When people talk about the career of Michael Jackson, a lot of them forget the period between the Jackson 5’s amazing original success and the time Michael went supernova with “Off the Wall”. The reasons for that are somewhat valid. The hits weren’t exactly plentiful during that period, and Michael and his brothers were struggling to find their artistic identity. However, one shouldn’t give The Jacksons (as they were named following their departure from Motown Records) short shrift. In competition with bands like Earth Wind & Fire and former opening act The Commodores in the late Seventies, they bloomed once they were allowed to write and produce their own material, resulting in 1978’s “Destiny” and 1980’s “Triumph”. Those two albums come on either side of Michael’s solo breakthrough with “Off the Wall”, and are among the most solid albums of their time period. Both albums recently got the reissue treatment from Legacy Recordings, and both are well worth the time it takes to listen (or re-listen, as the case may be) to them.

“Destiny” proved not only to be the brothers’ (Michael, Marlon, Jackie, Tito and Randy) artistic breakthrough, but it was also their commercial breakthrough, becoming their first Platinum-certified album. It spawned two of disco’s most enduring tunes: the bubbly “Blame it on the Boogie” and the stone-cold “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”, but there’s plenty more to the album than the two hit singles. From a vocal standpoint, Michael’s rarely sounded better. At age 20, he was finally in full control of his voice, and had become an amazingly versatile singer, as evidenced by “Destiny”’s standout ballad, “Push Me Away”. Michael navigates the sumptuous maze of guitar and strings beautifully, floating from his regular voice into an effortless falsetto. Conversely, he stakes his claim as one of the best rhythmic singers of all time with the frantic “All Night Dancin’”. If anyone doubts that Michael is a true soul singer, they should try that song on for size.

It’s very easy, with thirty years hindsight, to listen to the songs on “Destiny” and play armchair psychiatrist. Many of the songs on the album have lyrics that seem to come directly from Michael’s dissatisfaction with his celebrity. “Things I Do for You” bemoans users and demands reciprocity, while the folky title track (which could have easily become a James Taylor track!) contains lyrics that, in light of Michael’s well-known flair for the ostentatious, can now be seen as ironic. “If it’s the rich life, I don’t want it” he sings. “Happiness ain’t always material things”. “Destiny”’s closing track, “That’s What You Get (For Being Polite)”, is probably the  most interesting and weird. Michael sings about a boy named Jack, a horribly insecure person who has built his own world around him. Again, it’s very easy to read and hear lyrics like the ones to this song and see a direct parallel to the person Michael has become. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop “Destiny” from being the brothers’ most exciting album. The reissue adds two bonus disco mixes, including the classic dance version of “Shake Your Body” that must have rocked clubs back in ‘79.

After “Destiny”, Michael finally felt the confidence to go on his own, partnering with Quincy Jones and making musical history with “Off the Wall”. So The Jacksons’ 1980 effort, “Triumph”, is the aural equipment of a victory lap. The brothers’ chests are puffed out on this album, from the strtting save-the-world anthem “Can You Feel It” to Michael’s eerie, mysterious “Heartbreak Hotel”. In retrospect, it’s easy to see those two songs as precursors to songs like “Man in the Mirror” and “Billie Jean”, respectively, and they are two of “Triumph”’s strongest tracks. However, the rest of the album’s no slouch. Michael graciously allows his brothers to contribute more vocally than they had on past albums, resulting in the itchy funk of Jackie’s “Wondering Who” and the easygoing vibe and pretty harmonies of “Give it Up”, on which lead vocals are shared by Michael and Marlon. Of course, being that “Triumph” followed “Off the Wall”, there’s a bit of similarity between the two. The lonely ballad “Time Waits for No One” should rightfully be compared to “OTW”’s “She’s Out of My Life”, while “Everybody” is a note-for-note rip of “Get on the Floor”, down to repeating some of the same lyrics. However, The Jacksons were so bright eyed and eager to make good music that you can forgive the occasional spots of laziness. Speaking of lazy, the folks that compiled this reissue couldn’t come up with any old photos to put in the booklet or come with bonus tracks better than the single version of “Heartbreak Hotel” and the 12” remix of “Walk Right Now”? Come on guys!

If you were listening back when these albums came out, “Thriller” shouldn’t have surprised you. Along with “Off the Wall”, “Destiny” and “Triumph” are audio equivalents to a slow burning stick of dynamite that exploded when “Thriller” was recorded and released. These albums may not have been as big as Michael’s best solo material, but they deserve your attention just the same. Combining disco, funk, soul and pop into an irrestible stew, these albums established The Jacksons as worthy competition to any of the era’s popular R&B bands and killed the image, once and for all, of them as a teenybopper/bubblegum group.

If you already have these albums, buy them again. The remastered sound alone is worth the extra bucks you’ll be shelling out. If you don’t have these albums and you fancy yourself a Michael Jackson fan or a fan of disco-infused soul, you should grab these too. Not only are they worthy additions to your collection, but Tito probably needs the money.