Few songwriters of his era were as capable as Michael of writing both heart-wrenching torch ballads and sugary pop trifles.
George Michael, who died Sunday at the far-too-young age of 53, was almost certainly the most under-appreciated pop star of MTV’s first decade. Not at the time, of course — with 10 Billboard Hot 100 number-one singles in nine years between his solo career and his work with early co-conspirator Andrew Ridgeley in Wham!, along with one diamond-selling album in 1987’s Faith, at least we can say that the singer/songwriter/sex symbol was as contemporaneously beloved as a man of his peerless pop talents deserved.
But a relatively abrupt fade from Top 40’s center, a close association with some of the more overblown visual and sonic signifiers of the 1980s and some less-than-progressive attitudes about his homosexuality — and the way it manifested in both his music and public life — have kept Michael from maintaining the mononymic-level status afforded to peers like Madonna, Prince, Janet and Michael. Consequently, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees are announced every year, not only is the artist born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou never included, but the Internet scarcely feigns outrage at his snubbing, as if he barely deserves accounting for in the rock canon — despite the fact that he was responsible for the best Bo Diddley rip of the past 40 years, and did more for the leather jacket than anyone since The King.
Michael’s music should be taken very seriously, and also very frivolously — few songwriters of his era were as capable of writing both heart-wrenching torch ballads speaking to the essential isolation at the core of the human condition, and sugary pop trifles where the only word you needed to understand was “jitterbug.” And the best of his songs usually fell somewhere in between, bold and bubbly declarations of independence and deliverance that still admitted how scared and unsure he was about all of it, a too-rare combination of pro prowess and outsider insecurity that seemed to make him more relatable the more popular he became.
It’s too late for Michael to get the level of respect as an artist, songwriter and overall icon that he deserved during his lifetime. But all he ever wanted from us was to listen without prejudice, and that (hopefully) we can still do.
Here are the 15 best places to start.
15. “Outside” (Ladies and Gentlemen, the Best of George Michael, 1998)
In which George Michael stared down one of the most scandalous arrests of the modern pop era and decided f— ’em if they can’t take a joke. With its euphoric sense of dance-floor release and doubled-down cheekiness (down to Michael playing a cop in a bathroom-turned-disco in the video), “Outside” leaned so far in it fell all the way over, and while the thing flopped in the U.S. and effectively signaled his career’s end stateside, Michael was probably having too much fun to notice.
14. “Move On” (Older, 1996)
Michael showed an odd affinity for post-Style Council faux-jazz arrangements over the course of his career — maybe fancying himself the late-night club singer reflecting the denizens’ loneliness back to them. It didn’t always work, but one of the times it did was on the down-tempo soft-shoe of Older’s “Move On,” in which Michael softly reflects upon a life of tribulation — which a few years earlier had expanded to include the death of lover Anselmo Feleppa to AIDS — and states with the quiet determination of a muted trumpet: “I think of all the days and nights I spent crying / And I move on.” The applause Michael receives at song’s end is hard-earned.
13. “The Edge of Heaven” (Music From the Edge of Heaven, 1986)
The absolutely absurd run of hits George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley experienced in just a three-year run as Wham! finally came to an end with farewell single “The Edge of Heaven,” though it hardly sounds like goodbye —the breathless proficiency of its Motown-borrowed swing, with Michael riding it like a cowboy scared to loose his grip, suggests a duo still enjoying the view from the top of the pops. It’s overshadowed today because they’d done it better once or twice before; by anyone else “The Edge of Heaven” would be remembered as peak ’80s.
12. “Something to Save” (Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, 1990)
Certainly a less-remembered side of George Michael; with its rousing acoustic guitars, folky lyrical earnestness and weighty strings, “Something to Save” could be easily mistaken for college rock. But while George Michael fans are no doubt thankful he didn’t dwell too long in this period of musical self-righteousness, he actually did it quite well —the song still eschews chest-beating for soul-baring, and by the time the pack harmonies hit halfway through, even the Black Crowes fans had to get their lighters up.
11. “A Different Corner” (Music From the Edge of Heaven, 1986)
Michael’s official solo debut in the States, nestled within Wham!’s swan song LP, and a spellbinding test run. The bass line echoes Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” —doubtlessly noted with no small amount of bitter irony by the soon-to-be-jettisoned Ridgeley — and while the singer’s repeated pronouncements of “I’m so scared” make him sound like anyone who’s ever dared to love someone more than they seemed to return the favor, they don’t make him sound like someone particularly worried about his upcoming solo career.
10. “Careless Whisper” (Make It Big, 1984)
Perhaps only “Bad to the Bone” could claim an ’80s opening riff as immediately recognizable as the sax star-wipe that introduces (and ultimately defines) “Careless Whisper,” a far more convincing argument against the one-night stand than Jermaine Stewart ever managed. That unshakeable main hook ensures the song’s enduring virality, while the chorus makes it a karaoke all-timer — that this might’ve only been the third-best single off Make It Big should tell you all you need to know about the caliber of George Michael’s CV.
9. “Fastlove” (Older, 1996)
Calling your third solo album Older is not generally well-advised pop star behavior, but Michael saw no need to hide his middle-agedness when it gave him a smooth self-confidence and louche charm to rival Jarvis Cocker. Over a G-funk-inspired groove, “Fastlove” sees Michael shaking off the last of his dancing feet’s ’80s-era guiltiness, and hitting the club to make some overdue memories: “My friends got their ladies, they’re all having babies / I just want to have some fun.” Sounded like a plan, certainly.
8. “I Want Your Sex” (Faith, 1987)
Hard to believe that there was a time not so long ago where pop music actually had to go on the defensive about f—ing, but the too-funky “I Want Your Sex” responded to mid-’80s AIDS paranoia with what could then have been perceived as a bold statement: “Sex is natural, sex is good / Not everybody does, but everybody should.” Of course, “Sex” landed Michael in boiling water, whose temperature was raised by those who misinterpreted its message as pro-promiscuity; Michael wrote “Explore monogamy” on his partner’s body in lipstick in the video and made the song 100 times hotter.
7. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” (Make It Big, 1984)
The shirts commanded “Choose Life,” but “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” hardly allowed room for another option — few songs in the history of pop music have ever be so oppressively effervescent, making even Katrina and the Waves sound like a Leonard Cohen cover band by comparison. But the song had the teeth to make its painfully wide smile seem plausible, with every bass pop, horn blow and vocal exhortation making Michael and Ridgeley sound like a couple of prizefighters whipping themselves into a frenzy before the big match — even if all they’re really getting pumped for is a night on the town, which the singer ends up canceling anyway for a good snuggle.
6. “Amazing” (Patience, 2004)
A perfect late-period Michael song, its guitar-pop breeziness making it relatively understated compared to most of his lead singles, which just allows one of his all-time best lyrics to shine through. Like Paul McCartney, Michael never permitted himself to become jaded about love, and “Amazing” stuns as a simple, consistently impressed testament to the sensation’s restorative powers: “The day you walked in and changed my life / I think it’s amazing / The way that love can you set you free.” As powerful as a bemused observation as anything Michael’s ever belted with his full body.
5. “Faith” (Faith, 1987)
Michael’s ass-shaking solo statement of intent, getting a truly shocking amount of juice out of a hand-jiving guitar riff, some well-placed snaps and an organ intro that gives gospel-like heft to the harmonies that follow. Finding so much joy and strength in the act of resisting temptation is a tough thing for a pop song to do, but “Faith” demonstrated how a record saying “no” could be just as steamy as one saying “yes” — no small feat, given Faith’s lead single. Of course, Fred Durst changed one pronoun in the first verse and nearly ruined the whole thing, but two decades later, no one under the age of 25 needs to know his version even exists.
4. “Everything She Wants” (Make It Big, 1984)
A remarkable thing about Michael’s first 15 years in pop music was how, even as a gay man pressured by forces around him to keep his sexuality hidden, his songwriting never came off as misdirecting or forced, even in retrospect. You could interpret the central conflict at the heart of Wham!’s 1985 chart-topper “Everything She Wants” — Michael’s incredulousness at his female lover’s financial neediness, which increasingly outweighs his desire to keep her happy — however you want, but his (lack of) feelings for her are hardly veiled as he cries “My God! I don’t even think that I love you!” The rawness of emotion always translated for the signer-songwriter — and over the squelching disco juggernaut of a beat here, it sounded about as urgent as a nuclear war.
3. “One More Try” (Faith, 1987)
With synths that presaged Sinead O’Connor’s most incomparable hit and a power-waltz sway that paved the end of the road for Boyz II Men, “One More Try” stands as the closest thing Michael has to a forgotten classic. While “Father Figure” may be the better-remembered Faith ballad, “One More Try” is the more quintessential; a tortured maybe-breakup song that spends five minutes begging for merciful release from love, only to lose its nerve at the last second and agree to start all over again. From a lesser artist the ending would come off as cop-out or disappointment, but Michael invests so much of himself in the song’s devastating, all-chambers-emptied vocal that it’s clear throughout he’s already pot-committed — maybe he could leave, but there wouldn’t be much of himself left to take with.
2. “Last Christmas” (Single, 1984)
Jeez, like it wasn’t already hard enough to stay dry-eyed through this song. After this particular holiday season, the glistening synth-pop of “Last Christmas” is bound to take on an unfortunate and everlasting new resonance for George Michael fans, as the song’s overpowering Yuletide melancholy inevitably gets wrapped up in depressing Where Were You When You Heard? memories. If there’s one solace to take in the exponential emotional surge of “Last Christmas,” it’s that an enduring lesson of Michael’s seems to be that in music and in life, the misery that love causes us is inextricable from the joy it gives, and that to take one for granted and focus on the other is to cheapen the whole experience. Anything that comes with the experience of giving your heart away is worthwhile, as long as you’re giving it to someone special.
1. “Freedom ’90” (Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1)
Michael had the unique misfortune among major rock-era pop stars of having to spend virtually his entire career rejecting the performer he had just finished being. So when the tight shorts of the Wham! era became comical, they gave way to the jeans and leather jacket of Faith, and once that was big enough to cease being backlash-proof, he had to literally blow that look up in the “Freedom ’90” video. Though it’s hard to say when or if Michael was able to finally break the cycle, over the process he became an artist defined by redefinition, one whose most powerful statement was in his ability and decision to make whatever statement he then chose, regardless of who liked him better before or who would like him less after.
“Freedom ’90” was the song that best expressed this ethos, both literally and figuratively. The lyrics, which serve as both origin story and quasi-heel turn for Michael, essentially spell it out from the opening lines: “Heaven knows I was just a young boy / Didn’t know what I wanted to be.” Throughout, he tells of the way his image was co-opted and commodified, and how we now wants out — though he acts as his own judge or jury in the court of public opinion for doing so (“That’s what you get for changing your mind!”). But he begs listeners to hear him out, and to put their trust first and foremost in what really matters: the music. “Gotta have some faith in the sound,” he pleads. “It’s the one good thing that I’ve got.”
And in the case of “Freedom ’90,” the sound is beyond undeniable. Multiplying Aretha Franklin by The Rolling Stones by Elton John, Michael summons a righteous fury of piano-led rock-and-soul to serve as his backing choir as he preaches the gospel, and the song builds to its titular chant — through a deliberate, echoing verse and two (!!) lengthy pre-choruses — with impossible patience, so that when the word finally arrives, it’s as liberating as multiple snow days. It’s the shortest six-and-a-half minute song in pop history, because all of it feels so essential, so powerful, so true. “Please don’t give me up,” he implores us on the chorus. “‘Cause I would really, really love to stick around.” He should never have had to ask in the first place.
This story originally appeared on Billboard.com.