The 8 Ball 11.09.13: The Top 8 Michael Jackson Songs
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 11.09.2013
From "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" to "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Smooth Criminal" and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 Michael Jackson songs!
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! This week we continue our look at the greatest songs of Michael Jackson. I don't have a lot to say beyond that, so let's get to it!
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)
The First Eight
16. "They Don't Care About Us" (1996)
15. "Who Is It" (1992)
14. "Morphine" (1997)
13. "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" (1983)
12. "Dirty Diana" (1988)
11. "Thriller" (1984)
10. "Wanna Be Startin' Something" (1983)
9. "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" (1979)
#8: "Earth Song" (1995)
We kick off the top 8 with a song which makes up for what it lacks in subtlety with sheer power. Jackson's "Earth Song" was a divisive piece of music when it was released on HIStory, with some calling it overly saccharine while others noted its epic feel. And there's absolutely no doubt; this is Jackson's most overt song in his entire discography. There is no other piece of music in which the icon spelled things out quite so clearly. But you don't always have to be deeply subtle in order to make a great song; we need anthems as much as we need musical poems. The slow build of this nearly-seven minute epic is fantastic, with Jackson mixing in operatic elements with rock, pop and gospel. The latter is of course most clearly punctuated by the Andrae Crouch Choir who deliver the "What about us?" call as Jackson responds with example after example of the forgotten problems of the world. "Earth Song" wasn't even released in the United States as a single, and I think it's kind of sad that the country was (and still is) so jaded that we couldn't recognize the power of the song and the importance of the message, laid out in neon lights or not. It's one of those songs where you can't really listen to at max volume because it's so powerful it blows you away, both sonically and emotionally. It's a breathtaking piece of music and one of Jackson's most unfairly-underrated songs.
#7: "The Way You Make Me Feel" (1987)
We move on from Jackson's environmental activism to one of his most well-known romantic tracks. And that's not to say that "The Way You Make Me Feel" is a love song, necessarily; it's more of a flirty number, a successor to "P.Y.T." Jackson wrote this song after his mother Katherine suggested that he write a song with a "shuffling rhythm" and she was certainly right with the idea that he should do it. This song ranks higher than "P.Y.T." because by the time Bad came about, Jackson was more comfortable in his skin as a potential sex symbol. This song (and the video that accompanied it) were intended to further Bad's theme of showing audiences a different side of the King of Pop; he wasn't just the young and innocent kid anymore and it certainly changed a lot of minds. "The Way You Make Me Feel" has a sort of swagger to it and a celebratory nature; it's not schmaltzy or overblown and the great production work from Quincy Jones and Jackson lets it spring along like the dance number it is. This has been one of the more covered songs from Jackson's resume and for good reason; it's bouncy and fun without seeming slight. In terms of Jackson's purely romantic pop songs, this one ranks as my personal favorite.
#6: "Give In To Me" (1993)
"Give In To Me" is one of Michael Jackson's darker entries, and has been described as a "hard rock ballad" by some. I don't know if I would go that far, but it is perhaps one of the best mergings of pop and hard rock to be attempted. The song has a menacing, aggressive sexual bent to it and ranks as my favorite song on the vastly-underrated Dangerous album. Jackson continually matured as an artist and was always pushing forward to tackle deeper topics, delving into the types of topics that did not traditionally lend themselves to the more upbeat nature of mainstream pop music. Sure, these days you have Rihanna singing about S&M and Gaga tackling taboo topics, but when Jackson sings "Don't try to understand me/Just simply do the things I say" in his rawest vocal tones, he carries an authenticity that so many pop stars today lack. And just to top it all off he brought in Slash to deliver a typically-fantastic bit of guitar work that takes the listener into some dangerously dark territory. Jackson once again proved with this song (produced by Jackson and Bill Bottrell) how adept he was at merging genres and how nothing was off-limits to him. The slow tempo really gives the song time to coil its emotional around you and it stays with you for a long time after it's done. Sublime, beautiful and even a little creepy, "Give In To Me" is a true classic.
#5: "Smooth Criminal" (1988)
We're into the true iconic songs here. Okay, that's a bit unfair to what's come before, but that's what happens when you have an artist who made iconic songs like they were going out of style. "Smooth Criminal" is one of Jackson's most beloved singles, and not just because of the legendary music video. The final single from Bad may have been most strongly associated with its video for a long time, but the song has shown a life of its own as it has been covered by everyone from Alien Ant Farm and 2Cellos to the cast of Glee. It's one of Jackson's more narrative-oriented songs, with the singer discovering an unconscious woman next to a bloodstain and asking obsessive "Annie are you okay? Are you okay, Annie?" The staccato rhythm takes an frenetic tone that adds nicely to the tension of the track while Jackson half-hisses the chorus, like he's trying to whisper in a panicked tone before he breaks into falsetto for the bridge. It's not deeply poetic in a lyrical sense, but the song is very structured in a same sort of way that a crime thriller might be structure in order to build the most tension, to the point that we'll always wonder if Annie was, indeed, okay. Jackson had a cinematic skill to his songs and it was rarely more evident than it was with this one.
#4: "Man In The Mirror" (1988)
"Man in the Mirror" is a song that will always have a somewhat sad association to me at this point. I found out that Michael Jackson had passed away on my way home from work in June of 2009 when I turned on the car and the news came over the radio. This song immediately played and, as it turned out, would be played many a time in the days and even weeks after that. This was the song that became most closely associated with the singer's passing and it immediately rocketed to #1 on iTunes' then-burgeoning singles chart. It was a memory of Jackson at his best, and it really does bring back positive memories of the pop icon. The song is Jackson's most uplifting song, speaking toward the kind of activism that he would address later in his career. But here he is not directly addressing the wrongs of the world; instead of pointing the finger outward, he makes the point that we need to look inward to make the world a better place. It was less a call of activism than it was a call for change and enlightenment. And yes, these days people might consider the song hokey, but when the opening chords start to play I still get absolute chills. Another song featuring the Andrae Crouch Choir, it's a truly transcendent piece of work that practically dares you not to believe in hope and optimism. It's difficult to let that cynicism in while this one's playing.
#3: "Stranger in Moscow" (1996)
This is one of those where personal preference conflicts with the term "best." Jackson's "Stranger in Moscow" is my personal favorite song but I have to objectively acknowledge that it is not his true best. The song is, however Jackson's best work from a lyrical standpoint, bar none. It probably wouldn't surprise man to know that the song was originally written as a poem while Jackson was in Moscow for his Dangerous World Tour. It was eventually recorded and ended up on HIStory. The song is a deeply personal one, addressing the ideas of fear and alienation, drawing on some powerful elements of Russian imagery for the track. This is a song that very much reflected how Jackson felt during his persecution by the media in the wake of his molestation charges and a stint in rehab. And make no mistake; whether you believe those charges or not, Jackson was mercilessly hounded by the media, who seemed almost gleeful at the opportunity to tear down the man for headlines and viewers. Other songs are more influential, or more impressive from a production standpoint but in terms of pure artistry I believe this is the singer's best work and stands tall alongside the best pop ballads of all time.
#2: "Beat It" (1983)
You can't have a conversation about Michael Jackson's best songs without discussing "Beat It." This was a lightning rod for the merging of rock and pop and it helped launch Jackson into new heights of success. We've spoken about how influential Jackson was in merging different genres and this is his best example of that. Jackson enlisted none other than Eddie Van Halen to deliver a blistering guitar solo that inspired millions to pick up the instrument and while Thriller was already a big hit, this made it a massive one. This song is permanently ascribed to the 1980s; you can barely think of it without thinking of that red leather jacket which has largely become a symbol of the decade. And yet it sounds just as vibrant and fresh today as it did then. It's undeniably aggressive of course, with lyrics basically sketching out the beginning of a brawl, but at the same time it's incredibly danceable and not just in the head-banging way. Before Aerosmith and Run-DMC proved that rap and rock could mix and many artists began to blend genres, Jackson pulled it off and in such an effective way that it has never been properly equaled.
#1: "Billie Jean" (1983)
Sometimes you have lists where there is a clear and obvious #1. This is not one of those lists, and any of the top three could have easily claimed the #1 spot depending on where I ultimately fell at the end of my ranking. That being said, at this particular moment I am confident that "Billie Jean" is Michael Jackson's greatest song. The cultural impact to the song is more impressive than you might think, particularly in terms of the video which was the first video played by an artist of African descent on MTV. But we're talking about the song itself, and in this case I feel like it is the song that truly embodies everything Jackson stood for as an artist. It is the perfect balance of lyrical skill pop expertise and maturity is an overall musical number to top out the list. Jackson wrote this song based on groupies that he encountered during his time with the Jackson 5; the song takes the serious subject matter of paternity claims and used it to create a pop masterpiece. The song almost didn't make it onto Thriller because of a disagreement over the song's title and Quincy Jones' assertion that the track was too weak to stand on the LP. The argument was resolved of course and the song ended up becoming one of his most famous hits. Jackson stepped up his game with this track and became a true artist in every sense of the words, making for the greatest song in a truly legendary catalog.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
Before we depart, I leave you with this week's Music Video A-Go-Go. There were two songs that I very much wanted to include on this list and it pained me not to do so because try as I might, I just couldn't. You get both of them this week. The first is "Human Nature" off of Thriller; the second is "Rock With You." Check them 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.