Few stars in the history of pop music have had the influence of Michael Jackson. His career, which began before he was a teenager, broke barriers in the music industry. He influenced modern pop, music videos, dance, and fashion. These 55 songs are some of the best of his career, from his days with The Jackson 5 to the turn of the 21st century.
1. Beat It
Jackson’s career as a solo artist was taking off in the 1980s. His 1982 release, Beat It, helped establish him not just as a stellar musician in his own right but also as a mesmerizing performer. The music video was one of his first major successes on MTV. Meanwhile, the track itself won two Grammy Awards the following year and is considered one of the most influential songs of modern rock and roll.
2. Do You Know Where Your Children Are
Do You Know Where Your Children Are was initially recorded in the late 1980s, intended for use on Jackson’s 1988 album, Bad. However, the song was shelved. It wasn’t until after his death in 2009 that the single was released on the posthumous album, Xscape.
3. Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough was one of Jackson’s earliest hits as a solo artist. The song, released in 1979, was a fusion of funk and disco that still had its roots in his early career as a member of The Jacksons. It is widely considered to be his solo breakthrough, becoming his first number-one hit and his first Grammy Award win.
4. Rock With You
Rock With You was released in 1979 while Jackson’s solo career was on the rise. It was one of the few songs that he did not write or co-write himself, instead having originally been intended for Karen Carpenter. The track was a success, and music historians widely credit it as one of the last hits of the disco era.
5. State Of Shock
Though Jackson was largely known as a solo artist by the mid-1980s, he rejoined his brothers for 1984’s State Of Shock along with Mick Jagger. It was intended to be a collaboration with Freddie Mercury, but the singers had conflicting schedules. The song was the last major hit for The Jacksons before they disbanded in 1989.
6. We Are The World
Jackson’s 1985 single We Are The World became famous for its performance by USA For Africa. He wrote it with Lionel Ritchie and recorded it with some of the most famous superstars of the time. It was an international success, racking up multiple Grammy Awards and American Music Awards.
Dangerous was released in 1991 and marked a new sound for Jackson. It explored the emerging genres of new jack swing—a subset of hip hop—and industrial rock. It also featured him performing a short rap section, which was not typical of his music up to that point.
8. Workin’ Day And Night
Workin’ Day And Night was one of Jackson’s early hits, released in 1979 on his album, Off The Wall. It was also one of his early compositions; he typically wrote his own songs for the rest of his career. The track was also remarkable as the fastest song of his career, at 128 beats a minute.
9. Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ was one of several massive hits from Jackson’s 1983 album, Thriller. The song had a distinctive horn riff and was likened back to his earlier disco-influenced work during the 1970s. It was one of the singer’s few major hits that did not have a music video.
10. Slave To The Rhythm
Slave To The Rhythm was included in Jackson’s posthumous album Xscape, released five years after his death. Its popularity led to the pop star achieving his 50th single on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was initially recorded in 1990 and was intended for inclusion in his album, Dangerous.
11. Billie Jean
Billie Jean was one of Jackson’s major hits of the early 1980s, inspired by unnerving letters that he received from a mentally disturbed fan. It became famous for introducing some of the pop star’s signature dance and dress styles, such as the moonwalk and his sequined jacket. It has widely been called one of the most influential dance tracks of all time.
12. The Lady In My Life
The Lady In My Life is one of Jackson’s lesser-known songs, included in his 1982 album Thriller. The track is a simple ballad to an unnamed woman. Though it failed to chart—possibly overshadowed by the highly successful singles from the same album—the song was praised for its smooth R&B feel, which hearkened back to his work as part of The Jackson 5.
13. I Just Can’t Stop Loving You
Jackson had originally intended I Just Can’t Stop Loving You to be a duet with Whitney Houston or Barbra Streisand. But at the last minute, he decided to include singer Siedah Garrett, with whom he had collaborated on Man In The Mirror. The song was one of five singles from his 1987 album Bad to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
14. Say Say Say
Jackson collaborated several times with former The Beatles member, Paul McCartney. Their 1983 duet Say Say Say was an international success, continuing a streak of number-one hits for Jackson. The track is frequently named on lists of the best collaborations of all time. They would later team up once again for The Girl Is Mine.
In 1995, Jackson teamed up with his sister Janet Jackson to record the duet, Scream. It was released during a time when the media was rife with rumors about Jackson sexually abusing a teenage boy, as well as other stories of erratic behavior that earned him the nickname “Wacko Jacko.” The duet was an aggressive response to the tabloids for running these stories.
Morphine was one of Jackson’s most controversial releases. Noted for its dark content, the track was an exploration of the subject of addiction. The singer struggled with an opioid addiction, which would ultimately lead to his death.
17. Off The Wall
Off The Wall was the title track of Jackson’s 1979 album. The song became the third track from the album to climb to the Top 10—the album eventually featured four Top 10 singles, a record-breaking achievement. It was praised for its high-energy, danceable beat and became one of his standards during live shows.
18. Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)
Toward the end of the 1970s, The Jackson 5 increasingly featured Jackson on lead vocals. Their 1978 single Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) put the 20-year-old at the forefront of the band once again. The disco-infused dance song became a chart-topper across the board.
19. Another Part Of Me
Though Jackson is remembered for his high-tempo dance songs, many of which had sexual overtones, he also frequently explored themes of changing the world and unifying the human race. One of these songs was 1988’s Another Part Of Me, a funk track about love and hope.
20. Give In To Me
Give In To Me was released in 1993 and featured Jackson’s newfound jack swing and industrial rock fusion style. Some have suggested that the song crosses the line into the genre of heavy metal, one of his few songs to earn that label. The track was noted for its aggressively sexual lyrics, which some people found unnerving.
Jackson’s 1982 single Thriller is undoubtedly one of the most famous and influential songs he ever recorded. Its popularity was bolstered exponentially by the accompanying music video, which redefined the genre as an art form and sparked a dance craze. The eponymous album became the best-selling record in history.
22. P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)
Jackson released P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) on his Thriller album. The song was inspired by a lingerie label. It was a crossover between his older musical styles—funk and disco—and his later ones, such as rock and pop. Interestingly, though it charted well, he never performed the song live.
23. Black Or White
Black Or White was one of Jackson’s biggest hits of the 1990s—in fact, the song broke records by making him the first artist to have a single in the number-one place in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The track was a dance hit calling for peace between people of all colors and ethnicities. The music video featured dancers from different cultures around the world.
24. This Place Hotel (A.K.A Heartbreak Hotel)
This Place Hotel (A.K.A Heartbreak Hotel) was released in 1980 by Jackson while still a part of The Jackson 5. He composed the song and sang the vocals, but it was still credited to the full group. The track follows the story of a man who brings his girlfriend to what he thinks is a romantic hotel, only to find that the hotel is made to destroy relationships.
One of Jackson’s many inspirational singles was 1991’s Jam. The song, which was composed in the new swing style, is a call to the world to come together in unity and support one another. It also featured a rap verse by rapper Heavy D.
26. Got To Be There
Jackson released his first solo album in 1971 when he was only 13 years old. The title track was released as a single, becoming an immediate success on both sides of the Atlantic. Got To Be There was an R&B and pop ballad that immediately marked him as a rising star.
27. She’s Out Of My Life
With the release of She’s Out Of My Life, Jackson broke records for having four Top 10 hits from a single album. The track is a classic breakup song, with an emotional tempo that makes it one of his slowest tracks. It was a vocal challenge for him, which allowed him to explore his range.
28. I Want You Back
The Jackson 5 came to national attention in 1969 with the release of their song I Want You Back. It became their first number-one hit and exploded in popularity after they performed it on The Ed Sullivan Show. It also brought Jackson to widespread attention as a rising child star; he was only 11 years old at the time of its release.
29. Heal The World
Of all of the songs he composed during his career, Jackson said he was proudest of 1991’s Heal The World. The gentle but powerful anthem is a call to change humanity. The song was performed at his funeral in 2009 and is considered one of the most important parts of his legacy.
30. Just Good Friends
Just Good Friends was a 1987 duet with Stevie Wonder, composed as a friendly fight over a woman. One of only two songs on his album Bad that he did not write himself, the track was poorly received by critics. However, it has come to be considered a historical duet.
Bad was the title song on Jackson’s 1987 album. The aggressive track and its accompanying music video helped establish him as an edgy pop star. His outfit in the music video, which included a studded leather jacket, was highly influential in late-1980s fashion.
32. Dirty Diana
Dirty Diana was released in 1988 and was an instant commercial success. Several years later, Jackson performed in front of the British royal family. He initially told the princess he would refrain from singing the song out of respect for her, but she insisted he keeps it in his set, saying it was one of her favorite songs.
33. The Way You Make Me Feel
Jackson was on a roll in the late 1980s, and The Way You Make Me Feel, released in 1987, became his third number-one hit in a row. As with most of his tracks of the time, the accompanying music video was a big hit, depicting him pursuing model Tatiana Thumbtzen.
34. Blood On The Dance Floor
Blood On The Dance Floor was recorded in the early 1990s but wasn’t released until 1997. The song was a foray into a combination of new jack swing and funk. The music video depicts Jackson being seduced by a woman before she draws a knife and stabs him.
35. Dancing Machine
The Jackson 5 released Dancing Machine in 1973. The track featured Jackson and Jermaine Jackson sharing lead vocals. It was an early opportunity for the former to use his skills as a dancer; his dance moves often helped inspired group choreography for numbers.
The ballad Butterflies was released in 2001, Jackson’s final single from an album. The song was noted for its smooth R&B-inspired melody, which hearkened back to the music of the 1970s. Though it received mixed reviews from critics, it was a commercial success.
37. Human Nature
Human Nature was a track on Jackson’s hugely popular album Thriller. The song was inspired by how people can sometimes act irrationally or strangely because of human nature. Slower than many of his contemporary hits, the track was praised for its brooding, ballad-like feel as well as his vocal performance.
38. They Don’t Care About Us
While Jackson released many attention-catching songs during his career, They Don’t Care About Us was undoubtedly the most controversial. Released in 1995, the track was a protest song criticizing racism and police brutality. It generated controversy because of lyrics that led to rumors of antisemitism. He later clarified the words and issued a public apology.
39. Gone Too Soon
Jackson generally focused on dance hits rather than ballads. But his tribute song Gone Too Soon was one of his most emotional slow songs. He dedicated the track to Ryan White, a teenager who died after being infected with AIDS through a tainted blood treatment. He released the song in White’s memory in 1993, three years after his death.
40. Mama’s Pearl
Mama’s Pearl was one of a series of top hits released by The Jackson 5 at the beginning of the 1970s. It featured Jackson as the main vocalist, though at the time of the 1971 recording, he was only 12 years old. The track originally had a more provocative title and subject, but it was changed because of his age.
41. Smooth Criminal
Jackson’s 1987 song Smooth Criminal is widely regarded by music critics as one of the best tracks of his career. In addition to its commercial popularity, the accompanying music video became iconic; it featured him wearing a white suit and fedora and performing his famous “anti-gravity lean.” The song’s iconic repeated line “Annie, are you okay? Are you okay, Annie?” was inspired by CPR training and the universally-used dummy known as Resusci Anne.
42. You Are Not Alone
Jackson opened up in his later years about his feelings of loneliness and isolation. The 1995 song You Are Not Alone drew on these feelings. The track was a collaboration with R. Kelly and broke records as the first song to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Though it received mixed reviews from critics, it was a massive commercial success and became his last number-one single before his death in 2009.
43. The Girl Is Mine
Jackson collaborated with Paul McCartney several times, but the 1982 duet The Girl Is Mine is by far the most iconic. The song was a massive hit, reaching number one on the R&B charts and number two on the Billboard Hot 100. He was inspired to write the track in the middle of the night; he greatly enjoyed collaborating with McCartney, saying that recording this was the greatest time he ever had in the studio.
44. Will You Be There
Will You Be There was released in 1991 and was a success not just as a single but also as a part of the soundtrack of the movie, Free Willy. It was noted for being the longest single of Jackson’s career, with a runtime of nearly eight minutes. It has been called one of the best movie themes in history. The intro of the song includes a recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra.
45. Can You Feel It
The Jacksons’ career as a group was declining by the early 1980s, but they still released a number of great hits through the start of the decade. Can You Feel It featured lead vocals by both Jackson and Randy Jackson. While only a moderate success on the US mainstream charts, it was a hit on both the dance charts and in other countries around the world. The music video was highly popular and has been called one of the best music videos in history.
46. Burn This Disco Out
Burn This Disco Out was released on Jackson’s 1979 album Off The Wall. The album still included much of his early disco and funk musical inspiration. Though the song failed to chart, it remains one of the most remarkable tracks of his early solo career, featuring a highly danceable beat that had all of his typical infectious energy. It was praised as one of the last singles of the disco era—without losing any of the catchiness of the genre.
47. Remember The Time
Jackson released Remember The Time in 1992 as part of his exploration into the new style of jack swing. The song also showed him taking a break from his typical high-energy dance hits punctuated by his distinct vocalizations. Instead, it is a classic romantic ballad about thinking back on when you first fell in love with your significant other. The music video became highly popular on MTV, despite its almost nine-minute runtime.
ABC was released in 1970 when Jackson was still performing as part of The Jackson 5. The song, which replaced The Beatles’ Let It Be at the top of the charts, was noted for his skilled vocal performance. At the time of recording, he was only 12 years old. The song has been inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame.
49. Earth Song
Earth Song was one of Jackson’s many songs intended to draw attention to a social issue, in this case, environmentalism and animal welfare. Released in 1995, the track was noted for its unique instrumentalization, which incorporated elements of blues, gospel, rock, and opera. It was an international hit, receiving a Grammy nomination. It also incorporated themes from the Bible, such as being stewards of the earth.
50. Stranger In Moscow
Like many of his other hits of the 1990s, Stranger In Moscow was inspired by media speculations about Jackson’s personal life. The song allowed the singer to express his feelings of loneliness and isolation, depicting them as a person living under the watchful eye of the KGB. The music video showed him as one of six people, each one experiencing a uniquely lonely situation.
51. You Rock My World
Most of Jackson’s major hits were released in the 1980s and 1990s, but You Rock My World was an exception. The single, released in 2001, was the singer’s last Top 10 hit during his life—though he had other high-charting singles released posthumously. It was nominated for a Grammy Award, and the accompanying music video was noted for its similarity to his legendary music videos of the 1980s.
Jackson began releasing solo albums while he was still a member of The Jackson 5. Ben was the title track of his second solo album, released in 1972 when he was still a teenager. The single became his first number-one hit. It was also featured in the film of the same name, a thriller about a superintelligent rat army. His performance earned him a Golden Globe Award and a nomination for an Academy Award.
53. Man In The Mirror
Jackson released Man In The Mirror in 1988 as part of his album, Bad. The song incorporated elements from gospel music, with lyrics about challenging oneself to become a better person. It was a gentler contrast to most of his music at the time but was a significant hit, earning a Grammy nomination.
54. In The Closet
Jackson’s 1992 hit In The Closet used the phrase to describe, not a closeted queer person, but a secret heterosexual relationship. The song famously credited a “Mystery Girl” as providing female vocals. Rumors swirled about the woman’s identity—the track was initially intended to be a duet with Madonna—before she was revealed to be Princess Stephanie of Monaco.
55. Leave Me Alone
The 1990s saw Jackson become the constant fixation of tabloids, which depicted him as wild or even unstable. The singer found these rumors extremely distressing. Leave Me Alone was an expression of his frustration, an aggressive hard rock song that marked a darker, more intense sound than he usually explored.
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