Jackson's fusion of disco, pop, funk and soul on his breakthrough album, Off the Wall, may have been the King of Pop at his most deliciously tuneful and catchy, which is saying a lot when you consider the massive appeal of his follow-up, Thriller. This tune is underrated and underplayed, and its relative obscurity within Jackson's familiar catalogue makes it a welcome treat. A soaring chorus supported by a tight groove in the verse would become the singer's trademark. Here's the prototype.
This tune offers even stronger evidence that Jackson had very nearly reached his peak before Thriller. At the very least, the singer's 1980 album Off the Wall was only a couple of steps behind where he would end up on his next record, so in that sense maybe the first half of the '80s was really just a comfortable, plateau-like apex for Jackson. But what a glorious period that was, and this song remains a very pure kind of pleasure three decades after its release. Though written by Rod Temperton and not Jackson himself, the song - particularly its buoyant bridge - ultimately sounds so much the singer's own that it's all too easy to put the question of authorship right out of your mind.
3. "Beat It"
Clearly, though, it's difficult if not impossible to argue with the conventional wisdom that Jackson was at the height of his powers on Thriller, as he glided from genre to genre with such ease. The singer particularly dipped into a fresh patch of rock music he'd never drawn from before for this one, and the contribution from Van Halen guitar wizard Eddie Van Halen was a major attribute that made the track stand out. Lyrically it's no masterpiece, but that's nothing new for Jackson. His key strength, after all, has always been his mastery of sound.
Jackson rekindles his knack for irresistible beats on this, the third of his amazing nine No. 1 singles of the '80s. It's certainly one of his best tunes, replete with anger, passion and complexity. Musically, it's blessed with a nifty melody and a bridge that trumps anything else the song has to offer. The premise of a woman who may or may not be wrongfully accusing the singer of an unsavory dalliance and a resulting pregnancy is decidedly nasty at times, which makes for interesting listening.
Though not bearing Jackson's songwriting stamp, this gentle and unique ballad boasts a haunting quality unlike anything released before or since by the King of Pop. It's odd maybe that one of the song's cowriters is one of the founding members of Toto, but whatever the source, there's no denying the magic on this track. Much of that majesty, of course, stems directly from Jackson's stunning, calculated vocal presentation. It's one of the few voices that could do the melody justice.
As with many Jackson songs, it's best not to examine the lyrics too closely here, unless you want to raise your eyebrows in puzzlement or have a chuckle. That being said, Jackson lays down a seductive groove here that cultivates a life of its own within the performance. No one can argue that, at his peak, Jackson was an irresistibly electric performer, and beneath all the generally futile attempts at macho posturing, that dynamism shines through in his greatest talent, his singing.
The famous and theatrical music video with its groovy zombie dancers and cinematic heft certainly overshadowed the song it was there to support, but what always comes through about this epic track is a giddy sense of fun. Oh, for the days when Jackson had and utilized a sense of humor. But the other extraordinary thing about this tune is how much it succeeds as a piece of pop culture excess (Vincent Price, anyone?) far larger than its musical qualities.
Paul McCartney and Jackson also worked together on "The Girl Is Mine," but this tune from McCartney's Pipes of Peace stands out particularly as an optimizing force for their combined talents. That is, the segments sung in alternating fashion by McCartney and then Jackson not only spotlight each individual singer efficiently but amount to a whole greater than the sum of its components. But ultimately it's up to Jackson to take the song beyond mere pleasantry, with his soaring, one-of-a-kind performance.
On the one hand, I'm ashamed to include this Bad song on a list meant to celebrate the best in a musical career, but on the other I can't help but give it its due. After all, when you get a message song from Michael Jackson, you can't be too surprised when it's burdened by a broad but shallow sense of right and wrong and good and evil. He's just never really been all that complicated. Still, there's something compelling just the same about this let's-just-stop-fighting-and-fix-the-world-together kind of idealism.
Maybe it's appropriate that a few years back a short-lived band called Alien Ant Farm reminded us how much fun this rather silly tune can be. By the time Bad came out in 1987, Jackson was already clearly in a subtle state of decline. Yes, more No. 1 singles for the singer came from that album than any other, but only the most die-hard fans would argue that Bad is a better record than either Thriller or Off the Wall. "Smooth Criminal" is a last hurrah, where Jackson said goodbye to the decade he ruled.