When George Michael was riding high on the charts, only a handful of critics acknowledged that he was a brilliant mainstream pop singer/songwriter who, at his best, rivaled his idol Elton John in crafting state-of-the-art pop songs and productions. For nearly a full decade, he was a superstar in his native U.K. and the U.S., and even when Older failed to win an American audience, he retained his stranglehold on the British and European charts. As a solo male hitmaker, virtually nobody could touch him between 1984 and 1994, and even when his grasp began to slip, he still made compelling music. All of this is proven by his first hits compilation, Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael. Spanning two discs, 28 songs, and two distinctive halves -- one "For the Heart" (ballads), one "For the Feet" (dance tunes) -- the collection is a monster, as impressive for its size as it is for its achievements. To some casual listeners, the sheer scope of the collection may seem overwhelming, since it doesn't just have the hits, but also rarities, compilation tracks, lesser-known singles, and duets. Of course, that's precisely what makes it worthwhile for anyone who owns all the albums. (They'll also be interested that many of the mixes sound slightly different -- as if the masters were run through the antiquated "Q Sound" process that marred Madonna's similar Immaculate Collection.) And some skeptics may be swayed after listening to the individual discs, which are surprisingly consistent works that reveal forgotten gems, and thereby the true depth of his talent. It is true that listening to both discs in a row is a little exhausting, but there's little question that Ladies & Gentlemen comes close to being definitive.
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When George Michael released Faith in 1987, he surprised everyone who had expected just the usual teen bubblegum from the creative half of the British pop duo Wham! What they discovered, in songs like "Faith" and "I Want Your Sex," was a prodigious, Prince-like talent in complete charge of his work -- a smart, funky songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who also produced his own tracks. Three years later, with Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, Michael tried to downplay image in favor of music, although he amusingly confused his message by casting the video for his terrific "Freedom '90" with lip-synching supermodels. Now that Michael seems better known for his travails with the Los Angeles police than for his catalogue, this collection is a timely effort to focus attention back where it belongs. Michael has great taste in collaborators (from Aretha Franklin to Astrud Gilberto) and covers (Seal's "Killer," Queen's "Somebody to Love"), as well as a trademark knack for concocting soulful dance-floor grooves. He's always preached a message of sensual liberation and tolerance, and his own recent headlines have only made him braver; the newest song here, "Outside," is a funny and bold challenge to everyone's inner prude. Ladies and Gentlemen is generous in length, well-sequenced, and an excellent career-to-date summation of Michael's work that's bound to move your heart as well as your body.