The glove. The sparking white socks. The plastic surgery. The tabloids. The videos.
When news of Michael Jackson's death hit the media last week, these images immediately popped into people's minds. Jackson's legacy is indeed complicated—one news pundit stated that, like Barry Bonds, his records may forever be marked with an asterisk. But temporarily shove aside the lurid images and weird behavior, and simply listen to the music. Of course, Jackson's videos often serve an integral purpose—his superior dancing skills and (at least in the Thriller era) distinctive wardrobe remain cemented in fans' minds as much as the songs.
To honor Jackson's music, I've proposed a selection of not only his greatest hits, but some lesser-known album tracks that deserve another listen. This selection focuses mainly on his solo career, but does borrow a few tracks from the Jackson 5 and Jacksons eras.
“I Wanna Be Where You Are” – At such a young age, Jackson possessed a powerful voice, and he unleashed it in full force on this classic. Over a pulsing beat and unusual instrumentation such as a harpsichord, his voice simply bursts through the speakers.
“Never Can Say Goodbye” – Forget Gloria Gaynor's disco version; the original remains the best, with Jackson's emotional delivery about a tortured love affair belying his tender age.
“Who's Lovin' You” – Want proof of Jackson's early star power? Listen to this long-unreleased version of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' soul-blues ballad. How could a preteen possibly convey the romantic torture present in the lyrics? Jackson's seemingly effortless performance still amazes and illustrates his profound, wise-beyond-his-years talent.
“ABC,” “The Love You Save,” “I'll Be There,” and “I Want You Back” – No Jackson 5 list would be complete without these perfect pop singles.
After the group transformed into “The Jacksons” from the “Jackson 5,” the brothers experimented with everything from the Philly soul sound to funk to disco. Their move from Motown to CBS Records in 1975 allowed them to shed their bubblegum pop image and forge a more mature sound.
“Good Times” – The Jacksons's first release for CBS, a self-titled album thoroughly steeped in Philly soul, featured this slow classic. Written by the legendary team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, the song played to the Jacksons' strengths—nicely blended harmonies and Michael's sweetly romantic voice.
“Show You the Way to Go” – A faster track, this Gamble and Huff tune recalls the soulful sound of the O'Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. In fact, upon first listen, the track sounds like an O'Jays song; only Michael's distinctive voice makes this an ultimately recognizable Jackson tune. One note of “Show You the Way to Go” instantly transports the listener back to the best of 70s soul.
“Blame It on the Boogie” and “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” – While these two are well-known hits, their irresistible beats and disco-funk still force listeners to move. On both Destiny tracks, Michael continues to amaze with his funky, good-time vibe.
“Can You Feel It” – Fresh off Off the Wall, Michael reunited with his brothers for 1980's Triumph. From its thumping beat to its horns, the beginning announces the group's, well, triumphant return. Michael and his brothers trade vocals, with everyone joining in on the forceful “can you feel it!” chorus.
“Lovely One” – In the mode of his best dance tracks, this lesser-known classic features blaring horns, a catchy chorus, a stomping beat, and Michael riding the grooves with apparent glee.
“This Place Hotel” – Originally titled “Heartbreak Hotel” and renamed to avoid confusion with Elvis Presley's iconic hit, the track takes an edgier turn with darker lyrics and a raspier vocal performance from Michael. Think of it as the precursor to “Thriller” with its spooky sound effects.
“Got to Be There” – Taken from Jackson's 1972 debut solo album of the same name, the song demonstrates his precocious talents as a vocalist. The romantic lyrics may seem mature for a pre-teen, but his amazingly emotional and worldly delivery ultimately sell the tune.
"I Wanna Be Where You Are” – Very much in the Jackson 5 mode, this track lets Jackson do what he does best—croon over a catchy beat, along with a killer chorus: “I wanna wanna be where you are/Oh-oh/Anywhere you are/Oh-oh.”
“Rockin' Robin” – Teen idols commonly covered cute 50s and 60s pop records (e.g. Leif Garrett, Donny Osmond, and Tiffany), but Jackson's enthusiastic performance made his version every bit as good as Bobby Day's 1958 original.
“Get on the Floor” – Quite frankly, Off the Wall contains so many classics that it's difficult to select just a few. While this dance track may not have been as successful as the hits “Rock with You” and “Don't Stop Till You Get Enough,” it still entices listeners to bust a move. “Get on the Floor” also represents one of the times where Jackson seems to thoroughly enjoy singing; his laughter and shouts toward the end can still elicit a smile.
“I Can't Help It” – Written by Stevie Wonder, the song allows Jackson to explore the sensual aspects of his voice. Incidentally, rap group De La Soul later sampled the beginning notes on their 1993 classic “Breakadawn.”
“Don't Stop Till You Get Enough” – Yes, this song continues to get people on the dance floor. But this massive hit also features Jackson exploring the deeper ranges of his voice. Producer Quincy Jones stated in many interviews that he wanted Jackson to move away from the bubblegum pop of his earlier solo records, put some serious arrangements behind him, and utilize lower ranges. “Don't Stop Till You Get Enough” best represents Jackson's move toward more sophisticated dance/pop.
“Rock with You,” “Working Day and Night,” and “Off the Wall” – Again, these tracks have been previously dissected by many critics, but no Jackson retrospective would be complete without them. “Rock with You” in particular spotlights his unique ability to bridge funk, R&B, disco, and pop into a universal groove.
“The Lady in My Life” – How to choose particular Thriller tracks? Since virtually every song on the greatest-selling studio album of all time hit the charts (and much has already been written about “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” among other tracks), selecting a “hidden track” is a challenge. But this overshadowed ballad let Jackson reveal a romantic, sexy side rarely heard on his other works. The song's composer, Rod Temperton, also wrote some of Jackson's best-known singles, including “Rock with You, “Off the Wall,” and “Thriller.” His work with disco/funk group Heatwave in the 70s, as well as his songwriting for numerous artists, deserves greater acclaim.
“Liberian Girl” – Many of the Bad tracks bear the typical markings of 80s overproduction, particularly heavy reliance on synthesizers and electronic drums. But this should-have-been hit sounds timeless, with its exotic rhythms and Jackson's delicate vocals making the song a romantic ballad in the vein of “The Lady in My Life.”
“Can't Let Her Get Away” – Of course, Jackson always excelled at dance tracks, and this floor burner is no exception. Like the similar “Jam,” this track lets him use his voice as a rhythm device as much as a melodic one. His grunts and growls accentuate the beat perfectly.
“In the Closet” – Forget the accompanying video with model Naomi Campbell grinding on a sweaty Jackson. The song remains distinctive, with its driving beat and its double-entendre lyrics. Who is the woman whispering at the beginning and middle of the track? At the time, Madonna was rumored to be the mystery lady. No matter what, “In the Closet” stands out among others in his catalog as well as on the album Dangerous.
“Stranger in Moscow” – Taken from Jackson's greatest hits collection HIStory, this song was buried amidst the controversy surrounding his personal life and the odd ways he chose to publicize the album (the weirdest being the huge statue in his likeness that adorns the cover). “Stranger in Moscow” is one of his finer works, subtly emphasizing his isolation from others. Here his vocals take on a lower, warmer tone, but at the same time reach mournful higher notes toward the end of the song. Unlike other new tracks from HIStory, “Stranger in Moscow” takes some risks with lyrics and singing style, and they pay off.
“Childhood” – This recommendation comes with a cautionary note: the lyrics are self-serving and are an overt ploy for sympathy. So why is the track significant? Like on “Gone Too Soon” from Dangerous, Jackson allows deep emotion to enter his voice, a too-seldom occurrence. The beautiful notes he hits on both songs are at once impressive and moving. Focus not on the overly sappy and pitiful lyrics, but on his often underrated singing.
“Butterflies” – Written by Floetry member Marsha Ambrosius, the track remains the clear standout from his last studio album Invincible. One DJ from Chicago's WGCI-FM called it Jackson's return to the Off the Wall sound, and its chord changes and almost innocently romantic lyrics definitely recall that album. Here Jackson kept his vocal tics to a minimum and simply let the wispy lyrics and slow hip-hop tinged beat shine through.
Michael Jackson's legacy will be debated for years to come—who was the “real” man? How did he change in appearance and sound over time? Will controversy overshadow his music? No matter the questions, one fact cannot be denied: Jackson was the consummate performer, an all-around entertainer who could captivate an audience like few others. Listening to the above tracks, as well as numerous others, honors his talent and unique ability to make everyone want to dance and lose themselves in the music. That alone is a legacy worth celebrating.