With the death on Christmas Day of British singer-songwriter, George Michael, 53, of suspected heart failure, pop music has lost another genius and maverick.
Having achieved fame as one half of the conventionally commercial 1980s group Wham! and then as a successful solo artist, Michael would across his career refuse to be defined by the expectations of the music industry.
He was equally comfortable baring his soul on aching ballads and delivering throwaway pop, though even his breeziest moment contained glimmerings of the melancholy that rippled through both his life and music.
Michael was behind some of the biggest pop hits of the past 35 years, selling more than 100 million records in the process. He left an incredible legacy on the charts – both as a solo artist and as one-half of the duo Wham!
Here is a brief recap of arguably his 10 stand-out moments.
1. Careless Whisper (1984)
A masterpiece of swirling melodrama that proved to the world Michael was more than mere Smash Hits fodder. Careless Whisper was released in the summer of 1984 at the height of the singer’s reign as a teen pin-up with Wham! yet, clocking in at over five minutes and propelled by Steve Gregory’s plaintive saxophone, subverted all of the expectations of a pop single. While beloved by fans, Michael would later become ambivalent about the song, decrying what he regarded as its hackneyed wordplay. “It disappoints me that you can write a lyric very flippantly and it can mean so much to so many people.”
2. Faith (1987)
With the end of Wham! Michael was determined to confirm his “serious artist” credentials. The result was his 1987 debut solo album and the accompanying single of the same name. Surfing a rockabilly beat, Faith combined melodic playfulness and spiritually-questing lyrics. The song had originated in a suggestion by his producer that Michael compose a rock ’n roll pastiche – an affect mirrored in the video, in which the singer mugged in blue jeans, leather jacket and dense stubble. Faith climbed to the top of the American charts in December 1987.
3. Father Figure (1987)
4. Jesus to a Child (1996)
Composed as a tribute to his late lover Anselmo Feleppa, the single heralded an artistic rebirth for Michael. The singer had been plunged into grief following the passing in 1993 of the Brazilian fashion designer, who suffered an Aids-related brain hemorrhage. Traumatized by the death Michael had been unable to write for 18 months but, seized by emotion, penned Jesus to a Child in less than an hour. After finally coming out in 1998, Michael would from then on dedicate the song to Feleppa whenever he performed it.
5. Wake Me Up Before You Go-go (1984)
Wham!’s first number and the track that crystallized the early image of Michael as lad-next-door dreamboat. The singer would would later say of Wake Me Up: “I just wanted to make a really energetic pop record that had all the best elements of Fifties and Sixties records, combined with our attitude and our approach.” He surely succeeded, with the track splicing a jaunty melody and breezy lyrics (the title was inspired by a note Wham! co-conspirator Andrew Ridgeley had left for his parents in which the word “go” was accidentally written twice).
6. A Different Corner (1986)
A stepping stone for Michael as he sought to transition from his carefree Wham! image and gain acceptance as mature songwriter. A Different Corner featured on the Wham! album Music From The Edge of Heaven, released only in North America and Japan, but in the UK was credited to Michael alone. On the heels of Careless Whisper, the downcast ballad confirmed Michael as master of stylized melancholy. It also earned him a place in the record books as the first solo artist to top the UK charts with his first two singles.
7. Amazing (2004)
A late slice of genius from the singer that doubled as tribute to his long-term romantic partner Kenny Goss. Amazing was a stand-out from the controversial 2004 album Patience, which had caused a ruckus in the United States due to the anti-George W Bush sentiments of the track Shoot the Dog. Amazing, in contrast, is avowedly non political, with Michael delivering soul-baring lyrics over a swinging groove.
8. Last Christmas (1984)
With Michael passing on December 25, the tinsel-strewn ballad has, in the short term at least, acquired a terrible poignancy. He has written better songs – but none so endearingly embraced by the public. One of the first modern festive songs to acknowledge the depressive undertow of the season, Last Christmas is not without its cheesy elements. Yet it has woven itself indelibly into the tapestry of Christmas. For many, this will be the tune to which Michael owes his artistic immortality. Among purists accompanying double a-side Everything She Wants is, however, regarded as the true classic.
9. Fastlove (1996)
A lusty paeans to the joys of a one-night stand, Fastlove was the carefree follow-up to Jesus to a Child that reminded us Michael hadn’t lost his knack for throwaway pop. The song stood out amid the contemplative ennui of the Older album and was an important counterweight to the soul searching that otherwise defined the project. Fans certainly embraced this fun-filled firecracker which enjoyed three weeks at UK number one.
10. I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) (1987)
It had long been Michael’s ambition to sing with Aretha Franklin, the maven he had grown up worshiping. Unusually, he had no part in the composition of this booming soul number which was written by Simon Climie (of Climie and Fisher) and Dennis Morgan. And he suffered jitters going to the studio to collaborate with Franklin, as he would recount in his 1991 memoir Bare. “Nobody can emulate Aretha Franklin,” he said. “It’s stupid to try. I just tried to stay in character, keep it simple – it was very understated in comparison to what she did.”