This article is a tribute to the late George Michael and includes a ranking of his 25 Best Songs as ranked by djrobblog (at the bottom of the article).
As we prepare to draw the curtains on what has already been one of the toughest years in recent memory for the music world, one more of the industry’s legends unexpectedly exits the grand stage of life.
George Michael (born Georgios Panayiotou on June 25, 1963) was initially reported by the BBC to have passed away “peacefully at home” on Christmas Day. No reports were given on the cause of death, but what is known is that George Michael leaves behind a musical legacy that made him nearly unstoppable (and tough to match) during his peak in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s.
His career began as part of the duo Wham! with singing partner Andrew Ridgeley, but it was clear from the start who had the true talent in the group. George Michael wrote most of the songs and sang lead on all the big hits.
It would have been very easy to dismiss Wham! as just another bubble-gum boy band when their first hit, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” broke in America, what with its “jitterbug” references and the chirpy female backing vocals punctuating Michael’s own. But “Go-Go” gave way to a higher level of sophistication with the band’s and Michael’s later releases – a sophistication that would soon make him one of the biggest acts of an era.
Wham!’s second big hit in America, “Careless Whisper,” was one such song and was billed as Wham! featuring George Michael, a clear signal that Ridgeley was soon to become a casualty of Michael’s solo aspirations.
Michael quickly became a superstar on both sides of the Atlantic with many #1 singles here and in the U.K. His #1 tally in America totaled ten (with at least that many in his home country as well), including hits with Wham!, his solo singles, and duets with fellow superstars Aretha Franklin and Elton John.
The hits came in bunches for Michael, who hit #1 with three consecutive Wham! singles in 1984-85, then topped that with four consecutive chart-toppers from his début solo album Faith from 1987-88, making him one of the biggest music stars in the world during his prime.
With his rising success came the inevitable scrutiny that accompanies celebrities as accessible as Michael was. Was he flamboyant? Maybe. Expressive? Certainly. Even defiant at times? You bet! But he was also a musical genius – one that couldn’t be held back, unless he himself did it.
He had experienced and survived various changes in musical styles during his peak years of 1984-96. His first hits occurred with the second British Music Invasion during the pop-happy 1980s, and his last ones came during the post-grunge, R&B/hip-hop/dance-dominated 1990s. Even with those changes in musical landscapes, it seemed Michael could’ve kept churning out big hits had he not stepped in his own way.
At one point, Michael was so popular that even he protested his celebrity status. Growing more cynical of the music business in general and not wanting to over-exploit himself, the singer decided not to appear in any of the videos promoting his second solo album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. That album generated the #1 hit, “Praying For Time” and the even more popular (but surprisingly not #1) “Freedom ’90,” the video for which included several popular supermodels dancing and lip syncing to Michael’s tune.
This anti-establishment approach slowed his meteoric rise but it did not stop it altogether. He continued to have some success, achieving a final #1 with the aforementioned Elton John duet (a remake of John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”) in 1992, and a final top ten with the comeback hit, “Fastlove” in 1996.
As the 1990s wore on though, George Michael’s popularity in America waned. The big hits became fewer as the personal controversies became greater. One of those involved a famous public bathroom incident that the artist hilariously turned into a tongue-in-cheek personal triumph of sorts with a late career single called “Outside” (check out the countdown below for more on that). After that, American radio stayed away from him, and much of his continued success was relegated to club hits in the states, although he continued charting highly in the less judgmental U.K.
Most recently, his perennial holiday season staple, “Last Christmas,” has been filling airwaves as we wrap up another Christmas holiday season. That song takes on a much eerier context now given the date of his untimely passing. “Last Christmas” ranks among the 50 Greatest Christmas Songs of All Time, based on my djrobblog ranking.
But beyond all his pop music success, Michael was also considered one of the best blue-eyed soul singers of his era, having topped Billboard’s R&B singles chart with “One More Try” in 1988 and reaching the Top 40 of that chart several more times. In 2015, when I compiled the djroblist of the best male blue-eyed soul singers, George Michael ranked very high on it.
The year 2016 has been unrelenting in the number of musicians it’s claimed. It began with the loss of British superstar David Bowie in January and has ended (we hope) with fellow British superstar George Michael’s passing. Their similarities are uncanny: two musicians from the U.K. who entertained the world with their vast talents and pushed the boundaries of how the male superstar was supposed to look and act, bookending the most improbable of years with their untimely demise.
In commemoration of George Michael’s life, I’ve created a special djrobblog tribute to the artist who was a mainstay on America’s airwaves for nearly two decades. It’s a countdown of his 25 Greatest Songs, based primarily on their chart success here in America, with a little dash of opinion mixed in. So the ranking may not correlate exactly with how the songs performed in Billboard or with how they did in Michael’s home country of England.
It is, however, a small token of appreciation for what this unique singer gave us for nearly three and a half decades. Keep reading below to see it!
May you Rest In Peace, George Michael.
And thank you for the music…and the memories!
The countdown kicks off with this '90s top-ten hit from Michael's album, 'Older,' an album that was huge in the U.K. but not so much in America. The song was a tribute to the singer's lover, who'd earlier died from AIDS complications. The album generated six top-3 singles in Michael's home country, more than any other at that point.
You can also hear all these tunes by accessing my special Spotify playlist of George Michael’s greatest songs.
To see where George Michael ranks on djrobblog’s list of the 30 Greatest Blue-Eyed Soul Singers, click here.
To see where he ranks among the 76 Greatest British Musicians in American Popular Music, click here.