On February 4th, 1986, A&M Records released Control, Janet Jackson’s third studio album. At the time of Control‘s release, Janet was 19 years old and was arguably better known as an actress (Good Times, Diff’rent Strokes and Fame) than she was as a singer. Her two previous efforts (a self-titled debut from 1982 and 1984’s Dream Street) didn’t do much to put her on the map as anything more than the precocious younger sister to her world-beating brothers in The Jacksons. Control changed the course of Janet’s career, the public perception of Janet, the career of producers Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis, and the future of Black music. That last part is not hyperbole: there was virtually no precedent for the sound Janet unleashed on Control. She was sassy, streetwise and youthful; scaling the pop charts with a sound that was unapologetically funky. At a time when the popular black female artists were either matronly (Aretha, Diana, Tina) or innocent and fresh-faced (Whitney), Janet set the stage for Aaliyah, Brandy, Monica, and Beyonce. And Britney, Christina, Jessica and P!nk. And MC Lyte, Salt-n-Pepa, Queen Latifah and Yo-Yo. And Janet is far from an ’80s relics. She’s continued producing interesting (if not always great) music well into the 2010s, with last fall’s Unbreakable serving as a stunning return to form.
To celebrate the 30th (!) anniversary of Control‘s release, I decided to put together a list of my 50 favorite Janet songs. This list includes songs from each of her studio albums, as well as a handful of duets and guest appearances dating back to the late Seventies. There’s no scientific method to this list: I basically put every Janet song I owned (which includes everything she’s officially released as well as a couple songs that have yet to see the commercial light of day) into an iTunes playlist and ranked them. I hope you enjoy. If you feel as though any songs were omitted, make your own damn list! I kid, I kid (well, a little bit). The beauty of the world is that we all have opinions and we’re entitled to share them. Don’t hesitate to comment, but be intelligent and keep your comments civil. It’s a shame that I have to say that, but…such is life on the internet in 2016. Anyhow, strap on your seatbelt, and let’s take a trip to Planet Janet!
50. Rock With U (Discipline, 2008)
2008’s “Rock With U” is the only song from Discipline to place on this list. The shimmering, club-ready concoction is one of Janet’s most hypnotic dance jams. I’m sure that its close proximity to the title of one of brother Michael’s biggest dance floor anthems was no coincidence.
Strobe lights do make lots of things sexier. Truth.
49. The Best Things In Life Are Free (Luther Vandross & Janet Jackson featuring BBD & Ralph Tresvant, Mo’ Money (Original Soundtrack), 1992)
In the summer of 1992, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis christened their new label, Perspective Records, with the soundtrack to the film Mo’ Money. The lead single from the soundtrack was a peppy, New Jack Swing jam that brought together several of urban radio’s biggest artists-Janet was joined by quiet storm king Luther Vandross, and half of New Edition (Michael Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe and Ralph Tresvant) came along for the ride. Having Luther and Janet on the same song seemed a bit odd at the time-after all, they appealed to two very different audiences-but the mixture works on “The Best Things In Life Are Free”. A quarter century later, the song sounds dated as hell, but it’s a fun listen nevertheless. Strangely, none of the song’s five participants could be bothered to appear in the video. If anyone ever wonders where the stars of Miss Jackson and certified nut job Stacey Dash intersect, here you go.
48. Love Song For Kids (B-side of Randy Jackson’s “How Can I Be Sure”, 1978)
Janet’s first appearance on record came at the tender age of 12, sharing lead vocals with big brother Randy on the flip side of his one-off single “How Can I Be Sure”. “Love Song For Kids” manages to be cute without being cloying, and Janet’s voice doesn’t sound a ton different at 12 than it would end up sounding in her twenties. I would love to know why a full-length album from Randy never came to fruition at this time. Some critics point to the near-fatal auto accident he wound up involved in, but “How Can I Be Sure”/”Love Song For Kids” came a full two years before that incident even occurred. #mystery
47. Don’t Stand Another Chance (Dream Street, 1984)
In the summer of 1984, the Jackson family was omnipresent. The brothers were out on the road supporting Victory, Jermaine was riding the charts with his self-titled Arista debut, Michael was still hot off of the fumes of Thriller, and all three Jackson sisters released albums. Janet’s Dream Street came shortly before she made her debut as a cast member on the syndicated series Fame (and shortly before she became Mrs. James DeBarge), but all that press didn’t help the album sell well. The album’s first single, “Don’t Stand Another Chance”, was a slammin’ slice of synth funk, featuring a sassy vocal from Janet. The song was a family affair, featuring production from Marlon and spirited ad-libs from Michael. One would think that would have been enough to make the song a smash. Alas…
46. You Need Me (“Miss You Much” B-side, 1989)
As the story goes, A&M Records wanted to follow Control up with an album that would be entitled Scandal. The album would be autobiographical in tone, featuring songs that referenced Janet’s relationship with her family. The idea was quickly scrapped, but not before “You Need Me” was cut. The song alludes to a distant, uncaring father, and based on what we know about Joe Jackson, must be based at least somewhat in truth. While the Scandal idea ended up getting snuffed, “You Need Me” snuck out as the B-side to the #1 smash “Miss You Much”, and it’s a good song, although the song’s peppy musical vibe seems somewhat at odds with the emotional lyrical content.
45. Twenty Foreplay (Design Of A Decade 1986-1996, 1995)
Janet celebrated a decade as a hitmaker with the greatest hits compilation Design Of A Decade in the fall of 1995. The album contained two previously unreleased tracks. The sprightly “Runaway” was an adequate enough track, but the true gold could be found on the seductive “Twenty Foreplay”. Inspired by bedroom legends like Marvin Gaye, the song has two movements. The first part is a relatively innocent love song, then the music dies for a couple of seconds, and when we return, there’s some serious bumping and grinding going on. Janet was just beginning to get her rep as a maker of steamy boudoir jams, and “Twenty Foreplay” still ranks as one of her best.
In this case: album version > remix. But I can’t find the LP version on YouTube, so…
44. Come On Get Up (All For You, 2001)
In my opinion, most of Janet’s best club bangers had a chill, relaxed after-hours vibe, but “Come On Get Up” is an exception. Jan’s love for club music probably stemmed from her days as the youngest person in Studio 54 at the tail end of the ’70s, and she was attuned to modern-day dance sounds more than just about any other pop artist of her era. “Come On Get Up” is a joyous call to action, designed to get as many asses on the dance floor as possible. The key change towards the song’s end just adds to the fun vibe.
43. Slolove (Damita Jo, 2004)
On the other side of the clubland spectrum, Janet teamed with French trio Telepopmusik for this track off of 2004’s Damita Jo. Not designed for peak-hour dancing, “Slolove” is the kind of song that either gets you in the door, or gets you grinding as the sun comes up towards the end of the night.
42. Go Deep (The Velvet Rope, 1997)
Janet spent a lot of time on the way to the club, at the club, or leaving the club. On the playful “Go Deep”, the singer gathers her friends for a fun night of dancing and flirting. The rubbery bass line-clearly influenced by Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under A Groove”-is a highlight. Released as a radio single as one of the lighter moments from The Velvet Rope LP, the song’s success was amplified by a remix co-starring Timbaland and Missy Elliott. It was the first of Janet & Missy’s many collaborations over the past two decades.
41. Scream (Michael Jackson Duet With Janet Jackson, HIStory-Past Present & Future: Book 1, 1995)
More than a brother/sister duet, “Scream” was a summit of pop royalty. Despite the fact that his crown was a little tarnished by the summer of ’95, MJ was still the king of pop, and Janet was the biggest selling female artist of the time that didn’t traffic in treacly ballads a la Mariah and Whitney. Despite a little competitive shade (Janet famously hinted in a Vibe magazine interview that she felt her vocals were mixed down in post-production), the “Scream” single and video became legendary in short order. The Mark Romanek-directed clip won a Grammy for Best Video of the Year as well as several MTV VMAs. I’m more partial to the Naughty By Nature remix of the song (which feels more like an Off The Wall outtake), but the original version slams pretty hard.
40. When We Oooo (All For You, 2001)
One of Janet’s finest sex jams, 2001’s “When We Oooo” has a slight reggae vibe to go with the singer’s sensual purr and those gorgeous harmonies.
39. Escapade (Rhythm Nation, 1989)
“Escapade” became Janet’s third #1 pop single in the winter of 1990, and the sunny vibe of the song offered a welcome escape from the winter doldrums. Boasting a carnivalesque video, the song was allegedly inspired by Martha & The Vandellas’ Motown classic “Nowhere To Run”. Janet went on to perform the song (and its ridiculously intricate choreography…how do you do that leg thing?) at the 1990 American Music Awards.
38. The Velvet Rope (The Velvet Rope, 1997)
The title track to Janet’s critically-acclaimed meditation on self-acceptance, depression and kink (seriously–I’m still uncovering things hidden in that album’s lyrics) remains one of her best album-openers. The dark yet danceable tune samples Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” (best known as the theme from the movie The Exorcist, not a coincidence, I’m sure) and features pop violinist Vanessa-Mae.
37. Miss You Much (Rhythm Nation, 1989)
You couldn’t have picked a more appropriate song to welcome Janet back after a two year break. Refreshed after taking some time to let the unexpected success of Control wash over her, Janet (along with Jimmy & Terry) let her fans know that they were missed (much), and the fans responded in kind. “Miss You Much” spent a month at the top of the charts and was one of 1989’s biggest hits.
36. Young Love (Janet Jackson, 1982)
Four years before saying “you might think I’m crazy but I’m serious”, Janet let folks know she wasn’t playing games with the opening line of her very first single: “I may be young but I’m not foolish”. “Young Love”, produced by fledgling duo Rene Moore and Angela Winbush, was a bit of a teenybopper tune, but it wasn’t all that innocent. In a year that saw a series of fantastic dance/soul/boogie hits from Melba Moore, Evelyn King and others, “Young Love” is a standout. It’s also one of the two first 45s I ever owned-along with “The Girl Is Mine”, I received it as a Christmas present in the year of its release.
35. Let’s Wait Awhile (Control, 1986)
“Let’s Wait Awhile” was Janet’s first ballad hit, climbing to #2 on the pop charts and topping the R&B list in the spring of 1987. The twinkling slow jam (written by Janet with assistance from her friend Melanie Andrews) also caught on as an anthem of sorts: the safe-sex/abstinence movement was beginning to pick up steam by the time “Let’s Wait Awhile” hit the airwaves, and the message struck a chord with listeners who understood that moving too far, too fast could have life-threatening consequences. “I’ll be worth the wait,” Janet intoned towards the song’s conclusion, offering perhaps the most sensual letdown in the history of pop music.
34. R&B Junkie (Damita Jo, 2004)
By the time of Damita Jo‘s release in 2004, a lot of R&B fans were nostalgia for a time when jams like Evelyn King’s “I’m In Love” ruled dance floors and roller rinks nationwide. So Janet sampled the 1981 jam in question and created a new song that was able to groove two generations of R&B fans. Referencing dances like the smurf and the wop, “R&B Junkie” was one of the most underrated tracks on the Damita Jo album, and should’ve been a single.
33. Like You Don’t Love Me (Damita Jo, 2004)
We return to Damita Jo for some sassy, sexy Janet. Over some bouncy yet seductive Jam & Lewis production, JJ asks her man to give her some good-ass sex. Not lovemaking. But hardcore bonin’. “Do me like you wanna do them other girls,” Janet purrs. Domesticity is a wonderful thing, but settling down doesn’t mean that the gettin’ down has to suffer, right? This song offers yet another wrinkle in the Janet/New Edition universe, as Johnny Gill plays guitar on it.
32. Better Days (All For You, 2001)
All For You was a turn away from the dark vibe of The Velvet Rope. Freshly divorced and ready to shed the baggage of her marriage, Janet closed the album, and shut the door on that particular period of pain, with “Better Days”. Tired of wallowing in sadness, she’s ready to “leave old shit behind” and “move on with my life.” Those creamy Jackson harmonies are divine.
31. Shoulda Known Better (Unbreakable, 2015)
In 1989, Janet expressed hope for a better future on the Rhythm Nation LP. Twenty-five years later, “Shoulda Known Better” finds Janet older, wiser and much less naive. The world is still far from perfect, but giving up is not an option. One of the most lyrically powerful songs on Unbreakable, Janet acknowledges her youthful naivete but lets it be known that the message she pushed via song and dance is still very much applicable in the 21st century.
30. Enjoy (20 Y.O., 2006)
Recorded during brother Michael’s 2005 trial, “Enjoy” finds Janet struggling to maintain positivity in the face of inconceivable heartbreak. Taking pleasure in the simple things in life and freeing herself from inhibitions, you can feel every ounce of life Janet’s lived in this performance. There’s a kids’ chorus and JJ’s signature laugh towards the end of the song, but you can tell that there was pain behind the laughter this time.
29. I Get Lonely (The Velvet Rope, 1997)
A Vibe magazine profile at the time of The Velvet Rope‘s release pinpointed “I Get Lonely” as the album’s key track. Released as the album’s third radio single, “Lonely” sped to the top of the R&B charts and peaked in the top five on the pop side (goosed along by a remix featuring R&B quartet BLACKstreet.) The ache in Janet’s voice is palpable-and relatable. After all, we get lonely too.
28. No Sleeep (Janet featuring J. Cole) (Unbreakable, 2015)
Janet announced her comeback by sliding in through the side door, as she’s done several times in the past. “No Sleeep” (stylized for maximum hash-taggery), is a seductive mid tempo jam that’s like “That’s The Way Love Goes”‘s grown-and-sexy older sister. While the original version stands strongly on its own, a guest verse by J. Cole adds icing to the sexiest cake Janet’s delivered in over a decade.
27. Where Are You Now (janet., 1993)
Lost love hurts bad. “Where Are You Now” is one of Janet’s best “lost love” songs. I always felt a Ralph Tresvant vibe here, and not just because the backing track sounds like a slightly slowed down version of RT’s “Sensitivity”. At any rate, radio picked this one up as an album track from janet. and it got tons of radio play without being released as a single.
26. When I Think Of You (Control, 1986)
Jan’s first #1 pop single defines the word “effervescent”. After the overt sassiness of “What Have You Done For Me Lately” and “Nasty”, the newly minted 20 year old Janet dropped the scowl and delivered a pure pop confection with a side order of Minneapolis funk. If your butt isn’t moving to the song’s insistent baseline, there’s clearly something wrong with your ear drums. “When I Think Of You”‘s ascension to the chart summit made she and Michael the first (and so far, only) brother-and-sister team to top Billboard’s Hot 100 as solo artists.
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