From enlisting Eddie Van Halen for a guitar solo to borrowing the refrain “Mama-se, mama-sa, mama-coo-sa” from a Cameroonian saxophonist, Michael Jackson's very best songs drew from influences far and wide. In remembrance of him on his fifth death anniversary (June 25), Here are the top ten examples of the musical genius of the King of Pop.
6. Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough (1979)
This was the first song Jackson had full creative control over as a singer and songwriter, and it proved he was more than just a sweet kid. “Don't Stop” came out squarely at the end of the disco era, and yet it's so filled with energy and instruments — trumpet, flugelhorn, electric piano — that it doesn't sound the least bit dated.
5. Never Can Say Goodbye (1971)
At 12, Michael's voice is noticeably deeper than on earlier Jackson 5 songs — and deeper than on a lot of his later solo stuff too. In the verse, he ramps up the emotion gradually, easing his way up the scale until he bursts into the chorus, hitting all the high notes with astounding clarity.
4. Billie Jean (1983)
Based on a real-life incident in which a woman accused Jackson of fathering her twins, the song almost didn't make it onto “Thriller” because Quincy Jones hated the bass line. Thumping and fraught, it feels like the soundtrack to a late-night walk through a bad neighbourhood. It successfully makes Jackson sound dangerous, which is no small feat.
3. I Want You Back (1969)
The effortlessness with which Jackson fuses the influence of Sly Stone and James Brown with his own innocent yelping is part of the appeal, but the whole song flies by with a whimsy and sweetness that was Jackson's calling card well into his mid-20s. Only a person with the hardest of hearts could hear the chord progression of the Jackson 5's greatest song and not get up and dance.
2. Man in the Mirror (1988)
Beyond offering a fleeting glimpse of autobiography (“I'm starting with the man in the mirror/ I'm asking him to change his ways”), it's one of Jackson's most powerful vocals and accessible social statements, not to mention the best-ever use of a gospel choir in a pop song.
1. Beat It (1983)
Jackson never got much credit for being a pioneer, but his melding of rock and R&B preceded the meeting of Run-DMC and Aerosmith by years. Besides featuring one of the best guitar solos in pop history (provided free of charge by Eddie Van Halen) it's the best example of Jackson's ability to bridge moods and genres. It's tense and spooky, it rocks, and yet you can't help but to dance to it. It's Jackson's best.