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Michael Jackson

The Ultimate Collection (Epic)

The power of association cannot be denied. Whether Mikey likes it or not (and I can guarantee that he does not), the prevalence of tabloid headlines and news reports about his allegedly freaky behavior makes it well nigh impossible to assess this four-CD boxed set objectively. After all, nearly every song invites a double reading -- not only "Bad" and "Smooth Criminal," but also "Childhood," replete with lines such as "Before you judge me, try hard to love me" that come across as simultaneously whiny and disturbing. And while including a bonus DVD was a good idea, choosing one from "The Dangerous Tour" doesn't qualify as canny marketing. I mean, how literally does M.J. want parents to take that old maxim about locking up their kids before the pop star comes to town?

Quite a few tunes on Ultimate sound as good or better than ever -- among them the Jackson 5's fare (especially "Dancing Machine") and many early solo smashes ("Off the Wall" really is). A lot of the overplayed stuff, from "Billie Jean" to "The Way You Make Me Feel," holds up okay, too. Unfortunately, disc four catalogues a decade-plus decline; the name of the final cut, "We've Had Enough," feels entirely appropriate. Someday, perhaps, we'll be able to appreciate these latter-day offerings instead of seeing them as indicative of a once-laudable artist's sad decline into narcissism and creepiness. But today is not that day.

 
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