Culling a playlist from an artist as estimable and earth-shaking as Michael Jackson is a monumental task. There’s always going to be the one that got away — the shoulda-been classic that got dwarfed simply because his classics were just too towering to allow any runner-ups. But whether chart-topper or quiet victory, what stands out about the best Michael Jackson songs is how the music mostly cleared the way for his outsized personality. His vocal style was marvelously flexible, often favoring simple attack over cheap pyrotechnics, and he applied it to some of the most indelible melodies ever written. It’s those qualities that cement his legend as pop legend bar none.
“I Want You Back”
What better place to start than at the beginning? If anything, this whirling R&B number sounds even better some 40 years on than it did when it was released. Eleven-year-old Michael’s voice on this tune is a wonder: aching and expressive like the best of his years-older soul peers, dicing up syllables on the verses and clinging on to long sustains in the chorus. As close to perfect as pop songs can get.
“Rock With You”
And with this song, the template for Justin Timberlake’s career was established. What’s remarkable about “Rock With You” is how unobtrusive it is: a silky string section and barely-there twitch of guitar — Michael doesn’t even hit the word “Rock” all that hard — he just glides over it, preferring to charm with a wink and a smile rather than with aggression or ferocity.
Michael practically sobs out the verses on “Billie Jean,” his wrung-dry, pained performance at the center of this stormy pop classic. Jackson and producer Quincy Jones load the song with weird, wonderful touches: that sudden, diving string section, the stray doodles of organ, Michael’s sampled gasp turning up between measures like he’s coming up for air. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: “Billie Jean” is a masterpiece, and one that doesn’t lose its strange, dark power, no matter how many times you hear it.
“Give In to Me”
Michael Jackson was often at his best when he was indulging a dark streak, and this strange, sinister number about obsessive love from Dangerous is all ice and shadows. Jackson sounds agonized on the chorus, and Slash’s eerie descending arpeggios envelop the song like spiderwebs — one of Jackson’s more masterfully ominous numbers.
And speaking of masterfully ominous. “Thriller”‘s 13-minute video is so rife with camp charm it’s easy to overlook the song’s inherent, cheeky darkness. This is, after all, a song that begins with something evil lurking in the dark, makes a brief stop at demon posession before ending with an army of zombies descending on their prey. But Jackson and Quincy Jones surround those lyrics with such spectacular robo-funk — that simple six-note synth riff rolling over and over, unmistakable and unforgettable — that it’s easy to miss the skeletons crouching in its shadows.
Simple, stark, quiet and beautiful and boasting a windswept synth-string part that Nas would later sample for “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” “Human Nature” is one of Jackson’s most subtle and affecting ballads. The way his voice tumbles down the notes in the chorus is a master class in vocal delivery, and his pleading repetition of “Why? Why?” is the sound of quiet heartbreak.
“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ “
The refrain sounds like confrontation, but in between the title’s repeated jabs come genuine sympathy: “You’re stuck in the middle, and the pain is thunder.” The song is Motown revisited, its roaming synth-bass a stand-in for James Jamerson, its edges rounded out with roving horn charts and gospel-tinged backing vocals.
“The Way You Make Me Feel”
Four and a half minutes of unadulterated bliss, “The Way You Make Me Feel” cruises slowly on a rubberband bass line elevated by Jackson’s ecstatic whoops and yelps. Every piece of this song is in perfect place, the big brass punctuating each of Jackson’s heartfelt demonstrations of affection.
Tense and agitated, Jackson turns his voice into a machine gun, reducing the verses to a hail of tiny sounds. He pulls off a mean feat in this one, seeming to sympathize with both the aggressor and the aggressee, his hoarse, whispered “Annie, are you OK?” sounding like the set-up in some odd horror film.
“Black or White”
It’s the weird facial morphing at the end of the video that everyone remembers, but the lead single from Jackson’s Dangerous is a tidy bit of pop, Jackson’s soulful vocal framed by a bright, ringing guitar phrase. Jackson had the tendency to skew obvious when being topical, but “Black or White” keenly smuggles social commentary into a love song, using matters of the heart to erase racial barriers.
“In the Closet”
Jackson’s minor hits are just as fascinating — if not more so — than his blockbusters. On this 1991 song, he seems to be imagining the whole of post-’00s pop music. The beats are Timbaland-tiny, and Jackson’s voice is barely more than a stutter until the chorus, where he stretches out long and lean and limber.
The much-vaunted collaboration between Michael and sister Janet was viewed by some as a disappointment when it was unveiled in 1995 — bolstered by what was, at the time, the most expensive music video ever shot. Now, though, it’s a terrific bit of pop paranoia, the Jacksons bitterly lashing out against doubters and naysayers over a fierce electro backdrop — one periodically pierced by Jackson’s pained yelps.
“I Can’t Help It”
Michael does Stevie: a light, elegant Wonder-ful ballad finds Jackson scaling back his vocal assault, floating just above a lush bed of organ and bass. He takes his time on this one, making its pleasures simple but irresistible.
“Leave Me Alone”
Picking up where “Scream” left off, “Leave Me Alone” finds Jackson taking a toothier tack against his tabloid assailants. The song works because the music sounds like vintage Michael: a batch of thick chords for Jackson to vamp over, a kind of darker inversion of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” This time, though, that way was worked-up and angry, and Jackson’s aggressive scraping of the high notes makes plain his frustration.
Another of Jackson’s elegant R&B numbers, he cruises cleanly up the center of the burbling backdrop; like most early hits, “P.Y.T.” finds Jackson at his most controlled, saving his big yearning yelps for the chorus, and making them all the more indelible by their infrequency.
And why not end with another bona fide classic? This song is so familiar it hardly bears much exposition, but what stands out now is its marvelous simplicity: that simple, toothy guitar attack and one of Jackson’s fiercer vocal attacks. This is edgy Michael at his best, and Eddie Van Halen’s searing central solo only serves as a mirror of Jackson’s own urgency. Again, the song is a sly subversion: What Jackson’s advocating isn’t attack, it’s retreat. “Beat It” is, in the end, a celebration of the spot-on of the confidence that comes from knowing you have nothing you need to prove.
More Michael Jackson:
- Michael Jackson (1958-2009)
- Michael Jackson: The Rolling Stone Covers
- 1992 Cover: Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Mind
- Music World Mours Jackson’s Death
- Rolling Stone’s Essential Michael Jackson Coverage