Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection

Michael Jackson
The Ultimate Collection

Is Michael Jackson--gasp--overrated? Back in the '80s, it often seemed like there was no pop music that wasn't made by Jacko. Just as MTV was becoming viable and essential, he became its first true star, but over time, the images outstripped the sounds: first, the ostentatious videos that dwarfed, and then inspired, the competition, and later, the bizarre and seemingly incessant tabloid footage of a star slowly losing its luster.

Eliding the images more or less--there's a bonus live DVD--Ultimate Collection might be the only thing that could still rehabilitate Michael Jackson. And yet, it reveals an even more disturbing truth: One of the most prolific hitmakers of the pop era isn't able to fill out a four-disc set.

Knowingly or not, Ultimate Collection is neatly segmented into predigested eras, one per disc. They go, roughly, like this: ingenue, invigorated, indignant, irrelevant. After the Jackson 5 era flies past in perhaps 30 minutes of hits ("I'll Be There," "I Want You Back"), the set lingers, rightly, on Jackson's golden age--"Rock with You," "Wanna Be Startin' Something," "Thriller," "The Way You Make Me Feel," etc. Between Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad, Jackson wasn't just building a career, he was inventing a new creed of pop. And considering how canonical his music has become, it's easy to forget how radical Michael's '80s material was--disco sexy, rock muscular, aggressively androgynous. Not surprisingly, of the nine unheard songs here, the best are from this time--namely "Cheater," a scabrous, gospel-inflected romp from the Bad sessions.

Until the pop template got rewritten to accommodate his innovations, Michael won for his sheer otherness. But by the beginning of the '90s, Jackson was a social eccentric, mildly put, and despite his odd, unlikely, out-of-the-box musical moments--like the unreal, Dionysian "Who Is It (IHS Mix)"--pop had swallowed him whole and passed him by. Accordingly, the fourth disc here is perversely grim, a nod to completeness that's more an admission that the last decade has been a wash. The most thorough retrospectives are by no means the best--there's too much truth there.

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