The 15 Best George Michael Songs

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The 15 Best George Michael Songs

When I was eight years old, my mother was forced to give me “the talk.” “I Want Your Sex,” the lead single from George Michael's solo debut, Faith, was in heavy rotation on MTV during the summer of 1987. I approached my mom, wide-eyed, and asked, “What's monogamy?” Michael writes the word in red lipstick on the naked back of his then-girlfriend, model Kathy Jeung. Quick on her feet, my mother offered a thoughtful, albeit predictably heteronormative, answer: “It's when a man and a woman are married.”

Over a decade later, Michael's “Outside” introduced my teenage brain to “cottaging” long before I even knew there was a term for it. A tongue-in-cheek response to the singer's arrest for soliciting sex in a public restroom in 1998, the song prompted Michael to finally come out as gay. The former Wham! frontman's sexuality, of course, had been grist for the rumor mill for years, and for those who cared to notice, his ambivalence was delicately documented in his lyrics. For an adolescent or teenage fan questioning his or her sexuality, Michael's reluctance—or inability—to go public made him easier to identity with than, say, a bold, out-and-proud performer.

Even as he began to slowly reveal himself to his fans, though, Michael began to retreat from the public eye. His refusal to appear in his own music videos seemed audacious and cocky, predating Eddie Vedder's rejection of the media hype surrounding grunge in the wake of Kurt Cobain's suicide. Michael's protest resulted in some of the most visually striking and powerful music videos of the 1990s, including “Praying for Time,” “Freedom! '90,” “Too Funky,” and “Killer/Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”

A contractual dispute with Sony Music meant nearly six years would pass between Michael's sophomore effort, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, and 1996's Older, an album that's been largely overlooked in the celebrations of Michael's career in the days following the 53-year-old's death on Christmas day. That album's singles, three of which appear on our list of Michael's best songs, capped off a decade of the some of the most ambitious, genre-defying pop music by one of the world's most reluctant gay icons. Sal Cinquemani

15

“Freeek!”

The kinky leather daddy to the comparably vanilla “I Want Your Sex,” the similarly squelchy “Freeek!,” from 2004's Patience, is a virtual-reality tour through cybersex fantasy and webcam exhibitionism. If the former song feels kitschy in all its time-stamped Casio keyboard glory, “Freeek!” is thumping and robust, a strapping dance track built around samples of Aaliyah's “Try Again” and Kool & the Gang's “N.T.” by way of Q-Tip's “Breathe and Stop.” Cinquemani

14

“Monkey”

On the surface a finely constructed bit of straightforward '80s dance-pop, given extra edge by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (fresh off their instantly iconic work on Janet Jackson's Control). Then the frustration evident in Michael's lyrics starts moving from exasperated to, ultimately, over it. Maybe it's a song written from both sides of the closet door, or maybe it's a little more universal than that—an anthem for anyone who's ever loved someone who isn't willing or able to meet in the middle. No monkey business here. Eric Henderson

13

“Praying for Time”

When I was a child, I misinterpreted a lyric in “Praying for Time”—“Turned his back and all God's children crept out the back door”—by mishearing “and” as “on,” suggesting God turned his back on his people and crept out the back door, not the other way around. It's an insinuation befitting a modern-day “Imagine” that trades John Lennon's optimism with world-weary despair. (It's also a comment on how cynical I already was at just 10 years old.) My recent discovery that that's not, in fact, what Michael sings was initially disappointing, but as 2016 comes to a close, the accusation that God's children have abandoned all that is just—bolstered by lines like “The rich declare themselves poor”—seems more prescient than ever. Cinquemani

12

“Fastlove”

An ode to one-night stands, nostalgically dressed up in the sultry disco stylings of a period when such things weren't potentially fatal, 1996's “Fastlove” pulses with a sullen undercurrent. The song was written in the wake of the AIDS-related death of Michael's lover, and though the lyrics seem to push back against the oppressiveness of heteronormativity (“My friends got their ladies, they all have babies/But I just wanna have some fun”), “Fastlove” ultimately reveals Michael's pursuit of pleasure to be an attempt to soothe his grief: “In the absence of security, I made my way into the night/Stupid Cupid keeps on callin' me, but I see nothin' in his eyes/I miss my baby.” Cinquemani

11

“Star People ’97”

The album version of “Star People” was a little too starched to fully embody Michael's bad faith in the celebrity machine. The '97 remix loosens up the straps and cuts a much nastier rug, like a dance-floor Maps to the Stars. Michael spitting taunts of “Maybe your mama gave you up boy/Maybe your daddy didn't love you enough girl” would sound like victim-blaming in any other context, but by the time the song explodes into an extended outro vamp accompanied by a replayed vamp from the Gap Band's “Burn Rubber On Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me),” it's clear Michael himself knows all too well the sting they feel. Henderson

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