Michael Jackson is the greatest entertainer in history. That said, it’s challenging trying to convey his all-encompassing brilliance, so I won’t try.
Instead, I’m focusing only on his indelible music — for now. I tried to put together a list of his 10 greatest songs, but his recordings are so masterful that I couldn’t make it shorter than 25.
They are listed by album and only include his adult solo work.
Off the Wall, 1979
- Working Day and Night: This kickass uptempo groove was written by Jackson and is perfectly suited for working out. The frenetic pace and youthful exuberance in MJ’s voice stamp this track as an essential listen.
- Off the Wall: Although the title track was written by English songwriter Rod Temperton, it flawlessly epitomizes the free-spirited mind of Michael.
- Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough: The greatness of this song’s production, pace, lyrics, and vocal are all underscored by its placement on the album: Track 1. Michael’s considerable evolution as a songwriter is illustrated well with this one.
- I Can’t Help It: Written and arranged by the legendary Stevie Wonder, this song is vastly underrated. It starts as a laidback melody as Jackson uses a silky soft vocal performance to enrapture the listener. His pitch and the modulation of the song changes towards its conclusion, but it’s awesome, start to finish.
- Billie Jean: The crown jewel of Michael’s entire catalog. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect song with its ambitious offering of elite production, writing, and of course, Jackson’s vocal delivery. It was this song that enabled the Thriller album to take off like a rocket ship!
- Beat It: Possibly the best illustration of MJ’s enormous crossover appeal. It’s a badass confluence of pop brilliance and edgy rock. This song forced white America to jump on the 1983–84 Michaelmania bandwagon.
- Thriller: The song itself pales in comparison to the above-mentioned blockbuster hits. But the wildly ambitious short film of the same name is inextricably linked to this track, which significantly elevates its status.
- The Way You Make Me Feel: The beat is as sexy as the lyrics. Michael’s courtship of a young woman, the “pretty baby with the high heels on” is portrayed fascinatingly in the song. Jackson is vulnerable and brutally honest about his feelings for this woman, yet incredibly confident that he can buy her “things to keep [her] by [his] side.” Extraordinary.
- Man in the Mirror: A soaring statement that encourages personal transformation for the greater good. This song felt transcendent as soon as its short film hit television. Here, Jackson’s lesser-known humanitarian side is on full display and it sends a timeless message.
- Dirty Diana: A predictable groupie is so annoying, she causes Michael to handle her unwanted advances firmly: “you’ll never make me stay, so take your weight off of me. I know your every move, so won’t you just let me be,” he sings. Despite bashing from critics, the story and rhythm of this song continue to grab my attention decades after its release.
- Smooth Criminal: The kinetic energy of this track is unlike anything I’ve heard. Jackson weaves a frightening tale as he describes a murder mystery throughout. The famous chorus features his insistent demands to know what happened to the victim of the titular character. Classic song.
- Leave Me Alone: A pissed-off MJ issues a firm middle finger to the media and anyone else who ridiculed him publicly. It is the first Jackson song that made me realize how sensationalized his life had become.
- In the Closet: In my mind, Michael was always believable as a man lusting after a sexy woman. This was not the common perception, but this song illustrates his raw sexuality. “There’s something about you, baby/that makes me want to give it to you,” MJ croons to the lady of his desires. It’s breathtaking each time I hear it.
- Black or White: The indelible guitar licks throughout this song get me fired up every time. Jackson was the master at building meaningful discourse on topical issues while entertaining us with remarkable vocal performances. Here, he shoves racism aside in favor of unity. And does it with a flourish.
- Remember the Time: There’s a certain elegance to this song, possibly because of its elaborate short film. Jackson is wistful at the outset, suave at the hook and occasionally raises his vocal range as a conveyer of emotion. All told, it remains one of his classics.
- Who is It: This song is a brilliant example of undeniable genius and extraordinary musicianship. Michael delivers a tale of gut-wrenching betrayal and heartbreak with astonishing acuity, and it’s depressing. This is quietly one of the most powerful tracks of his career.
- Give in to Me: This song is such a delightful listen. Jackson seems to alternate between emotional dominance and submission, probably necessary because the woman he sings about has “a heart of stone.” The heavy metal vibe of the track, coupled with MJ’s signature vocal style helps to make this one of his grittier, yet awesome projects.
- Heal the World: Arguably his greatest anthem and that’s saying a lot! MJ’s voice is exceptionally beautiful in this song as he issues an impassioned plea to make the world a better place.
HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, 1995
- Scream: Given the massive hit his reputation had taken in the two years leading up to this song’s release, Jackson is enraged and wants the world to know about it. He seethes through clenched teeth as he vents his displeasure with the media and law enforcement. Having sister Janet as the ultimate ally provides this high octane track with an extra layer of horsepower.
- You are Not Alone: When I first heard this song in the summer of ’95, I was smitten. Written by resident creepo R. Kelly and performed flawlessly by MJ, the track is addictive with its crestfallen tone. Michael sounds sad and pushed aside, which mirrored his life at times.
- Earth Song: Another underrated masterpiece from Mike. It’s this album’s obligatory thought-provoking anthem, a passionate plea to protect the environment. Jackson softly laments the awful way that we treat the planet but explodes with urgency during the final third of the song. His choked-up delivery crescendos into a church choir style demand for global change. Phenomenal.
- They Don’t Care About Us: Again tackling social and racial injustices, MJ sounds increasingly frustrated with the reality of society. “Some things in life they just don’t wanna see…,” sings Michael. Those words alone sum up the entire mood of this thumping track.
- Heaven Can Wait: During his nearly 40-year solo career, Jackson crafted tons of amazing ballads. This late-career gem might be his best. The production, the writing, the vocal performance, the topic — all flawless. It had the makings of a hit record, but remains one of his many underrated “great ones.”
- You Rock My World: Michael had long been proficient at speaking his feelings about (hypothetical) female love interests on record. This song is no different, as he emphatically declares that “she” rocks his world. It’s a wonderfully catchy record and sadly serves as Jackson’s final top-10 hit in the U.S. during his lifetime.
- Butterflies: A lush and slinky ballad that should’ve been promoted with a short film, except that MJ’s record label were assholes. The beauty of his iconic voice and the mesmerizing soundscapes provide this track with decadence that few artists ever achieve.
Michael Jackson will forever be the greatest entertainer in history. His career was a cultural phenomenon and it all started with something simple.