Ten of the King of Pop's best tracks
A glimpse of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits.
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.
10. EARTH SONG
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.
9. HUMAN NATURE
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.
8. GIVE IN TO ME
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.
7. BLACK OR WHITE
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. THE WAY YOU MAKE ME FEEL
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...”
5. MAN IN THE MIRROR
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.
4. SMOOTH CRIMINAL
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.
3. BILLIE JEAN
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.
2. BEAT IT
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).
Michael Jackson in the music video for his song “Billie Jean” (1983).
Michael Jackson performing at a concert.