Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou had been alive for 24 years, but on October 30, 1987, he transcended Wham! and became a solo star.
Alongside Andrew Ridgeley, he had released many pop classics, but “Faith” established him as a top performer in his own right. Few looks in the 80s were as iconic as Michael playing acoustic guitar standing next to a Wurlitzer jukebox, wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses, a black leather jacket, blue jeans and cowboy boots.
Setting the pattern for a successful transition from a massive pop band to a major solo career, it’s no coincidence that Robbie Williams’ first single after leaving Take That was a cover of “Freedom!” of Michael. ’90’.
Incredibly handsome, prodigiously talented and – as would become increasingly apparent after his untimely death in 2016 – an exceptionally good-natured human being, Michael has sold over 120 million records and won numerous awards.
His music combined classic songwriting with modern production, and the memorable videos that accompanied those songs secured him status as one of the main pop stars of the MTV generation.
Despite ongoing legal battles, personal tragedy and the media’s attempt to shame her for her sexuality, her reputation as one of Britain’s biggest pop stars is set in stone.
That’s in part thanks to a discography that features banger after banger after banger, all delivered with one of the richest vocals to ever come from these shores. Masterful pop sits alongside heartbreaking ballads and sophisticated jazz, with an array of classics so impressive only a fool would try to narrow them down to just 10.
These 10 songs are not “George Michael’s best”, but a series of highlights from a brilliant career. His versatility and influence are evident in the five bonus tracks that follow.
George Michael recognized as one of the most accomplished British songwriters?
Well, I guess that would be nice.
CLUB TROPICANA (Fantastic, 1983)
A car door opens, heels hit the pavement, the slap bass rumbles and the world suddenly belongs to George Michael. Unlike some 80s pop hits, this undeniable party anthem doesn’t get old. Scottish pop star Lewis Capaldi recently paid tribute with a shot-for-shot remake of the classic video.
WAKE ME BEFORE I GO (Make It Big, 1984)
Few albums can boast such an impressive opener as Make It Big, with its first three tracks featuring the Springsteenisms of “Heartbeat” and the slinky synth-pop of “Everything She Wants,” but even those two gems are overshadowed. by the pop juggernaut which is the first track.
It topped the charts in the US and UK as well as the soundtrack to Derek Zoolander’s mocha orange frappuccino frenzy, but its biggest cultural impact came with the defining ‘CHOOSE LIFE’ t-shirts. era and sported by Michael and Ridgeley in the video.
UNEXPECTED CHUMBLING (Make It Big, 1984)
Great. In addition to that brilliant opening run, Make It Big also wraps perfectly. The closest to the album features a saxophone solo that is matched only by Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street in terms of recognition. Covered by Gossip and Eagles of Death Metal, it reportedly sold 6 million copies.
Like Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights before and Lorde’s Royals after, it’s a composition that puts everything you did as a teenager to shame. When he wrote this mature, insightful, passionate and timeless love song, George Michael was 17 years old.
LAST CHRISTMAS (Last Christmas, 1984)
George Michael sadly passed away on Christmas Day 2016, but this synth-driven classic evokes happier Christmas memories. It holds up even if you’re a salesperson hearing it for the sixth time in a shift.
The video shows Michael pining for Ridgeley’s girlfriend, while looking like he’s about to call Camilla Parker Bowles the third person in his marriage.
FAITH (Faith, 1987)
An organ plays “Freedom” by Wham, before giving way to THIS acoustic guitar riff. All doubts about his ability to carve out a successful solo career disappeared the moment Bo Diddley’s beat started.
The 1997 cover of Limp Bizkit, however, showed less respect for a masterpiece than the Just Stop Oil campaigners at the National Gallery.
PRAY FOR TIME (Listen Without Prejudice, 1990)
Over a dramatic accompaniment, Michael sings that “the rich call themselves poor” and “charity is a coat you wear twice a year”. After his death, many stories about his generosity emerged, with Childline founder Esther Rantzen revealing that “he gave us millions of pounds” and “helped hundreds of thousands of children”, but “has made it clear that he didn’t want anyone to know that he was going to help us”.
The single featured a stunning live version of “If I Were Your Woman” by Gladys Knight & The Pips on its B-side.
TOO FUNKY (Red Hot + Dance, 1992)
With his “Would you like me to seduce you?” excerpt from The Graduate and an appropriately lascivious voice, it’s hard to draw any conclusion other than “this man is pretty excited”. The music comfortably meets the criteria for the title, and as with ‘Freedom! Before ’90’, the video is full of models.
“Too Funky” was one of three songs by George Michael to appear on “Red Hot + Dance,” a compilation album that raised money for AIDS awareness.
FASTLOVE, PT. 1 (older, 1996)
Legal wrangling with Sony meant fans would have to wait almost six years for Michael’s third solo album. While the deeply personal lead single ‘Jesus to a Child’ epitomizes the album’s mature sound, there was always a playfulness evident on the slinky ‘FastLove, pt. 1’.
Featuring an interpolation of Patrice Rushen’s 1982 classic “Forget Me Nots”, this UK number one sees Michael eschew “all that bull talk” in favor of a no-frills connection.
OUTSIDE (Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael, 1998)
The ultimate ‘f*** you’ musical. A middle finger raised for four minutes and 44 seconds.
When Michael was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” with an undercover police officer, the British media alternated between cheap jokes and hateful reprimands. The singer, however, refused to be shamed, instead focusing on a provocative, celebratory and cathartic single and video.
A lush and joyful nightclub? Check. Lyrics singing the virtues of coitus in the open air? Check. George Michael dressed as an LAPD officer twirling his baton under disco lights in a public bathroom? Check.
Speaking to Attitude magazine in 2004, Michael said: “When I was 16 or 17, when I started sailing, watching the ‘Outside’ video would have taken a bit of the weight off me”.
INCREDIBLE (Patience, 2004)
He wasn’t quite operating at the peak of his powers on “Patience,” but Michael was still able to produce radio-friendly quality pop. A highlight of his latest studio album.
BOOGIE BOX HIGH – JIVE TALKIN’ VERSION 7” (Jive Talkin’, 1987)
Michael was uncredited on this cover of the Bee Gees classic, on which he effortlessly matched Barry Gibb’s original vocals.
QUEEN AND GEORGE MICHAEL – SOMEONE TO LOVE (Queen: Greatest Hits III, 1999)
Attempting to fill Freddie Mercury’s shoes is daunting enough at your local karaoke night, but doing it in front of 72,000 people at Wembley Stadium is something else entirely.
Michael performed three songs at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992, covering “39” and being joined by Lisa Stansfield for a version of “These Are the Days of Our Lives”. “Somebody to Love” was the real highlight of the show.
As powerful as the performance is, it’s almost overshadowed by incredible rehearsal footage, in which David Bowie can be seen marveling at the 28-year-old’s flawless portrayal.
GEORGE MICHAEL – GO TO A TOWN (Symphonica Deluxe, 2014)
Appearing on Desert Island Discs in 2007, Michael picked up this protest song targeting George Bush by famed Canadian-American singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, before covering it on his “Symphonica” tour.
Lines like “soaking the body of Jesus Christ in blood” may be a far cry from “fun and sunshine, there’s enough for everyone,” but they felt natural in this towering rendition.
GEORGE MICHAEL – EVERYTHING SHE WANTS (MTV Unplugged Deluxe, 2017)
The Wham! original is one of Michael’s greatest accomplishments and was picked up by Hot Chip. In this recording of his 1996 MTV Unplugged performance, Michael is a singer supreme at the top of his game.
CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS – FREEDOM (Joseph EP, 2021)
Chris’ version features a sparse electronic arrangement reinforced with gospel choirs.
An altogether classier affair than the Robbie Williams cover, it’s testament to the influence Michael has had on a new generation of artists.
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