Top Michael Jackson Songs of the '80s, Part 2

Following the untimely and mysterious death of '80s superstar Michael Jackson, I assumed that the public's massive fascination with his life and music would eventually lose some of its intensity. But I must say that fan respect and appreciation for Jackson's greatest legacy - his music - has convinced me that admirers aren't clinging to the ongoing story of his death at all, choosing instead to embrace the life that produced such timeless American music. So in addition to Volume I I've hatched a second song list for an exceptional artist: here's a chronological look at more standouts from Jackson's '80s catalog.

1979's Off the Wall was a tremendous record, remaining vital on the Billboard album charts for more than a year into the middle part of 1980. It featured massive hit singles that would be even more revered today if not for what Jackson did throughout the decade to follow. But a deeper exploration of the album's contents quickly reveals just how groundbreaking this record was for the changing music landscape of the time. "Workin' Day and Night" not only demonstrates innovation in Jackson's interpretation of disco but also takes soul, pop, funk and rock to new heights. This is a surprisingly gritty track, one that holds up well next to the album's glossy hits as an affirmation of Jackson's sometimes dismissed credibility as a black musician.

Supported by a foundation of light orchestration and gentle, "Just the Way You Are" '70s keyboards, this track could have sunk lesser singers through its extreme simplicity. But Jackson's vocals here not only survive but actually thrive with minimal accompaniment, broadcasting an emotional depth that sometimes tends to get lost in the pyrotechnics of his lively dance tunes. Though it is not one of his own compositions, Jackson clearly attached himself to the song well before recording it, even beyond the break in his voice at the end. The lovely melody certainly fits into the realm of adult contemporary, but Jackson lends so much genuine emotion to the performance that the song's impact can leave a listener unexpectedly shaken.

An album track as strong and distinctive as this one has certainly helped Off the Wall over the years to sell 20 million copies worldwide and more than 7 million in the U.S. alone. The well-known hits, after all, can only go so far to recommend an entire album, and that's where the artistry of Jackson and producer Quincy Jones comes in. The track begins with plenty of disco flavor before surrendering to the songwriting talent of co-writer and relative unknown Stevie Wonder, and the complexity of its sound ultimately creates a cross-genre effect only artists the caliber of Jackson (and Wonder) can muster. Successful as soft rock, pure pop, and even throwback soul at various points, "I Can't Help It" exerts a magical hold over the listener.

This first hit from Thriller certainly possesses some goofy elements, not the least of which is, of course, the spoken-word exchange between Jackson and Paul McCartney near the song's conclusion. Beyond that, however, there's also the distracting use of "doggone" in the chorus, which also happens to be the weakest section of the tune. Even so, the infectious and ingenious verse melody makes up swiftly for any such flaws, again proving that at his peak, Jackson was capable of composing at an impressive rate some of the very best pop songs on the radio. I hadn't realized that this ballad, which manages to sound distinct from every other track on the album despite its accessibility, claimed the No. 2 spot in early 1983, a harbinger to be sure.
I must confess to a significant bias against this song, and I recently decided it had more to do with my distaste for abrreviated pop song titles than any perceived weakness of the track. I've never been a big fan of the goofy, electronic chorus, but the song's commanding beat and compelling verse melody stand right alongside Thriller's most beloved tunes. This is a genuine dance pop offering that provides a telling bridge between the disco sounds of the '70s and the perky electronic pop to come later in the '80s, but it's also yet another example of Jackson's strength as a songwriter (he wrote the demo version, which was altered to be more upbeat by James Ingram and Quincy Jones) and consistent craftsman of full-length records.

Boasting an early-'80s vintage soul sound that reminds me of another one of my favorite tunes of the era - George Benson's "Turn Your Love Around" - this lively, joyful track captures something distinct about Jackson's ability to make inspired song selections at nearly every turn. Composed by Rod Temperton, who supplied two of Jackson's previous record's biggest hits in "Off the Wall" and "Rock With You," this tune would have been a major hit for almost any other artist. That's how profound the surplus of quality is on Thriller, and if you've somehow forgotten that little tidbit over the many years that have passed, this thoroughly pleasant tune should refresh your memory in short order.

I'm not quite sure what it says about a song (and accompanying music video) when the "Weird Al" Yankovic spoof becomes equally well-known and iconic, but on some level that is the case with this title track from 1987's long-awaited Thriller follow-up. Even so, returning to listen to the tune anew instantly reveals the yin-yang effect Jackson's music has always had on me. I can most certainly do without the cheesy macho facade, crotch-grabbing and otherwise silly lyrical aspects of the song, but then just as quickly as I move to dismiss Jackson, his wonderfully catchy bridge shows up to save the day. I may never need to hear it all the way through, but this track demonstrates a great deal of Jackson's exhaustive pure pop talent.

For its convincing and heavy beat alone (and in spite of Jackson's annoyingly persistent portrait of himself as a slick lady killer in its elaborate music video), this tune finished off 1987 as the third of five straight No. 1 singles from the singer's final album of the decade. In that way at least, it surpassed Thriller in an impressive and undeniable way. As for the tune itself, I've always felt the music of this period showed at least a small decline from Jackson's earlier, almost unbelievable heights, but this is still a joyous pop tune full of confident songwriting touches. And as pure dance music spectacle, it certainly finds few peers.