by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Joyful Jukebox Music (1976, Motown)
One of the great “what if” questions of the rock’n’roll era is “what if Berry Gordy had relented to the wishes of the Jackson 5 and let them record their own songs?” Would their latter albums for the label have fared better artistically or commercially? Would the boys have ever left Motown? Might such blockbusters as Off the Wall and Thriller and Bad come out on Gordy’s label instead? Fed up with having only minimal creative input on their own records, the brothers – sans Jermaine, who had married Gordy’s daughter Hazel and, in a show of loyalty to his father-in-law, stayed with Motown as a solo artist – bolted their longtime home, added brother Randy to the fold, and signed a new deal with Epic. Motown immediately responded by rounding up a bunch of songs that were recorded for – but ultimately left off of – the albums from Skywriter through Moving Violation and trying to pass it off as a new album (nothing on the front or back cover indicates that this music dates back several years), so if this music doesn’t seem like it was all meant to be on the same album … well, it wasn’t. It’s not a dreadful album, but most of this was unreleased for a reason: it just doesn’t have nearly the same spark as the band’s singles of old (though “Through Thick and Thin” is a minor standout) and feels more like a full disc’s worth of tracks that were meant to be nothing more than album padding.
The Jacksons (1976, Epic/Philadelphia International)
Ironically, the boys don’t get all that much more input here than they did on their Motown albums. Philly-soul legends Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff both write and produce most of the material here, while Philadelphia International staff writers Dexter Wansel, Gene McFadden, and John Whitehead all contribute to the writing and production as well. But, if only for two tracks, Michael is allowed to record his own compositions for the first time, and “Blues Away” and “Style of Life” show that he clearly has potential, even if they’re far from classics. The Gamble and Huff tunes are perfectly fine, but most of them don’t sound as if they were really written with the boys in mind and could have just as easily been written for Philadelphia International acts like the O’Jays, Lou Rawls, or Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Still, the boys at least sound more enthusiastic than they have in quite some time, and their performances on such sides as “Good Times,” the jittery rhythms of the Top Ten hit “Enjoy Yourself” or the lushly-orchestrated Top 40 hit “Show You the Way to Go” are endearing.
Goin’ Places (1977, Epic/Philadelphia International)
Following the format of the previous album almost to a tee – once again, Gamble and Huff write most of the material, while Dexter Wansel and the team of McFadden and Whitehead each pen a song and the brothers get to do two originals of their own – you can’t help but feel like this is a bunch of leftovers from the last album. Even the best Gamble-Huff tunes here, like the title cut, “Even Though You’re Gone,” or the slow Philly soul of “Find Me a Girl,” aren’t nearly as memorable as “Enjoy Yourself” or “Show You the Way to Go,” and the only tune here that even so much as reached the Hot 100 was the distinctly-Sylvers-like title cut, which understandably stopped at #52 – it’s just not an especially good song. It’s telling that the most electrifying moments here are where the brothers are given free rein to write and produce: the toe-tapping “Do What You Wanna” and, even better, the gritty, guitar-heavy, talkbox-laden disco of “Different Kind of Girl” have a real energy and freshness to them that’s missing on the other sides here, and the latter song in particular really could have been a massive hit and dancefloor classic if Epic had been smart enough to choose it as the lead-off single over the inferior title cut; instead, the song got relegated to the B-side of “Find Me a Girl.” Fortunately, Epic would let the boys call all the shots next time out.
Destiny (1978, Epic)
Not only does this album have the distinction of being the very first album from the brothers to feature almost nothing but self-penned material, but it’s also the very first to be produced by the boys as well. The brothers had long wished for this kind of creative control, and, boy, do they ever make the most of it, turning in what has easily got to be their most electrifying full-length since ABC. It’s not quite Off the Wall, but hearing Michael get to indulge himself for the first time is quite magical indeed. The disc begins with the album’s lone cover, Mick Jackson’s (no relation) “Blame It on the Boogie,” a sunny slice of disco featuring a breathtakingly pretty near-acapella breakdown. The lush ballad “Push Me Away” and the easygoing grooves of “Bless His Soul” highlight Michael’s crooning to great effect, while “All Night Dancin’” is the group’s most frantic dancefloor side yet. The true highlight of the disc, though, is the futuristic disco-funk of “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” which you’ve undoubtedly heard on the radio at some point but which you really need to hear the full eight-minute album version of if you’ve never done so, if just to hear the final two minutes, in which both the boys and the string section cut out, leaving the rhythm section alone to keep jamming on that tight, squiggly-synth-line-laden groove to their hearts’ delights.
Boogie (1979, Natural Resources/Motown)
Apparently seeking to capitalize on the massive success of Destiny, Motown shamelessly dips once more into the vaults of unreleased material from the brothers. Some of the material is moderately appealing – namely “Oh, I’ve Been Blessed” (dating back to the group’s first recording sessions for Motown), the Third Album outtake “One Day I’ll Marry You,” and a cover of obscure Motown artist Chris Clark’s “Love’s Gone Bad” – and some of it was clearly shelved for good reason (“Just Because I Love You” and a wretched remake of the Rascals’ “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore.”) It’s not just the spotty nature of this unreleased material that makes the album so crass, though. It’s the fact that “ABC,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and “Dancing Machine” are all also strangely included here. It’s unclear whether Motown simply ran out of completed material in the vaults and needed something to fill the remaining space on the disc or whether they simply decided that the album would be a hard sell without a few familiar titles. So the disc ends up being the strangest album in the band’s entire catalog – there’s only seven new tracks here, only a handful of them genuinely worth releasing, so you can’t really call this a full studio album of new material per se, but there’s too few hits here to really call this a compilation, either. Assuming you can find a copy – this album wasn’t in print for very long – you may want to pick it up for the sheer collector’s value of it, but you’re not likely to actually listen to it more than once or twice.
Triumph (1980, Epic)
Only slightly inferior to Victory, it’s rather astounding that this album even exists – after all, Michael was, by this point, a bigger superstar than ever, thanks to the 1979 multi-platinum solo album Off the Wall, which gave him two Number One hits and two additional Top Ten singles. So it’s generous indeed for Michael to have immediately turned his full attention back to his band of brothers and contributed as greatly to the songwriting and lead vocals as he does here. The boys are still producing themselves, so this album does lack the extra bit of production finesse that Quincy Jones helped bring to the table on Off the Wall, but they’re no slouches themselves and the disc is pretty magical in its own right. There is no bona fide classic here like “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” but there are plenty of underrated songs here, from the playful disco of “Lovely One” and the mini-epic “Heartbreak Hotel” (the title of which was changed to the more awkward-sounding “This Place Hotel” on later pressings) – both sizable Top 40 hits – to the concert-opener-in-the-making “Can You Feel It” and the snappy dancefloor funk of “Walk Right Now.”
Victory (1984, Epic)
Sure, this post-Thriller reunion album is not nearly as good as it ought to be – chalk it up to Michael’s minimal involvement in the record – and, sure, it may sound a bit more like a collection of solo recordings than a true band project. All the same, this album is much better than its reputation suggests. For starters, brother Jermaine is back for the first time in nine years, and it’s an absolute joy hearing him sing alongside Michael again after all this time. Secondly, it’s irrational to expect that Michael – who was just coming off an unprecedented run of scoring seven Top Ten hits from a single album (Thriller) – would be as fully involved here as he was on Destiny, so it’s great just to have him here at all, and he turns in the album’s most unforgettable moment with the heavy rock strut of the criminally-oft-forgotten Top Five smash “State of Shock,” a duet with Mick Jagger, that’s great, great fun to listen to, not in the least for the joy of hearing two of the most iconic musicians in pop-music history sharing lead vocals on a cut. But there are other appealing songs here as well, especially the Top 40 hit “Torture,” a duet between Michael and Jermaine, the Marlon showcase “Body,” and the Michael-sung “Be Not Always.”
2300 Jackson Street (1989, Epic)
A lot of critics are quick to trash this album for the sole reason that Michael didn’t take part in it (except as part of the chorus on the title cut, which features all of the Jackson siblings – Janet included – except for LaToya.) Sure, it’s an unfortunate loss, but it’s unfair to write the album off entirely because of that. [Michael may have undeniably been the most talented Jackson, but that doesn’t mean his brothers were without talent.] This is at least as honorable a disc as Goin’ Places or Skywriter and certainly a far better purchase than either of the cash-in discs of unreleased material Motown issued in the years immediately after losing the group to Epic. The material may be a bit spottier than normal, but on the plus side, the always-vastly-underappreciated Jermaine is back once more (alongside brothers Jackie, Randy, and Tito) and sounds just as great here as he did on any of his much-too-underrated ‘80s solo albums. And the disc is not without its handful of appealing moments, either. The title cut might be a bit too self-referential to have much broad appeal, but “Art of Madness” (penned by Jermaine with Michael Omartian and Donna Summer’s husband and frequent songwriting partner Bruce Sudano), the catchy dance-pop of “Maria” (which cleverly incorporates harmonica solos from the great Lee Oskar of the ‘70s funk band War), the Babyface-and-L.A.-Reid-penned should-have-been-hit “Nothin’ (That Compares 2 U),” and, best of all, the gorgeous ballad “If You’d Only Believe,” are just a few of the songs here that deserved to be heard, if only more listeners could have got past the fact that Michael wasn’t involved.
Epic’s 2004 double-disc The Very Best of the Jacksons is far from complete – all of the Jacksons’ seven Epic-era Top 40 hits are present, but the package is missing eight of their seventeen Motown-era Top 40 hits, even leaving out the Top Twenty hits “Little Bitty Pretty One,” “Corner of the Sky,” “Maybe Tomorrow,” and “I Am Love (Parts I & II)” – but it does have the distinction of being one of the very few best-of packages ever released that includes material from both the brothers’ tenure with Motown and their tenure with Epic. (It also adds six Michael solo sides from his Motown years, including “Got to Be There,” “Ben,” and “Rockin’ Robin.”) If you don’t mind buying two different compilations, you can easily round up nearly all two dozen of the brothers’ Top 40 hits as a group by first starting with any one of three Motown-released packages all confusingly entitled Anthology: a 1976 triple-LP set (unavailable on CD) featuring a black-and-white shot of the boys against a black background, a 1986 double-CD package (unavailable on vinyl) featuring a black-and-white picture of the boys against a pink and green background, or a 2000 double-CD package featuring a color photograph of the boys against a sky-blue background. Each of the three Anthology packages contains all seventeen of the Jackson 5’s Top 40 hits, but the 1986 set is the best buy: not only does it also add all five of Michael’s Top 40 solo hits for Motown, it also includes all four of Jermaine’s Top 40 solo hits for the label (“Daddy’s Home,” “Let’s Get Serious,” “You’re Supposed to Keep Your Love for Me,” “Let Me Tickle Your Fancy”) as well. Once you’ve picked up one of the Anthology packages, then pick up Epic’s 2004 package The Essential Jacksons, which contains nearly all the group’s Top 40 hits from their 1976-1989 period; “Torture” really should have been included, but it’s otherwise a satisfying overview of the Epic years.
Hardcore vinyl buffs may also want to seek out the gorgeous 1984 Motown-issued compilation 14 Greatest Hits, which was issued exclusively in picture-disc form and also came packaged with a bonus poster. [Some copies also came with a single white Motown-label-adorned glove as well.] The disc contains nine major Jackson 5 hits (all seven of their Top Ten hits for Motown, plus “Maybe Tomorrow” and “Looking Through the Windows”) and five Michael Jackson solo sides (including the very underrated “I Wanna Be Where You Are.”)
The best Motown-era live album from the brothers is the 2010 archival release Live at the Forum, which contains both a 1970 show and a 1972 show. But the boys’ full showmanship abilities weren’t quite fully developed at this point (and Michael’s voice was in a transitional stage at the later date), and you may instead want to pick up the Epic-era 1981 live album The Jacksons Live!, a double-disc set which generously encompasses not only songs from both their Motown and Epic years but also surprisingly works in five songs from Michael’s Off the Wall (all four of that album’s singles, plus “Workin’ Day and Night”), which makes this disc extra fun.