Throughout his glossy '80s journey to superstardom, George Michael stood firm as perhaps the era's purest pop singer-songwriter. His obsession with glamorous melodic content fueled the music of Wham!, the duo he founded with childhood pal Andrew Ridgeley, and also drove his massive success as a solo artist. Critics have always been slow to recognize the brilliance of pop music this unabashed, but in the years since his heyday, Michael's music has held up because of its precise construction. Here's a chronological look at this artist's best songs from his days with Wham! as well as his explosive late-'80s solo career.
Although the "guilty feet have got no rhythm" concept and the blaringly cheesy saxophone break in this tune have always set my teeth on edge, there's no denying this song gave audiences their first glimpse of George Michael as the consummate pop craftsman. His efforts with Wham! previously had been exceedingly slight almost by design, but when Michael decided to turn his attentions to more adult material on this undisputed '80s classic, his mastery grew ever more apparent. If you still have any doubt as to the staying power of this track, you need only witness the many disparate cover versions of the tune that have popped up over the years, including a stunning one by fellow masters of pop songcraft Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright.
Some may disagree, but to my mind this tune from 1984's Make It Big is Wham! and George Michael's first flawlessly great hit song, its first one not marred by cheesy saxophone as in "Careless Whisper" or extreme flounciness (complete with a Doris Day reference) as in "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." Despite its dated synthesizers, the single features tight, pointed lyrics and one of Michael's most measured vocal performances from his stint as part of the duo. From verse to chorus, this is simply pop gold. When Michael croons, "Somebody tell me... Why I work so hard for you," it's impossible for listeners to ignore the melodic majesty of Michael's talent. Incidentally, the remainder of the '80s continued to prove Michael was no fluke.
On this impossibly catchy number, Michael indulges his fascination with girl-group pop melodies, and perhaps never before has such a sound been this infectious. As in his best songs, Michael displays an uncanny knack for matching solid, tuneful verses with an escalating, delightfully linked pre-chorus and chorus. I did a pretty good job of not appreciating this song when I was younger, but now that I'm older and artificial strictures about what to listen to are fewer, I'm a permanent fan. Michael's entirely distinct 1990 solo hit, also titled "Freedom," has always received more attention than its 1984 namesake even though the earlier tune was a far bigger U.K. and U.S. hit. Must have something to do with that supermodel-laden music video.
From its stylish synth opening, this seasonally hamstrung hit introduces an intoxicating sophistipop aura that always suited George Michael better than his goofier, up-tempo efforts. Although this tune was underappreciated in the U.S. upon initial release - and actually never became a major hit at all even upon rerelease in 1985 and 1986), it has since definitely become an '80s pop classic regardless of its limiting Yuletide theme. Michael has always written his most convincing lyrics about heartbreak and longing, and he smartly plays to his strengths both musically and vocally here. Again, if plentiful cover versions help tell the story of a song's influence, then once again Michael's brand of luxurious pop strikes an ongoing chord.
Although this is technically an Aretha Franklin tune - in that it appeared on her self-titled 1986 album and she generally received top billing during its release - Michael most certainly makes a distinctive contribution to the majesty of this rousing soul-pop confection that comes quite close to gospel glory. Michael more than holds his own with the Queen of Soul here, showing off his versatility and depth of passion as a vocalist. And although this is one of the few occasions Michael veers away from his own songwriting to interpret someone else's tune, he reveals a solid sense of taste in doing so. An R&B admirer from way back, Michael makes the most of a duet with one of his singing idols. '80s pop at its best.
Although Michael does a rather embarrassing Elvis Presley impression of pretending to play the guitar in the iconic music video for this song, the tune itself is a brilliant appropriation of the Bo Diddley beat for a strange but effective combination with Michael's shimmering pop sensibility. A foot-tapper through and through, this oft-played ditty is so bulletproof that it forced me, remarkably, to form a reluctant, brief appreciation for Limp Bizkit via that band's inspired '90s cover of the song. Needless to say, that passed quickly, but Michael's massive rise as a solo artist has earned him a permanent spot in pop music far beyond the decade of his primary activity. Butt-shaking notwithstanding.
Another inescapable tune from Michael's smash 1987 Faith album, "Father Figure" casts a creepily seductive spell, as the combination of all things paternal with Michael's image of rampant sexuality at that point in his career is more than a little unnerving. But none of these confusing signals regarding sexuality matter ultimately, as Michael's penchant for pop transcendence stubbornly keeps upping the ante. The song's lengthy bridge stands as one of the loveliest melodic moments of the '80s, expanding into a tasty, intense flourish: "So if you remember the ones who have lied/Who said that they cared but then left as you cried/Beautiful darlin', don't think of me/Because all I ever wanted... is in your eyes." Memorable pop precision.
Michael was intent on challenging a variety of margins on his landmark solo album, most of them sexual, but on this slow-dance staple of the '80s he demonstrates a mastery of atmosphere through his extreme willingness to slow things down. One would be hard-pressed to find a pop music tempo slower than this one, but as usual Michael doesn't rely solely on gimmickry. His vocal performance here cements a firm place for Michael as one of the finest singers and melodic craftsmen of the '80s. No one would accuse any of Michael's huge hits from 1987-1988 of being less than impeccably engineered, but somehow this consummate artist manages to avoid sounding overly calculated or mechanical. Emotionally, this single bleeds to near perfection.