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50 Best Michael Jackson Songs

The stories behind the tracks that kept the planet dancing

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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.

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2. “I Want You Back”

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.

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1. “Billie Jean”

Thriller, 1982

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.

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