Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Warts and All

***

MICHAEL JACKSON
The Ultimate Collection
Epic/Legacy

On career-spanning box set, the King of Pop grows up, freaks out

This well-selected phantasmagoria of hits, alternate takes, unreleased songs, demos and remixes traces an arc not just of promise fulfilled and outlived, but of something close to tragedy: A phenomenally ebullient child star tops himself like none before, only to transmute into a lost weirdo.

Until his fourth solo album as an adult, Dangerous, Jackson's immense originality, adaptability and ambition generate genius beats, hooks, arrangements and vocals (though not lyrics). This is no less true of 1970's "ABC" than of 1979's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" or 1991's "Black or White." While inventing sounds never heard before, he changes with the times, from Top 40 to disco, funk to new-jack swing.

But as his troubling life gets away from him in the '90s, so does his music. The fourth disc wisely downplays his intermittent belief that the next step in his progress was CÚline Dion, and two tracks from 2001's underrated Invincible prove he hasn't lost his sense of rhythm. But theme statements like R. Kelly's endless "You Are Not Alone" and Free Willy 2's regrettable "Childhood" are quietly yucky, and the four new songs are bland, forced or both. The big finale opposes war.

The DVD, a 1992 concert, is of course de trop (though check the fluid "Thriller"-"Billie Jean" set), and one must ask why, oh Lord, the mawkish 1972 hit "Ben" rather than the sprightly "Rockin' Robin." But the classics are perfectly picked, and most of the bait cuts are engaging, with standouts like the loose "Shake a Body" and the ape-aided "Monkey Business" much more. Still, most of us will access Jackson's history in its full original glory playing Thriller, Off the Wall, Dangerous and Bad when we want to remember.

Blender, Dec. 2004