There's probably a generation's worth of music fans who know Michael Jackson only as a tabloid headline, and with his much-publicized child-molestation trial looming, that's unlikely to change any time soon.
That's why "The Ultimate Collection," due in stores today, is so welcome. Jackson has released other best-of compilations, most notably "HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1" in 1995, and last year's "Number Ones," which gathered on a single disc many of his chart-topping hits. Yet this new five-disc box set (including a DVD of a 1992 Bucharest concert) is the most comprehensive record so far of Jackson's career, first as a member of the Jackson 5 and then as one of the most successful solo artists in popular music.
If our interest in Jackson now concerns dangled babies and his unsettling friendships with preteen boys, it was Jackson as an entertainer who first held us in his thrall. His influence is immeasurable, and it's impossible to watch either Usher or Justin Timberlake, whether it's their transitions from teen idols to adult performers or how they sing and dance, without acknowledging Jackson as their blueprint.
Of course, both Usher and Timberlake should be lucky enough to have careers that remain as vital as Jackson's did for two decades. Yes, he's been around a lot longer, but it was 1969, when the Jackson 5 released their first (and first No. 1) single, "I Want You Back," through 1991's "Black or White," his last significant hit before he was first accused (though never charged) with child molestation, that constitutes the cream of Jackson's career.
Appropriately, this collection begins where Jackson's career began -- with the prepubescent ache of "I Want You Back," one of the most perfectly-realized pop songs you'll ever hear. Fresh out of Gary, Ind., Jackson, then 11, was already a fully formed star. There was such maturity and control in his falsetto, it was clear he had learned lessons from his elders, especially Jackie Wilson, and learned them well. Though disc 1 mainly features songs from the Jackson 5/Jacksons era, including "ABC," "Enjoy Yourself," and "Dancing Machine," there are some unforgivable omissions, such as "The Love You Save," "Goin' Back to Indiana," and "Can You Feel It." (All of which makes the need for a multidisc box set with just the Michael-Marlon-Jermaine-Tito-Jackie-Randy years overdue.)
There aren't many surprises until track 10, "You Can't Win," which began as a song written for the film version of "The Wiz," in which Jackson played the Scarecrow. Although the shorter cut of the song may be familiar, the seven-minute-plus version included here was released in 1979 as a 12-inch single in England, and it's a revelation. Halfway through the main song, Jackson lets out a whoop, and the tune evolves from a pop-soul confection into a true R&B delight, spiced with barking horns and hand-claps as funky and loose as anything Jackson has ever done. (Jackson completists will recognize this part of the song as the B side of the "Thriller" single, released under the title "Can't Get Outta the Rain.")
A few more such surprises would have been appreciated, although there are several enjoyable demo versions of well-known songs, including a take in which Jackson and his brothers play around with harmonies and lyrics for what would become "Shake Your Body." On disc 2, there's an early version of the famine-relief charity song "We Are the World," with only Jackson's tremulous vocals and backing track, singing lyrics that changed once the song became a celebrity-thon featuring such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, and Bob Dylan.
By the time you get to disc 3, something becomes rather apparent: Four CDs simply aren't enough to adequately cover Jackson's astonishing career. "Thriller" is represented with six of its nine original tracks, including a demo version of "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," but more attention should have been paid to such a monumental album. It would have been fascinating to hear alternate versions of "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," two songs that helped define an era.
As this set rolls on, Jackson's music devolves from astonishing to good. There's certainly nothing wrong with songs like "The Way You Make Me Feel" or "Smooth Criminal," but later in his career, Jackson opted for the clipped vocal affectations that may have been instantly recognizable, but stripped away the insouciant glow and warmth of his earlier records.
Save for the beautiful ballad "Stranger in Moscow," disc 4 has the herky-jerky rhythms of a star grasping to remain relevant, such as with the borrowed rap from the Notorious B.I.G. on "Unbreakable." If Jackson hadn't spent the last 20 years trying to top "Thriller," he might have trusted his once-sure musical instincts -- it was Jackson, after all, who arranged such gems as "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "Billie Jean" -- and shunned the assembly-line feel that comes with hired-gun producers such as Rodney Jerkins on "You Rock My World."
Still, much of "The Ultimate Collection" stuns and amazes, even with songs heard dozens, probably hundreds of times. Like Elvis Presley's music, Jackson's music first garnered our attention, and that's what will remain potent after the punch lines and headlines have faded. Jackson was the King of Pop long before his publicists anointed him with the sobriquet, and he still deserves the title, at least until another artist can match Jackson's talent and innovation instead of merely imitating him. But if the "The Ultimate Collection" is any indication, it's highly unlikely that will ever happen.