Released soon after his death, Michael Jackson’s The Definitive Collection was among the first of the undoubtedly endless supply of cash-in albums that will be released in the years and decades to come. While consumers clamored for the finite supply of released Jackson material, Motown rush-released this overview of the singer’s work (with and without the Jackson 5) from his time at the label. While much of the music is great, obviously any survey of Jackson’s work that ends before his departure for Epic can hardly be described as “definitive”.
Motown, now a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group, is no stranger to repackaging and re-releasing Jackson’s music when there’s a chance to make some cash. In 1984, in the middle of Thriller-mania, the label shamelessly assembled and released mid-‘70s cutting room floor marginalia with updated backing tracks on the dismal album Farewell My Summer Love. Due purely to his unrivaled celebrity at the time the album’s bland title track became a Top 40 hit.
It’s important to note the importance of Jackson’s extreme popularity in 1984 to explain the chart success of “Farewell My Summer Love”, because that is the only possible explanation how such a treacly afterthought of a non-song could compete in the upper reaches of the pop charts. A little over half of the rest of this compilation is devoted to Jackson’s mostly forgotten Motown solo material. The majority of it is sentimental lonely-boy love ballads epitomized by non-classics like “With a Child’s Heart”, and the mind-bogglingly dull number one pop single “Ben”, notoriously a love paean to a rat. Jackson mines the same lovelorn territory to greater effect in the non-charting Bill Withers cover “Ain’t No Sunshine”, where a fourteen-year-old Michael manages to match the original recording’s raw emotional power.
The up-tempo solo numbers, including the fairly annoying classic “Rockin’ Robin”, fare better, but this compilation’s main attraction is clearly the Jackson 5 material. The seven original Jackson 5 songs on the disc, from the perfect debut single “I Want You Back” to the indelible disco work-out “Dancing Machine”, are unflaggingly great. The only misstep is the “minus mix” of “I’ll Be There”, which originally appeared on The Stripped Mixes, the very first posthumous Motown cash-in compilation. On the song, the compilers remove the orchestral accompaniment for a pointless Let it Be… Naked-type re-imagining of a classic track, not understanding that the song’s sugary Corporation production is integral to its genius.
The Jackson 5’s easy domination of this disc underscores this release’s confused title and programming. Clearly the fine people over at Universal Motown understood that no one desperately wants to hear too much of Michael Jackson’s pre-Off the Wall solo material, at least not enough to fill up an entire disc. Half an album’s worth of those songs is more than enough to showcase the cream of the solo crop, leaving the other half filled with the Jackson 5, who are much better represented on the excellent Jackson 5: The Ultimate Collection from 1995. As a supplement to 2003’s post-Motown greatest hits package Number Ones, this album works fine. But then again, if a consumer only needs two discs of Jackson, Epic’s 2005 The Essential Michael Jackson is the way to go. As it stands, although much of the music is great, this album has no real reason for existing, other than generating a bit more revenue for the dying recording industry.