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.
Jackson called this Paul McCartney duet the "obvious first single" from Thriller. But Quincy Jones has referred to it as a "red herring," since it only hinted at Thriller's power. Jackson offered McCartney the song, which has an easy, jazzy groove and shows off a breezy rapport between Jackson and the ex-Beatle, as a duet to "repay the favor" of McCartney giving him "Girlfriend" for Off the Wall. McCartney's one concern was the word "doggone," which he felt some listeners might consider "shallow." "When I checked with Michael, he explained that he wasn't going for depth, he was going for rhythm, he was going for feel," McCartney said.
Off the Wall and Thriller and Bad were more entertainment," recalls longtime Jackson engineer Bruce Swedien. "Dangerous and HIStory were more Michael's life story." A product of Jackson switching up his sound to keep up with the R&B of the Nineties, the title track to Dangerous is stark and driving, with vocals that tilt between anger and terror, and lyrics about lust passing over into a "web of sin." The track evolved out of a Bad-era outtake called "Streetwalker" that he revisited and retitled during the Dangerous sessions with co-writer Bill Bottrell. "The music didn't move Michael," co-producer Teddy Riley recalled. "I told Michael . . . 'This is your album. If this is the right tune, I can utilize what you have in your singing. Let me change that whole bottom and put a new floor in there.' He said, 'Try it. I guess we gotta use what we love.' " The resulting tune mixes bright strings (a Jackson favorite) with one of the starkest beats he had ever sung over, a sharp contrast to Quincy Jones' rich, colorful orchestration. Said Riley, "We don't just add music or instruments just to be adding."
Maybe Tomorrow, 1971
Looking back at the Jackson 5 era years later, Jackson said that his "three favorite songs from those days are 'Never Can Say Goodbye,' 'I'll Be There' and 'ABC.' " The man had good ears for the boy's best work. Written by Clifton Davis, who would perform it at Jackson's funeral in 2009, "Never" set heartbroken lyrics to a sparkling melody. Davis was worried that 11-year-old Michael might not understand the pain in the lyrics. "I recall him asking about one of the lines," Davis said. " 'What's this word mean, "anguish"?' he asked me. I explained it. He shrugged his shoulders and just sang the line 'There's that anguish and there's that doubt.' And I believed him." The single, buoyed by a dreamily baroque arrangement gilded with flute and chimes, reached Number Two on the Billboard chart instead of the Jackson 5's by-then-customary Number One. But as Jermaine Jackson recalled in his book You Are Not Alone, neither his dad, Joseph Jackson, "nor Mr. Gordy" complained. How could they?
Off the Wall, 1979
"In the studio, Michael was silly and fun-loving," recalled Rod Temperton, who began working with Jackson during the late Seventies. "He never swore. He didn't even say the word 'funky,' he said 'smelly.' So that was Quincy's nickname for him: Smelly." His loose, playful side is on display during the title track, written by Temperton. "Off the Wall" was an ode to "party people night and day." It invited listeners to "hide your inhibitions/Gotta let that fool loose deep inside your soul" by hitting the dance clubs and "livin' crazy, that's the only way." But its succulent groove, swathed in Jackson's sumptuous overdubbed harmonies, was as smoothly seductive as the vision of dance music in his head. Temperton, who arranged the rhythm and vocal tracks, re-created the dance-floor vibe of his disco band Heatwave, and the song's growling funk synths were partly played by jazz and fusion keyboardist George Duke. The song was also strangely prophetic: In the decades after its release, the world saw how truly off the wall Jackson's life could become.
The epic video for the title track of Jackson's bestselling album has become so iconic that it's easy to underestimate the song itself, one of the strangest pieces of music he ever released. Written by Rod Temperton, the song was first called "Starlight" until Quincy Jones asked Temperton for another title. "The next morning I woke up and I just said this word ['thriller']," Temperton says. "Something in my head just said, 'This is the title.' You could visualize it at the top of the Billboard charts." Temperton also revised the lyrics to take in Jackson's love of horror movies. The track took the percolating-funk feel of Off the Wall to a grander, more theatrical level, with its supernatural sound effects – howling werewolves and creaking coffins – and the creepy-crawly narration of actor Vincent Price, a friend of Jones' then-wife, Peggy Lipton, who nailed his part in two takes. The weirdness of "Thriller" didn't end there: While the song was being mixed, Jackson's eight-foot-long boa constrictor, Muscles, slithered across the console. The last of a mind-boggling seven singles from Thriller, it hit Number Four on the charts.
"'The Way You Make Me Feel' and 'Smooth Criminal' are simply the grooves I was in at the time," Jackson said. Planet Earth was pretty into them as well. The third consecutive Number One single from Bad is the last unambiguously buoyant hit of Jackson's miraculous Eighties. "That was one of my favorites," says keyboardist Greg Phillinganes. "I remember how much fun I had laying down those offbeat parts, the bass line, all that stuff, and watching the expression on Michael's face." The idea for the unshakable groove came from Jackson's mother, Katherine, who suggested he do a song "with a shuffling kind of rhythm." Jackson replied, "I think I know what you mean," and quickly came up with something (originally titled "Hot Fever"). Jackson recorded all the vocal parts, including the backing vocals, dancing around a darkened studio to the track. Recalled engineer Bruce Swedien, "He'd sing his line, then he'd disappear into the darkness."
Off the Wall, 1979
"Maybe that was too personal for a party – it was for me," Jackson said of "She's Out of My Life," the moment of ballad heartbreak amid Off the Wall's disco celebration. The song was written by Los Angeles musician Thomas Bähler, about the end of a two-year relationship (Bähler had been with Karen Carpenter but has said the song isn't about her). Quincy Jones had planned to record the song with Frank Sinatra, but Jackson got a shot instead and dug deep for a stunning version. "She's Out of My Life" was Off the Wall's fourth Top 10 single, and Greg Phillinganes' electric piano set the tone for seemingly every hit ballad of the next decade and a half. Famously, Jackson's mighty voice cracks and wavers on the song's last few words. "Every time we did it, I'd look up at the end and Michael would be crying," Jones said in 1983. "I said, 'We'll come back in two weeks and do it again. . . .' Came back and he started to get teary. So we left it in." It was a staple of Jackson's set lists from 1981 to 1993, always followed by a peppy medley to bring the mood back up.
Full of funky keyboard squiggles and playful slang like "tenderoni," "P.Y.T." was Thriller's most carefree single. Quincy Jones wrote it with singer James Ingram after Jones' wife brought home lingerie called Pretty Young Things. Ingram has said that he was astonished by how Jackson actually danced in the studio as he was singing the song. That energy comes through, as Jackson trades off "na-na-na's" with a few pretty-young-thing backup singers he knew quite well: sisters Janet and La Toya. Artists ranging from American Idol singer Justin Guarini to Jones himself – with T-Pain and Robin Thicke – have covered the song, and the 25th-anniversary edition of Thriller featured a completely refigured version of the song by Will.i.am, but no one could capture the electric energy of the original. "I love 'Pretty Young Thing,' " Jackson recalled. "I liked the 'code' in the lyrics, and 'tenderoni' and 'sugar fly' were fun rock & roll-type words that you couldn't find in the dictionary."
The third of the jackson 5's unprecedented run of three straight chart-topping hit singles went to Number One in June 1970, following "I Want You Back" and "ABC." Unlike other J5 songs that could easily be sung by an adult, "The Love You Save" was specifically "written for our young voices, with parts for Jermaine as well as me," as Michael later explained. He recalled that he saw the tag-team vocal lines and opening "doo-doo-doos/bum-bum-bum" scat percussives, as the Corporation's "bow to the Sly [and the Family Stone] sound, which rotated singers around the stage." Like Sly's uptempo hits, it was also written to be dance music, for kids in the basement and the well-choreographed band onstage, too. And the recurring "Stop!" is a neat echo of "Stop! In the Name of Love," the earlier hit by their labelmates/big sisters the Supremes. It is arguably the highlight of a second LP that, with covers of Funkadelic's "I Bet You" and the Delfonics' "La La Means I Love You," saw the group growing past novelty into something way more potent.
One of Jackson's most vulnerable R&B ballads had a surprising origin – the rock band Toto, of "Africa" and "Hold the Line" fame. Some of the band played on Thriller, including keyboardist Steve Porcaro. Late in the sessions, Jones was still hunting for songs, so Toto sent over a couple of demos. But at the end of the tape was an unfinished instrumental that caught Jones' ear. "There was this dummy lyric, a very skeletal thing," he recalled, "but such a wonderful flavor." Jones sent it to lyricist John Bettis, who also co-wrote tender hits like the Carpenters' "Top of the World" and Madonna's "Crazy for You." The result perfectly fit Michael's shy, breathy vocals, even if the plot involves hitting the clubs and snagging a one-night stand ("If this town is just an apple," he sings, "then let me take a bite"). Though it was a last-minute addition to Thriller, "Human Nature" became its fifth single and a Top 10 summer hit. It returned to the charts 10 summers later as SWV's 1993 Number One R&B hit "Right Here/Human Nature," from Free Willy, a kiddie movie about a killer whale.
A lush reverie, "Remember the Time" was Jackson's finest attempt at updating his sound for the hip-hop era. After splitting with Quincy Jones over creative differences following Bad, he began looking for a young producer and landed on Teddy Riley, architect of New Jack Swing, the hot R&B sound of the moment. "I came in with 10 grooves," Riley said at the time. "He liked them all." "Remember the Time" was a high point of their collaboration and one of Jackson's best post-Eighties vocal performances. Engineer Dave Way recalled watching the singer working on "Remember the Time" as he nailed "each note and harmony, double it, triple it and then maybe quadruple – each time singing it perfectly, vibratos perfectly matched, perfectly in tune, rhythmically dead on, knowing exactly what he wanted to do the whole time. Flawless." Who was Jackson singing about? Riley claimed the song was written after Jackson told him about his feelings for his second wife, Debbie Rowe (a claim he later retracted on Twitter). Jermaine Jackson, though, said the song was written for Diana Ross.
Off the Wall, 1979
One of those monster Off the Wall grooves that easily could have been a huge hit – except it never became a single, maybe because the charts were already packed with hits from Off the Wall. "Workin' Day and Night" sits halfway through the unstoppable Side One of the original vinyl LP (the disco side), one of two tracks Jackson wrote solo. (The other was "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough.") The lyrics give an early hint of MJ's combative side, with the standard bluesman's plaint about how hard his woman makes him work. Yet the hyperactive Latin percussion, spiky horns and gulping-for-oxygen vocals all reflect the fanatical work ethic MJ brought to his solo breakthrough. "When he commits to an idea, he goes all the way with it," Jones said. "It's ass power, man. You have to be emotionally ready to put as much energy into it as it takes to make it right." As a deep cut, "Workin' Day and Night" is prized among MJ cognoscenti – thanks to all that ass power.
The searing title track for Bad injected a new level of aggression and tension into Jackson's music. Written by Jackson, the song was inspired by an article he'd read about an African-American student who left the inner city to attend a largely white school and was killed on a visit home. At the same time, Jackson was obsessed with Prince, whom he saw as genuine competition. (During a visit to Neverland, producers L.A. Reid and Babyface sat with Jackson in his home movie theater and watched Prince's film Under the Cherry Moon.) Perhaps to prove who was truly the King of Pop, Jackson and Jones initially conceived "Bad" as a duet – or showdown – between the two men (Prince was supposed to sing the initial "your butt is mine" line). Prince met with Jackson and Jones to discuss the collaboration, but after hearing the song, he passed. As he left the meeting, he supposedly said, "It will be a big hit, even if I am not on it!" The song became a solo showcase, from a seething delivery and mouth-percussion part by Jackson to an organ solo by jazz great Jimmy Smith.
Jackson's most ambitious, emotional ballad was written toward the end of the Bad sessions by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett. "It was the last weekend; we were going to close out the Bad record, and Quincy said, "Don't you guys have anything for us?" Ballard recalled. "We did a quick demo with Siedah singing, and she drove over and played it for Quincy the next day. He loved it, and he played it for Michael on Monday, and he said, 'Make a track.' So we started building this track, and it was magic." Jackson took it from there, asking Garrett to add backing vocals and bringing in San Francisco's Andrae Crouch choir and the Winans to back him. "He said, 'I want you to make it big – do it however you hear it. Just make it sound real gospel. Make it sound like church,' " recalls Sandra Crouch, who was leader Andrae's sister. "And that's what we did." Upon hearing the song, singer Mavis Staples interpreted Jackson's unforgettable made-up entreaty "sch-mon!" as an homage to her performance in the Staple Singers' R&B classic "I'll Take You There," another song with deep gospel roots.
What were the Jackson 5 going to do for an encore after "I Want You Back"? How about build on it? Songwriter Deke Richards elaborated on a little riff from their previous hit's chorus, shaping it into a new, equally potent song. He and his partners in the Corporation came up with lyrics inspired by reality; as co-writer Freddie Perren put it, "[They were] the age they were, and . . . most of their fans were still in school." "ABC" was, in other words, straight-up bubblegum pop, but funnier and funkier than the kid-directed hits that groups like the Archies and Ohio Express had scored during the previous couple of years: The growling, percussive breakdown, and a blaring fuzz guitar that makes the riff more exciting every time it starts or stops, are as sophisticated as anything that was happening in pop in 1969. In Michael's words, "The verses were tongue-twisting, and that's why they were split up between Jermaine and me." And yet, Michael dominates the song: Jermaine's lines are deep in the mix, and Michael hollers like he needs the teacher's attention.
Off the Wall, 1979
"So much uptempo dance music is threatening, but I liked the coaxing, the gentleness, taking a shy girl and letting her shed her fears rather than forcing them out of her," Jackson recalled, describing "Rock With You." Arguably the last hit of the classic disco era, this chart-topper remains one of the great seduction jams in modern R&B, a template for countless wanna-be mirror-ball lotharios, wrapped in vibrant string arrangements and poised halfway between a silk-sheet ballad and a dance-floor burner. "Songs like 'Rock With You' made me want to become a performer," Usher said in 2009. It was the first song written for Jackson by key collaborator Rod Temperton, of boogie merchants Heatwave, after a request from Quincy Jones. (Temperton went on to pen "Thriller," "Off the Wall," "Burn This Disco Out," "Baby Be Mine" and others.) The video, with Jackson working his magic in a silver outfit with little more than lasers and smoke as visuals, shows a solo artist looking barely more than a kid but in complete control of his game.
A call to racial unity that practiced what it preached by seamlessly combining classic-rock swagger and R&B drive, "Black or White" is the best song Jackson recorded during the Nineties. "I thought his rock stuff up to that point had been kind of cartoonish," said Bill Bottrell, who co-wrote and co-produced the song. Its Stones-y riff came from Jackson, who hummed it to Bottrell one day in the studio. "I turned it into a Southern-rock thing, a real gutbucket tune," Bottrell recalled. Jackson also came up with the idea for the hard-hitting rhythm track. "I set about adding loads of percussion, including cowbells and shakers," Bottrell said, "trying to get a swingy sort of groove." Rather than call in a top hip-hop MC, Jackson let Bottrell handle the consciousness-raising rap on the song's bridge. But it is Jackson's incisive vocals that make the song, a tour de force of pop polish and raw energy. The performance was actually a scratch vocal. But Jackson – a sonic perfectionist who constantly rerecorded undeniably excellent takes – knew it was good enough to keep as is.
A visionary mix of metal bluster and disco glitz, complete with a headbanger's ball of an Eddie Van Halen guitar eruption. With its down-in-jungleland video, "Beat It" crashed rock radio along with every other station on the dial, reaching Number One just a week after "Billie Jean" ended its seven-week run at the top. (The song that hit Number One in between? Dexys Midnight Runners' "Come on Eileen.") "Beat It" was the last song added to Thriller, as the clock was ticking to the release date. As Quincy Jones told Rolling Stone, "When we were finishing 'Beat It,' we had three studios going. We had Eddie Van Halen in one. Michael was in another singing a part through a cardboard tube, and we were mixing in another. We were working five nights and five days with no sleep. And at one point, the speakers overloaded and caught on fire." The only person not blown away was Van Halen's David Lee Roth, who scoffed, "What did Edward do with Michael Jackson? He went in and played the same fucking solo he's been playing in this band for 10 years. Big deal!"
Originally written during the Off the Wall sessions, the opening track on Thriller was a declaration of radical intent. Using the African chant "ma ma se ma ma sa ma ma ku sa" from Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango's unlikely 1972 international pop hit "Soul Makossa," Jackson widened the earlier song's universal appeal, paying tribute to his own roots with a prescient crate-digging hip-hop savvy. Foremost, it's a club banger, "something you can play with on the dance floor and get sweaty working out to," as Jackson described it. But it also has a dark lyrical drama and whip-crack call-and-response vocal tension. Between the swirl of synth beats, Brazilian percussionist Paulinho da Costa's friction drum colors, hot horn stabs, and rhythms pounded out by Jackson and bandmates on a "bathroom stomping board," the groove never stops coming. If Off the Wall had been pop disco's crowning moment, this is the first great example of polyglot, post-disco dance music – basically, what global pop has become.
Given that he was the biggest, most beloved pop star in the world, not everyone was happy about Michael Jackson coming out with a song that built on the aggression of Thriller's "Beat It." He and Quincy Jones reportedly butted heads over including the irresistibly menacing "Smooth Criminal" on Bad, and Jehovah's Witness elders visited the set of the song's video and expressed disappointment with its violent imagery. But Jackson held his ground, and the result is his best blend of R&B groove and rock edginess, and a turning point in his shift toward darker, harder-edged material. Inspired in part by the story of mid-Eighties serial killer Richard Ramirez, "Smooth Criminal" had been around in slightly different form since 1985, first called "Chicago 1945" and then "Al Capone"; both versions of the track featured a rapid-fire funky bass line close to the ravaging synth-bass of the finished number. The heartbeat heard on the track is a Synclavier rendition of Jackson's own, and helps provide creeping counterpoint to his haunting cries of "Annie, are you OK?"
This tremor-inducing jam represents the moment Michael Jackson was transfigured from the lead singer of a very successful boy band into the King of Pop – or, at the very least, its young prince. Taking the proto-disco single-mindedness of the J5's "Dancing Machine," it added a kinetic dose of Sly and the Family Stone-crossover soul and Stevie Wonder-style synth funk, alongside percussive vocals and Michael's still-teenage yet unmistakably post-pubescent exhortations and squeals. Significantly, Destiny was the first self-produced LP by the brother group, who had rechristened themselves the Jacksons (following their split with older brother Jermaine and their departure from Motown). The song peaked at Number Seven on the pop chart, but that belies its profound pop prescience. It would be memorably sampled on Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's "Get on the Dance Floor," among other hip-hop songs. And it was covered in 2013 by Justin Timberlake – a man who owes Michael quite a lot indeed.
Third Album, 1970
"Just look over your shoulders, honey!" Jackson declares midway through "I'll Be There," misquoting another Motown hit, the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There." It's a telling mistake that somehow makes his performance even greater – still 11 years old when the song was recorded, he was singing about emotions he couldn't possibly have experienced, with the power and fire of a man who'd lived several lifetimes. Extensively rewritten from a demo by the recording's bassist, Bob West, with a vocal arrangement by Willie Hutch (later a star in his own right), "I'll Be There" also features Jermaine Jackson tearing it up on the bridge ("I'll be there to comfort you. . . . "). Their fourth consecutive Number One hit and Motown's bestselling single up to that point, "I'll Be There" showed that the Jackson 5's gifts ran much deeper than the giddy fun of their earlier hits, and revealed the gospel roots that anchored their art. In Moonwalk, Jackson called it "our real breakthrough song; it was the one that said, 'We're here to stay.' "
Off the Wall, 1979
Jackson called the opening track on Off the Wall "my first big chance," and he wasn't kidding. Six minutes of joyous pop funk that whooshed like a jet stream, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" was both an unstoppable hit and a milestone in Jackson's creative life. "That song means a lot to me," he wrote in his memoir Moonwalk, "because it was the first song I wrote as a whole." Indeed, it embodied Jackson's new, hands-on approach to his music. He not only wrote it but also sang all the multilayered backing vocals and devised the spoken intro ("to build up tension and surprise people," he said). He even played the glass bottles (along with his brother Randy) that lend the song added rhythmic sparkle. When his mother, Katherine, questioned the sexual undertones of lines like "Ain't nothing like a love desire. . . . I'm melting like hot candle wax," Jackson responded, "Well, if you think it means something dirty, then that's what it'll mean. But that's not how I intended it."
Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, 1969
From the shooting-star piano that kicks it off, "I Want You Back" is one glorious shock after another – and, in 1969, its biggest shock of all was that its lead singer was both unquestionably a magnificent performer and obviously a little kid. (Michael was 11 years old when he recorded it, although Motown claimed he was eight.) Deke Richards, Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell initially wrote it as a demo for Gladys Knight and the Pips called "I Wanna Be Free." Motown boss Berry Gordy helped to rewrite it for the brother act from Gary, Indiana, he'd just signed; under the collective name the Corporation, the four members of that songwriting team continued to craft many of the Jackson 5's early hits. "I Want You Back" wasn't the Jackson 5's first single (that had been 1968's locally distributed "Big Boy"), but it was their national debut, an irresistible song with a brilliant arrangement that lets Michael's voice cartwheel across its groove. It remained a fixture of nearly every performance he gave for the rest of his life.
Michael Jackson's greatest song sums up all the contradictions in his music: youthful exuberance, tortured nerves, pure physical grace. As he told Rolling Stone at the time, "Billie Jean" reflected his own sexual paranoia as a 24-year-old megastar: "Girls in the lobby, coming up the stairway. You hear guards getting them out of elevators. But you stay in your room and write a song. And when you get tired of that, you talk to yourself. Then let it all out onstage." Although "Billie Jean" was one of the first songs MJ wrote for Thriller, he and Quincy Jones kept tinkering with it right up to the final mastering stage. The miles-deep bass line comes from funk stalwart Louis Johnson of the Brothers Johnson. Drummer Ndugu Chancler cut the drum track over Jackson's original drum-machine beat, and jazz vet Tom Scott played the eerie lyricon solo. At five minutes long, "Billie Jean" has the sleek sweep of disco, yet a classic-rock sense of epic scale. Quincy Jones worried the intro was too long: "But [Jackson] said, 'That's the jelly, that's what makes me want to dance.' " The world has been dancing to "Billie Jean" ever since.