According to Sasha Frere-Jones, “The summer jam of 2009 was determined at 2:26 P.M. P.D.T., June 25th. For the next two months, we will either be hearing Michael Jackson, avoiding Michael Jackson, or otherwise processing the symbiotic wind of data, rumor, sound, and news that is now ‘Michael Jackson.’” While we respectfully disagree — not even the death of a deeply fascinating, back-seat grooving, once-in-a-lifetime pop icon will make us stop rocking “Best I Ever Had” ad nauseum — we do have to acknowledge that MJ’s passing has fundamentally altered the 2009 Song of the Summer field: you don’t need us to point out that the last few weeks have seen one giant, collective, head-first dive back into the man’s impressive catalog.
With that in mind, this week’s Power Rankings take a break from today’s hits to go deep into the crevices of said catalog, tracking the best and most curious MJ oddities, rarities, covers, remixes, bonus tracks, tribute mixtapes, and more. As always, let us know what we’ve missed.
1. Thriller-era demos: We totally love the instructions to the engineer on “Billie Jean” (“more kick and stuff in the phones, I need ‘em … more bottom and kick in the phones” ) and hearing “Starlight” instead of “Thriller” is a head-trip. But as far as the music goes, the “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” demo particularly stands out: It’s jammier, the back-up vocals have more of an African call-and-response vibe, and, at one point, Jackson almost scats. You’re still a vegetable, though.
2. Cookin’ Soul Presents “Michael Jackson (Tribute to the King of Pop)”: Surprisingly great meeting of music and lyrics, connecting MJ and rap without overstating the shared DNA. Great: “I Want You Back” feat. Lil Wayne; “Don’t stop ‘Til You Get Enough” feat. Jay-Z. Hilarious and smart: “Remember the Time” feat. 50 Cent; “Black or White” feat. Eminem. Just be sure to skip Kid Cudi on “Beat It.”
3. Rub Radio MJ Mix: D.J. Ayres of Brooklyn’s the Rub put together this mix a few years ago, but re-posted it on the 25th. He stays away from the most obvious megahits, and it’s still completely can’t-miss.
4. Erykah Badu and the Roots, “I Wanna Be Where You Are”: The Roots and Badu also collaborated on a jokey “Billie Jean” cover, but it’s “Where You Are” that has the team-up — a crack band, and the rare singer who has to confidence to fearlessly interpret Michael — reaching its potential.
5. Akon, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”: In his review of the 25th Anniversary edition of Thriller, Rob Sheffield chose this track as the sole highlight from the album’s bonus covers, writing, it’s “actually kind of great — [Akon] slows it down into a piano ballad, lingering over the easily obscured lyrics.”
6. Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson, “State of Shock”: Mercury and Jackson recorded three songs together in 1983, two of which showed up in different iterations elsewhere. Two of the original demos leaked in 2002 (the other was “More to Life Than This”), and proved Michael could do histrionic hard rock with the best of them.
7. Ian Brown, “Thriller”: Before you dismiss this 2007 cover from the not-exactly-relevant ex-Stone Roses front man as a novelty, give it a listen: Brown’s louche, drugged-out reinvention is actually pretty great.
8. Michael Jackson, “HIStory” (The Ummah remix): The Ummah was the collective name for the production team of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and J Dilla. Here, they turn the late MJ track into something smaller and sweeter.
9. Michael Jackson feat. Jay-Z, “You Rock My World” (remix): Michael’s hip hop influence was remarkable, but this remix, from 2001’s Invincible, is (as far as we can tell) the only official guest rap verse in his career. Makes sense: Jackson as a hook-furnishing hip-hop journeyman doesn’t feel quite right.
10. Supergrass, “Beat It”: The British rockers remind us just how white they are, as if they had to — still, their pure joy bashing out the track is infectious.