Michael Jackson, the greatest pop artist that ever lived, has a career that spans more than 40 of his 50 years. The de facto star of Motown's boundary-breaking Jackson 5, the sensitive solo singer behind Seventies hits, the vanguard of the MTV era and the timeless voice behind some of the only multi-million-selling Nineties records you could safely call "slept-on." We've traversed his massive catalog to pick the 50 best.
The future King of Pop took on the legacy of the King of Rock & Roll on the Jacksons' 1980 take on "Heartbreak Hotel." Written by Michael, it has little in common with Elvis Presley's 1956 classic; it's a lithe disco-pop tune that takes the original's theme in a darker direction with lyrics about a hotel where relationships break up. "Heartbreak Hotel" became a Number Two R&B hit; then somebody at the Jacksons' label, perhaps sensing legal complications, changed it to the nonsensical "This Place Hotel."
Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, 1969
"I Want You Back" was a glimpse of Motown's future; its B side gazed at the label's past. A cover of a Smokey Robinson torch song (it first appeared as the B side of the Miracles' "Shop Around" in 1960), it was the sweetest fruit of the Jackson 5's collaboration with R&B singer Bobby Taylor, who brought them to Motown and produced some of their early songs. Backed by Motown house band the Funk Brothers, Michael pushes himself to the top of his range, ripping into every word of Robinson's heartbroken lyrics.
Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix, 1997
A "Dangerous"-era outtake, this was revived as the title track of Jackson's 1997 remix album. The ominously slinking song has a fittingly creepy origin story. Teddy Riley had blown off a party to work on it – and someone had been shot on the party's dance floor. He hadn't mentioned the tragedy to Jackson and was shocked when the singer suggested "Blood on the Dance Floor" as a title. Jackson sings about a stalker with a seven-inch knife – another in his line of femmes fatales for whom sex and murder are one and the same.
Even by Jackson's wildly ambitious standards, the theme song for the 1993 movie Free Willy, and the eighth single from Dangerous, was one of his most grandiose recordings. Written while sitting in his "Giving Tree" at Neverland Ranch, "Will You Be There" begins with a long orchestral prelude from Beethoven, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, interweaving hosannas from the Andraé Crouch Singers and climaxing with a tearful spoken monologue. It's a gospel song that continues a theme of his career: from "I'll Be There" to "Got to Be There" to "Will You Be There," summing up a journey from boundless confidence to fear and solitude.
Writing the steamiest, most unambiguously sexual song he'd ever sung, and calling it "In the Closet"? Early-Nineties Michael Jackson was a master of mixed signals. Producer Teddy Riley constructed a dissonant, off-kilter beat that made Jackson's hormone-soaked whispers and wails fit right in with the tone of R&B radio ("It was just incredible," recalled keyboardist Brad Buxer, "almost atonal"). Initially conceived as a duet with Madonna, "In the Closet" features a couple of spoken passages by a "Mystery Girl" – Princess Stéphanie of Monaco – on the recording, and Naomi Campbell in the racy video.
The biggest victory of the Jacksons' lackluster Victory era was "State of Shock," a Number Three-charting duet between Jackson and Mick Jagger, fluidly working a middle ground between guitar rock and pop. The song was originally intended to be a collaboration with Queen's Freddie Mercury but fell into Jagger's hands due to scheduling difficulties. "[Michael] had Mick doing scales for over an hour to warm up before he would even start," said sound engineer Bruce Swedien. "Mick didn't hesitate. By then, everyone knew how good Michael was. If Michael Jackson says warm up, you warm up – even if you are Mick Jagger."
HIStory: Past, Present and Future, 1995
Jackson had reached a breaking point after being accused of sexual molestation. The result was "Scream," one of his most confrontational songs, and his first ever to use the word "fuck." Written with his sister Janet, it reached Number Five on the Hot 100, thanks to an extravagant video that has often been credited as the most expensive music clip ever made. But while it was a hard period for Jackson, it wasn't all bad times. "I have had so much fun working with my sister," he said in 1995. "It's like a reunion. I'm closest to Janet of all the family members. We were very emotional on the set."
Dancing Machine, 1974
The Jackson 5's star had dimmed a bit by 1974: It had been three years since their last Top 10 hit. So producer/co-writer Hal Davis took the risk of pulling them away from kid-centered pop and giving them a full-on disco song with a burbling synthesizer. With the help of the spectacular "robot" dance Michael performed when the song debuted on Soul Train, "Dancing Machine" became a mammoth crossover hit and pointed in the direction the group would follow from then on. "I loved 'Dancing Machine,' loved the groove and the feel of that song," Michael recalled in Moonwalk.
As danceable pleas for universal understanding go, the opening track on Dangerous is shockingly tense and fragmented. The groove bears the signature sound of producer Teddy Riley, but Jackson came up with most of it. "He brought it to me as a DAT, and he told me there were things he wanted done, and I did them," Riley recalled. Jackson's voice takes its time creeping into the mix, and he stutters the chorus like his voice is being sliced to shreds; the most accessible moment of "Jam" is arguably the verse by Heavy D, Jackson's favorite rapper at the time. Unsurprisingly, the song stalled on the Pop charts but was a Top Five R&B hit.
Farewell My Summer Love, 1984
In 1984, a recording of Michael Jackson reading the tax code would probably have charted. Keenly aware of this, Motown released an album of unused MJ material. The Farewell My Summer Love album was nine songs from 1973, overdubbed with new, Eighties-sounding instrumentation. "It's not fair," Jackson said. "I had no control over that music." The album's innocent title track became a Top 10 hit in the U.K. Fittingly for a song about adolescent sadness, Michael's performance is a snapshot of his voice just as it was changing; there are even some hints of his mature power.
"I got a call at three in the morning, it's Michael Jackson," says vocal coordinator Stephanie Spruill, who had assembled the 30-voice choir for the Jacksons' "Can You Feel It." "He says, 'I know I asked you to get the choir of voices . . . but now I need a choir of children. And I want them to be every race, creed and color.' Mind you, the session was in two days." Spruill – who also sings the song's high notes – pulled it off. The choir was triple-tracked, creating a triumphal disco entreaty that, according to Tito, defines the Jacksons. "It speaks about what we're about," he told Larry King. "Love and peace and harmony for the world."
After the Jacksons' 1977 Goin' Places tanked commercially, it took Michael Jackson to help rescue the band – but not the one you think. "Blame It" was co-written and performed by Michael "Mick" Jackson, a bearded Yorkshire singer-songwriter, who released his own version almost simultaneously. Of course he didn't stand a chance against the Jackson disco inferno, but harbors no hard feelings. "The fact that the song made it, made it a lot easier for me," said Mick Jackson. "And of course the Jacksons went on to huge success."
Did Michael sleep in a hyperbaric chamber? ("I don't think I allowed Michael to have that thing in the house," said his mother, Katherine.) Did he pay a million dollars to buy the Elephant Man's bones? ("And why would I want some bones?" he asked Oprah.) Did he have weird pets? (Queen's Freddie Mercury once called his manager saying, "You've got to get me out of here, I'm recording with a llama.") This funky shuffle was Jackson's shot back at the tabloids, powered by dueling keyboard lines, not to mention Michael's own emphatic Stevie Wonder-esque synthesizer-vocal solo.
Third Album, 1970
"You can go back to bed, but I know where I'm going," Jackson proclaimed on the 1971 TV special Goin' Back to Indiana, just before singing its rousing title song. The funky, horn-infused pop number was composed by the Corporation and, in addition to Michael's soaring verses, it features a chanted soul-rap from his brothers about their hometown of Gary, capped off by a helium-voiced "yeeaah" from Michael. "Goin' Back to Indiana" tapped a real sense of nostalgia that sounds strange coming from someone so young. Years later, he wrote in Moonwalk, "Our records had become hits all over the world since we'd seen our hometown last."
Pipes of Peace, 1983
Jackson and Paul McCartney co-wrote the smooth yet urgent-feeling "Say Say Say" during the same sessions that yielded "The Girl Is Mine," and recorded it with George Martin at Abbey Road Studios. Jackson later recalled that he and McCartney "shared the same idea of how a pop song should work." He also added, "We worked together as equals and enjoyed ourselves. Paul never had to carry me in that studio." The song's snake-oil-themed video featured a cameo from La Toya and was filmed not far from an estate just north of Santa Barbara that Jackson later purchased and renamed Neverland Ranch.
USA for Africa, 1985
"We Are the World" – which raised more than $60 million for African famine relief and put Bob Dylan and Ray Charles in a room with Kenny Loggins and Cyndi Lauper – was conceived by Harry Belafonte. It turned into an all-night session of 45 celebrities at A&M Studio in Los Angeles. Jackson wrote with Lionel Richie for weeks and sang lines to his sister, Janet, in the dark; then he snuck into a recording studio by himself. "I couldn't wait," he said. "I went in and came out the same night with the song completed – drums, piano, strings and words to the chorus." Jones told the gathered stars to "check your ego at the door," and a benevolent hit was born.
The Jacksons, 1976
The first single released by "the Jacksons" – four of the iconic 5 and freshly promoted Randy – was their first outside of the Motown machine. Ron Alexenburg, who signed them to CBS, had his eyes on "only two guys" to helm the project – Philly soul hitmakers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Together with the Jacksons, they created this hard-driving, disco-leaning Top 10 single, but the sessions left another lasting impression on Michael. "Just watching Huff play the piano while Gamble sang taught me more about the anatomy of a song than anything else," he wrote. "I'd sit there like a hawk, observing every decision, listening to every note."
Off the Wall, 1979
Quincy Jones says it was a leftover from a session by the funk group Brothers Johnson. One of the Brothers, bassist Louis "Thunder Thumbs" Johnson, says it came from a home-recorded cassette of bass ideas that he played to Michael. Either way, the slap-happy collaboration is the hardest funking thing on Off the Wall. Even though Louis Johnson would play on three other Jackson albums, it was a high point he couldn't repeat. "What I'll always cherish is the fun and excitement of playing live together on the Off the Wall sessions," he said. "Michael and everybody laughing, knowing we were making magic."
Third Album, 1970
Motown songwriting team the Corporation had to tone down the lyrics for "Mama's Pearl," which was originally titled "Guess Who's Making Whoopie (With Your Girlfriend)," so pre-pubescent Michael could sing it without raising parents' eyebrows. Musically, the track comes off like the scrappy cousin of "I Want You Back," with its bouncing piano and bass-y "doo-doo-doo" backup vocals, but Michael sounds as cute as ever trying to persuade a girl to fall in love with him. The track, which reached Number Two, remained special to Jackson decades later; in Moonwalk he wrote that it reminded him of his schoolyard days.
Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix, 1997
"Guns n' Roses was probably the biggest stadium rock band at the time, and then you have Michael, who is sort of the Elvis Presley of the period – and, like, that's scary fame," said Slash, who played on the harrowing industrial funkster from Jackson's 1997 remix album. Jackson addresses rumors of his painkiller addiction: "Demerol, Demerol/Oh, God, he's taking Demerol," like he's crying for help. Jermaine claimed he began taking pain medications for burns suffered during his 1984 Pepsi commercial: "I doubt he gave a second thought to Demerol's side effects," he recalled.
Got to Be There, 1972
Jackson's first single as a solo act found him already thinking outside the Jackson-family box. A Top Five pop and R&B hit, the buttery ballad "Got to Be There" was written by New Jersey songwriter Elliot Willensky, and featured a plush, pillow-talk arrangement that was far sultrier than the J5's bubblegum fare. And few pop stars of the time – let alone ones that were still 13 years old – ventured into sweetly suggestive lyrics like "Got to be there in the morning/And welcome her into my world." Was he referring to the classroom or the bedroom? Either way, he was convincing.
The best song from Jackson's last studio album is a bit of light, innocent, doting R&B, free of the dark undertones that dominated so much of his later music. The song was presented to Jackson in a demo with vocals from Marsha Ambrosius of the group Floetry, who was also one of the song's writers. "We originally demo'ed it with a woman singing, so it was hard for him to hit those notes," recalled co-producer Vidal Davis. "We did tons and tons of takes." The finished results recaptured the easeful soul of Jackson's earliest solo recordings right down to a rhythm track built around his finger snaps. Said Davis, "He had the loudest snaps in the world."
One of the most bizarre Number One hits of the Seventies – a decade with practically nothing but bizarre Number One hits. And for most of the decade, it was Jackson's only Number One solo hit. "Ben" is a love ballad to a killer rat, from a trashy horror flick about mutant rodents running amok in L.A. In the movie, it's sung by the little misfit kid who befriends the titular rat. Few fans had any clue about the pro-vermin subtext, but MJ liked the idea, according to lyricist Don Black (most famous for his James Bond themes): "He's quite an animal-lover – very sensitive. He enjoys anything that crawls or flies."
Off the Wall, 1979
The closing track on Off the Wall, "Burn This Disco Out" bursts with giddy dance-floor flair. The wriggly guitar line could've squirmed in from a Stevie Wonder record. Jackson, who'd worked through a Saturday night memorizing the lyrics so he wouldn't have to read from a cheat sheet on a Sunday recording session, bounces his voice around a melody designed for his percussive vocal style. "He was very rhythmically driven," said Rod Temperton. "So I tried to write melodies that had a lot of short notes to give him some staccato things he could do . . . and came up with 'Burn This Disco Out.' "
Billy Idol guitarist steve Stevens helped Jackson toughen his sound and his wardrobe – after Stevens introduced the pop star to his tailor, he adopted the leather-bound heavy-metal look on the cover of Bad. But Stevens' greatest contribution to the record is the spiraling metal solo in the steamy power ballad "Dirty Diana." "[Michael] kept asking me about rock bands: 'Do you know Mötley Crüe?' " Stevens recalled. The hard-edged track became Bad's fifth consecutive Number One single and a favorite of a famous real-life Diana – Princess Diana – who reportedly requested the song at a 1988 Jackson concert in London.