Michael Jackson's catalog is stuffed to the gills with megahits—heartrending ballads, funk-tinged dancefloor anthems, fusions of soul and rock that helped move pop forward. Rolling Stone's readers selected these five as his best.
With a propulsive beat and defiantly protective lyrics toward the injured "Annie," the seventh (!) single from Michael Jackson's Bad was part of that album's paranoid, gritty denouement (it's bookended by the groupie rebuke "Dirty Diana" and the tabloid kiss-off "Leave Me Alone"). While it showcases one of Jackson's more unbridled vocal performances, "Smooth Criminal" only peaked at Number Seven on the Hot 100 (and Number Two on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart). The eye-popping visual of Jackson's "anti-gravity lean," its inclusion in Jackson's film and video-game releases related to Bad, and the punky 2001 cover by SoCal bro-metal outfit Alien Ant Farm helped it stick around in cultural memory.
The Number Two single of 1983 came about because Thriller producer Quincy Jones wanted Jackson to, to borrow a phrase, get the Knack. "I told Michael that we needed a black rock & roll tune – a black 'My Sharona,'" Jones recalled in 2009, shortly after Jackson's death. Jackson came back with "Beat It," a rebuke to tough guys that speaks to his anti-violence stance while also sounding pretty feisty, thanks to its explosive groove and a pyrotechnic guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen.
Heatwave's Rod Temperton, who also wrote "Off the Wall" and "Rock With You" for the Gloved One, penned the title track from Jackson's 1982 blockbuster. Flinty guitars and scary-movie synths keep the mood creepy, but the cameo by horror-movie fixture Vincent Price, whose ominous monologue introduced the phrase "the funk of 40 thousand years" into the pop lexicon, sends it into perennial Halloween-song territory. The track's Jon Landis-directed, 14-minute video, which featured Jackson as the leader of a zombie dance troupe, gave a glimpse at the pop spectacles Jackson would have up his sleeve in the coming years.
Jackson's slinky, paranoid chronicle of a woman who claims he's the father of her son spent seven weeks atop the Hot 100 and was his launching pad for the moonwalk. The King of Pop had a feeling that the funk-flecked "Billie Jean," which was nearly called "Not My Lover," would be huge. "I knew it was going to be big while I was writing it. I was really absorbed in that song," Jackson wrote in his 1988 autobiography Moon Walk. Jackson was so entranced by the track, he noted, that thinking about it while tooling about in his Rolls-Royce resulted in him not noticing that the pricey automobile was, in fact, on fire. (Luckily, he – and the song – escaped unharmed.)
A sparkling, gospel-tinged mantra of self-betterment that could be seen as the phrase "the personal is political" being transformed into a song, "Man in the Mirror" remains an inspirational touchstone of Jackson's catalog. Composed by Siedah Garrett (who dueted with Jackson on the Bad ballad "I Just Can't Stop Loving You") and Glen Ballard (whose production credits include Wilson Phillips' "Hold On" and Alanis Morrissette's "Jagged Little Pill")," "Man in the Mirror" spent two weeks at Number One on the Hot 100 after its initial release in 1988, and it reached Number Two on Billboard's Hot Digital Songs chart after Jackson's death in 2009. Jackson's vocal interplay with his backing vocalists, which include Garrett, the gospel group the Winans, and a choir conducted by American gospel pioneer Andraé Crouch, gives the song emotional heft that resonates nearly three decades after its initial release.