Music Review: Michael Jackson - Bad 25 - 25th Anniversary Edition (3-CD/1-DVD)

To commemorate the quarter-century mark of this classic album, Epic/Legacy Recordings has assembled a terrific set.

By , Contributor

It’s been 25 years since Michael Jackson unleashed Bad, his follow-up to the best selling album of all time, Thriller. With five consecutive Billboard number one hits, Bad managed to overcome somewhat mixed critical reaction, eventually selling somewhere between 30 and 45 million copies worldwide. Quincy Jones produced the album, the third and final time he would fulfill that role on a Jackson release. Epic/Legacy Recordings has put together an outstanding box set that includes the remastered original album, a disc of outtakes, alternate versions, and remixes, plus a complete (and previously unreleased) concert from the Bad tour on DVD and CD.

The album remains a classic collection of sterling pop songs with enough hits that it almost plays like a “best of” collection. Jackson was at peak level songwriting-wise, responsible for nine of the 11 tracks. Only the self-improvement anthem “Man in the Mirror” (a potentially treacly song that only Jackson could convincingly sell) and the disposable “Just Good Friends” were contributed by outside writers. The latter is a duet with Stevie Wonder that is unfortunately the weakest thing on the record. It’s easy to see why Jackson chose to record Siedah Garrett’s uplifting “Mirror” (Garrett also duets with him on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”). But “Just Good Friends” is a piece of junk that is far beneath the two great artists who sing it.

For the most part, the album sizzles with unforgettable hooks. Yes, the overall sound forever brands it as a product of 1987, but luckily Jones didn’t layer on more than what was needed (unlike some of the producers Jackson would go on to work with). Jackson’s vocals are jaw-dropping throughout, whether caressing a ballad like “Liberian Girl” or rocking out on “Dirty Diana.” With 25 years separating Bad from whatever post-Thriller expectations once surrounded it, the album works better than ever.

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The bonus audio on the second disc runs about one hour. The first six tracks, all written by Jackson, are the most interesting. They’re previously unreleased demo versions of songs that didn’t make the final cut. As the liner notes make clear, no additional production work was added to the raw recordings. In fact, in cases where Jackson himself returned to a track to continue working on it, only the Bad-era original recordings were used. That was a smart choice, given the justifiably controversial reaction to the overproduced mess that was the posthumous album Michael (2010). Here we get a fascinating glimpse at true works-in-progress.

It kicks off with the mid-tempo, piano-driven “Don’t Be Messin’ ‘Round.” Too bad he didn’t finish this one off, it would’ve made a far better duet vehicle for him and Stevie Wonder. With a Latin-tinged groove, it even recalls Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing.” The lyrics are far from finished, but it’s a very cool track with a killer hook. “I’m So Blue” is a pretty, melodic ballad with a confident Jackson vocal. The verses are far more fleshed out than on the previous track, though he hadn’t come up with lyrics for the chorus yet.

Things get super interesting with the edgy dance number “Song Groove (a.k.a. Abortion Papers),” starting with the title itself. The liner notes explain, “The song is about a girl whose father is a priest…She gets married in the church but decides, against the Bible, to have an abortion.” It features a searing vocal by Jackson, passionately belting out the chorus, “Those abortion papers/Signing your name against the word of God.” From what I can tell (since the lyrics aren’t always easy to understand), this isn’t a pro-life screed, but rather a meditation on the girl’s internal struggle with her decision. The song is likely to inspire some discussion or even debate among fans.

“Free” is a mellow piece of smooth pop. The soaring chorus is fully formed and Jackson harmonizes beautifully with himself, but the verses were still sketchy in this demo. It ends with Jackson breaking up in a fit of laughter. “Price of Fame” is possibly the most fully finished of the outtakes, and it’s a great song that would’ve fit perfectly on the album. The liner notes include a quote regarding the lyrics, taken from Jackson’s work notes, that says the song is about “the girls who are over-obsessed with me, who follow me, who almost make me kill myself in my car.”

It’s immediately clear from the herky-jerky rhythms that “Al Capone” would later evolve into “Smooth Criminal,” but it’s different enough to function as a song in its own right. Next up are the three songs that appeared on the 2001 reissue of Bad, “Streetwalker,” “Fly Away,” and “Todo Mi Amor Eres Tu” (the Spanish version of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”). If you haven’t heard “Streetwalker” before, you’re in for a treat as this is definitely an album-worthy cut. The French version of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” "Je Ne Veux Pas La Fin De Nous,” is thrown in for good measure. That’s where the bonus disc effectively ends for me, as I have zero interest in the three all-new remixes (two of “Bad” and one of “Speed Demon”). Surely the vaults must have held more interesting original outtake material that could’ve been used instead of these.

Perhaps the best part of Bad 25 is the full concert recorded live at London’s Wembley Stadium, July 16, 1988. For the DVD, the video footage was sourced from Jackson’s personal VHS copy of the Jumbotron broadcast that the capacity crowd saw that night (the only known copy to exist). That means, obviously, that we aren’t dealing with anything close to modern visual standards. But thankfully it’s a highly watchable picture, generally unblemished by the typical dropouts and such that mar old VHS tapes. Even better, the audio was sourced from the original multitrack soundboard recordings. It’s been remixed and is presented as an excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.

After a brief bit of news footage showing rabid fans charging into Wembley and Jackson meeting Prince Charles and Princess Diana (who attended the concert), the nearly two-hour show hits the ground running with “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” This is simply prime Michael Jackson. He’s in fantastic voice throughout, always in control of his instrument—even during the most delicate moments, such as “She’s Out of My Life.”

I’d list some highlights, but at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the whole thing functions as a highlight. This concert is relatively stripped down visually, making it a perfect contrast to the more elaborately produced Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour DVD. It’s a kick seeing Sheryl Crow, who was a back-up singer on the Bad tour, getting an early taste of the spotlight as she duets on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” Older tunes like “Working Day and Night” and The Jacksons’ “This Place Hotel” sit well with the then-contemporary Bad material. Jackson’s dancing is as mesmerizing as ever, on full display during tunes such as “Smooth Criminal” and, of course, “Billie Jean.”

The DVD also includes, as a bonus track, a performance of “The Way You Make Me Feel” from the night before, July 15, 1988. Also added as a bonus are performances of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Bad,” taped at Japan’s Yokohama Stadium in September, 1987.

The entire setlist, minus the extended “Bad Groove” jam section that Jackson is offstage for, is included on CD. This is his first-ever officially released solo live album. A little trimming was done to fit all the songs onto one disc, but the editing doesn’t negatively impact the listenability. This concert makes for a great live album because unlike so many live recordings that are tweaked to death, practically sounding like studio recordings, this retains a very “live” feel.

With interesting extra tracks, outstanding live material, and the new remixes kept to a relative minimum, Bad 25 thoroughly trounces 2008’s Thriller 25. The sturdy (yet lightweight and compact) box also holds two separate booklets, loaded with liner notes and cool photos (my favorite is a shot of Jackson with Robert De Niro on the set of the “Smooth Criminal” video). This is a superb package that only enhances the legacy of Bad and of Michael Jackson as an artist.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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