There was really something about Michael Jackson. He was so likable. At his most charming, he had one of the most charismatic and endearing personas we’d ever seen. You rooted for him, were happy for him. Jackson was the most sensational performer — the full package — of his era. From his voice to his image to his dancing, it was so easy to get swept up in his High Pop Art. Off the Wall, his first adult solo album, showed off an extraordinary young man with astonishing moves, and Thriller, well, Thriller was about something more than marketing; it was the work of a pop auteur of unparalleled gifts, as both a composer and (importantly) a celebrity as well.
Then things got weird.
The following is an account of every song Michael Jackson released as a solo artist. After a year or two of success with his brothers in the Jackson 5, he embarked on a solo career at age 13, with four more albums on Motown. There were five adult solo albums, beginning with Off the Wall and ending with Invincible, and two more releases that had additional new songs, History and Blood on the Dance Floor. Two albums of unreleased tracks have come out since Jackson left this mortal coil, in June 2009
The best accounts of his life I’ve read are J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Michael Jackson: The Magic, the Madness, the Whole Story; Randall Sullivan’s Untouchable; and Steve Knopper’s new MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson. There’s lots of video out there, of course. The ABC Martin Bashir documentary, Living With Michael Jackson, remains a must-see. And David Gest’s Life of an Icon is now available on Amazon. Based almost entirely on interviews with people who were actually there, it has a lot of perspective on Jackson’s life not found elsewhere.
As with everything else in Jackson’s life, however, in the end it doesn’t really make sense. He was a man-child living in a luxurious cocoon. He spoke with a soft voice but insisted on singing songs with words like “bad,” “dangerous,” “torture,” and “scream.”
It’s easy to laugh, but who among us can say we danced a mile in his shoes?
147. “Heal the World,” Dangerous (1991):
No one asked for this. No one asked for the opening speech by the little tyke spouting un-tyke-like words like, “For our children, and our children’s children.” No one asked for Jackson’s breathy voice, the overweening vocalizings, the formless orchestration, this simple syrup for the soul. No one asked for the unrelenting, almost sociopathic key changes. And no one, particularly, asked for a tepid “We Are the World” rewrite.
146. “Streetwalker,” Bad outtake (1983):
Why Jackson felt he had to record a song about a prostitute is beyond me. If you look at the lyrics closely it’s not even clear that he’s talking about a prostitute; it seems just to be about someone … walking down a street. Chugs along okay, I guess, and the chorus has a ring to it, but it’s too similar to “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Released on a Bad 25, an anniversary edition of the record.
145. “Best of Joy,” Michael (2010):
“I am forever / We are forever.” L-i-t-e even by late Jackson standards. This may be the last song he recorded before his death. Makes “Speechless,” his previous benchmark for unspeakable treacle, sound like Metallica.
144. “Fly Away,” Bad 25 (1987):
Another extra track on the 25th-anniversary edition of Bad, a light and forgettable piece of oversweet pop confectionary. It bears a Jackson solo writing credit.
143. “Childhood,” History (1995):
If you think Michael Jackson was a child molester, this song will make your head explode. Wait — he wrote a song that begins “Have you seen my childhood?” The guy who ruined other kids’ childhoods? And it was the soundtrack to a movie called Free Willy?!?
142. “Wings of My Love,” Got to Be There (1972):
The Jackson 5 had a starburst of a career — some six No. 1 or 2 singles in the space of less than 18 months. There was always tension in the family about Michael getting too much attention; the parents always husbanded his talents — and let’s be honest, his money-making ability — for the benefit of the family as a whole. (They weren’t underhanded about it: That was always his parents’ mantra.) But in time both he and older brother Jermaine were allowed solo careers. (Turns out some of the other brothers couldn’t, ah, sing that well.) This was Michael Jackson’s solo debut. He was 14 — and came out of the gate with two hit singles, but as was typically the case back then, the accompanying albums of even superstar Motown acts weren’t that special. This mundane track has a lilt in the chorus but, despite the title, never takes off. The string track is mixed too high, also.
141. “Speechless,” Invincible (2001):
Jackson actually once said this was one of his favorite of his recordings. Jesus. The more he went off on his own, the perspective and subtlety was lacking. This is beyond sweet. It’s sucrose.
140. “Price of Fame,” Bad outtake (1987):
This is a song written by Jackson from the Bad sessions, eventually released on Bad 25. Why in the world would anyone want to hear Michael Jackson’s unrevealing, dishonest thoughts on the title subject? “Get a taste of my blues,” he says. Uh, okay. And it’s musically tepid. Jackson was a rare talent, a boy who had a traumatic childhood, and I believe his friends when they say he was a kind person. But it needs to be said that he was also a precursor to a certain reality-denying president we have. Jackson wasn’t the King of Pop, he was the Trump of Pop. He blew all his money but claimed he was a smart businessman, and stumbled from one PR disaster to the next, all the while blandly refusing to accept the reality in front of him and complaining that the media and his (unspecified) enemies were being unfair.
139. “Monster,” Michael (2010):
This record, the first of two posthumous releases by Jackson’s estate that allowed a slew of big-name producers rework unreleased Jackson tracks, was more disappointing the more you got into it. Hard to believe these were the best of the Jackson archives. This is about paparazzi! The lyrics go, “Monster / Monster / He’s an animal.” 50 Cent comes in with a decent rap, but even he includes some stuff about how great Michael Jackson was. Even with Jackson in his grave folks still felt like they had to kiss his butt.
138. “Morphine,” Blood on the Dance Floor (1997):
One of the all-time weirdest Jackson tracks. Here’s the formula: funny sound at the beginning. Ooooh, space age! Then a beat clicks in, which we’re supposed to think is creating a menacing mood. Then come the words. Oooh, it’s about drugs! Jackson shouts the words, “You’re doing morphine!” like it really means something. This sounds like an ‘80s Mick Jagger solo album track. Then we get into a really weird area: a middle passage, all sweetness and light, with Jackson wailing, “Demerol / Demerol / Oh God, he’s taking Demerol!” like an outtake from a low-rent Rent. In the notorious pyro accident on the set of a Pepsi commercial, Jackson’s scalp was badly burned and he endured some painful surgeries. (I don’t want to make light of his injuries, which were extremely serious, but I will point out that the conflagration could have been God punishing him for selling “Billie Jean” for use in a soft-drink commercial.) Ultimately, he became hooked on painkillers. One of the sad things about him is that his art never became confessional or personal in anything but the most superficial and arguably dishonest way.
137. “We’re Almost There,” Forever, Michael (1975):
Two years had gone by, and Jackson’s fourth solo album left him a bit bereft. This is a song by Motown’s Holland Brothers, and you can see them trying to add a little Barry White sophistication to the strings, but this goes nowhere.
As you might know, Michael Jackson came from a family of nine siblings. The five brothers who became the Jackson 5 were, from oldest to youngest, Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon, Tito, and Michael. The family’s oldest daughter was named Rebbie; sister LaToya is older than Michael. He also had a little brother named Randy. Sister Janet, the future star, was the baby of the family, so young that she was barely a toddler when the group’s career began to take off. They grew up in a two-bedroom house in Gary, Indiana, which is at the bottom tip of Lake Michigan, below Chicago. Their father worked the steel mills and dreamed about the band he once had, the Falcons; his mother, Katherine or Kate, grew up a Baptist but saw her parents divorced when she was a child. She ended up a Jehovah’s Witness who unquestioningly cranked out nine kids and stood by helplessly — or passively — as her husband beat them. The household was so strict that Joe didn’t want to hear about the kids’ musical talent. But once it became apparent, he took the helm and had them start practicing every day after school. This was grueling — and the kids have testified that beatings, sometimes attacks, were Joseph’s first means of persuasion. But Joseph was also intent on keeping his children off the street and out of trouble in tough Gary, and all who were there give him credit for accomplishing that.
136. “Hollywood Tonight,” Michael (2010):
This is apparently from the Invincible sessions, collected on the first posthumous Jackson album. Another one of those cases where if there’s subpar material on the actual album, it’s pretty doubtful there are going to be gems among the outtakes. Miserable.
135. “Maria (You Were the Only One),” Got to Be There (1972):
A lot of people spent a lot of time writing and producing a song whose lyrics seems to have only eight or nine words — “come,” “back,” “to,” “me,” “girl,” “Maria,” and “lonely” among them, It’s all hard to follow, but ol’ Maria really got her hooks into him apparently. Lots of notes, not music, in the outro, which sounds like a Four Tops outtake.
Over the next few years, the father and the boys starred in local talent shows and then anyplace that would have them. Joseph would sometimes drive for hours after school — and hours back in the middle of the night — to get the boys, and a couple of friends they used as backup musicians, to shows farther and farther afield, from talent shows to strip clubs throughout the Midwest. Hard not to say the ordeal was worth it, but for the record, Michael, perhaps 10 years old, came of age in a somewhat disruptive world — and that’s not to mention the groupies and showgirls his older brothers and randy father were engaged with on the road. One fateful night, they played at Chicago’s magnificent New Regal Theater, and a Motown act named Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers was on the bill. Taylor, one of the great singers of the day and a wild man in his own right, became entranced with the young Michael, and before long had finagled the group a slot opening for him at New York’s Apollo Theater. Those who were there said the family “tore the place up.” Back in Detroit, Berry Gordy, the owner of Motown, was skeptical — he already had a kid on the label, and was learning that kids who made money drew a lot of scrutiny from a lot of places. (The kid was Stevie Wonder.) But the Jackson 5 finally were allowed an audition and in time were signed. The whole family was duly summoned to Los Angeles, where Gordy had set up operations.
134. “You’ve Got a Friend,” Got to Be There (1972):
You have to give the Motown production folks credit for letting some songwriting royalties slip through the label’s hands. This is the Carole King song made famous by James Taylor. Still, nothing to see here, folks. Let’s move along.
The Motown story remains remarkable: Out of basically a couple of bungalows in Detroit, Berry Gordy found and recorded a surprisingly large percentage of the most talented performers and songwriters of the day. Billboard’s list of the most successful acts of the 1960s, for example, features five Motown acts in the top 25 — Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and Marvin Gaye. (The Jackson 5, whose chart-topping career came in the first 18 months of the following decade, were one of the top-five acts of the 1970s; and Stevie Wonder was of course one of the top ten of the 1970s as well.) In Billboard’s wrap-up of the modern industry at the end of the 20th century, Motown had an amazing seven of the top 60 pop acts on the singles charts. People who have taken the time to study this think that Gordy might have sold a billion records — albums and singles — out of Detroit.
Gordy refused to let Motown be audited for the purposes of certifying gold records, and dispensed money to his songwriters and performers frugally even by the exploitative standards of the day. The music business isn’t nice, and I’m sure Berry got ripped off a lot, too. Still, as far as I can tell, Motown was a sole proprietorship. Berry personally pocketed the profits from a leading company in a major American industry for 25 years — and from a wildly successful publishing (i.e., songwriting) firm as well. He sold the label and the accompanying publishing for some $400 million between 1984 and 2004 (not adjusted for inflation). Gordy has, smartly, stayed a bit under the radar when it comes to things like lists of the wealthy. He could be one of the richest people in the history of entertainment.
133. “Keep Your Head Up,” Michael (2010):
Third-tier Jacksonian meanderings, from the first posthumous album. There was a controversy about some of the songs on Michael; a few, recorded at the home of some friends of Jackson’s, were said not to be Jackson at all! It sure sounds like him to me, albeit a bit more relaxed, which you could imagine would be the result working in a different studio. In any case, it’s doubtful Sony would be releasing material that wasn’t Jackson, and the producers involved say it was him. The irony: If it wasn’t Jackson, what does it say that a bunch of mopes could produce material that could pass for an outtake?
132. “Greatest Show on Earth,” Ben (1972):
Sounds like a potentially great Supremes song at the beginning, and sounds even more like it once Jackson starts singing, doing his best Diana Ross impression. Unfortunately, the song never goes anywhere aside form the (very) high notes Jackson hits again and again.
The Jacksons’ introduction to the Motown family was their performance at a birthday party for Ross at Berry Gordy’s palatial Los Angeles home. It was quite an audience; it’s likely that the assembled guests had 100 or more top-ten hits among them. Bobby Taylor would be just the first of the professional performers of the day who marveled at Jackson. (Another was Martha Reeves, of Martha and the Vandellas. Jackson, she said, looked like James Brown, if James Brown was a wind-up toy.) Taylor worked with the group for their first album, but in the end Gordy was displeased and took over the recording.
131. “With a Child’s Heart,” Music & Me (1973):
One of the schmaltziest, labored, unbearable songs on Jackson’s least interesting childhood album. You can enjoy him stretching his voice though. It’s interesting how there seemed to be internal confusion as to whether Jackson should have been playing up his maturity … or, as here, his immaturity. He was 15 at this point.
130. “Speed Demon,” Bad (1987):
Ooooh, fast fast fast. The worst track on his three classic albums.
129. “You Are There,” Forever, Michael (1975):
Just the opening of this song is so dorkily sweet that you think it can’t get worse. But it does! The lyrics begins, “You are there / Like laughter from a child.” The instrumentation is overweening and unpleasant. Motown as a whole seemed to have lost its bearings in the mid-’70s. You’d think that Jackson would associate such treacly stuff with the lack of artistic control he had before he reached his majority; instead, he seemed to have had the unshakable conviction it had to be part of his output through the rest of his life.
Back to our story: Berry Gordy formed a songwriting team with three of his staffers, which was dubbed “the Corporation.” (The story is that Gordy wanted to keep the names anonymous to dampen the writers’ fame.) Leaving aside the Commodores and Lionel Richie, which I’m happy to, the Jackson 5 was Gordy’s last first-rank act — and he and his team owned it, writing three No. 1 hits in a row for them: “I Want You Back,” “The Love You Save,” and “ABC.” Each was a perfect showcase for the piercing exuberance and preternatural vocal maturity of Michael. And even by Motown standards — which is to say, even by the standards of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Dancin’ in the Streets,” I could go on and on — “I Want You Back” was a striking song, a concussive, exuberantly conceived and produced pop masterpiece that somehow allowed tiny Michael — 11 or 12 at the time — to squeal and croon an adult love song. (If you have nothing better to do some day, spend some time just checking out the bass line!)
128. “(I Like) the Way You Love Me,” Michael (2010):
More substandard outtakes. The Jackson estate had a lot riding on the first album it let out after Jackson’s death. Were there killer songs in the archive? No.
127. “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” Xscape (2014):
It’s amazing to me that his estate and someone like Timbaland were so tone-deaf as to release a song with this title given the credible child sexual-abuse allegations against Jackson. It’s about a 12-year-old who runs away from home, saying her stepfather abuses her, and ends up on the mean streets of the big bad city. Hard to listen to this objectively. Some synth noises and some Jacksonian ululations.
126. “Cry,” Invincible (2001):
An R. Kelly song, which meanders around without getting anywhere. It’s all about how you can change the world. Right around the time he was working on this song with Jackson, Kelly was allegedly filming himself urinating on a 13-year-old girl.
125. “Euphoria,” Music & Me (1973):
The lyric goes, “Euphoria / Euphoria / Euphoria / Euphoria / E-U-P-H-O-R-I-A / That’s the new word for today.” You really feel in Jackson’s last two child solo albums that the company was just letting people give Jackson anything to sing, to see if it would work. We all had difficult teen years; Jackson was living out every misstep in public.
After those rockin’ chart-toppers, the group’s fourth hit, “I’ll Be There,” a redolent and timeless ballad, hit No. 1 as well. Two follow-ups, “Mama’s Pearl” and “Never Can Say Goodbye,” made it to No. 2 — all of this taking place over a period of about 18 months! But then the group’s hit-making slowed down considerably. Michael inevitably became the focus, and the label ultimately released four Michael solo efforts: Got to Be There, Ben, Music & Me, and Love, Michael. (Jermaine released a few solo albums as well, and eked out a legitimate top-ten solo hit with “Daddy’s Home.”)
The mid-’70s were uneven for the brothers, Jermaine ended up marrying Gordy’s daughter Hazel; he remained with the label when his brothers left for Epic, a sister label to Columbia, owned by CBS, and later Sony. They discovered that Gordy owned the group’s name. They became the Jacksons, and had a few decent hits in the mid-’70s, including “Enjoy Yourself” and “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” — the latter written by Michael Jackson and his younger brother, Randy.
124. “D.S.,” History (1995):
This is one of the silliest songs ever sung by a major star. “D.S.” is a pretty obvious reference to Santa Barbara district attorney Tom Sneddon. “Don Sheldon is a cold man!” the chorus goes, and there’s a lot of ranting about the CIA and the KKK in the verses. Slash is brought in to dutifully lay in some grinding guitars.
Sneddon was the Santa Barbara County DA who had the unappetizing job of serving a search warrant on Jackson … to inspect his genitalia, after a kid had said he had blotches on his groin. (It’s never been conclusively said the description matched or not.) The case began in L.A. in the early 1990s and involved a family I’m not going to bother naming. The parents were separated; Jackson met the kid, 13 at the time, by chance and weaseled his way into the mom’s household, eventually spending dozens of nights in the kid’s bedroom. Jackson dispensed glamour and gifts, and played the mother off against the birth father, who naturally grew more and more suspicious, as one would when one hears that a 30-something man was sharing a bedroom with his young son. This being L.A. in the 1990s, there’s also some behavior that could be seen to be evidence that the family was motivated by the opportunity to extract money from a rich guy. In any case, after a great deal of behind-the-scenes machinations, the son eventually told a therapist he had in fact been molested. That set a criminal investigation in motion. Like other predators, Jackson focused on kids from broken homes or who were vulnerable in other ways. He played secret games, showed them pornography, distracted their parents with expensive presents. And, like Harvey Weinstein, he hired scorched-earth private investigators to harass his accusers and muddy the waters. (And like Donald Trump, instead of meeting with the media to explain his position, he released an insane-looking video proclaiming his innocence.) Jackson eventually paid the family an extraordinary sum — $10 million, $17 million, or $30 million, according to various reports. (The $30 million figure could be a total figure, including all the payments to the different branches of the family, and legal fees.) The kid was hounded for years by Jackson fans, who repeatedly published his address and pictures online. The boy’s father had it worse: As the years passed he grew more distant from his relatives. Alone and wracked by a rare and highly painful disease, he put a bullet in his head a few months after Jackson died; he was so isolated that the hospital eventually just had his body cremated.
123. “One Day in Your Life,” Forever, Michael (1975):
A shapeless and overwrought assemblage with strings and backing vocals arranged to within an inch of their life.
122. “We’ve Got a Good Thing Going,” Ben (1972):
Slow, almost tepid, subpar Motown, a misfire from the Corporation.
121. “Cinderella Stay Awhile,” Forever, Michael (1975):
The songs on this record just blend together after a while.
At Epic with his brothers, Jackson recorded two albums under the aegis of Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff, the graceful pop auteurs behind Philadelphia International Records and acts like Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and the O’Jays.* Oddly, the relationship didn’t turn the brothers into adult solo stars. The brothers kept insisting on being able to produce their own album. Epic finally relented and, to their credit, Destiny turned into a hit on a couple of big singles, “Blame It on the Boogie” and “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).” Still, Michael, turning 20, chafed. He appeared in the film The Wiz, where he got to know Quincy Jones. Jones befriended the young Jackson, and eventually agreed to produce his first adult solo album.
120. “Earth Song,” History (1995):
Another Big Statement. Jackson starts choking up with an utterly false emotion in the second verse, two-and-a-half minutes in, and there are four minutes to go — four minutes of overcompressed drum shots, pregnant pauses, ever more lugubrious ululations, the requisite key changes and then, wait for it, the crying children’s chorus.
119. “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” Ben (1971):
More anonymous filler for Jackson’s second album. You have to remember that no one expected good songs filling out these albums. It’s mildly interesting to hear Jackson intone these world-weary lines:
It’s beautiful to watch love begin
But oh so sad when it ends
As you got through life remember this rule
Everybody’s somebody’s fool
So many years on, you could be forgiven for thinking that Quincy Jones is something of a pop hack; he seemed to be ubiquitous after Thriller, and a schlocky big-star-ridden album he did unaccountably won Album of the Year at the 1991 Grammys. (In fairness to Jones, his illustrious competition was Mariah Carey, Phil Collins, MC Hammer, and Wilson Phillips.) Actually, Jones is one of the coolest people who ever lived. He knew Ray Charles as a teen. He was in New York before he was 20, arranging for Lionel Hampton and part of a crowd that included Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Dizzy, and Miles Davis. Over the years he’s been a top-tier jazz artist, a pioneering black record-industry exec, a high-end arranger (like, Sinatra-level high-end), film scorer (an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night), and record producer. He capped it off by producing the best-selling record of all time — and no one can say he wasn’t a crucial part of its success.
118. “My Girl,” Ben (1972):
Turns out is it possible to record a denatured version of this Smokey Robinson classic.
117. “What Goes Around Comes Around,” Ben (1972):
A passable song brought to Motown by a group called the Four Corners.
116. “In Our Small Way,” Ben (1972):
It’s a great track. Docked 40 or 50 notches for being as far as I can tell the same great track that was on Jackson’s previous album, Got to Be There.
115. “Little Susie,” History (1995):
This is sometimes listed with another song, “Pie Jesu,” in which a section of the Requiem Mass is set to music by various people. (The title is Latin for “pious Jesus” in the vocative case.) The rest of this mess is a gruesome tale about a little girl who is killed, screaming, and left in a heap “with blood on her hair,” a story that is delivered with muffled sobs. Jackson has nowhere near the adult perspective to handle a subject like this with any subtlety or insight. Another six-minute-plus ordeal.
114. “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day,” Ben (1972):
This song was written by Stevie Wonder, Henry Cosby, and Sylvia Moy, the trio who wrote “My Cherie Amour.” It’s one of the few early Jackson songs that his age doesn’t really seem a match for.
113. “Butterflies,” Invincible (2001):
Another late Jackson song that just tries too hard. Everyone wants the word “butterflies” to sound purty. Over it all Jackson warbles. The trouble with Jackson’s late-period singing is that he seemed determined to make his voice do odd or unusual things, but that’s different from being a good singer.
112. “Up Again,” Music & Me (1973):
One of the Corporation’s heavy hitters, Freddie Perren, wrote this unmemorable tune. On the cover of the album, Jackson poses, unconvincingly, with an acoustic guitar.
111. “Dapper-Dan,” Forever, Michael (1975):
Forced funkiness, forced posturing on his fourth solo album. I don’t understand why the hyphen is there either.
110. “Johnny Raven,” Music & Me (1973):
Jackson had to grow up in public, which isn’t fair or fun. He got away with love plaints as a tyke, but as he got older they didn’t resonate the same way. This is a “ramblin’ man” song, and is pretty callow:
I’m Johnny Raven by and by
Oh, I’m going to leave your nest girl
Another nest to try
109. “Music and Me,” Music & Me (1973):
The ‘70s. Sigh. This sounds like an Olivia Newton-John song.
108. “Blue Gangsta,” Xscape (2014):
Another woman lying to him, but no worries since he’s the blue gangsta, whatever that means. The song bounced around Jacksonland for years and ended up getting retooled by Timbaland for the second posthumous Jackson album, Xscape.
107. “Just a Little Bit of You,” Forever, Michael (1975):
Nothing wrong with second-tier Motown material, but this is third tier. The Hollands were trying, but it was plain the label couldn’t get anywhere with Jackson, now 17. He’d move to CBS with his brothers and craft some passable hits. A few years later, he’d record one of the best-selling records of the ‘70s, Off the Wall.
106. “Dear Michael,” Forever, Michael (1975):
This is a letter to Jackson, which begins, “Michael, I close my eyes and sing along / Dreaming you’re singing to me.” The punch line is that Jackson writes back! (“Hurry, hurry mister postman / Take my letter, tell her I love her.”) Rough going.
105. “I’ll Come Home to You,” Forever, Michael (1975):
Another spoken intro, another tepid songwriting effort. This would be the last track Jackson would record for Motown.
104. “Don’t Walk Away,” Invincible (2001):
Labored. The melody is reminiscent of too many other Jackson tracks, and producer Teddy Riley isn’t bringing anything — besides an overloud wood block — to the party.
103. “History,” History (1995):
Jackson’s big statements grew less persuasive by the year. This one, an epic six-and-a-half minutes, rambles between a crooning upbeat chorus and verses where Jackson gets to sound all tough … and then lurches back into weepy protestations, complete with lots of very historical sounding news and speech clips. Ugh. Was Jackson himself a student of history? It’s doubtful. I think it’s in Sullivan’s book that we’re told Jackson had a library of 10,000 books, “most of which he read.” If we take “most” to mean “6,000,” that would mean Michael Jackson read 200 books a year for his adult life, or about four a week. He may indeed have been a secret reader, but I am not familiar with any public statement of Jackson’s that suggests that he read even four books a year.
102. “Breaking News,” Michael (2010):
Right to the end Jackson was going back to the well of writing songs about how people insisted on writing all this crazy stuff about him. Sad!
101. “The Lost Children,” Invincible (2001):
Yet another bathetic and unconvincing song about children, sung in his supersweet voice. It’s like he’s picking a scab sometimes. The melody is aimless. And the chorus is leaden.
100. “Keep the Faith,” Dangerous (1991):
After being beaten about the head and shoulders by “Will You Be There,” we get this similarly platitudinous slow workout, which follows it on Dangerous. One of the things that’s so disappointing about Jackson is that so many of his ministrations are vapid:
Lift up your head and show the world you got pride
Go for what you want
Don’t let ‘em get in your way
The song is written by the same duo who wrote “Man in the Mirror”; Andrae Crouch and the Disciples come along to shriek in gospel fashion.
99. “Privacy,” Invincible (2001):
This sounds a lot like John Lennon’s “I Found Out” to begin. Then it goes into yet another Michael Jackson song about how mean the press is to him. Then it gets really plodding and Slash wanders in to add some bitchin’ guitar sounds.
98. “Burn This Disco Out,” Off the Wall (1979):
In the ‘70s, a band called Heatwave had a couple of big dance hits, including “Always and Forever” and “Boogie Nights.” One of the principals was a white Brit named Rod Temperton. He became part of Jones’s production team when he took Jackson on, and provided passable dance fare like this and a few other notable Jackson hits.
97. “Gone Too Soon,” Dangerous (1991):
There’s a lot of schlocky stuff on the last half of Dangerous. If you didn’t know, the song is about a kid named Ryan White, who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion and ultimately died. He’s the one who went too soon. It was certainly a tragedy, but even so many years later it still makes your blood boil a bit to think how celebrities like Jackson and Elton John went into overdrive to about a kid like White when gay men were dying, literally unsung, by the thousands, sometimes on the streets. Whenever I think of this song, I think about a magazine called Wigwag, which was begun by some refugees of The New Yorker. The mag featured an opening essay each issue, and one month it was about White. The essay blandly recounted a breathless People magazine account of White’s last days, which as I recall, spent much of its time on a hyperalert, moment-by-moment account of the movements of Elton John. The essay ended with this sentence: “You’d have to be a monster not to laugh.”
96. “Will You Be There,” Dangerous (1991):
Refuse to be uplifted at your own peril by this tedious, almost maniacally manipulative epic, coming on the second side of Dangerous and clocking in at nearly eight minutes, complete with an extended intro, and what seems to be an outro, by the same robotically programmed chorus. But then you realize the lingering outro is really just a setup for Jackson to deliver a lugubrious spoken-word recitation, which on inspection has little to do with the rest of the song. Did I mention this was the theme to Free Willy?
95. “Happy (Love Theme From Lady Sings the Blues),” Music & Me (1973):
This is a serious Michel Legrand song, the music of which was written for the Billie Holiday biopic Gordy produced for his then girlfriend, Diana Ross. You might or might not like Ross as Billie Holiday. Just the melody appeared in the film; it was put together for Jackson with lyrics by Smokey Robinson. I’m not sure if even the young Michael Jackson was prepared for its nuances. But it’s a very pretty song.
94. “It’s the Falling in Love,” Off the Wall (1979):
One of the least memorable tracks on Off the Wall. Jones, apparently experimenting with different things Jackson could try, turned to schlockmeister Carole Bayer Sager for this nothing song. One of the most fraught aspects of Jackson’s recording career involves crossover, which is basically shorthand for “black artists making nice to sell music to white folks.” By bringing in people like Rod Temperton and Sager, Jones was being extremely canny. The results in Off the Wall and Thriller are of course obvious and arguably inarguable. But it should be recognized that the practice is compromising. Are you an artist? Or are you a craftsperson, keenly looking at what the customers want? And at what point do you lose yourself in this process? (See also George, Nelson: The Death of Rhythm and Blues.)
93. “Baby Be Mine,” Thriller (1982):
Another Rod Temperton track, probably the one forgotten song of Thriller. Etiam aliquando bonus dormitat homerus.
92. “The Lady in My Life,” Thriller (1982):
I think the Thriller production team was let down by Temperton on this one. The only thing interesting is Jackson’s ululations in the outro. Why was Michael Jackson singing formal love plaints like this?
91. “Take Me Back,” Forever, Michael (1975):
Not bad; not a first-tier Motown song, but that’s not necessarily a slam when you’re talking about this songwriting powerhouse. Doesn’t really connect, though it’s possible a mature presence like Diana Ross (or a titanic force like Levi Stubbs) could have turned it into something. Early Jackson 5 singles (not to mention those of many other Motown acts) jumped out of the radio; this doesn’t.
90. “Superfly Sister,” Blood on the Dance Floor (1997):
None of us think Jackson knows what he’s talking about on these songs. It’s just stuff culled out of movies and his childish (not childlike) imagination. Susie’s back (cf. “Blood on the Dance Floor”) but in a much less interesting song.
89. “I’m So Blue,” Bad outtake (1987):
While people like Quincy Jones sometimes talk about tough decisions having to be made about what songs made it onto Thriller or Bad — the implication being they had scads of top-flight material to choose from — in truth there aren’t any first-rate outtakes. This song, released on Bad 25, is interesting as a half-realized concept; on the chorus, Jackson, as was his practice, sings nonsense syllables when he doesn’t yet have words.
88. “Liberian Girl,” Bad (1987):
Extremely lushly produced pointlessness. The video for this is one of Jackson’s most annoying. It’s a big movie set where everyone is a celebrity, most of them folks like Whoopi Goldberg or Steve Guttenberg. There’s a heavy-handed ending. (Turns out Michael Jackson is the director!) Here he’s singing about, per the title, a Liberian Girl, but I don’t recall seeing one in the video. Jackson and race is one of the weirdest subjects I can think of. He suffered from a condition called vitiligo, which gave him patches of lighter skin; that was his excuse for bleaching the rest of his skin. But it’s plain there were other urges involved, paired as it was with removing all visible signs of blackness from his face as well. All of this was then complicated by his bland admonishments about race as he grew older.
87. “Just Good Friends,” Bad (1987):
Probably the biggest misfire on Bad. This is supposed to be a duet with Stevie Wonder; I have to say after listening to Bad for decades I still get sorta surprised when I read that Wonder is on the track. He doesn’t appear until the song’s half over and the entrance doesn’t really read as, “Wow, that’s Stevie Wonder!” (Compare that to how McCartney’s unmistakable fluty voice comes in on “The Girl Is Mine,” 45 seconds in.) The songwriting team behind it are pros (they wrote “What’s Love Got to Do With It”) but to me it doesn’t gel; the backing (all those silly sounds, for example) seems plastic even by ’80s standards.
86. “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” Bad (1987):
Hard to argue with this lush ballad, another top-notch production from Jones. The leadoff single from Bad, designed to soften up the populace for the next assault.
85. “Who Is It,” Dangerous (1991):
More scariness on Dangerous. Around this point on the album, the novelty of the edge of the beats was wearing off a bit. In the 1980s Jackson had sung backup on a one-hit wonder called “Somebody’s Watching Me,” from one of Berry Gordy’s sons. This seems to be a retread of that, except that this chorus wasn’t as good. Still it’s another of the Dangerous tracks that sticks in your mind. There are occasional reports that Dangerous or Invincible are the most expensive records ever made. How does that happen? Well, a 1991 Michael Goldberg cover story for Rolling Stone reported that Jackson had reserved a Miami recording studio at the rate of $4,000 a day for two years — and had another one going for nine months! (That’s $4 million right there.) Each, remember, also had one or two expensive production teams working, helmed by some of the most successful (and costly) producers of the day, sometimes put up at places like New York’s Palace Hotel. Jackson would then flit about, in between trips out of the country, to troll for decent beats for his album. I don’t want to minimize Jackson’s genius, because he had one, but I think given the same resources a lot of people could put a pretty good album together in this fashion. And the trouble was that, in the end, Dangerous sounded like what it was — the product of a very expensive, but in the end, not-quite-human process.
84. “In the Closet,” Dangerous (1991):
Great melody, sung dramatically. Not a bad track, but to enjoy it, you have to get past the title. Again like Trump, here’s Jackson scratching at a scab. He’s using a phrase that hints at homosexuality but trying to use it in a song apparently about a relationship with a woman, which works, I guess, until you come to this lyric:
Just promise me, whatever we say
Or do to each other
For now we’ll make a vow to just
Keep it in the closet
He never evinced much of a predilection for what today we’d call trolling. And this was before any of his scandals presented itself to the public. But it’s still an uncomfortable passage from someone who we know, even if he didn’t molest kids, took liberties he should not have. Was he writing from his subconscious? Practicing his lines? We’ll never know. Besides the accusations of those kids (all boys), which is something, there’s no evidence I know of that Jackson was gay besides some unsubstantiated tabloid stories. For what it’s worth, the raids on Jackson’s Neverland ranch by police produced a lot of hetero pornography. (Some of the boys testified that he’d show them porn.) The track has Princess Stéphanie of Monaco, who had some success in Europe as a pop star, contributing some breathy words.
83. “Whatever Happens,” Invincible (2001):
Not a terrible song: “Whatever happens / Don’t let go of my hand” is a clear and plaintive image. Carlos Santana plays through the track and whistles too. Tacky ending with Jackson and Santana thanking each other.
82. “Can’t Let Her Get Away,” Dangerous (1991):
Jackson was addicted to putting little sonic fanfares at the beginnings of his songs. You get one of those here, and then another aggregation of the best beats and melodies money could buy at the time. You have to give him credit. This is one of the least-interesting non-ballads on Dangerous, and it’s still a very crisp and professional production. This is all courtesy of Teddy Riley. He’d started in an R&B group called Guy, whose aggressively sparkling production and crisp edges was a precursor to a lite ‘90 genre called New Jack Swing. I think Jackson takes him to a harder place here than normal.
81. “All the Things You Are,” Music & Me (1973):
A showcase for Jackson’s piercing, ever-expanding vocal abilities; the backing track is too heavily orchestrated, but again, here’s a 15-year-old doing justice to a Kern-Hammerstein Broadway tune.
80. “Give In to Me,” Dangerous (1991):
Jackson is all upset yet again. My sense is that Quincy Jones, on the hilariously titled Bad, knew it was all posturing and produced accordingly; here, in Dangerous, it feel more like Jackson was browbeating his producers to make him seem more, you know, dangerous. Jackson was a great singer, and he’s sorta convincing, if you take the songs discretely. But en masse it all seems poised and melodramatic. As is typical on the album, he veers here between an overdone defiance and a tearful choke in his voice. Slash wanders in again and plays an awful lot of notes to underscore how desperate the singer is. FWIW, though, it’s probably the most coherent (and, not incidentally, ferociously fast) of his solos for Jackson.
79. “Heartbreaker,” Invincible (2001):
Jackson spent more than three years and untold millions on his final solo album, Invincible. In the U.S. it’s probably sold two-and-a-half million, between six or seven percent of that of Thriller. “Heartbreaker” is drony, with Jackson restating his thesis over and over.
78. “For All Time,” Thriller outtake (1982):
Sounds like it wants to be a good song, but there’s just no magic there, and it didn’t make the cut for Thriller.
77. “Someone in the Dark,” The E.T. Storybook (1982):
While they were supposed to be finishing up Thriller, Jackson and Jones started working with Steven Spielberg on an audiobook LP to make a little more money in the wake of the incredible success of Spielberg’s film. This created a distracting legal battle when MCA put out this album, and even tried to release an accompanying single, right when Thriller was coming out. This was the single, which is annoying even before E.T. comes in.
76. “(I Can’t Make It) Another Day,” Michael (2010):
Another Invincible outtake, this one a composition of one Lenny Kravitz. By this time, Kravitz was long past whatever low creative peak he had ever hit; the chances that he would suddenly be writing hot material for Michael Jackson was doubtful, a suspicion a quick listen to the song confirms.
75. “Heaven Can Wait,” Invincible (2001):
If you thought Meat Loaf had given us the definitively overwrought performance of a song called “Heaven Can Wait,” think again. Another sign of Jackson’s’ decline; just unintelligible pop-song gibberish, dispensed over ’90s R&B wannabe-isms. It took more than half a dozen people to write this overlong and over-verbal mess.
74. “Break of Dawn,” Invincible (2001):
Lots of bird noises at the beginning, but they sound harsh and unnatural. The whole thing tries to be all New Jack Swing-y, but just wait till you hear Jackson try to pull off the line, “Gotta make love to the break of dawn.” Hence the birds, I guess. Jackson wrote this with Dr. Freeze, the auteur behind “I Wanna Sex You Up.” (Also Bell Biv DeVoe’s vastly better “Poison.”)
73. “They Don’t Care About Us,” History (1995):
This is one of those decent but flawed later Jackson songs. It has an undeniably efficient backing track, and the chorus certainly has a hook. History — whose official title was, wait for it, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, inconsistent on so many levels — was half greatest-hits set, half new work, and a perfect example of how Jackson and his record company couldn’t maintain a coherent marketing strategy for him amid the controversies over the molestation charges. (Why not do a greatest-hits set for one holiday season, a studio album for the next?) Jackson spent untold millions on the new album, and then blew punishing amounts of money commissioning gigantic Stalinist-style statues of himself and sending them all over the world. His fights with the label devolved into a nasty name-calling spat with Sony’s then-chief, Tommy Mottola. Producers tell Knopper that the backing track of “They Don’t Care About Us” boasts more than 20 percussion tracks alone. But despite all the time and money and producers, no one looked over Jackson’s lyrics! One went: “Jew me / Sue me / Everybody do me / Kick me / Kike me / Don’t you black and white me.” It’s one of those delightful moments when bad art backfires on its creator. The defense of the lines is that Jackson was saying, “Go ahead and call me a Jew, call me a kike.” Outside of being presumptuous, the problem is that the term “Jew me” has a plainly anti-Semitic meaning, which he was not successful in displacing with his own lyric. And he’s also equating the use of the word “kike,” a slur, with the word “Jew,” which isn’t a slur. In his various statements about the issue Jackson showed he was incapable of marshaling a rational argument in his defense. It was quite a PR mess, and another step along Wacko Road. And it should be noted that, even despite this, it’s a weird song. The first half of the chorus is lazy (“All I wanna say is that…”) and the second half (“They don’t really care about us”) is precisely the sort of thing a predator would say to a kid to separate him from his parents.
72. “The Girl Is Mine,” Thriller (1982):
Thriller’s selling spree began with this amiable, just-this-side-of-novelty track featuring the two most popular and harmless dudes in the world swapping aw-shuckses with each other. As far as star duets go however, this is the gold standard; two winsome personalities, their voices highly distinct. For the record, “the doggone girl is mine” is a terrible lyric. Thriller was released a month before Christmas in 1982 — late for that Christmas season, by industry standards, but that wasn’t what Jackson, Jones, and Sony were looking at. They were looking at 1983, a year the record dominated perhaps as no other record ever had. After softening up the market with the “The Girl Is Mine,” which gave Jackson the imprimatur of Paul McCartney, the hits just kept on coming. “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Wanna Be Starting Something,” etc. etc. — seven top-ten hits in all. On the record’s cover, Jackson — his face matured and sculpted and (not least) deracinated by facial surgery — came across to Middle America as fun and sexy, a master of aural if not physical charms. We soon discovered that that picture of his body jacketed a pop-song cycle of undeniable power and pleasure. It all became clear with the second single. When the insistent bass line, jittery strings and surprising self-definition (“I am the one,” he sang, “Whocoulddance onthefloor intheround“) of “Billie Jean” pulsed into our collective consciousness; when, the day after Jackson delivered his famous performance of that song on a Motown TV special, at a time when there was no Facebook or YouTube, and when VCRs had not yet penetrated American life, we went into school or work the next day to exclaim, “Did. You. See. That?” — there was, beside the simple pop pleasures imparted, something delectable, historically satisfying in seeing a black performer stand, titan-like, astride the world.
71. “Rockin’ Robin,” Got to Be There (1972):
Another Jackson solo hit from the first album, a cover of an R&B novelty song. Boy, this is rough going, but you have to credit his professionalism and manic devotion, right up to the rockabilly vocal tricks.
Here’s the original, which I think is a little subtler:
70. “Threatened,” Invincible (2001):
The standout track on Invincible, perhaps the best of Jackson’s monster songs; the chorus is one of the most subtle of his late period, and the snatches of the lyrics you can catch keep the song abstract, without the self-aggrandizement he toys with in so many of his later songs.
69. “Xscape,” Xscape (2014):
Tries to drum up some energy; am I the only one who finds the horns a bit retro? The breakdown is wan indeed. The low guttural voice Jackson sometimes affects has never sounded so uninteresting. Another song where our Michael is a victim — of a lying, greedy woman, of the media, of business pressures. A lot of people bought into this nonsense. In the wake of his death, particularly at his funeral, you heard a lot of talk about Michael the victim, Michael who was so beset by all these unfair things. No one said what those trials were exactly. Jackson sought his celebrity, fueled it in the most ridiculous ways, and, leaving aside some childhood trauma we don’t know or understand, brought his problems on himself. Consider his personal and professional circle. Reading through Sullivan’s in-depth Unbreakable is like spending time at a Twin Peaks cast party. Has-been celebrities; sleazy record-industry personnel; cultural punch lines; lawyers, plastic surgeons, and spiritual advisers to the stars; blowsy actresses; gullible foreigners and opportunistic politicians; arrant frauds, assorted poltroons, and the author of Kosher Sex appear, disappear and reemerge as if on a tabloid merry-go-round. Jackson’s various managers and top advisers include a one-time Sony promotions man named Frank DiLeo, invariably described as looking the part of the cigar-chomping former bookie he was; Jackson’s younger brother, Randy; someone named Trudy Green; a pair of Germans; a Korean lawyer; a Palm Beach billionaire said to have been an associate of Meyer Lansky’s; another adviser who has to leave Jackson’s employ after it is revealed he has a sideline in the gay porn industry; a man of Lebanese descent named Dr. Tohme Tohme, who claimed to be a Senegalese ambassador; a former press secretary who worked for Marion Barry while he was in prison; and others I am forgetting. Some of this crew didn’t make sure Jackson filed tax returns, and others ended up in court trying to get back money they advanced to Jackson, so it’s hard to feel sorry for most of them. Something of a low point is hit when the Nation of Islam shows up. It seems that Dr. Tohme Tohme might have been the most honest — and Jackson’s last, best hope for survival. But he, too, is eventually supplanted by a resurgent DiLeo, and left somewhat forlorn. We never find out what he was a doctor of, however.
68. “Bad,” Bad (1987):
While everyone liked Thriller, of course, Bad was always a bit ridiculous from the start. Sure there were some good tracks, but it’s hard to respect a guy who spends the first four minutes of his Big Next Statement wailing “I’m bad, I’m bad, I’m really really bad,” particularly while posing in his Cutest Little Biker in Encino getup. The biographies say that Jackson and Jones met with Prince to discuss a duet of the pair for this song. My sense is that Prince, who knew something about being bad, couldn’t have taken the proposal seriously. The video — I’m sorry, “the short film” — is directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Richard Price, the novelist, who serves up some tasty urban patois. (“Hunt’s up homeboy! We got victims out there waiting for us!”). It’s an interesting video to watch today. It’s big-budget and highly silly, with an expanding cast of Village People rejects serving as dancers and a little more “Be Cool” West Side Story choreography than is strictly necessary. For what it’s worth, though, this is now a fine wet spring of a man. Jackson’s post Jheri-curled hair is at its most luscious; even his somewhat forced sneers can’t mar that handsome face; and his leonine mien millions found highly fuckable, at least in their dreams. But it makes you sad, too, in retrospect. You notice that he managed to do something to lose that broad, transporting smile; later in life, his upper lip seemed permanently curled down over his upper teeth.
67. “This Time Around,” History (1995):
Great groove — there’d better be, given the number of top-line producers who worked on this thing. Shitty rap from Biggie Smalls. The subject matter is another aggrieved rant. “They falsely accused me.” Did I mention the great groove?
66. “Money,” History (1995):
In History Jackson had free reign to work out his anxieties and write about things that were on his mind. The trouble is that they all weren’t that interesting. Here he is accusing other people of being obsessed with (his) money. In the end, wasn’t it his responsibility to surround himself with better people? Boy that’s a dulcet chorus, though.
65. “Come Together,” History (1995):
Aerosmith had already done the rocker version of this song. It dates back to the 1980s, when Jackson did it for his weird film Moonwalker.
64. “Slave to the Rhythm,” Xscape (2014):
An unnotable midtempo jam with a crowded, overproduced backing track, and a dramatic intro at odds with the subject of the song itself. The song itself isn’t bad, just another slightly depressing example of the non-A stuff Jackson had apparently toyed with during his lifetime picked over by large groups of producers after his death.
63. “You Are Not Alone,” History (1995):
This ballad is drony and unpleasant, but it became Jackson’s last No. 1 hit, courtesy of songwriter R. Kelly, who, among other things, shared a fondness with Jackson for underaged kids. (R. Kelly had already illegally married the 15-year-old Aaliyah at the time Jackson recorded this, but had not yet been exposed as the child predator and sexual deviant he is known to be today.) The video, another of Jackson’s bizarre public presentations, is notable in that it showed Jackson full face, with a porcelain visage — a key moment when his face began to look beyond unnatural. There’s also Lisa Marie Presley, lolling around naked with Jackson against a Maxfield Parrish–style background, and trying desperately not to get caught up in the major freak show that was just getting started.
Then came another molestation charge. This time, Jackson had befriended a young cancer patient. Again the family became enmeshed in his lavish lifestyle. David Gest’s movie, Life of an Icon, is avowedly on Jackson’s side in telling this story, but it’s valuable in that it gives penetrating defenses of Michael from everyone involved in his camp. But there’s still an aura of Trumpian ridiculousness. For example, one of Jackson’s assistants says he was there when Jackson went to bed with the boy and a friend, and tells an elaborate story of how Jackson made sure the boys slept in the bed while he and the assistant slept on the floor. Hey — here’s an idea. How about if the kids sleep with their family and you two adults go sleep in your own fucking bedrooms? Besides the two public molestation charges, there’s at least one other boy, then a 13-year-old in England, featured in both Sullivan and Knopper’s books, who says Jackson crossed sexual lines with him over the phone and hasn’t used it for any financial gain, so it’s doubtful there’s no truth to any of the Jackson molestation charges in their most extreme versions. (It’s patently true that he did things with children adults shouldn’t do, and that he compromised families in the process, and it’s certainly possible he paid off other victims secretly.)
62. “Tabloid Junkie,” History (1995):
Jackson goes back to the “Leave Me Alone” well for another rant against the media: “Just because you read it in a magazine or see it on a TV screen / Don’t mean it’s factual.” This was 30 years before the fake news era, and actually, most stuff you did read back then was factual. There’s even a whispered line “They say he’s homosexual!” The nature of Jackson’s sexuality has eluded his biographers. It’s really none of our business, but since he brought it up we can duly note that there’s really little on the record about his having had a routine relationship, heterosexual or homosexual. It is Sullivan’s conclusion that Jackson might have died a virgin, heterosexually speaking. (Jackson himself said that one night when Tatum O’Neal tried to seduce him he covered his face with his hands until she went away.) In the second edition of Tarborelli’s book, Lisa Marie Presley suddenly goes out of her way to attest that the pair had a sex life, but it still sounds a little awkward. Not quite “Yes, yes, we did the sex! “— but not quite convincing either, like the pair’s kiss at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards.
61. “2 Bad,” History (1995):
More Jackson audacity in the Trumpian mold: Prince typography, Prince harmonies, Minneapolis producers, all to create a setting for the sort of whining Prince himself, regally, eschewed. Jackson’s complaining again, resentfully, being attacked on all sides, with another celebrity on hire to add a little rap rawness to the mix. (In this case it’s bad boy Shaquille O’Neal.) But it lacks something so many Prince songs have, which is joy and mischievousness — the dense mix of writers and producers here would seem to make that hard to create.
60. “Too Young,” Music & Me (1973):
This is a Nat King Cole hit from the 1950s, which Donny Osmond had a hit with in 1972. You might wonder why Motown would have Jackson record it again. But it’s not as bad as you might think; he turns it into a barnburner.
59. “Loving You,” Xscape (2014):
A very lite midtempo pop song, with an oddly retro — and unsubtle — backing from Timbaland.
Reading the biographers one is struck by Jackson’s lack of regular old friends. Someone I know went as part of a couple to Jackson’s house for dinner one night back in the day. Jackson’s own date for the evening was Frank DiLeo, that cigar-chomping manager. Conversation at dinner was halting; during a house tour the person I know said they caught Jackson making a cut-off gesture to his manager in a mirror. Jackson disappeared, and they were shown to the door by DiLeo. Doesn’t really sound like a life with a lot of friends. Reading about Jackson’s life is an amusement-park ride through a hall of random and not-all-that-celebrated celebrities, including cultural blips like Rodney Allen Rippy (look him up), Tatum O’Neal (introduced in a hot tub at a Hollywood party), and Emmanuel Lewis (on Jackson’s lap on a date with Madonna). In the period after Jackson was first accused of child molestation, he goes to Florida to work with Lou Pearlman, the impresario behind the Backstreet Boys. It transpires that Pearlman is a crook who might have a thing for young boys himself, and Jackson flees. (Pearlman’s still in prison.) Dick Gregory pops in and out of Jackson’s life, and so, inevitably, do Al Sharpton and Donald Trump himself. Here’s Mark Lester, the star of Oliver!; there is Chris Tucker, star of Rush Hour. I wish I could have spent more time with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (that’s the self-promoter who wrote Kosher Sex), an oh-so-close friend of Jackson’s who competed with the likes of Deepak Chopra and Uri Geller to be Jackson’s number-one bestest spiritual adviser. “The hardest rocking oil sheik in the Middle East” funds various Jackson dreams for a period of time, until, $7 million later, Jackson and his entourage vanish from his domain. A lawsuit follows here, too. Who am I forgetting? Oh, yes: Grace Rwaramba, dubbed by Time magazine as “the most powerful nanny in the universe”; Anton Glanzelius, “the best-known child actor in all of Scandinavia”; and Tony Buzan, “the inventor of mind mapping.”
58. “You Can Cry on My Shoulder,” Ben (1971):
One of the more careless tracks of his first four albums. I think it sounds muffled but there’s something interesting going on in the chorus and Jackson sure delivers on the high notes. Solo writing credit to Berry Gordy.
57. “Girlfriend,” Off the Wall (1979):
One of the amazing things about Off the Wall is that Paul McCartney gave Jackson a not-bad song, and it’s one of the lesser tracks on the record. McCartney was always generous to Jackson, leaving aside some supposed enmity from when Jackson ended up owning the Beatles’ song catalogue, though this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The Beatles had the chance to buy their catalog back in the 1960s, but John Lennon fucked it up. McCartney had both the time and money in the years after that to do something about the situation. Jackson smartly bought the company in 1985, after Thriller, but then dumbly mortgaged it to fund his lavish lifestyle. There’s a good chance he would have lost the whole thing had he lived. Jackson’s estate eventually sold most of the rest of his holdings back to Sony.
56. “Smile,” History (1995):
This song was written originally by Charlie Chaplin. (Chaplin did the music; the lyrics, which were added later, go, “Smile / If your heart is breaking” etc. etc.) What could have been a charming, analog outing becomes almost unlistenable under the weight of the strings and intrusive percussion, not to mention Jackson’s unnuanced delivery. Barbra Streisand could listen to this and say, “Ugh, have some taste.” There’s a nice touch of what could have been at the end, when a solo piano comes in.
55. “Unbreakable,” Invincible (2001):
Not a terrible beat, and fairly distinctive. Really doesn’t sound like Jackson singing through most of it, however. That’s Biggie Smalls on the rap. Note that it’s another song about being beset and bothered.
54. “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” Got to Be There (1972):
A so-so soul song, with Jackson’s voice pitched almost unnaturally high, but he basically pulls it off. There’s a busy string arrangement. It was a minor single hit for Jackson. Lots of help from songwriter Leon Ware, who would go on to collaborate with Marvin Gaye at a crucial transition in the latter’s career.
53. “This Is It,” This Is It (2009):
The This Is It album was a greatest-hits collection with one original song—this wan concoction. It tries to be a rousing “Man in the Mirror”–style thing, and jeez you can hear Jackson trying, but it doesn’t stay with you. Worse, it sounds dated — it’s another song he wrote with Paul Anka in the 1980s. (Anka has said the track came from a tape Jackson had purloined from him and had been used on the album without his permission. He eventually came to an arrangement with Sony.) “This Is It” became the title of what was supposed to be a comeback series of shows at the O2 arena in London. In hindsight it was clear Jackson wasn’t going to have the stamina to perform anywhere near 50 shows — he was a mess during the rehearsals. But he was hemorrhaging money, and Dr. Tohme had finally gotten him to understand that, since the high costs and low sales had stunted his recording career, he had no alternative but to get his ass back out on a stage. Instead of doing something low-impact, the Jacksonian grandiosity kicked in and he allowed himself to be dragged into to a plainly overambitious endeavor. A bunch of promoters and advisers ended up getting caught in a long-running legal mess after his death (not to mention Jackson’s doctor), and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer group of people.
52. “Doggin’ Around,” Music & Me (1973):
One of the more charming early Jackson deep cuts. It’s kind of a blues tune, annoyingly arranged, but it’s fun to hear the then-15-year-old Jackson hit all his marks and generally work it on out.
51. “You Rock My World,” Invincible (2001):
This is a half-irresistible Jackson track with a good, unrelenting melody, a strong beat, and a groovy chorus. Marred by a long, embarrassing intro between him and actor Chris Tucker, with them both boasting about how lucky they are going to get, or something.
50. “Workin’ Day and Night,” Off the Wall (1979):
A piece of fluff, but energetic and solid. Written by Jackson.
49. “You Are My Life,” Invincible (2001):
I spent a while trying to figure out what previous Jackson song this reminds me of, but it’s just one of his treacly, unconvincing tracks. The unholy trinity of Jackson, Babyface, and Carole Bayer Sager wrote it.
Once Jackson broke with his family, they were left in a frustrated purgatory, with virtually every member (Janet prominently excepted, and Randy having something like an independent career) trying to get back into his orbit. Over the last ten years of his life, as his detachment proved permanent, devolution occurred. It’s hard to be cruel to a family that has given us so much pleasure over the years, but the combination of various screws being loose and the lingering fallout from the Thriller period compromised almost everyone and drove several brothers and even their parents into bankruptcy. (Joseph and Katherine extracted an extravagant fee from some determined South Koreans by promising to get Michael to play concerts there, which of course never happened; they were eventually found in judgment for some $13 million.) And this isn’t to mention all the other nonsense, like Jermaine’s wife running him over at a drive-in movie theater after she caught him with Paula Abdul. My favorite part of Sullivan’s book is the portrait of the bedlam at Havenhurst, the family’s Encino mansion, in the 21st century. Michael’s mother Katherine presides over a human circus of children, grandchildren, hangers-on, and staff. (It isn’t made clear why so many grandchildren live with Katherine; father Joseph had been exiled to Las Vegas long before.) The group also includes a woman who, in Sullivan’s account, few wanted in the house but who happened to be the mother of no fewer than four Jackson grandchildren after being involved with both Jermaine and Randy; a young man named Donte, whose parentage is unknown, but was suspected to be a child of Joseph’s perhaps via a housekeeper; and one Omer Bhatti, described as a “Norwegian rapper,” whom it is said Katherine is fond of. Michael’s death left Katherine, on the cusp of 80, in custody of his three kids — who came with that no-nonsense supernanny, and new heights of chaos ensue.
48. “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” Dangerous (1991):
A heavily clichéd piece of guitar shredding starts this out, about as bad as most Jackson heavy-metal lagniappes. This is a good song otherwise. Mike’s still upset about things, here specifically about why people are criticizing him while, you know, babies are starving.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and can think of very few problems Jackson had that weren’t of his own making. Once we get into the realm of Dangerous and beyond, Jackson’s behavior curdles. From the mid-’90s on, it’s plain his face had been wrenched beyond repair. He developed an odd habit of wearing a weird little mask in public. In the garish tribute concert held at MSG, you can see him, seemingly involuntarily, continually holding his hand up to cover his face. (The film of the event has obviously been edited to exclude any close-ups.) In 1995, he appeared on a Diane Sawyer interview to try to talk his way out of the charges of sleeping with young boys. Sitting next to him listening, then-wife Lisa Marie Presley sports an expression that will seem familiar to anyone who has watched Melania Trump in public.
47. “Carousel,” Thriller outtake (1982):
“I lost my heart on a carousel / To a circus girl who went away.” Just another Michael Jackson boy-meets-carny, boy-loses-carny song. A two-minute fragment.
We might as well talk about Jackson’s father. The best film about Michael Jackson has been overlooked. It is called Michael Jackson: Life of an Icon. In another one of the celebrity-footnote absurdities in Jackson’s life, it was made by David Gest, best known for being the odd-looking man who married Liza Minnelli, with Jackson and Liz Taylor standing up for the pair, and then divorced her 18 months later, citing physical abuse. Who knew that Gest had been close to the Jackson family since their arrival in Los Angeles, and could call on virtually all the people who actually knew and worked with Jackson over his career? The movie has insights no other Jackson movie does. One potent example: In Gest’s movie a family friend from Gary details Joseph Jackson’s anger — but also has this to say about Michael Jackson’s stern father: “I seen the steel mill. I’m-a tell you, it’s like working for Satan. So his vision, I respect.” None of that excuses Joseph Jackson’s violence toward his kids, stories of which have come from every family source. (“The man was evil,” Bobby Taylor said — and claims he once pulled a gun on the elder Jackson to get him out of the studio.) Were they just the beatings that any father of the time might have delivered, as Joseph says they were? Or something a little too violent, like the stories Michael has told? There are worse allegations, too: The TV tabloid reporter Diane Dimond asserts in her book on the Michael Jackson molestation trial (ominously titled Be Careful Who You Love) that Rebbie Jackson, the clan’s oldest child, filed a sexual-assault charge against her father at age 16. But Dimond doesn’t source the charge and says the record was “erased,” whatever that means. Later, both LaToya Jackson, Michael’s other older sister, and Jermaine Jackson alleged sexual abuse of his daughters on the elder Jackson’s part. In any case, Joseph ultimately alienated his family with his extramarital affairs … and extramarital children, too. (Sullivan says there maybe a half-dozen or more.) He has lived in exile in Las Vegas for decades. It’s a penumbral life. His personal website is a gate to a louche netherworld of not-quite luxury products. (An announcement I noticed a few years ago: “Joe Jackson today signed a marketing agreement with Manuela Koschker and Don Stardy of UD Group International for the Global Production of Joe Jackson: Champagne, Ice Cream, Jellys, Lollys, Cosmetique, Jewelry and Fashion, Children and Adult Clothing.” There seems to be no further public record of this auspicious endeavor.) Joseph is separated from his family except in high-profile occasions when his presence is required, and even then he embarrasses himself searchingly, as in the immediate aftermath of his son’s death when he began promoting his new record label whenever he got in front of a news camera. Sullivan says that custody rules worked out between Debbie Rowe and Katherine Jackson after Jackson’s death prohibit unsupervised contact between Joseph and his grandchildren.
46. “Ghosts,” Blood on the Dance Floor (1997):
Here at least we have a metaphor, though the first half of this song could fool you. It’s the “ghost of jealousy” — that’s Jackson’s contention of what was driving his supposed foes. The song did however provide fodder for one of Jackson’s best later videos, set in a big haunted house with lots of CGI and great choreography — and Jackson dressed up as a portly white guy.
45. “Another Part of Me,” Bad (1987):
Second-string but still groovy beats; aimless but still engaging singing. The most interesting thing is how he pronounced “part” (“poo-what!”) in the title phrase. Jackson wrote this, and it has the marks of his early solo compositions: the odd sentence construction (“We’re sending out a major love”) and bland encomiums to peace and love, blah de blah. At the same time, the rhymes and beats here — slightly off-kilter, with that guitar not quite in line with the bass — show how Jackson’s intensely idiosyncratic approach to the music created unusual pop songs.
44. “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” Thriller (1982):
The story is that Jackson wrote a song called “P.Y.T.”, but Quincy Jones turned his nose up at it. Instead, he brought in James Ingram, a noted soul singer of the time, to write a new song of the same name with Jones. It’s another unassailably sophisticated Jones production, with a note or two of quirkiness, and Jackson’s mannerisms kept to a minimum. Note how that brief guitar line at the beginning has a sound like some of the other tracks from the album, giving it an organic feel despite its varied styles. “P.Y.T.” was the album’s sixth single, and it just squeaked into the U.S. top ten. (This stuff was well-chronicled at the time.) You have to assume some behind-the-scenes manipulation by Sony to nudge it up to that position. (This was the era of the indie promo man, who would act as a middle man for payola to radio stations.) Ironically, it’s an undeniable hit single; the relative lackluster performance probably suggests Jackson fatigue finally settling in by the time. But Jackson had a secret weapon: The album’s seventh and last single, the title song, would be accompanied by the most celebrated video of the era and safely rise into the top ten as well.
43. “The Way You Make Me Feel,” Bad (1987):
Another fine hit single written by Jackson. By any standard Jackson has been misunderestimated as a songwriter — I was amazed to go back to see that, over the first four albums of his adult career, Jackson got solo writing credit for 16 songs; eight went to No. 1 on the pop charts. Twelve were top-ten hits, and a 13th stalled at 11. (Madonna, by contrast, has never written a number-one song on her own.) Jackson is unique among his peers in this one way: To a surprising extent, he wrote the hits he needed when he needed them, and essentially never missed. That said, sometimes I’m a tiny bit curious as to how Jackson actually wrote songs. You don’t see footage of him playing piano or plucking at a guitar — he couldn’t play an instrument. From the bios you get a sense that Jackson would hum or describe parts to a musical staff, who helped him get the songs out of his head and onto an instrument.
42. “Much Too Soon,” Michael (2010):
At the end of the first posthumous album comes this icky supersweet ballad, all blather about “what the future brings.” There might be an accordion on it, which I think would be a first. But thoughts of that disappear under the weight of all the other icky supersweet sounds — from the violins, the tinkling plucked guitar, the warbling harmonica.
41. “Hold My Hand,” Michael (2010):
This is a collaboration between Jackson and Akon, which you can tell because the latter sings, “Akon and MJ!” at the beginning. Also because of Akon’s freaky voice. A lot more Akon than MJ, as it happens. Harmless otherwise.
40. “Invincible,” Invincible (2001):
The third song of Invincible was highly formulaic, weird sound at beginning, etc. The producer known as Darkchild and his brother produced; the chorus isn’t terrible, but basically that’s all this song is, besides the funny noises. An anonymous rapper named Fats delivers a rap, another part of the Jackson hepster formula. All that said, you can hear how seriously Jackson is taking his vocals.
39. “2000 Watts,” Invincible (2001):
Anonymous backing track, and, oddly, an anonymous vocal track to accompany it. Works up a bit more energy toward the end, however. There are a lot of voices, all of them sounding pretty excited about, you know, all those watts, which I am given to understand number 2,000. The album doesn’t feel like it was the work of a real person. There are an average of about four writing credits on each song of Invincible, and two are solo works by Jackson and R. Kelly.
Right around the time of Invincible, Jackson put on a 30th-anniversary concerts for himself at Madison Square Garden. To get his oh-so-close friends like Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor there, he had to shell out extraordinary sums of money — and when the shows began, there was no Jackson. He was back in his hotel room, drugged and sleeping. He was eventually roused and delivered something close to a decent performance.
38. “A Place With No Name,” Xscape (2014):
One of the better posthumous tracks, but then again, it’s based on one of the most intransigently popular pop songs of all time, America’s “A Horse With No Name.” But you have to admit Jackson adds a better-than-expected chorus, which, for some reason, is completely different from the original, right down to including an extra syllable in the chorus: “Take me to a place without no name,” then we get the original’s “na-na-na-na” at the end. Still, it’s a great chorus. Jackson was mixed up, but he could occasionally craft winning songs, even on the back of another. The guy from America said it was great — you would as well if you’d just scored a publishing credit on a Michael Jackson album.
37. “Behind the Mask,” Michael (2010):
It’s possible that, if Jackson could have dampened some of his obsessive need to be seen to be the master record producer, he could have perhaps opened up his art to doing interesting songs by various people, instead of just bringing other producers into his studio to try to craft himself some magic. This song would not be a successful example of such an approach, but it does make you think about it. This is a song by the Yellow Magic Orchestra, an electronic band from Japan that featured Ryuichi Sakamoto.
36. “Don’t Be Messin’ Round,” Bad outtake (1986):
his is an immensely charming outtake from the Bad sessions, supposedly considered for future albums, but never seen until the 25th-anniversary release of the album. It has an undeniable Latin groove and a delicate, thoughtful vocal from Jackson, one of his most relaxed and unagitated. I’d love to hear an album of his casual demos like this.
35. “Chicago,” Xscape (2014):
Thematically, the rare Jackson song with some off-kilter, as opposed to just weird, subtexts. This seems to be sung to a guy whose wife was double-timing them both. “She said she didn’t have no man,” Jackson sings. Feels a bit received.
34. “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone,” Got to Be There (1972):
A classic bit of Holland-Dozier-Holland, and a hit for the Supremes. Even a wunderkind like Michael Jackson can’t match the style and grace of Diana Ross at her height, but he sure is trying here. The buzzy guitar is fine. Now that’s he’s a bit older, you can reflect on the roots of his gifts.
33. “Is It Scary,” Blood on the Dance Floor (1997):
This persuasive jam, crafted by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — that’s the duo who came out of Prince’s circle in Minneapolis, and kick-started Janet Jackson’s career with the lethal Control — is one of the signal late-period Jackson tracks. Blood on the Dance Floor is full of wretchedly delivered stuff about scariness, ghosts, etc. I trust so little of what Jackson says. But this can bring up you short:
Am I amusing you
Or just confusing you
Am I the beast
And if you want to see
I’ll be grotesque
Before your eyes
Now, as usual, there are caveats. We didn’t want him to be grotesque. He’s the one who (a) brought it up, and (b) bought the plastic surgery that created the grotesquery. But all in all, this track, which gets more and more overwrought, isn’t really R&B; it’s straight-up pop gothic.
Speaking of gothic, among the various disasters of the last decade of Jackson’s life, the most unfortunately self-induced was his participation in an ABC show called Living With Michael Jackson, generally referred to as the “Infamous Martin Bashir Interview.” Bashir, a Brit, landed a Great White of celebrity interviews; in front of his merciless camera, Jackson blathered all his reality-free positions and came across as deranged — part Blanche DuBois, part Norma Desmond. Among other things, Bashir captures the mundanity of Jackson’s spending. There’s a trip to one of those breathtakingly tacky (and breathtakingly expensive) “art” shops in one of the casino shopping malls. Jackson wanders through almost in a daze, wildly purchasing items in the five and six (!) figures and babbling things like “That’s Apollo being bathed.” (“Michael really knows his art,” someone says.)
After Living With Michael Jackson, Jackson and his family tried to strike back, with a rebuttal show, The Michael Jackson Interview: The Footage You Weren’t Meant to See, hosted by Maury Povich at his most oleaginous and ethically bankrupt. (Fox paid Jackson more than $1 million for use of his footage; in return, Jackson provided the mother of his children and various family members to mouth banalities about him on the Fox show. On air, Povich trumpets that none of the interviewees had been paid for their appearances.) Povich carries the Jackson camp’s water, and tries to impeach Bashir — as if the problems of that show involved things Bashir, as opposed to Jackson, had said. It also turned the serious charges and disturbing behaviors of Jackson into a he-said, he-said debate. Sound familiar? The result is a funhouse of rationalization, contradictions, and bland assertions of the obviously untrue — a little like Donald Trump’s infamous Cabinet meeting in which all the secretaries, looking like kidnap victims, praised him to the skies.
32. “In Our Small Way,” Got to Be There (1972):
This is a great ‘70s pop song with a simple, some would say bland, message, perhaps the roots of Jackson’s own later simple and bland message songs. We get a spoken intro and an indelible melody, taken to some spectacular vocal flights from the then 13- or 14-year-old. His vocal, slightly echoed, is gorgeous. The chorus is catchy.
31. “Jam,” Dangerous (1991):
The leadoff track for yet another make-or-break Jacksonian moment, Dangerous, his first album since Bad, and without Quincy Jones. We hear the sound of breaking glass and then the studio trick of manipulating Jackson’s voice as he sings “Gotta get up and jam.” Dangerous has the best production money could buy, though not so much of the gracious pop art Jones had delivered. We’re now in a more frenetic realm. The sound collage beneath the actual song is pretty adventuresome. The whole thing is energetic, and the chorus really works. The verses, where Jackson dons his put-upon voice, less so. He seems to be really upset about a woman who likes both Buddha and the Talmud. And Heavy D’s rap, a slavering mishmash about how great Michael Jackson is, is beyond pathetic. (It begins, “Jam, jam, here comes the man, hot damn!”) The video starred a game Michael Jordan, one of the few people in the world who could be said to be doing Jackson a favor. The song did what it had to do, which was tie Jackson to some new-sounding — if not exactly new per se — sounds.
30. “We’ve Got Forever,” Forever, Michael (1975):
Boy, this sounds horrendous at first, but the opening shrieking resolves into a pretty persuasive super-ballad. This song really tries; the songwriters are Hal David’s brother, Mack, and Elliot Willensky, who wrote “Got to Be There.”
29. “Love Never Felt So Good,” Xscape (2014):
The leadoff track to the most recent Jackson album, Xscape. His recorded vocals were paired with Justin Timberlake’s by Timbaland; the result, with the requisite hype, was a single that, presumably with a lot of behind-the-scenes manipulations, skittered up to No. 9 on the charts, so Sony could claim that it had been a top-ten record. It’s fine; if you pay attention, you can hear a pretty classic pop song in the mix. Indeed — this was a collaboration between Jackson and Paul Anka back around the time of Thriller, which Johnny Mathis had already recorded. On a deluxe edition of Xscape, you can hear the song’s demo, with Jackson warbling, winningly, over Anka’s rollicking, feeling piano part. It’s an overlooked gem, as you can hear in the video below. See also “This Is It.”
28. “Dangerous,” Dangerous (1991):
Michael Jackson’s last coherent album closes with a last burst of dangerosity, after the barfy nonsense of “Heal the World” and “Gone Too Soon.” He’s re-plowing the emotionally stressful, financially remunerative land of “Billie Jean.” Note the prominent clop on the two and four beats; to my ears it’s mixed too high, and something of a crutch to hang the song on. We can hear the beginnings of the loss of subtlety and sophistication that will mar so much of Jackson’s later work. Still, while inevitably seen as a lesser work, Dangerous sold 30 million copies around the world, almost as much as Bad, though comparatively less in the U.S. (8 million Dangerous versus 10 million Bad.)
27. “Morning Glow,” Music & Me (1973):
If you wade through the indifferent production you can hear a terrific chorus, courtesy of Stephen Schwartz, who wrote Godspell. Then you realize it’s because it reminds you of the one in “Both Sides Now.”
26. “She Drives Me Wild,” Dangerous (1991):
Jackson was always on the trail of new sounds, begging his various producers for them. I guess this is one, with the car horns and squeal, and that raspy shuffle beneath, served up by producer Teddy Riley. I like how his vocals are recorded as well and the chorus has a slinky groove. One of the straight-up good songs on Dangerous. Unneeded: The toothless rap break is by an R&B outfit called Wreckx-N-Effect, hot at the time off a trashy hit single called “Rump Shaker,” who were sadly never able to break the legendary Curse of the One-Hit Wonder With a Song About Big Butts.
25. “Stranger in Moscow,” History (1995):
This feels to me to be the most full-bodied and textured example of Jackson’s later work. Another case where his lyrics, too often blatherings of cliché, become suddenly, oddly specific. Not sure what’s going on here, but he sure is caught up in it:
Here abandoned in my fame
Armageddon of the brain
KGB was doggin’ me
Take my name and just let me be
At the end of the song, increasingly worked up, he intones the title words, and then really gets into a lather. “We’re talking danger!” But the song is lulling and insistent, and there’s a sophistication to the melody largely lacking in most of his later work.
24. “Get on the Floor,” Off the Wall (1979):
This song has a classic ’70s funk line; but check out how Jackson’s wistful voice and the clattering guitar that marks Off the Wall take the funk into a new direction. This was one of the key songs that made Jackson’s future so bright; he was confounding the music’s and the audience’s expectations. Even his vocal interjections are restrained, and all the more powerful because of it.
23. “Thriller,” Thriller (1982):
“Thriller” the song will always be seen in the light of “Thriller” the video, which transfixed MTV at the height of its influence and took the album’s celebrity into its third (!) calendar year. The video, a collaboration between Jackson and director John Landis, is, like most of Landis’s work, technically crude and poorly put together. But all everyone remembers is the zombies dancing, which they do well enough for it to be included in any accounting of the most enjoyable dance sequences of the type (’80s-era MTV, I mean, not zombie dances specifically). The subtexts here are off the charts. Jackson for some reason has his makeup on extremely heavy. The guy who was actively lightening his skin IRL here makes himself blacker, presumably to make himself scarier, an odd aesthetic decision. “I’m not like other guys,” he says to his date; perhaps, as with Woody Allen in Manhattan, we should just accept what the artist is telling us about himself — in Jackson’s case, that he’s a boy with secrets. In keeping with his suppressed sexuality of the time, however, note that he hugs not kisses his date. The “Thriller” video, released at the end of 1983, blew the album back to the top of the charts … where it stayed for four more months, far into 1984. It would eventually top out at 33 million sold in the U.S., about 65 million total around the world. (Don’t believe the hype about its having sold 100 million.) After Jackson died, the sales surge pushed it up into safe territory as the best-selling album in U.S. history, and seems to be safe for now in its position as the best-selling album worldwide as well.
22. “Dirty Diana,” Bad (1987):
More silly sounds, more ginned up drama, another fake rock song, pinned to what Jackson probably thought was a good subject for a fake rock song, a dirty groupie, who’s out there trying to do all the, you know, seducing with the scary groupie tricks. And he pulls it off; don’t think about it too hard and it’s quite a powerful song, particularly live. That’s why he got paid the big bucks.
21. “Blood on the Dance Floor,” Blood on the Dance Floor (1997):
Very, very groovy, probably Teddy Riley’s signal Jackson track. Killer musical touches buried in the mix, too. Susie joins Annie and Billie Jean in the Michael Jackson Scary Females in the Tunnel of Love amusement-park ride. Susie, after she is “seduced,” takes it out on the poor guy in the disco with a knife. (You didn’t think the title was metaphorical, did you?) Here, the latter-day Jackson formula works, and the song is goofy enough — full-on paranoid by song’s end — to let Jackson’s vocal freak flag fly.
20. “I Can’t Help It,” Off the Wall (1979):
This song has a gentle, insistent melody and a veneer of sophistication higher than even the rest of this sophisticated record. It’s probably because it’s a Stevie Wonder song. Sometimes, listening particularly to what was once the second side of Off the Wall you feel like you’re going through a collection of lost ’70s-soul gems, so protean and suave is Jackson’s voice.
19. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Got to Be There (1972):
The production isn’t great on this — it sounds clouded — but you can’t resist Jackson’s preternaturally adult approach to the song. It’s not that you think it’s an adult singing; there’s definitely some immaturity in the voice. But Jackson somehow threads the needle of ridiculousness, and delivers. The key line is in the second verse — “wonder if she’s gone to stay,” a key demasculinizing moment in the original. The Motown producers pull out the stops in the second half, blasting in a key change and turning the outro into a swirling and roiling mass of emotion, which Jackson, 14 at the time, keeps up with swimmingly.
18. “She’s Out of My Life,” Off the Wall (1979):
This is a terrific ballad. It’s been endlessly said that Jackson actually — sob! — cries at the end. I really don’t care. This is actually one of his few ballads that somehow feels balanced, not excessive. It’s a weepy song; it doesn’t matter that his voice is a bit weepy too. I think it’s worth mentioning that Jackson had a good and supple voice and pitched nicely, but he wasn’t a prima singer like, say Streisand, whose mannerisms I think he adopted frequently. He was a brilliant vocalizer. Still, when cosseted thoughtfully by Jones, he could really pack a punch with the voice he did have, as here. The song incidentally, was written by the same guy who wrote “Julie Do Ya Love Me” for Bobby Sherman. There’s a powerful unadorned demo of this, set to an acoustic guitar, on the This Is It disc.
17. “Beat It,” Thriller (1982):
Eddie Van Halen’s involvement on this track is endlessly cooed over; I don’t see why it’s such a big deal that they hired a guitarist to play some guitar to give this pop-not-rock singer a chance to play like he was a dirty ol’ rocker. Quincy Jones wanted a “My Sharona” for the ‘80s — be still my beating heart. Jackson gave him something better; a moral that played to Jackson’s public persona but also a rock backing that, while undeniably faux, was sufficient, and Jones made sure it sounded so good on the radio nothing else mattered. The opening sounds are novel and the measures of drumbeats create a perfect amount of tension. “Show them how funky and strong is your fight” — I don’t know what that means either.
16. “Rock With You,” Off the Wall (1979):
Rod Temperton’s graceful stunner, which manages to be a disco song — a potent one — but also an easy-listening classic. Jones’s horn arrangements are terrific. This is the second song on Off the Wall; after the falsetto on “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” Jackson here reveals his adult voice. He’d just turned 21.
15. “Man in the Mirror,” Bad (1987):
One of Jackson’s signature songs, an ambitious, “Hey Jude”–like concoction, nicely executed but marred by a set of lyrics whose virtually every word has complex reverberations, all of it blandly unacknowledged by the singer himself. This was, after all, sung by a guy who soon wouldn’t be able to look at himself in the mirror, in both the literal and figurative sense of the phrase. The song’s message — “I’m starting with me” — was of course disregarded by the singer as well, and for the last two decades of his life he’d point fingers elsewhere and refuse to deal with his own problems. Meanwhile, he had begun to throw off his bonds — monetary, definitely, and particularly those of propriety. The last 22 years of his life would not be pretty.
14. “People Make the World Go ‘Round,” Ben (1972):
This is a somewhat forgotten song by the Stylistics, an early-’70s hit-making machine (“You Make Me Feel Brand New,” etc., etc.) that recorded with Thom Bell in Philadelphia. It’s interesting Jackson recorded it; written by Bell and his songwriting partner Linda Creed, it’s a passable bit of social comment, fairly unusual for Motown. Here’s the original:
13. “Black or White,” Dangerous (1991):
Jackson at his most Trumpian. By the time he was recording Dangerous, his production partners saw him bleaching his skin. His black features had been erased to the point where he looked white, and then something else. His masculinity was disappearing too. He really just looked like a Eurasian woman. His prissiness took on an epicene flavor, and he seemed to be spending most of his time with either older actresses or children, and I don’t mean his own children. Then came this song. “It don’t matter if you’re black or white,” he sang. Odd — it sure seemed like it mattered to him. The rap in the middle features a black guy singing the lines, “I’m not going to spend my life being a color,” which strikes me as demonstrating a pretty significant lack of understanding about the effects of racism. (I’m not a big racial theorist like Michael Jackson, but I think the problem with racism is the other people who won’t let you be anything but a color.) And then he has a white kid sing the rap in the video, for crying out loud. That clip, overseen by John Landis, cost a fortune. (Landis said the credits list was like that of Ben-Hur.) It starts out a thing of wonder, only to twist around and fly up its own ass, right down to a gangly Landis giving himself a clumsy cameo at the end. On the clip’s debut, it had an addendum; a black panther — get it? — who creeps through a building and then morphs into Michael Jackson, who delivers a sexy and angry solo dance act on some deserted mean streets — and throws a trash can through a window, a move right out of Do the Right Thing. Either Jackson wanted it both ways, or simply wasn’t in control of his art.
12. “Leave Me Alone,” Bad (1987):
This was a CD-only track back in the day; it was never a single in the U.S., but, if memory serves, it came out as a sort of surprise video that surfaced on MTV late in Bad’s commercial cycle. It was quite a video, an amusement-park ride through Jackson’s psyche, with a lot of the tabloid rumors floating around in his head. Cleverly, he mixed up the perhaps-fanciful ones (“Michael Buys Elephant Man’s Bones”) with the real ones (his facial surgeries). Again, Trumpian. Jackson was a keen student of celebrity, and during his heyday at least, walked that line with some aplomb.
11. “Off the Wall,” Off the Wall (1979):
Rod Temperton repurposed the beat and some of the bass lines later for Thriller’s title song. But at the time it was another lethal melodic riff, which resolves into a silky chorus — “Life ain’t so bad at all…” — with an even silkier finish: “… if you live it off the wall.” So many of the songs on Off the Wall exist in some post-disco pop netherworld — or heaven, really; Jones’s easy familiarity with most of the music of the 20th century helps. This song makes feints toward disco, funk, and rock, but it has its own distinctive feel.
10. “Remember the Time,” Dangerous (1991):
A gorgeous, transporting single. At his best, Jackson found people to meld groovy, soothing sounds with effective melody lines and credible beats. The vocal arrangement is one of his better ones, too. The video is set in a gold Egyptian palace, where Jackson is a performer for the king and queen, played by Eddie Murphy and the model Iman. While the production values of his videos were often good, they were in other ways remarkably clunky. You can practically hear the director saying, “Eddie, Iman — Michael wants you to look really haughty! Can you try that?” [Whispers from Jackson]: “No, even haughtier …”
9. “Smooth Criminal,” Bad (1987):
Scary sounds at the beginning — and then we slam into another of Quincy Jones’s masterworks. It was Bad’s sixth single, and, yes, another pop-rock simulacrum. Jackson is allowed to snarl his harmless snarl for the verse, but the chorus is a stunner — another one of Jackson’s amazing solo compositions. “Annie are you okay?” — turned this way and that by Jackson’s unstoppable vocalizings — is one of the great mysterious pop questions of the era. Another weird song where you don’t know where Jackson got his lyrics — “Mouth to mouth resuscitation / Sounding heartbeats, intimidations” are really different from the bland stuff. The video is in some ways disappointing — most of it is just the movie cliché where our magic hero always gets the drop on the bad guys — but all in all, it’s probably his most accomplished and impressive song-film. The staging is adventurous; the dancing, as entrancing as that of any other pop video I can think of, is awesome throughout, up-to-the-minute and yet still very formally conscious of his forebears, deliberately darkening the work of Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon, certainly, but also of Gene Kelly in An American in Paris. (But note there’s no Leslie Caron, much less a Cyd Charisse, running around; even Astaire and Kelly’s relatively reserved sexualities made Jackson uncomfortable.) It remains worth watching, and finally makes an indelible mark at the iconic tableau that sees Jackson and his dancers bending to 45-degree angles. The nine-minute version is fun.
8. “Girl Don’t Take Your Love From Me,” Got to Be There (1972):
A classic piece of ‘70s proto-soul. It could be an early Chi-Lites or Stylistics track. (That’s a high compliment!)
7. “Scream,” History (1995):
The creation of this, like many Jackson endeavors, was chaotic. But you can’t argue with the fact that it’s the highlight of his post-Dangerous career, a frenetic, juicy herky-jerky rush of a song. By this time, little sister Janet was a superstar in her own right, one of the dominant performers of the day and capable of creating her own pop moments, from the Control tour to her Rolling Stone cover. Indeed, Jackson brought her own producers along — Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — to write them a hit. The accompanying video of the pair is one of Jackson’s best. Interestingly, she’s highly sexualized, another bizarre bit of thematic displacement in Jackson’s world.
6. “Ben,” Ben (1972):
This was a huge hit for Jackson in 1972; the title song of a horror film. (It would be his last significant solo single until “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” hit No. 1 in 1979.) Ben, about a boy and his pet rat, was actually a sequel to the film Willard. The early film is about a wimpy young guy — trapped in a garish house filled with louche, disturbed adults — who eventually uses a herd of murderous pet rats to exact some revenge. Gee, I wonder what Jackson found compelling in that? It sounds pretty cloying on its own, but the association with the movie blankets it with a slightly kinky irony. At the time, “Ben” became such a pulpy phenomenon that it was nominated for an Oscar; Jackson, 14, performed it at the ceremony. He was introduced by Charlton Heston.
5. “Human Nature,” Thriller (1982):
This was written by one of the guys from Toto, which may be the worst band in the history of rock music. But starting with that elusive keyboard line and going through the unexpectedly charming melodies of the verses to the heady emotion of the chorus, this is a model piece of pop sophistication. (I saw Miles Davis play it live once.) Nothing Jackson recorded in this era could be described as restrained, but at least the things he does here are true to the sense of the song. One of Jackson and Jones’s most perfect pop constructions.
4. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” Off the Wall (1979):
Quincy Jones paid for himself just with the opening string arrangement; listen to how it amplifies and buttresses the groovy guitar line. But that guitar line, incidentally, was Jackson’s vision, not Jones’s; on an available demo, which Jackson is said to have recorded at home, you hear just about all the song’s power, right down to those clinking bottles. (Again, Jackson’s own songwriting is the most underappreciated thing about him). Still, Jones unerringly marks the song with those strings and mighty tasty horns. And that’s all before we get to Jackson’s breathless falsetto, something of a risk given that this was his adult introduction to the world. He didn’t care. The song was a monster and a No. 1 hit, highly groovy throughout its six minutes. Jackson was proud of Off the Wall and thought it deserved more recognition at the Grammys than it got. It wasn’t a racial thing (Stevie Wonder dominated the Grammys in the 1970s); he probably didn’t realize that both star and label generally needed to embark on a yearlong campaign to come close to ensuring that. Like Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents dinner when he got roasted by Obama and Seth Meyers, Jackson vowed that his next record would not be overlooked.
3. “Got to Be There,” Got to Be There (1972):
Jackson’s first solo hit is sometimes confused with “I’ll Be There,” which had a similar title and was the Jackson 5’s fourth No. 1, the changeup ballad. This was a year later; from the great beginning — the whispering “got to be there ” — and then through Jackson’s keening delivery, this is still his most thrilling vocal performance on record and one of the loveliest pop arrangements to have come out of Motown. I think his voice is double tracked through the acrobatic melody; lots of drama until he hits the high note at the end. Terrific. It’s odd to think back to when Jackson was at 14. He was someone — a star, an authentic black success story; a tireless worker, a boy with an imagination as big as America. What happened to him? I think the thing that doesn’t get said about Michael Jackson is that he was, plainly, suffering from a species of mental illness one is at a loss to explain. He was rich, famous, loved, and doing something he was proud of. And then he … bleached his own skin, and began a plastic surgery regimen that was almost certainly criminal on the part of his surgeons. We’ve all seen his face; he could not have looked worse if he’d taken a knife and started carving at it by himself. It’s not hard to see the result, a manifestation surely created of some psychological impairment or perhaps childhood trauma, like a living embodiment of a Francis Bacon painting. He erased the skin he was born with, and occluded his teeth; his eyes were sprained open, his eyeliner tattooed on, his eyebrows a cartoon, his nose a genuine fright. Even his children seem plainly not his. Who can explain a man who basically killed himself chasing undying fame, and at the same time did everything he could to remove every physical trace of his existence from the earth?
2. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” Thriller (1982):
Among other things, this, the leadoff track to Thriller, has one of Jackson’s most energetic and flamboyant vocal tracks: It’s one of those great Jackson songs where the energy behind it all isn’t self-defeating or self-parodic. (Another example of the good taste Jones brought to the table.) The backing track cooks. Another killer solo Jackson composition, too, complete with the mystifying “you’re a vegeta-beah” riff at the end and the cop (later settled legally) of Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa.” In one of the few attested moments of restraint in Jackson’s adult career, he didn’t make a video for the song, which is actually a shame. This live clip from the Bad tour reminds you that in the ‘80s at least, Jackson worked incredibly hard.
By the summer of 2009 Jackson was caught in a maelstrom of financial and professional pressures: by his advisers, who were increasingly trying to bring him back down to reality; by the myriad lawsuits that dogged him and periodically caught him (in one he was hit with a $20 million judgment); by Sony, which was loaning him money, slyly using yet another chunk of his music catalogue as collateral; his ludicrous family, always up to something; even by his musical director, Kenny Ortega, who was, most cruelly of all, asking him to show up and practice for the series of 50 shows he’d promised. Ortega’s commercially released film of the This Is It rehearsals seems to show a lithe Jackson going through his moves. Documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times revealed that the promoters of the shows and Ortega had been exchanging increasingly hysterical emails about Jackson’s deteriorating condition. Among the things Ortega the tour director didn’t tell Ortega the movie director about were Jackson’s tantrums, his incapacitation from drugs or drinking, his inability to concentrate or perform, and his many missed rehearsals. Plainly, Jackson was debilitated, and perhaps scared. You can see why: Even the name of Jackson’s own show taunted him: This Is It!, it screamed. And he was Michael Jackson, right? The great singer, the great dancer, the greatest performer of all time, the master and creator of the biggest-selling album of all time, promulgator of ever-more-excessive titles and grandiose visions — in a word, the King of Pop. Little wonder he couldn’t sleep. Finally, one night, he absorbed all the hospital-grade anesthesia he could — and that, you might say, was it.
1. “Billie Jean,” Thriller (1982):
Jackson’s aesthetic development is difficult to encapsulate; he began as a boy acting like a man, and then later became a man insisting that he was still a boy. He sure acted like it: He was impulsive, misbehaved, stubborn, immature, sometimes even infantile; the man of his later songs, lyrically at least, displayed those traits convincingly. Somewhere in between came a few songs that weren’t ridiculous. Now, I’m not sure in a way that “Billie Jean” isn’t ridiculous too. Here are the roots of his paranoia, his victimhood. Here he is, Trump-like, talking about things like being accused in a paternity suit when one of the things we’re pretty sure about Michael Jackson is that he didn’t engage in much of the activity that produced paternity suits. Yet one of the things that makes this such a great song is how his music, his performances, and his art transcends all of that. He makes himself the star of a great pop melodrama, and it’s all the more impressive that he pulls it off. As a dance song, it is unrelenting. (I can’t be the only person who can remember where he was the first time he heard it.) As a vocal performance, it is iconic, driving, undeniable. (His articulation of the phrase “She’s just a girl” is one of the song’s secret weapons.) That bass lines— Jones’s razor-like strings, (again) those vocals. So much of Jackson’s life seems meta; so many of his later songs were about Michael Jackson not the person but the persona, battling with the press and his many persecutors, which for the most part ranged from the imaginary to the real and deserved. He fought, in this way, against reality much of the last 25 years of his life, which, sad to say, was the last half of his life. He was chasing a chimera of not just fame, which is a cliché, but of his own fame, which twisted him into a psychological and moral pretzel and in the end, cruelly, gave him just one part of his dream. The rest is the mother of all cautionary tales about losing one’s soul, mind, and identity living out a celebrity that grew more freakish and pointless with time.
*A version of this article appears in the December 25, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.