The Associated Press predicted Monday night it would likely be the biggest and most spectacular memorial for a public figure — bigger than Elvis, bigger than Diana, bigger than Marilyn — in the history of the free world, and having been glued to the coverage of Michael Jackson’s farewell service all damn day last Tuesday, surfing aimlessly across all the channels broadcasting the exact same action, I can scarcely imagine a more true statement.


Except to say that I found the overall presentation to be incredibly moving — and, when you consider the whole thing was thrown together on something like 48 hours notice, stunningly smooth — and that Miss Mariah would almost certainly have benefited from an extra hour of rehearsal time, and that the choice to finally cut his hair is the best creative choice John Mayer has made in eons, I haven’t much pertinent commentary to add to the growing list of funeral post-mortems. As I indicated in my initial Buzz eulogy, Michael’s music is strong enough to forever speak for itself, and, notwithstanding Al Sharpton’s pompous proselytizing, it by and large did on Tuesday.


Trying to cherry pick a few quote-unquote “essential” tracks from Michael’s vast catalog of indisputably great output may seem like sheer folly. In the hours following his death, I asked Sherry Ann to give me her top ten Jackson tracks, and I was dumbstruck by what she returned to me: an absolutely brilliant list of ten astonishingly terrific songs, not more than half of which appear on my own list. (Is it conceivable to believe that you could ask ten people for their ten favorite Michael tunes and not have a single match across any of the lists?)


Most artists are damn lucky to land one signature song across their careers; Jackson had no fewer than ten before he reached the age of thirty. What follows, simply, is one man’s remembrance of some of the most staggering music of our time.


1.  “Billie Jean”Michael Jackson (from Thriller) — Michael Jackson - Thriller - Billie Jean — of the myriad qualities that made Thriller such a remarkable piece of music, the two most crucial, at least to my eye, are these: 1) The album coalesces beautifully into a pristine pop chronicle wholly in spite of the fact that not one of its nine tracks sounds anything remotely like any other; and 2) Unlike most multiplatinum material which reaches outright gaudy levels of units sold, this was not a lowest-common-denominator production, and was in actual fact something mighty close to edgy. That an entire nation of nine-year olds grew up lip synching the lyrics “Billie Jean / is not my lover” without horrifying their respective parents is as stunning and powerful a testament to the universality of great music as anything I could ever conjure.

2.  “Human Nature”Michael Jackson (from Thriller) — Michael Jackson - Thriller (25th Anniversary, Zombie Cover) - Human Nature — because Jackson’s catalog in general (and Thriller in particular) contains so many fascinating and, um, thrilling musical moments, this track too often gets lost in the shuffle when the time comes to compile the retrospectives. A shame, that: even though its heavy synth production feels atypically dated when compared to almost all of the album’s other tunes, Jackson’s heart-rending vocal makes it soar all the same.

3.  “State of Shock”The Jacksons (featuring Mick Jagger) (from Victory) — The Jacksons - Victory - State of Shock — by 1984, Jackson fever was running at such an astonishing clip that, literally, everything the man touched seemed divinely blessed. To wit, from that year: Rockwell’s insipid “Somebody’s Watching Me” became a smash when Jackson was coerced into singing the song’s goofy chorus; “Farewell My Summer Love,” a “lost” Jackson track from the early ’70s, emerged from the Motown vaults and became a sensation riding across a Top 40 radio landscape desperate to keep that precious Thriller momentum going full tilt boogie; and the Jackson brothers strongarmed Michael into reuniting with them, resulting in this, their biggest hit in a decade. And twenty-five years later, “Shock” is still a ridiculously fun listen.

4.  “The Way You Make Me Feel” Michael Jackson (from Bad) — Michael Jackson - Bad - The Way You Make Me Feel — the whole world waited with bated breath to see how Jackson was going to properly follow up Thriller, which, by 1988, had become the biggest-selling album in music history. The inescapable fact that he was never going to be able to match his previous zenith seemed to allow Michael the freedom to just play. The result: Thriller‘s balladry grew more syrupy (witness “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” the middling duet with the ravishing Siedah Garrett), and its rough-edged rock grew markedly darker (see “Smooth Criminal,” if not number six below), and its pop hues grew much friskier and more daringly unconventional, as on this positively perfect smash, which found Michael successfully reaching for a more sophisticated and urban feel.

5.  “Man in the Mirror” Michael Jackson (from Bad) — Michael Jackson - Bad - Man In the Mirror — it straddled the painfully fine line between transcendent and treacly, but it did so brilliantly. Co-written by the aforementioned Garrett and a pre-Alanis Glen Ballard, this was the song that forever established Jackson as one of the planet’s premier humanitarians, and unlike most of his subsequent attempts to mine ore from that vein, it also neatly doubles as one hell of a sing-along pop tune. Some two decades hence, it’s still masterful.

6.  “Dirty Diana”Michael Jackson (from Bad) — Michael Jackson - Bad - Dirty Diana — a slickly sticky thunderbolt about an obsessed groupie who would go to any length to nab the helpless man on whom she has set her sights, this 1988 smash blew the minds of everyone who had forgotten the lesson of “Beat It” five years earlier — namely, that Michael was every bit as much rock star as soul man.

7.  “Black or White”Michael Jackson (from Dangerous) — Michael Jackson - Dangerous - Black or White — because Michael’s skin tone appeared to be becoming markedly lighter as the years wore on, it was difficult to decipher if he was being slyly cheeky or straight-up serious with these lyrics. Almost twenty years after the fact, I still couldn’t tell you for sure.

8.  “Give In to Me”Michael Jackson (from Dangerous) — Michael Jackson - Dangerous - Give In to Me — buoyed by awesomely crunchy guitar work from legendary Guns ‘n Roses ax man Slash, a surprisingly gritty exploration of lust. I’m telling you, for a man who never seemed to have a genuine grasp on the ways and means of his own sexuality in life, he sure knew how to fake it magnificently in song.

9.  “Will You Be There”Michael Jackson (from Dangerous) — Michael Jackson - Dangerous - Will You Be There — not quite the clarion call to action that number five above was five years earlier — whereas “Man in the Mirror” placed Michael firmly in the driver’s seat, “There” (whose inclusion on the soundtrack of the surprise smash film Free Willy sent it skyrocketing up the charts) depicts him as a bit of an earnest victim — I dare you not to feel something — rage, sorrow, anything — every time he pleads, “I’m only human.”

10. “Scream”Michael and Janet Jackson (from HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book 1) — Michael Jackson - History: Past, Present and Future, Book 1 - Scream — the first-ever one-on-one collaboration between the white-hot superstar siblings certainly didn’t disappoint: having survived his first brush with the law over charges of child molestation, Jackson’s lyrical content had become remarkably heavy-handed, but his overall sound had evolved toward something thrillingly dynamic, as though he innately understood that he was going to have to incorporate into his oeuvre flashes of the musical flavors of the day — grunge, techno, rap — in order to stay competitive. (And don’t undervalue the man’s sharply keen eye for the visual: I dare say this track’s starkly crisp video still won’t look retrograde fifty years from now.)

11.  “Earth Song”Michael Jackson (from HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book 1) — Michael Jackson - History: Past, Present and Future, Book 1 - Earth Song — by the mid-’90s, Jackson was finding it harder and harder not to go flying right over the top with all of his vocal tics, but there were times — as here, especially during this song’s magnetic back half, with that orgasmic, crushing climax, the likes of which nobody currently crafting pop music has the balls to attempt anymore — when he could rein them all in to something that was entirely fascinating to behold. An utterly mesmerizing sonic storm.

12. “Blood on the Dance Floor”Michael Jackson (from Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix) — Michael Jackson - Blood On the Dance Floor / History In the Mix - Blood On the Dance Floor — from a tepidly received collection of remixes of the new material from HIStory (including the stunning Hani Club Mix of number 11 above) came this underappreciated four-on-the-floor gem. Ultimately, is it number 6 above, only driven by a bouncier beat? No question. But it also proved that Michael was still capable of delivering some flat-out triumphant pop.



2 responses to “i had to tell ’em i ain’t second to none
(or: mission accomplished, michael)”

  1. the buzz from A.:

    Two and a half months — that’s how long it has taken me to respond to the Michael Jackson playlist. Perhaps the best way to explain why is via an analogy: Michael Jackson is to me like Verdi is to Brandon. (That is, while I realize and even vaguely sense that Michael Jackson is brilliant, I can’t seem to enjoy his music (despite numerous efforts). Attribute that to that 1980s gap in my “pop music growing-up”…) Still, in the tradition of my responses on the Buzz, I did buy a song: “Billie Jean.”

  2. the buzz from brandon:

    Well, if you’re going to own just one Michael Jackson track, “Billie Jean” is probably the one you need. I still can’t believe it took you almost three months to reach that conclusion, A, but I love you anyway!