I don't like that Michael Jackson owned the Beatles catalogue. I didn't like the controversy around him, the plastic surgeries, the odd behaviors. Until about three years ago, with the exception of one song (which I'll get to below), I didn't bother to understand him, much less listen to him.
My fiancee, though, is much more open-minded than I am. She'd always been a fan. One day, we were at a store and they had the 25th anniversary edition of "Thriller" on sale. It is her favorite album of his and it had some bonus tracks. We picked it up, and - for the first time - I actually paid attention to the singing and the songs. (Not that this much matters, but we got the album before he died. I started listening to it months before he died, but it wasn't long after we got "Thriller" that he passed away.)
I enjoyed the disc. Would I rate it as the most serious and important music ever created? No. But in terms of listening pleasure, it did the trick. It was good enough that I decided I needed to get over some of my biases, and at least open my ears to more of his stuff. I wasn't quite ready to LIKE him, exactly ... But I was prepared to approach him with fresh ears.
A couple months later, I came across Jackson's "Bad" for sale. Whereas "Thriller" is/was my girlfriend's favorite, "Bad" is most certainly mine. With that in mind, here is my review:
One of the first cassettes I owned (it was given as a gift) was a single for "The Way You Make Me Feel." I'd take my Walkman, throw on the headphones, hop on my bike and listen to the song. From it's bubbling intro to its earnest vocals and singalong ending, I thought it was one of the best songs ever. Plus, it was relatively repetitive which is perfect for a kid that age - I was perhaps 9 or 10 at the time. I only owned two other cassettes, an MC Hammer single of "U Can't Touch This" and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Chronicle." ("Chronicle" continues to please, but I don't own anything by Hammer anymore).
As I got older, I got into the Beatles in a big way. And, thus, I learned that Michael Jackson owned the songs and that angered me. I didn't really bother to remember how much I'd liked "The Way You Make Me Feel." I just knew it was no match for "A Day in the Life" or "Hey Jude." (Rest assured, I still hold Beatles music as among the best and most important music ever made. This review will not change that.) I felt then (and still feel now) that only the Beatles should own their works. But that's not how life works, so I've moved on ... sort of. ;)
After easing back into Jackson with "Thriller" and realizing just how much of his stuff I recognized from the radio, I was more inclined to listen to more of his stuff. So finding "Bad" on sale caught my eye. I looked at the back and was surprised that I recognized almost all the songs already. And, beyond that, I liked most of them.
"Bad," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Another Part of Me," "Man In the Mirror," "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," "Smooth Criminal" ... just a truly fantastic collection of songs.
I bought the disc and settled down to listen to it. The album had moved away from the funk-disco-pop sounds of "Off the Wall" and "Thriller," and was more of a guitar and synthesizer pop-rock album that really set the standard (quite highly, I might add) for 1980s pop and rock. This album had energy, it had drive, it kicked ass. It still sounds good in the 2010s, despite being released in 1987. When people say things sound too 80s in a negative way, they don't mean songs like most of the ones on this album.
With "Bad," Michael Jackson's skills as a songwriter really stand out. Sure, he wrote a lot of the stuff on "Off the Wall" and "Thriller," but those albums also had a lot of other writers (and co-writers). On "Bad," Jackson is the sole writer on 9 of the 11 tracks (the other two, "Just Good Friends" and "Man in the Mirror," are composed by outside writers).
The album starts off with the song the album is titled after, "Bad." Jackson may have wanted to do this with Prince, but the song is sure good enough on its own merit to not require the Purple One. The song is one of Jackson's most famous, and the video is pretty iconic too (and if you've ever seen "Weird" Al's parody of "Fat," that's just the icing on the cake). It has the electro funk groove of "Thriller," but really goes for the synthesizer sound and the vocals are peppy and aggressive. And those guitar licks and fills are perfect, economical and stylish all at once. The sound is bright, and the beat is insistent ... try not to rock your head, tap out the beat or sing along. You can't. This is one of those defining "King of Pop" songs.
The next track is the one I mentioned above, "The Way You Make Me Feel." This song could almost be a 1950s doo-wop song that was adapted for 1980s technology and tastes. That chugging intro is almost ominous, but then the synths come in and the backing track builds up a wall of sound that would please even Phil Spector), and the chorus gets ingrained. It's a perfect earworm.
The next two tracks aren't favorites of mine, but they're pretty good in their own ways.
"Speed Demon" is about driving too fast (Jackson apparently had done some speeding and received a ticket, and turned that into a song). His vocal is pretty urgent, but I don't get too involved in the song. Filler? Sure, but it's not offensive and doesn't merit instant skipping.
"Liberian Girl" follows, segueing from the end of "Speed Demon" with a synth choir effect. It's an interesting song, with interesting atmosphere and evocative sounds. Jackson's singing is pretty fantastic, and the mood is relatively mellow. It may not be one of my favorite songs, but it shows Jackson's ability to weave a story with simple enough lyrics ... mood is key here. I wouldn't call it filler, exactly, but if it IS filler it's the kind of filler most artists would love to have.
"Just Good Friends" is next, and the appearance of Stevie Wonder adds some undeniable funkiness and fun. The beat is catchy and the vocals are never short of great. Where this song suffers is that it really typifies the 80s production style. Of all the songs on this album, this is really the track that shows its age. The synthesizers drench everything. I've never been a fan of synth drums, but that's what you get a heaping helping of. But if you can move past the production and concentrate on the vocals and lyrics, there's content to like.
Next up is a highlight, "Another Part of Me." Jackson really invests a lot of energy and emotion into the vocals here. The production, which almost hits 80s overload, suits the vocal. The power and punch and conviction really sell this song. It was buried treasure for me ... I didn't know the song's name and never knew who wrote it, but I'd sometimes find the hook running through my head. So when I listened to the album and hit on it, it was one of those "Eureka!" moments. It'd be a perfect soundtrack song.
Next up is my fiancee's favorite track on the album, "Man in the Mirror." Jackson may not have written the song, but he owns it completely. The sincerity of his vocals and the undeniable attachment he finds to the lyrics combine to make a song of personal commitment into an anthem. The chiming intro, the finger snaps, the "hiccuped" vocals and the pitch are all huge hooks. His double-tracked vocals add enough depth to key lines to incredible effect. "I'm starting with the man in the mirror / I'm asking him to change his ways / and no message could have been any clearer" has a vulnerability and confessional vibe that seems so heartfelt in the age of plastic sounds. It surpasses "We Are the World" and "Do They Know It's Christmas" in quality, being a far more human and less superficial track about helping others.
A genuine ballad follows, and it is a song that was a genuine highlight of Jackson's live shows. "I Just Can't Can't Stop Loving You" is a duet, with Jackson singing with Siedah Garrett (who was a co-writer on "Man in the Mirror), and it goes places that few songs in the 1980s (convincingly) went. The track is as atmospheric as anything Phil Collins was doing, but it's more intricate and subtle than anything Collins could do. Jackson's vocal is sensitive to the point of being almost maudlin. But Garrett comes in and adds some soulful anchoring and the two combine with a bit of grit and soul. Really, a fantastic song all around.
"Dirty Diana" brings the album some grinding rock after those sweet songs, and is one of my favorites for when I'm driving at night. The song is really just a lot of great hooks built on top of each other, and Jackson's vocal is strong. The intro is almost "Thriller"-esque, mixed in with crowd noises. Jackson's vocal is spirited and has a bit of a snarl to it. He's clearly not a fan of this high-reaching groupie. I particularly enjoy the guitar action about 2.5 minutes into the song. It spells frustration as well as anything. Jackson's "come ons" at the end are almost shrieks, real angsty stuff.
Next up is an undeniable classic, "Smooth Criminal." Everything about this song is pop candy. The beat is so recognizable and catchy, and Jackson's vocals are fast and flawless. He spits the words out, with just enough menace and mischief to suit the title and content. "Annie are you OK?" You can already tell just from his TONE as he sings these notes that Annie is far from OK. Of all the songs of violence against others that exist in the world, it is strange that Jackson creates one of the most enjoyable. He sure isn't advocating or blessing violence, but he manages to capture the gangster movie violence that viewers accept and gets it into pop music form. Fantastic. If "The Sopranos" was set in the 1980s in Detroit, this song could have been the theme.
The last track, "Leave Me Alone," is an odd way to end the album ... but it's pretty fitting. Probably aimed at the media and tabloids, it also has the feeling of exhaustion. Considering his popularity at the time, his anger about stories written and said about him probably kept him preoccupied and tired. That frustration comes through in the song. The song starts bouncy enough, and the backing track sounds like a distant cousin of "The Way You Make Me Feel." His multi-tracked vocals of "leave me alone" as the chorus are well layered, and you get plenty of the "whee-hee" and "oooh-hoo" vocal stylings that became his trademark. The track doesn't end the album on a high note, but it has all the power and style the album encapsulated.
I've listened to this disc several times over the past couple years, and the energy and determination of the vocals are really impressive. The knowledge that Michael wrote or helped write many of the tracks (legitimately, this wasn't just tweaking a word here or there) adds to my appreciation of the album and helped me acknowledge him as a legitimate musician, not just a great performance artist.
Though I must give credit to my fiancee and our initial purchase of "Thriller" in getting the ball rolling, I have to say that "Bad" was the real impetus for getting me into the Jackson catalogue and re-evaluating my stance on Jackson as an artist and performer. I now embrace "Off the Wall," "Thriller," "Bad" and "Dangerous" as fantastic musical works. I enjoy "HIStory" a lot, and I think "Invincible" is better than critics suggested at the time. But I came to these opinions after opening myself up to "Bad."
Any time you can find music that challenges your previous notions and makes you really listen to the material, THAT is a good album.
Here's a bit of a postscript: This album taught me to judge a musician (or a song, or an album) by my own ears and not from predetermined judgments of my peers, or of music critics, or my own past musical tastes, etc.
Jackson hadn't died yet when my fiancee and I bought "Thriller," and I think he was still alive when I bought "Bad." The last few years of Jackson's life were probably not pleasant ones. He was fodder for late-night comic routines, and his musical achievements were overshadowed by scandals. Frankly, a lot of people just didn't/don't WANT to like Jackson's music. I was one of them. A lot of people re-evaluated their stance on Jackson after he died. I started making the transition before that, but I will definitely say that his death helped me move beyond his scandals and behaviors and concentrate on his music.
"Thriller" is the benchmark that all of Jackson's materials are now judged by. "Bad" followed "Thriller," and it didn't sell as well as "Thriller" did. In that light, "Bad" is considered a bit of a let-down. But that's hardly fair. "Bad" did as much to make Jackson a symbol as any work he did. And the best material on "Bad" is as challenging and inventive as the material on "Thriller." And I think "Thriller" actually offers more filler material than "Bad" does. But that's just a matter of personal preference. If I'm the only person who likes "Bad" more than "Thriller," so be it. I'm just glad that my ears (and mind) opened up enough to be able to listen to the material enough to make the choice for myself. Maybe I'm just maturing in my old age ...