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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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41. “Farewell My Summer Love”

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.

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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.