In 1987, there was no stopping George Michael.
With the release of Faith, his first album after leaving pop duo Wham!, Michael reached a level of pop dominance that only two other artists at the time could claim: Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson.
On Christmas Day 2016, the last of that legendary trifecta passed away.
Beyond being a certified hit maker (ten number one singles in total), George Michael was an immensely talented singer and songwriter. His voice, able to convey both shattering passion and seductive cool with ease, defied the conventions of genre. He was just as believable sizzling through “I Want Your Sex” as he was crooning over the smooth jazz of “Kissing a Fool.” Whatever the material, from the teen-pop of “Everything She Wants” to the social consciousness of “Praying For Time”, Michael sang from the depths of his soul, and rewrote the rules of male pop in the process.
Time away from the spotlight and Michael’s personal troubles may have chipped away at his immediate relevance, but there is no denying his status as a pop legend. In celebration of his life and career, join me in remembering some of his greatest moments in song (and feel free to share your favorites):
Careless Whisper (1984)
George Michael’s first official single was a stark departure from the bubbly pop he recorded with Wham!, a statement of intent for the burgeoning pop star. Michael’s devastating vocal and that iconic saxophone solo made this heartbreak ballad an essential track of the decade. “Careless Whisper” confirmed that George Michael as a successful solo artist was inevitable, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
I Knew You Were Waiting For Me (1987)
George Michael’s rich, soulful voice made him a top-notch song partner. He’s recorded with many over the years, but his collaboration with Aretha Franklin is the gold standard. This joyous duet finds Michael more than holding his own against the Queen of Soul. Even better, they are clearly having a blast together, and the energy bouncing between them is infectious.
Father Figure (1988)
Faith is an embarrassment of riches – all six singles from the landmark album peaked in the Top 5, four going straight to the top. After the sex-drenched funk of “I Want Your Sex” and the rockbilly soul of “Faith” came “Father Figure”, an atmospheric, choir-backed ballad. Michael cleverly subverts the heavy gospel influence through the song’s blatantly seductive lyrics and his breathy, husky delivery. It’s a bold experiment that succeeds on every level.
One More Try (1988)
At his very core, George Michael was a soul singer, and no single in his catalogue best captures that than his third #1 from Faith. Backed by an organ and a solitary drumbeat, he sings of his hesitancy to fall in love after being spurned in the past. “One More Try” is Michael at his most expressive, his impressive range on full display as he rips through the lyrics with fear-tinged ferocity. Remarkably, the single went to #1 not just on the pop charts, but also on the R&B charts, further affirming the authenticity of his soul roots.
Kissing a Fool (1988)
The last single from Faith may have broken his #1 streak, but this song is as good a showcase as any of Michael’s singular abilities as a singer and songwriter. Michael crafts a smoky jazz soundscape to lay his insecurities as a romantic partner on the table. He sounds effortless, breezy and light while also perfectly conveying the wistful melancholy of the ballad.
Freedom! ’90 (1990)
By the time Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, the 1990 followup to Faith, was released to record stores, George Michael was over it. “Freedom! ’90” recounts his ascent to pop megastardom, and his distaste for the artifice of it all. He may have set his iconic “Faith” leather jacket ablaze in the memorable music video, but Michael doesn’t cast his funky aside, sounding fierce and refreshed in his, well, freedom.
Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me (1992)
George Michael’s cover of the Elton John classic would’ve worked perfectly if he performed it alone. Thankfully, he didn’t inviting John to perform it with him during a 1991 concert in London, and then having the smarts to record and release it. This tour de force would serve as the last number-one singles for both men.
Jesus to a Child (1996)
In my opinion, George Michael’s masterpiece. Dedicated to his Brazilian lover who died of AIDS, who he was unable to claim publicly, “Jesus to a Child” tributes him beautifully. Set to the sounds of bossa nova, Michael’s heartbreak is palpable, his vocals gentle, romantic and shaded by dulled ache. It’s a pained, haunting masterwork.
The album may have been titled Older, but that didn’t mean he was leaving the disco anytime soon. In fact, his experience made him even funkier and sexier, as he touts the benefits of casual relationships on this top-notch track. The sample of Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” is a stroke of brilliance. Part-bedroom romp, part-dancefloor filler, all George at this best.
A humiliating arrest for public indecency in a LA bathroom could have turned Michael into a forever punchline. Instead, he takes control, taking his would-be detractors straight to the dancefloor. In this funky disco romp, Michael is in top form, playfully winking at his listeners as he mocks the lusty appetites that led to his entrapment and arrest. He certainly deserved the last laugh.