With today being the second anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, our next bLISTerd column was a no-brainer. Initially, we gathered the troops to put together a list of the ten best MJ songs, but after some internal discussion, we increased the size of the list from 10 songs to 20, and even THAT didn’t feel like enough. Since we bumped the list up to 20, we’re giving it to you in two parts. Look for part two tomorrow.

Ultimately, the list covers all aspects of the King of Pop’s career. There are Jackson 5 songs, Jacksons songs, songs from his Off the Wall and Thriller salad days, as well as songs from his later years. Hopefully we got your favorite song in there. If not, let us know what we left off!

20. Will You Be There (Dangerous, 1991)- As unlikely a Top Ten hit as there was in the nineties, “Will You Be There” is pure gospel. Building up to it’s Andrae Crouch Choir-assisted crescendo, this song had people testifying on their couches (or in arenas at Michael’s shows) like they were in a church pew. Although the song was not without it’s share of controversy (Michael apparently lifted the song’s intro from a recording by the Cleveland Orchestra without crediting them, the issue was dealt with via an out-of-court settlement), it remains an evergreen in Michael’s catalog and perhaps the best thing about “Free Willy”.-Blerd

19. Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground) (from The Jacksons’ Destiny, 1978)-A benchmark song from the disco era, “Shake Your Body” was the song that resuscitated Michael’s career, becoming The Jacksons’ first Top 10 hit in over two years and introducing the adult Michael Jackson to the world. Coy and boyish with an adult sensuality, this-like most Michael songs from this era-still sets dance floors on fire thirty years later.-B

18. The Love You Save (from The Jackson 5’s ABC, 1970)-The third of the four consecutive #1 singles that kickstarted the Jackson 5’s career-this is a kids’ song with an adult message (at least if you’re interpreting the lyrics the way I am). Warning a “fast” girl to slow things down a little (“you’ll ruin your reputation…they’ll label you a flirt!”), I can totally see this spearheading a teenage abstinence campaign had it been released twenty years later-B

17. Remember the Time (from Dangerous, 1991)

People often forget how great Michael was with melodically-driven songs, probably because so many of his later songs were sung with more percussive force than melodic finesse. On this song, the second single from Dangerous, Michael and producer Teddy Riley updated the Off the Wall sound for the nineties, and did a fantastic job. Michael really cuts loose in the last third of the track, but the real star of the show here is the beautifully stacked background vocals and Michael’s restrained (but beautiful) vocals. They’re good enough to wipe the vision of that horribly awkward video kiss with Iman out of our heads.-B.

16. Maybe Tomorrow (from The Jackson 5’s Maybe Tomorrow, 1971)

I remember buying the Jackson 5 four disc CD set through BMG or Columbia House (Soulsation!) in the mid 90s. I knew many of J5’s hits, but there was also a lot that I wasn’t aware of until this purchase. Maybe Tomorrow is one of those songs that I discovered and immediately wondered about  — how it charted (one of their first singles to not chart top 5), how old MJ was when he was singing about lost love (12). This wasn’t about ABC and do re mi. This was real heartbreak. When he died, this became my go-to song more than any other from his catalog. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t fathom how a twelve-year old could express such hope about a love interest. He was too adult at twelve, and maybe not adult enough at fifty.-GG

15. The Way You Make Me Feel (from Bad, 1987)
Rumor has it that this song was essentially written based on a challenge from Michael’s mom Katherine (who apparently wanted him to compose a song with a shuffling groove to it). If that was the case, Kate should’ve made more requests of Michael, because this song is a surefire winner. Again blessed with the playful sensuality that would become one of Michael’s trademarks, it also contains some of Michael’s most soulful singing. Stevie Wonder also remarked that his “Go Home” was allegedly one of this song’s inspirations. Can you imagine how dope this song would have been if they’d performed it together?-B

14. Heartbreak/This Place Hotel (from The Jacksons’ Triumph, 1980)
The Michael Jackson production style was more or less introduced on this song, which spent a month at the #2 position on the R&B charts in early 1981. Dramatic as hell, with a slight paranoid edge, you can pretty much draw a straight line from this song to “Billie Jean”. I’m still a little confused as to why the title of the song was eventually changed so as not to be confused with the Elvis Presley song of the same name. As if there could ever be any confusion?-B


13. I’ll Be There (from The Jackson 5’s Third Album, 1970)- After three straight songs of bubblegum pop flew to #1 on the charts, the Jackson 5 made it four straight trips to the top with this heart-tugging ballad. The song became the emotional center point of many Michael moments, from the emotional reunion with Jermaine at the Motown 25 special to the “This is It” rehearsals. The most poignant usage of the song, in my opinion, was in a 1993 Pepsi commercial, where the voices of young Michael and old(er) Michael combined for a true tearjerker of an ad.

12. They Don’t Care About Us (from HIStory, 1995)-Pretty much everything related to HIStory was a lightning rod for controversy-from the idiotic statue down the Thames stunt to the Diane Sawyer interview with Lisa Marie. Musically, the album found Michael unleashing anger like never before, almost certainly inspired by the molestation allegations from 1993. “They Don’t Care About Us” caught the most flak for allegedly anti-Semitic lyrics, although I think it’s pretty obvious from listening to the lyrics that Michael wasn’t insulting Jews at all. It seems more like he was comparing his persecution to that of the Jews.  I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that comparison is valid or not, but as far as pure manifestation of anger, even the angriest of gangsta rap and punk can’t hold a candle to this song.-B

http://youtu.be/QNJL6nfu__Q (for some bizarre reason, I am unable to embed either version of this video!)

11. Man in the Mirror (from Bad, 1987)-Bad yielded five number one singles.  Released in January of 1988, this was the fourth, and the only one not written by Jackson.  The song  is simply a tour de force.  What starts out as a very gentle melody gradually builds in intensity and bombast.  Each new passage kicks the song up a notch, until finally MJ plays the proverbial preacher to the Andrae Crouch Choir’s gospel chorus.  This gradual build mirrors the lyrical progression of the song as well.  What begins as a personal reflection (“I’m gonna make a change” / “That’s why I’m starting with me”) gradually widens its scope to become a matter of social, cultural and global concern (“If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change”).

Although Michael has a number of other “message” songs, none match the intensity, urgency or pure emotion embedded in this track.  In the wake of his death in 2009, it was “Man in the Mirror” that came to signify the life and career of Michael Jackson, and also became a bold reminder of what he stood for: environmentalism, humanitarianism and peace.  It’s as if in death, Jackson nudged us to say that among all of the music and lyrics he brought to us, the take home point was simply to “Make that change.”-Gonzo

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