“I Want You Back,” 1970
Those superfly dance moves! Those drums! Michael’s purple pimp hat! At a turning point for the Motown empire, Berry Gordy puts all of Hitsville U.S.A.’s resources (including the then-unthinkable session budget of $10,000) into devising the perfect pop song. Michael’s pleading vocal brings it home. Literally nobody has ever walked out of a room while this song was playing.
“I’ll Be There,” 1970
With this ballad, the Jackson 5 became the first act ever to hit Number One with their first four singles. They could no longer be dismissed as any kind of kiddie novelty — all the brothers float their voices back and forth, pledging a fantasy of eternal devotion. This song has been covered countless times (Mariah Carey took it back to Number One), but nobody has ever topped the way Michael threw himself into the line “Let me fill your heart with joy and laughter.”
“Got to Be There,” 1972
His first solo single, and a first taste of the mature, introspective Michael to come. The song itself is hardly childhood stuff (“Got to be there in the morning”?), with bittersweet minor-key harmonies that should have been beyond the reach of a young thing. Yet Michael coasts over the jazzy chords and lush orchestration, handling each key change like a born soul man. He’d just turned 13.
The Jackson 5ive, 1971-1973
For countless 1970s kids, this Saturday-morning cartoon (with “ABC” as the theme song) was the first experience of the J5’s timeless soundtrack of playground funk, like a mix of Sly and the Family Stone with Fat Albert’s Junkyard Band. It was more psychedelic than Scooby Doo, with a better beat than Hong Kong Phooey. Michael admitted later he watched it all the time, saying to himself, “I’m a cartoon!”
“Dancing Machine,” 1974
The brothers were getting too old for teeny-bopper appeal, chafing at the artistic limitations of the Motown hit machine, where not even Michael was allowed to contribute to the songwriting or production. But their last major Motown hit (and early disco experiment) was a taste of beats to come. While MJ was quietly watching the pros work the studio, he was soaking up the tricks (“like a hawk,” as he admitted) he’d use to conquer the world.
“Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” 1979
Dancing his way out of the constrictions of Motown, seizing his first shot at creative control, MJ leads his brothers to the promised land. The lyrics introduce his spiritual yearning (“I need to do just something to get closer to your soul”), while the groove really does shake your body down to the ground. Goodbye, yellow-brick road; hello, future of pop.
“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” 1979
Make a list of the top 10 “Ooooh!” screams in history, and this hit has at least six of them. MJ introduces the world to his grown bad self, rocking harder than anything on rock radio, yet sleek and debonair enough to make the rest of the Top 40 sound like hot air. Who else could get away with that murmured spoken-word introduction? Who else could wear white socks with a tux and still look cool?
“Rock With You,” 1979
Believe it or not, there was a time when using the word “rock” in a disco tune was scandalous. But Michael’s mirror-ball glimmer was so seductive that the whole music world just crossed over to him, as he stretched the word “girl” into a six-syllable psalm. His androgyny was irresistible: He was the girliest boy in the world, yet the most lavished with girl love, and he wasn’t the least bit embarrassed about it.
“Heartbreak Hotel,” 1980
An R&B smash for the Jacksons, this was too dark for the radio but huge in the clubs. Michael swore it wasn’t an intentional Elvis reference, though the record company got nervous and gave it the moronic new title “This Place Hotel.” (That’s one of the few moments in his career for which nobody has ever claimed the credit.) But Elvis would have appreciated how it mixes up old-time religion, a taste of sex and a lot of fear.
“Billie Jean,” 1983
Six minutes of cosmic funk dementia, an instant Number One despite being one of the strangest and most disturbingly personal songs ever to grace the radio. Quincy Jones tried to talk him out of putting it on the album, but party people still quake to the bass line of Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson.
“Beat It” Video, 1983
This was the song that was supposed to make Michael acceptable for discophobes, but “Billie Jean” had already done that, so it became a victory lap instead. For the video, he swoops into a ghetto garage full of gangbangers and saves the day like a teen angel, while Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo keeps him running with the devil.
“Human Nature,” 1983
In a way, this was an apology for “The Girl Is Mine,” his doggone ridiculous Paul McCartney duet — a delicate ballad on the surface, but heart-wrenchingly emotional soul, finessed brilliantly by the guys from Toto. He never sounded warmer, braver, breathier, more emotionally vibrant. This deserved to hit Number One, but you know what did instead? “Say Say Say,” an even more ridiculous McCartney duet.
Motown 25 Special, 1983
Everybody had already seen the man move to “Billie Jean,” but on May 16th, 1983, 50 million fans tuned in hoping he’d break out something new. He did, gliding with superhuman grace. Lots of dancers have claimed they’re the one who taught Michael to moonwalk — Shalamar’s Jeffrey Daniel had just done it on the U.K.’s Top of the Pops — but Michael undoubtedly made it his own. Fred Astaire called him the next day to say, “You put them on their asses last night.”
“Thriller” Video, 1983
This 14-minute John Landis movie remains perhaps the ultimate peak of Michaelmania. It showcases Michael’s beautiful smile, but hints at the darkness in his soul as he dances in front of a chorus line of zombies.
“State of Shock,” 1984
The last great moment for the Jacksons, and a redemptive bit of sleaze on their otherwise dead-on-arrival Victory. It’s just Michael with Mick Jagger, two old pros trading goofball sex shtick over a funky faux-Stones guitar groove, milking it about two minutes too long but somehow turning that into part of the joke. Jagger reprised this tune with Tina Turner at Live Aid, and by the end of the song her skirt was off.
“We Are the World,” 1985
Michael’s original demo version was a quiet ballad with a melancholic touch; it became the star-studded USA for Africa extravaganza that immortalized Bob Dylan’s golden pipes, Dan Aykroyd’s dork glasses and Lionel Richie’s upraised thumb. It also marked the final appearance of the gentle young Michael of the Thriller moment, singing the line Prince didn’t show up for (“When you’re down and out, and there seems no hope at all”) more convincingly than Prince could have.
Halfway between Thriller and Bad, Jackson arrived at Disney’s Tomorrowland, a couple of years too late to fit in. This 17-minute 3-D film started showing at the Disney theme parks in 1986, a sci-fi fairy tale made with Francis Ford Coppolla and George Lucas with the theme song “We Are Here To Change The World.” Disney stopped showing “Captain EO” in 1997, for perhaps obvious reasons.
Everyone wondered if Michael could still capture people’s attention, but this song proved that he had the knack, especially with an opening line like “Your butt is mine.” Post-Captain EO Michael was a completely different personality now, a grim and weary adult feeling burdened by the world. His youthful glow was a thing of the past; he wasn’t having any fun, and he wanted us all to know that.
“Man in the Mirror” at the Grammy Awards, 1988
When people first heard the studio version, he sounded full of himself. But at the Grammys, he took the song to church, with a full-blown gospel production that stands as one of his most stunning vocal workouts. In a way, this was as majestic and definitive as the Motown 25 moonwalk.
In case anybody out there hadn’t noticed that Michael had an issue or two, this bizarro film rammed it home with cartoons, Claymation and Transformers-style sci-fi violence. Who else could inspire a video game where you kill people with your dancing prowess?
“Black or White,” 1991
After a few years away, Michael came back strong with this first single off Dangerous, as if the worst was behind him and there was all the time in the world for him to keep creating effervescent pop hits like this one. He could grab your heart with a line like “I believe in miracles/And a miracle has happened tonight,” but he could also grab your body with those hyperactive guitar stutters and herky-jerky funk beats.
“In the Closet,” 1992
His early-nineties work is the only time MJ capitulated to music trends, hopping the new jack swing beats of Teddy Riley, yet he sounded right in the pocket. With a mysterious female spoken-word vocal (was that Madonna? Princess Stephanie? La Toya?) and a Naomi Campbell video, this is a one-of-a-kind item in his songbook.
The Grammy Awards, 1993
Accepting a lifetime achievement award from sister Janet, MJ gave the world the last thing anyone expected: a moment of genuine human emotion. His hug with Janet coaxed tears out of anyone who’d ever cared about him. He looked lucid, spontaneous, even playful. (“Me and Janet are two different people!” — hey, this guy is funny? Who knew?) He seemed to realize how much people loved him, and it was cathartic to see him able to reciprocate. It was a final display of his charm, right before the whole act came crashing down.
“Blood on the Dance Floor,” 1997
His last angry gasp and a true oddity: an album by Michael Jackson that barely anybody heard. A barrage of quasi-industrial remixes and freakouts, disconnected from any concept of pop music as it existed outside his skull, this was never a hit. But it exposes the paranoid rage driving his music at the end. It was only after his death that people noticed “Morphine,” an ode to Demerol addiction.
“You Rock My World,” 2001
His last choice of an old Hollywood playmate was Marlon Brando, which made it harder to ignore that Michael had turned into Colonel Kurtz at the end of Apocalypse Now. He bid his audience one last farewell with a 30th-anniversary special, and made his last visit to the Top 10 with one of the least memorable things he’d ever recorded. There would be other headlines after this, but here is where the music ended.