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Jackson 5 (and solo work)

Reviewed on this page:
Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5 - Christmas Album - Got To Be There - Skywriter - Get It Together - I Want You Back! Unreleased Masters - Forever, Michael - The Jacksons - Destiny - Off The Wall - Let's Get Serious - Triumph - Live - Thriller - Victory - 2300 Jackson St - You Said - Dangerous - Invincible - Michael

Michael Jackson went into cardiac arrest on Thursday, June 25, 2009, and died shortly thereafter.
Well, how many times have you heard this story? Everyone from Diana Ross to James Brown claims credit for discovering the group of singing youngsters from Gary, Indiana; one way or another, they found their way to Motown, got teamed up with songwriting team The Corporation, and immediately hit the top of the charts. Lead singer Michael was always the only Jackson brother who really counted, and he soon embarked on a successful solo career. Like many a young prodigy (see Stevie Wonder) Michael fell off the charts during puberty, but he came back stronger than ever as he reached his twenties, and by the time he was 25 he had released the best selling album of all time. Since then the other male Jacksons have become a footnote to history (sister Janet is a different story), and Michael has remained the world's premier tabloid target and continued to sell astonishing numbers of records. No, I don't understand why he named his son Prince any more than you do. (DBW)

Michael Jackson, lead vocals; Jermaine Jackson, Marlon Jackson, Jackie Jackson, Tito Jackson, all vocals. Jermaine left in 1976, replaced by Randy Jackson.

Diana Ross Presents (1969)
The Jackson Five were a singles act from the start, and their debut is a typical Motown pastiche of huge hits - well, only one huge hit this time - and dependable covers. That one huge hit is pretty good, though: "I Want You Back" is exciting and complexly arranged, and it shows that the Motown machine wasn't completely off the rails at this point, despite terrible contemporary releases by almost all of their older acts. The rest is really thin, although very competent. Little Michael's amazingly mature tenor is a major factor - his effortless high notes make Eddie Kendricks' sound pedestrian - but the bassist (apparently Wilton Felder and not James Jamerson) is astoundingly good throughout. There's an interesting, not-so-embarassing arrangement of "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah," and "Standing In The Shadows Of Love" is about as good as the Four Tops' version. But Michael gives up the lead to his barely competent brothers in a few places (a grating "My Cherie Amour"), several tunes are very slavish copies ("Stand"; "(I Know) I'm Losing You"); and there's only one further original by the shadowy Corporation writing team ("Nobody," which is pretty good). As with most of their early albums, this one doesn't show you much more than you'd see on a greatest hits record. Produced by Bobby Taylor (Ross merely signed her name to the uninformative liner notes). (JA)

ABC (1970)
Two more #1 singles, both irresistable uptempo pop: the title track and "The Love You Save." (DBW)

Third Album (1970)
The ballad "I'll Be There" became their fourth #1 in a year, and "Mama's Pearl" went to #2. (DBW)

Christmas Album (1970)
Boy, the Corporation's formula is simple but it works: Michael belts out "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" while the bass pumps, the tamborine keeps time and the guitars play staggered runs. "Up On The House Top" - a lesser known standard - is so Corporationized it's hard to believe it wasn't a hit single. The slow numbers aren't as exciting - Michael gives everything he has on "Give Love On Christmas Day," but the backing is drab - and when the other brothers sing you're really in trouble ("Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," except for the blissful coda). They revive "Someday At Christmas" from Stevie Wonder's holiday album, and there are two new compositions ("Christmas Won't Be The Same This Year"); everything else is familiar ("I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," with the only studio experimentation on the record: endlessly echoing bells set against booming congas) but Michael is so good he lifts it all out of the ordinary. (DBW)

Maybe Tomorrow (1971)
The proto-disco "Never Can Say Goodbye" also went to #2, and the title track was their first flop, peaking at #20. (DBW)

Goin' Back To Indiana (1971)
Soundtrack to a TV special. "Sugar Daddy" was released on a concurrent greatest hits; after this the group hit a relative dry spell lasting several years. (DBW)

Got To Be There (Michael: 1972)
Michael's solo debut contained two Top Five hits: the enjoyable novelty oldie "Rockin' Robin" and the sappy title track. Produced by The Corporaton with Hal Davis (though largely arranged by James Carmichael) and there's a lot of their buoyant pop ("I Wanna Be Where You Are," carried by a harpischord line; the social changer "In Our Small Way"), plus covers both foreign ("You've Got A Friend") and domestic ("Love Is Here And Now You're Gone"). Michael doesn't pull off his attempts to belt out soul (Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"; Willie Hutch's "Girl Don't Take Your Love From Me") - pristine and crackling with emotion as his voice is, he can't project heartbreak any more than Stevie Wonder could at that age. (DBW)

Lookin' Through The Windows (1972)
The title track was a moderate hit, and "Little Bitty Pretty One" is here too. Not to mention covers like "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing" and "Doctor My Eyes." Also this year, the group hit with "Corner Of The Sky" from the Broadway musical Pippin. (DBW)

Jermaine (Jermaine: 1972)
Jermaine managed a Top Ten single on his own, "Daddy's Home." (DBW)

Ben (Michael: 1972)
The title track (from a movie) went all the way to #1, surely the all-time best-selling song about a rat. (DBW)

Skywriter (1973)
By now the group was burning out, with none of their singles from 1972 and early 1973 really striking paydirt. So despite the presence of three A sides ("Corner Of The Sky"; "Hallelujah Day"; title track), the LP is just plain weak. Freddie Perren's piano-driven "Hallelujah Day" is a forgettable attempt at blending clichéd gospel references with the group's early hit formula, dragging through its verses despite a funky, over-familiar chorus. The late 1972 "Corner Of The Sky," from Stephen Schwartz's score for the musical Pippin, is an overproduced pop confection with strings, maraccas, flute, and a clumsy sitar part that only makes the other tunes sound more authentic by comparison. And with five second-string producers in the mix, often all that's authentic is the instantly dated production values: there's a couple of painfully effeminate, syrupy love ballads (Wilson and Sawyer's "Touch"; "Ooh, I'd Love To Be With You"), a god-awful Deke Richards novelty tune with anachronistic blues underpinnings ("The Boogie Man"), and a bunch of mediocre bubblegum numbers with cheesy guitar effects ("Uppermost"; the up-tempo "World Of Sunshine"). Hal Davis gets a fine classic Motown sound out of Wakefield and Caston's swinging "I Can't Quit Your Love," the Corporation does likewise with the Tempts-style "You Made Me What I Am," and the Larson/Marcellino title track is actually pretty good, with a funky clavinet and gobs of phasing. But the album's 30-minute running time is still almost too long. (JA)

Music And Me (Michael: 1973)
Includes Michael's version of "With A Child's Heart." (DBW)

Come Into My Life (Jermaine: 1973)

Get It Together (Jackson 5ive: 1973)
Produced by Davis, mostly arranged by Carmichael or Arthur Wright. Again there are Corporation ballads ("Don't Say Good Bye Again"), plus some proto-disco (title track; the hit "Dancing Machine"). Lots of Motown retreads this time: "Reflections"; "You Need Love Like I Do (Don't You?)"; The Undisputed Truth's "Mama I Got A Brand New Thing (Don't Say No)" - the biggest tipoff that Davis was out of material is the punishingly long, nearly instrumental "Hum Along And Dance." It's so rehashed and cookie-cut, there may be less Jackson magic audible here than on any other core family release I've heard. (DBW)

Jackie Jackson (Jackie: 1973)
Motown went to the well one more time, but this brother didn't achieve solo success. (DBW)

Dancing Machine (1974)
The title track became the group's highest charting single since "Never Can Say Goodbye," and they've never again climbed as high. (DBW)

I Want You Back! Unreleased Masters (rec. 1969-1974, rel. 2009)
After all these years, a collection of new material, with rejected Corporation numbers ("Listen I'll Tell You How"), alternate takes ("Dancing Machine"), and covers (Curtis Mayfield's "Man's Temptation"). The catch is, it's thin: The outtakes are weak siblings of Motown smashes ("I'll Try You'll Try (Maybe We'll All Get By)," another Whitfield-style social comment; "That's How Love Is," an "ABC" clone). The alternate takes are unenlightening ("ABC" with an inferior vocal arrangement; a gentler, drier "Never Can Say Goodbye"). And then there's a medley of their most familiar hits (among which is, yes, "ABC" again). Re: Buttercup ... and an echoey keyboard solo that's out of this world. However, the high points are terrific: the tripped-out mini-suite "Love Comes In Different Flavors," and a brilliant Wonder production ("Buttercup" - galaxies away from Carl Anderson's version of the tune - with a shifting meter and an echoey keyboard solo that's out of this world). (DBW)

Forever, Michael (Michael: 1975)
Michael's last solo album for Motown, and it missed the Top Forty altogether. The single "Just A Little Bit Of You" stalled out at #23; it was written by Brian and Eddie Holland (produced by Brian) who had just returned to Motown. Like the two other Holland numbers on the record, it's gentle, inoffensive, undistinctive pop. Michael's voice was changing, and none of the producers on hand (including Hal Davis, Freddie Perren and Sam Brown) really figured out what to do with it - on a few songs ("One Day In Your Life") he sounds like an adult woman, which must have thrown his fan base. There's none of the frantic uptempo fun of the Jackson 5 hits, and the tasteful production and arrangements just aren't very interesting ("I'll Come Home To You"). (DBW)

Moving Violation (1975)
"I Am Love (Parts I & II)" had mild success, and a remake of the Supremes' "Forever Came Today" was also a single. (DBW)

My Name Is Jermaine (Jermaine: 1976)
Few would dispute that. (DBW)

Joyful Jukebox Music (1976)
After this album, the Jackson 5 decided to leave Motown for greener pastures - except for Jermaine, that is: he'd married Berry Gordy's daughter Hazel in 1973, and he chose his new family over the old. The rest of the boys unceremoniously jettisoned Jermaine in favor of youngest brother Randy, and carried on as the Jacksons. (DBW)

The Jacksons (The Jacksons: 1977)
Now on CBS, the renamed group hit right away with the frantic riff tune "Enjoy Yourself"; "Show You The Way To Go" was also a single, and "Good Times" is gorgeous Sunday morning music. Those were written and produced by the Philly soul team Gamble/Huff, who also oversaw the rest of the disc in conjunction with proteges Dexter Wansel ("Keep On Dancing") and McFadden & Whitehead ("Strength Of One Man"). I believe "Blues Away" is Michael's first recorded composition; he also co-wrote "Style Of Life." Totally lacking in the distinctiveness that marked the early Jackson 5 and Michael's later solo work, but it's solidly enjoyable TSOP product. (DBW)

Feel The Fire (Jermaine: 1977)

Goin' Places (The Jacksons: 1977)
Not exactly. Gamble/Huff produced again, but the disc and all its singles - "Different Kind Of Lady" (by the Jacksons); "Even Though You're Gone"; "Music's Taking Over"; title track - flopped. (DBW)

Frontiers (Jermaine: 1978)

Destiny (The Jacksons: 1978)
The Jacksons took over as songwriters and producers here, a gamble which paid off big. They came up with a slew of hook-driven tunes on the border between disco and funk: "Blame It On The Boogie," "Things I Do For You" and best of all, the smash hit "Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)" - the record was their most successful in years. They also show some range with the acoustic title track, and the ballads aren't as drippy as usual ("Push Me Away," "That's What You Get (For Being Polite)"). Michael sings all the leads, and co-wrote all the tunes - near as I can tell, this is his first "adult" album. No musicians or arrangers are listed; it's a much rougher production than Michael's later solo work, not overly precise, with more horns than strings. Also in 1978, Michael appeared in the movie version of the musical The Wiz and on the accompanying soundtrack album. (DBW)

Off The Wall (Michael: 1979)
Michael's return to solo work, produced by Quincy Jones. It's pure pop: nothing innovative, everything impeccably arranged and recorded. The Brothers Johnson (Louis and George) - funkier on their solo records - are well back in the mix, leaving plenty of room for strings and backing vocals. Jackson's voice is in peak form, without overdosing on annoying mannerisms (but listen out for the hiccups in the title track). The tunes are split between disco (title track, the irresistable "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough") and ballads ("She's Out Of My Life" was a big hit: melodic but treacly and self-pitying). Jackson also calls in some favors from his superstar friends: Stevie Wonder contributed "I Can't Help It" and Paul McCartney donated "Girlfriend." This time around Michael only wrote a few tunes; Rod Temperton wrote the title track and the hit "Rock With You." (DBW)

Let's Get Serious (Jermaine: 1979)
Basically, this record is for Stevie Wonder fans: he wrote and produced the record's big single (title track) and two other tracks ("Where Are You Now" and "You're Supposed To Keep Your Love For Me"), half the album's running time. Wonder even sings the memorable middle on "Let's Get Serious," which still stands up as an outstanding dance track. The other Stevie numbers are ballads, and might work if Jermaine had a more distinctive voice. The other half of the album is tedious, routine pop-soul, mostly produced by Jackson himself. If you can find the extended single on a compilation somewhere, skip this disc. (DBW)

Triumph (The Jacksons: 1980)
The Jacksons wrote and produced this one too, but it's not as focused or fun as Destiny, partly because the production is far slicker. The two singles were memorable pop-funk - "Lovely One" and "Heartbreak Hotel" - and both charted respectably, but weren't smashes by Jackson standards. Michael was the main writer, and aside from the singles he contributed his first "we can save the world" number, "Can You Feel It," complete with two choirs. Jackie contributed three formulaic pop tunes, the best of which ("Your Ways") is still no great shakes. This time the Jacksons played next to none of the instruments; musicians include Nathan Watts, Greg Phillinganes, Jerry Hey, Ollie Brown, Michael Sembello, Gary Coleman, Lenny Castro, and David Williams, and what pop record would be complete without the percussion stylings of Paulinho Da Costa? (DBW)

Live (The Jacksons: 1981)
A two-record set of both group and solo material that's an impressive reminder of how deep Michael's catalog was even before Thriller. It's very heavy on late 70s material, including lengthy versions of "Shake Your Body," "Lovely One," and "Working Day And Night." Michael gives a speech about how much he hates the early hits before dashing off a perfunctory medley of them; he does take time for a full rendition of "Ben," and sings about half of "I'll Be There" before deviating into an ostentatious display of vocal heroics. Though not as stylized as it would become, his showmanship is already too theatrical for my taste (including a prerecorded self-tribute), but you can't fault his singing or the song material. As usual, the other Jacksons are just along for the ride; the band, which cranks out the backing flawlessly and flairlessly, is David Williams (guitar), Michael McKinney (bass), Bill Wolfer (keyboards) and Jonathan Moffett (drums). I haven't seen this on CD, but for fans it's worth hunting down. (DBW)

Thriller (Michael: 1982)
You probably feel like you already know every note on this record, and it's quite likely that you do: it's the best-selling album of all time, after all, and seven of the nine tracks were Top Ten singles. Again, it's a mix of ballads ("Human Nature") and dance tracks, more pop and rock influenced ("P.Y.T.") now that disco was officially dead. Q's anal-retentive production style gets on my nerves here: it's all so LA-cool it sounds like it was computer sequenced. But Jackson was writing almost all the tunes by now, and it's hard to deny the effectiveness of hits like "Billie Jean" and "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" (though the vocal chant was stolen from Manu Dibango's 1973 hit "Soul Makossa"). Superstar guests include Eddie Van Halen on the #1 "Beat It," Vincent Price rapping on the title cut, and McCartney duetting on "The Girl Is Mine." (DBW)

Jermaine Jackson (Jermaine: 1984)
By now, Gordy had sold Motown to MCA, and Jermaine struck out on his own, moving to Arista. This was the source of the radio hit "Tell Me I'm Not Dreaming," with Michael prominently featured on backing vocals; Epic refused to allow the track to be released as a single. (DBW)

Victory (The Jacksons: 1984)
Though Michael's star was at its height, someone had the bright idea of letting all the brothers contribute to the writing, production and even lead vocals. It's a hi-tech disaster, all loud electronic percussion and buzzing synth lines: Jackie's two tracks ("Torture" and "Wait") are the worst, though Tito's sappy "We Can Change The World" and Randy's "One More Chance" are also contenders. The only brother besides Michael who shows any talent here is Marlon, whose uptempo "Body" has a catchy riff that belies his ordinary lead vocal. Much was made of Jermaine rejoining the other five Jacksons here, though he didn't write anything and only sings half of one lead ("Torture"). But the two numbers Michael wrote aren't worth much either: the orchestrated ballad "Be Not Always" is a remarkably weak pop-star-saves-the-world number, leaving the single "State Of Shock," a duet between Michael and Mick Jagger with loud rock guitar from David Williams, as the record's best track. Much of the musical backing is by the brothers themselves or Toto members David Paich and Steve Porcaro, who share some of the blame for the overobvious production. Sales were decent but a huge dropoff from Thriller; the full complement of Jackson brothers hasn't cut an album together since. (DBW)

In 1985, Michael co-wrote and most of the Jacksons sang on "We Are The World." (DBW)

Bad (Michael: 1987)
The third MJ-QJ collaboration; this was seen as a disappointment after Thriller, and indeed, the first three singles (the ballad "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" with Siedah Garrett, the absurd title track, the ho-hum "The Way You Make Me Feel") are routine. Plus, the duet with Stevie Wonder ("Just Good Friends") is corny synth kitsch. But there are some damn good tunes here: the syncopated synth-funk "Smooth Criminal"; the gentle ballad "Libertarian Girl" - whoops, I mean "Liberian Girl"; the heavy metal "Dirty Diana" (with Billy Idol sideman Steve Stevens on guitar); even the preachy self-help "The Man In The Mirror." Plus, the hard funk "Another Part Of Me" (originally from the Captain EO film) is my favorite cut on the record. The CD bonus track is "Leave Me Alone." Not as novel or melodic as Thriller, but track for track it's just about as entertaining. (DBW)

2300 Jackson St. (The Jacksons: 1989)
Marlon and Michael sat this one out, though they sang a line or two each on the title track, a celebration of the Jackson clan that also features Janet, Rebbie, and a couple of dozen grandchildren. Though the lyrics are rather self-serving, it's a pleasant, gently swinging tune, featuring Teddy Riley on synth, Don Myrick on sax and Paul Jackson (no relation) on guitar. The rest of the album is similarly up-to-date productionwise, but not as tuneful: too many numbers use exploding synth snare and percussive keyboard bass to cover for a terrible melody ("Art Of Madness," "She," LA Reid & Babyface's confusingly titled "Nothin (That Compares 2 U)"), while the ballads are hackneyed and insincere ("Private Affair" is not one of Diane Warren's finer efforts). Jermaine dominates the songwriting and gets most of the lead vocals, but his only really enjoyable effort is "Maria," which combines tasty acoustic guitar and fine harmonica from Lee Oskar, plus percussion by the inevitable Paulinho Da Costa. Unless you're still entranced by the Jackson mystique, you have little to gain from picking this up. (DBW)

You Said (Jermaine: 1991)
Jermaine moved to L.A. Reid and Babyface's LaFace label for this release, and they put a lot of effort into it, writing all the songs and coming up with a parade of big-name guests. The title track was an unsuccessful single, and though the chorus is grating, Reid's drum programming is refreshingly inventive. But most of the tunes are ballads, and good ones: "A Lover's Holiday," "Treat You Right" (a duet with Babyface), though embarrassing lyrics spoil "Makin' Whoopee." These are some of the best vocal performances I've heard from Jermaine; his lower register sounds lovely on "Secrets," and he even indulges himself with a Ronald Isley imitation on "Don't You Deserve Someone." On the other hand, his infamous kissoff to Michael ("Word To The Badd!") is dull despite TLC's participation - it's a routine uptempo number with mechanical beats. And the would-be hard rocker "Rebel (With A Cause)" is too obvious; though Vernon Reid plays a nice guitar solo, he's wasted on the verses and chorus. If you're a Babyface fan, this is surefire; even if you're not, this is a good deal at cutout prices. (DBW)

Dangerous (Michael: 1992)
Michael figured out that Quincy Jones was not going to keep him at the top of the charts, so half the tracks are produced by New Jack Swing personified, Terry Riley, and Jackson produced the rest himself or with Bruce Bottrell. Riley's work is rather derivative: the title track and "Jam," cowritten by René Moore - both hit singles - are virtually identical, with noisy drum loops, scattered samples and minimal lyrics; "Why You Wanna Trip On Me" blends hip hop drums and Princely funk guitar. The more melodic material works better, including "In The Closet" and especially "Remember The Time," with Michael's most impassioned vocal since the Jackson 5 days. The Bottrell tracks are pure pop, and run the gamut from deadly dull ("Give In To Me," with a ho-hum guest shot by Slash) to pleasant but forgettable (the first single "Black Or White"). Jackson himself produced two feel-good numbers: the dreadful, treacly "Heal The World" and the Free Willy theme "Will You Be There," with a lovely chorus-sung melody (lifted from a Protestant hymn, I believe) over a New Jack groove. Overall, not nearly as imaginative or consistent as Jackon's 80s records, but he sure does know how to make a pop record, and there's something here for just about everybody. (DBW)

HIStory (Michael: 1995)
Along the lines of Stevie Wonder's Musiquarium, this two-CD set is mostly greatest hits, but the few new tunes are strong: the R. Kelly ballad "You Are Not Alone"; "Earth Song"; "Scream," a duet with Janet produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. That song and "They Don't Care About Us," which courted controversy with its ambiguous use of ethnic slurs, showed a new angrier side of Jackson, while "Childhood" showed a whinier side. Sales were "disappointing," which at his level of popularity means only a few million people bought it. (DBW)

Blood On The Dance Floor (Michael: 1997)
A remix album; again, there are a couple of new songs to snare collectors. (DBW)

Invincible (Michael: 2001)
Released after innumerable delays, Jackson's last pre-posthumous charttopper is a desultory effort, with lazily looped backing tracks built on a narrow spectrum of muted synth tones and almost nothing else - hardly any orchestra, guitars or anything live-sounding - nearly all at the same middling speed ("Heartbreaker," one of two tracks showcasing substar rapper Fats). The compositions are just as cursory, with melodies so familiar you can't even say where you've heard them before (the piano vamp in "Unbreakable," basic as it is, is near the peak). No surprises in the themes either: Won't Someone Think Of The Children ("The Lost Children"); Leave Michael Alone ("Privacy," with Slash again); Vague, Unconvincing Romantic Declaration ("You Rock My World," produced with Rodney Jerkins). There's one glowing exception: the haunting, sharply etched "Whatever Happens" - fine playing from guest Carlos Santana isn't even the track's highlight. (DBW)

Michael (Michael: 2010)
The first posthumous release is the subject of a fair amount of controversy, because the estate and various producers have been cagey about just what processing and treatment Michael's demo and guide vocals were subjected to in the course of crafting releasable tracks. And judging from the audible evidence, Jackson's vault yielded everything from basic sketches ("(I Like) The Way You Move Me") to completed tracks ("Keep Your Head Up," continuing his series of melancholy "don't give up" anthems). Producers, including Riley, furnish the subdued sound - swelling orchestra on the slow songs, looped drums and spare synth on the fast ones - that was Jackson's post-Bad pattern, and his vocals are as fluid and emotive as ever, though he never opens up the throttle. Ultimately the problem isn't the source of the vocals, it's that Michael wasn't putting much attention on songwriting: the dance tracks ("Behind The Mask") and sad songs ("Much Too Soon") are depressingly ordinary. The two standout tracks - "Monster," one of multiple attacks on an unnamed Hollywood mogul, with horror film imagery recalling "Thriller"; the funk/rock "(I Can't Make It) Another Day" - aren't groundbreaking, but do lift the release out of the ghoulish cash-in category. (DBW)

Don't stop till you get enough.

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