Back when George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley were the British duo Wham! -- the New Kids on the Block of 1984 -- they were regularly attacked as the pinup boys of prefab fluff. Then, when Michael launched his solo career in 1988, he was suddenly acclaimed a pop genius because he had added a thin veneer of sophistication to the same contagious dance-pop he had served up in Wham!

It's a familiar pop music story. Rock critics, whose function in life is based on the assumption that pop records have meaning, will turn viciously on teeny-boppers who blithely ignore it, but will embrace the same stars as populist heroes if they just add some trite symbolism about religion, family or class. Consider the example of Madonna.

Musician Magazine summed up the dilemma when it headlined a 1988 article "George Michael: Artist or Airhead?" Though the temptation is to answer "Both!" a more accurate response is "Neither." Michael is no dummy, but he doesn't have a lot to say either. What he is is a terrific singer and pop craftsman -- more an artisan than an artist. He's an heir to the tradition of the Dell-Vikings, the Shangri-Las, the Supremes, the Dave Clark Five, the Bee Gees, Elton John, Hall & Oates and Culture Club -- acts that combined unforgettable melodies with irresistible rhythms for pure pop pleasure.

Unfortunately, Michael has been misled by his own press, and he spoils the otherwise pure pop pleasures of his new album, "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" (Columbia), with awkward attempts at meaning. The title itself has a defensive ring to it, as if lingering prejudice from the Wham! days prevented listeners from perceiving Michael as the new Marvin Gaye. The "Vol. 1" is also worrisome, implying that Michael's new-found pompousness might go on for untold volumes to come.

The album gets off to a bad start with "Praying for Time," whose synthesizers seethe with would-be profundity as Michael huskily pronounces pretentious lyrics such as: "This is the year of the hungry man, whose place is in the past, hand in hand with ignorance and legitimate excuses." Also suffering from minimal melody and maximum seethe are "Cowboys and Angels" (a pontifical warning against dishonest lovers) and "Mother's Pride" (a dreary anti-war parable).

Michael ruins more than one song by letting unedited verses repeat again and again before he gets to the payoff of the chorus. For example, there's a great Elton John single, with a catchy piano riff and an inviting Latin percussion figure, buried in Michael's "Freedom 90," whose verses go on and on and on about the hard life of being a pop star. And there's a good Elton John ballad hidden in Michael's "Waiting for the Day," which keeps the listener waiting for the release.

Michael is much better off when he confines himself to straightforward romantic situations and lets his big, expressive voice do its work. When he makes a simple plea to his lover for honesty on "Something to Save," his ballad vocal takes on a theatrical grandeur amid the cellos and heavy echo, recalling those old Righteous Brothers singles. When he tries to comfort a broken-hearted woman on "Heal the Pain," his effortless purr, his bouncy conga beat and his perky melody recall Paul McCartney's early solo singles. The most effective seduction number is "Soul Free," which features a chunky pop-funk beat and short come-on lines breathily sung.

Michael is a talented guy -- that's obvious from his marvelous live performance of Stevie Wonder's "They Won't Go When I Go," which is the highlight of the album. Accompanied by just a piano, Michael digs into the melody and pulls all the feeling out of it. If he would only realize just what his talent is (devising pop singles and singing the hell out of them) and what it isn't (making major statements or creating formal innovations), we would get the pleasure without the distractions.

Andrew Ridgeley: 'Son of Albert' On the other hand, Andrew Ridgeley, Michael's ex-partner in Wham!, has no apparent talent whatsoever. That hasn't stopped him from co-writing, co-producing and co-arranging most of the songs on his long-dreaded debut solo album, "Son of Albert" (Columbia). The results are the kind of pedestrian hard rock you can hear in any Beltway nightclub from anonymous musicians who didn't enjoy the accidental fortune of being George Michael's school chum. Michael helps out his old friend by singing harmony on one cut and by lending three musicians from his own band for Ridgeley's sessions. Unfortunately, the music doesn't resemble the dance-pop of Michael's solo work or even the old Wham! albums. Instead Ridgeley serves up big-beat, tuneless hard rock in the vein of Power Station, the Duran Duran spin-off band.

Ridgeley, who played guitar and sang harmony in the Wham! shows, plays no guitar and sings lead on this album. He manages to sing his own minimal melodies with no emotional investment or personality at all. Even his butchered versions of the Everly Brothers' "The Price of Love" and Chic's "Hangin' " far outclass his seven originals. Ridgeley still has his pinup eyebrows, though.

Breathe: 'Peace of Mind' David Glasper, the singer-songwriter-leader of the British pop trio Breathe, is clearly trying to follow in George Michael's footsteps. Glasper is pinup photogenic; his strong, sensual voice sounds a lot like Stevie Wonder's; and he's trying to escape the past of his Top 10 bubblegum-soul hits ("Hands to Heaven" and "Don't Tell Me Lies") with a new, more ambitious album. Unfortunately, that album, "Peace of Mind" (A&M), is even more pretentious and less satisfying than Michael's.

The problem is that Glasper has no knack for a dance-pop hook. The songs are all buildup and no payoff. Most of them follow the same pattern: mid-tempo, sleep-inducing drum programs overlaid with voices, synths and horns that drift leisurely without ever quite forming a memorable melody.

One song blends into the next, forming a sort of aural wallpaper that's pleasant in the background but never demands more attention. Not that anyone should pay much attention to puerile poesy such as this: "As mother nature makes her seasons go by, both our lives are just as deeply entwined; all the oceans' waters flow into one."