Today is Michael Jackson’s birthday, and instead of going on about there is almost no one in male pop music is worthy of licking his penny loafers (Bruno Mars is probably closest), I’ve decided to honor the King of Pop by highlighting my favorite, relatively deep cuts of his. These songs may not have topped the charts or played at all of the parties of our youth, but they are just as vital to understanding the genius of Michael as “Billie Jean” or “Beat It.” Enjoy!
Stranger in Moscow (HIStory, 1995)
Michael was infamously private, and his paranoia about his privacy is one of the common threads in his catalog. For this haunting, hiccuping ballad set in the pre-Putin Kremlin, he lets the walls down, revealing the lonely man beneath the military jackets and sequined gloves. It’s profoundly vulnerable for a man who had the well-deserved gumption to float giant statues down European rivers for his album campaign. When the song hits its full-throated climax, there is a sense that, for just a moment, Michael found some peace in letting go. To his credit, “Stranger in Moscow” is arguably his true, underrated masterpiece.
Just Good Friends (Bad, 1987)
Michael didn’t collaborate often, but when he did, they were often large music spectacles (“Scream” with his sister Janet, “Say Say Say” and “The Girl is Mine” with Paul McCartney). His duet with R&B legend Stevie Wonder is much more low-key, existing one of the most stacked pop tracklists ever. It’s doubtful that you’ll ever find a more effervescent Michael Jackson post-1984 than on this buoyant, funky album track. His chemistry with Stevie is fantastic and even through his grittier-sounding vocals, Michael sounds like he’s having an all-out ball.
Don’t Walk Away (Invincible, 2001)
The 80’s and 90’s didn’t have Michael concerning himself much with heartbreak, at least not the romantic kind, which makes “Don’t Walk Away” such a curious entry in the King of Pop’s later catalog. It’s a much-welcomed entry, though; Michael delivers an achingly vulnerable performance on this country-influenced ballad, the likes of which hadn’t been heard since “She’s Out of My Life” from Off The Wall. Much is made about Michael the visionary artist and performer, but he is surprisingly underrated as a top-notch vocalist. This song easily makes the case for him.
Blood on the Dance Floor (Blood on the Dance Floor, 1997)
It will never make sense to me how this song was a flop in the United States (it did reach #1 in the U.K.). The title track off of his remix album, this hard-driving, industrial slice of pop is one of Michael’s most insistently dance floor-ready singles. It may not break any new ground lyrically (Michael loves a good female antagonist, this time named Susie), but it’s dark, edgy funk is damn near irresistible.
Will You Be There? (Dangerous, 1991)
Probably better known as the theme to Free Willy, Michael taps into his spiritual side for this soaring ballad about finding someone you can rely on. The ballad is unique not just for its use of a choir and its African music underpinnings, but for Michael’s use of his lower vocal register, conveying a reserved but palpable need for true human connection. The tension builds into a spectacular key-raising finish where Michael, back in his upper voice, takes listeners to church.
You Rock My World (Invincible, 2001)
Invincible is a criminally underrated album, buried beneath Michael’s overwhelming tabloid persona and a dubious promotional strategy. The album’s lead single, “You Rock My World”, deserved so much more for returning Michael to his funky roots. For one sublime single, the troubled King casted off the rumors, the paranoia, and the pop martyrdom for a joyous spin on the dance floor. Whether or not you believed Michael’s world could still be rocked, it sure sounded like there was a shift in the plates.