by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Got to Be There (1972, Motown)
Michael’s solo debut, like most of his Jackson 5 and solo albums for Motown, has its share of filler, but there are also quite a few hits. Michael’s hit cover version of Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin” is here, but even better is the soaring R&B of the soulful, Leon Ware-penned “I Wanna Be Where You Are” (one of Michael’s all-time most underrated singles) and the lovely and amazing title cut, which showcases the then-young Michael’s vocal range to extremely powerful effect. Nothing here is bad, but there’s nothing terribly essential here beyond the three singles, either, so you can bypass this one if you’ve got the three singles on 45 or on a greatest hits package.
Ben (1972, Motown)
There’s only one chart hit on this disc: the Number One title track, the theme song to the movie of the same name. It’s not exactly Michael’s greatest moment – it is, after all, a tribute to a pet rat – but the album is surprisingly decent despite the lack of singles, and “Greatest Show on Earth,” “We’ve Got a Good Thing Going,” “What Goes Around Comes Around,” and “You Can Cry on My Shoulder” are definitely more impressive than any of the filler from the preceding album.
Music and Me (1973, Motown)
Easily the least essential of his four solo albums on Motown, there’s simply nothing all that inspired on here, and you get the feeling that even Michael realized it, ‘cause he doesn’t sound nearly as invested in the material here as he did on Got to Be There. This is also the only one of his Motown albums to not yield a Top 40 hit, the closest thing to a “hit” here being the sappy “With a Child’s Heart,” which peaked at #50.
Forever, Michael (1974, Motown)
Four albums into his solo career, and Michael still doesn’t get a chance to show off his writing or his instrumental chops, a frustration which would lead to him exiting the label shortly after and signing with Epic. The music is at least thankfully a little bit more mature this time out than that on Music and Me, however, and takes Michael in a hipper and more soul-oriented direction, cuts like the Eddie and Brian Holland-penned top 40 hit “Just a Little Bit of You” not that far removed from the Philly-soul sound of the Spinners or Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. The album still lacks the charm and the strong singles of his debut, but it’s at least a step back in the right direction, and cuts like “One Day in Your Life” and "We're Almost There" certainly outshine anything from Music and Me.
Off the Wall (1979, Epic)
Michael’s first solo album on Epic is a massive leap forward from his solo albums for Motown. Jackson is clearly asserting much more creative control this time out and is starting to write some of his own solo material, and he’s also got a winning producer in the form of Quincy Jones, fresh off a run of hits with the R&B/funk duo The Brothers Johnson, whose fabulous bassist Louis Johnson also appears here, co-penning one cut and providing amazing bass work on several others. The album would prove to be Michael’s first true blockbuster, spawning four major hits. The percussive groove of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” penned by Michael, went Number One and remains a party classic to this day, while “Rock with You,” penned by Rod Temperton of Heatwave (“Boogie Nights,” “Always and Forever”), remains one of the most irresistibly inviting, warm, and infectious singles of the disco era. The album’s title cut, also penned by Temperton, cleverly alternates from eerie-sounding verses to a vibrant, happy chorus, while “She’s Out of My Life,” penned by Tom Bahler, is wisely given a very stripped-down arrangement that makes Jackson’s powerful vocal seem all the more emotional and vulnerable and lets the beauty of the song’s melody stand for itself. This is perhaps the first solo album of Michael’s that truly comes down to something more than just the singles, and it’s obvious there was great care given to the surrounding tracks, be it the sweaty, Rick James-like funk of “Working Day and Night,” the soulful cover of Paul McCartney’s “Girlfriend” (originally from the Wings album London Town), the lovely “It’s the Falling in Love,” or the fabulous Stevie Wonder-penned “I Can’t Help It.”
Thriller (1982, Epic)
Arguably the single greatest pop album of the Eighties, seven of the nine cuts here were Top Ten hits. The iconic Rod Temperton-penned title cut remains the definitive Halloween record and incorporates film legend Vincent Price to brilliant results. The Number One hit “Beat It,” penned by Michael himself, is a remarkable rock/R&B hybrid that still sounds innovative and unique to this day and is highlighted by a guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen that remains one of Eddie’s most iconic moments on record. “Billie Jean” boasts the album’s best-arranged rhythm track, sporting such cool touches as Louis Johnson’s legendary recurring bass line and Tom Scott’s lyricon. The slick and soulful ballad “Human Nature,” penned by Toto’s Steve Porcaro and Richard Carpenter’s songwriting partner John Bettis, is the album’s prettiest moment and would later be sampled to great effect on R&B trio SWV’s 1993 hit “Right Now.” The funky album opener “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” works up a sweaty groove that remains infectious over the song’s six-minute-plus running time, and the song would similarly later be sampled to great effect on Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music.” Though they’d make two superior duets later on in “Say Say Say” and “The Man,” the playful Paul McCartney duet “The Girl Is Mine” is still a lot of fun and provides a much-needed breather on the otherwise fast-paced first side of the disc, while the album’s most underrated single may be the funky party jam “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” penned by Quincy Jones and James Ingram and later sampled in Kanye West’s “Good Life.” The only two songs here that weren’t released as singles are still extremely fine tunes, the neo-disco of Rod Temperton’s “Baby Be Mine” (Temperton would later write a Top 40 hit for the Manhattan Transfer with the very similar-sounding “Spice of Life”) and the album-closing slow jam “The Lady in My Life.” The album does jump styles quite a bit in its aim to appeal to as many markets as possible, but that’s also part of why the album was such a success and why it works so well artistically – it never seems repetitive, and for every genre exercise here, Michael and Quincy’s focus on making sure the hooks never let up gives the disc a thread that helps bring it all together. This album is truly a must-own for any serious music aficionado.
Bad (1987, Epic)
None of the songs on here are as legendary as those on Off the Wall or Thriller, but what truly keeps this record from being quite as iconic or timeless as either of those discs is that, like Quincy Jones’ own late ‘80s album (Back on the Block), it’s just considerably less organic, relying heavily on drum programming and synthesizers in lieu of traditional instruments, so it never feels as warm and inviting as either of its two predecessors and it hasn’t aged nearly as well, either. Whereas Thriller still sounds fresh today, Bad just sounds terribly dated (particularly on its title track, which has aged horribly), and you can’t help but imagine how much better this album might have been if Michael and Quincy had taken a more organic approach. The production aside, Bad is still pretty good. Even if there’s nothing here quite as irresistible as, say, “Beat It” or “P.Y.T.,” most of the singles are still fairly strong, especially the infectious R&B shuffle of “The Way You Make Me Feel” and the ominous yet danceable “Smooth Criminal.” The ballad “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” (a duet with Siedah Garrett) is quite gorgeous, while the title cut, in spite of its dated production, still has its charms, particularly in its multi-layered chorus that showcases Jackson’s abilities as a vocal arranger. (Interestingly enough, the track was originally intended to be a duet with Prince, which would truly have been a fascinating pairing.) The lyric of “Man in the Mirror” is awfully schmaltzy, but the music is still attractive. The distinctly late-‘80s production style doesn’t help “Another Part of Me,” which is already a pretty bland and generic cut to begin with. The nasty “Dirty Diana,” which aims for another rock-R&B fusion along the lines of “Beat It,” to the extent that Steve Stevens (Billy Idol’s guitarist) has been called in to provide the obligatory rock-style guitar solo, lacks both the fun spirit and the immediate hooks of the latter song, and “Dirty Diana” is consequently arguably the weakest of Michael’s Number One hits of the ‘80s. Whereas the non-singles on Thriller and Off the Wall still had a lot of warmth and pop hooks to them (i.e. “I Can’t Help It,” “Baby Be Mine,”) the filler here is truly that: very forgettable and mechanical filler.