It’s still okay to talk about Michael Jackson’s music, right? I haven’t seen that documentary about him, and while I’ve been a lifelong fan and there’s no-one bigger than him in forming my musical taste, all that kiddie stuff now puts a sour taste in the mouth. If it’s true of course. I veer on the side of it not being true, and him just being an innocent weirdo, but I try not to be blinded by my love for him and his music. In the end, only those involved know for sure.
But I’m here to talk about his music; individual songs which I class as my favourites, and how they have impacted me. I’ve probably talked about it here before, but when I was young I never had my own copy of Thriller. Instead, I had a bootlegged/copied cassette which had somehow been doing the rounds in school, and I somehow managed to acquire a copy of that copy. One side had Bad (without Leave Me Alone) and the other had Thriller. I used to listen to both, probably on a daily basis, but as I was young and Thriller was scary, I would rewind the tape and listen to Bad more. I’ve always been a much bigger Bad fan but in recent years I’ve found myself enjoying many of the songs from Thriller more than I used to. Baby Be Minewas never a top tier Thriller song for me – the title track and Beat It were the biggies, Billie Jean and Lady In My Life were next, then Baby Be Mineand Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. Now I rank them more or less evenly.
I don’t have any specific memories of listening to the song on its own – it’s more of a collective memory, an unease which covered the first half of the album and came from me knowing that Thriller would be coming up. So even though I liked the songs on the first half, my apprehension about the creepy song to come stopped me from fully appreciating them. That’s probably part of why I’ve never really enjoyed The Girl Is Mine, coming right before Thriller.
After the sheer funk insanity of the epic opening track, Baby Be Mine simplifies things with a streamlined disco boogie and a dark atmosphere. That atmosphere may be something I’m projecting into the song, but it’s there nonetheless every time I hear it. I love that brief jazz drum intro and the synths work mysteriously for me as I’m not usually a big fan of the instrument, and all of the hand clicks, claps, and guitars work extremely well. This being Jackson, what stands out for most people are the melodies and vocals. Jackson was at his peak here as a singer, and the song challenges even his fantastic range. He soars and shrieks and lets out a variety of tics and runs, never letting a slight growl or impure note get in the way of the performance and emotion – if it works, keep it in. Lesser artists would retake again and again to get as clean a result as possible, taking out much of the emotion and inspiration.
The digital sounding backing vocals come decades before everyone else jumped on the bandwagon, yet they sound fresher than anything in the charts today. There’s something slightly ghostly about those backing vocals – projecting again – but they do what so many backing vocals don’t do – they stand on their own. Grab the mix, remove everything else, and listen to the backing pieces – fantastic by themselves and telling their own melody separate from the main lines. Those main lines are some of my favourites from any Jackson song. I’m surprised this wasn’t selected as a single too – it’s one of only two songs of the album’s nine which wasn’t released as a single. It’s interesting how the verse melody descends at the start of the line, and ascends for the second half, with the pre-chorus extending this out with a twist. It’s the verse melodies I prefer over the more straightforward chorus, but fortuitously the bridge is also exquisite and showcases some of Jackson’s most powerful vocals. The ending is a simple disco extension of the chorus, with enough variance so that it doesn’t become tired and repetitive – another skill today’s pop artists have lost.
Lyrically, the song is another call out to a lady – the clue’s in the title – and while he is treading the same ground he had been covering throughout his career, it’s the sexy, raw delivery which heightens their potency; the guy really wants this girl and it’s tearing him apart both being with her and being apart from her. He gets right to the howling soul of obsession and lays it bare. Jackson was much more than just a singer’s singer – he knew how to inflect, how to expand and retract, how to be theatrical and how to give the extra needed punch to an individual sound or word – his love of movies and musicals training him, but his natural ability keeping it from becoming false. He was truly a one of a kind voice.
Let us know in the comments what you think of Baby Be Mine – is it a personal favourite for you, is it one you need to return to, or is it a song you either don’t know or have never liked. Try one of the links above to check out the song and share your thoughts!
It’s our last day – lets make it a good one. That stranger you spent the night with… I’m sorry to say that you won’t keep in contact with them, but that’s fine – just let it be a beautiful 24 hour romance and long may it remain in your memory.
10 – 11: John Carpenter
I think this one could be a possibility given John’s recent touring and focus on music. I’d love to see the great man live and while I feel that an indoor, night time setting would suit his music better, there’s no way he’s going to headline here and a morning blast of Halloween or some of his Lost Tracks would be superb.
Number Of Times Seen Live: 0
11 – 12: Lovebites
My favourite recent band, there’s no reason why Lovebites shouldn’t be huge. Well, people are idiots, so that’s the main reason they won’t be as successful as they should be. They are a Japanese metal band, but get this – they’re all girls – shock! And double shock, they’re amazing musicians, playing face-melting power metal! I jest of course, but the focus on the band is usually that they are female. Regardless, this is an injection of pure adrenaline and delight, a throwback to the glory days with a renewed sense of fun and exuberance.
Number Of Times Seen Live: 0
12 – 2: Natalie Imbruglia
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here – Natalie Imbruglia is the finest pop star of her generation, to the extent that pop star is too cheap a term for her. She has a huge array of hits released and otherwise, and is an intelligent writer and performer who doesn’t get any of the credit she deserves. A sunny lunchtime outdoor gig would be perfect for her blend of angst anthems and melancholic pop.
Number Of Times Seen Live: 0
2 – 4: The Delays
While we’re on the subject of pop perfection, The Delays are another band who came out at the same time as all of the other ‘The’ bands, but surpass them all in terms of sheer melody. The Delays see one of the finest vocalists in the business – Greg Gilbert – lending his incredible falsetto to some of the most infectious hooks you’ll ever hear. Imagine The Beach Boys crossed with Nirvana and you’re somewhere close to the mark. Unfortunately the band hasn’t released anything in 9 years due to family commitments followed by Greg getting cancer. He’s still fighting, and I’m holding out for a glorious return.
Number Of Times Seen Live: 0
4 – 6: Joni Mitchell
Maybe the greatest living singer songwriter, Joni Mitchell has had her (un)fair share of health issues in the last years but in her early years everything she touched was gold. I’m a much bigger fan of her folk stuff than her later jazz and blues stuff, but a late afternoon 2 hour set from this Goddess would strike the hippy chord which all festivals need.
Number Of Times Seen Live: 0
6 – 8: The Gathering
I mentioned Natalie Imbruglia being an underrated pop star – The Gathering are the best unknown band in the world, an incredible collection of artists who change with each release and can variously be called a metal band, an atmospheric rock band, post-prog, shoegaze etc. I’ve reviewed most of their stuff on this blog already and every music fan should definitely check them out. The band has had line-up changes over the years but for the purposes of this festival I’d love to have Anneke Van Giersbergen and Silje Wergeland on stage together like at their 25th anniversary show. They are definitely a band to enjoy in the dark, so this time of the day should suit them perfectly.
Number Of Times Seen Live: 1
8 – 10: The Beatles
What is this? The Beatles, not headlining? Blasphemy! Well, yes, but I rate my headliner higher and would want to see them more than the Fab Four. The Beatles stopped performing live just as they were hitting their peak in musical releases meaning a tonne of their best songs were never performed by the original band together. But this is fantasy, so my show will see The Beatles alive, well, and together, playing songs from their entire catalogue with no technical concerns. Surely that is the Holy Grail of all music fans?
Number Of Times Seen Live: 0
10 – 12: Michael Jackson
There was never going to be anyone else to close my original festival. Jackson is the greatest and to me personally had the biggest impact on me musically. It’s rare a day passes that I don’t either listen to or play one of his songs in my head. He was a born headliner and he was cruelly taken just before what was sure to be a glorious tour. Here he is free to play whatever the hell he wants with as huge a stage show as he wants, and there’s no-one else in the history of music I’d want to see live more.
Number Of Times Seen Live: 0
Let us know in the comments who else you would add to you festival line-up!
Official Nominations: The Morning After (The Poseidon Adventure). Ben (Ben). Come Follow, Follow Me (The Little Ark). Marmalade, Molasses, And Honey (The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean). Strange Are The Ways Of Love (The Stepmother)
The Morning After picked up the official win, a fine ballad (better than the more famous McGovern effort which would follow the film’s release) which is both sad and hopeful. Armand’s vocals suit the softer, smoother approach, and though it is fairly plain it’s still effective. Ben, chilling and lonesome when viewed within the confines of the film, but beautiful and brilliant outside, is one of Jackson’s finest early ballads with a flawless vocal performance and sweeping Motown backing. I could only find badly recorded versions of Come Follow, Follow Me, a gentle folk style song with soothing melodies but some dodgy accents. Marmalade, Molasses, And Honey is an overly twee song which doesn’t really suit Milius and Huston’s film and isn’t strong enough to stand on its own. Strange Are The Ways Of Love is another downer song making this quite a downbeat year for nominations. Again it’s hard to get a good copy of this one, but it’s a deep-vocal song which features both a fast version and a slower, acoustic guitar led version.
My Winner: Ben
My Nominations: Ben. Rejoice In The Sun (Silent Running). Speak Softly, Love (The Godfather). You’re The Only Girl (Fritz The Cat). Lila’s Theme (Snoopy, Come Home). Free Four (La Vallee).
Only Ben makes it to my list, and you already know it’ll be the winner. Still, it goes up against some decent tunes, none of which have had the same lasting impact. Rejoice In The Sun sees Joan Baez serenade Bruce Dern as he grows flowers in space. It’s the sort of song you can imagine some bin lid like Adele ruining – it’s lovely, idyllic, sub-hippy stuff but not for anyone who isn’t a fan of Joan’s vocals. Speak Softly, Love is The Godfather’s exquisitely dramatic lead song, basically taking one of the main themes and adding lyrics and vocals. By now you should all know how I feel about jazz, or even brass. And yet, there’s something inherently funny and woozy about You’re The Only Girl For Me from Fritz The Cat. It’s a very simple song, sleepy, slow, and backed by dazed brass and tippy tappy piano. Another song for animation is Lila’s Theme from Snoopy Come Home – again it has a rainy day bittersweet tone and will bring back memories of a poor sick girl for anyone who has seen the movie. Finally is Pink Floyd’s Free Four from back when they were regularly working on movies. It’s a simple, straight song from the band with typically great lyrics and a hand-clapping rhythm with booming distortion and good old Gilmour face-melter.
My Winner: Ben
Let us know in the comments which song you feel deserves the win!
Michael Jackson, I’m sure like many readers of a certain age, was my first musical love and my most lasting musical inspiration. Having listened to him for as long as I can remember, from his youngest solo days to his Jackson 5 work, through the Bad and Thriller cassettes I recorded off a friend and listened to every day and night for years, right up until the end I have always been and always will be a fan. Making a list is personal and your choices will likely be vastly different from my own- the same goes for all the other artists I’ve done lists for.
I did a few checks online for similar lists- critics top picks are mostly the same- with songs like Billie Jean, Rock With You, and Thriller always coming out on top. Most critics look at cultural impact and chart success when writing these lists- I look at the love I feel for each song, and those tracks that I sang along to in bed on my Walkman while my parents shouted up the stairs for me to shut up- those are the ones which make the higher places on my list.
53. Workin Day And Night (Off The Wall): Even though I’m a huge Michael Jackson fan and even though Off The Wall was the first album I ever bought, I’m not a huge fan of the album, at least when compared with his other stuff. Some of the disco themed tracks are more miss than hit, but this one is suitably high paced and is liable to have you spinning around the kitchen in your socks while your dog/cat stares on, bewildered. It’s less well known than the previous tracks on the album and thus doesn’t suffer as much for me from the overplayed disease.
52. She’s Out Of My Life (Off The Wall): As for the slower tracks on the album, this is the stand out. It’s The Falling In Love and Girlfriend are fine songs, of course, but they remind me too much of the theme tune of Kids TV show Simon And The Witch. The video may be terrible but the sentiment isn’t, and though it may be seen as incredibly twee now, it comes off more agreeably than some of his later similar tracks due to his youth and relative innocence here. A very simple, subtle arrangement lets the emotion of the lyrics and vocals shine through.
51. Rockin Robin (Got To Be There): Performed by Michael, if my memory serves me well, when he was roughly 5 months old, Rockin Robin is a classic pop tune. Again, at first appearances it may seem twee and silly, but it really does rock like a 50s Berry/Holly hit- nice guitar work, fast paced, nonsensical lyrics, but with a timeless energy which will pull you onto your feet and have you embarrassing yourself in no time
50. If You Don’t Love Me (Rare): This is quite a strange one from Michael as those opening notes don’t really sound like any other song he has ever done. It was recorded in the Dangerous era but sounds like a forgotten Supremes track given some serious rock thump. Michael belts out the vocals with a growl and there is a nice leading guitar riff. The verses are catchy, but holy heavens that chorus will be in your head all day so be prepared for an ass-kicking on the train home by disgruntled commuters who don’t want to hear you whistling it for 45 minutes. Note- this has not happened to me.
49. Farewell, My Summer Love (FMSL): An undeservedly forgotten Jackson track which has beautifully realised lyrics and an emotional performance. It’s a sentiment most of us will recognise and will likely cause you to reminisce about that Summer romance you had. Again it showcases a turning point in Michael’s vocals, wavering somewhere between childhood and adulthood. A big chorus and emotive verses- what more would you want?
48. Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ (Thriller): Well, it’s just awesome really. The way the song builds in force and volume, with new sounds and instruments being thrown in more and is a testament to Quincy’s genius and a perfect example of the wonderful results when two artists who are at the top of their game collaborate. That would be enough for a great song, but through in those superb funky riffs and rhythms, bizarre lyrics, weird noises, and the fact that the song continues to grow whilst passing through various stages. Michael’s voice has suddenly matured from Off The Wall and now he sounds like a God. There are so many quality individual moments to mention here. If this was played at any picnic, funeral, work meeting, police interview, it would, without exception, have everyone dancing like a maniac and uttering mamma say mombassa and such. If they were drunk.
47. We’re Almost There (Forever Michael): This one still retains a Motown feel even though the world was going disco at the time; it has a large string section backing for the intro and chorus but it’s mainly about the power of the vocals and melodies. Michael is sounding older now, moving through his awkward teen phase, but he has no problem reaching some high notes here effortlessly.
46. We’ve Got A Good Thing Going (Ben): Going right back to his first solo album, Michael tackles quite a few mature love songs. Surprisingly most of them work well, and again that is largely down to his amazing vocals- both the sound, control, power, and his understanding of using his voice to get the correct emotions from the lyrics. It’s one of the more gentle tracks on Ben due to a mellow production but it still has a funky undertone and a hoppidy rhythm. Pleasant verses give way to a strong chorus with great backing vocal parts.
45. Morning Glow (Music And Me): Opening with a classic Motown style guitar tone on a summery riff the song starts of gently with backing pianos and a very feminine sounding Jackson. With each new verse though the vocals become stronger to give the recurring melody new depth, whilst the chorus is more like an extension than a separate entity. It does have a warm, snug, welcoming feel to it evoking images which the title suggests. The slower, choir backed ending is quite beautiful too.
44. I’ll Come To You (FM): A teen Michael introduces this with a spoken part which isn’t as cringe-worthy as some of the others, but it leads into one of the most gorgeous verses you’ll ever hear. Sumptuous arrangements in the verses lead to a booming chorus tinged with sadness and regret which Michael blasts out on the verge of tears. The vocals are interesting as you can clearly hear that he is between his child and adult stages, with moments of both styles coming through.
43. This Time Around (HIStory): Even though HIStory sold about 50 billion copies and had countless worldwide hit singles, many critics and even some fans have rubbished it away. Rubbish. Aside from the aforementioned singles there are some forgotten gems, including this. Michael is wonderfully angry here, spitting out the vocals with venom which is unusual for him but happens quite a bit on the album. Both the verse and chorus melodies are excellent and while it may not have the dense layering of some of his better known work there are great moments here and it will get your feet stomping.
42. Ben (Ben): People forget that this was an Oscar nominated song, due in part to the strong writing, but I tend to say that it is the emotive vocal performance from the young Jackson which turns a decent pop tune into something greater. The backing is fairly quiet and simple with a lonely string and vocal part echoing the sentiment of the lyrics and the movie it was written for. Indeed it goes further and hints and Michael’s whole life as the lonely megastar searches for a soul mate.
41. Is It Scary? (Blood On The Dancefloor): Ghosts saw Michael revisiting the horror genre a la Thriller, giving us both a song and a short film based on the supernatural. However, it was Is It Scary rather than the track Ghosts which stood out. Taking basically the same lyrics from Ghosts, Is It Scary gets rid of much of the electro noise and replaces it with strings, vocal ticks, and big melodies. While the verses are haunting and fitting given the lyrics, it is the belter of a chorus which you will remember. This is a sadly forgotten track which deserves to be mentioned along side his most famous singles.
40. Speechless (Invincible): Invincible was too long in the making and suffered greatly from expectation, too many average tracks, and a very dated production. The great moments are few and far between and largely the best tracks are the most simple ones. Speechless may be the most gentle song he had written and though it does veer awfully close to being too saccharine for it’s own good, the melodies and performance pull it back from the brink. A basic expression of love and being left speechless by the feelings, much of the song is Michael singing unaccompanied. Eventually some quiet guitars come in and as the song progresses we get added instruments and backing vocals growing to a crescendo. The central melody will easily get stuck in your head like many of the songs on this list.
39. Don’t Walk Away (I): Invincible’s other ballad is another exercise in simplicity, a stark contrast to much of the over production on the rest of the record and harking back to Michael’s younger days. It’s sweet, but not sickly so, honest, and has plenty of strings and melodic twists to tug at the heartstrings.
38. The Lost Children (I): Given what had been happening in Michael’s life around the time Invincible, this seems like a wildly misguided song and title choice. We know the man was infatuated with Peter Pan, but more than that he was starry eyed when gazing upon innocence and youth, and he held nothing more dear than childhood. It’s another winning soft song with a rising and falling rhythm and catchy chorus. He throws in a bridge in the middle to take the song to another level as he lets his vocals get a litter harsher. As lovely as it is, those final whispers when the song ends are scary. Little Susie scary…
37. History (H): The title track from this excellent album is filled with the hallmarks of the album- media interference, time, monumental moments, humanity’s dark side, and the decisions we make and their impact on the planet, our fellow humans, and on our own legacy. Beginning and ending with spoken media footage, all the stuff between is excellent. An angry Jackson slams his way through satirical verses before an emotional plea calms things in the chorus. The song is bitter yet hopeful, yet another trademark of the album, and like Man In The Mirror the great man suggests that we need to start with ourselves in order to truly make a difference. It helps that the message is coated in melodies as sweet as sin.
36. Whatever Happens (I): Jackson continues his tradition of inviting guest guitarists to play on his tracks, this time collaborating with Carlos Santana to give a sultry Latin saunter to the song. Santana plays fleetingly in the background for much of the song while Michael moves between growls and pleads to accentuate the desperate story being told. This is an occasionally stormy affair which recalls some of both talents’ best collaborations, though we probably didn’t need the spoken thanks at the end.
35. People Make The World Go Round (Ben): An early eco and political song for Jackson, though of course he was just reciting another man’s words more forcefully than the original author could. It definitely has a late 60s, early 70s turbulent American feel as each line speaks of some social turmoil and possible upheaval. Of course, when I was pre-double figures first listening to this the words didn’t mean a lot- it was all about how catchy the tune was and how loud I could belt out the chorus in bed at night without causing my brother to beat me. This is truly a masterclass in young MJ vocals, particularly in his final chorus as he takes things up 5 notches.
34. Morphine (BOTD): Years before Michael’s demise, his fans were fully aware of his issues with painkillers, never more obviously highlighted in this hidden masterpiece. Although the song is mostly about the media’s portrayal of him and a lot of it is him venting his anger, it nevertheless gives a lot of insight of what he was going through then and at the end. Not many MJ songs are over 6 minutes and when they are, they are usually seen as classics. Morphine unfortunately was released on Blood On The Dancefloor, an album long since ignored by the media and most fans. This really is a forgotten gem though, never more beautiful in the ‘Demerol’ section where Michael sings more softly against a tear jerking piano before explosively returning to the rage of the rest of the song. If you haven’t heard it, buy the album now.
33. Music And Me (MAM): Before everything collapsed Michael would sing simple songs about love, and few are more simple than this dedication. At barely over 2.30 minutes long it can be taken at surface value- as a gentle song about music with gorgeous acoustic and string backing, or it can be seen as a metaphor for the man’s life as a whole- few people have been so dedicated to a craft or have had their life so indelibly intertwined with their passion. It is at once life-affirming and heartbreaking.
32. Human Nature (T): This is a strange one for me- sometimes I love it, sometimes I can’t listen to it. I think that so many parts of it have been sampled so many times so badly by so many different people that it’s hard to appreciate the original now. At other times it does feel a little too light, while most other times it is another great track. And then there are those times when the mood and setting is perfect and all the good parts of the song are heightened to unbelievable limits. No matter what, I’ll always love the juddering bass and the gorgeous chorus where you can feel Michael smiling all the way through.
31. Will You Be There (Dangerous): An epic in the style of Man In The Mirror, this one seems to have been forgotten in the mists of time but the instant you hear those opening bars the memories come flooding back. The song begins softly enough with that iconic piano jingle leading some smooth Jackson vocals while a backing gospel choir gives increasing potency. There aren’t quite as many shifts in tempo and style as MITM but we do have a powerful message delivered with force thanks to the build up of the choir, the upping of the keys, and Jackson’s vocals getting ever more close to breaking. For the final couple of minutes the song softly reigns itself again with the choir fading out and some spoken words by Michael successfully not being cringe-worthy.
30. Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone (GTBT): Another early Motown cover finds Michael courting arguably the woman who discovered him by giving his rendition of this Diana Ross/Supremes hit. There are a few dodgy spoken parts but they can be overlooked thanks to the force of Jackson’s young voice throughout the majority of the song- his vocals suit the string-laden arrangement, the shoop-shoop swing is dangerously energetic, while, as to be expected, the melodies are second to none.
29. In Our Small Way (GTBT): A lot of these early tracks had spoken parts- the introduction here is not as bad as some, but it is still unnecessary. With that out of the way, every other single second of this lost gem is bliss. From the triangle notes to the jangling strings, to the backing vocals to the heavenly explosive power of some of the notes Jackson throws out here this is another symbol that the boy was going to be a world changing man; maybe some of us can follow suit in our own small way.
28. Bad (Bad): Although Thriller was released in the 80s, much of the album feels either like a product of the 70s or else some timeless moment experienced only by Michael when recording and by us whilst listening. From the opening notes of Bad though, we know that it is 80s born and bred; Those synthesized notes, those Quincy Jones noises and effects, and of course the attitude are all symptomatic of the decade; and don’t forget the video, with it’s edgy direction and subway vibe. Add on Michael’s new look and we have an album, and a song which bear all the trademarks, but none of the nonsense of a decade packed with awesome highs and blindingly awful lows in music. As the opener for the album, this is really an introduction to the new Michael- Off The Wall was a coming of age, angsty affair, Thriller was packed full of the ambition and mistakes of an early 20s youth, but Bad is the man finally coming out of his shell with clear goals in his mind, purpose, desire, drive, and an unwavering will to do things his way. Gone is the boy, gone is the teen, here is the man; and he’s Bad (good).
27. Billie Jean (T): Many people’s choice as favourite, particularly among critics as opposed to die hard fans, no list would be complete without Billie Jean. It was the turning point from boy to man for many people. Off The Wall had been an enjoyable disco album from a teenager trying to break out on his own from his older brothers, an album which was a fine solo effort but which didn’t really show any signs of promising individuality. Billie Jean showed the world that Jackson, Michael was not only here to stay, but was on the crest of some monumental waves. Non-one had seen or heard a man dance or sing like he was here, and not only is it an immediately, and eternally catchy pop song, it also has powerful lyrics. The song is drenched with importance, even more so when listened to with hindsight- it sounds like the future, the next generation piling into your living room and redecorating in their own style. A weak metaphor, but even the juiciest would not do justice to a song and a moment which was so culturally significant. At the core of it all is some wonderful bass beats, the grooviest of riffs,the aforementioned melodies, and singing which once heard would never be forgotten.
26. Who Is It (D): Another song ahead of it’s time, Who Is It sounds like it could have been written and recorded yesterday. Opening with ghostly voices before a stomping phat beat kicks in and grows, the track has strong whispered verses which serve as a stepping stone to one of the best bridge/chorus moments in pop. The lyrics seem to be about a woman cheating on a man, and they are extremely vicious, visceral, and violent for a Jackson song. Not only that, but they are delivered in a fitting manner with a snarl at one moment, and a bat-shit tear the next. Add in some excellent backing instrumentation and we have a song deserving of more credit than it has received.
25. In The Closet (D): A dubious title if there ever was one, juxtaposed (or perhaps intentionally mirrored) by one of the sexiest videos of all time, In The Closet isn’t a song which many fans or critics talk about. Look beneath the covers though and you’ll find a steamy track with a wonderfully catchy chorus, and some ravenously sexual lyrics. Most of the beats are digitized, the New Jack sounds of windows smashing and pulses, blips, and blurts all clashing together. It may be a little overlong but the repetition of the off centre verses, the sultry bridges, and that stonking chorus give a definite ‘more is more’ feel.
24. Happy (MAM): It is what says, a pleasant, happy song, and as perfect a pop song as you could ever hope to find. Effortless, melodic, with peaks in the chorus, and depth in the verses it is simple but can be enjoyed every time it is heard. With gentle string backing and innocent lyrics it is the archetypal song of Jackson’s youth.
23. What Goes Around Comes Around (Ben): Another wistful motown track made timeless by sheer perfection of melody, sound, and craftmanship. Familiar strings let the words bask freely, the words are actually quite bitter and mocking, whilst those vocals are heartbreakingly good particularly when he blasts out the song title. Turn off your radio and let your kids listen to this.
22. Liberian Girl (B): This sultry ballad from Bad feels like a steamy encounter on a balmy night during a Summer Romance. It also happens to have one of the coolest, most star studded videos ever- check it out if you’ve never seen it. The music takes a back seat in the opening minutes of the song while Michael sings about this near-forbidden love but by the end of the song Quincy and his team unleash an assortment of sounds to drag every drop of empathy from the listener and take you back to that time you spent with an exotic love. Michael waits until the final moments of the song before he hits top gear as he sings the simple, but powerful ‘I Love You, Liberian Girl’.
21. Remember The Time (D): Another decade and another star studded video, this time both visually and musically touching on Egyptian territory. He retains but restrains the harsher production of Dangerous whilst expanding on the melodic genius of Bad giving us another crowd pleasing chorus and verses which build a simple story of lost love. An effective bridge leads to a climax which sees Jackson letting out some of his best screams. He also tries to create another cultural sound phenomenon with his ‘dddrrrr up dup dup’ noises which are great but never seemed to get the same love as his ‘whoooos!’ did.
20. Dirty Diana (B): This is in many ways the natural successor to Billie Jean and I prefer this one to the Thriller classic. This one is much angrier, more bitter sexier, and replaces the funk with anguish and sub heavy metal venom. It is the tale of a star obsessed groupie who wants to sleep her way to fame and all of the temptations which come with being a touring superstar. I love the chaotic building of the screams and guitars around the 2 and a half minute mark, I love the tech noir intro, the vocals are awesome, all the sounds swirling and crashing during the final minute are excellent, the guitars made me want to pick up the instrument, and of course the melodies are timeless.
19. Scream (H): This long awaited duet between Michael and sister Janet is better than it has any right to be. Taking aim at the media and haters, the siblings are on top form here, ending each others’ sentences and following each others’ ideas fluidly. Both performers sing wonderfully here, with just the right amount of spite in their voices to sound forceful but not petty. The choruses are downplayed while the verses are some of the most funky in either singer’s repetoire- it is the bridge which contains the memorable melody here. The song still sounds futuristic today, almost 20 years later, and the video holds up well too, although I would hope that would be the case given how much money was thrown at it. To spice things up there are a few intersting moments such as the quiet spoken Janet part (and the excellent solo shortly afterwards), the swearing, and those parts where the sounds build into an explosion such as the ending.
18. Take Me Back (FM): This is a rare one which hardly anyone remembers- a genuine shame because it is arguably stronger than anything from Off The Wall; I certainly prefer this track to everything from that album. The mix of Motown and Disco is a winner and Michael’s teen vocals are gut-punchingly devastating. While there isn’t anything complex here, the mix of those two genres punctuated by the string section, the huge chorus, and the emotional way MJ sings those title words combine to make a long lost classic. For a darkly tragic twist, read the lyrics and song as a whole as Michael calling from beyond to return to life where he belongs.
17. Girl Don’t Take Your Love From Me (Anthology): One from his younger days now, a Motown ballad which is sublime and grows on me every time I hear it. I’ve been listening to this one since I was around 5 years old- here I am a few centuries later still wholly enchanted by it. The ‘no no no’ intro, the pleading , skyscraping vocals, the massive chorus, the way Michael holds those notes, the backing harmonies- even the damn spoken part all work perfectly. It’s a plain message but one which has never been more beautifully or emotionally stated.
16. Got To Be There (GTBT): Jackson’s early albums were a heady, simple mix of cheery pop, motown funk, and emotional ballads and with Got To Be There we have one of his first and best. A touching love song which should be irritatingly twee and gruesomely sentimental but somehow avoids this through vocal’s inherent skill as a vocalist and some special piece of magic which convinces you of its honesty and wins you over. It has twinkly, jangles noises, vocal filters, and everything else which should be nasty yet here we are; let yourslf be swept away by the music.
15. Earth Song (H): There was a time in the mid ninties when it looked like Michael was a lost cause, both musically and in public opinion; we had the rise of Girl Power, Britpop, and the greater evils of commercial R’n’B and Dance music. Even though History was a hit and ave us several big singles, it wasn’t until Earth Song that people were shaknen out of their complacency and false opinions as it soared to number 1 all over the globe.
14. They Don’t Care About Us (H): This was another pretty big single from HIStory and while it didn’t reach the heights of Earth Song, I generally prefer it. It’s raw, angry, it’s political without sounding either too liberal or too conservative, and it’s loud. There are some great guitar pieces and it’s all held together by a powerful, marching drum beat. Jackson pseudo raps his way through some great lyrics. It begins fairly softly, but there are added ‘glitch’ sounds in the music which signify something is broken with the system- these leap out at you and catch you off guard. As the song progresses, the singing becomes more clear and the melodies break free along with some nice harmony work. The middle section is a nice bit of chaos with atmospheric guitar and keyboard clashing together and Jackson screams for the heroes of the past for support. The song ends with a million voices joining together to tear down the system.
13. Baby Be Mine (T): When me and my brother used to beg to put the double side tape of Bad/Thriller on in the car on the long night drives home Grandparents or somewhere, Baby Me Mine somehow got lost- I don’t really remember listening to it that much. It’s only 20 years on that I’ve actually started to appreciate how amazing this song is, and as it now seems so ‘fresh’ to me it has flown up my list. Everything about stinks of cool, from that strange jazz intro, from all those different instruments coming together before we even hear MJ’s soaring vocals. In these vocals he sounds sensual, sexual, close to begging for it actually, but so convincing that I fail to say anyone turning him down. The singing is simply ridiculous- the notes he chooses, finds, holds, as well as the inflections, emotions, and hiccups he adds are spellbinding and it must go down as one of the peerless vocal performances of all time. Musically it is super funky, and once it decides to leap into my brain it has me sliding over the kitchen floor on my way from toaster to bridge looking like every Jackson impersonator. The verses are sultry, the chorus is angelic, and the subtle proddings of the various instruments mean you find something new on every listen.
12. Black Or White (D): There seem to be no other artists, certainly in my life, who have provided so many important, if not defining memories. As equally as I remember hearing about Cobain’s death after my 11th birthday, I remember the hype, the waiting, the sitting up to watch Jackson’s new video for new song Black Or White. This was a global thing which we could all get involved in- a hands across the world type event where you knew that every other kid over the country and all over the world was also probably sitting on their knees, huddled in front of the TV waiting for Jackson’s new sermon. Now of course I can run around outside throwing whoopie cushions at the neighbours (that’s what’s popular, right?) whilst shrieking about not having enough lunch breaks and plucking on a ukelele- within 5 minutes I can have that shit uploaded to youtbe to a potential audience of everyone. It’s meaningless, because every can do it. But back in the early 90s, only MJ commanded this amount of awe- not because he was the most famous, but because he was the most capable- you knew it would be good, it would be interesting, it would be a spectacle- and everyone would be talking about it.
So, as we watched the video roll on, complete with extended kick (touch?) ass ending our lives were that little bit more complete. The video had glorious CG- still some of the best transitions I’ve ever seen, it had some sort of plot, it had famous actors, but most of all it had Michael dancing and singing his new song. Luckily the song was epic too- that opening riff is heavenly and never fails to put a ‘run away from that awful man’ grin on my face. The lyrics do get a little lost under the melodies in places, and MJ lets the production and emotion take centre stage over actually what is being said- although the clear as hell chorus gets the main point across- it don’t matter if you’re black or white- sort if out racist scum, all you little scared cretins with your fears of difference- embrace it, it won’t hurt you, and you might like it!
11. Speed Demon (B): Narrowly missing out on that coveted top 10 spot is this little maestro- a fun song that isn’t really about anything but is super cool in its 80s appeal. Motorbikes were big in the 80s, cartoons were never before so popular- add them both together and we already have a winning video. Add a wonderful verse synth riff which revs and accelerates us through the song, a fist pumping chorus which subtly throws in a few minor twists, some funky keyboards, a middle section which consists literally of the sounds of changing gears and bizarre brass synth sounds- it’s all silly, but its all awesome. As an added bonus, I love the way it merges on the album into Liberian Girl, but then I’m a sucker for strong merges and transitions between tracks.
10. Lady In My Life (T): On those long night drives home, it always seemed to be this, the final song from Thriller which sent me off to sleep or was the last song just before we made it home. People always talk about She’s Out Of My Life but they never talk about this, the much superior song in my opinion. It has that atmospheric night time feel that so few songs capture- but those that do are inevitably special. You can drift away so easily to this one- the creamy vocals, the mood, the music which blends disco, funk, jazz, ballad, it all comes together to create a perfect ending.
There aren’t really any other songs like this on Thriller as most are up tempo pop smashes, while this one is happy just to lay back and say ‘enjoy, or don’t, I don’t care I’m still cool regardless’. That swirly noise which makes up the main riff, if it can be called that, would sound dated, cheesy, terrible on almost anything else, but hear it is truly special. I can’t say it is Jackson’s best ballad (there’s a few more of those to come) but it is definitely his most underrated.
9. Give In To Me (D): Around the time Dangerous was released, Guns ‘n’ Roses were the other important musical influence in my life (with Alice Cooper, Nirvana, and The Bangles propping up the list). Naturally then when I heard that Slash from GNR was playing on an MJ song it was going to, in all likelihood, be the best thing ever. At 5 and a half minutes, it is a steamy rock affair merging Slash’s riffs and solos with MJ’s tormented vocals. The lyrics are fueled by sexual desire with MJ balancing pain and pleasure in equal measure while Slash breaks out some of his best twiddling moments in his solos. It is a rare combination of verse, chorus, bridge, and all the bits in between being equally strong. One of Jackson’s heaviest songs it was still a hit and continued his string of collaborations with notable guitarists.
8. Heal The World (D): Jackson was at the peak of his powers with Dangerous, but was also beginning to fall foul of vicious criticism from all quarters. While grunge was changing the music world for the better and spinning the attitudes of many youngsters, Jackson’s message sounds at once out of place, but never more relevant – many things in the world were, and are broken, and it’s down to us to fix them. Yes, there is a terribly cheesy spoken introduction, but once the first notes spill in and Jackson unleashes one of his most pure melodies and statements, all is forgiven. There are few better crafted songs which flow so angelically from verse to chorus as if the song was planted by a force beyond our ability to understand.
7. Thriller (T): I can’t add a lot more to what everyone knows about this one so I’ll share my own stories of how I used to listen to it. When I was young I used to dread this song coming on while I listened to my double Bad/Thriller cassette. I hadn’t seen the video, but had caught glimpses of it from watching Moonwalker, and those were enough to sow the seed of nightmares in my mind. However, I was still so drawn to its brilliance, and by the fact that I knew other neighbourhood kids were scared by it and that I could enchant them by my superb bedroom cover version of it. It had enough power to get my imagination flowing that I would tell those other kids what happened during the video, with grizzly, ghastly details, regardless of the fact that I had not yet seen it either. This got me to realise the power of storytelling, the thrill of an audience enraptured by your words. I pinpoint my love of writing, my attempts at a writing career both musical and ‘literary’ (and for the sheer enjoyment of simply creating), and my undiluted love for horror movies and fiction to the moment I first listened to Thriller. Thanks, Michael.
6. I Just Can’t Stop Loving You (B): If you’ve been following my musical lists, you should know by now that I’m a sucker for a ballad. I recognise that they are cheesy, frequently awful, but when I feel they are done right, like here, they are more like a force of nature. My pre-teen self was a bit of an outcast when it came to love, likely because I spent too much time listening to MJ and imagining having a girlfriend than actually doing anything about getting one. Songs like this were the soundtrack to my heroic dreams about capturing the girl who barely knew my name, and many nights were spent falling asleep wishing that I had someone who felt the same way about me. Are those usual thoughts for a 9 year old? Naturally it’s a fantastic duet, all about melody and atmosphere, and it’s one of the best ballads ever written.
5. One Day In Your Life (ODIYL): And similar to above, this was the one I returned to most as the soundtrack to my tragic musings. This was on my Michael Jackson mix quadruple cassette, and brought me to tears on almost every listen. Nowadays its more likely to bring tears thanks to nostalgia, but it remains a gripping song of untimely sadness. I suspect not many modern fans have heard this one, but do yourself a favour. With a gorgeous string and coral backing, and one of the greatest key changes in pop music history, Jackson knocks this one out of the galaxy with his growing vocal ability.
4. Another Part Of Me (B): It may sound completely grounded in the 80s, like much of Bad, but there remains something at once futuristic, modern, and timeless to it. Maybe it’s the vocals, the melodies, the message, the songwriting, or all combined, but it holds up brilliantly today. Ostensibly a funk rock song, it’s also a pleading ballad, a song with a title which led to a billion plastic surgery jokes, a furious blending of styles and instruments, and features one of the best choruses I’ve ever heard.
3. Beat It (T): Probably the song that got me into guitars, and probably into rock and metal music as a whole, Beat It is the high point of one of the greatest albums ever, an angry judgement on misogyny and violence. There is so much I should praise here, the punched-in-the-stomach sounds, the riff, the solo, the cannot be highly enough praised vocals, the quick delivery of the verses, the superb chorus with those backing chants, the whole build up to the solo and frantic, bollock-bashing ending – excellence.
2. Man In The Mirror (B): This was always a favourite, but I’m not sure at what point it become one of my all time favourites. I think as I grew up I understood the song more, not only as a message, but in terms of writing and recording. It isn’t my favourite song of MJ’s, but I think it is his best. I would go so far as saying that it must be considered in the greatest 10 songs of all time, such is its brilliance and potency. If you get the chance to see Spike Lee’s exquisite documentary on the 25th Anniversary of Bad, I implore you to watch it, if only for the focus on Man In The Mirror. The song builds up through a succession of verses and choruses which subtly change and grow each time leading to the choir filled, epic ending. I don’t want to say anymore about it, how could I, and why should I- just go listen.
1. Smooth Criminal (B): This was probably the song I listened to most as a young Jackson fan. Aside from the music being fantastic, it was so atmospheric and imaginative that it opened my eyes and ears to a world of possibilities- why must a song only be about love? A song could be about anything, tell any story, in any way, and still be amazing. Of course, it was the soundtrack to a million daydreams about superme infiltrating evil gangs and Bruce Leeing the life out of them. It didn’t even sound like a song – that intro, all those weird sounds, it was more like a movie starring whoever I wanted. Then of course the song proper starts, and I’m dancing, sliding on my knees, wrecking the sofas, playfighting with my brother while mummy shouts at us from downstairs, then I’m outside sprinting through fields with my friends, imagining we’re in Vietnam shooting aliens with our lazer swords, and we’re swinging through trees as our bases explode behind us, and then we’re sitting outside school at lunch time wondering how the hell those guys in the video were able to bend like that and then I’m at home alone singing along at the top of my voice, and recording my awesome vocals over the top of my mum’s keep fit tapes, and then I’m suddenly twenty years older and it’s still the best thing ever. Thanks again, Michael. You never knew me, but you were mine.
As always, feel free to comment on my list and share your top 10 tracks!
What else can be said about Michael Jackson? King Of Pop, hero to millions, the greatest entertainer who ever lived – his moves, his music, his voice, and his words will live on forever. Feel free to share your memories and thoughts of Michael in the comments section below.