*a completely subjective list, of course.
In a just world, George Michael would’ve recorded four or five more albums of incredible pop music. Also in a just world, George would’ve been able to be himself.
Even with the fact that his output was abbreviated by (among other things) a lengthy label dispute, the tragic loss of a partner, battles with severe depression and drug abuse, and ultimately an early death at the age of 53, George Michael has left an admirable legacy. He’s one of the best pure pop songwriters of his generation. Although his early work was derided as fluff, his mastery of the pop form puts him in the rarified company of auteurs like Prince. Not only did he write and sing most of his hits, he produced the songs and played damn near every instrument. His reverence for black music was legendary, and his songs were always legitimately soulful even when he tried to downplay his obvious R&B influences. He was formidable enough to go toe to toe with Aretha, Whitney, Beyonce and Mary J., to rock samples or interpolations of songs by Patrice Rushen and Aaliyah, and to cover Gladys, Stevie (enough times that he could’ve released an entire album of Stevie remakes), Marvin, Chaka and The Isleys.
Of course, beyond the music, George was an advocate for artists’ rights and ultimately became a gay icon. Even when he was undecided/unsure/closeted (and no one knows for sure), the sexuality of his music was almost tangible. After being publicly outed in 1998, George didn’t retreat. In fact, he did exactly the opposite. And although I was occasionally annoyed by his transition into a clone later in life, I admire the matter-of-fact way in which he owned his sexuality and all that came with it. He might have been the most unapologetically sex-positive pop star in history. His musical legacy lives on in everyone from Ed Sheeran to Justin Timberlake. His social legacy…well, Frank Ocean maybe comes the closest, but George blazed a path that will be very difficult for anyone else to follow in that regard.
These 25 songs are absolutely sterling (and this is another list that could be doubled in size without a bad track—kind of amazing given how little material he actually released) and it’s sad that there won’t be any new music to add to this list.
1. “Freedom! ’90” (from Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, 1990)
In retrospect, it’s hard to think of many songs that were more aptly titled. Even though George didn’t publicly come out until 1998, it’s easy to listen to the lyrics of “Freedom” (year added to the title to differentiate it from the Wham! Song of the same name that came out in 1984) and conclude that George thought long and hard about his life, came to some conclusions, and had already started the process of living in his truth. Plenty of people come to these conclusions, not many are able to put those conclusions into such an emotionally affecting, catchy pop song.
2. “One More Try” (from Faith, 1987)
What’s striking about “One More Try”’s success, with 30 years of distance, is how unlikely a hit it was. As emotionally raw as anything George wrote or recorded, it communicated almost physically painful levels of despair, indecision and heartbreak. It’s not even jauntily paced, like so many of George’s deceptively sad songs. Hell, George doesn’t even sing the title until the very last line of the song. It still hit #1 on the pop charts, and then turned around and topped the R&B charts, making George only the second white artist to do so in the ‘80s as a lead artist. At “One More Try”’s peak, I was still a pre-teen and knew absolutely zilch about heartbreak, but there was something about George’s delivery that moved me to tears even then.
3. “Careless Whisper” (from Make It Big, 1984)
Blah blah blah best sax solo of all time blah blah blah. He wrote this when he was a TEENAGER. Let’s review a Timberlake or Beyonce lyric and see if one even comes close.
4. “I Want Your Sex” (from the Beverly Hills Cop II Soundtrack, 1987)
We all knew “Explore Monogamy” was bullshit-George being railroaded into sanitizing his song for the sake of censors and MTV exposure during a time when everyone was scared shitless about sex. No matter what may have been stated in the video, there was something in George’s voice (“talk to your sister” is delivered in such a delightful sneer) and definitely something in the lyrics that told us otherwise.
5. “Fastlove” (from Older, 1996)
I was slowly edging out of the closet in the spring of 1996 when “Fastlove” came out, and even then, there was no doubt in my mind that George was singing from a queer perspective. I’m amazed that so few people picked it up-I guess that’s my coastal liberal privilege speaking? Or maybe y’all just need to meet some more gay folks.
6. “Praying For Time” (from Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1)
7. “Father Figure” (from Faith)
8. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (from Ladies And Gentlemen…The Best Of George Michael, 1998)
I have to think long and hard about whether I prefer this rendition to Bonnie Raitt’s sterling original. I’m still thinking.
9. “Everything She Wants” (Remix) (from “Everything She Wants” 12″, 1985)*
There is a quote that I would love to use here, given to me by Phonte Coleman when I submitted interview questions to him for the Jheri Curl Chronicles book. Because the book is almost done (I swear!) I’ll make y’all wait for the quote. But it’ll be worth it.
10. “Too Funky” (from Red Hot & Dance, 1992)
Three songs on this list come from what would have been Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2. Had it been completed and released (and George hadn’t gone through the spiral that included the Sony suit and the death of Anselmo Feleppa), it would’ve been a chart-topper based on the quality of this music.
11. “Spinning The Wheel” (from Older)
12. “Cowboys And Angels” (from Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1)
13. “Do You Really Want To Know” (from Red Hot & Dance)
14. “Hard Day” (Shep Pettibone Mix) (from Faith, 1987)
The “secret weapon” cut on Faith, and one of the best Prince rips (down to the adaptation of a “female” voice) of all time.
15. “Last Christmas” (B-side of “Everything She Wants” U.K. single, 1984)*
And here’s a song I’ll never be able to listen to the same way again…
16. “A Moment With You” (from Ladies And Gentlemen…The Best Of George Michael)
George at his cheekiest, delivering a delectable slow jam (complete with Mtume “Juicy Fruit” sample and a quote from Marvin’s “Sexual Healing”) about…meeting the cop that arrested him for the Beverly Hills tearoom incident in 1998.
17. “Older” (from Older)
18. “Heaven Help Me” (Deon Estus featuring George Michael) (from Spell, 1989)
George was so hot at this point that he could even give his bass player a top 5 pop hit.
19. “You Know That I Want To” (from the “Spinning The Wheel” EP, 1996)
A dusky B-side that belongs on every dirty slow jam mix tape in existence.
20. “Monkey” (Jam & Lewis 7″ Mix) (from the “Monkey” single, 1988)
21. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” (from Make It Big)*
I resisted the pure joy of this song for a long time because of its phenomenal cheese factor. Finally, I gave in. How can you not smile as soon as that first “jitterbug” hits your ears?
22. “Somebody To Love” (Queen featuring George Michael) (from Five Live, 1992)
23. “Crazyman Dance” (from “Too Funky” single, 1992)
24. “Waiting For That Day” (from Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1)
First instance of a singer/songwriter adding sampled drum loops (courtesy of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”) to an acoustic track? Possibly. George predicted the sound of pop radio (courtesy of Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow and more) five years in advance of it happening.
25. “I’m Your Man” (from Music From The Edge Of Heaven, 1986)*
“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” grows up and starts reading Playboy. Or Playgirl. Perhaps both.