Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Michael Jackson Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Dangerous (1991, Epic)

B –

Just like its predecessor, what ultimately keeps Dangerous from reaching the greatness of Thriller is its production. Quincy Jones is sadly no longer in the production chair, Michael himself co-producing the album with the assistance of Bill Bottrell (who also produced Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club and Shelby Lynne’s I Am Shelby Lynne), Bruce Swedien, and New Jack Swing pioneer Teddy Riley (from the R&B groups Guy and Blackstreet). Quincy’s absence is greatly felt, not just in the lack of warmth in the production (and this is a very cold-sounding album, if only for the overreliance on drum
programs) but in the sheer sprawl of the album. Under Quincy’s direction, both Michael’s albums and singles tended to be very tight and to the point, but both Dangerous and its individual songs feel way too long, and five of the fourteen tracks here top the six-minute mark, “Will You Be There” going on for nearly eight minutes. Dangerous consequently shares Bad’s trait of sounding very dated today, and its cold production makes it a tricky album to warm up to, but like Bad, there are also some good songs here to make up for the album’s iciness. The gritty rock/hip-hop hybrid “Black or White” has a great groove to it that’s hard to resist, and the danceable “Remember the Time” showcases Michael’s smoother vocal side and, with more organic production, might have worked on an album like Thriller. “Jam” is somewhat abrasive, but it’s also got a real kick to it that makes it the most successful of Michael’s many ventures here into New Jack Swing territory. The lyric of “Heal the World” is perhaps a bit too schmaltzy for its own good, but the melody is quite pretty. Like Bad, though, none of the non-singles here really leaves any kind of impression, and the album lacks the variety of an Off the Wall or Thriller, the hip-hop beats and icky ballads get really old after a while.

HIStory: Past, Present and Future – Book 1 (1995, Epic)

HIStory Begins:  A –  / HIStory Continues:  C –

One of the more utterly bizarre and unbelievably egotistical mainstream pop records of the ‘90s, History is a very frustrating album. The first disc (HIStory Begins) is a fifteen-track greatest-hits package, which obviously sports a lot of truly great music, but it’s also really terribly executed. The sequencing is completely haphazard, for one thing, and doesn’t present the songs in chronological order, and there are too many key songs that are absent, namely the Top Ten hits “Off the Wall,” “P.Y.T.,” “Human Nature,” “Smooth Criminal,” “In the Closet,” and “Will You Be There,” and the Number One hits “Dirty Diana” and “Say Say Say.” For all the major hits missing in action here, the hits disc bizarrely not only finds room for but closes with “Heal the World,” which is one of Michael’s least successful singles, having stalled on the Top 40 at #27. There’s naturally plenty of good music still here (“Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “She’s Out of My Life,”) but it’s just too badly-sequenced and incomplete to make a truly definitive career anthology, and The Essential Michael Jackson is the far superior hits package. The second disc (HIStory Continues) consists entirely of new material, and very little of it any good, unfortunately. Jackson bounces wildly back and forth between being really angry (the Janet Jackson duet “Scream,” “They Don’t Care About Us,” “D.S.”) and overly sappy (“Childhood,” “Earth Song,” “Smile”), which makes for an extremely schizophrenic and difficult listen, not helped any by the fact that a lot of the lyrics are considerably more self-absorbed  than Jackson’s typical material (particularly on “D.S.” and “Tabloid Junkie”), which only makes the album feel even less fan-friendly. The Number One hit “You Are Not Alone,” written and co-produced by R. Kelly, is very good and goes a long way towards redeeming the second disc, but elsewhere, Jackson strays too far from his winning brand of pop, and the album’s second disc consequently stands in stark contrast to the greatest-hits disc it comes with and never quite sounds like what a Michael Jackson album should sound like.

Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix(1997, Epic)

D

Two years after his worst album to date, Michael returns with a new album consisting mostly of remixes of songs from the last disc. The remixes aren’t bad, but they’re also mostly unnecessary and don’t improve on the songs any. The five new songs here are in the same mold as HIStory, offering up a cold and abrasive kind of industrial funk that’s intriguing but not terribly melodic and a far cry from the warmer pop and neo-disco that made Michael’s earliest albums for Epic so inviting. The title cut is actually one of Michael’s better singles of the ‘90s and helps redeem the album, albeit barely, but there’s little else here to recommend the disc.

Invincible (2001, Epic)

B

It didn’t sell very well and it got pretty bad reviews at the time, but Michael’s first album of the new millennium is easily his best platter since Dangerous, and quite possibly even his best album since Bad. For starters, the production is undeniably a lot warmer and more inviting here than it was on any of his Nineties albums, so the album’s just easier on the ears to listen to, and Michael only occasionally sounds like he’s wandering too far out of his comfort zone. At sixteen tracks, the album is awfully long and does contain a bit too much filler. (The worst offender is the anti-paparazzi “Privacy,” which just feels out of place and already covers territory Michael’s visited once too often before as it is.) The best moments here are pretty fun listens, though. The Rodney Jerkins production “You Rock My World,” the spoken introduction of which features a cameo from Rush Hour star Chris Tucker, is refreshing in its sheer sunniness – not since “Remember the Time” has Michael sounded so happy and playful on disc – and its irresistible pop bounce. The album’s best cut, “Butterflies,” co-penned by Floetry’s Marsha Ambrosius, is a first-rate slow-jam, sporting a clever arrangement (complete with trumpet and a wall of those trademark Jackson harmonies) that makes it nearly sound like a lost track from the Off the Wall sessions; the song’s lovely melody and the warmth of the production arguably make it the finest ballad Jackson’s put to record since “Human Nature.” The choppy, futuristic hip-hop of “2000 Watts,” co-written by Tyrese, is completely atypical of Jackson’s usual winning formula, but it’s a whole lot of fun and has a great chorus and is one of the few times Jackson has ever wandered into more mechanical, icy territory and actually come up with a winner. “Speechless” is simply goose-bump-inducing, its acapella opening and its gorgeous melody providing for one of Michael’s most captivating ballads in years. “You Are My Life” is nearly as pretty, while the album ends on a strong note with the two standouts “Whatever Happens” and “Threatened.”

Michael (2011, Epic)

D +   

A rather crass posthumous package, this is an unsettling album to listen to for two reasons. First of all, there’s a lot of reason to wonder whether you’re actually listening to the real Michael Jackson on several of these tracks; if it is, in fact, really him, there’s been an awful – and I truly mean an awful – lot of processing put on his vocals, which is incredibly off-putting. Whether or not it’s really him, there were allegedly other liberties taken in the liner notes; Dave Grohl, for instance, is credited with playing the drums on “Another Day” but Grohl himself has denied this. Secondly, the album features prominent and utterly jarring cameos from Akon and 50 Cent (on “Hold My Hand” and “Monster,” respectively), neither of whom actually sound like they have any real business being on a Michael Jackson record, and the cameos just smack of desperation by the Jackson camp to get Michael back on the charts. As for the songs themselves, the newer cuts here that Michael was allegedly working on before his passing are pretty unremarkable, but there are a few outtakes from prior albums that are fairly good.  The two Invincible outtakes (“(I Like) the Way You Love Me” and “Hollywood Tonight”) aren’t exactly A-grade stuff, but they’re still adequate enough to wonder how they got passed over for inclusion on that album in favor of forgettable filler like “Privacy.” The two best cuts here, “Much Too Soon” and “Behind the Mask,” are outtakes from, not surprisingly, Thriller. While it’s hard not to wish that Quincy Jones would have been brought in to finish these two songs, John McClain does a nice and tasteful job of turning both songs into completed productions that serve Michael’s legacy well. It’s just a shame the rest of the album doesn’t manage the same feat.

Xscape (2014, Epic)

B

A much more tasteful posthumous package than Michael, the deluxe edition of Xscape tries to avert the controversy that engulfed its predecessor by presenting the eight songs on this disc in both fully-completed form and the demo form they existed in prior to Michael’s passing, which gives you some insight into just how much input Michael himself had into the arrangements. Thankfully, the producers involved in this package – including Timbaland and Babyface – don’t go nearly as overboard here as the makers of Michael to try and modernize the songs or shoehorn guests into the proceedings, so this disc feels distinctly more like real Michael Jackson music than the previous album. It may sound anachronistic at times for that reason, but it also works well, since Jackson’s music seemed to suffer quite a bit over the years in his attempts to change his sound to stay relevant. While there are only eight songs here and they’re not all winners, the material’s still generally stronger here than that on Michael, and the synth-powered, hook-heavy “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” the shuffling Invincible outtake “A Place with No Name,” and the warm old-school R&B of the Bad outtake “Loving You,” are all particularly enjoyable. Best of all is the Paul Anka co-write/co-production “Love Never Felt So Good,” which dates back to the Thriller sessions and was first recorded on Johnny Mathis’ 1984 album A Special Part of Me. It’s a first-rate piece of songwriting to begin with, but it’s tastefully given a light-disco-style production that makes it sound exactly like a lost Off the Wall track; the final product makes for the perfect note for Michael to go out on after the botched patchwork of Michael.