The 8 Ball 11.02.13: The Top 16 Michael Jackson Songs (#16 - 9)
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 11.02.2013
From "Thriller" and "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" to "They Don't Care About Us," "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas begins his look at the top 16 Michael Jackson songs with #16 - 9!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, to the Music Zone 8-Ball! Halloween is over with and we've moved into November, but its legacy remains. Like many of you, it was impossible for me to get through the end of the month without hearing Michael Jackson's "Thriller" a time or two and that put the King of Pop firmly in my head; that brings us to our first two-part column of the year. Michael Jackson was, whatever people may think about his personal life, an icon in the truest sense among popular music. The youngest male member of the Jackson family is one of the most recognized and best-selling artists of all time and he put a stamp on the landscape of music and pop culture which will never be erased and possibly never equaled. This week and next I have taken on the incredibly daunting task of be looking at Jackson's sixteen greatest songs of all time.
Caveat: As usual with my single-act top songs list, I was looking specifically at original songs performed by the band/artist as opposed to covers. In addition, I'm looking at Jackson's discography as a solo artist and not his contributions to the Jackson Five; this means that numbers like "ABC," "Never Can Say Goodbye" and "I Want You Back" were not included. It is also worth noting that many of these songs are very well-known, and in the past there have been some comments that I focus on singles only. I wanted to note that I truly looked at every song in his discography but Jackson was notorious for releasing many, many singles. By example, seven of the nine songs of Thriller and nine out of the eleven songs on Bad were released as singles and became major hits. This continued throughout most of his career. So it isn't that I only focused on the big hits; it is just that in Jackson's case, so few of his songs were NOT hits that it makes the list disproportionally singles-based. Finally, remember that just because as song isn't on this list doesn't mean that I didn't like it; there are many, many Jackson songs I love that I couldn't fit on.
Just Missing The Cut
• "In The Closet" (1992)
• "Bad" (1987)
• "Off The Wall" (1979)
• "Black Or White" (1991)
• "Remember the Time" (1992)
#16: "They Don't Care About Us" (1996)
First up on our list is a song that lives with the legacy of a bad reputation. 1996 saw Michael Jackson having just escaped charges of sexual abuse a couple of years prior and of course, his reputation never recovered from that. The HIStory LP saw him take a much darker route than he had before, addressing his critics and his perception of the way the media had covered his trial. The most potent of those songs was this number, which fired off a militant sound as he delivered lyrics about prejudice and negative stereotypes. The song was immediately controversial because of the use of the lyrics "Jew me, sue me, you can never do me/kick me, kike me, don't you black or white me." Allegations flew of anti-Semitism which were, to be frank, completely out of context with the song itself. The track is a powerful commentary that is both a personal song for Jackson and a much larger condemnation of systemic racism. This number immediately struck me when I bought HIStory at the time because it was such a different tone from what we had previously heard of Jackson. It's barely-contained fury and outrage and while many can never separate it from what was happening to Jackson at the time, it certainly speaks as a powerful statement against the wrongs of the world--and not just those Jackson felt were perpetrated against him.
#15: "Who Is It" (1992)
"Who Is It" has often been referred to as a spiritual successor to "Billie Jean" and there is certainly a comparison to be made. However, it also must be said that the song stands strongly on its own as one of the King of Pop's best. Jackson takes a confessional tack here as he sings about a woman who has left him for another man. This is a common theme in music of course, but Jackson delivers a powerful take on the theme. With a haunting choir to open the song that leads into a heavy, moody beat and powerful lyrics delivered with the kind of emotion that Jackson was known for. In many ways this is what often set Jackson apart from his peers; the singer had an ability to connect with the lyrics of a song and make us feel every lash of pain he felt over the subject matter. This song has been described as an emotional exorcism and I think that's an apt description. In this one Jackson is devastated but he's also raging, wanting desperately to know who hurt his soul. And that pain of not knowing...well, we all know it wouldn't feel any better if he did know, but it doesn't make the need to know any less overwhelming. The outro takes on an almost church-like tone, as if Jackson's begging his questions underneath a house of God. It's an incredibly emotional song that pulses with Jackson and co-producer Bill Bottrell's touch, making it one of the singer's all-time greats.
#14: "Morphine" (1997)
"Morphine" is, in my estimation, a significantly-underrated song in Jackson's resume. The song had the misfortune of being released in the latter part of his career after his star had fallen but it shows one of the singer's great strengths; his musical versatility. Of course, the song gained a new level of tragedy after his death from a painkiller, but it carries enough power to stand on its own despite that. The song is so drastically different from anything we knew of Jackson at the time; it's dissonant and virulently angry, utterly assaulting the listener with its staticy tones as Jackson delivers a sort of internal diatribe in the lyrics. Meanwhile in the background you can hear audio clips from The Elephant Man, about a man whom of course Jackson had been associated with. It's a song that was clearly ahead of its time; you can hear its influence in many artists today as production begins to take precedence over actual singing. And the break in the middle that sees the bridge unfold like a moment when the titular drug takes effect just adds to the overall journey of the song. This is a far cry from the days of Jackson's radio-friendly pop, but it's just as brilliant in its experimental way as any of those his more mainstream influential songs.
#13: "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" (1983)
From his most experimental song on this list, we move ahead to a song from his mainstream days. "P.Y.T." is the first song in the top sixteen to come from his seminal album Thriller and is as upbeat as "Morphine" is angry and fragmented. Jackson had many iconic hits from this album but this is the one that every girl (and most guys) loved, for very good reason. You have Jackson's unmistakable voice delivering a true bar-setting upbeat mid-tempo love song and a funky bassline that is nearly impossible to not want to dance to. All of the songs on Thriller delivered big-time in terms of story-telling; this song was the straight-out dance number that took the form of a little flirtation between a hot lady making her way down the street and the young man who sees her and is immediately smitten. That sensation is intensified by the snippets where Jackson dips from singing into straight speaking; in many songs that can be a distraction but it just works here. This is pop music with a groove at its very best; I daresay no one was ever able to top Jackson at this particular game and he outdid himself here.
#12: "Dirty Diana" (1988)
"Dirty Diana" was the song that raised many an eyebrow when it was released with Bad in 1988. The title along sent my parents into a tizzy, and the lyrics didn't help much. But the track was also one of his best rock songs. Few people were honestly trying to combine rock and pop in the way that Jackson was in that day; there were those who messed around with the idea but Jackson was full-board with the idea. This is one of his heaviest rock songs from the era and the lyrical content--about groupies that hung out at concerts to score with the band--was very different than what we'd heard from him before. Yes, of course we had "Billy Jean" and its question of paternity or "Beat It" and its own take on this song's subject matter, but they had both taken a much less explicit take than this one. Bad was an album where Jackson continued to press for his independence as an artist and on "Dirty Diana" he stood out on his own in an attempt to kick the remnants of Jackson 5-era Michael aside. This was the first track where Michael Jackson wasn't just cute to the ladies; this is the song where Michael became flat-out sexy to them. My perceptions of him would never be the same after this and it remains one of my favorite of his songs.
#11: "Thriller" (1984)
Okay folks, elephant in the room time: yes, this song is all the way down at #11. Does this mean that the song is not an utterly amazing piece of horror-pop? Not at all. There's a reason why this song is absolutely unforgettable and we'll get to that. Its placement has nothing to do with the song being bad or even merely "great"; its placement is due to how fantastic the songs above it are. I do have one thing to say about how revered the work is; yes, the video is beyond amazing (it is the only music video to date in the Library of Congress), but this is about the song which is not quite as impressive as the song. Now, that's the only remotely negative thing I'll say about the track; let's get to the positive. This song completely changed the face of what was possible in pop music. Sure, spooky themes had been done before, but this song was the first to tone down the camp (although there is still certainly camp there). And the Vincent Price breakdown at the end is truly brilliant; Jackson himself asked for it and it really helps make the song something that transcends pop music. I don't know anyone who really dislikes "Thriller" and I can't imagine what someone could even criticize about it. It became one of his signature songs for a very good reason and is one of his most beloved to this day.
#10: "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" (1983)
Yes, it's true...I actually like "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" a micron more than "Thriller." Where "Thriller" is the height of horror-pop, "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" is a great example of exactly what you can do when you blend disparate genres into a single potent mix. You can hear so much in this opening track from Thriller; you have pieces of mainstream '80s pop, rock, disco, funk, R&B, even gospel and Afrobeat merged in here. Many people would have balked at the idea of bringing so many corners of music together; Jackson, with Quincy Jones helping on the production side, made it look easy here. Similarly the song takes two very different tones between the lyrics and the sound; the sound is ostensibly an upbeat and even energetic song, the lyrics take that energy and put it under a pressure cooker to make it a song about the frustrations of being stuck where you are while life is moving so quickly around you. It's one of the great album-opening tracks and it says a hell of a lot that Jackson and Jones were able to bring so much into one song, thus influencing a whole generation of artists. Pop music isn't often as experimental as many of us would like, but when it does so it has the capability of achieving heights like this.
#9: "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" (1979)
We head back to Michael's disco era for the #9 track. I have never been a huge fan of disco music in general, but "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" is one of those songs that show how great the genre can be. Is it one of Jackson's most lyrically poignant songs of all time? Of course not. But there are few songs in his resume that are as fun and--yep, I'm gonna say it--groovy as this one. (And no, I don't mean "groovy" in the hippy way.) Jackson has touches of intensity here but mostly this is just a laid-back dance icon with this one, effortlessly delivering his falsetto vocals over a Quincy Jones-produced track that manages to belong firmly within the 1970s yet still feel enjoyable to this day. This is a song that proves you don't need to be timeless to leave an impression that lasts for decades. What's more, in this song you can hear Jackson at a musical crossroads between the artist he was and the artist he still had yet to become. It's one of the two best pre-Thriller Michael Jackson tracks out there.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
Before we depart, I leave you with this week's Music Video A-Go-Go. As I mentioned, we were just looking at Jackson's solo work and obviously that left "We Are the World" out. But that being said, the song is an indelible part of the King of Pop's career and in fact when most people think of the song they think of him as opposed to the many other great artists. Check it out below:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.