Across the first half of the 70s, their work-rate was phenomenal. The band had issued 11 albums stateside by the end of 1974, and Michael released four solo sets on Motown, which included the singles ‘Ben’, ‘Got To Be There’ and ‘Rockin’ Robin’. The boys were megastars around the world, with their fame fuelled by tours, hysterical attention from the fan magazines and even a TV cartoon series.
But, as with all teen sensations, the success started to fade as the young audience eventually moved on. Frustrated by the label’s reluctance to experiment with their sound, the group left Motown and signed to Epic, prompting a furious legal row and a change of name to The Jacksons. Michael would later recall these years of endless work in painful detail. He said he often felt isolated, exhausted and lacking in confidence, despite the fame and adoration he received. But, despite the pressure, he remained focused on his career and appeared to take some refuge in the relentless schedule. He often told people that he only felt truly comfortable on stage.
In 1979, still juggling commitments with his brothers and having just completed work on the movie The Wiz, Michael released his first masterpiece. Off The Wall was produced by Quincy Jones and contained the disco classics ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’ and ‘Rock With You’. It only made No.3 stateside but would go on to sell 20 million copies worldwide in the years ahead. Despite some critical acclaim, awards for the work were modest, leading the ferociously ambitious Michael, stung by the relative snub, to resolve that it was up to him to do even better next time.
In 1981, while work was continuing on his follow-up, Motown capitalised on their former star’s success and plundered the archives to issue the previously unheard ‘One Day In Your Life’. The tender ballad gave him his first UK No.1. At the same time, Michael was touring the US with his brothers on the Triumph Tour. They were also still having hits, particularly in Europe, with tracks such as ‘Can You Feel It?’
In late 1982, Michael’s duet with Paul McCartney, ‘The Girl Is Mine’, made a solid splash at UK No.8 and US No.2, but its parent set, Thriller, once again created with Quincy Jones, started to make serious waves. Powered by the cutting-edge video for second single ‘Billie Jean’ and an appearance at the televised Motown 25 show in March 1983, Thriller’s sales started to go through the roof. By mid-year Michael was the biggest music star on the planet. ‘Beat It’ and the album’s title track boasted extravagant videos that became one of the first by a black artist to enter heavy rotation on the US MTV network. Worldwide, Thriller was smashing sales records and the star began to endure an unbearable level of frenzied media attention.
In 1984, he rejoined his brothers for the Victory tour and attendant album, contributing to singles such as ‘State Of Shock’ (with Mick Jagger) and ‘Torture’. While filming a TV advert this same year, Michael was injured and endured bouts of painful surgery, now largely credited with the start of his developing dependence on painkillers. Alongside an interest in surgery to reshape his face, Michael’s medical trials became shorthand for a hysterical media narrative that painted the artist as strange and out of touch, with the singer doing little to dispel the myth that was building around him.
Following up what was becoming the world’s biggest-selling album was a daunting task and Michael took his time. The eventual release of 1987’s Bad, preceded by the chart-topping ballad ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’, was a major industry event and, almost inevitably, felt like a disappointment, despite a string of hugely successful singles and healthy sales. In the UK, Bad eventually managed to do even better than Thriller, but some of the star’s record-selling power seemed to have dimmed. On the stage he remained unbeatable, and his 1988 world tour did phenomenal business and became his first major international trek. The same year, Michael released Moonwalker, his first starring feature film (only released on video in the US), along with a book about his early life.
In 1991, Michael returned with his next album, Dangerous, his first since 1975 to be created without Quincy Jones. This time he turned to new R&B and producers the likes of New Jack Swing mastermind Teddy Riley, who were dominating the charts at this time. ‘Black Or White’, the set’s first single, was supported by another state-of-the-art video, topped charts on both sides of the Atlantic and helped power sales of the album to 32 million worldwide. No less than nine singles were released from Dangerous internationally and many were supported by spectacular videos, but Michael’s public profile was increasingly dominated by his private life. In 1993, a lawsuit from the parents of a child who’d spent time in Michael’s company threatened to destroy his career. Managing this damaging episode diminished his standing, despite another staggeringly successful world tour.
In an attempt to recover lost ground, and with the controversy – for now at least – over, Michael launched HIStory: Past, Present And Future – Book 1 in 1995. The set included many of his biggest singles to date, along with 15 new songs. The first of these issued as a single was ‘Scream’, a duet with his sister Janet, who had become a major international star since her breakthrough in 1986. Supported by the world’s most expensive promo video to date, the track debuted at No.1 in the US, but only made No.3 in the UK. Its follow-ups ‘You Are Not Alone’ and ‘Earth Song’ did make it to the top in Great Britain, with the latter securing the coveted Christmas No.1 slot and becoming Jackson’s biggest-ever single in the UK, without even getting a release stateside. Another world tour supported this album, but critics weren’t kind and did little to repair his reputation. In 1997, a stopgap remix set called Blood On The Dance Floor: HIStory In The Mix yielded another UK chart-topper in the title track, but the single failed to break into the US Top 40.
Attempts to relaunch the star, still adored by a vast army of fans worldwide, continued with the release of 2001’s Invincible. Despite a gestated recording schedule and a staggering budget, the 16 songs and two ambitious concerts celebrating the star, staged on the eve of the album’s release date, failed to restore Michael’s career to its previous staggering peak, though the first single, ‘You Rock My World’, created with of-the-moment producer Rodney Jerkins, made both the US and UK Top 10. Michael was revered as a music legend and enjoyed enormous respect from his peers, but ongoing controversy over his personal life, which now included a family, and concerns over his health continually overshadowed his contemporary work.
A misjudged appearance on a TV documentary sparked fresh allegations into Michael’s relationship with the children who had been welcomed to his Neverland Ranch home. Prosecutors pounced on an opportunity to re-examine the issue, which had been resolved out of court in the 90s, and Michael was subjected to a lengthy, humiliating trial, but he was ultimately acquitted of all charges in June 2005. Reissues of his earlier work sustained Michael’s chart profile across the following years, but rumours of his ill-heath refused to die down, and public appearances became rarer. The financial difficulties Michael faced in later years likely prompted the surprise announcement, in 2009, that he was returning to the stage. A run of 10 concerts at London’s O2 Arena was announced and sold out in record time, prompting an extended run that would have kept the star performing there until the middle of 2010.
It wasn’t to be. During Los Angeles rehearsals for the This Is It shows, Michael was found dead in his home, having suffered a cardiac arrest. In the years since, Michael’s back catalogue has been mined extensively and many unreleased songs have charted, including ‘Love Never Felt So Good’, which was mixed as a duet with Justin Timberlake, widely regarded as following Michael’s formula for his own career.
In truth, the King Of Pop was a one-off. Born for the stage and rarely far from it, Michael lived a life of excess fueled by unimaginable wealth, endless controversy and fanatical adoration. Many would call his life a tragedy crafted in an unconventional childhood, but its legacy underpins today’s musical landscape. His life was cut short, but his songs will live on forever.
Riding high on the wild success of the Jackson 5, Motown ringleader Berry Gordy assembled every single notable production team member and songwriter in his arsenal to contribute to the solo debut of the J5's boy wonder, Michael. By the time Got to Be There was released, much had changed in the Jackson dynamic, none the least Michael's voice. But this album launched three chart singles: a cover of the bubblegum classic "Rockin' Robin," Leon Ware's "I Wanna Be Where You Are," and the title track. As a cohesive album, Got to Be There is wildly erratic, and his covers of "You've Got a Friend" and "Ain't No Sunshine" show Jackson's versatility as a singer. It was a world away from the politically charged sound of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and the introspection that would later grace some of the best works of Stevie Wonder. But Got to Be There kept Gordy as king of the sound of young America -- at least for a few months longer. Words: Rob Theakston
Although having just entered his teens, pop prodigy Michael Jackson's star was still very much on the ascent, circa his second full-length release, Ben (1972). This LP should not be confused with the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack from the Phil Karlson-directed "thriller" of the same name, and while blessed with an undeniable visual presence, Jackson was otherwise not involved in the creature feature. Like much of the Motown empire at the time, the title track's multimedia exposure, coupled with strong crossover appeal, insured that "Ben" scored the artist his first Pop Singles' chart-topper. Yet one interesting shift was the lack of participation from the Motown hitmaking machine known collectively as "the Corporation". While the aggregate had dominated most of the Jackson Five's early recordings and contributed their fair share to Jackson's debut, Got to Be There (1971), besides the title track, the only other cut to bear their unmistakable smooth production style is the practically perfunctory midtempo "We've Got a Good Thing Going." The catchy "Greatest Show on Earth" has a cinematic quality that stands out thanks to an excellent arrangement from James Anthony Carmichael -- one of several he scored for the project. While not a cover in the traditional sense, "People Make the World Go 'Round" was actually released within a few weeks of the Stylistics' more familiar hit. Although the reading heard here is equally impassioned, the emotive impact could arguably be greater thanks to the optimism infused with innocence in Jackson's vocals. "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" owes greatly to the Heartbeats' doo wop version, as opposed to Jimmy Scott's earlier classic. Jackson is obviously quite familiar with the former's phrasing while adding an age-defying maturity of his own. Returning back to his Hitsville roots, "My Girl" is updated with a funkier rhythm. The vocalist responds in kind with his own soulful lead that soars over the freshly syncopated chorus. The score includes some call-and-response interaction similar to what he and his brothers had displayed on the Jackson Five's selections "Nobody" and "The Love You Save," among countless others. "What Goes Around Comes Around" is one of Ben's better deep cuts with the vibrant melody perfectly matched to the artist's youthful voice. Of lesser note is the hopelessly dated "message" in the filler track "In Our Small Way." Luckily, a pair of winners conclude the effort with the propulsive and funky "Shoo Be Doo Be Doo Da Day" -- which was co-written by Stevie Wonder -- and the Berry Gordy-penned midtempo "You Can Cry on My Shoulder." Words: Lindsay Planer
Michael Jackson's fourth and final new studio album for Motown came nearly two years after its predecessor, Music and Me. It was a more mature effort for the 16-year-old singer but lacked the contemporary dance style that had given Jackson and his brothers a career rebirth with "Dancing Machine" the year before. The album did spawn two minor chart singles, "We're Almost There" and "Just a Little Bit of You" (both produced by Brian Holland of the Holland-Dozier-Holland production team), and a third track, "One Day in Your Life," would chart as a reissue six years later. Words: William Ruhlmann
Michael Jackson had recorded solo prior to the release of Off the Wall in 1979, but this was his breakthrough, the album that established him as an artist of astonishing talent and a bright star in his own right. This was a visionary album, a record that found a way to break disco wide open into a new world where the beat was undeniable, but not the primary focus -- it was part of a colorful tapestry of lush ballads and strings, smooth soul and pop, soft rock, and alluring funk. Its roots hearken back to the Jacksons' huge mid-'70s hit "Dancing Machine," but this is an enormously fresh record, one that remains vibrant and giddily exciting years after its release. This is certainly due to Jackson's emergence as a blindingly gifted vocalist, equally skilled with overwrought ballads as "She's Out of My Life" as driving dancefloor shakers as "Working Day and Night" and "Get on the Floor," where his asides are as gripping as his delivery on the verses. It's also due to the brilliant songwriting, an intoxicating blend of strong melodies, rhythmic hooks, and indelible construction. Most of all, its success is due to the sound constructed by Jackson and producer Quincy Jones, a dazzling array of disco beats, funk guitars, clean mainstream pop, and unashamed (and therefore affecting) schmaltz that is utterly thrilling in its utter joy. This is highly professional, highly crafted music, and its details are evident, but the overall effect is nothing but pure pleasure. Jackson and Jones expanded this approach on the blockbuster Thriller, often with equally stunning results, but they never bettered it. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Off the Wall was a massive success, spawning four Top Ten hits (two of them number ones), but nothing could have prepared Michael Jackson for Thriller. Nobody could have prepared anybody for the success of Thriller, since the magnitude of its success was simply unimaginable -- an album that sold 40 million copies in its initial chart run, with seven of its nine tracks reaching the Top Ten (for the record, the terrific "Baby Be Mine" and the pretty good ballad "The Lady in My Life" are not like the others). This was a record that had something for everybody, building on the basic blueprint of Off the Wall by adding harder funk, hard rock, softer ballads, and smoother soul -- expanding the approach to have something for every audience. That alone would have given the album a good shot at a huge audience, but it also arrived precisely when MTV was reaching its ascendancy, and Jackson helped the network by being not just its first superstar, but first black star as much as the network helped him. This all would have made it a success (and its success, in turn, served as a new standard for success), but it stayed on the charts, turning out singles, for nearly two years because it was really, really good. True, it wasn't as tight as Off the Wall -- and the ridiculous, late-night house-of-horrors title track is the prime culprit, arriving in the middle of the record and sucking out its momentum -- but those one or two cuts don't detract from a phenomenal set of music. It's calculated, to be sure, but the chutzpah of those calculations (before this, nobody would even have thought to bring in metal virtuoso Eddie Van Halen to play on a disco cut) is outdone by their success. This is where a song as gentle and lovely as "Human Nature" coexists comfortably with the tough, scared "Beat It," the sweet schmaltz of the Paul McCartney duet "The Girl Is Mine," and the frizzy funk of "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." And, although this is an undeniably fun record, the paranoia is already creeping in, manifesting itself in the record's two best songs: "Billie Jean," where a woman claims Michael is the father of her child, and the delirious "Wanna Be Startin' Something," the freshest funk on the album, but the most claustrophobic, scariest track Jackson ever recorded. These give the record its anchor and are part of the reason why the record is more than just a phenomenon. The other reason, of course, is that much of this is just simply great music. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
The downside to a success like Thriller is that it's nearly impossible to follow, but Michael Jackson approached Bad much the same way he approached Thriller -- take the basic formula of the predecessor, expand it slightly, and move it outward. This meant that he moved deeper into hard rock, deeper into schmaltzy adult contemporary, deeper into hard dance -- essentially taking each portion of Thriller to an extreme, while increasing the quotient of immaculate studiocraft. He wound up with a sleeker, slicker Thriller, which isn't a bad thing, but it's not a rousing success, either. For one thing, the material just isn't as good. Look at the singles: only three can stand alongside album tracks from its predecessor ("Bad," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "I Just Can't Stop Loving You"), another is simply OK ("Smooth Criminal"), with the other two showcasing Jackson at his worst (the saccharine "Man in the Mirror," the misogynistic "Dirty Diana"). Then, there are the album tracks themselves, something that virtually didn't exist on Thriller but bog down Bad not just because they're bad, but because they reveal that Jackson's state of the art is not hip. And they constitute a near-fatal dead spot on the record -- songs three through six, from "Speed Demon" to "Another Part of Me," a sequence that's utterly faceless, lacking memorable hooks and melodies, even when Stevie Wonder steps in for "Just Good Friends," relying on nothing but studiocraft. Part of the joy of Off the Wall and Thriller was that craft was enhanced with tremendous songs, performances, and fresh, vivacious beats. For this dreadful stretch, everything is mechanical, and while the album rebounds with songs that prove mechanical can be tolerable if delivered with hooks and panache, it still makes Bad feel like an artifact of its time instead a piece of music that transcends it. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Despite the success of Bad, it was hard not to view it as a bit of a letdown, since it presented a cleaner, colder, calculated version of Thriller -- something that delivered what it should on the surface, but wound up offering less in the long run. So, it was time for a change-up, something even a superstar as huge as Michael Jackson realized, so he left Quincy Jones behind, hired Guy mastermind Teddy Riley as the main producer, and worked with a variety of other producers, arrangers, and writers, most notably Bruce Swedien and Bill Bottrell. The end result of this is a much sharper, harder, riskier album than Bad, one that has its eyes on the street, even if its heart gets middle-class soft on "Heal the World." The shift in direction and change of collaborators has liberated Jackson, and he's written a set of songs that is considerably stronger than Bad, often approaching the consistency of Off the Wall and Thriller. If it is hardly as effervescent or joyous as either of those records, chalk it up to his suffocating stardom, which results in a set of songs without much real emotional center, either in their substance or performance. But, there's a lot to be said for professional craftsmanship at its peak, and Dangerous has plenty of that, not just on such fine singles as "In the Closet," "Remember the Time," or the blistering "Jam," but on album tracks like "Why You Wanna Trip on Me." No, it's not perfect -- it has a terrible cover, a couple of slow spots, and suffers from CD-era ailments of the early '90s, such as its overly long running time and its deadening Q Sound production, which sounds like somebody forgot to take the Surround Sound button off. Even so, Dangerous captures Jackson at a near-peak, delivering an album that would have ruled the pop charts surely and smoothly if it had arrived just a year earlier. But it didn't -- it arrived along with grunge, which changed the rules of the game nearly as much as Thriller itself. Consequently, it's the rare multi-platinum, number one album that qualifies as a nearly forgotten, underappreciated record. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Michael Jackson's double-disc HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book I is a monumental achievement of ego. Titled "HIStory Begins," the first disc is a collection of his post-Motown hits, featuring some of the greatest music in pop history, including "Billie Jean," "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Beat It," and "Rock with You." It leaves some hits out -- including the number ones "Say Say Say" and "Dirty Diana" -- yet it's filled with enough prime material to be thoroughly intoxicating. That can't be said for the second disc, called "HIStory Continues" and consisting entirely of new material -- which also happens to be the first material he released since being accused of child molestation. "HIStory Continues" is easily the most personal album Jackson has recorded. References to the scandal permeate almost every song, creating a thick atmosphere of paranoia. If Jackson's music had been the equal of Thriller or Bad, the nervous, vindictive lyrics wouldn't have been quite as overbearing. However, "HIStory Continues" reiterates musical ideas Jackson had been exploring since Bad. Jackson certainly tries to stay contemporary, yet he has a tendency to smooth out all of his rougher musical edges with show-biz schmaltz. Occasionally, Jackson produces some well-crafted pop that ranks with his best material: R. Kelly's "You Are Not Alone" is seductive, "Scream" improves on the slamming beats of his earlier single "Jam," and "Stranger in Moscow" is one of his most haunting ballads. Nevertheless, "HIStory Continues" stands as his weakest album since the mid-'70s. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Let's get the clichéd bad joke out of the way to begin with: at the time Michael Jackson released Invincible in the fall of 2001, he hardly seemed "invincible" -- it was more wishful thinking than anything else, since he hadn't really had a genuine hit in ten years, and even that paled in comparison to his total domination of the '80s. That lack of commercial success, combined with a fading reputation as a trailblazer, a truly ugly public scandal, and swirling rumors about his diminishing finances, along with a huge wait between albums (by teaming his Dangerous follow-up with a hits collection, it wound up being overlooked, despite a gaudy publicity push), resulted in Jackson being deep down in the hole, needing to surge back out with a record that not only proved his talents, but his staying power. So, faced with a make-or-break record, what did Jackson do to save his career? What he did since Dangerous, take a turn toward the street and craft a hard-driving, hard-polished urban soul album, heavy on the dance numbers and sweetened by lugubrious ballads. It's a proven formula for commercial success, but it not only didn't push his music forward, it made his reach seem rather timid when compared to the wildly rich, all-encompassing musical vision of Thriller and Bad. Here, he's reined in by a desire to prove himself, so he keeps his focus sharp and narrow, essentially creating a sparkly, post-hip-hop update of Off the Wall. It's not as good as that sounds, because the infectious joy and layered craft of that masterpiece have been replaced with a dogged, near-maniacal desire to craft something hip enough for the clubs and melodic enough for mainstream radio, thereby confirming his self-proclaimed status as the King of Pop (a really terrible title, btw). Since he was exceptionally talented and smart enough to surround himself with first-rate collaborators, this does pay off on occasion, even when it feels a little too calculated or when it feels a little padded. Ultimately, the record runs too long, losing steam halfway through, as it turns to a series of rants about "Privacy" or a deadly stretch of uncomfortably treacly, sub-"Man in the Mirror" songs about "The Lost Children," or when he says that he can't change the world by himself on "Cry." Fortunately, Jackson was clever enough to front-load this record, loading the first seven songs with really good, edgy dance numbers -- even the opening "Unbreakable" isn't sunk by the creepy resurrection of Biggie Smalls -- and lovely ballads, highlighted by "Break of Dawn" and "Butterflies" with its Bacharach-styled horns. Even if these are too self-conscious and a little mechanical (which they are), they still have a spark and sound better than anything Jackson had done since Dangerous. That's not enough to make Invincible the comeback Jackson needed -- he really would have had to have an album that sounded free instead of constrained for that to work -- but it does offer a reminder that he could really craft good pop. If only he had been fueled, not constrained, by his obsessions, this could have been really interesting. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine