George Michael, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 (1990)

Dennis Cook

After "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go", maybe this record's title asked too much. Still, this song cycle has the ambition of Stevie Wonder's 1970s work and Michael nearly had the talent to pull it off.

George Michael

Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1

US Release Date: 1990
Amazon affiliate

Poor George Michael. One men's room peccadillo with a plainclothes cop and a video trail of horrendous 1980s fashion disasters and everyone outside of the UK relegates you to the same dance ghetto where Boy George picks up his stipend. Sure, it's a classy disco and everyone looks fantastic, but once the man born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou was on track to be the white Stevie Wonder. Scoff if you must, but the boy damned by Wham! and an almost toxic blondness pulled off a pop smart, intensely personal song cycle that rivals Wonder's 1970s golden age.

After Faith, which sold 20 million copies, Michael decided to get serious. Despite being a mainstream craftsman in the tradition of Smokey Robinson and Neil Diamond, his years of churning out bubblegum had few convinced he was a serious artist. Fed up, Michael painstakingly assembled his sophomore solo release. Writing, arranging and producing everything, and drawing from his growing dissatisfaction with fame and genuine concern about the state of the world, Michael tried to do what his musical heroes had done - merge broad-based pop with substance. From the first time I tossed in a cassette and drove to L.A. with it on repeat the week it was released right up to this day, I contend it's as good as the mainstream ever got.

Like most folks I'd dismissed George as a future trivia footnote. I'd hidden from Wham! in the safe folds of the Clash and Elvis Costello during high school and spurned the dismal pandering of solo singles like "I Want Your Sex" and "Faith". I hated the look of him, too -- the sculpted stubble, the salon-fresh hairdo, the faux vintage denim and leather. Then I heard "Freedom 90" and realized I might have been doing exactly what the title of his second album was asking me not to do.

A banging piece of dance-floor nitro, "Freedom 90" is an epic, unedited 6:30. Built from intricately layered percussion and Chic-slick guitars, Michael's near perfect voice dissects the downside of fame with an incisive cheek we haven't seen much outside of the Monkees' Head. You can put this up against anything from Gwen Stefani, et al., today and it holds its own admirably. Sure, it's hard to hear the rich and famous bitch about their "condition", but not if they can do so with real insight: "When I knew which side my bread was buttered / I took the knife as well / Posing for another picture / Everybody's got to sell / But when you shake your ass, they notice fast / And some mistakes were built to last."

His ambivalence was intriguing and a far cry from anything we were hearing from Bell Biv Devoe, Wilson Phillips or any of the other chart toppers that year. That he did so while continuing to twirl under the bright lights in a fabulous outfit evoked Elton John's early response to notoriety -- look good, but say something when they stick a microphone in your face.

Delve into the album and you'll find opener "Praying for Time". Sure, it's preachy but so was Stevie: "He's Misstra Know It All" and "Big Brother" are not subtle, and neither is Michael's stab at finger-pointing earnestness. What makes this dirge so effective is how he turns that finger on himself, confessing his own self-indulgent behavior in an age when "God stopped keeping score".

Both this and "Freedom 90" were odd choices for the first two singles (though "Praying" went number one on both the US and UK charts), indications of how serious he was in his intention of being seen in a new light. That nonlogic dictated the videos as well: In the days when MTV built their programming around the cult of personality, Michael refused to appear in the videos for either track. The only photo of him on the album is a Jostens yearbook-style headshot buried in the liner notes. After peddling his ass shamelessly for almost a decade, he'd withdrawn almost completely from the spotlight.

Troubled love and an equally troubled world provide the thematic undercurrents beneath these 10 tracks (nine originals and a take on Wonder's "They Won't Go When I Go", from Fulfillingness' First Finale). Combining his naturally great pipes with material that actually meant something to him produced a compelling mix of the sweet and sour. The finger-snapping skip of "Waiting for That Day" is followed by the Freudian field day of "Mothers Pride", which focuses on a "solider waiting for a war" (an observation made all the creepier when Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990). The entire record sways between warm arms and empty hands, cold comfort and blissful memories.

Michael's arrangements are typically a brassier version of what Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux are being rewarded for today. "Cowboys and Angels" is pure sophistication -- swooning strings, torch-singer breathiness, standup bass, brushed drums and a pretty sax solo. "Heal the Pain" is Michael's homage to Paul McCartney, and it nicely captures the breathless rush of Rubber Soul-era Beatles. The Stevie Wonder cover is stripped-back piano, omnipresent echo and multilayered Todd Rundgren-style vocals. It is, in a word, haunting.

Dug out of a dark hole of enormous unhappiness in the midst of huge success, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 never got a volume two. It's a pity, because contemporary unease has rarely been captured better. At the height of his popularity he went out of his way to draw attention to the manufactured hollowness of the celebrity machine. It's a series of gospel-inflected prayers for light and hope delivered by someone who had serious doubts that anyone was actually listening when he was down on his knees.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

Festival promises an incredible audio-visual experience from musicians and artists like Solange, St. Vincent, Thom Yorke, Ryoji Ikeda and more.

With 2017 coming to a close, year-end lists are pouring forth, and everyone is wondering what were some of the hottest albums or tracks they overlooked. But, even with winter fast approaching, there is still a chance to catch some great artists in a unique festival environment.

Keep reading... Show less

Talay's new tune will win points with those not shy of expressing their holiday joy with four-letter cusses.

Most Decembers, I don't get super excited by the prospect of sitting down and preparing a bunch of holiday cards for mailing. And I certainly do my best to avoid venturing anywhere in the vicinity of SantaCon, the bar crawl for a North Pole-themed mob. But for those who like their eggnog with a little extra something, the new tune from Talay may become your new rallying cry.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.