Make sure you check out the first part of our list here.
I’ll admit that this is where you’ll find the more “no-brainer” Michael songs, but I think that speaks less to predictability and more to a general consensus of his genius. There are certain things that make a great pop single-captivating lyrics, hooks that won’t leave your head, unique vocal performances. These ten songs have all those qualities and more. If your iPod only had room for 10 Michael Jackson songs (perish the thought), these are the songs you should pick. Point blank.
10. Off the Wall (from Off the Wall, 1979)- “Gotta leave that 9-5 up on the shelf/And just enjoy yourself”. Even before I was a working stiff, I appreciated the sentiment of this line. Having been gainfully employed (knock wood) for the better part of eighteen years now, you’d better believe that this line still pops into my head on most Friday nights. The title track of Michael’s best album (IMHO) is a showpiece for Rod Temperton’s stellar songwriting, Quincy Jones’ ace production (the band is cooking on this track) and, most of all, Michael’s incredible singing. “Off the Wall”, the song, emanates joy like no other song I’ve heard by anyone.-Blerd
9. Smooth Criminal (from Bad, 1987)-One of the most distinctive features of Michael Jackson’s songcraft – which only became more evident as he got older – was his use of the voice as percussion. This was sort of evident from the beginning (his Otis Redding/James Brown-esque shouts in “I Want You Back” are some of the tastiest details of that tune), but got more obvious as he began writing his own material and working with songwriters that made him sound more like an adult. Rod Temperton’s contributions to Off the Wall are a great example of this, as the songwriter admitted in a 2001 interview included with the special edition of the record.
Eventually, this practice started to get a little repetitive, particularly once Michael’s physical state started leading to vocal tracks that sounded increasingly brittle and mechanical. But there was one glorious song recorded at the crossroads of his vocal evolution: “Smooth Criminal.” As the final track off Bad (or second-to-final, if you owned the CD), it was a heck of a closer, combining a razor-sharp groove of a backing track with Michael’s glass-cutting vocals. Every gunshot of an “Oww!” is like a warning shot from him, suggesting you better get out of your chair and onto the dance floor. (Even then, of course, you couldn’t keep up with the man: the accompanying video saw him do insane things with his feet, from the anti-gravity lean to moonwalking in a circle – as if it wasn’t hard enough to do it in a straight line.)
“Smooth Criminal” was not only a crazy watermark for fans who grew up with MJ (the seventh single from Bad in the U.S. and the sixth to hit the Top 10), but it was notable for my generation, too; in 2001, pop-punk band Alien Ant Farm had a novelty hit with a cover of the song. Like all good music geeks in training, though, I was the only one on the bus extolling the virtues of the original.-Mike Duquette
8. Beat It (from Thriller, 1982)-The fact that Beat It was the third (!) single off the sixth (!) solo album by MichaelJackson says something about the album. The fact that twenty years later this was thefirst song I put on my first cell phone’s voicemail and is my go to working at the barto keep the asses shaking says something about the song (and myself).The fact that hisrecord label wouldn’t let Eddie Van Halen perform in the music video shows how howwrong they had it. This was the peak of kids all around America waiting for the nextvideo on MTV saying, ‘Please be Michael Jackson, please be Michael Jackson!’.-Tom Acox
7. PYT (Pretty Young Thing) (from Thriller, 1982-The lowest charting single from Thriller (it *only* peaked at #10) is the last great dance anthem on the album’s second side, sandwiched between the reflective “Human Nature” and the seductive “The Lady in My Life” (the segues work beautifully, by the way). Lyrically, one can view “P.Y.T.” as a predecessor to “The Way You Make Me Feel” – an upbeat dance number chronicling the protagonist’s pursuit of his love interest. Buoyant, youthful and sexy, the song is perfect pop. Clean, well produced, and one of the funkiest jams on Thriller. That popping electric bass, frenetic rhythm guitar, processed vocals (“P.Y.T.! T.L.C.!”), that amazing breakdown and those playful synth flourishes in the chorus (which incidentally, Alan Wilkis claims to have based his entire career off of). Of course, the true test of any MJ song is to gauge audience reaction while it spins at a dance party. Throw this on and see if anyone sits still. If they do, kick them out of your house. And say “Na, na, na.”–Gonzo
6. Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ (from Thriller, 1982)-This is the perfect bridge between Off the Wall and Thriller, so it only makes sense that it leads off the latter. For the first few minutes it’s fairly typical — which is to say strong — MJ funk, but then things start getting a little weird with the whole “You’re a vegetable” bit (the modulated vocals here are right out of the Stevie Wonder playbook). What really rockets this song to the stratosphere is the coda, which comes straight out of nowhere. Even if you were unsure about “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” for the first four minutes or so, there’s no way you aren’t out of seat and shaking your ass to “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah!”-The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ is not a Jackson epic. But it is easily one of the most uber-catchy tunes he’s done and (sadly) proves with that with the right amount of horns and a whole lot of Quincy Jones, disco can be a good thing. The first cut and fourth single off Thriller was a blast in 1982 and is still the best song to cue up when challenging a stranger to a walk off at 3 am.-T.A.
5. Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough (from Off the Wall, 1979)-Random questions about “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough”-1) Was MJ a closet sci-fi geek? The way he talks about “the force” in that mumbled intro, it makes you wonder if he wasn’t sitting at home watching “Star Wars” on a primitive VCR, asking himself “how do I write a song about this without sounding cheesy?” 2) Did Michael lie to his mother by telling her the song was about “forces and the power of love” when she questioned him about the innuendo-laden song title? 3) Has anyone ever tried to sing this song? Fucking impossible. Michael’s record label, Epic, knew what they were doing by releasing “Don’t Stop” as the first single from Off the Wall. Record buyers knew what they were doing by sending the song to #1 on the pop and R&B charts, and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences knew what they were doing when they gave MJ the 1980 Grammy award for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male. It was the first of his 14 Grammys.-B
4. I Want You Back (from The Jackson 5’s Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, 1969)
Best debut single ever? Quite possibly. An intutive-beyond-his-years artist is given a great lyric, paired with The Funk Brothers (who cooked as hard as any house band in the Sixties), sprinkle in a little Sly-style grit, and…the birth of a legend, pretty much. “I Want You Back” kicked off the careers of the last great artists to emerge from Motown’s Detroit assembly line, and strikes the perfect balance between the classy, crossover-aware sound of the Sixties and the forward-thinking, more adventurous sound of the following decade.-B
3. Rock With You (from Off the Wall, 1979)-Whenever I see the Rock With You video, my mind wanders. I start to wonder if this time frame was when things were still normal for MJ. Now, I know things were never normal because he was a child star, but his fame wouldn’t become insanely ridiculous until a couple of years later. Then again, dude was wearing a glitter suit in the video, so maybe it was already becoming insanely ridiculous. Rock With You works because everyone loves it. Some folks may not like any Michael Jackson music post-Thriller, and some may not be all that familiar with all but his most popular pre-Thriller hits. But when this one is played, everyone recognizes it as pure MJ. Love survives and the groove is never dead and gone.–GG
2. Human Nature (from Thriller, 1982)-Of the many hyperbolic stories about songs from Thriller (“Billie Jean” being recorded in one take, the studio speakers bursting into flames during a playback of “Beat It”), the most plausible sounding seems to be that “Human Nature” was located, in sketch form, at the end of a demo tape submitted by songwriter John Bettis and the members of Toto (and before I go any further-can we give the Toto folks props for being a part of Grammy’s Album of the Year in 1982 and 1983?). Ultimately, “Human Nature” is a song that’s more about mood than anything else. The topic of the song has never really been discussed (it certainly fueled a lot of those “Michael is gay” rumors with the “I like living this way/I like loving this way” line.), but one thing that can’t be debated is the song’s beauty. It’s been noticed by everyone from John Mayer (whose guitar-only rendition was a highlight of Michael’s memorial service) to SWV, Nas, and Chris Brown, who have all scored hits of their own with songs that sample this classic.-B
1. Billie Jean (from Thriller, 1982)-Even when voted on by a group of people that ranges from solid MJ fans to MJ obsessives, this song still came in at #1. Why? Because it’s almost inarguable that this was Michael Jackson’s finest moment as an artist. It legitimized him as an adult with (potentially) adult issues-issues that would of course become more pronounced and unfortunate as time went on. In this case, the backstory lends some heft to the song. Allegedly, “Billie Jean” was written in the aftermath of a distressing early example of stalking. An obsessed fan claimed that Michael was the father of her child and continued to press that point in an increasingly unsettling series of fan letters. This culminated in Michael receiving a package containing a picture of the obsessed fan, a weapon, and a note. The note stated that the young lady was going to kill her baby and then herself at a particular date and time, and Michael was to kill himself at the same date and time-theorizing that if they couldn’t be together in life, they would join up in the afterlife. Understandably frazzled, Michael took this situation and turned it into a monster of a song. This track fills up dance floors worldwide even though lyrically, the song’s not very dance-friendly. Of course, speaking of dance, most people’s defining memory of this song would be the Motown 25 special in May 1983 (interestingly, by the time it aired, “Billie Jean” had already retreated from the #1 spot). Quite possibly the single most captivating musical moment in television history, it would probably be torn to pieces by TMZ/Twitter if it were to occur in today’s error (“OMG! Why is he lip-synching??” Thank goodness for a more innocent era, and thank goodness that this song exists, for reasons obvious (it’s a classic pop song, period) and maybe not-so-obvious (this song heralded the introduction of babymamadrama, leading to “Maury”, “Ricki Lake” and about 10,000 hip-hop and R&B lyrics). “Billie Jean” serves as the final proof that Michael left an incredibly funky (in all senses of the word) legacy behind when he passed.-B
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