The following list is included in FEATURING MICHAEL JACKSON, a collection of articles and essays on the King of Pop, released worldwide on Wednesday, July 11, 2012. For more information on the book including where to get physical and electronic copies, click here. An earlier incarnation of this list was published by the Huffington Post on June 25, 2010.
A Top Ten list for Michael Jackson is no easy task. It inevitably lends itself to scrutiny and contestation (How could you leave out [fill in the blank]?). Obviously, there can be no definitive list. But the debate is part of what makes these lists fun.
Over the years, I’ve shifted tracks in and out, up and down the rankings (though several have remained constant). Especially excruciating are those final few selections—it is tempting to simply call for a ten or twenty-way tie to make room for more great songs. The difficulty in selecting Jackson’s best representative work, however, speaks to the quality, diversity, and depth of his catalog.
I made my task slightly easier by only choosing from his solo work (from 1979 forward). In addition, I determined that I would not consider cultural impact, commercial success or music videos in my assessments. These Top Ten tracks are also not necessarily the songs I find most enjoyable to listen to. Rather, these are the ten songs I feel are most impressive artistically. All elements of the song were considered: the music, production, lyrics, vocal performance, innovation, creativity, originality and overall aesthetic impact.
While some of the songs on this list are well known, others have received little attention. One of the goals of my work has been to encourage a major re-assessment of Michael’s post-1980s work, much of which pushes into bold, challenging new territory. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Jackson’s artistry didn’t decline after Thriller. Throughout his career, his work evolved in exciting and compelling ways.
Without further qualification, then, I humbly present my Top Ten Michael Jackson Songs of All Time. If I were forced to gather together a group of songs to hold up against the best work of the Beatles or Bob Dylan or Prince, these are the ones I would bring.
10.) Human Nature and I Can’t Help It
Okay, so I’m cheating at the outset with a two-way tie. I couldn’t bring myself to leave one of these out. Both of these songs are gorgeously produced, rich, textured, perfectly sung gems. They showcase everything that was special about Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones’ creative partnership. Listen to the palpable wonder, yearning and desire; the vibrant, shimmering dreamscapes they evoke; the incandescent vocal delivery that transcends language. It is no accident that both are among the most covered songs in Jackson’s entire catalog (including a rendition of “Human Nature” by Miles Davis), but no one has come close to the brilliance of the originals.
9.) They Don’t Care About Us
Charges of anti-Semitism were disingenuous from the beginning. This song is about speaking truth to power; it is a sonic fist raised on behalf of the voiceless. “Tell me what has become of my rights,” he demands. “Am I invisible ‘cause you ignore me/ Your proclamation promised me free liberty.” The controversial chorus is chanted in quick, staccato rhymes over a crackling, whiplash beat as police scanners and strings loom ominously in the background. A song of indignation and empowerment, it is unquestionably one of Jackson’s most potent political statements—and one of the best protest songs of the 90s.
8.) Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
What’s not to love about this song? This was Michael Jackson’s breakthrough as a solo artist. The shifty bass intro with Michael coyly whispering (“You know, I was wondering…”) has been correctly described 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, as Jackson’s falsetto soars with weightless joy and abandon. It opens a brilliant debut album that one critic called the “Rosetta stone for all subsequent R&B.”
7.) Who Is It
Comparisons to “Billie Jean” are apt given its pulsing bass line and dark subject matter. But “Who Is It” is far from a repeat performance; indeed, the song is an excellent demonstration of Jackson’s evolution as an artist. Listen to the way the haunting Gothic soprano intro gives way to the heavy, persistent beat (based on Jackson’s beatboxing). Listen to the emotional depth of Jackson’s confessional narrative, augmented by his anguished gasps and cries. Listen to the stacked, polyrhythmic layers in the trance-like outro. For those unfamiliar with Jackson’s post-80’s work, this is a good place to start. A six-and-a-half minute exorcism, “Who Is It” is personal pain translated into sublime art.
This song keeps climbing higher and higher in my rankings. Part of what makes a work of art great is its ability to push out to the very edge of human experience, to strip away all the dressings and niceties and illusions, and express something raw and real. That’s what Michael Jackson does in “Morphine.” It is a painful, tragic song. But it is also honest and brave. The song assaults the listener in relentless waves of crashing steel, as Jackson spits out fragmented shards of internalized insults. Behind him we occasionally hear a TV playing, as if it’s been left on through the night. In fact, these are audio clips from David Lynch’s film,The Elephant Man, in which Victorian-era “freak,” Joseph Merrick, is being taunted and pursued. These are the kinds of brilliant touches that make Jackson’s work so compelling. The sonic assault briefly gives way in the bridge as the pacifying “drug” takes its effect. For a moment, there is peace and escape. But that escape comes to an abrupt end as the listener is thrown back into the ruthless grind of reality. Experimental, daring and emotionally powerful, this track deserves its place among Jackson’s best work.
5.) Man in the Mirror
This, more than any other track, was the song the public turned to in the aftermath of Jackson’s death. Over twenty years after it was first released it soared to #1 on the iTunes singles chart. Critics have often given it short shrift compared to other era-defining anthems, but there is no denying its place in our cultural DNA. “Man in the Mirror” stands alongside John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” as one of popular music’s great calls for individual and social renewal. Jackson injects Siedah Garret’s lyrics with uncanny passion and spiritual energy. Turn it up loud and listen to Jackson’s improvisatory incantations, the majestic call and response with the Andrae Crouch Singers Choir, the transcendent build. At least in those five minutes, it will make you a believer in its charge to change the world.
4.) 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 an irresistible dance groove that also happens to be profoundly eccentric, original, and rhythmically complex. While the beat is bouncy and frenetic, the lyrics speak of the hysteria of modern life (including mental breakdowns, unwanted pregnancies and being eaten off of like a buffet). “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 climactic breakthrough, featuring the signature African chant—ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa—is one of the most affirming, triumphant moments in popular music. For all the surrounding madness, confusion and anxiety, he suggests, there is redemption and harmony in the music.
3.) Earth Song
A couple of tracks may be aesthetically superior, but no song in Jackson’s catalog is as powerful as “Earth Song.” It is his grandest artistic statement. Perhaps its closest precedent in popular music is Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a similarly apocalyptic epic rooted in both the Bible and the blues. Musically, however, Jackson took his anthem to another place, blending opera, rock and gospel to build a drama and urgency unmatched by his predecessors. The climactic call and response with the Andrae Crouch Choir, punctuated by Jackson’s wordless exclamations of anguish, is simply breathtaking. “Earth Song” topped the charts in over fifteen countries, yet was largely panned by critics, who never quite knew what to make of it. The cynicism it met with in 1995 America (where it wasn’t even released as a single) says far more about the state of the country than the song. This six-and-a-half minute jeremiad is more relevant now than ever.
2.) Stranger in Moscow
It was tempting to put this as a surprise #1. The case can certainly be made. This is Jackson’s version of the Beatles’ seminal “A Day in the Life”: a brooding, fragmented song-poem about how it feels to be alone in the modern world (“I was wanderin’ in the rain,” he opens, “Mask of life, feeling insane”). Built on just two chord progressions, “Stranger in Moscow” features probably the most compelling lyrics of Jackson’s career. The song is about masks and illusions, exile and invisibility. It is about being known everywhere but belonging nowhere. Jackson is subtle and restrained for the majority of the track, the echoing chorus repeating over a dull, mechanical beat. Yet in the final section, he breaks through with piercing expressions of isolation and despair (“I’m livin’ lonely, I’m livin’ lonely, baby!”). While it never made any greatest hits collections, over time “Stranger in Moscow” will undoubtedly hold up as one of Jackson’s finest artistic achievements.
1.) Billie Jean
No surprises here. “Billie Jean” is nearly unanimously heralded as Michael Jackson’s defining masterpiece, and justifiably so. Perhaps no other song more perfectly embodies the paradoxes, tensions, magic and mystery of its creator. It is the rare dance track that is instantly accessible (with its bewitching bass line and minimalist frame), yet profoundly layered and evocative. Its dark, ominous story could not stand out more from traditional Top 40 pop, yet the single somehow managed to sit at #1 for seven weeks in 1983 and has remained popular with listeners ever since. Music critic Mark Fisher calls it “one of the greatest art works of the twentieth century, a multi-leveled sound sculpture whose slinky, synthetic panther sheen still yields up previously unnoticed details and nuance nearly thirty years on.” Bottom line: Any argument for Jackson as an artist begins with “Billie Jean,” a track made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was written, composed, arranged and co-produced by Jackson himself at the age of 23.
FEATURING MICHAEL JACKSON will be available worldwide on Wednesday, July 11, 2012. Get your copy here!
Join in the comments below! What song did I overlook? What’s your Top Ten?