This past week commemorates the fifth anniversary of the day we lost the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Keeping in step with the various tributes and memorials taking place, I felt I would honor this legendary musician and performer by delivering the list of his 50 Greatest Songs. Yes, in part, this is a reactionary to some other “lists” that have been recently released that clearly have little grasp on his career. From “I Want You Back” all the way through to the end of his career, everything from singles to album tracks to collaborations were considered, but when you whittle it down, these are the definite 50 best songs he ever recorded.
50. Lookin’ Through The Windows
“Lookin’ Through The Windows” is one of the Jackson 5’s most forgotten hits, but it’s actually one of their best songs. Injected with an early influence of disco, the track creates an incredible landscape of backing vocals and instrumentation, but, of course, it’s Michael’s lead vocals that remain the showstopper here. He just keeps pushing the boundaries of his upper register, and his final belt at the end is absolutely chill-inducing. How someone so young was able to pull this off will always be one of pop’s great mysteries. While there may not particularly be anything iconic or momentous about this track, the execution was so flawless that it sticks out as a fantastic addition to their cannon.
On the whole, Michael Jackson’s Invincible album was a massive disappointment. There were some decent moments, far too many overthought moments, but a couple of real highlights. “Butterflies” was one of only a select few moments worth noting on the whole record. This smooth, daringly modern R&B jam has the same relaxed delivery as some of his more understated Off The Wall and Thriller material, which really exemplifies his natural vocal ability; the way he teases in his falsetto is truly magical. “Butterflies” is a great track no matter how you slice and dice it, but it was never properly given the attention it deserves, even despite willing itself into becoming a decent sized hit in America.
48. Earth Song
Michael Jackson was the master of making powerful, often gospel choir-assisted, ballads with a message. His last great creation of this nature was lifted from the HIStory album, aptly entitled “Earth Song.” This time around, MJ released his anger over man’s mistreatment of our planet, and unlike tracks like “Man In The Mirror” and “Heal The World,” this one doesn’t have a hopeful vision of the future. His frustration is palpable, but it makes for a powerful performance, and possibly the best vocal recording of his adult career. The “what about us?” climax is so incredibly immense that, similarly to the music video, you can almost feel the ground shake. “Earth Song” is Michael at his most invigorated.
47. Leave Me Alone
While not initially included on the Bad album, “Leave Me Alone” ended up as a bonus track of sorts on CD releases. The track was actually so good that it went on to eclipse some of the originally-included album tracks. The song song features one of Michael’s greatest backing vocal arrangements ever, which pairs ingeniously with the bouncy, funk-lite backing track. Lyrically, the track is one of his earliest examples of the paranoia and anger that went on to fuel his albums in the 1990s. It can be interpreted as a direct attack on the media in its own right, but the incredible short film confirms that on its own. “Leave Me Alone” is the kind of song that exemplifies his ability to put together an amazing song.
46. Whatever Happens
There was only one moment on Invincible that truly had the magic of “classic MJ” while still pushing his own boundaries. “Whatever Happens” is not the kind of song you’re going to be able to match with anything else in his career, but that’s what makes it so incredible. Featuring Carlos Santana on guitar, this latin-infused ballad plays into Michael’s natural story telling capability, and the way he delivers his incredibly restrained vocal performance truly brings it to life. There is honestly nothing else in his catalog that sounds like this, but the real win comes in the quality of the final result. For as much of a disappointment that Invincible was, it was almost entirely worth it just for “Whatever Happens.”
45. Maybe Tomorrow
This minor hit for the Jackson 5 absolutely never gets the attention it deserves compared to their well known classics, but “Maybe Tomorrow” is simply one of their best recordings. Michael’s vocal delivery on this is strikingly on point, going from restrained to full on belt, building beautifully along the way. The whole song is just a touching, understated, yet powerful masterpiece that the geniuses at Motown became so good at crafting. There are so many incredible parts to “Maybe Tomorrow,” including a catchy chorus and an incredible arrangement, but the moment that brother Jermaine adds his vocal harmony to the chorus alongside Michael will literally give you goosebumps every time.
44. This Place Hotel
Stupidly renamed from “Heartbreak Hotel” to avoid confusion with an Elvis Presley song that had been released almost 25 years prior, this Jacksons masterpiece was never much of a hit, but it stands out as one of their most popular songs. More or less just a Michael Jackson solo record, this was the kind of song that could have fit in just as nicely on Off The Wall as the Triumph LP released with his brothers. “This Place Hotel” lays the groundwork to one of his most famous lyrical themes, threatening women, but none of his latter tracks ever sounded this infectiously dancy. It’s really no wonder Michael held onto this for his live shows for quite some time after the Jacksons split.
43. She’s Out Of My Life
If you look through Michael’s catalog, you’re going to find that it’s saturated with complex, intricate productions, but one of his most memorable moments is strikingly sparse. “She’s Out Of Life,” another megahit lifted from Off The Wall, is a beautiful lamenting ballad not all dissimilar, lyrically, from “I Want You Back.” Michael’s vocal performance is so genuine and effortless, that at the very end when he breaks down and audibly cries, you’re right there with him. The song doesn’t have a chorus, but instead is built around a liner succession of verses. Michael’s story telling capability is so incredible that you never even stop to think about that missing on that explosive, catchy hook.
42. Another Part Of Me
“Another Part Of Me” was the song that broke Michael’s legendary streak of #1 singles, which is a particular shame because it sounds like it would have sat nicely at the top. This dancy, funky pop tune was originally featured in his Captain EO film, but ended up smack dab in the middle of the Bad album, which is exactly where it belonged. Besides featuring one of his most memorable synth hooks, the lyrics speak about one of his most common motifs, world peace. The song is so dazzling and infectious that it doesn’t feel preachy, it actually feels joyous and uplifting. Michael’s vocal performance is kind of a dark horse for being his best, bringing out almost all of the vocal tricks he become so renowned for.
41. In The Closet
For being easily the most sexually driven track in Michael’s catalog, it’s somewhat comical that he named it “In The Closet.” Featuring a “Mystery Girl” (later revealed to be Princess Stéphanie of Monaco) on spoken bridges, the track outlines the protagonist’s struggle to keep his lustful relationship a secret, a far cry from what you’d think the title would actually suggest. The track itself is one of the most complex and intricate Teddy Riley co-produced masterpieces on Dangerous, adding in a worldly vibe, and it really stands out as something particularly special. There are so many beautifully placed nuances throughout the track that really takes it that much further beyond typical new jack swing.
40. Stranger In Moscow
Lifted from the HIStory LP, “Stranger In Moscow” has never truly been recognized as the MJ classic it should be. This haunting ballad is one of Michael’s most personal and insightful, admitting to the loneliness he faces because of his fame. Musically, it’s one of his simplest, but most effective. Built around a repeated drum loop and simple chords, the focus is drawn to the delicate melody and on point vocal delivery. This is easily one of Michael Jackson’s most emotional works, and mostly because he doesn’t attempt to gussy it up with a dance break or a gospel choir. This is the King of Pop at his most vulnerable and exposed, but it is a truly beautiful and chilling track, especially in hindsight.
39. I Wanna Be Where You Are
Of all Michael Jackson’s solo work with Motown, only one track really stands out as one of his best. Yes, songs like “Got To Be There,” “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” were big hits, but none of them hold a candle to “I Wanna Be Where You Are.” This track is one of the greatest vocal performances young MJ ever delivered, but the track itself is completely genius. It’s soulful, slightly funky, and a tiny bit disco-tinged; it sounds like it’s handcrafted for SoulTrain. Michael’s command over the lyrics is masterful, as to be expected, and the way he belts out the chorus without ever running off the rails of excess is absolutely astonishing. “I Wanna Be Where You Are” should have been a bigger international hit.
38. Never Can Say Goodbye
Another classic Jackson 5 recording, “Never Can Say Goodbye” is a mid-tempo almost-ballad that features one of young Michael’s most commanding and powerful vocals. With the slightest hint of pre-disco rumbling underneath, this is one of the first times it became clear the J5 had a vaster range than they exemplified with their earlier hits. Similarly to “I’ll Be There,” the track doesn’t have this massive, explosive chorus, but there are so many hooks tucked in there that you don’t even notice. Not to mention, the melody alone is so incredibly catchy that it leaves all the room in the world for Michael to show us all just why he was always one of the most compelling vocalists in pop.
37. Blame It On The Boogie
This classic Jacksons hit is one of the funkiest, danceable tunes in the King of Pop’s entire catalog. “Blame It On The Boogie” is like the audio incarnation of the most fun you will ever have in your life. The chorus is a sing-a-long just waiting to happen every time it comes on, and as soon as that incredible bass line comes pulsing in, everyone will start to move. This track also sees Michael starting to expand his vocal ability, showcasing some of the little nuances and techniques that drove his solo studio albums to come. “Blame In On The Boogie” is one of the few disco-infused tracks of the era that everyone could like and not feel guilty about it, and that alone makes it a dazzling highlight.
The opening number to Michael’s transformative Dangerous album, “Jam,” made it immediately clear that things were going to be different for the King of Pop going forward. Of all the Teddy Riley co-produced tracks on the album, this was the most straightforward new jack swing, but it, naturally, had that MJ spin on it that set it apart from everything else. With blaring horns, a complex beat, spitfire verses, a memorable chorus, and an incredible rap verse from Heavy D, “Jam” is truly an incredible venture into Michael’s urban ambitions. Add to that lyrics about world peace and acceptance, and you have yourself a track that only MJ could truly pull off, but he actually goes far beyond just “pulling it off.”
All of the things that make “Thriller” iconic tend to outweigh the actual quality of the track itself. We all know the short film, we all know the dance routine, we all know the outfit, we all know every line to Vincent Price’s rap, and so on and so forth. The whole aura around “Thriller” is legendary, but the track itself is fairly textbook. Had anyone else attempted this track, they would have been the laughing stock of pop music. It took a confident genius like Michael Jackson to pull it off, and boy did he. The track is funky, dancy, catchy, intricate, and tons of fun. You’re always going to dance when it comes on, no questions asked. Society has turned it into a novelty of sorts, but it doesn’t define the track.
34. The Lady In My Life
One of only two tracks from Thriller not to be lifted as a single, “The Lady In My Life” is actually one of the album’s greatest musical moments. This soulful ballad is the true essence of Michael Jackson the singer, and although it could have been recorded by anyone from, say, Lionel Ritchie to Earth Wind & Fire and gone on to be some of their biggest hits, this sits nicely as a “filler” on Thriller. That’s just how good the album is. “The Lady In My Life” is the kind of song that Michael just flat out sings with an effortless, spot on delivery and the breakdown at the end is so euphoric that it’s impossible not to get swept away like you would during any classic slow jam. This is a true (relative) hidden gem.
33. Off The Wall
The title track to Michael’s break out “adult” album doesn’t always stand up next to its preceding mega hits, but “Off The Wall” is an absolute highlight on the record. This disco party romper is one of MJ’s most infectious and euphoric, and one of the last times he truly created a track this carefree. It sits quite nicely in his cannon of singles for just that reason. This is the definitive Quincy/Michael production sound that launched 3 wildly successful projects, with blaring horns, ominous synthesizers, and pulsing bass lines that will have you dancing no matter where you are. The real highlight of “Off The Wall,” though, that catchy chorus that will have you singing along with your hands in the air; it’s pure euphoria.
32. They Don’t Care About Us
HIStory: Past, Present, and Future. Book 1 has some amazing, uplifting moments, but is, at large, a shamelessly bitter record. Probably one of its most jaded tracks, “They Don’t Care About Us,” is actually one of the most unique highlights of his entire career. The track is a masterclass in “less is more,” featuring very little melodic instrumentation for most of the song. Only delicate touches of keys and authoritative, but selective electric guitars pierce through the military drum beat, leaving plenty of room for Michael’s voice to sit in the drivers seat. In true MJ form, he brings on a gospel choir to help him create height, and ends up creating a powerful intensity that really shakes the listener.
31. The Love You Save
The third single released by the Jackson 5, “The Love You Save” was another juggernaut for the group. Following suit with its predecessors, the track found its way to the top of the singles chart, and helped create pop history, but the song itself was absolutely worthy of that honor. This was one of those classic examples of how the team at Motown could really put together a complex, multi-layered pop song that came across endearingly effortless. The layout of backing vocals is quite impressive, and the classic play between Michael and Jermaine is as incredible as ever. When you add in an incredible hook, you’ve easily got yourself a classic moment that Michael couldn’t seem to ever remove from his live sets.
Only Michael Jackson could put out an particularly “good” song named “Bad” and it kick it off with an opening line like “your butt is mine.” The title track to his third and final effort with Quincy Jones stands to this day as one of the King of Pop’s most famous songs, and with good reason. This was a total direction change for MJ, that he somehow pulled off smoothly despite its abruptness. The track is a playfully sinister dance pop piece with a rock undertone and an epic chorus to give it a jolt of energy. “Bad” is Michael at his most daring, and while no one else in world would have been able to pull this off, this ends up being one of his best works, especially when paired with one his best short films.
29. Blood On The Dance Floor
In 1997, Michael followed up his HIStory album with one of his most daring and off-centered releases ever, a collection of new tracks and remixes entitled Blood On The Dance Floor / HIStory In The Mix. The title track and first single, however, was an incredible masterpiece. “Blood On The Dance Floor,” once again, details the story of a dangerously seductive woman, but is an absolute musical triumph. There are so many elements to the track, from the new jack swing that fueled his Dangerous album, to funk, to modern dance, to rock. Even the incomparable Nile Rodgers is welcomed on board to lay down some of his iconic guitar work. “Blood On The Dance Floor” is one of Michael’s last great works.
28. I Can’t Help It
This Stevie Wonder composition never seems to get all of the attention it deserves, but “I Can’t Help It” is one of the smoothest, coolest, and absolute greatest additions to MJ’s catalog. Lifted from Off The Wall, the track is built around a funky, repeated bass line creating an effect similar to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” Michael’s vocal delivery is one of the most effortless he’s ever recorded, but he still manages to give us a taste of his the power we all know he can bring. “I Can’t Help It” stills nicely on an album filled with disco-soul rompers, acting almost like the bridge to his early days at Motown. Sometimes just going out and making an incredible, simple track is all you really need.
27. Who Is It?
1991’s Dangerous was a packed-to-the-brim potpourri of different genres and ideas, and on the surface could seem pretty disjointed. “Who Is It?” was the one track on the record that truly acts as the glue to bind it all together and make it work. The track also so happens to be one of his absolute biggest showstoppers. despite not matching the success of some of his biggest classics. The epic ballad relies heavily on a textured percussion backdrop, most of which is actually Michael’s own beatboxing. The chorus is explosive, the arrangement is chilling, the lyrics poetically outline the lament of a lost lover, and the end result is one of the most awe-strinking additions to his catalog.
“Morphine” is one of Michael Jackson’s most underrated and unappreciated hidden gems. Lifted from his somewhat odd remix/mini-album Blood On The Dance Floor, this masterpiece is one of MJ’s most vulnerable, open, and powerful tracks ever. Not only does the lyrical content outline his battle with demerol, but this is one of his most impressive musical arrangements ever. Michael exemplified his ability to craft a song from start to finish as he took on the role as sole songwriter, composer, producer, and arranger, and he even plays percussion and guitar. “Morphine” also features Slash on additonal guitar and the Andrae Crouch Choir to help him chant the title word. It’s easily one of his best works.
25. Will You Be There?
Michael’s Dangerous album embraced several new directions for the artist, with one of the most important being his perfection of gospel pop. Whereas songs like “Keep The Faith” and “Heal The World” were great, “Will You Be There?” remains his opus. The 7 minute epic beings with a portion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony all before launching into a beautiful piano-driven ballad that builds into a gospel choir-led climax that will give you goosebumps every time. One of the tracks’ biggest highlights, though, comes in the finale, a cool-off of sorts where Michael delivers a heartfelt spoken poem. “Will You Be There?” is one of MJ’s most personal tracks, and it truly feels like it’s coming from his heart.
24. Baby Be Mine
There were only two tracks on Thriller that never made it onto the radio, but “Baby Be Mine” is so good that it actually eclipses some of the actual singles that were released. The track is the epitome of the “classic Michael Jackson sound” he had crafted with the album and his previous effort, Off The Wall. With the dancy, soulful, almost funky backing track to work off of, Michael absolute dazzles vocally. This is also one of his best use of backing vocals on record. Add to that a memorable chorus and an energy boosting key change, and “Baby Be Mine” is truly one of his finest moments. This could have easily been released as a single, but there’s something about being left on Thriller that makes it feel special.
23. Dancing Machine
“Dancing Machine” was the final classic moment crafted by the Jackson 5, and it is easily one of their best. Aside from the popularized robot dance (Michael’s first iconic dance move,) the track is one of the most indulgent and creative pieces the group ever recorded. There are so many memorable hooks spread out over the track compensating for the lack of a proper chorus, that you walk away with a different part stuck in your head every single time. While Michael’s vocal delivery can be viewed as somewhat “business as usual” for this stage in their career, it’s easy to take for granted just how he can bring any song to life. Everything about “Dancing Machine” is perfect.
22. Can You Feel It?
“Can You Feel It?” feels like an event. One of The Jacksons’ signature tunes, there is something so inherently epic and powerful about it that cannot be resisted. There is so much going on in the song that it’s easy to get sucked into its many intricacies, but when you dumb it down, the track is a masterfully uplifting funky pop song that will get stuck in your head faster than you can “feel it.” With an entire children’s choir and adult choir on board to give the repeated hook towering height, you will get sucked into singing along 100% of the time. Aside from the quality of the track itself, Michael still manages to stand out and bring his own flavor to a track that was always going to be great.
21. P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)
By the time Michael got around to releasing “P.Y.T.” as a single, Thriller was cemented as one of the greatest achievements in music history. Having racked up massive success with the album and its preceding singles, this track acted more as a cherry on top than anything else, but it couldn’t be stopped from becoming yet another international smash for the King of Pop. On the whole, “Pretty Young Thing” is one of the album’s finest moments, though. The bass line alone is larger than life, but the arrangement that sits on top is truly masterful. Add to that a catchy chorus and several additional hooks to keep it your head, and you have yourself one of the brightest moments in his career.
20. Dirty Diana
“Dirty Diana” was a history maker for MJ. This was his fifth consecutive #1 single lifted from Bad, making him the first artist to send 5 songs from a single album to the top. Each of the tracks released were vastly different from one another, but this one was the clear outlier. “Dirty Diana” continues his motif of including a rock song on his albums, and this time he really took it to another level altogether.’ there’s far less pop injected into this one. Additionally, the track outlines the story of a crazed female groupie, a theme he has continuously come back to in one form or another over the entire course of his adult career. “Dirty Diana” is successful on every level as a track though, so it’s no wonder it was a hit.
While it was easy to see just how incredibly talented the Jackson 5 were with “I Want You Back,” it would take a pretty special song to keep their careers alive; cue “ABC.” The track was the group’s second single, and second #1, and while it doesn’t hold the same importance of their debut release, it is actually one of the best tracks the group ever had the pleasure of recording. Between the infectious melody, Michael’s incredible counterpoint-chorus, and the grimy funk instrumentation, this was one of Motown’s first great 1970s masterpieces. There’s something universal about “ABC,” but when Michael launches into his charismatic spoken breakdown, it’s clear it’s particularly special, too.
It was a collaboration that was destined to happen. When the two most famous Jackson siblings (Michael and Janet, duh) released “Scream,” there was no denying it was going to be a hit just based on star power, but the song itself is incredible. A reactionary tune to all of the negative media attention Michael had been receiving over the past few years, the track is one of his angriest, grittiest, and foulest (he drops the “f-bomb!,”) but also one of his best. HIStory‘s first single is an electro-rock, urban-infused pop gem that bridges that sticks out as an anomaly in both artists’ catalogs, but it’s a special thing. “Scream,” in general, is unlike anything that’s ever been released to radio before, period. It’s genius.
17. Man In The Mirror
“Man In The Mirror” was the song the world turned to when we received the news that the King of Pop had passed away. In many way, this was his true anthem, and its no wonder he loved closing his shows with it. He had many inspirational songs in his catalog, but this was really the first and the best he ever did. With chill-inducing help from the Andrae Crouch Choir, this gospel pop ballad goes through so many climaxes and breakdowns, it’s hard not to find yourself wrapped up in emotion and out of breath by the end of it. Somehow, he manages to walk away from the track without making it overly cheesy or contrived. “Man In The Mirror” is the message he left behind, but the song itself is damn good, too.
16. Remember The Time
Michael’s venture into more urban oriented sounds (particularly new jack swing) was the driving force behind his career in the 90s. Moving on from Quincy Jones was a wise choice for freshnesses sake, despite not managing to crank out quite as many hits. The proper highlight of this venture was his megahit “Remember The Time.” Not only did it act as the backdrop to one of his most memorable, star-studded short films, but it introduced a new Michael Jackson to the world. The track has just the right amount of R&B flavor, but remains a pop song throughout, and the chorus couldn’t be catchier if he tired. When he belts his brains out at the end of the track, it’s easy to walk away feeling speechless.
15. The Way You Make Me Feel
Of all the amazing pop songs Michael Jackson released in the 80s, “The Way You Make Me Feel” was the most accessible. The track swirls around a pulsating drum beat, a throbbing bass line that is sure to get everyone moving, all accented with incredible horn production, but it’s the amazingly uplifting chorus that makes it special. The intricacies in Michael’s nuances really exemplifies how masterful he was at crafting universally lauded pop tunes that embodied perfection and artistry to the highest degree. “The Way You Make Me Feel” may sound like just a catchy pop record, but when you break it down, it’s actually one of the most ingenious tracks he ever put together. Just try and not dance.
14. Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)
The Jackson brothers had plenty of incredible post-Motown moments, but “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” was their opus. This funkified, dancy, disco number featured one of the catchiest hooks the brothers ever crafted, lifted directly out of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up.” This is one of the most euphoric pop songs in Michael’s cannon, and even though it’s credited to/performed with his brothers, there’s something very catalytic about it for his solo career. “Shake Your Body” is a direct foreshadow to his Off The Wall album, which, at large, perfected much of what he was doing with The Jacksons. This track, however, truly sticks out as a classic that continues to get people shaking to this day.
13. Rock With You
This was the moment it became clear that Michael Jackson could truly break out, as an adult, and have a solo career outside of his brothers. “Rock With You” followed up “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” in a way that exemplified his range and talent as a solo entity like never before. Still an R&B-flavored disco piece, this record utilizes MJ’s midrange (as opposed to “Don’t Stop’s” falsetto,) and has a relaxed vibe to it that still commands us to dance floor, but in a much smoother way (another stark contrast.) “Rock With You” is beyond anything you could ever hope for out of a pop song, and when you add Michael Jackson’s “je ne sais quoi” to the mix, it’s no wonder that it went to become one of his biggest hits.
12. I’ll Be There
The fourth consecutive #1 single for the Jackson 5, “I’ll Be There,” launched the brothers into new territory and officially into the history books. The track was the first ballad released as a single by the J5, and boy was it a doozy. Again, Michael convincingly tackles very adult subjects and simultaneously delivers an impressive vocal performance. This go around, though, the track has a sincere poignancy about it that juxtaposes sweetly with a level of sincerity and hope, making it one of Motown’s finest package deals ever. There’s very little that came from their assembly line that had this much depth and emotion. “I’ll Be There” is one of those songs that just resonates with the person Michael was, and it’s beautiful.
The title track to Michael’s 1991 LP, Dangerous, was never released a single, but it has gone on to become an important fixture for the star. The song is strategically placed out of sequence with the other 5 Teddy Riley produced tracks on the record, sitting comfortably as the album’s closer to bring everything full-circle. “Dangerous” was the most masterful and intricate creation of the lot. The hip hop-tinged dance piece outlines the story of a threatening female (a classic plot line for Michael,) with some of the most poetically crafted lyrics in his entire catalog. Between the catchy chorus, and the seductive, spoken verses, it’s no wonder this track became a live staple in latter years MJ shows.
10. Black Or White
Michael Jackson kicked off his presence in the 1990s with “Black Or White,” the first single lifteed from Dangerous. After making the 80s his bitch, it was clear that he knew that he had to change things up if he wanted to add another decade to his reign. This track was our first taste of post-Quincy Jones MJ, and he managed to really hit the nail on the head. “Black Or White” is a hybrid record to the fullest extent (it’s rock, it’s pop, it’s hip hop) but he pulls it off flawlessly. Add on top of that his audacity to not follow a proper verse-chorus structure, and you have yourself an incredible important song in his catalog.
09. Beat It
“Beat It’ is one of Michael’s most all-around iconic moments. As the third single lifted from Thriller, the track really cemented his reign over both pop music and pop culture with its game changing music video equipped with a legendary outfit and dance routine. The track itself embraced MJ’s inner-rockstar, but it never quite crosses over to the “other side;” in reality, the grass isn’t always greener. This is still a pop song through to the core, but that guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen sure does make it palatable for those who enjoy their music a little heavier. Mix in some lyrics about avoiding confrontation, and you’ve got yourself a track that only the King of Pop could pull off.
08. Workin’ Day And Night
Michael Jackson was known for releasing a majority of the tracks on his albums as singles, but inexplicably, “Workin’ Day And Night” was not one of them. The song has been given so much attention in concert over the years, and even radio has picked it up, that it’s hard to remember it never was officially lifted from Off The Wall. This may even be his most popular album track. Honestly, “Workin'” is the ideal, definitive MJ song. It’s percussive, it’s hook-heavy, it’s vocally impressive, it’s danceable, it’s catchy, it’s unique, and it’s impeccably put together. Everything about the song just works, and through all of its delirious catchiness, it’s easy to forget just how unconventional it actually is.
07. Who’s Lovin’ You
Released as the b-side to the Jackson 5’s debut single, “I Want You Back,” this Smokey Robinson cover defined the inherent talent Michael Jackson had. Inarguably one of his greatest vocal performances ever recorded, “Who’s Lovin’ You” is not the kind of song any young child should be mastering, but Michael ended up delivering the best version out of all the various ones circulating through the Motown catalog. Despite not being one of the J5’s biggest hits, it has gone on to be revered as one of their brightest moments, and stands out as a landmark for Michael Jackson the vocalist and performer. As time has gone on, this is a key moment everyone has acknowledged as one of his best ever.
06. Human Nature
You know a mid-tempo soft rock/R&B ballad has to be damn good when it sticks out in the sea of tracks that populate Thriller. “Human Nature” is a special number for just that reason. There is something so magical about this track that has somehow only gotten classier and more refined with age (as cliché as it is) like a bottle of wine. MJ’s breathy vocal performance adds to the incredible atmosphere created by the light and airy guitar and keys, and it truly brings the lyrics to life. Despite not matching the success of “Billie Jean” or “Beat It,” the track has earned the respect of music fans the world over and has managed to be held in the esteem of a true R&B classic, which it is.
05. Smooth Criminal
There are certain moments over the course of Michael Jackson’s career that just seem so crucial to his legacy, and “Smooth Criminal” is one of them. Aside from the wildly awesome and legendary short film and “the lean,” and even aside from the fact that this was a concert staple, the track is extraordinary. He manages to create the perfect audio landscape to match the ambiguous, but rather gruesome lyrics about the murder and possible rape of lead character “Annie,” and you’ll never be able to resist dancing. As a song, the way the bass line carries the melody is masterful, especially when the horns come blaring in, but it’s the understated guitar riff in the dance break that shines as the best moment.
04. Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” is hard to really wrap your head around as a musical entity. Having this many hooks in one track should be illegal, but Michael Jackson has always been a fearless musician, and he walks away with a massive “W” on this one. Oddly enough, none of said hooks parallel the explosive choruses he’s renowned for. On top of a landscape of blaring horns, frenzied percussion, and one of his most epic, funky bass lines, Thriller’s opening number brings us one of MJ’s most charismatic and energetic vocal performances on record. It goes without saying that the track’s highlight is the moment when brings the music to a halt and allows the iconic “mama say mama sah mama coo sah” chant to resonate as its counter-intutitive climax. It’s a stroke of genius.
03. Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is just as much an important record as it is an good one. As the first single lifted from Off The Wall, this was the beginning of many things. For one, it was the beginning of his “partnership” with Quincy Jones that ended up spawning 3 of the most legendary pop records of all time. More importantly, it was the beginning of what many consider to be his “adult career” with Epic records, and what a magnificent beginning it was. The track is a disco piece through to the core, but on a different level than most of its contrived peers. Michael sticks entirely to his falsetto to deliver the vocals, and even at his most inaudible manages to bring one of his catchiest numbers to life. This track is truly phenomenal from every aspect.
02. I Want You Back
The reason “I Want You Back” lands at number two isn’t because it was our first introduction to Michael Jackson. The reason Michael Jackson went on to have a truly remarkable career was because of how incredible this song is. The Jackson 5’s first single was a juggernaut for the ages, standing as one of Motown’s final masterpieces of the 1960s. Not only is the progression, instrumentation, and lyricism astonishingly on point, but Michael’s vocal performance is almost beyond comprehension. For someone so young to be able to bring a track so grown up like this to life is amazing to begin with, but to do so with the power and range of a seasoned professional, well that’s just grounds to build an unparalleled career off of.
01. Billie Jean
There’s really no possible debate against “Billie Jean” being the greatest song Michael Jackson ever made. From every angle, audible and visual, this was his magnum opus that changed the landscape of pop as we know it. Between the simple, funky repeated bass line, chill-inducing synth progression, soulful guitar solo, and detailed lyrics outlining the wrath of a deranged fan, the track is flawless. Not to mention, that opening drum beat is almost overly simplified, but you can recognize it instantly; that’s not easy. If you want to really put a cherry on top, “Billie Jean” provided the backdrop for one of Michael’s most iconic, groundbreaking, and integrating music videos (ahem, short films) in his entire career. Feel like upping the ante? The track also introduced us to Michael’s most iconic look (the jacket, the exposed white socks, the hat, and the glove,) and a little dance move called the Moonwalk. “Billie Jean” is just about the best pop music will ever be.