Tapes had two sides, both 45 minutes long. You had that long to say what you needed to say and then it was time to move on. We’re bringing that challenge back. 45 minutes to convince someone why they should like a certain band, artist, genre, or era.
Today I’m trying to sum up the career of an artist whose voice, songwriting and star quality can be heard in every corner of music today. I know quite a few of the Picky B’s team might write off a mixtape by George Michael as ‘that guy from Wham!’ but hopefully by the end of this 45 minute run of songs even they will see why this is some of the best pop music of our lifetimes.
Freedom! ’90 (6:31)
It’s hard to think of a playlist that can’t be improved by adding ‘Freedom ’90’ and it kicks things off here with a bang. Freedom from the image portrayed by his music videos, freedom from the parts of fame that were damaging to his mental health, and (eventually) freedom from the stifling record contract that would become a defining moment in Pop music history. “But today the way I play the game has got to change, oh yeah//Now I’m gonna get myself happy,” is where George Michael started to find freedom in his work and in his life. Self-discovery has never been this damn catchy.
Too Funky (3:45)
Keeping the energy high and literally continuing the video from ‘Freedom ’90’, we have ‘Too Funky’ – a song that revels in the excess. Full of the sex-appeal of ‘I Want Your Sex’, but infinitely more successful as a pop record. Originally planned to be the first single of the ultimately cancelled Listen Without Prejudice Vol 2, it was instead released as a charity single in support of raising money in the fight against AIDS. Can you imagine if more charity singles were as listenable and as timeless as this?
One More Try (5:51)
The split between up-tempo and ballads has always been an interesting one when diving into George Michael’s discography. His albums jump between banging dance tunes and then heart-breaking ballads the next, so much so that they are always separated onto separate discs on his greatest hits collections. Of the ballads from Faith, ‘One More Try’ stands out for that vocal performance, full of emotion and power, offset by familiar 80s synth piano. It’s probably my favourite early post-Wham! song from him. I love the falsetto section in the chorus before he goes right back down again. Don’t worry though, there’s plenty more ballads to come too.
Everything She Wants (5:03)
I very nearly didn’t include anything from Wham! in this mixtape. In fact, this track was supposed to be ‘Waiting For That Day’ instead. I’m glad I changed my mind though, as Everything She Wants is undoubtedly one of the true stand-outs from the Pop duo’s discography. George’s vocal on this song is so effortless, that distant “Somebody tell me” just soars. “And now you tell me that you’re having my baby//I’ll tell you that I’m happy if you want me to” is a brilliant lyric. Would you expect something like that from an 80s boyband? I guess that depends who you ask, but even at this early stage George Michael’s lyricism set him way above the rest of the pop world. Also, special shout out to the fact that ‘Everything She Wants’ is the biggest selling #2 single ever in the UK thanks to its place as a double A-Side with ‘Last Christmas’.
Fastlove Pt. 1 (5:25)
My earliest memory of hearing George Michael’s music was ‘Fastlove Pt 1’ blasting out from the speakers downstairs. I’ll leave that there before anyone starts writing comments complaining about how old that makes them feel, but I think for so many fans of George’s music the Older album was their entry point, if not a moment of rediscovery. If Older is George’s ‘coming out’ album, then ‘Fastlove Pt 1’ is the party afterwards. Every second of this song is a pure joy to hear, layer upon layer of funky disco influence, what feels like 200 tracks of backing vocals and the greatest middle eight in Pop music history. I’m not even being hyperbolic there, the minute from 3’22” is his finest work as a producer, lyricist and performer. “In the absence of security//I made my way into the night//stupid cupid keeps on calling me//and I see loving in his eyes.” A song about hooking up with strangers in the back of your car has never been so popular and so good.
They Won’t Go When I Go (5:07)
I’m a bit exhausted from all of that dancing, so from here on out it’s heart-breaking ballads and nothing else. As one of the most dependable singers and performers of the 80s and 90s, George Michael has sung his fair share of cover versions. Highlights like ‘Don’t Let The Sun On Down On Me’ with Elton John at Wembley, or his poignant version of ‘Somebody To Love’ at the Freddie Mercury tribute gig are clear career defining moments. Instead, I’ve chosen this outstanding Stevie Wonder cover from Listen Without Prejudice Pt 1 that, on a personal note, took on a whole new power following George’s death. His vocals shine on every second of this song, delicate piano making it feel almost acapella.
My Mother Had a Brother (6:18)
The most recent song I’ve picked here, taken from George Michael’s final studio album Patience released in 2004, ‘My Mother Had a Brother’ is gut-wrenching. Death permeated so much of George’s later work, following the death of his first real love and just as he was starting to find himself again his mother passed away. Much of Patience talks about finding life and loving again, but on this song in particular, where he reflects on his uncle who took his own life on the day he was born, it’s unbelievable that something this beautiful has come out the other end. The way the song builds to a hopeful and joyous note is extraordinary: “Mother will you tell him about my joy//I live each day with him//Your son came out//And I’m still breathing it in.”
You Have Been Loved (5:31)
Of course, I’ve chosen the only song more emotional than the last one to end this mixtape. One that started with the feel-good song of the decade and ends with You Have Been Loved. I love how delicate this song is. Twinkles of guitar, with small moments of jazz trumpet allow the song to breathe. What’s evident on You Have Been Loved and every other track I’ve picked here is that the context of when and where George Michael was at the time is so clear on these songs.
It’s hard to think of another commercial ‘popstar’ who so easily conveys their own experiences with lyrics, while also performing and producing the music to such a level. I guess that’s why my choices are probably quite different to most people’s, because I find George Michael as a person so fascinating and inspiring. I’ve laughed, cried and danced to this music. Hopefully all of you will too.