It’s been almost a week now since the greatest pure entertainer of the last – what, 30 at least? 40? – years died of causes which, frankly, don’t matter. The point is that Michael Jackson is gone. But the silver lining is that it seems like the entire world is rediscovering his mastery of the pop and R&B idioms. Fading away surprisingly quickly is all the public hysteria over his weirdness and pecadillos, and the focus has come soundly down on his music, as it should be. Not just the 13 #1 pop singles, not just the 13 #1 R&B singles, not just the never-before 7 top 10s from one album (Thriller) or the never-before or since 5 #1s from another (Bad) – there’s so damned much to his catalog. In that spirit, let me present to you 10 great MJ (and Jacksons) tracks that you may not be familiar with, but should be. In no particular order. All are solo MJ cuts unless otherwise noted.
“Can’t Let Her Get Away” (Dangerous, 1991): An incredibly hard New Jack’d cut helmed by (whaddaya know) Teddy Riley ( who was behind the boards for about half of Dangerous), this is, like the best New Jack Swing, simultaneously tough and melodic. Jacko and TR was a great collabo, and this was the finest fruit of their labor. Indianapolis’ heritage R&B station, WTLC, played the hell out of this as an album cut, and thank goodness they did, or I might’ve even missed it.
“Burn This Disco Out” (Off the Wall, 1979): Joyous, utterly buoyant, and while it may be of disco, it comes off more as deliciously meaty funk than anything. It’s not a surprise to learn that this was originally slated for a Brothers Johnson record, ’cause it’s got their sonic signature. Michael sings the hell out of a marvelously celebratory lyric.
“It’s the Falling in Love” (Off the Wall, 1979): This lovely, airy duet with Siedah Garrett – a full 8 years before “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” was released – totally gets what one angle of love is all about. This could’ve been on Thriller it’s so good, and so kinda-timeless.
“The Lady in My Life” (Thriller, 1982): Of Thriller‘s 9 tracks, 7 were singles, so it’s all the more shocking to realize how great this album cut is. This mid-tempo Rod Temperton composition features supple playing from a couple of the Toto guys, along with a poppin’ bassline from Louis Johnson (cf. the Brothers Johnson), and another gorgeous vocal from MJ, helped out by the gorgeous arrangement by Temperton. Sometimes, pros are the best way to go… (Sampled prominently in LL Cool J’s 1995 hit “Hey Lover.”)
“Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin’ (Too Good To Be True),” Jermaine Jackson and Michael Jackson (Jermaine Jackson, 1984): Easily the finest moment produced by Michael Omartian, the poor man’s Narada Michael Walden (that should be taken as the insult it’s meant as), this proves that sometimes even hacks get it right. Presumably Clive Davis told his new signee Jermaine “why don’t’cha get that brother of yours to help out?” – and he did, giving Jermaine one his biggest crossover moments in the process. Ironically, Epic wouldn’t allow Arista to release this as a proper single, so even though it peaked at #6 on pop radio, it never graced a Billboard chart, apart from Dance Club Play (where it reigned for 3 weeks). This propulsive cut, heavily synthed but with a light touch, spotlights both brothers and has aged excruciatingly well.
“Blame It on the Boogie,” The Jacksons (Destiny, 1978): This Michael-led cut hit #3 on the R&B chart, true, but only scraped to #54 pop, and deserved better; its rather pedestrian verses are saved by a creamy, harmony-laden chorus (and some delicious horn charts). One of Michael’s loosest vocals, too.
“One More Chance (Paul Oakenfold Mix)” (original version on Number Ones, remix on “One More Chance” single, 2003): This track, tacked onto the Number Ones compilation in a highly optimistic move, is a somewhat blah R. Kelly mid-tempo soul cut in its original version. Shockingly it’s craptastic trance DJ Oakenfold who unearths the chewy pop center underneath, making this roughly the pop equivalent of meringue.
“This Place Hotel,” The Jacksons (Triumph, 1980): After Off the Wall turned Michael into a massive solo artist, he reconvened with his brothers for the follow-up to Destiny, with far grander results. Four singles were spun off this, including the enduring classic “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” but this was actually the biggest hit on the R&B charts, spending a full 5 weeks at #2 (while charting a mere #22 pop). A somewhat epic, mildly grandiose song showcasing Michael’s flair for the not only dramatic but cinematic, this was originally titled “Heartbreak Hotel” but later retitled to avoid confusion with Elvis’s classic of the same name. It’s meant to be a slightly foreboding tale of the evils that (some) women do. Preach, preacher! It’s also meant to be a tight, funky R&B cut, and on that level it succeeds like a mother.
“Blood on the Dance Floor (TM’s Switchblade Mix)” (original version on Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix, remix on “Blood on the Dance Floor” single, 1997): Recasting MJ as a dance icon in the mid-’90s actually worked much better than you likely realize, unless you spent a lot of time in pop-leaning clubs during that time – or are European. Blood on the Dance Floor, mostly full of remixes of songs from the HIStory project, was massive all over Europe, while American audiences turned largely a blind ear. Our loss, as evidenced best by this taut house mix by Tony Moran of the album’s title cut. Its mood fits the lyrics’ severe paranoia, yet still works expertly as a floorfiller.
“Leave Me Alone” (Bad, 1987): Originally only available on CD pressings of Bad but later exposed to a larger audience thanks to its cheeky, all too clever video (Michael as an amusement park!), this well-muscled funk-pop number deals with the tabloids’ obsession with MJ with, frankly, flair and panache. It’s also one of the perkiest things on Bad, and deserved far better than being a tacked-on bonus track – this could’ve been a #1 record.