"I Want You Back," 1970
Those superfly dance moves! Those drums! Michael's purple pimp hat! At a turning point for the Motown empire, Berry Gordy puts all of Hitsville U.S.A.'s resources (including the then-unthinkable session budget of $10,000) into devising the perfect pop song. Michael's pleading vocal brings it home. Literally nobody has ever walked out of a room while this song was playing.
"I'll Be There," 1970
With this ballad, the Jackson 5 became the first act ever to hit Number One with their first four singles. They could no longer be dismissed as any kind of kiddie novelty — all the brothers float their voices back and forth, pledging a fantasy of eternal devotion. This song has been covered countless times (Mariah Carey took it back to Number One), but nobody has ever topped the way Michael threw himself into the line "Let me fill your heart with joy and laughter."
"Got to Be There"
His first solo single, and a first taste of the mature, introspective Michael to come. The song itself is hardly childhood stuff ("Got to be there in the morning"?), with bittersweet minor-key harmonies that should have been beyond the reach of a young thing. Yet Michael coasts over the jazzy chords and lush orchestration, handling each key change like a born soul man. He'd just turned 13.
For countless 1970s kids, this Saturday-morning cartoon (with "ABC" as the theme song) was the first experience of the J5's timeless soundtrack of playground funk, like a mix of Sly and the Family Stone with Fat Albert's Junkyard Band. It was more psychedelic than Scooby Doo, with a better beat than Hong Kong Phooey. Michael admitted later he watched it all the time, saying to himself, "I'm a cartoon!"
"Dancing Machine," 1974
The brothers were getting too old for teeny-bopper appeal, chafing at the artistic limitations of the Motown hit machine, where not even Michael was allowed to contribute to the songwriting or production. But their last major Motown hit (and early disco experiment) was a taste of beats to come. While MJ was quietly watching the pros work the studio, he was soaking up the tricks ("like a hawk," as he admitted) he'd use to conquer the world.
"Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," 1979
Dancing his way out of the constrictions of Motown, seizing his first shot at creative control, MJ leads his brothers to the promised land. The lyrics introduce his spiritual yearning ("I need to do just something to get closer to your soul"), while the groove really does shake your body down to the ground. Goodbye, yellow-brick road; hello, future of pop.
"Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," 1979
Make a list of the top 10 "Ooooh!" screams in history, and this hit has at least six of them. MJ introduces the world to his grown bad self, rocking harder than anything on rock radio, yet sleek and debonair enough to make the rest of the Top 40 sound like hot air. Who else could get away with that murmured spoken-word introduction? Who else could wear white socks with a tux and still look cool?
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