George Michael was more than just a pop singer. He was a young gun who wanted you to wake him up before you go go. His voice was a careless whisper that accompanied us every (last) Christmas. He was a musician who had an unwavering faith in his music and strong desire for freedom.
He was an icon and a legend, and from his early Wham! days and his triumphant solo career, down to his controversial lifestyle and views, Michael was a superstar through and through.
Michael, whose real name was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, first rose to stardom in the 1980s as one half of pop duo Wham!, together with guitarist Andrew Ridgeley.
Formed in 1981, Michael and Ridgeley enjoyed a wildly successful career together, which included international smash hits such as Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Last Christmas, Freedom and Everything She Wants.
Considered one of the biggest popstars of the decade, in 1985 Wham! even became the first Western band to play in China, which was a much more impressive feat in that era than it seems today.
After Wham! went their separate ways in 1986, Michael embarked on a solo career that saw him become one of the most successful musicians of all time.
He released his first solo album, Faith, in 1987, which won him an Album Of The Year Grammy, and produced massive hits like Faith, I Want Your Sex, Father Figure, One More Try, and Monkey. He would go on to produce four more studio albums – 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1, 1996’s Older, 1999’s covers album Songs From The Last Century, and 2004’s Patience.
For all his commercial success, his career was also marred by several major issues, including a long, protracted legal battle with Sony Music Entertainment (in which he accused them of “professional slavery”), the loss of his partner Anselmo Feleppa in 1993, and an arrest for public indecency and lewd conduct in 1998, which led to the singer coming out as gay.
Ultimately, Michael will still be best remembered for his music, and a songwriting ability that produced some of the most timeless music of all time.
Here are the 10 tracks that defined his entertainment career.
Young Guns (Go for It!) (1982)
Not exactly the most recognisable Wham! song, but it WAS the then teenaged Michael and Ridgeley’s first ever big hit. Like their first single, Wham! Rap, music fans didn’t quite go for it at first, but a lucky break saw Wham! performing this song on the popular BBC programme Top Of The Pops when another act pulled out. From then on, it was clear Britain had a new star, with Young Guns peaking at No.3 on the British charts that year, and Wham! going on to stamp their mark as one of the world’s biggest pop acts.
Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go (1984)
In 1984, Michael and Ridgeley had everyone hanging on like a yo-yo with this catchy tune and their iconic white “Choose Life” T-shirts in the music video. It became the band’s first No.1 single in Britain and the United States. Really, if you’ve never heard this song before, we don’t want to know which rock you’ve been hiding under.
Careless Whisper (1984)
That iconic saxophone intro riff, Michael’s lovelorn voice, that timeless melody, the oh-so-catchy chorus, the cheesy and somewhat steamy video, and that soaring, emotional bridge at the end … this song is one of those songs that you never forget once you hear it, and will still be able to sing along to even 30 years later.
Fun fact: Although it was actually a Michael solo single, it was released in the US as a single by “Wham! featuring George Michael” because US music fans were more familiar with the Wham! name rather than the singers’ names.
Last Christmas (1984)
How many people can claim to have written a classic timeless Christmas song that would be sung for years to come? Michael’s ear for a classic pop song proved to be golden, and although it was kept out of the No.1 Britain spot by Band Aid at the time, chances are more people around the world know how to sing Last Christmas than Do They Know It’s Christmas?.
I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) (1987)
Post-Wham! and pre-Faith, Michael teamed up with his idol, R&B legend Aretha Franklin, for this one-off single, which hit No.1 in both the US and Britain. The song is as close to a perfect pop duet as you can get, and the contrast between Franklin’s powerful husky vocals and Michael’s more pop-inclined singing made this a classic.
Of course you got to have Faith. Michael’s first solo album was a phenomenal success, winning a Grammy for Album Of The Year in 1989, and spawning six hit singles, including four US No.1s.
While I Want Your Sex is the most infamous hit from the album, and Father Figure got him a nomination for the Best Male Pop Vocal Performance Grammy (which he bizarrely lost to Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy), the standout song has to be the title track. The funk/rock vibes of the song, the catchy rhythm and handclaps, plus Michael’s breathy vocals showed us exactly why we were right to have faith in him. I dare you to listen to this song without tapping your foot even once.
Freedom ‘90 (1990)
Michael’s second solo album, Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1, was notable mostly for his legal battles with Sony over their lacklustre promotion of the album, and the lack of support for his charity efforts. The first single off the album, Praying For Time, was a sombre political tune that peaked at No.1 in the US.
Not to be confused with Wham!’s 1984 song Freedom, Freedom ‘90 may not have been one of Michael’s highest charting songs, but it is definitely one of his signature tunes. The funky, foot-tappingly catchy rhythm may remind you of Faith at first, but the song itself is the best example of Michael’s evolution as a songwriter at the time – the lyrics were a powerful statement from the singer, who was growing disillusioned by his pop star image, and there are so many twists and turns throughout the song that still manages to exhilarate you even after repeated listens, especially when he hits the fist-pumping “FREEDOM!” chorus.
Most people will probably remember the video best, which featured five of the 1990s biggest supermodels – Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford – lip-syncing to the song.
Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me (1991)
Yes, this is actually a cover of a 1974 Elton John song, but Michael made it his own with that epic live version during the Live Aid Concert at London’s Wembley Arena in 1991. Who could forget the moment midway through the song when he introduced John on stage with an emphatic “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Elton John!”?
Jesus To A Child (1996)
After a long legal battle with Sony (which Michael eventually lost), during which the singer refused to release any new albums, he finally switched labels and released Older in 1996, his first album in almost six years.
While the silky, seductive Fastlove was the bigger hit, the standout song from that mellower and more jazz-influenced album was the tender, melancholic Jesus To A Child, which Michael wrote as a tribute to his Brazilian partner Anselmo Feleppa, who had died in 1993 from an AIDS-related brain haemorrhage.
Michael’s later career was marred by controversy, including an arrest for public indecency in 1998. He would eventually return to Sony for his fifth and final studio album, 2004’s Patience. Although the album hit No.1 in Britain’s album charts and the six singles it spawned hardly reached the heights of his earlier material, of the six, Freeek! stands out as the most accessible hit from that album.