I’ll admit, I’m kind of taking the piss with this article.
There have been several lists floating around proclaiming to be the definitive list of best Michael Jackson songs. Of course, there is no such thing as “definitive” when it comes to music. Taste is subjective. Also, something tells me that some of the folks putting together these lists are Johnnies-come-lately to MJ fandom.
Five years after his death, Michael Jackson remains something of a weird space filler for me. No question, he shaped my musical tastes. Many of my earliest childhood memories are of Destiny and Off The Wall getting major spins on our family turntable. I distinctly remember the first time I heard Thriller, watching the Motown 25 special live, sitting in bed hearing the news over the radio when his hair caught fire, watching him win tons of American Music Awards and Grammys. While there are better songwriters (Stevie), better musicians (Prince) and better singers (drawing a blank right now,) Michael had an intangible “X” factor to him that made him more influential than either of those artists, and any of the thousands of artists I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing since. He was the man when I was 8. He’s still the man now that I’m 38 even if his physical form has left this Earth. So maybe it isn’t so weird. It just is what it is.
Anyway, enjoy the list. I stuck to his solo work for Epic Records (not including guest appearances, remixes, bonus tracks or posthumous releases) so you’ve got a frame of reference.
I. Invincible (Certified Classics)
It’s nice when your biggest hit is also your best song. Even separate from the fantastic video and the mesmerizing Motown 25 performance, “Billie Jean” is a work of genius. It hits from all angles; it’s lyrically powerful, musically ambitious and makes you dance your ass off.
Rock With You
If “Billie Jean” is a 10, “Rock With You” is a 9.9998.
I Can’t Help It
An album track every bit as mighty as Off The Wall‘s four singles. Stevie Wonder and latter-day Supreme Susaye Green composed a gem. Michael’s lyrical interpretation was so starry-eyed and enraptured. This is what falling in love feels like.
Off The Wall
This song is massively difficult to sing. I massacred this at karaoke once. Gave me a whole new appreciation for Michael’s voice.
Man In The Mirror
When Michael got blanked (0-for-5) at the 1988 Grammys, I remember being so mad I wanted to punch someone (I also openly broke rules–I was on punishment and not supposed to watch.) For a while, I thought The Joshua Tree (the U2 album that beat Michael for Album Of The Year) was a better album than Bad, these days I’d probably call it a draw. Though Prince’s Sign o’ the Times is lightyears better than both of them and really should’ve won the Grammy. Prince also got stymied in 1985 when Lionel Richie’s Cant Slow Down beat his Purple Rain for Album of the Year. No wonder Prince is a fucking grouch.
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
It make…it make me feel like, uh…WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!
II. Thriller (Still Awesome)
Stranger In Moscow
A cousin to “Human Nature” (featuring many of the same musicians) only 10X more sad and paranoid. One of Michael’s finest latter day efforts.
Working Day And Night
Never released as a single, but a staple of the house parties my folks used to throw in the early ’80s. And most likely a lot of other parties as well.
Remember The Time
Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
Can’t Let Her Get Away
An underrated jam from Dangerous. Great background harmonies; very James Brown-reminiscent. The bridge of this song is cold.
My (somewhat insensitive) comments at the time: “How can someone with no nose still sound so damn good?”
The Way You Make Me Feel
This song has actually grown on me over the years. I wasn’t a huge fan of it during its heyday. Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing.
P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)
Shouts out to James Ingram (who wrote the song with Quincy Jones), Janet & LaToya (who added the P.Y.T. chants) and Shalamar’s Howard Hewett, who performed background vocals. Mike must’ve been tight with all three members of Shalamar’s classic lineup back in the day. Jeffrey’s in a bunch of his videos, and if you find a copy of Shalamar’s Three For Love album, you’ll see that Jody Watley was nursing a bit of a crush.
The Lady In My Life
Mike’s Teddy P. moment.
III. Off The Wall (Pretty Damn Good)
Heaven Can Wait
Break Of Dawn
Mike could’ve made a damn good neo-soul record.
This Time Around
Biggie’s verse? Fire. Probably one of his ten best.
My man GG wanted this to be a single so bad. Fantastic song-with a great video, could’ve been a smash.
Get On The Floor
Scream (Duet With Janet Jackson)
Where were you the first time you heard Michael Jackson drop an “F” bomb?
Will You Be There
Baby Be Mine
Boilerplate R&B circa 1982 elevated by a superior vocal performance.
How lazy was Michael that for the American Bandstand anniversary celebration in 2002, he basically just redid the routine he put together for his performance of “Dangerous” at the 1993 American Music Awards (also a Dick Clark production.) Not that Dick probably gave a shit. At that point, a Michael TV performance=automatic ratings gold.
We did a Flyte Brothers column about this song. I’d love if you read it!!
Don’t Walk Away
I’ve had a LOT of trouble listening to this song since Michael passed. How could anyone not have heard this song and been like “um…this guy’s in trouble.”
Leave Me Alone
Why You Wanna Trip On Me
In The Closet
Blood On The Dance Floor
Listen to this song and then listen to Indeep’s “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life.” The basslines are very similar.
IV: Not Bad, But Good
This may not have been Michael’s wisest choice as a single, but the video kind of made the song tolerable. I was just starting the 7th grade when this song came out, and Michael could not have been any un-cooler. I have a soft spot for it these days, but as big an MJ fan as I was, even I was like “what are you thinking?” the first time I heard this song.
You Rock My World
I used to work with David Sanborn’s kid Jonathan, and I remember him telling me a story about he and his dad marveling about Michael’s singing on “Earth Song,” saying something to the effect of “how can you sing with so much soul about some elephants and whales?”
Keep The Faith
She’s Out Of My Life
You Are Not Alone
They Don’t Care About Us
She Drives Me Wild
That rap by the dude from Wreckx-N-Effect has not aged well, huh?
Michael singing about Pussy Control around the same time his nemesis Prince made it a bit more overt.
Gone Too Soon
Who Is It
I do not recall having ever seen this video before. Weird.
I should probably rank this higher, but I would be totally OK never hearing this song again. Overplayed to the nth degree.
So, was this Michael’s “real” voice?
Give In To Me
Another Part Of Me
Burn This Disco Out
V: Dangerous (Tolerable/Decent)
It’s a pretty cover. That’s more or less it.
I Just Can’t Stop Loving You (Duet With Siedah Garrett)
I’ve read in several books that Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston both turned down the opportunity to do this duet with MJ. That probably wouldn’t happen now in the collabo-crazy musical world. A Whitney/Michael cover would have done gangbusters. Also, allegedly MJ was supposed to be Whitney’s duet partner on the second version of “If I Told You That” but he somehow reneged and they ended up with George Michael instead.
Just Good Friends (Duet With Stevie Wonder)
“Get It” was a better Michael/Stevie duet.
It’s The Falling In Love (Duet With Patti Austin)
The Girl Is Mine (Duet With Paul McCartney)
I listened to “The Girl Is Mine” earlier today and realized I don’t hate it as much as I thought I did. “Say Say Say” is still a better song, though.
(also, for the record, the Stevie/Paul duet “What’s That You’re Doing” is better than “Ebony & Ivory.”)
Is It Scary
Black Or White
Someone should’ve really talked to Michael about his habit of selecting mediocre/awful songs for the first singles off of his albums. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Scream” notwithstanding.
VI: Bad, Bad…Really, Really Bad
You Are My Life
Man, Babyface was running on fumes at this point. The sound was still there, but this song sounds tossed off, like he wrote it on a piss break.
Some Beatles songs shouldn’t be covered. Unless they’re covered by Aerosmith.
VII: I’m Not Even Gonna Assign An Album Title Because These Songs Are Awful
Yes, Tom Sneddon is a dick and a half, and I understand Michael’s anger towards him. Vent, brother…but don’t make us listen to you venting.
Michael Jackson, you are not a rapper.
Heal The World
Great intentions, horrible execution. This song reminds me of The Carpenters. Bad Carpenters.
The Lost Children
Just go back up and listen to the good stuff. Thanks. Or listen to this Spotify playlist I made a while back collecting some of his more underappreciated/unappreciated work.