George Michael 

Patience (Aegean/Epic)

Patience is George Michael's best album since the mega-selling Faith made him a superstar in the late 1980s. Alternating uptempo tracks (like "Amazing," the memorably hooked leadoff single) with more contemplative numbers, it showcases a candid, thoughtful artist who no longer hides from his homosexuality. Eight years since his last album, six years since the arrest for lewd conduct that outed him, Michael is crafting some of the best music of his career.

Despite its glossiness, Patience feels authentic and heartfelt. Michael's supple, bluesy voice, which made tunes such as "Careless Whisper" and "Father Figure" so haunting, is flexible enough to animate tunes as disparate as the ballad "American Angel" (about his lover), the urgent, revelatory "Round Here" and "Freeek! '04," a techno pumper with a harsh, weary worldview. Michael isn't pulling punches here; beneath the highly refined production and the startlingly contemporary beats is a dual -- but not contradictory -- message: Dance to the world, but take it seriously too. Far more than a comeback, this album affirms Michael's complexity with variety, assurance and an unerring sense of pop form. Patience was well worth waiting for.

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