Debuting in the Jackson 5 with his elder brothers in 1964, Michael Jackson since became one of the most loved artists of the 20th century. After sadly passing away in 2009, he became the best-selling artist that year; his legacy has lived on in his music.
With Thriller selling over 66 million copies, being the best-selling album of all time and ‘Billie Jean’ surpassing over 372 million streams on Spotify, it is safe to say that Jackson has never been short of exposure. Although tracks like ‘Rock With You’, ‘Smooth Criminal’, ‘PYT’ and ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, are deservedly well-loved, they have stolen the limelight, pushing the hidden gems into a distant realm of underappreciation.
1. ‘Off The Wall’, Off The Wall, 1979
The album title track from the disco epitomising Off The Wall is surprisingly underrated in comparison to its other tracks such as ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ and ‘Rock With You’, produced by renown Quincey Jones and written by Heatwave’s keyboard player, Rod Temperton. Carried by a prominent funky bassline, ‘Off The Wall’ is centred around people losing their inhibitions, "So tonight gotta leave that nine to five upon the shelf / And just enjoy yourself / Groove / Let the madness in the music get to you / Life ain't so bad at all / If you live it off the wall’. The chorus is abundant with stunning jazz-like harmonies which build throughout, especially towards the end of the song where the chorus is layered with backing vocals.
2. ‘Human Nature’, Thriller, 1982
‘Human Nature’ was again produced by Jones, who, after hearing a demo of ‘Human Nature’ written by Toto’s Porcaro, recruited Bettis to rewrite the lyrics about a passer-by in New York. ‘Human Nature’ has more of a ballad feel, but equally highlights the range, richness and versatility of Jackson’s voice. Its synths and lyrical melody are dreamy, making it one of Jackson’s best slow tracks.3. ‘Burn This Disco Out’, Off The Wall 1979
Arguably one of Jackson’s funkiest songs, rich with syncopated rhythms, a perky Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’-esque bass line, brass and keyboard chord progressions. The instrumental of this song is not the only thing that makes you want to dance – the lyrics also capture the infectious funk, "So D.J. spin the sounds / There ain't no way that your gonna let us down / Gonna dance, gonna burn this disco out". This song showcases Jackson’s incredible range and soulful tone, perfectly complementing the danceable instrumental backing.
4. ‘Stranger In Moscow’, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1 1996HIStory is seen as a sneak peek into Jackson’s personal life; ‘Stranger In Moscow’ was written by Jackson after press accusations of child sexual abuse in 1993. The R&B Ballad featuring keyboard synths and blues-jazz like harmonies embodies a "swift and sudden fall from grace" in its lyrics, vastly different from those in Off The Wall or Thriller. A slower pace again gives space for a climatic lyrical melody.
5. ‘Baby Be Mine’, Thriller, 1982
Characterised by its wavy synths, bassline and backing vocals, ‘Baby Be Mine’ is another funky track written by Temperton and produced by Jones. The backing vocals often follow the melody of the synths which adds depth to the overall execution of the track. It’s also irresistibly catchy with its upbeat lyrics, "Darlin', let me hold you warm you in my arms / And melt your fears away / Show you all the magic that a perfect love can make / I need you night and day / So baby be mine". 6. ‘The Girl Is Mine’, Thriller, 1982
The upbeat ballad is a duet featuring Paul McCartney, with a lyrical ‘fight’ over a girl. McCartney sings the verse "I don't understand the way you think / Saying that she's yours not mine / Sending roses and your silly dreams / Really just a waste of time / Because she's mine / The doggone girl is mine’, to which Jackson answers, "But we both cannot have her / So it's one or the other / And one day you'll discover / That she's my girl forever and ever". The song showcases both Jackson and McCartney’s impressive range, paired with harmonies and a relaxed bass line to boot.
7. ‘Blood on the Dance Floor’, HIStory in the Mix, 1997
Abundant with the Jackson’s iconic ‘Ah’ between lyrics, ‘Blood on the Dance Floor’ comes from Jackson’s remix album, released by his own record label MJJ Productions. Its lyrics are about Susie, who is perceived to be a "femme fatale" character creating blood on the dancefloor; "She seemed sincere like it was love and true romance / And now she's out to get me / And I just can't take it / Just can't break it". The track is comparable to ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Beat It’ in its overriding heavy beat and harmonies.
8. ‘Leave Me Alone’, Bad, 1989
Produced by Quincy Jones, ‘Leave Me Alone’ is a funk track composed of a prominent bass line, synths and the trademark "Ow!". It was written in a response to tabloid and media rumours about Jackson after the release of Thriller in 1986: "I don't care what you talkin' 'bout baby / I don't care what you say / Don't you come walkin' beggin' back mama / I don't care anyway". Its beat commands attention and the multi-layered harmonies of the choral "leave me alone" make this the ultimate banger for when you’re in a bad mood.
9. ‘Sunset Driver’ (Demo), The Ultimate Collection, 2004
Due to the fact that it was only released as a demo, perhaps intentioned to be released as a single on a different album, ‘Sunset Driver’ has been severely overlooked. Similar to ‘Baby Be Mine’ and ‘Burn this Disco Out’ in its wavy synths and bass, the track is another catch that showcases Jackson’s range and tone. The brass adds a further layer to its compelling disco-funkiness.
10. ‘The Lady in My Life’, Thriller, 1982
The lyrics of ‘The Lady in My Life’ make the ideal ‘love-song’; "So let me keep you warm / Through the shadows of the night". The synth-based ballad once more highlights Jackson’s raw and emotive voice and versatility as an artist.