Right, he was the King of Pop and all that stuff, but Michael Jackson was a capital-A album artist through and through once Quincy Jones stepped in. It’s not patently absurd to imagine someone with an hour of free time wanting to hear “Beat It” alongside “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” instead of setting up “Human Nature” and “P.Y.T.”, but it’s hard to imagine someone craving this sequence enough times to pay for it in a fixed order rather than just taking to Spotify when the mood strikes. Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, and the glorious, bombastic, undervalued Dangerous are all fully realized masterworks of cutting-edge pop maximalism, while the singles off the lesser HIStory and Invincible are fairly up to the same par as the deep cuts surrounding. You’re not getting a new revelation about “Earth Song” or “You Rock My World” by saving them from their intended contexts.
So, of course, a Michael Jackson best-of sells, but it’s a misnomer. His bests are Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous. Few argue. There was just enough time in between these monuments for each to be events in themselves. Madonna’s Immaculate Collection is a blessed mixtape from the gods after boiling down mostly good records to the essentials, and she did learn to make essentials of her own shortly after. Jackson’s discography divvies up neatly on its own.
So when Scream was first brought to our attention in September, it was looking to follow This Is It and Xscape into his non-pantheon of outtakes digs that rarely rose to the occasion of lone buried classic “Love Never Felt So Good”, and it turned out to be even less essential: another compilation. However, this one’s got some teeth (and balls), as a “Halloween-themed” collection that usefully corrals the man’s darkest and spookiest fare into a pretty convincing and sonically fluid totality of its own. For one thing, just four of Scream’s 14 songs come from the aforementioned great albums, which leaves 10 songs that actually stand a chance of improving on their original home, and they actually do.
Partly, this is because non-solo Jackson tunes are wisely included: Rockwell’s 1984 hit “Somebody’s Watching Me” and two of the Jacksons’ best tunes are reconstituted betwixt “Thriller” and “Leave Me Alone” to give their minor-key menace a flow. The horn-y “Xscape”, first unveiled in 2014, is given a chance to shine in its Prince-circa-Come way, while overtaxed 2001 swan song Invincible gets its excellent bookends, “Unbreakable” and “Threatened”, subsumed into something greater (though it’s not clear what the former, a not-spooky-at-all Biggie duet, is doing here). It doesn’t take much to pry the famed Janet duet “Scream” from the jaws of HIStory’s mediocrity.
But the biggest surprise of all may be the two tracks from 1997’s completely ignored Blood on the Dance Floor remix/mixed bag, the proto-Lady Gaga theater of “Blood on the Dance Floor” and the nearly P.E.-discordant “Ghosts” injected with new life in such A-list company. The consistent click of the new jack-inspired funk rhythms and total lack of ballads really do add up to a decent Halloween party with a consistent feel and steely momentum. Absurd as the package and its very existence are, it’s not misbegotten; you can hear the function it serves and the holiday conceit makes it fairly possible to imagine someone picking it up at Wal-Mart at the last minute along with their candy and decorations rather than going to the trouble to sort out a playlist. The bar for this sort of cash-grab is low enough that Scream clears it rather easily. It is in fact a scream, and it makes a case to revisit Jackson’s lesser works even as it cherry-picks from them. That’s almost enough to recommend plunking down cash for it. Almost.
Essential Tracks: “Ghosts”, “Threatened”, and “Somebody’s Watching Me”