Sunday, February 13, 2011
Essential Albums of the '80s: George Michael - Faith (1987)
It's hard not to feel a little sorry for George Michael. He was one of the '80s biggest pop acts, but lately he's not exactly setting the world on fire. His last top 10 hit in Britain was 7 years ago, in the U.S., it was 15 years ago. His most recent chart activity has been to re-release his 2008 Christmas single, which isn't anything near as grand as Wham's "Last Christmas." When he's in the news, it's usually for having done something risque, illegal or both.
So it's nice to see that this special remastered re-release of Faith has given Michael his best press in years. I opted for the 2-disc set with a DVD of his videos, but it's also available as just a 2-CD (original album plus a remixes disc) and a limited edition set with all sorts of memorabilia. I've seen lots of major outlets review the album, all generally lavishing it with praise as a landmark '80s pop album, which, frankly it is. Listening to it intently over the last week just underscored for me what a great work of pop music it is.
There isn't a bad track here, but mostly it's the singles that shine the brightest. From the opening church organ that kicks off the minimalist, uptempo title track, the album grabs your attention and never lets go. Seductive "Father Figure" is followed by controversial "I Want Your Sex" and then emotionally bare "One More Try." All of these are excellent songs--most of them were also #1 hits. Musically, it's clear this is an '80s album, but there is a timelessness to many of the songs as well. Only "Monkey" feels absolutely stuck in time, especially the Shep Pettibone remix, although that's not really a strike against it.
The album's second half isn't quite as golden as its first, but still offers quite a few decent tracks. Many people forget that "Hard Day" wasn't actually a single--had they released a seventh, it would have been the obvious contender. Silky "Hand to Mouth" glides along its mid-tempo drum programming and glossy keyboard chords. The more assertive "Look at Your Hands" offers up contrasting horns and electric guitar, although it sounds like it was recorded in a warehouse. Michael closes the set with "Kissing a Fool," a retro-sounding ballad that typifies the jazz-pop sound he would return to frequently on later albums.
As a solo debut after the collapse of Wham!, Faith proved without a doubt that George Michael was more than just a pretty face who could sell magazines to teen girls (and teen boys). He wrote and produced the album, which is quite an achievement, considering its varied sound. Although his next two albums, Listen Without Prejudice (1990) and Older (1996), were also quite good, it was Faith that was his crowning achievement.
My personal story with Faith is worth sharing. Of course I wanted the album back in 1988, but my parents wouldn't let me have it because they thought it was too risque. This was unusual, as my parents weren't in the habit of censoring my media, but whatever. Sometimes parents just like to assert their parental authority. But the gay pop music gods were shining down on me. One weekend when my family was gardening in the front yard, my mom handed me a cassette someone had discarded in the bushes, and lo and behold, it was George Michael's Faith. "Do you know what this is?" asked my mother. I played dumb. "I dunno. I'll go inside and play it and probably throw it out." Of course I listened to it nonstop. The copy retrieved from the shrubs was missing the insert and I guess my mom didn't bother to look at the actual cassette itself. "I Want Your Sex" was a bit distorted at one point from the dirt that had caked onto the tape, but otherwise it played fine. Eventually I bought a better copy from, of all places, a church sale. I guess they took a broad interpretation to spreading "faith." And yes, I had George Michael's poster on my bedroom ceiling. Right next to Madonna.
Best: Faith, Father Figure, One More Try, I Want Your Sex, Hard Day, Monkey.
Wham! - Make it Big (1984)
Definitely more carefree than Faith and although not as good, this was the album that made George Michael and his co-conspirator Andrew Ridgeley international stars. "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and "Freedom" are '60s-kissed pieces of pop candy that taste great with every bite. Moodier "Everything She Wants" points more to George Michael's potential as a serious pop musician. I've always really liked it, actually, as it's a sexy song with great bass keyboards (we used to walk to it on the runway when I was a kid model). As good as that is, soulful closing number "Careless Whisper" is even better. A true '80s pop classic. Best: Careless Whisper, Everything She Wants, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Freedom.