“Michael likes to lay back,” big daddy Joe Jackson told Ebony magazine in 1974. “He’s not the type who wants to be out front.” Although this might have been true when the Jackson clan was in the crib, back in the superfly seventies, in the studio and on stage, the cute soul boy transformed into a natural leader. Equally influenced by Sammy Davis and James Brown as he was by Jackie Wilson and Stevie Wonder, M. J. always seemed as comfortable on stage as he was in the studio.
Learning from pop and soul masters from the time he was a tot wandering the hallways of Motown Records (practically his second home), Michael matured into an artist who believed in musical diversity. With his love of all music, Michael created a canon of material including bubbly Cali-pop, screaming soul, stomping disco, raging rock and exquisite ballads.
“I love creating and coming up with unusual things,” he once told journalist Lisa Robinson. “To be kind of a pioneer.” Indeed, from the stunning first Jackson 5 single “I Want You Back” in 1969 to his own last official solo album, Invincible (2001), Michael Jackson was a stellar force gone way too soon.
With the posthumous release of this week's Xscape, which features a star-studded list of collaborators, we decided to jump into our way-back machine and remember the time when M. J. was king.
1. “I Want You Back”: One of the most explosive debuts in Black pop history, this glorious Jackson Five track was the world’s introduction to Michael’s magical voice. As the single went platinum, a man-child singing sensation was born.
ALBUM: Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, 1969
2. “ABC”: Described by Time magazine as “the biggest thing to hit Pop Capitalism since the advent of the Beatles,” the title track to the Jackson Five’s second disc ABCcombines stirring soul and bubblegum pop, creating a hypnotic hybrid of freshness.
ALBUM: ABC, 1970
3. “The Love You Save”: Written and produced by in-house mavericks the Corporation, which featured the mighty pens of Barry Gordy and Alphonso Mizell, this life lesson for a wayward girlfriend has no problem taking us to church. Hands clapping like Baptists, the Jackson Five deliver a powerful message.
ALBUM: ABC, 1970
4. “Got to Be There”: Resembling the scrawl of a love struck schoolgirl, there are red hearts designed into the logo of Michael’s first solo album Got to Be There. Indeed, after listening to the hauntingly beautiful title song you too might start scribbling valentines.
ALBUM: Got to Be There, 1971
5. “I’ll Bet You”: With Michael on lead, the brothers had already covered Smokey Robinson (“Who’s Lovin’ You”) and Sly Stone (“Stand!”), but this remake of Funkadelic’s blunted funk was a surprise. As usual, the Jackson boys handled their business.
ALBUM: ABC, 1970
6. “I’ll Be There”: Like the best soul singers, Michael moved easily between egotistical bravado and aching ballads. Co-written by The Mack soundtrack composer Willie Hutch, this beautiful love song still induces tears forty years after its debut.
ALBUM: Third Album, 1970
7. “Never Can Say Goodbye”: Arranged by Barry White’s personal string expert Gene Page, 12-year-old Michael rips out his heart as he belts, “Every time I think I've had enough, I start heading for the door/There's a very strange vibration, piercing me right to the core.” From the mouth of a child, grown-man angst.
ALBUM: Maybe Tomorrow, 1971
8. “Lookin’ Through the Windows”: The beginning of Michael’s voice starting to change, this percussion heavy rainy day epic was penned by Amen star Clifton Davis. With a killer arrangement that is as dramatic as MJ’s vocals, “Looking Through the Window” is a monster.
ALBUM: Lookin’ Through the Windows, 1972
9. "Maria (You Were the Only One)": A slow burning love song that explodes into a funky inferno, this gem from MJ’s first solo album Got to Be There is a forgotten masterpiece.
ALBUM: Got to Be There, 1972
10. “Ben”: Forget the fact that it’s a song about a rat, Michael Jackson’s first number one solo single is as enchanting as it is corny. Only a sincere singer could wail about a rodent and make you care.
ALBUM: Ben, 1972
11. “Dancing Machine”: “Michael went to bed with James Brown and Jackie Wilson under his pillow,” prolific Jackson Five producer Hal Davis once said. Proving his point, this rousing single has the sweaty energy of a live show at the Apollo Theater on a Saturday night.
ALBUM: Dancing Machine, 1974 (alternate mix on Get It Together, 1973)
12. “Enjoy Yourself”: After bouncing from Motown to vinyl rivals Philadelphia International, home of the O’Jays and Teddy Pendergrass, the brothers were forced to change the group’s name to the Jacksons. Produced by Gamble and Huff, the upbeat dance anthem was a the perfect soundtrack for disco infused nights.
ALBUM: The Jacksons, 1976
13. “This Place Hotel” Originally titled “Heartbreak Hotel,” just like a song his father-in-law Elvis once sang, this tune serves as a blueprint to elements (horror movie motifs, prominent guitars, funky keyboardist Greg Phillinganes) that MJ explored fuller on his next projectThriller. If Stephan King were a soul singer, this song would be in his repertoire.
ALBUM: Triumph, 1980
14. “Time Waits for No One”: Although MJ co-wrote six of the nine tracks on Triumph, this vulnerable ballad was written by bros Randy and Jackie. Cast as the helpless romantic sitting in his lonely room “…sad and weary, persevering for love,” Michael’s voice soars over sad strings as his pain resonates throughout.
ALBUM: Triumph, 1980
15. “Don’t Stop Til ’You Get Enough”: Michael’s fifth solo joint Off the Wall was the moment his fans had been waiting for: no longer content with merely being an entertainer, Michael was determined to be innovative. Teaming with his new friend Quincy Jones, the duo created their own boogie down aesthetic that pumped in discos, exploded at pop radio, but was still soulful enough to be down.
ALBUM: Off the Wall, 1978
16. “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”: By the time “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” was released as the sixth single from Thriller, most of the world had heard the album countless times. Nevertheless, after the pop bonanza of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” the newly appointed King of Pop returned to his soul roots and got his mack on by calling girls “tendertoni” and dancing to the butt naked grooves. Although the neo-pimpadelic lyrics are rated-PG compared to Prince’s (1999 came out the same year), underrated Brother’s Johnson bassist Louis brings the funk and keeps it in pocket.
ALBUM: Thriller, 1982
17. “Man in the Mirror”: For all of Jackson’s supposed wackiness, he was always a spiritual dude. Combining lyrics on self-improvement with the bedrock of gospel as its musical base, “Man in the Mirror” transports the listener to a cathedral of soulfully sacred sounds. Never one to do anything small, MJ recruited both the Winans and the Andre Crouch Choir to take us to church. This is the real sounds of blackness.
ALBUM: Bad, 1987
18. “Remember the Time”: New Jack Swing innovator Teddy Riley graduated from the hood with this blissful track of young love reminiscing. “I came to the project with this track,” Teddy Riley said. “That was the sound I was thinking of for this album. Basically it was the sound I wanted on Dangerous and he loved it from the beginning.”For all the naysayers who thought MJ might fall off without Quincy Jones in the booth, this was his prerogative.
ALBUM: Dangerous, 1992
19. “You Are Not Alone”: While already deep into his ‘wacko’ period, Jackson occasionally floated back to earth and blessed us mere mortals with his genius. Co-produced by R. Kelly (who wrote the lyrics about his late mother), “You Are Not Alone” is an amazing testament to their talents. Jackson’s last number one hit in America, it’s still considered one of Michael’s best ballads.
ALBUM: HIStory, 1995
20. “You Rock My World”: Although MJ branded himself “the king of pop,” dude had no problem going into the R&B hood to find new collaborators. Co-producer Rodney Jerkins, a young cat with an old soul, put together a song with Mike that still makes folks rush to the floor. While there is a slight retro feel in the symphonic strings of the intro, the energy of this song is crazy. If this is post-disco, why are we still dancing?
ALBUM: Invincible, 2001
21. “Butterflies”: While many pop stars hog the spotlight, wanting desperately to be perceived as a geniuses, Michael Jackson had no problems giving props to collaborators. Working with songwriter Marsha Ambrosius, who at the time was also a member of Floatry, the gloved-one laid down one of his most sensuous falsettos in years. An anthem of unrequited lust, brother Jackson still manages to sound innocent.
ALBUM: Invincible, 2001
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.