'Michael' is no thriller, but it isn't bad

How do you follow Thriller, arguably the greatest album ever made? This question has plagued every major music act for a little over a quarter century — including the King of Pop himself. After the success of that era-defining masterpiece, Michael Jackson spent the rest of his career trying to top it. And while his subsequent albums contained some of the greatest pop music ever put on record, his work was always compared unfavorably to Thriller.

When Jackson suddenly and tragically died last year his entire body of work began to be re-evaluated and justly mythologized as quite possibly the most celebrated in recent music history. Adoring fans have since snatched up every piece of Michael Jackson memorabilia they can gets their hands on. There’s a video game, DVDs, books — even a Cirque de Soleil show. Amid the resurgence of appreciation for this unique musical genius came the news that Sony (in a multi-million dollar deal with the Jackson estate) would be releasing several albums worth of previously unheard MJ music — the first of which, simply titled Michael, hits stores today.

Click here to view a Grio slideshow of Michael Jackson’s most underrated songs

While many fans (this writer included) were excited about the notion of new Michael Jackson music seeing the light of day, there was also a fair amount of very vocal opposition to the idea. Jackson’s perfectionism as an artist is the stuff of legend and many believed he would have wanted any unfinished music from his vaults to remain there. His legacy had just regained much of the luster it appeared to have lost in the last decade — some fans wondered, why tarnish it with half-hearted posthumous releases?

But the bottom line won out. Michael Jackson sold more records than any other artist in 2009 and the box office success of the documentary This Is It (which captured his ambitious but sadly never realized tour of the same name) proved that audiences were clamoring for more. And so after months of speculation and hype we finally have Michael, a modest 10-track album mostly culled from the last years of Jackson’s life, just in time for the holidays.

Sony expects big sales and with good reason — Michael Jackson’s fanbase includes virtually every demographic in America. Few songs can rally people of every age and background to the dance floor like “Billie Jean” or “Beat It”. But that may just be the late-King of Pop’s greatest dilemma, his audience expects the greatest singles ever made every time out, and that’s simply an impossible standard to meet.

Despite yielding a record five number one hits, Bad was largely deemed a disappointment in 1987 because it didn’t outsell the most successful album of all time (the backlash was so severe that the readers of Rolling Stone voted him ‘Worst Male Singer’ of the year). Dangerous, while wildly successful and sonically innovative, is usually most-often mentioned as the album knocked off the top of the charts by Nirvana’s grunge breakthrough Nevermind. By the time of HIStory (1995) and Invincible (2001), Jackson’s undeniably oddball personal proclivities largely were the focus of critics, instead of the quality of his music.

It’s no surprise that the first single leaked from Michael was met with such a tepid response. “Breaking News” represents the worst of Jackson’s musical inclinations, it plays against his strengths by emphasizing percussion over his vocals (which sound unfinished and unpolished) and its lyrics are the kind of self-pitying, self-absorbed paranoia that audiences find more alienating than enjoyable.

The next release, “Hold My Hand”, a collaboration with Akon, fared only slightly better. It was a perfectly pleasant attempt at an inspiring tune but it doesn’t have the staying power of Jackson’s numerous other inspirational anthems like “Man in the Mirror” or “Heal the World”.

But again dedicated Jackson fans had to ask themselves — are we expecting too much? Isn’t good or just decent Michael Jackson still better than most of what passes for pop these days? Or is this new album truly a sad denouement to a once brilliant and remarkable career?

The good news is, if you approach this new album entirely on its own merits and with next to no expectations, it won’t disappoint. In fact, the first two mediocre singles represent the two weakest tracks on Michael.

Michael actually benefits from being leaner and having less production bells and whistles. Jackson’s last official release Invincible, while not as horrendous as the critics initially thought, did feel a little bloated with filler and excess. Michael, at its best, reminds us that it was Jackson’s voice above all else — that pure, emotive and fierce voice — that first transported his fans and set him apart as not just an artist, but as someone truly special in black culture.

While some have questioned whether it’s really Jackson’s voice on “Breaking News”, no one will second guess his authenticity on tender ballads like “Keep Your Head Up” or rockers like ”(I Can’t Make It) Another Day” (which also features Lenny Kravitz). Jackson’s impeccable beatboxing makes a welcome return on “Hollywood Tonight”. While “Monster” is one of those great, aggressive booty-shakers that were Jackson’s trademark and it features one of the best 50 Cent appearances in recent years.

Michael also unearths a couple gems from the celebrated Thriller-era. “Behind the Mask” has funky, throw-back style to spare and “Much Too Soon” is a gorgeous and old-fashioned lullaby of lost love.

None of these tracks, except for maybe the catchy ”(I Like) The Way You Love Me”, have the potential to become modern pop classics on par with “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” or “Smooth Criminal” — but that doesn’t detract from joy and nostalgia they conjure. Oddly enough, the greatest previously unreleased Jackson song out there right now — “Blue Gangsta” — is not included on this album despite the considerable buzz its created online. This song does rank alongside Jackson’s best and suggests that there may be several even better Jackson treasures still waiting to be discovered.

Michael Jackson’s music has provided the soundtrack to so many of our lives — and that makes his fans feel that much stronger about the significance and quality of every aspect of it. We sometimes forget that it’s only music — and wonderfully accessible and appealing music at that. This new album doesn’t have the heft and bravado of Jackson’s official releases but it still has him — and that’s more than enough to make it worth adding to your collection.