You can check out Part One here.
When Wham! dissolved in 1986, there rally wasn’t any doubt that George Michael was going to become a megastar on his own. After all, the general perception was that he was Wham!, anyway. With that said-I don’t know how many folks would have figured that George would (however briefly) find himself on the same level as American icons like Michael, Madonna and Prince, which is to say that he was not just an Alpha Dog, but he was, for a time, the most Alpha of the Alpha Dogs. I’m also pretty sure that the folks that did peg George for iconic status had no inkling that George would taste that level of success, and then more or less voluntarily piss it away-not a criticism, mind you. Just an observation. Regardless of the level of success, however: the fact is that the years 1987-1996 constituted George’s peak, and during that period, he wrote, produced and composed some of the best material in pop music history.
Faith (1987)– This is probably one of the first 10 items you would put in an Eighties time capsule. What impresses the most is that George wrote, produced and played most of the instruments on this album-and he was only 23 when it was released. Can you picture someone like Justin Timberlake (his most direct decedent) recording a song like “Father Figure” or “One More Try” at 23? Hell, can you picture him recording songs with such depth at 30? Not to say Faith is perfect-“Look at Your Hands” is a rare swing and a miss for George, and although the album version of “Monkey” is OK, the Jam/Lewis remix turned it into a much better song from a production standpoint. Still, the “Faith”/”Father Figure”/”I Want Your Sex”/”One More Try”/”Hard Day” sequence is one of the best starts to a pop album ever, and you have to give props to an album that resonated globally the way Faith did. With the exception of the aforementioned “Hands”, I remember hearing every single track from this album on the radio at least once, something you’d be hard-pressed to find today. Although someone should find out why George is sniffing his armpit on the album cover. Grade: A
“Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1” (1990)– I’ll be the first to admit that George’s marketing plan for this album was a bit, uh…different. No interviews, no videos with him in them, but I understand why he did what he did. It was a deliberate move to stop being a pop star and start being a musician, it was a deliberate move on George’s part to reclaim his life, and it was also the first tentative step in the coming-out process for George (you’ll note that there are no gender specific pronouns used over the course of the entire album.) Realizing all of this in retrospect, I can say that while there was never a point where I didn’t like LWP, I love and appreciate it so much more now. “Freedom ’90” slams the coffin shut on George’s pop idol days, “Praying for Time” and “Heal the Pain” indulge George’s Beatle fetish, “Mother’s Pride” is a spectacularly moving portrait of wartime, and “Soul Free” ends an extraordinarily heavy album on a lighter note, proving that George hadn’t become completely serious and morose. The Stevie Wonder cover “They Won’t Go When I Go” has grown on me over the years, and “Cowboys & Angels”, despite it’s 7 minute running time, is one of George’s most exquisite love songs. In an ideal world, LWP would have sold as much as Faith did. It may not be as pop-friendly, but it’s certainly as good. Grade: A
“Five Live” (George Michael & Queen feat. Lisa Stansfield) (1993)-This EP comes (largely) from 1992’s Freddie Mercury tribute concert, an event most consider to be George Michael’s most triumphant live performance. Not only was George honoring a personal idol (and one of, if not the greatest frontman in rock and roll history), but Freddie’s AIDS-related death hit especially close to home for George, as as his lover, Anselmo, was suffering from the same disease (and passed away a year later). George threw himself into an amazing version of “Somebody to Love”, blended beautifully with fellow Brit soulster Lisa Stansfield on the melancholy “These Are the Days of Our Lives”, and delivered a haunting version of Jevetta Steele’s “Calling You” as well. The album ends-as it should have-with Freddie’s majestic voice crooning “Dear Friends”. Nothing Earth-shaking here, but a solid tribute nonetheless. Grade: B
“Older” (1996)- Some people were stunned when they read that George had been arrested for soliciting a male undercover cop. I wonder if those people had actually listened to Older, seeing as George’s first studio album in six years is one of the most eloquent (and elegant) self-outings I can think of. Perhaps it’s because I’m a gay man myself, but I don’t see how anyone with a speck of common sense could’ve listened to the lyrics of songs like “Fastlove” and “Spinning the Wheel” and not figured out that George was gay. Elsewhere, “Jesus to a Child” and “You Have Been Loved” find George in a state of mourning, and although the songs pack an emotional heft (actually, I’d say because of the songs’ emotional heft), I find them difficult to listen to. “It Doesn’t Really Matter” continues George’s tradition of having one absolutely putrid song on each of his albums, but otherwise, Older is a passionately performed slice of mature pop, one that made you wish George didn’t wait so long to release albums-legal and personal issues aside. Grade: B
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