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Posted at 1:36 PM ET, 12/14/2010

Album review: Michael Jackson, "Michael"

By Chris Richards

michael jackson

If you've ever dreamed of Michael Jackson singing into your answering machine, then you have a reason to pick up "Michael," the first posthumous album from a singer who's sold more than 35 million albums worldwide since his sudden death in the summer of 2009.

On the album's fourth track, "(I Like) The Way You Love Me," that angelic voice comes trickling from the speakers, small and scratchy in what appears to be a voice-mail message to himself - a quick melodic sketch and some beat-boxing for Jackson to revisit once he gets home from a busy day of shopping, or roller-coaster riding, or whatever the lost pop genius was doing in his final days.

It's a rare glimpse into Jackson's working process, one of the countless facets of his life that he carefully hid from the public eye. But when the song blooms into a glossy, full-bodied studio track, the sputtery, beat-boxed rhythm is immediately ditched for a feeble drumbeat. Someone else is at the controls.

That moment captures the debate surrounding this 10-track batch of Jackson leftovers. The singer obviously had no hand in the final product here, but many of these tunes are bland enough to make you wonder if he had any hand in it at all. Longtime producer Quincy Jones and members of the Jackson family have questioned whether some of the voices on "Michael" are actually Michael's.

Either way, it doesn't matter. The real Michael Jackson was a perfectionist who loved to burnish every note that came out of his lungs. Just as last year's "This Is It" was a concert film culled from rehearsal footage Jackson would never want us to see, "Michael" is an album of unfinished songs that Jackson would never want us to hear.

And that's a drag because we're probably going to be hearing this stuff for the rest of the decade. The Jackson estate has reportedly signed a $250 million deal that should pump posthumous albums into the marketplace for the next seven Christmases, at least.

Only in Jackson's pop kingdom can such disgusting practices fly. No one writes the missing chapters of an unfinished novel and credits the author. Why let 50 Cent rap over a mere sketch of a tune and call it a new Michael Jackson song? (It happens here with "Monster.") For anyone who has adored Jackson's brilliance - i.e. all of us - this is sickening stuff.

So much so, we should probably conserve our keystrokes, but here's a second question that "Michael" forces us to ask: When did Jackson record his last great song?

Unless you count "Scream," a serrated 1995 duet with kid sister Janet that's aged far better than expected, you'll have to moonwalk back to 1988's "Bad" album, when "Man in the Mirror" topped the charts with some of the most euphoric na-na-na's since "Hey Jude."

Then, he fades. 1991's "Dangerous" only flirted with excellence, 1995's "HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I" was sloppy and strange, and 2001's "Invincible" remains largely forgotten. It's unrealistic to expect so much from him now.

Which is what makes "Behind the Mask" this album's only pleasant surprise. Allegedly written in the "Thriller" days, its synthesizers throb to a tightly coiled beat while Jackson's voice tiptoes between a whisper and an explosion.

It's a Jackson you'll recognize, but the excitement is fleeting. On the mid-tempo fluff of "Hold My Hand," the sentimental platitudes of "Keep Your Head Up" and the paranoid ire of "Breaking News," he offers mere appproximations of the precision, agility and grace that defined his heights.

In that sense, "Michael" only amplifies the tragedy of Jackson - an artist who rose too fast to ever gain control of his life and died too suddenly to steer the direction of his legacy.

Recommended track: "Behind the Mask"

By Chris Richards  | December 14, 2010; 1:36 PM ET
Categories:  Album reviews  | Tags:  Michael Jackson  
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Comments

Your statement that Quincy Jones "has questioned whether some of the voices on "Michael" are actually Michael's" is inaccurate and unfair. This was his quote from US Weekly: "Somebody called me up and asked me if it was Michael, and I said it sounds like Michael. But it's backed up by so many voices where I can't really dig down deep enough or I haven't really had time to dig deep enough to identify it." There's a big difference between what he said and how you characterized it.

Posted by: SpiderMurphy | December 14, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

DANGEROUS 32 MILLION
HISTORY, PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE 20 MILLON
COPIES (40 MILLION UNIT)
INVINCBLE (10 MILLON)
IT'S UNREALISTIC TO EXCEPT WHAT?.
DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHAT YOU WRITTEN ABOUT?.
HOW MANY HAVE YOU SOLD!

Posted by: P2EACHY | December 14, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

I think what's most wonderful about the album is that when Michael does sing, he *is* singing. Gone are the too frequent hiccups and gruff talking of Invincible; in this album Michael is really singing. Regardless of how raw the album, or how much it has been tinkered with, that fantastic, beautiful, angelic voice comes through. For instance, Michael plays with his vocal ranges in the gorgeous "Best of Joy" and you can hear his Thriller-era voice in "Behind the Mask." For those who love the voice, his vocal orchestrations, his creamy chorus lines, this is still an album worth buying. You have to know that this would not have been Michael's final product, but as it stands for his fans now, This is It.

Posted by: eilsel71 | December 14, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Dangerous was one of the best selling albums of all time. It was Jackson's second best selling album. "You Rock My World" off the Invincible album reached number 10 on US charts and number one in most other countries. I think Invincible ended up selling around 13 million copies; modest by Jackson's standards, but a smash for most other artists. It just amazes me that people write such things under the guise of "expert". You don't even know Jackson's HIStory. Six of his five adult studio albums are on the all time best selling list. How many of yours are? Jackson would not have released this if he was alive, but he isn't alive. Everyone knows he had no hand in the finished product. It will not hurt the legacy of someone of Jackson's stature. The album is not Jackson at his best, but it's very good and parts of it are great. Well music "critics" didn't like Thriller when it came out either so there you go.

My favs are "Hollywood Tonight", "Behind the Mask", "The Way You Love Me" and "I Can't Make it Another Day". If you're a Jackson fan get the album sip some wine and enjoy the music for heaven's sake.

Posted by: TomJoy | December 15, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

I love "Scream" - that song's always been the jam.

In any case - this review is more than fair to the artist, despite the fact that the critic is not a multi-platinum, cultural leviathan.

Posted by: Mat_ | December 15, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Soory but what you write is just BULLSH*T! From begining to the end! I mean there are a lot of fancy words- to make the article sound "high-sounding and serious"- but it is just CR*P! OMG, did you never listen to Dangerous album? History? You skipped Blood on the Dance Floor altogether! Invincible is such a strong album- low sales doesn't detract from quality. Very few people buy Mozart CDs but that doesnt downgrade Mozart's genius! OMG how can people write such stuff!!! You pratically ended MJ's life-long career with Man in the Mirror in 1988! I am really angry with such irresponsible, ignorant attitude.. You should first go and buy all those albums that you denigrate, buy a pair of high quality earphones- and a working brain and nonjudgemental heart to go with these! and then you must start listening to Michael from scratch!!!! with an unbiased, pure spirit.. if you ever can..

Posted by: sezintekin | December 19, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Someone needs to fire this "critic" if all he can come up with is "I've never produced a single thing worth any acclaim whatsoever so I've got to diss those who do." If I didn't know Michael Jackson died over a year ago, I'd swear this is one of his best self-produced albums, albeit not fine-tuned to within a fare-thee-well. In other words, Jackson's discards are better than most other artists' finished product. I think he's sitting back from his view on high, saying to his collaborators, who lovingly produced this album, "Well done, good and loyal friends. Thank you."

Posted by: SoCalGal2 | December 20, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

This review makes me shake my head. I've come to the realization that some people just won't get it the phenome that was and is Michael Jackson. And for those who don't get it...they probably won't because they aren't meant to. Suffice it to say that Michael has millions of fans that love this album like it was hanky he left behind. I carry it around with me in my pocket (thanks to my ipod nano). I smile when I hear his music and sometimes I want to cry. As a long time Michael Jackson fan, I think that this album was deserving of my praise. Had he been alive, he might not have released these songs, but then I wouldn't have them to enjoy.

Posted by: riciana | December 21, 2010 6:49 AM | Report abuse

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