George Michael may not have had a discography to rival his fellow peers like Madonna and Prince — he released only five studio albums as a solo artist; three with Wham! — but his influence on pop music is undeniable. He scored two Grammys, eight No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, four MTV VMAs, and sold more than an estimated 100 million records worldwide. With news that the boundary-pushing icon died Sunday at the age of 53, EW is looking back on just a few of the songs that made him so special.
“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” 1984
“I wanna hit that hiiiiiiiigh!” Thirty-two years after its release, Wham!’s first major hit can still turn any disco into a glorious, jitterbugging party.
“Careless Whisper,” 1984
Released on Wham!’s 1984 album Make It Big, “Careless Whisper” set the stage for Michael to become a sex symbol for the ’80s — and it still packs one of the most memorable saxophone hooks in pop.
“Last Christmas,” 1984
Next to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You, it’s perhaps the most iconic holiday pop song of the modern era. And Michael wrote and produced this seductive trifle himself.
It starts with pious church organs, but it’s hardly overblown. Instead, Michael used the first track from his first solo album, Faith, to worship at the altar of his rock and roll influences: namely, Bo Diddley, whose signature Bo Diddley Beat gives this tune its driving pulse.
“I Want Your Sex,” 1987
“I Want Your Sex” might seem positively G-rated today, but Michael’s most explicit song about doing the deed was wildly controversial in 1987, the height of the AIDS epidemic in America. The BBC banned it from daytime playlists, U.S. radio stations refused to add it, and Tipper Gore, founder of the PMRC, no doubt lost sleep over it. Michael, however, insisted at the time that this disco-pop anthem, featured in Beverly Hills Cop II, went beyond celebrating casual sex: “[It’s] about attaching lust to love, not just to strangers.”
“Father Figure,” 1988
Michael released this song years before coming out as gay in 1998, and the iconic video captured fashion model Tania Coleridge as the object of his desire. Still, it’s hard not to hear this ballad as his aching plea for the affection another man — and his vocal performance is one of the most impassioned of his career.
“Freedom! 90,” 1990
“But today the way I play the game is not the same, no way,” Michael whispers, “think I’m gonna get myself happy!” With that simple declarative sentence, he torched the world’s image of him as ’80s pop heartthrob — and he did it with a joyful gospel-tinged celebration. Twenty-six years later, “Freedom! 90” is still an essential rallying cry for just about repressed group seeking comfort, strength, inspiration, and resolve. And that music video — starring every in-demand supermodel from the era? A stone classic.
“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” 1991
If anyone could have matched Elton John on his own material, it was Michael. And the two British pop icons teamed up for a hair-raising duet in 1991, which became a No. 1 hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Too Funky,” 1992
The video for “Too Funky” may not have recaptured the magic of “Freedom! 90” — it starred supermodels like Eva Herzigova and Tyra Banks — but the song is a gloriously shameless pursuit of disco euphoria. Still too funky ’til this day.
“Let Her Down Easy,” 2014
This highlight from Michael’s final album, 2014’s Symphonica, was penned by another fellow pop star from the ’90s: Terence Trent D’Arby, who continues to write and record as Sananda Maitreya. It’s a quiet lullaby, with little more than piano and strings, but it’s a perfect showcase for Michael’s soulful, velvety voice — the likes of which will never be matched again.