Over the past few years, while working on my book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, I have been fortunate enough to spend hours talking to many of the people who worked closest with the King of Pop. The work that resulted chronicles his entire solo career, album by album, song by song, so I have necessarily gone through his catalog countless times as I learned about the history, details, and intricacies of each piece.
For the one-year anniversary since his tragic death, then, I thought it would be appropriate to draw attention back to the brilliance of his work. While some of the songs on this list will be well-known, others have received little attention. One of the goals of my book is to encourage a major re-assessment of Michael's post-1980s work, much of which is outstanding. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Jackson's artistry didn't decline after Thriller; much like the Beatles, it evolved in exciting and compelling ways. Unfortunately, most media purveyors and music critics dismissed this evolution because a) they couldn't look past Jackson's tabloid persona, and b) he never outsold Thriller (a feat, incidentally, that no other artist accomplished either). But there are countless gems in his late albums, and many others that never even made it onto his studio records.
With so much diverse, quality work, coming up with a Top Ten is a daunting -- and admittedly subjective -- task. Yet if I were forced to gather together ten Michael Jackson songs to hold up against the best songs of the Beatles or Elvis Presley or Prince, these are the ten I would bring:
1.) Billie Jean
Not many would debate this one. Critics, fans and polls alike consistently rank "Billie Jean" as one of the greatest popular songs in history and justifiably so. No other song more perfectly embodies the paradoxes, tensions, and mystery of its creator. Sonically, it is a masterpiece. It is the rare dance song that is both instantly accessible (with that bass line of all bass lines), and yet rewards close and repeated listenings with expertly crafted layers, textures, and effects. Its dark subject, meanwhile, remains persistently elusive: the narrative is both explicit and enigmatic, confession and concealment. Jackson's iconic Motown 25 performance and revolutionary music video for the song, of course, only add to its legend and intrigue. Bottom line: Any argument for Jackson as an artist begins with "Billie Jean," a track made all the more remarkable by the fact that he wrote and composed it himself at the age of 23.
2.) Stranger in Moscow
This will be a surprising pick to many, but not for those more familiar with Jackson's work. This is Jackson's version of the Beatles' seminal "A Day in the Life": a brooding, introspective minor-key ballad with probably the most compelling lyrics of Jackson's career. The song is about alienation, loneliness, despair. "I was wanderin' in the rain," he sings, "Mask of life, feeling insane." Later he speaks of a "swift and sudden fall from grace," of being stalked by the KGB, and experiencing "Armageddon of the brain." Sonically, the song is understated but exquisite, perfectly capturing the detached resignation of the singer in one of his darkest hours. While it never made any greatest hits collections, over time "Stranger in Moscow" will undoubtedly hold up as one of his finest artistic achievements.
3.) Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'
One of Jackson's hallmarks as an artist is his ability to fuse seemingly disparate musical styles and this wildly unique track is the perfect example. "Startin' Somethin'" contains elements of funk, disco, R&B, world music, Afro-beat, and gospel. Like "Billie Jean" it is both an irresistable dance tune, but eccentric, quirky, and brilliantly constructed. While the beat is bouncy and frenetic, the lyrics speak of being eaten off of like a vegetable and a mental breakdown. "It's too high to get over," he sings, "Too low to get under/ You're stuck in the middle/ And the pain is thunder." The gospel breakdown towards the end is one of the most remarkable moments in popular music.
4.) Man in the Mirror
One can make a strong case that this classic should be higher on the list. Culturally, it stands alongside John Lennon's "Imagine" and Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" as one of the defining anthems in popular music. Like Gaye and Lennon's classics, in fact, it was "Man in the Mirror" that people turned to most after Jackson's death. Critics have varied in their reviews over the years, but there is no denying the power of this song. Its lyrics might seem rather cliche if not for Jackson's total conviction and passion. Watch him perform this song at the 1988 Grammy Awards or simply turn it up loud and listen to the majestic call and response with the Andrae Crouch Singers Choir, and it will make you a believer in its idealistic charge that music can change the world.
5.) Earth Song
In America, this song was largely panned, but it is one of Jackson's most successful globally-- and for good reason. Where "Man in the Mirror" is about inspiration, "Earth Song" is an apocalyptic warning. "What have we done to the world," he sings. "Look what we've done." Long before the green movement was trendy, Jackson was sounding the alarm about the destruction we are doing to the planet. "Earth Song," however, is not simplistic propaganda; it is a powerful artistic protest in the form of a sweeping blues opera. The climax in this song is absolutely breathtaking. The cynicism and indifference it met with in 1995 America, says far more about the country than the song.
6.) They Don't Care About Us
Like "Earth Song," "They Don't Care About Us" was extremely popular globally, but largely dismissed in the United States. This was partially due to ridiculous charges of anti-Semitism. In context, of course, the song's message is one of solidarity with all who are oppressed, exploited and ostracized. This message is chanted on the back of a cracking militant shuffle percussion as police scanners and strings loom ominously in the background. The song's two music videos, directed by Spike Lee, were shot in an impoverished havela in Rio de Janeira and a prison in New York. A song of both indignation and empowerment, It is unquestionably one of the most powerful protest songs of the 1990s.
7.) Human Nature
This gorgeous synth-ballad was written by members of the band Toto and delivered to perfection by Jackson. The textures and colors in this evocative track showcase everything that was special about Michael and Quincy Jone's collaborative magic. This was Michael Jackson when the hopes and dreams and promises of the world still seemed laid out before him.
8.) Who Is It
Comparisons to "Billie Jean" are apt. Haunting, paranoid, a pulsing bass line, ominous strings. For those that think Jackson didn't produce anything worthwhile after Thriller, this is a good place to start. Listen to the Gothic soprano choir's ethereal strains, listen to the stacked layers on the trance-like outro, listen to the pain and loneliness in the vocals. This is not typical pop by any stretch.
9.) Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough
What's not to love about the song? This was Michael Jackson's breakthrough as a solo artist. The shifty bass intro with Michael coyly whispering has been described aptly as "ten seconds of perfect pop tension." The suspense builds until Jackson unleashes his signature "oooooh" and the track explodes into a kaleidoscope of sound. The song is sheer ecstasy from there and doesn't let up for six minutes. It begins a brilliant freshman album that one critic called the "Rosetta stone for all subsequent R&B."
10.) Tie- Beat It and Black or White
Okay, I wimped out on the last one and made it two. But they go well together. Both contain socially conscious themes (one dealing with violence, the other with racism); both were huge #1 hits; and both broke barriers, musical and otherwise. "Beat It" merged rock and R&B in a way never done before, forcing radio and MTV to change formatting, and opening the door for countless black artists to come. "Black or White," meanwhile, became Jackson's biggest hit since "Billie Jean" thanks to its classic guitar riff and shockingly bold video. An MJ Top Ten list wouldn't be right without these two songs.
Feel free to write your own lists and debate in the comments. There are, of course, dozens of other fantastic songs in Jackson's catalog. And fortunately for fans, dozens more to come.
Joe Vogel is the author of the forthcoming book Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson (Sterling Publishing).
*Note: This list obviously doesn't include his work as a member of the Jacksons or the Jackson 5. This is just my Top Ten for his solo career.