stellar songs.
Dangerous (Sony ‘91) Rating: B+
This album is much better than I remember it being; in fact, it's quite good, though not without significant problems. Signing with Sony for obscene amounts of money and severing his partnership with Quincy Jones - a mutual parting of the ways as Jones had a business deal in place that made working together impossible and Jackson felt that a fresh approach was needed anyway - Jackson enlisted the help of "New Jack Swing" producer Teddy Riley (who co-writes 7 songs), and well as producers Bill Bottrell (3 co-writes) and Bruce Swedien. The resulting sound was even harsher and more jittery than on Bad, as Jackson obviously sought to stay hip with the emerging "gangsta rap" crowd, hence the rap cameos and more street-wise attitude. Of course, Jackson can't quite help himself, so there are moments of pure pop as well, not to mention some cheesy ballads ("Heal The World," "Keep The Faith") that aim to tug at your heartstrings but which sound like Hallmark commercials (I would've put "Gone Too Soon" in that category before June 25, 2009 as well but context is everything and now it sounds more like his own impossibly moving epitaph). There are too many other songs here that repetitively come and go without distinguishing themselves from one another, and this is the first Jackson album to seriously suffer from cd-era length, as Dangerous runs on for a bloated 77 minutes. That said, there are some outstanding songs here, and of course the album spawned a plethora of innovative, elaborate videos as well. The album starts strongly with "Jam," which delivers truly rocking dance pop, and the next song, "Why You Wanna Trip On Me" (like "Bad" before it, Jackson was obviously trying out hip street lingo here), has a good hard-hitting groove and a catchy chorus, one of several that effectively matches Michael's edgy lead vocals with airy backing chants. The lustful "In The Closet," with its supremely catchy if underutilized "there's something about you baby" chorus, is an undeniable highlight (though the single edit is superior), as is the sweetly melodic "Remember The Time," which features some of his most passionate vocals ever on record. The album's most famous song, "Black Or White," also infamous due to its allegedly anti-Semitic original lyrics (since changed) and creative but controversial video (also since changed, though he still went overboard with his signature crotch grabs), was another highlight due to guest guitarist Slash's good riffs and the song's brightly catchy pop chorus (on a side note, those who complained that Bad didn't have enough of a social conscience couldn't say that about Dangerous with songs such as this and "Heal The World"). Slash also impresses on "Give In To Me," this album's heavy, intense rock number, and "Who Is It" is also easily recommendable, being a hushed, moody, at times elaborately arranged, yet of course danceable pop number. My favorite song on the album, indeed one of my favorite Jackson songs, period, is "Will You Be There," a brilliantly uplifting gospel pop song that many know as the theme song to the movie Free Willy. Of course, this version of the song is too long (almost 8 minutes) and the single edit is again better, but it still works very well within the context of the album (and the movie). On the whole, this album, like Bad, gets a bit of a bad rap, because though it's a bit hit and miss there's plenty of enjoyable material here, even if there's too much of it. Despite being a worldwide smash, though more in line with the hugely successful Bad than the outrageously successful Thriller, the album is actually somewhat overlooked and forgotten today, and is as famous for its failures as its successes; when Nirvana's Nevermind overtook Dangerous atop the U.S. charts, it marked the ascension of alternative rock into the mainstream.
The Essential Michael Jackson (Sony ‘91) Rating: A
There are a number of Michael Jackson compilations on the market, but this 38 track, 2-cd set is easily the best one I've seen. For one thing, it spans his entire career, starting with three Jackson 5 songs ("I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save"; should've at least included "I'll Be There" and "Never Can Say Goodbye" as well) and early solo songs such as "Got To Be There," "Rockin' Robin," and "Ben." I would've liked to have seen more Jacksons songs included, but the most famous ones ("Blame It On The Boogie," "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)") are accounted for, and disc one also contains the four top 10 hits from Off The Wall and the seven smash hit singles from Thriller. Disc two is primarily devoted to Bad (an overly generous eight songs) and Dangerous (seven songs), again generally the best ones and often the superior single edits, which is reason enough to own this album even if you have all of MJ's proper studio albums. His underwhelming last two albums, 1995's HIStory: Past, Present and Future (one cd of hits and another of new material) and 2001's Invincible, are represented by a scant two songs total, which is about right, sad to say, though his hit duet with sister Janet, "Scream," also should've been included. As most people know, in 1993 came charges of improper behavior with a child, and his career was never the same after that. What little music surfaced in the years afterwards was lyrically too self-absorbed and on the attack, and musically lacked his earlier sense of fun and offered nothing that he hadn't done better before. Throw in his increasingly bizarre appearance due to cosmetic surgery run amok, behavior that could often only charitably called strange (the New York Post famously dubbed him "Wacko Jacko"), and more child sexual abuse allegations (it should be noted that he settled the first case and was acquitted in the second one), and Michael became viewed by many as a freak show whose eccentricities overshadowed his music. Until he died suddenly of heart failure on June 25, 2009, then the world mourned and remembered the young effervescent Michael Jackson who was simply one of the greatest performers the world has seen, his many subsequent wilderness years of underachievement a mere footnote. That's how it seems now, with him having been buried but a few days ago, but time will tell what the world remembers most about Michael Jackson. I'd like to think that what he'll be remembered for the most are the many stellar songs contained on this chronologically sequenced collection, which is all that most casual fans will need and which is a great listen for diehard fans as well, even though my personal Michael Jackson playlist would look different (but not too different).