by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 (1969, Motown)
An ever-so-slightly overrated album, the brothers themselves really can’t be faulted for the album’s few missteps; they sound just as appealing here as they ever would, and their charm and charisma is undeniable. What holds the disc back from being nearly as powerful as the next few discs that would follow it, though, is much the same thing that negatively impacted so many other full-length efforts issued by the Motown family during the ‘60s: an overreliance on covers to help pad out the disc. Not that the siblings’ performances of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” the Four Tops’ “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” the Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” or Sly & the Family Stone’s “Stand!” are bad, but the songs are much too well-known to make anyone forget the originals, no matter how much passion the brothers might try to inject into the numbers. [To the boys’ credit, though, they make the Disney classic “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” sound much better than it has any right to sound on an R&B album, though it’s debatable if the song is really hip enough to have made a great track to open the album with.] The tracks here that fare the best are those where the boys cover something a bit more obscure and/or left-field, like the Miracles’ “Who’s Lovin’ You,” the Delfonics’ “Can You Remember,” or the standard “You’ve Changed,” or record new original material from Motown’s ever-talented in-house writing team, such as “Nobody,” or, best of all, the Number One smash “I Want You Back,” the introduction of which could have alone made the song a classic with its cascading piano slide, funky bass line, and skin-tight rhythm-guitar licks, but once Michael enters the mix with his warm voice and gently pleading “Oh oh oh … let me tell you now …,” there’s no denying that you’re listening to a superstar in the making, and it’s a bit of a head-scratcher why no one at Motown thought to open the album with the song. The song still remains the best single Michael ever made with his brothers.
ABC (1970, Motown)
The best album the siblings made during their years with Motown, this disc feels much more their own than Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 did. There are still plenty of covers here, but with the sole exception of the Delfonics’ “La-La (Means I Love You),” the songs are just obscure enough to not feel so nakedly like the synergistic padding of old, and the boys sound great indeed on renditions of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t Know Why I Love You But I Do” and “Never Had a Dream Come True” and the Miracles’ “Come ‘Round Here (I’m the One You Need),” while they also reach outside the Motown catalog for an unlikely cover of Funkadelic’s “I’ll Get You.” But, just like the debut, it’s the new material provided from “The Corporation,” the moniker given to Motown’s latest hot songwriting team, which ends up stealing the show. “I Found That Girl” and “One More Chance” are better-than-normal album cuts, while the other two Corporation-penned songs here were both well-deserved chart-toppers for the young quintet: the playful bubblegum funk of the title cut (the chorus of which still remains one of the most brilliant choruses to be found on any Motown 45 and the breakdown of which was so charismatic and electrifying that it was pretty much inevitable – if it wasn’t already obvious – that Michael would eventually have to make a solo album at some point) and the stuttered grooves of the effervescent “The Love You Save,” the boys’ most adult-sounding single yet.
Third Album (1970, Motown)
A bit of a step backwards, Third Album, like the band’s debut, only really derails when the boys cover something a bit too familiar, like Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Shades of Blue’s “Oh How Happy,” or the Miracles’ “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage,” not because the performances are bad – they’re not – but because they feel like little more than padding designed to compensate for the lack of original material being given to the band by Motown’s in-house writers. “Ready or Not (Here I Come),” a minor hit for the Delfonics, in contrast, is one of the quintet’s best covers, though. Still, like the two albums that preceded it, the disc is ultimately most memorable for its original material, and the album gave the boys two more massive hits in “Mama’s Pearl” and, even better, the fiery chart-topping ballad “I’ll Be There,” easily the greatest ballad the Jackson 5 would ever make and arguably the finest duet that Michael and Jermaine would ever record together, whether as part of or outside of the Jackson 5, while “Goin’ Back to Indiana” and “Darling Dear” are two of the group’s finest non-singles.
Maybe Tomorrow (1971, Motown)
The good news: this is the band’s least-covers-heavy album yet. (The Crests’ “Sixteen Candles” is simply too famous – and too retro – a song to sound as if it really belongs here, but Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Honey Chile” is an inspired choice.) The bad news: six of the originals here are supplied by The Corporation, who are in a bit of a rut here and struggle to come up with anything nearly as infectious as “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” “I Want You Back,” or “I’ll Be There,” although “It’s Great to Be Here” and the gently funky “I Will Find a Way” are strong album cuts and the ballad “Maybe Tomorrow” is a pretty decent single, even if it takes a few more listens than “I’ll Be There” to really sink in. For the first time in the group’s career, the best song actually comes from outside The Corporation – in this case, Clifton Davis (yes, the same Clifton Davis who’d go on to co-star in the 1980s sitcom Amen), who provides the boys with the easygoing grooves of “Never Can Say Goodbye,” which arguably boasts the most devastatingly pretty melody of any Jackson 5 tune and also ranks right up there with Michael’s solo single “Got to Be There” as one of the most powerful – and most underrated – vocal performances of Michael’s pre-Off the Wall career. [It’s easy to forget just how impressive a vocal range Michael had even in his early teens. Hearing him shift with ease from the song’s mellow verses to the high notes in the chorus is a sheer joy.]
Lookin’ Through the Windows (1972, Motown)
On paper, it doesn’t seem terribly encouraging that the band’s fifth album is the first since their debut to open with a cover, and one of a well-regarded Motown classic (the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell duet “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”), at that, but the boys sound wonderful doing it and it actually ends up being a charming introduction to the disc. There’s less of a reliance than normal here on The Corporation – they’re limited to just three songs here, the best of which is “Don’t Let Your Baby Catch You” – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the songwriting team’s magic had gradually been falling by the wayside over the last several discs. But the band has a relatively difficult time scrounging up strong material elsewhere, and for the first time ever, they’re so short on solid original material that they’re forced to release a cover as a single. Unfortunately, Thurston Harris’ “Little Bitty Pretty One” – while well-performed – is a little too close in sound and feeling to Michael’s recent solo cover of Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin” to have had the impact – commercially or artistically – that it might otherwise have had. The disc also sports a very unlikely cover of Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” that actually works surprisingly well and would become a Top Ten hit for the group in the U.K. But for the second straight album in a row, the best number comes from the pen of Clifton Davis, who pens the dramatic and ambitious title cut, which sounds as if was it meant to be the opening theme to a movie, not in the least due to its sweeping orchestral intro. So there are some solid moments to be found here amidst the filler, but fans did have to be concerned at the time whether or not the band could ever reverse the steadily downward trend they’d been on since ABC.
Skywriter (1973, Motown)
Neither great nor terrible, Skywriter simply finds the group in a rut. Reportedly, the brothers were seething at the time over Motown’s refusal to allow them to record their own compositions, and one has to wonder why Motown didn’t afford them the chance to prove themselves. After all, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye both shot into the stratosphere both commercially and critically after obtaining creative control over their product, and the Jackson 5’s commercial success had steadily been diminishing with each successive album, so a shake-up of some kind was certainly in order, not in the least since Michael’s voice was also starting to significantly change. Instead, the boys are forced to stick with the formula of old, and once more – but for the last time – they would find themselves recording material from both The Corporation and Clifton Davis while also recording still more covers of songs from the Motown archives (in this case, the Supremes’ “Touch” – which isn’t suitable for the group in the least – and the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Quit Your Love”). The boys don’t exactly sound as if their hearts are truly in this album, but you can’t really blame them. There are some minor gems here, namely the Top 40 hits “Corner of the Sky” (from the Stephen Schwartz-penned musical Pippin) and “Hallelujah Day” (though “The Boogie Man” and the title cut are decent as well), but it’s not enough to prevent this from being the band’s least magical outing yet.
Get It Together (1973, Motown)
An encouraging step back in the right direction, Get It Together could have been even greater but is hurt by the fact that there are only eight tracks here, four of which are still more covers from within the Motown family – the Supremes’ “Reflections” is the only one that’s particularly famous, though the boys also work in relatively unfamiliar cover tunes by Undisputed Truth, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and the Temptations – so Motown’s refusal to let the boys record their own songs seems even more ridiculous here than it did on Skywriter. (This is their seventh proper studio album, after all. They’re much too far along in their career at this point to still be covering so many songs from the Motown vaults, so if you can’t supply them with enough new material, what’s the harm in giving them some running time to experiment with their own songs?) But, on a more encouraging note, the boys have jettisoned the tired formula of old and are experimenting, dabbling in disco and lite-funk and letting the songs segue from one into the other without interruption, resulting in their most cohesive album piece in some time. The album is only moderately less spotty than Skywriter, but it’s helped significantly by the fact that there are two very enjoyable – and quite funky – singles here (both Top 40 hits), “Get It Together” (vaguely reminiscent of such early Commodores classics as “Machine Gun” and “Slippery When Wet”) and the futuristic “Dancing Machine,” which stopped just one spot shy of topping the pop charts and gave the boys their biggest hit since “Never Can Say Goodbye.”
Dancing Machine (1974, Motown)
It’s not quite a return to form and it can’t help but at least partially feel like a crass cash-in on the part of Motown, but Dancing Machine as a whole is arguably the group’s best album overall since Third Album. What ultimately keeps the album from reaching true greatness is simply that the album’s title cut had already appeared on Get It Together. After the track was edited and remixed for single release and became the Jackson 5’s biggest hit in three years, Motown just couldn’t resist the urge to capitalize on the hit and consequently decided to take the single edit of the song and make it the centerpiece of a whole new album, much like they had done with Marvin Gaye’s That’s the Way Love Is, the title cut of which had already appeared on Gaye’s last album, M.P.G.. More casual Jackson 5 fans may not notice the repetition, but more devout fans who already own Get It Together are likely to feel a bit cheated by the gimmick. The crass commercialism of its origin aside, Dancing Machine nonetheless does contain some inspired music. Sticking with the disco stylings that made Get It Together sound so fresh after the tired formula of Skywriter, the disc would give the boys two additional Top 40 hits on top of the previously-released title cut – “Whatever You Got, I Want” and the epic, seven-and-a-half-minute “I Am Love,” which finds the boys in ballad mode for its first half but morphs into a raging disco jam for its back half – while “The Life of the Party” and “What You Don’t Know” are better-than-normal non-singles.
Moving Violation (1975, Motown)
The final album the boys would ever record for Motown, Moving Violation is a significant step backwards in quality from Dancing Machine and ends up being the most forgettable album the brothers ever recorded for Motown (though Motown would later scour the vaults for enough material to put out two even more easily forgettable albums). The album retains the disco and lite-funk vibe of the last two albums that had helped to give the boys a new identity, so the disc at least seems more fun than Skywriter, but once more, the brothers are resigned to recording material from Motown staff writers who aren’t bringing their “A game” to the table, and consequently, the boys are forced to revert to the ways of Skywriter and release a cover as the lead-off single – in this case, a funky re-working of the Supremes 1968 hit “Forever Came Today.” That the powers-that-be at Motown actually thought this was the best song on the album – and they weren’t wrong about that – says a lot about how far the band’s stock had fallen; the song, unusually for Diana, Mary, and Cindy, had stalled at #28 and had the dubious distinction of being the first Supremes single to miss the Top Ten since “Nothing But Heartaches” three years earlier and the first to miss the Top Twenty since 1964’s “Run, Run, Run,” the immediate predecessor to “Where Did Our Love Go.” There’s a reason for that, though – it just wasn’t anywhere nearly as catchy as your typical Supremes song, so it’s no surprise that the single under-performed for the Jackson 5 as well, petering out at #60. There are other minor highlights here – namely the ballad “All I Do Is Think of You” – but the mediocre quality of the material the boys are given to work with here just shows that they weren’t really considered much of a priority at the label anymore.