Ten of the King of Pop's best tracks

A glimpse of Michael Jack­son’s great­est hits.

Vocable (All English) - - Édito Sommaire - JOE SOMMERLAD

Michael Jack­son, whose mu­si­cal ca­reer was un­par­al­leled, knew suc­cess at a very young age with the Jack­son Five, well be­fore his stel­lar solo ca­reer. When the al­bum Thriller came out in 1982, it made him an im­mense su­per­star world­wide; it re­mains the best-sold al­bum of all time. This is a list of some of the global hits en­joyed by sev­eral gen­er­a­tions.

Michael Jack­son [was] pos­si­bly the finest all-round en­ter­tainer the world has ever seen. Hav­ing burst on to the scene as the front­man of the Jack­son 5 in 1964, the star went solo in 1971 and re­leased a string of record-break­ing al­bums, elec­tri­fied sta­dium au­di­ences around the globe with his ki­netic live shows and picked up ev­ery award go­ing. As supremely gifted a song­writer as he was a dancer and chore­og­ra­pher, Jack­son seemed in­ca­pable of pen­ning any­thing other than a hit in his prime. Here’s our se­lec­tion of his top 10 finest songs as a solo per­former.


2. Michael Jack­son’s earnest plea for the world to awaken its con­science to de­for­esta­tion, in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion and famine is easy to scoff at – as Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker fa­mously did at the 1996 Brit Awards – but its mes­sage is as sim­ple and pow­er­ful as “All You Need is Love”. If any­thing, “Earth Song’s” cli­mate change warn­ing was ahead of its time, mak­ing a pas­sion­ate case for con­cerns much more widely shared to­day than they were in the mid-1990s.


3. This song, the sixth sin­gle from Jack­son’s 66 mil­lion-sell­ing Thriller (1982), was ac­tu­ally writ­ten by Toto key­boardist Steve Por­caro, born out of a con­ver­sa­tion with his daugh­ter about her day at school. Un­ex­pect­edly picked up by su­per-pro­ducer Quincy Jones for the al­bum, it would be­come one of Jack­son’s best loved bal­lads. That “Why... why...” vo­cal hook is ir­re­sistible. “Hu­man Na­ture” was mov­ingly per­formed by the singer-song­writer John Mayer at Jack­son’s me­mo­rial in 2009.


4. The com­mand­ing sex­u­al­ity of the per­sona Jack­son adopted here for this ab­so­lute ham­mer of a tune from Dan­ger­ous (1991) is sur­pris­ing given the shy, softly spo­ken char­ac­ter he ap­peared to be in in­ter­views, no­tably dur­ing his coy and em­bar­rassed en­counter with Oprah Win­frey in 1993. There he spoke about los­ing him­self on stage and he cer­tainly could per­form­ing this, thanks to the driv­ing gui­tar sound of guest mu­si­cian Slash from Guns N’ Roses, pro­vid­ing an out­ra­geous solo.


5. An­other in­cred­i­bly sim­ple sen­ti­ment ex­pressed with per­fect clar­ity, “Black or White” gave Jack­son’s ur­gent, rasp­ing de­liv­ery a per­fect out­let. The song, which be­came the fastest-sell­ing in the US since “Get Back” by The Bea­tles in 1969, prompted an­other sem­i­nal video, fea­tur­ing Ma­caulay Culkin, George Wendt from Cheers, tribal dancers and a multi-eth­nic cast, one face mor­ph­ing into an­other, to of­fer a cel­e­bra­tion of ra­cial har­mony. His per­for­mance at the 1993 Su­per Bowl half-time show, in­ci­den­tally, demon­strated Jack­son’s abil­ity to work a crowd su­perbly.


6. Oc­ca­sion­ally Jack­son’s more ro­man­tic of­fer­ings can be a tad cloy­ing, his duet with Paul McCart­ney, “The Girl is Mine”, be­ing a case in point. This though is just a joy­ous ex­pres­sion of teenage love and sur­pris­ingly poignant: “My lonely days are gone...”


7. Rarely has a song bet­ter ex­pressed in­ner con­flict, self-re­crim­i­na­tion and the need to be bru­tally hon­est about de­struc­tive pat­terns of be­hav­iour. Com­posed by Siedah Gar­rett and Glen Bal­lard, this track from Bad is good

ther­apy, a gospel choir kick­ing in to en­sure its theme of change and re­form is a wholly uplift­ing and pos­i­tive one.


8. A stone cold banger, “Smooth Crim­i­nal” pro­vided the cen­tre­piece for Jack­son’s fea­ture film Moon­walker (1988) and saw him de­but his “anti-grav­ity lean” a dance move in which he tilts for­ward on his toes at an im­prob­a­ble an­gle. The video, in which he donned an im­mac­u­late white suit and trilby with spats to per­form in a stylised Pro­hi­bi­tion speakeasy, is per­haps his most en­dur­ing im­age.


9. Ar­guably MJ’s sig­na­ture song with that hiss­ing drum beat and omi­nous stabs of synth. The theme of the singer deny­ing the pa­ter­nity of a woman’s child might these days ap­pear cal­lously misog­y­nis­tic at first lis­ten but “Bil­lie Jean” ac­tu­ally re­mains am­bigu­ous as to the singer's hon­esty and refers to a spe­cific in­ci­dent, in which a fe­male fan Jack­son had never met sent him a se­ries of in­creas­ingly dis­turb­ing let­ters in­sist­ing he was the fa­ther of her son. Jack­son’s per­for­mance of this on Mo­town 25, a TV spe­cial hon­our­ing the great Detroit soul la­bel, saw him de­but the Moon­walk for the first time and rightly re­mains the stuff of leg­end.


10. Jack­son’s lyrics com­monly con­jured an at­mos­phere of so­cial para­noia, from “They Don’t Re­ally Care About Us” to the KGB fol­low­ing him in “Stranger in Moscow”. “Beat It”, ad­vo­cat­ing tac­ti­cal re­treat over en­gag­ing in gang vi­o­lence, con­jures a grot­tier, more re­al­is­tic ur­ban night­mare land­scape than “Smooth Crim­i­nal”, per­haps drawn from the street punks of Wal­ter Hill’s The War­riors (1979). Martin Scors­ese’s video for “Bad” would ef­fec­tively up­date the aes­thetic to more con­fronta­tional ends in 1987. He’s on ab­so­lutely peak form here. Match­less.


11. What else is there to say about “Thriller”? A Hal­loween sta­ple since 1983, the 14-minute video di­rected by John Lan­dis re­de­fined the pur­pose of the promo film just in time for the ad­vent of MTV, its zom­bie dance as iconic as any­thing MJ ever achieved. Like Madonna, Jack­son al­ways had an unerring eye for col­lab­o­ra­tors and his choice of Lan­dis, af­ter en­joy­ing his An Amer­i­can Were­wolf in Lon­don, and age­ing hor­ror star Vin­cent Price for the ghoul­ish nar­ra­tion, was in­spired.

Jack­son’s lyrics com­monly con­jured an at­mos­phere of so­cial para­noia.


Michael Jack­son in the mu­sic video for his song “Thriller” (1983).

(Eu­gene Ade­bari/Rex Fea­tures/SIPA)

Michael Jack­son in the mu­sic video for his song “Bil­lie Jean” (1983).


Michael Jack­son per­form­ing at a con­cert.

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