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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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40. “Can You Feel It”

Triumph, 1990

"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."

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39. “Blame It On the Boogie”

Destiny, 1978

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."

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38. “Leave Me Alone”

Bad, 1987

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.

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37. “Goin’ Back to Indiana”

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."

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36. “Say Say Say”

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.

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35. “We Are The World”

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.

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34. “Enjoy Yourself”

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."

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33. “Get on the Floor”

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."

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32. “Mama’s Pearl”

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.

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31. “Morphine”

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.

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30. “Got to Be There”

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.

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29. “Butterflies”

Invincible, 2002

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."

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28. “Ben”

Ben, 1972

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."

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27. “Burn This Disco Out”

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.' "