Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Janet Jackson Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

Janet Jackson (1982, A&M)

C –

Jackson’s self-titled solo debut – released when she was only sixteen – tends to get a really bad rep from critics, and that’s partly deserved – Jackson has yet to assert herself creatively, so all of the writing and producing is handled exclusively by a rotating cast of R&B vets like Foster Sylvers, Rene Moore, and Angela Winbush, and most of the material is fairly generic disco-pop. It’s nothing nearly as electrifying as what brother Michael was making around this time, but it’s also not all that different from or inferior to the Jacksons’ albums of the late ‘70s, either, and some of the cuts (particularly “Young Love”) actually merit repeated listens. While it’s never terribly artful or first-rate stuff or indicative of what Janet would be capable of in later years, it’s still an easier album to warm up to than, say, The Velvet Rope, and it’s actually fairly amusing, and even charming, hearing Janet sing such playful, thoroughly innocuous teen-pop material, especially considering how raunchy her albums would get down the road.

Dream Street (1984, A&M)

C  

A slight improvement on her debut, Dream Street boasts a better set of songs and a slightly harder edge. (The Time’s Jesse Johnson even pens and produces one of the better tracks, “Pretty Boy.”) Brother Michael even makes a cameo on the delightful “Don’t Stand Another Chance” (surprisingly the only time he would ever pop up on one of Janet’s albums, strangely enough). There’s even a duet with, surprisingly enough, British pop-music legend Cliff Richard, on “Two to the Power of Love,” that unfortunately suffers from some rather dated production that makes it sound somewhat campy in retrospect, but the song has such an annoyingly catchy chorus that it’s surprisingly addictive and it’s awfully intriguing to hear the always-underrated (in America, at least) Sir Cliff harmonizing with a young and pre-superstardom Miss Janet.

Control (1986, A&M)

A +

Much has been made about the drama behind this album – particularly Janet’s short-lived teenage marriage to James DeBarge and her severing management ties to her father – but none of that is nearly as important to the strength of this record as the savvy hiring of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (both formerly of the Minneapolis-based R&B/funk outfit The Time) to produce and write for her. Yes, Janet also gets in on the co-writing and clearly has some creative input here, but as later albums would prove, Janet working without Jam and Lewis is a lot like Dionne Warwick working without Burt Bacharach – still capable of the occasional hit, yes, but never quite capturing the same magic. A full two-thirds of the songs here were Top Ten or Top Twenty hits – the funky “Nasty,” the pretty and quite-underrated Number One hit “When I Think of You,” the dance-pop of “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” “Control,” and “The Pleasure Principle,” and the gorgeous “Let’s Wait Awhile,” which might still remain the loveliest ballad Janet’s ever made, if not perhaps her most underrated single, even if it does rip off America’s “Daisy Jane” quite a bit. At only nine cuts, it’s also a pleasantly tight and concise disc, lacking the sprawl and the glut of spoken-word interludes that would become regular traits of her later albums.

Rhythm Nation 1814 (1990, A&M)

B +  

It’s often hailed as Janet’s masterpiece, and it is true that this is very much a more deliberately artful album than its predecessor, but it’s also true that the songs are a little less memorable and the production a bit more cold and not nearly as inviting or appealing. (But then, R&B in general became fairly cold and much less organic in the ‘90s than it was in prior decades, and it sadly became rarer and rarer to find R&B albums that actually used real live drums or traditional instrumentation.)  For an album that famously spawned a jaw-dropping total of seven Top Five hits, it’s also fairly weird just how few of those songs pop up on the radio on any kind of regular basis these days. (When exactly was the last time you heard, say, “Black Cat” or “Rhythm Nation”?) There are still some perfectly good songs here, naturally, but there’s very little here that’s quite as immediately appealing or addictive as “When I Think of You” or “Let’s Wait Awhile” or “Nasty.” There are four Number One hits on here, including the playful “Miss You Much,” the charming “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” (featuring a fun cameo from the co-owner of Janet's then-label, the legendary Herb Alpert), “Escapade” and the heavily rock-oriented “Black Cat,” which just doesn’t fit in here at all. Of the other Top Five hits, the slow jam “Come Back to Me” is arguably the best, while “Alright” is pleasant but not all that terribly catchy and “Rhythm Nation” just seems dated. As far as the surrounding cuts go, the more sociopolitical numbers tend to fall flat, but the ballad "Lonely" is lovely.

janet (1993, Virgin)

A

Janet’s first post-A&M outing isn’t exactly flawless – it’s a little bit too long and it continues Rhythm Nation’s annoying trait of employing spoken-word interludes between most cuts – but it’s a lot more fun than its predecessor, and it does a better job of balancing more hip-hop-oriented cuts with more melodic, old-school-R&B-tinged outings, which is where Janet’s vocal abilities tend to shine the most. The album boasts two Number One hits in “That’s the Way Love Goes” and the lovely piano ballad “Again” (one of the prettier melodies Jam and Lewis have ever written), and also spawned several other Top Ten hits in the aggressive and menacing-sounding “If,” the sunnier pop of “Because of Love,” the clever “You Want This” (which makes great use of a sample from the Supremes’ “Love Child”), and the slow-jam “Any Time, Any Place.” This may be the first – if not only – Janet Jackson album, however, where the album cuts actually upstage the singles. The sociopolitical anthem “New Agenda” is both catchy and pleasantly funky and boasts a memorable rap break from Public Enemy’s Chuck D, while “What’ll I Do” is a full-blown ’60s-soul throwback – complete with a full live band – that sounds like it might as well have been plucked from the Stax archives. It may not be the trendiest song Janet’s ever cut, but it might be the most fun thing she’s ever done. Even the CD’s hidden cut, the sunny “Whoops Now,” has got a deliciously catchy and pretty melody.

Design of a Decade (1986-1996) (1995, A&M)

A

A greatest-hits compilation released by her former label, this handy package includes all the Top 40 hits from both Control and Rhythm Nation 1814. A&M somehow also got permission to include “That’s the Way Love Goes” from Jackson’s first album for Virgin, and there are also two new studio recordings here as well: the playful Top Five hit “Runaway” (arguably the greatest of her singles from the Nineties) and “Twenty Foreplay.” It would have been nice if A&M had also thought to include her Top Ten duet with Luther Vandross, “The Best Things in Life Are Free” (from the movie Mo’ Money) and/or her Top Ten collaboration with label boss Herb Alpert on “Diamonds” (still one of Janet’s most criminally overlooked moments on record), but there are no dubious inclusions in this package, and every last cut here (save for the new “Twenty Foreplay”) was a major hit, so this is a near-perfect way to have all of Janet’s biggest chart hits for A&M all on a single disc, and even the most casual of Janet Jackson fans really needs a copy of “Runaway” in their life.