by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Fantastic (1983, Columbia)
The duo’s debut album went ignored entirely in the U.S. upon its initial release and didn’t chart until after the release of their second album. Even then, it still didn’t fare all that well, but there’s a good reason for that: frankly, it’s just not anywhere near as good as the two albums that would follow it, the duo having yet to find the right style for themselves and instead spending too much of the disc adopting tough-guy personas and even repeatedly dabbling in rap. That isn’t to say there aren’t some decent pop hooks here – “Club Tropicana” and “Nothing Looks the Same in the Light” both clearly hint at Michael’s yet-to-be-fully-realized gift as a composer – but there’s just a little too much emphasis placed within the grooves here on style and not enough on strong songwriting, and the result is an album that’s only sporadically rewarding and ends up being unintentionally comical in its worst moments, particularly on the cringe-worthy “Young Guns (Go for It).”
Make It Big! (1984, Columbia)
It may verge on bubblegum during much of its running time, but then again, bubblegum has rarely ever been as perfectly-crafted as it is on the duo’s sophomore outing. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” is as charmingly effervescent as ‘80s pop gets, and the Motown-flavored stomp of “Freedom” is every bit as fun. The band gets more serious on the bitter synth-pop of “Everything She Wants,” one of three Number One hits included on this album, while the album also contains George Michael’s first great (and perhaps even still his greatest) ballad in the sultry, saxophone-laden “Careless Whisper,” still one of the best records of all-time for late-night listening. Even the filler here is shockingly catchy, though, be it the incredibly playful “Credit Card Baby,” the retro-flavored “Heartbeat,” or the Isley Brothers cover “If You Were There.” Michael may have made albums that were much more artistic than this, but he also never bettered this album, either. There’s little denying this album’s status as one of the most fun full-lengths of the ‘80s, and it’s easy to see why this album moved millions.
Music from the Edge of Heaven (1985, Columbia)
The final Wham! album is less an album piece than it is a hodgepodge collection of eight odds and ends, both old and newly-recorded, but it’s mostly pretty good stuff. The duo’s ubiquitous but unforgettable holiday single, “Last Christmas,” can be found here, as can Michael’s first solo single, the chilling and atmospheric ballad “A Different Corner” (still one of his best ballads to this day), and the Top Ten hits “I’m Your Man” and “The Edge of Heaven,” the latter a fun, bouncy cut complete with a brass section and Elton John playing piano. There’s also a fun and vibrant re-recording of the somewhat silly but still enjoyable “Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do)” that betters the original version and a great live recording of a soulful ballad called “Blue” that the duo apparently never got around to recording in the studio. The only cut here that really falls flat is “Battlestations.” Otherwise, it’s a fairly great way for the duo to have gone out, even if they were really just tying up loose ends.
Faith (1987, Columbia)
Michael’s first solo album still remains both his best and his most fun full-length solo effort. Six of the nine tracks here were released as singles, and the album boasts the Number One hits “Father Figure,” “One More Try,” “Monkey” (although the track was heavily remixed by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for single release, so it sounds noticeably rawer and a little less vibrant here), and, of course, the well-remembered rockabilly-styled title track. This album also boasts Michael’s most criminally underrated solo single, the self-penned after-hours jazz balladry of “Kissing a Fool,” which sounds like it dates back to the era of vocalists like Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole; fittingly, it would be covered in later years by Michael Buble. Even the non-singles like “Hard Day” and “Look at Your Hands” still have hooks strong enough to make them sound as if they could have been hits themselves. The album’s only major flaw is that is also includes Michael’s worst solo single, the provocative “I Want Your Sex,” which may actually sound fairly tame today in light of some of the mainstream pop and hip-hop singles that have been released since then, but is still no less cringe-inducing. [The delightful 2010 remastered edition comes with a second disc full of single edits, B-sides, alternate mixes, and rarities, highlighted by live covers of the Stevie Wonder album cuts “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and “I Believe When I Fall in Love.”]
Listen without Prejudice, Vol. 1 (1990, Columbia)
A much-too-serious attempt to be taken more seriously by critics, Prejudice is certainly more artistically ambitious than its predecessor, but it’s also not anywhere near as fun and it just ends up feeling like a rather somber album, even on the more uptempo cuts. Still, it’s hard not to admire the songcraft, and there are some good songs here, including the Top 40 hits “Praying for Time,” “Freedom ’90,” and “Waiting for That Day,” which cleverly incorporates the chorus from the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” into its closing moments. The lovely ballad “Mother’s Pride” wasn’t a single, but it nonetheless got a fair amount of radio play during the Gulf War, while “Heal the Pain,” the album’s best moment, boasting an amazing multi-layered backdrop of self-sung harmonies, was similarly passed over as a single but is one of Michael’s most melodically sophisticated and remarkably Beatlesque compositions. (Fittingly, the song would be re-worked as a duet with Paul McCartney many years later for inclusion on a hits package.)
Older (1996, DreamWorks)
After a six-year layoff induced by a bitter legal battle with Sony, Michael finally emerged on the short-lived DreamWorks label with this disc. Like his last album, it’s a little too serious for its own good and doesn’t have a whole lot of especially uptempo or playful moments, but it’s still fairly good. “Jesus to a Child” is a chilling and emotional album-opener, even more spine-tingling than “Praying for Time” from the album before it, while “Spinning the Wheel” is an appealing slow-jam and the sultry, more club-friendly “Fastlove” boasts an irresistible R&B groove and remains one of Michael’s most underrated singles. “Star People” and “You Have Been Loved” are also both very good as well. The hooks might not be as effortless or immediate as those on Michael’s first two solo discs, but they still sink in fairly quickly and the album as a whole is quite underrated here in the U.S., even if it’s hard not to wish here that Michael would lighten up just a little.
Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael (1998, Epic)
A double-disc compilation offering one platter of fast cuts and another of slow cuts, the sequencing is admittedly haphazard and not chronological, but the track selection is great and very thorough, even going so far as to get permission to include his Aretha Franklin duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)” and his live rendition with Queen of their classic “Somebody to Love.” [Sadly, no one involved thought to look into licensing out the Top Ten hit “Heaven Help Me,” Michael’s incredibly underrated lost duet with former Wham! bassist Deon Estus.] Overlooking “Heaven Help Me,” all of Michael’s post-Wham! Top 40 hits are included here, and the compilers have even thrown in “Careless Whisper” and “A Different Corner” from his Wham! days. There are also a few great rarities tossed in as well, namely Michael’s excellent and atmospheric covers of the Jobim classic “Desafinado” (done as a duet with, fittingly enough, Astrud Gilberto) and Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” There are no new cuts, unfortunately, except on the international edition, which includes a newly-recorded cover of Stevie Wonder’s “As,” done as a duet with Mary J. Blige.
Songs from the Last Century (1999, Virgin)
Considering just how incredibly non-prolific Michael has been in his post-Wham! career – not as much as, say, Bobby Brown, but still incredibly quiet – it’s disappointing that his first new studio outing in three years is actually just a covers disc. Like most covers albums, it’s not bad, but it’s not really anything you’re likely to come back to all that often, either. His covers of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (made most popular by Roberta Flack in the early ‘70s after the inclusion of her version in the Clint Eastwood film Play Misty for Me) and The Police’s “Roxanne” are both particularly intriguing and well-done, however.
Patience (2004, Sony)
It’s not a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination – the overabundance of profanity is a little off-putting, and the “I Want Your Sex” rewrite “Freeek! ‘04” is as painfully cringe-inducing as its predecessor. That aside, this album is so, so much better than you would expect it to be for a late-career George Michael album arriving a full eight years after his last disc of original material. Michael’s still trying desperately to gain some critical favor and the lyrics here tend to be mostly heavy stuff (as can be seen on cuts like “John and Elvis Are Dead”), but he’s also in a slightly more noticeably playful mood than he was on either of his last two albums of originals, and there are actually quite a few danceable cuts here, including a full-blown club number called “Flawless (Go to the City)” that’s certain to get you out of your seat and have you dancing around the room. There’s also a soulful, breezy acoustic number called “Amazing” that ranks as Michael’s best and catchiest solo single since “Kissing a Fool,” a hypnotic slice of trance-pop in “Precious Box,” and an ironically catchy, incredibly dark pop song in the tragic story-song “Cars and Trains.”
Twenty-Five (2008, Epic)
An updated hits package, this one follows the same design as Ladies and Gentlemen, offering a disc of dance tracks, a disc of ballads, and a handful of new cuts, but there’s way too much in the way of more recent material included here. Consequently, a lot of hits get left out, including “Kissing a Fool,” “I Want Your Sex,” “Waiting for That Day,” and even the Number One hits “Monkey” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me.)” On the plus side, this does include several Wham! hits that weren’t included on Ladies and Gentlemen (“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” a 12” mix of “Everything She Wants,” and “Last Christmas”) though “Freedom,” “I’m Your Man,” and “The Edge of Heaven” are still excluded. (“Freedom” is included on the international edition, as well as the U.S. triple-disc deluxe version offered as a Best Buy exclusive.) Of the new cuts, “An Easier Affair” is fun and the re-recording of Listen without Prejudice’s “Heal the Pain,” reconfigured here as a duet with Paul McCartney, is also amusing, but it’s also unnecessary, and the Mutya duet “This Is Not Real Love” just falls flat. What music is here is mostly quite good, but Ladies and Gentlemen remains the superior and more complete hits package.
George’s lone live album as a solo artist is the unusual Symphonica, which features him in lush, cocktail-jazz mode, backed by a full orchestra, and bypasses his hits almost entirely (save for “Praying for Time,” “A Different Corner,” and “One More Try”) in favor of eight covers and three relatively obscure originals, mostly drawn from his post-‘90s albums. (Oddly enough, the Faith single “Kissing a Fool” – which would have worked perfectly on a live album of this type – is not included.) It sounds absolutely fantastic – Michael’s voice still sounds as dynamic as ever, and he sounds quite comfortable in this setting – but there’s just far too little here in the way of hits and familiar originals for this to really appeal to anybody but diehard fans.