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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Jochan Embley,Jessie Thompson,David Ellis,Zoe Paskett,Harry Fletcher and Lizzie Thomson

From Thriller to Bad, Michael Jackson's 15 greatest songs on the London debut of MJ The Musical

There's good reason Michael Jackson was crowned the King of Pop.

He was a true musical icon. The expression is often overused, but in terms of Jackson’s music, it was entirely deserved. His songs, his fashion, and his dance moves all had an unparalleled influence on pop.

For at least a decade-and-a-half, he dominated the airwaves: the albums he released from 1979 to 1995 – starting with the disco-tinged masterpiece of Off The Wall and ending with the 30-song behemoth HIStory – are all among the highest-selling albums of all time.

But of course his career was mired by disturbing allegations, and accusations of child molestation, the first of which was made against the singer in 1993 and settled out of court. And, after the release of the tremendously upsetting 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland, listening to Jackson’s music was complicated further.

Which is why MJ: The Musical, which opens in London tonight after wowing US audiences on Broadway, has been splitting theatre fans. “It's not OK to see the Michael Jackson musical in London, it's abhorrent,” said the Standard’s Anna van Praagh.

Others have found ways to separate the art from the artist: 1.1 million people went to see it in the US.

The musical, which follows the making of Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous World Tour, has won four Tony Awards, been written by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage, and has been directed and choreographed by Royal Ballet Associate Artist Christopher Wheeldon.

On the eve of the musical’s opening, we’ve put together a rundown of Jackson’s greatest-ever tracks, many of which appear in the musicial. We haven’t included any of his work from the Jackson 5 years – they surely deserve their own list – and have instead focused on the solo songs, from the earth-shaking ballads to the perennial dancefloor fillers.

15. The Way You Make Me Feel (1987)

A masterclass from producer Quincy Jones (the first of many on this list), the glossy RnB of The Way You Make Me Feel fully cemented the commercial success of Jackson’s 1987 album Bad. While the track doesn’t necessarily feature the most compelling chord progression or compulsive melody in Jackson’s back catalogue, Jones adds a vivacity that few else could. A great, stonking bass line and a drum sound more Eighties than Molly Ringwald holding a Rubik’s cube gave the track an unmistakable swagger and helped make it one of Jackson’s most enduring hits. HF

14. Leave Me Alone (1989)

Misanthropy has rarely sounded so catchy. For us mere mortals, Jackson’s angry battle cry to “leave me ALONE” covered all manner of sins (room tidying, homework completion), but the King of Pop was specifically fulminating against the press.

13. Bad (1987)

As the title song of his seventh album, Bad sharpened a new edge to Jackson’s music. Inspired by the story of a young boy’s attempt to escape poverty by attending a private boarding school, only to be killed when he returned home, Jackson originally wrote Bad to be a duet with Prince. While Prince passed on the collaboration, he reportedly said he knew it would be a hit without his input. With a West Side Story-esque short film as the video, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring a then-unknown Wesley Snipes, Prince was proved very much right. Musically, Jackson had far brighter moments, but the cinematic fanfare that surrounded it, symptomatic of his absolute stardom, marks it as one of his most iconic moments. ZP

12. They Don’t Really Care About Us (1996)

As someone who meant so many different things to so many different people, MJ was always going to be political. But it wasn’t until the mid-Nineties that his music became explicitly so. While Earth Song in its full duration is probably only enjoyed by climate change activists, the clattering drumbeat and eerie choir on They Don’t Really Care About Us made this one catchy diatribe.

“You know I do really hate to say it/ The government don’t want to see,” he snarled, before shouting out FDR and Martin Luther King. It was used as an anthem during the 2015 Black Lives Matter protests, indicating its lasting impact. JT

11. Black or White (1991)

The Nineties saw a definite shift in the pop music landscape. Following on the synth-driven sounds or the Eighties, this new decade brought grunge and rap. Rising to the occasion, MJ brought this banger. The song is composed and arranged by Jackson himself, but the rap lyrics are by Bill Bottrell. The song also has a powerful message for its time — he won’t be defined by race or background. In many ways its ahead of its time, both musically and culturally. Plus, it’s a absolute feel-good banger, one that will compel anyone to jump up and dance. LT

10. Rock With You (1979)

Rock With You is pure seduction, a lustrous piece of soulful disco that is as much a call to the dancefloor as it is to the bedroom. The breathtaking bridge, first arriving just after the 40-second mark, is the song’s fleeting, undeniable highlight — the brief ascension makes way for a drumbeat, reducing the song down to its bare dance-ability. It soon gives way to the divine romance of the chorus, but those few seconds of bliss are what you rewind the song for. JE

9. Human Nature (1983)

Human Nature was a last minute addition to Thriller and came very close to not being included at all. The ballad interestingly contrasts between Jackson’s breathy and vulnerable vocals and the lyrics, which tell of a man going out in search of a one night stand. It was actually written by Steve Porcaro from Toto (there are undoubtedly hints of the yacht-rock group’s biggest hit Africa in there), who sent in some ideas for the album. An unfinished version of Human Nature happened to be on the other side of the cassette and Jones snapped it up. Thank goodness for that — it’s a funky slow dance, doused in synths and gloriously smooth. ZP

8. Thriller (1983)

This was one of the seven top-10 singles from the the mega-selling Thriller album, a release which went 33-times platinum. Musically, this song’s conception was a swift one. It was written by English disco pioneer Rod Temperton in a taxi on the way to the studio and only took two takes to commit to tape. Still, the actual song is eclipsed by the enduring iconography of the video. It’s slightly shorter than the Bad film – just 13 minutes this time – but there are so many still-relevant pieces of pop culture here: the dancing undead, the overblown spookiness that's inspired countless Halloween parties and, of course, that red suit. JE

7. Smooth Criminal (1988)

Two words: that lean. MJ’s gravity-defying tilt in this video is iconic. But not only that: the flicks of the crisp white blazer, the toe points, the smooth, seductive brushes of the hat — it’s a choreographed work of art. Video aside, the song is outrageously catchy, especially the obsessive repetition of “Annie are you OK?”. It's another example of Jackson proving that pop music videos don’t need to be cheesy – they can be incredibly artistic and wonderfully theatrical instead. LT

6. Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough (1979)

Jackson wasn’t given full creative control until 1979, but he proved himself more than capable from the off with this cut of glittering disco. The entire thing is driven by one incessant lyric that is heard in the guitars, the horns and the singing itself. Jackon’s performance is all falsetto, complete with o-hos and hiccups galore, but it’s the intricate, knotted guitar lines that chatter underneath it all which really get things going; that is, until the brass fires out a counter-rhythm that lifts the song and carries it into the six-minute mark. The song was proof Jackson was grown: in the video, dressed for prom night, this was his graduation: gone was the sweet child, replaced by a powerhouse of pop-funk. DE

5. P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) (1983)

Light and shade: contrast is everything. The opening few seconds, complete with a shudder-inducing voiceover, are quiet, calm – then comes the bassline, a strutting piece of funk with its top lip curled. It’s faster than most of his other tracks and absurdly danceable: that Jackson never performed it live is a true shame – we can only imagine him spinning and moonwalking to it. It’s a song that layers and layers: by the end, when the chipmunk backing vocals kick in, they’re just another one of countless rhythms stacked up against each other. It’s flawless, but he didn’t sacrifice any soul. DE

4. Billie Jean (1983)

Billie Jean is all about the inexorably groovy bassline, played by legendary session musician Louis Johnson, which drives the track along and helps make it one of pop’s ultimate dancefloor-fillers – sure to be a regular fixture at weddings, birthday parties and bar mitzvahs until the end of time. It’s just one of the production masterstrokes from Quincy Jones on the song, which marks one of his slickest collaboration with Jackson. Song aside, take a minute to watch the music video again if you can – while the clip was synonymous with the success of MTV in the Eighties, it seems surprisingly low-budget, featuring a bizarre sequence showing the transformation of a homeless man and various shots of cats jumping around by bins. Still, this is one of Jackson's all-time great songs, and has to be considered among the finest of the decade. HF

3. Man in the Mirror (1988)

The fourth single from Bad, this is another Quincy Jones production marvel, a song that shape-shifts throughout but loses none of its essential essence. The opening is one of saccharine balladry, with descending synths that wouldn’t sound too out of place in a Christmas film, before moving into the world gospel and finishing with woozy, late-night drive of an outro. It’s the kind of song that could quite reasonably wrap up around the three-minute mark and sounds as if it might – but it doesn’t. The thematic effect of the key change – the one that hits like a punch to the stomach at 2:50 – is obvious in the context of the song, and transforms Man in the Mirror from very good to truly great. JE

2. Beat It (1982)

In the music video for Beat It, MJ tries to solve a gang war with the power of music and dance. Thank goodness he never ran for office. That aside, this thundering tune is a reminder of how unstoppable MJ was at the height of his powers. As the third single from his non-stop banger-fest Thriller, it’s a solid gold slice of brash pop. The riff is untouchable, the snares sound like a cracking whip, and Eddie Van Halen's guitar solo is an absolute face-melter. It was Jackson at his absolute boldest. JT

1. Wanna be Startin’ Somethin’ (1983)

Jackson was always at his best when he was grooving. His catalogue is hardly lacking for timeless dance tracks, but none pulled its listeners towards to beneath the disco ball quite as strongly as this, the opening track off Thriller. It’s a propulsive clash of hyperactivity – the clattering drumbeats, relentlessly funky bassline and bubble-popping vocals all have an irresistible gravity to them. The musical influence here is global – there are cuica drums from Brazil, the iconic “mama-say, mama-sa, ma-makossa” is taken directly Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango, and, of course, there is clear inspiration drawn from his own country’s disco era – but it’s crafted into something undeniably Jacko. It was a statement of intent, not just for the rest of Thriller, but for a career of pop music supremacy. JE

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