George Michael was often painted as an artist who took himself too seriously or one who spent 35 years playing the reluctant pop star. In a 2004 interview with GQ, Michael addressed this saying, “I never minded being thought of as a pop star. People have always thought I wanted to be seen as a serious musician, but I didn’t, I just wanted people to know that I was absolutely serious about pop music.” Despite people making their own assumptions about Michael as a person, his passion for pop music has always been obvious through his music. Including Wham!, Michael released just six full-length albums of original material suggesting that he was something of a perfectionist.
Since his death was announced, it’s already been revealed he had three albums of material in his vaults. It’s not quite the same as Prince’s vault (which is rumoured to contain thousands of hours of unreleased music), but it does conflict with the people who wrote him off as lazy or irrelevant. He was still chasing the perfect pop song even towards the end of his life (something he’d already achieved many times throughout his career).
Following on from Ed Jupp’s excellent tribute to George Michael last week, I agreed to take on the challenge of picking 11 of my favourite songs by Michael. I’ve done a few of these Starting For XI features before, but this might be the hardest yet.
Young Guns (Go For It) (1982)
Wham! launched their career with the politically charged and hip-hop inspired single, ‘Wham Rap!’, but it was their infectious follow-up, ‘Young Guns (Go For It)’ that gave them a hit. The single took off after a thrilling Top Of The Pops performance that showed the obvious chemistry between Michael, Andrew Ridgeley and their backing singers, Pepsi and Shirley. Featuring similar 70s funk influences that could be found on Ze Records acts such as Kid Creole & The Coconuts and Was Not Was. Michael warns his friend about the dangers of settling down too soon, pointing out, “death by matrimony.” The song twists and turns before a dramatic call and response breakdown that captures the essence of what made Wham! so charming.
Ray Of Sunshine (1983)
In 1983 Wham! released their confidently-titled debut album, Fantastic. It turned out to be an apt title for the album. As well as including their four top 10 hit singles, the album tracks stand up well. ‘Ray Of Sunshine’ would have made a brilliant fifth single with its swinging bassline and playful lyrics. Michael sings about his pure love of music and dance, “without this beat my life would fall apart.” A lot of the music press had already turned on Wham!’s sound, but Michael and Ridgeley were already on their way to becoming one of the country’s biggest groups.
Everything She Wants (1984)
Wham!’s finest song finds them transitioning between their early funk-pop sound and the more mature direction of Michael’s solo work. The production on ‘Everything She Wants’ is already much fuller than the sound they achieved on Fantastic. Michael sings of the story of a man trying to get out of a relationship with a woman obsessed with money, over a sophisticated groove. ‘Everything She Wants’ was initially overshadowed as it was paired up with ‘Last Christmas’ (the biggest song of Michael’s career), but it got its moment to shine when pushed as the A-side in the new year. Michael often referred to this as his favourite Wham! song.
Careless Whisper (1984)
Famously ‘Careless Whisper’ was written by Michael when he was just 17 years old. He often claimed that he never understood why his debut solo single has become his signature tune. Its enduring appeal has a lot to do with the Michael’s conviction as he plays the part of a lover who has cheated, singing, “guilty feet have got no rhythm.” It’s a line that he has dismissed as throwaway, but it’s also a brilliant pop lyric that’s quotable over 30 years on. The sax is one of the catchiest riffs of the 80s and the emotional climax of the song is still so beautiful. It’s a shame that Michael never realised that he’d created something so perfect.
A Different Corner (1986)
Michael’s second solo single is one of the most minimal songs to reach number one. ‘A Different Corner‘ proved Michael was so much more than just a brilliant singer. He wrote, produced and played every note of this gorgeous song. There’s a clarity in his voice as he sings of the fear of falling in love, “I would promise you all of my life, but to lose you would cut like a knife, so I don’t dare, no I don’t dare.” It’s one of his most understated songs and it is beautifully contrasted with one of his most passionate vocals.
Hand To Mouth (1987)
Faith is the album where Michael stepped out alone and successfully launched himself as the mega star he was obviously born to be. Six singles made the top 20 in the UK and in the USA he did even better with four number one singles. The melancholy, ‘Hand To Mouth’ is the album’s highlight with its beautiful soulful melody. It showed just how much Michael had developed as a songwriter and a storyteller.
Cowboys & Angels (1990)
Michael’s second solo record, the often confessional, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 is Michael’s masterpiece. It didn’t produce as many hits as Faith, but it was just as successful in the UK. ‘Cowboys & Angels’ was Michael’s first single to miss the top 40 and it’s one of his best. The moody bossa nova rhythm blends perfectly with the sombre vocal delivery, making it one of his warmest songs. Michael later revealed the song to be about him being involved in a love triangle with two men. The song ends with the heartbreakingly poignant lines, “please be stronger than your past, the future may still give you a chance.”
Too Funky (1992)
Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2 never appeared, which is a shame as the songs Michael did release from the aborted project found him on great form. After, ‘I Want Your Sex’ from Faith, this is Michael’s most obvious ode to sex as he sings, “hey, you’re just too funky for me, I gotta get inside of you, and I’ll show you heaven if you let me.” Just like Madonna and Prince, Michael was embracing dance music of the early 90s and putting his own take on it. It’s a fantastic single that, coupled with its catwalk model heavy video, is a perfect artefact of the early 90s.
After launching a case against Sony in 1992, Michael didn’t release any new music for four years until his third album, Older. The album’s second single, ‘Fastlove’ is a career highlight. It finds the man who sang of not wanting to be tied down 14 years earlier on in ‘Young Guns’, still wanting a similar thing, “my friends got their ladies, they’re all having babies, but I just want to have some fun.” The music is the kind of effortlessness funk that Michael should have visited more often than he did. It slides effortlessly into one of his best choruses featuring one of Michael’s smoothest vocals. Fastlove still sounds as fresh as it did 21 years ago.
Michael’s very public outing in April 1998 was something that threatened to derail his hugely successful career. His sexuality and personal life became public with certain tabloids attempting to turn him into nothing more than a punchline. Michael fought back with a series of unapologetic interviews before releasing this single addressing the incident. ‘Outside’ and the accompanying video are an absolute masterclass in how to handle a situation like that. He did the best thing he could do, he showed self-awareness and a sense of humour as he sang, “I’d service the community, but I already have, you see” with a knowing wink. ‘Outside’ continues the funk of ‘Fastlove’ with added 70s disco-inspired strings that create his most joyous single. His fearless attitude and honesty are one of the things that made Michael an incredible pop star. ‘Outside’ was the beginning of Michael doing exactly what he wanted and refusing to play the victim. It was a thrill to witness.
After the success of his Greatest Hits album in 1998 Michael released the largely-derided covers album, Songs From The Last Century. Three years later he came back with ‘Freeek’ and ‘Shoot The Dog’ which were two of his most exciting and daring singles. ‘Shoot The Dog’ blatantly attacked George W. Bush and yet again, he had some critics declaring the end of his career. ‘Freeek’ was another song addressing sexual desires that musically was the most out there Michael had ever sounded. Over a grinding beat that eventually integrates Aaliyah’s classic, ‘Try Again’, this was Michael risking alienating the side of his fan-base that actually wanted him to sing an album of uninspired covers. It’s one his most underrated singles; it deserved way more success than it got.
Precious Box (2004)
Michael’s final studio album, Patience featured some of the most introspective and beautifully-produced music of his career. ‘Precious Box’ is a clear standout with its use of bubbling synths, devastatingly sad strings and pulsing beat. Michael sings of a character obsessed with their TV who avoids reality. Michael could be referring to himself as he sings, “life keeps kicking my ass in so many ways” and showing his insecurities as he points out, “people can go out of fashion.” His tender vocal shows so much vulnerability especially the way he sings, “so sick of the same old faces, In this street, where nobody talks to me, and the funny side of the situation is, I don’t care, I’ll always be there.” It’s an incredibly human performance from Michael that ends up creating one of the most moving and stunning songs in his back catalogue.
It may be obvious now that I have gone slightly over my 11 song limit. Hopefully it will seem suitable for an article about a pop star that never played by the rules. This attitude helped make him such a relatable person in some ways. He was one of the biggest musicians we’ve ever seen, but he had the same highs and lows that we all have. He didn’t live in his own world, unlike Prince or Michael Jackson. Since his death, stories have appeared about how he gave a woman money for an IVF treatment and how he gave millions of pounds to charities. The money didn’t change this kind man’s down-to-earth nature and it makes his death even harder to take. His legacy will live on through these stories and the music he left behind.