Just in time for Christmas--and a slew of lawsuits--comes another reminder that one of the great musical talents of the late 20th century is long past his prime. The Ultimate Collection is a comprehensive five-disc compendium of Michael Jackson's career--including a live DVD and a handful of unreleased material--and yet it's hard to make it past the second CD, which caps off the Thriller era with a swift slide into mediocrity: a demo of the anemic "We Are the World" and "We Are Here to Change the World" from the Disney World debacle, Captain Eo. These two songs sum up the key problem with Jackson's later material, in which the brilliant, supple groove of "Rock With You" is replaced by overwrought vocals and save-the-planet drama. For every "Smooth Criminal" there is a "You Are Not Alone" or "Man in the Mirror" to endure. Hard-core fans--and at this point, is there anything but?--will appreciate extras like "Sunset Driver," a solid disco track that was cut from Off the Wall (a reminder of just how good that album was) and a slow-jam demo of "PYT," but for the rest of us, there's not much here but two CDs of greatest hits we already own and two CDs too growling and histrionic for their own good.
A high point is the Live at Bucharest DVD, which finds the performer in fine form. After years of witnessing Jackson snagged in the media headlights, all hollow eyes and caved-in nose, it's nice to see the man in his element, standing strong and confident, gliding across the stage. It's hard to overstate his influence as an entertainer: This is the blueprint for the careers of Usher, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, R. Kelly. And yet, the DVD is also about 10 years old (for the life of me, I can't find a date in any press materials), kicking off with "Jam" from the 1992 album Dangerous. The crowd is inconsolable, clawing madly at their faces, sobbing as they sing along. I can't help but think of Michael Jackson onstage a few years ago--hand hysterically guarding his face, a grotesquerie of a human. Fortunately, that tragic figure isn't represented anywhere in this box set, a collection that begs us to remember the time...and forget about the rest.
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