Like Bowie, like Prince, like nearly all the other cultural heroes we lost in 2016, we didn’t see this one coming. The 53-year old George Michael was suddenly and sadly taken from us before we even had a chance to give him his proper kudos.
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, George Michael may not have been as iconic as some of the others that were lost to us this year. After all, his career spanned a mere 30 years (!), far less than those of Cohen, Kanter, Bowie, Emerson, Clark, Lake and all the others whose music helped propel a 50-year legacy of musical innovation. Michael was, after all, known mostly as a pop star, a man whose music was tailor-made to soar to the top of the charts and embed itself in the consciousness of faithful radio listeners across the globe. Still, that’s not something to be demeaned. He won numerous honors and accolades in his time, including two Grammy awards, three Brits, four MTV moon man trophies, three American Music Awards and no less than four of the prestigious Ivor Novello Awards. Indeed, George Michael represented music as a gleeful form of unapologetic entertainment, a carefully calculated means of escape that offered cause for both celebration and sobriety.
But for all his troubles—from struggling with his sexuality to repeatedly succumbing to drug dependency—George Michael was a superb entertainer, and like the many others that passed before him over the course of the past 12 months, he will be missed. Here are 10 of his best songs.
The fifth of seven singles taken from Michael’s initial solo album, Faith, it proved that there was no shortage of great songs on that single disc. The theme was about the courage to enter into love after suffering through a string of failed relationships, a scenario that Michael himself faced all too often in his own life.
Granted, Michael didn’t write this best-selling song, and he was only one of many members of British pop royalty invited to participate, but one would like to think it was his exuberance and enthusiasm that contributed to the song’s celebratory sound. Besides, given its charitable purpose, Michael still deserves credit for heeding the clarion call to action.
A dramatic read of one of Elton John’s greatest ballads, the duo’s live performance, recorded for posterity as a hit single at a concert at Wembley Arena in 1991 (following a tryout at Live Aid six years before), proved Michael was every bit the equal of a man who was sometimes seen as his mentor. While Elton’s solo version was stirring enough, the duo instils a level of emotion and resilience that arguably surpassed the original.
Culled from his first solo album Faith, this insistent slice of funk naturally garnered controversy simply by virtue of its title. Today it seems somewhat innocent, but back in the day, any number of radio stations both in the U.S. and abroad refused to play the song simply because they deemed it too suggestive for mainstream airplay. MTV, once a harbinger of adventurism, relegated it to overnights, while America’s Top 40 tastemaker Casey Kasim refused to say the title while sharing it with his listeners. Michael even added a disclaimer, insisting that the song wasn’t about casual sex at all. It didn’t matter either way, though. The song was a hit.
It takes a certain savvy to share a microphone with Aretha Franklin, and when the Queen of Soul joined Michael onstage in Los Angeles as part of this 1988 world tour, electricity was ignited almost instantly. Thanks to its compelling chorus and the powerful combination of voices, the song rocketed to number one in its success as a single version and garnered a Grammy in he process.
Another No. 1, this, this, the title track from his first solo album, helped affirm the fact that Michael could stand on his own away and apart from Wham!. With its irresistible refrain, “Faith” brought home the optimism inherent in its title. Written, arranged and produced by Michael himself, and propelled by a so-called Bo Diddley beat, “Faith” proved that when it came to spawning hits, Michael was more than merely a pretty face.
Performed and recorded at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in April 1992 at Wembley Stadium, this heartfelt tribute to the late Queen frontman obviously stirred some emotion, given the fact that the two singers were, in a sense, kindred spirits. This version serves as an apt requiem for both of them, brilliant artists in their own rights.
Recorded when he was still with Wham!, and released on their Make It Big! album, “Careless Whisper” essentially marked the beginning of Michael’s solo career. The supple rhythms and cool caress of the arrangements marked a major change in the duo’s trajectory up until that point, and became an iconic classic for both entities. The lyrics are a bit ambiguous (“I’m never gonna dance again / Guilty feet have got no rhythm”), but the soothing sounds the melody purveyed added an emotion and assurance that proved to be all that was needed.
Yet another No. 1 single from Faith, “Father Figure” is a tender love song that has nothing to do with paternal instincts. Sung in a high Michael Jackson-like vocal, it’s both caressing and convincing, a fine example of Michael at his romantic best. “I will be the one who loves you until the end of time.”
Granted, Michael and his musical partner Andrew Ridgeley aspired to be nothing more incisive than pure pop pundits when they made their mark on musical firmament as an ostentatious duo dubbed Wham!. In their short-lived career, however, they not only produced a series of best-selling singles, but also scaled the Great Wall by becoming the first Western pop band to play China and thereby scoring a major diplomatic coup. This unerringly infectious, enduringly beloved hit may be one reason why.