Michael Jackson

The power of association cannot be denied. Whether Mikey likes it or not, the prevalence of tabloid headlines and news reports about his allegedly scandalous behavior makes it 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." 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?

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

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