Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Michael Jackson: A Selective Look At His Discography

Last week, we lost one of the biggest icons the music world has ever seen. Michael Jackson's discography is one of the most universally loved and trying to choose one simple favorite song can be difficult and is not easily debatable. I've always felt that the mark of a great artist is when they can have their lesser-known works stand up in quality to some of their biggest hits. Jackson was no different. For every "Beat It" or "Thriller," there is an amazing album track or single that didn't quite storm the charts as expected with most MJ songs. Or even some songs that we've simply forgotten due to the multitude of massive hits he's had. This is a selection of some of my personal favorite Michael Jackson songs and moments.

"Who's Lovin' You?" (1969) - You know how when kids usually cover songs originally recorded by adults, the song pretty much loses any hint of maturity that was initially found? When Michael belts out the first verse to this Smokey Robinson tune, the bluesy delivery is so forceful that it doesn't even bother that a kid so young could easily convey such a strong emotion that comes with experience.

"Never Can Say Goodbye" (1971) - In a way, I think that The Jackson 5 are underrated. Yes, they're one of Motown's most beloved groups, but outside of "ABC" and "I Want You Back," the average person today might be hard pressed to come up with any other songs they've done. While the two aformentioned songs are worthy of their place in our pop culture canon, The Jackson 5's singles list is loaded with even more gems. "Never Can Say Goodbye" is not solely Michael's show this time around. With production like that and top-notch songwriting from Clifton Davis of Amen! and That's My Mama fame, I'm pretty sure even I could have had a minor hit with this one, albeit with less than half the magic Michael brought to it. It's less cheery than what people have come to associate the Jackson 5's music with, but it's no less enjoyable.

"Maybe Tomorrow" (1971) - Ghostface Killah's 1996 hit "All That I Got Is You" made terrific use of the melancholy strings as basis for the sample, but it's only one element of "Maybe Tomorrow," which is more climatic with its key changes. This is also another one of the J5's more mature songs that has been seemingly kept alive by diehard fans but mostly forgotten in later generations. It's a contemplative young Michael that is rarely remembered and the perfect case for him being one of the best child song interpreters of all-time. He sounds 12 years old, but then he doesn't sound 12 years old.

"Got To Be There" (1971) - Taken from his debut solo album, "Got To Be There" is another classic example of Michael's already strong pipes at a young age. It's one of my favorite vocal performances by him, simply for the moment at the end of that first chorus. It's bombast usually reserved for a key change later in the song, typical of a bridge, but he comes out of the gate so quickly holding on to the phrase "beside me" with such power and a stunning siren-like tone that it's down right shocking to listen to, but in a good way.

"Blame It On The Boogie" (1978) - Now known as The Jacksons after moving to Epic, MJ and his brothers easily made the transition from bubblegum soul to disco with ecstatic floor burners like this. "Blame It On The Boogie" was one of the first hints of the fun-loving adult Michael that began his world conquest with Off The Wall, which had a similar sound of funk, disco and soul.

"That's What You Get For Being Polite" (1978) - When put in the context of Michael's troubles over the years, it's hard not to make a comparison between the character of Jack in the song and Michael himself. I'm not implying that they both share the same secret, but that they simply have the similar desire to be free and are trying to be something that they're not. It's a fine song on its own and would still be if Michael lived a regular life, but the feeling can't be shaken that Jack and Michael could easily be the same person, which is why it's been in steady rotation from me for the past five years.

"I Can't Help It" (1979) - The melody for "I Can't Help It" is so strong and sufficient that Michael never really needs to oversell the song. Goodness knows he had the pipes to, but to have done so here would have ruined the smooth, sensual vibe that's been set. Its restraint is its beauty.

"Off The Wall" (1979) - Some folks prefer Thriller and some prefer Off The Wall. The title track to the latter is a good example of probably why some prefer Off The Wall to Thriller. While Thriller is the blueprint for a pop masterpiece, it lacks the accessibility and humanity that Off The Wall had. On this song, Jackson is singing of leaving your "9 to 5 up on the shelf," a simple relatable theme that seems so far removed from the ground he covered in the 1990's. At this point, he felt like a regular person, not the deified superstar that he would eventually become.

"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" (1982) - Michael was pretty angry on this song, where he attacked gossipmongers and anyone else who had his baby cryin', and he only continued to get angrier with each successive album. At least here, there's still a slight element of fun with one of the most wicked grooves he's ever sang over and the Swahili chants at the end of the song. Probably one of his top three dance tracks.

"Dirty Diana" (1987) - If you've been listening to these songs in order like I have, you'll notice a big difference once you hit this one. Not only does the music have a harder edge than anything than Jackson had done till that point, but his vocals were equally rough. The same man who softly cooed "I Can't Help It" was now a convincing rock star. The ability to be able to switch so well between both styles was a part of what made Michael Jackson so special that is often overlooked.

"Remember The Time" (1991) - Aside from a few cuts on Invincible, I think that Dangerous was the last time MJ sounded legitmately modern and with the times. New jack swing was the hottest sound at the time and Michael was able to adapt without sounding desperate or alienating his fans in the process. It's one of his most fun tracks post-Thriller.

"Who Is It" (1991) - For the longest time, this was my favorite Michael Jackson song. It's incredibly eerie and unusually minimal for him. Gone was the splashy production and at the forefront was a pulsing dark beat that matched the paranoia and anguish Jackson conveyed. There has never been a question of whether Michael knew how to bare his soul. On record, just about any emotion was on display, but "Who Is It" takes you to a place that few stars of that magnitude are willing to take you.

"In The Closet" (1991) - Remember on "The Girl Is Mine" how Michael sounded so wimpy during the spoken interlude with Paul? You knew he wanted the doggone girl, but was he willing to fight for her? I think not, but on "In The Closet," he sounds ready to kick, scratch and claw for her, and also make fierce love to her afterwards. I never bought Michael as the paramour that the videos made him to be, but on record, he sounded like a man who wasn't hesitant. Once you get the images of the awkwardness between him and Naomi Campbell out of your head, this is actually a pretty sexy song.

"Scream" w/ Janet Jackson (1995) - I kinda like it when Michael's pissed. Not many singers can sound as angry as he can but still keep it in tune and make it melodic. In addition to Michael being so angry that I can barely make out the lyrics, it's one of his most uniquely arranged songs. The intro sounds like something Trent Reznor would have come up with, the verses are typical Michael angry rock and there's even a short tranquil breakdown with Janet that comes out of nowhere.

"Stranger In Moscow" (1995) - This is one of those songs I mentioned earlier where it may not have been popular upon release, but what I would consider among Jackson's best. It's one of the true finds in all of Michael's catalogue. Among all the dance tracks, the love ballads and the anthems lies the slow-building "Stranger In Moscow," another song that deals with paranoia and other dark themes.

"Butterflies" (2001) - Call it blasphemy, but I've come to the realization recently that this is my favorite Michael Jackson song. Yes, I like it better than anything off Thriller or Off The Wall. The vocal performance on "Butterflies" is simply like no other. It was written by Floetry, who sadly don't exist as a group any more, and that fresh contemporary perspective from someone else serves Michael so well here. It wasn't written with Michael in mind and we get him at one of his most human moments. Seriously, who's gonna make the King of Pop nervous? They're probably some of the strongest lyrics he's ever been given and the simple melody gave him ample room to work wonders with a high register that's unbelievable for an adult male. It's that undeniable love jones and Michael's everlasting ability to bring life to a song that makes "Butterflies" so special.

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