Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Michael Jackson

  • Music and Me [Motown, 1973] B-
  • The Best of Michael Jackson [Motown, 1975] B-
  • Forever, Michael [Motown, 1975] A-
  • Off the Wall [Epic, 1979] A
  • Thriller [Epic, 1982] A
  • Bad [Epic, 1987] B+
  • The Original Soul of Michael Jackson [Motown, 1987] B+
  • Dangerous [Epic, 1991] A-
  • HIStory: Past, Present and Future Book 1 [Epic, 1995] **
  • Invincible [Epic, 2001] A-
  • The Ultimate Collection [Epic/Legacy, 2004] Choice Cuts
  • The Music That Inspired the Movie Michael Jackson's This Is It [Epic, 2009] Choice Cuts

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Music and Me [Motown, 1973]
Having finally gotten it through my head that Michael isn't the black Donny Osmond--not only does he have a sense of natural rhythm, but he's a singer not a marionette--I listened hard and decided he's not a very good singer. Genuinely sweet and genuinely clean, when Motown provides the material. But if he's a real interpreter, I'm too old to understand where the interpretations are coming from. B-

The Best of Michael Jackson [Motown, 1975]
Because you can believe that their sincerity is neither feigned nor foolish, it's good in theory for children to sing romantic ballads. But in the end only pederasts, parents, and horny little girls can get off consistently on the interpretive nuances of a boy whose voice hasn't changed--the manipulation from above is simply too transparent. I love "Rockin' Robin" and hate "Ben" and find most of the rest in between. The most interesting exception is "One Day in Your Life," a first-rate tearjerker that achieves just the right mix of autonomy and helpless innocence--probably because Michael cut it about a year ago, when he was sixteen. B-

Forever, Michael [Motown, 1975]
I'm converted. Because it's possible to believe that their sincerity is neither feigned nor foolish, it's good in theory for children to sing romantic ballads. The reason it doesn't work is that the sincerity is so transparently manipulated from above. At 16, however, Michael's voice combines autonomy and helpless innocence in effective proportions. He also gets production help from Brian Holland (who begins one side like Barry White and the other like the Ohio Players) and a few romantic ballads (sure hit: "One Day in Your Life") that are as credible on their own terms as the rockers. A-

Off the Wall [Epic, 1979]
In which fast-stepping Michael J. and quick-witted Quncy J. fashion the dance groove of the year. Michael's vocabulary of grunts, squeals, hiccups, moans, and asides is a vivid reminder that he's grown up, and the title tune suggests that maybe what makes Stevie Wonder (who contributes a good ballad) such an oddball isn't his genius or even his blindness so much as the fact that since childhood his main contact with the real world has been on stage and in bed. A

Thriller [Epic, 1982]
The best-selling album of the millennium was clearly a hits-plus-filler job from the beginning--what we couldn't know is how brilliantly every hit but "P.Y.T." would thrive on mass exposure and public pleasure. The inexhaustible "Beat It" broadcasts Eddie Van Halen wielding his might in the service of the antimacho that is his secret vice. "The Girl Is Mine" got interracial love on the radio and proved cuter than "Michelle." "Wanna Be Startin' Something" starts something every time an air or floor jock starts it up. "Billie Jean" is Michael's clearest statement to date on sexuality and stardom. And "Thriller" is the rare song that's improved by its video, which fleshes out the not-quite-a-joke scariness of "the funk of 40,000 years" for (Michael and) his (white) fans. A

Bad [Epic, 1987]
Anybody who charges studio hackery is too narrow-minded to be able to hear pros out-doing themselves. Studio mastery is more like it, the strongest and most consistent black pop album in years, defining Jam & Lewis's revamp of Baby Sis as the mainstream and then inundating it in rhythmic and vocal power. But what made Thriller a miracle wasn't consistency--it was genius like "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" and the unknowable allure of the pure star. The closest thing to genius here is the CD-only "Leave Me Alone," which isn't all that close and also suggests what's happened to his allure--the more knowable he gets, the more fucked up he seems. This is a record that damn near wrecks perfectly good dancin' and singin' with subtext. He's against burglary, speeding, and sex ("Dirty Diana" is as misogynistic as any piece of metal suck-my-cock), in favor of harmonic convergence and changing the world by changing the man in the mirror. His ideal African comes from Liberia. And he claims moonwalking makes him a righteous brother. Like shit. B+

The Original Soul of Michael Jackson [Motown, 1987]
Once you get past the slipshod cynicism of Motown's catalogue exploitation, you have to admit that this mostly remixed, sometimes synthed-up mishmash has its charms and even uses--that in fact it's superior to the "real" 1975 best-of the label long ago deleted. I love the previously unreleased "Twenty-Five Miles" and the preteen-sings-the-blues "Doggin' Around," could live without the two J5 nonhits, and will no doubt pull this down when I want to remember "Dancing Machine" and "Rockin' Robin." B+

Dangerous [Epic, 1991]
It's hard to hear through the oversell, but--especially if you ignore the faith-hope-and-charity, bringing it down under an hour--this is plainly his most consistent album since Off the Wall, a step up from Bad even if its hookcraft is invariably secondary and its vocal mannerisms occasionally annoying. Teddy Riley acting alone has never manufactured such abrasively unpredictable beats, much less the singer to top them--if they're not as catchy as a 10-year-old might hope, that's just Michael riding the rhythmic moment, as always. And though it's futile to analyze the love life of an invisible man who's convinced he's more popular than the Beatles now, he's hawking the most credible sex-and-romance of his career. "In the Closet" implores his mystery woman to keep their--get this--"lust" behind closed doors. Soon he's going wild, or fabricating desperate nostalgia for their used-to-be. And then he's muttering "Can't Let Her Get Away" through clenched teeth--mantralike, over and over into the void. Coulda happened, doncha think? With Brooke Shields maybe? A-

HIStory: Past, Present and Future Book 1 [Epic, 1995]
if stardom is your only subject, you might as well take it to the limit ("Smile," "Tabloid Junkie") **

Invincible [Epic, 2001]
Jackson's obsession with fame, his grotesque life magnified by his grotesque wealth, are such an offense to rock aesthetes that the fact that he's a great musician is now often forgotten. I use the present tense because (a) his skills seem undiminished and (b) as only Frank Kogan has listened dispassionately enough to remark, he's doing new stuff with them--his funk is steelier and his ballads are airier, both to disquieting effect. At 78 minutes this is too long, and especially given his history, "The Lost Children" is offensive. But the first three tracks are the Rodney Jerkins of the year, "2000 Watts" is the Teddy Riley of the past five years, and even the prunables offer small surprises. Don't believe the hype matters. A-

The Ultimate Collection [Epic/Legacy, 2004]
This well-selected, rarity-studded phantasmagoria of great hits, alternate takes, soundtrack oddities, previously unreleaseds, demos, and remixes traces an arc not merely of promise fulfilled and outlived, but of something approaching tragedy: a phenomenally ebullient child star tops himself like none before, only to transmute audibly into a lost weirdo. Until his fourth solo album as an adult, Dangerous, Jackson's immense originality, adaptability, and ambition generate genius beats, hooks, arrangements, and vocals (though not lyrics). This is no less true of 1970's "ABC" than of 1979's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" or 1991's "Black and White." While inventing sounds never heard before, Jackson changes with the times, from top 40 to disco to studio funk to new jack swing. This wondrous stuff will stand forever as a reproach to the puritanical notion that pop music is slick or shallow and that's the end of it. But as his troubling life gets away from him in the '90s, so does his music. The fourth disc wisely downplays his intermittent belief that the next step in his progress was Celine Dion, and two tracks from 2001's underrated Invincible prove that he hasn't lost his unnatural sense of rhythm. But theme statements like R. Kelly's endless "You Are Not Alone" and Free Willy 2's regrettable "Childhood" are quietly yucky, and the four new songs are bland, forced, or both. The big finale opposes war. [Blender: 3]
"Shake a Body," "Monkey Business," "Sunset Drive" Choice Cuts

The Music That Inspired the Movie Michael Jackson's This Is It [Epic, 2009]
"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' (Demo)"; "She's Out of My Life (Demo)" Choice Cuts

See Also