On Aug. 29, 1958, a man was born who would change the scope of music history forever. Michael Joseph Jackson was a paragon of artistry. He lived for the stage, lived for his craft. Every era of his life was a chance for not only his evolution, but the evolution of an entire medium of expression.
Today marks what would have been his 60th birthday. Throughout his 40-year career, he’s had some of music’s biggest, most recognizable hits. However, I want to take a look at some of the songs he created that didn’t get as much recognition. He was an incredibly prolific artist, having songs numbering in the hundreds and still more “in the vault” that run closer to a thousand. So I’ll narrow this down to ten songs that I feel have been either glazed over or simply underappreciated in one of the most fruitful musical careers on the face of the planet.
Here I list my 10 Favorite Most Underrated Songs from one of the greatest gifts to mankind: Michael Jackson.
(NOTE: The list is in order of year of release.)
01 Music and Me (1973)
My first encounter with “Music and Me” was in the closing credits of the 1988 documentary “Michael Jackson: The Legend Continues.” As the last credit rolls, the screen zooms in to a short slow-motion montage of Michael during his “Bad” Tour. This song plays as the screen fades. That image stayed with me as a child and all through my life. Though I wouldn’t come across the full version of this song until I was well into high school, the impact it had on me was profound. It’s his ode to the craft, a love song to the medium that birthed him … and he recorded it when he was 15. Truly one of the most beautiful pieces of music to come out of his adolescent years.
02 Happy (1973)
Since Smokey Robinson gave Michael the opportunity to cover “Who’s Lovin’ You” back in 1969, claiming the boy outsang him on a song about the heartache of love lost, Michael would interpret music much older than his years. “Happy” was the love theme to the 1972 film “Lady Sings the Blues,” a biopic about the life and times of Billie Holiday starring Diana Ross. It remains a powerful piece of music made all the more profound by the amount of raw emotion a 15-year-old Michael infused into the song. He’d go on to sing songs that carried the same sweeping emotional weight throughout his teen years (including song “One Day in Your Life,” whose string composition is so powerful I was left breathless the first time I heard it).
03 I Can’t Help It (1979)
To be honest it was a toss-up between this track and the title track of MJ’s first solo release as an adult, “Off the Wall.” “I Can’t Help It” had a moody blues to it reminiscent of Stevie Wonder at his most esoteric. It’s no surprise that Wonder had intended this song for “Songs in the Key of Life,” but thought longtime friend Michael ought to try the song out for size. Thank God for best friends, right?
The track has become a modern jazz standard in its own right, getting covers from the likes of Chantae Cann and Esperanza Spalding. But back in 1979, it was a revelation. It not only gave wave to a maturer Michael, it gave the man some sensuality and clued listeners in to his musical depth and vocal range (many wouldn’t believe he had the makings of a baritone in there. But here he is, in all is lower-mid-range glory giving us Quiet Storm in the midst of a funk and R&B album.
04 The Lady in My Life (1982)
Once again, Michael hits us with a bit of sexy. “The Lady in My Life” came in as the final song on the historic “Thriller” album. Buried beneath a string of hits, this song slid into the ear easily, smoothly. It’s funny to me that the final song on the album is the on that best matches the actual album cover: sensual, flirtatious, grown. Though Michael created “Thriller” to be an album of singles (meaning there’s no real narrative arc, just a slew of songs he could choose from to release as hit singles), “Lady in My Life” was seemingly the most commercial piece on there to never be released. I almost chose “Human Nature” for the composition alone. But that song really did get a great deal of attention at its time of release (was even the magic behind one of SWV‘s biggest hits, “Right Here,” which coincidentally enough was the remix of the original version). “Lady in My Life” was one of Michael’s last truly R&B songs, as he started to focus on creating non-genre specific music that could crossover into more commercial lanes. As a result, it happens to be one of my favorite songs that he ever created with Quincy Jones.
05 Leave Me Alone (1988)
Simply put, this is one of the purest examples of MJ’s vocal dexterity and his understanding of sound and vocal layering. After his voice broke somewhere between 1974 and 1975, his voice had a noticeably different shade, maturer and more in line with R&B. Over the years his voice would go through a couple shifts. It was after his first and only truly R&B album “Off the Wall” that some would start to separate his voice from his artistry. Particularly when he transitioned from “Thriller” to “Bad.” His delivery was rougher, had a sharper edge to it that added angles to its smoother aspects. At this point the narrative began of Michael’s voice not being as “soulful” or “powerful” as it was when he was 11. This is most likely a result of his voice being so mature for his age, a fact that makes it easier to diminish his actual vocal prowess as an adult.
All this to say, MJ’s voice was never sloppy, nor did it lack for soul. He had a different perspective as an adult, that includes the way he delivered his music. “Leave Me Alone” showcased his ability to mix soul sensibilities with an overall pop construction. When one removes the music, you can hear the technique, the care given to create a harmonic layering that’s laced in the soul he grew up with and elements of gospel. Truly one of those songs that gets lost in the fray or overshadowed by the images that go along with it (which, okay, is understandable considering how singular and heavy-laden with personal imagery it is).
Truly one of my favorite Michael Jackson cuts, if for nothing else that gorgeous and intricate four-part (and at one point in the chorus five-part) harmony.
06 Liberian Girl (1988)
MJ was one of the most aware artists of his time, an aspect of his legacy that gets heavily overshadowed. He was a great lover of Africa, having spent time in several countries on the continent. Though the story behind this song isn’t exactly clear, what shines through is his love of his heritage and his people. Regardless of what people inferred about his personal life, his love of black people was strong and deep and had been since his early 20s (if not earlier). A quick perusal of his library would attest to this fact. “Liberian Girl” was my favorite main track from the “Bad” album. I adored the atmosphere of the opening notes (nature sounds and a single soft, almost eerie note from a synth), the romance in the composition, the sigh in his voice. It clues us in to the experimental side of MJ’s discography. That even in the midst of creating music that he considered commercial (again, “Bad” was him creating a collection of singles), he was expanding his craft, reaching for sounds beyond the norm.
07 Keep the Faith (1991)
For those who were still unconvinced of Michael’s vocal strength, all they had to do was dig a little into the “Dangerous” album to find it. He was a great lover of gospel music, particularly that of André Crouch. Musically I can only assume it’s because of his adoration of vocal layering, tight harmonies (he was part of a quintet for the first 15+ years of his career) and the large, overwhelming sound a full choir can produce. “Keep the Faith” was a call to the power of positivity, of not letting negativity and naysayers dictate your life. Toward the song’s end, he goes into what can only be described as a jubilee. Nearly a capella (only the pick and warble of an 808 setting the pulse), he goes into a string of lyrical ad libs backed by the Andre Crouch choir, putting all of his soul into his voice to the point you can almost hear every heavy inhale of breath as he begins to belt out the next lyric. This was a song we’d listen to as a family back to back for nearly fifteen minutes on car trips, especially those last moments (in which he declares, “Know me long enough to know that I don’t play”). The man was clearly slain in the spirit, no doubt thanks to the backing of one of the most impeccable choirs in the world.
08 Tabloid Junkie (1997)
The “HIStory” album is my second favorite release from Michael, so much so it sometimes switches places with “Off the Wall.” He’d never been so raw, so honest. He’d struggled with expressing his true self from the age of 18, but “HIStory: Past, Present, and Future” allowed him to peel back every layer of himself, exposing all his anger, self-doubt, loneliness and intellect. “Tabloid Junkie” was the 1995 answer to 1988’s “Leave Me Alone” but with a greater degree of heat. There’s a thick dose of snark throughout, him gritting his teeth to bite through all the nonsense. Yet the more melodic parts of the song hint at a desperation for people to see through all garbage, something that a great deal of people refused to do in 1995 (and would continue to do until his ultimate passing).
Beyond just the utter rage and desperation, the musical aspect of this track is as powerful as it was in 1988 — the harmonies… THE. HARMONIES!!! With all that inside him he still had the artistic clout to create a masterpiece of aural elegance. I love the track so much I end up listening to it about four or five times every time it crosses my mind.
09 Morphine (1997)
As an extension to the “HIstory” album, MJ released “Blood on the Dance Floor: History in the Mix.” Along with a couple remixes, it was an album with all new material, music that was even darker than what he’d released just months prior. One of the songs that dug deeper into his psyche was track “Morphine.” It was perhaps his most scathing self-examination as well as one of his greatest cries for help, for someone to just listen to him. He used snippets from “The Elephant Man” (1980), the dramatic film adaptation of the life of Joseph Merrick. The parallel being just as this poor young man born with a disease that turned him into a spectacle until the day he passed, Michael had been a spectacle all his life, a fact heightened as he got older and particularly during this era. It’s a heartbreaking piece of music that gave me chills the first time I listened to it.
He’s credited as playing the drums on this track (a fact many people didn’t know about him. He’d started as a percussionist as a child and later learned the piano). But what stands out most is how he tells a story almost exlusively through his vocal performance. Anger, self-loathing, desperation and ultimately defeat are all elements of this story he tells of a man who just wants to find a few moments of peace.
10 Whatever Happens (2001)
Easily my favorite track from 2001’s “Invincible.” Never mind the track, the album itself is highly underappreciated. It became very en vogue to ridicule everything MJ did post-’90s. It’s an unfortunate turn of events considering the music he actually created. Barring my own feelings about the circumstances surrounding this album’s release, “Invincible” was a solid piece of work that housed some truly magical moments, including this collaboration with the legendary Carlos Santana.
Michael’s voice is clear, steady and full of as much emotion as anything he’s ever released. It’s another peek at the soul of the singer, how much emotion he infused his music with. While there the ad libs part in parcel to his sound since the “Bad” era, the song is incredibly tender, soft around the harder edges. His falsetto is delicate and earnest, and he melds perfectly with his backup singers (a relatively new element to his music at the turn of the century, as he was mostly wont to use his own vocals for any harmony work).
Michael Jackson remains one of the most musically gifted artists to ever exist. Yes, you could claim bias or even an uneven slant toward the positive aspects of his sound. But the truth remains his collection of music, his body of work is so prolific that we can’t even begin to imagine the depths. This list merely scratches the surface of some of the songs that garnered less attention than his more prominent hits. I simply wanted to shed a little light on the matter.
Around this time and the anniversary of his passing, I’m always struck with a need to watch his performances and the few positive documentaries about him, always have the urge to listen to his music. Today, and every day, I give so much love and respect to this man. He was such an inspiration to me musically and artistically. With this list, as with anything I do to honor him, I just want to say thank you.
Happy Birthday, Michael.