Came up with this far too late to place it elsewhere, so it's going on my blog instead. Today would have been (should have been) Michael's 60th birthday. It's crazy he's already been dead for almost 10 years.
Michael's image has been much in the press recently, with an exhibition opening at the NPG in London, and the less-than-salubrious side of his story unfortunately never far from people's minds, so I thought I'd do my bit to put the focus back on his music.
Michael was just as prolific as Prince, but a vicious perfectionist who only released a tenth of what he produced to the public. Some fans respect his wishes; I, a fellow perfectionist, do not.
Add to that the fact his music was increasingly overshadowed by scandal and his weird behaviour, which seemed cute in the 80s (chimps! bathing in Perrier water! oxygen chamber! Elephant Man's bones!) but seemed to take a decidedly darker turn in the 90s. To my mind, the biggest misconception of all is that musically Michael went off the boil.
This is how I imagine Michael's career goes for most people: first "ABC" and "I Want You Back", and some other stuff like "Blame it on the Boogie" with his brothers, then "Rock With You", "Thriller" and "Billie Jean", maybe "The Way You Make Me Feel" and "Smooth Criminal" if you’re young enough, followed by… meh. Right?
That “meh” covers about 20 years, and albums like Dangerous, HIStory and Invincible, which didn’t sell by the megatonne like Thriller did, and were more involved, too long, and lacked Quincy Jones's pruning shears.
But they were still GREAT, hiding phenomenal songs among more experimental music, that sought to fuse R&B and rock with classical sound scapes. More to the point, they stretch back to sounds and themes that Michael had been working on since the first song he penned aged 16, and can be found in his more famous tracks like "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" and "Billie Jean".
So here's 60 great but lesser-known tracks by Michael, to celebrate what would have been his sixtieth year. I hope some, if not all, are new to you.
1 - 20 | 21 - 40 | 41 - 60 >>>
1. "Who's Loving You" (1969)
Okay, so there's the jokey bit at the start about a love story that started "during fingerpainting" at school. This was, after all, many people's introduction to the Jackson 5, a family band from Gary, Indiana who ranged in ages from 11 to 18 at the time. But Michael's vocals conveyed emotions that suggested a man four times his age. The man who wrote it, Smokey Robinson, thought little Michael had done a better job than he had on the 1960 original.
2. "Got to Be There" (1971)
Motown founder Berry Gordy quickly cottoned on to the fact that not only did he have a phenomenally successful band on his hands, with number one hits such as "I Want You Back", "ABC", "I'll Be There" and "Never Can Say Goodbye", but he also had the ace card: Michael Jackson. This lesser known song was his first solo single.
3. "Maybe Tomorrow" (1971)
This early track by the brothers was the title track of their fifth album in three years. That's five albums (six if you include Michael's solo effort), in under three years. It went on to get the ultimate accolade in 1987: a cover by British reggae band UB40.
4. "Music and Me" (1973)
I heard this song first on Moonwalker, Michael's brilliant and not-at-all obviously-written-by-him film about, well, Michael, as he saved kids from an evil drug-dealing kingpin played by Joe Pesci. Anyway. I digress. Early on in the film, after the sound of a barrage of news reports, "Music and Me" played over shots of Michael's dressing table, which was covered with memorabilia and photos from his youth. Sob.
5. "Dancing Machine" (1974)
Notable really as the first J5 song that really captured Michael's imagination, and had him come out front, away from the tame choreography with his brothers, and try out some moves of his own. The "robot" he performed on Soul Train was a sign of what was to come: not only did it become a dance craze, but the track heralded a new, funky direction for the Jacksons' music.
6. "We're Almost There" (1975)
Seventeen years old. New voice. New moves. If you watch and listen closely you can actually feel Michael straining at the leash with this song. Written by the Holland brothers, it was the first single off Michael's last solo album on Motown: later this year, he would leave the label that had given him and his brothers their break, and sign with Epic Records, becoming The plain old Jacksons in the process. Among the things offered to them by their new contract was the chance to write his own songs. We're almost there, indeed. It's unbearably poignant: in the days following Michael's death, it was the song out of Michael's entire catalogue that Brooklyn legend DJ Spinna chose to remix.
7. "Blues Away" (1976)
The first song written and published under Michael's name was this breezy number from the The Jacksons album, the brothers' first on Epic Records. Fall for the lovely swirl of strings though, and you'll miss the song's message: you can be my girl, but don't ever try to cheer me up. Michael clung to his blues for dear life throughout his career, and was already remarkably clear-eyed about it aged just 17.
8. "Different Kind of Lady" (1977)
The lead track from the Jacksons' Goin' Places album, it shows the brothers stepping more decisively into disco, to go "girl shopping", and gave them the confidence to write a whole album.
9. "Ease on Down The Road" (1978)
Included mainly because sometime I think people don't believe me when I say Michael played the Scarecrow in The Wiz, a black musical version of The Wizard of Oz in 1978. And yes, that's Diana Ross as Dorothy. The most notable thing about the production, though, is it's where Michael met Quincy Jones, the film's musical director. Quincy was so impressed by 19-year-old Michael he offered to produce his next solo album.
10. "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)" (1978)
Written by Michael and his brother Randy, this track is among those credited with ushering in the 12" single. The original track on the Destiny album is pretty lengthy, but I'm a fan, so I'm including the even longer version Michael performed in Yokohama in 1987 on his Bad tour, because at 03:57 it includes an insane seven-minute dance breakdown that sees Michael do a sideways moonwalk, break briefly into "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough", trade "hoos" and "hees" with the audience, urge them to shake their "mighty boh-dee", and launch into a move he calls "shovelling the funk". With, like, a shovel. Just watch it.
11. "That's What You Get (For Being Polite)" (1978)
A strange song this, about a boy called "Jack". According to the lyrics, "He tries so hard to get a lot / He wants to be what he is not / He doesn't act harsh / He doesn't act bad / But what he's doin' for love is so sad / (He wants to be so bad) / (He wants to be so bad)." Three guesses who "Jack" is.
12. "Push Me Away" (1978)
If you do anything after reading this, then buy a copy of Destiny (or whatever it is people do with albums nowadays). It's the best Jacksons album by far, and an early indicator what Michael had in store for us with Off the Wall. "Blame It On the Boogie" is its most famous track, and oddly the only one not written by the brothers (written instead by a British guy called, I kid you not, Mick Jackson). Their songs, in contrast, were remarkably mature and assured, and this track in particular.
13. "I Can't Help It" (1979)
This beautiful track from Off the Wall is overshadowed by "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You" and the like, but it was written by Stevie Wonder. Nuff said.
14. "Lovely One" (1980)
Triumph is the other Jacksons album you really should dig out. Famous for the tracks "Can You Feel It?" and... er, that's it, it's another brilliant album in the Off the Wall sandwich, where Off the Wall (1979) is the delicious filling, and Destiny (1978) and Triumph (1980) are... doesn't matter. Michael performed this one well into the 1980s.
15. "This Place Hotel" (1980)
The first of Michael's songs (that I can think of, anyway) with a spooky theme. It starts with a bloodcurdling shriek (his sister LaToya's) and goes on to tell a story about a deserted hotel full of women from the singer's past. Look, I'm not going to go into the imagery here, or what it says about Michael, but safe to say it was a theme that concerned him throughout his life. It was named "This Place Hotel" to avoid any comparison with Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel", which sounds absolutely nothing like it. Not much does.
16. "Walk Right Now" (1980)
Stevie Wonder's musical director Nathan Watts is on bass for this funky track and final single from Triumph. Three brothers are listed as writers, but this is classic MJ - an unbearably infectious bass line topped by a fearful, indecisive melody as a man keeps threatening his wayward lover that he'll walk away forever, but never quite managing it.
17. "Love Never Felt So Good" (1980)
There's a chance you've heard this, as Sony decided to release it "updated" with Justin Timberlake a few years ago, to some... consternation. In typical fan fnarr mode, I'm going to say the original is better.
18. "Got the Hots" (1981)
Unsurprisingly for the biggest selling album in the world ever (take that, The Eagles), the offcuts are better than some actual contemporary hits. This one, for instance, could easily be the best song on an album of the time, but ended up on the Thriller cutting room floor. Michael and Quincy are credited as writers of this version; in 1988 Siedah Garret recorded it for her album Kiss of Life, with "Thriller" and "Rock with You" writer Rod Temperton listed too, which sounds right to me.
19. "Nite Line" (1982)
Another Thriller offcut. Another banger. If you can find a song that sounds more like the soundtrack to a 1980s film starring Dolly Parton and maybe Tom Selleck, then I'd like to hear it.
20. "Beat It" (1982)
OBVIOUSLY you've heard "Beat It" - you're not an animal - but Michael's home demo offers something special. Michael couldn't write or read music, nor play an instrument to any great degree (though he's variously credited with drums and guitars here and there over his career). So when he wrote a song, he sang it into a voice recorder, and not just the melody either, but every part of the song and every instrument. Many musicians who worked with him attest to this ability, but this demo shows it in action.