50 Best Michael Jackson Songs - Rolling Stone
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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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9. “Black or White”

Dangerous, 1991

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.

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8. “Beat It”

Thriller, 1982

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!"

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7. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”

Thriller, 1982

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.

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6. “Smooth Criminal”

Bad, 1987

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?"

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5. “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”

Destiny, 1978

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.

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4. “I’ll Be There”

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.' "

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3. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”

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."

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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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