1. I'll Be There(released August 28, 1970; Peak chart position: #1 US Pop, #1 US Black)
ON THEIR FOURTH SINGLE, Berry Gordy made a decision that could've ended the Jackson 5's career. After three consecutive #1 bubblegum hits ("I Want You Back", "ABC", "The Love You Save") for the quintet, the Motown head honcho figured the time was as good as any to cast 11-year-old lead singer Michael as a sensitive leading man. It was risky. Why mess with a good thing? Their brief but successful body of work had been pure saccharine and a less confident, less visionary man would've kept playing the hot hand until it fizzled out. So Gordy temporarily abandoned his membership in the hit production duo The Corporation (who had masterminded the first three hits), assembled another trio of talented songwriters and set about writing a delicate ballad. Teenage audiences are historically fickle, the experiment didn't have to work. But the song was perfect.
Again, young Michael rose to the challenge of delivering a vocal performance that contradicted both his age and life experience. Older brother Jermaine's takeover on the bridge gave the perfect counterpoint. The other brothers' harmonies are perfect, angelic even; they sound like new love, joy, like a dream that has finally come true in sunny Southern California at the dawn of the 1970s. The Jackson 5 were hot before this, but after "I'll Be There", they were officially unstoppable.
2. Don't Stop Till You Get Enough(rel. July 28, 1979; Peak chart position: #1 US Pop, #1 US Black #3 UK)
The transition from adolescence to adulthood is rough on everyone, but perhaps all the more so for someone had a wildly successful childhood and found that he was suddenly being regarded as something of a has been. Enter Sidney Lumet and Diana Ross and The Wiz. A classic film now to many but widely regarded at the time as a flop, the experience of shooting the movie in New York City gave the sheltered 20-year-old a chance to be on his own and finally take in the world around him. He partied with Liza Minnelli and Woody Allen (amongst others) at Studio 54, hired Quincy Jones as producer and awoke one morning to find a melody in his head that stayed with him for days.
The melody eventually became our introduction to the adult Michael Jackson: confident, handsome, aggressive, ready to party all night. And it was exactly what was desired in the hedonistic, euphoric late 1970s. It won his first solo Grammy, first solo American Music Award, and laid the template for the libidinous falsetto and hard charging rhythms that would eventually make the 1980s his.
3. Billie Jean(rel. January 2, 1983; Peak chart position: #1 US Pop, R&B, #1 UK, Irish, Spanish, Swiss)
It's the most famous song ever made about a groupie. What kills about the song is its simplicity: A basic drum beat opens the song and does not change throughout. The persistent bass line doesn't change either. What did change? The world after this song dropped. Fledgling MTV, hard pressed to play videos by African-American artists, was forced to bow down -- and consequently became a superpower. Likewise for Rolling Stone, who had a similar philosophy about not putting black artists on the cover of their magazine. After Thriller's first single, "The Girl is Mine" (really?) was released to so-so sales, Epic Records began to scale down their expectations for the album's success, dropping "Billie Jean" basically as a Hail Mary. It worked.
It was this song, more so than "Beat It", that cemented the image of Michael Jackson that he was trying to get back to for the rest of his life. His legendary performance of the song at Motown 25, singlehandedly made him the giant he became. The "Thriller" video was just running up the score. All over the world, thanks to cable, people were grooving to this song, yelling off key variations of "She said IIII am the one" in Australia, in France, in Japan, even in Toledo, Ohio, where a certain 6-year-old boy spent several hours one day walking back and forth on the sidewalk in front of his house, trying to make it light up like Michael did. We will not see a bigger single in our lifetime. Period.
And to think that Quincy Jones hated the song and fought to have it dropped from the album.
4. Man in the Mirror(rel. January 18, 1988; Peak chart position: #1 US Hot 100, #1 US R&B, #2 Israel)
No matter how rich and famous he became, Michael never forgot the struggles his family faced growing up poor in Gary, Indiana. Only now, after his death, are stories beginning to surface of his numerous unannounced, unpublicized visits to hospitalized veterans and dying children. Of the thousands of poor children who visited Neverland and didn't accuse of him of molesting them. Of the Guinness World records he holds as being the most charitable (both financially as well as the number of charities he's given to) entertainer of all time. He made some questionable life decisions, sure. But he also gave far more than he had to. Starting with "We Are the World" (which he co-wrote), on through this song and "Heal the World," a greater focus is made towards using his fame to improve the conditions of all those who were in need. Where this song surpasses those two, however, is in it's message: It actually tells us how to help.
Lofty songs are easy to ridicule. But it's hard to mock a video in which Michael doesn't even appear, as he wisely substituted images of starving children and world leaders who made a difference by looking inside themselves and deciding that change must come.
5. Scream(rel. May 31, 1995; Peak chart position: #5 US Hot 100, #2 US R&B, #3 UK, #1 Italy, New Zealand)
Despite all the rumors and fighting and money and controversy, what everyone forgot about the Jackson family is that they were still a family. This was the first song released after Michael's sexual abuse allegations surfaced and who better to have his back than his baby sister? Many had long sought a Michael/Janet collaboration -- failing to recognize, of course, that they had already collaborated: she and LaToya sang background on "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." But in all seriousness, the pairing was long overdue and it delivered.
What makes this song so important is the way in which Michael found a way to remain relevant in 1995, with hip-hop at its creative zenith and grunge and alternative rock bubbling down the street. So many 80s icons had become irrelevant by that point and yet Michael delivered yet another prime time video (it debuted after his Diane Sawyer interview with he and then-wife Lisa Marie Presley) that lived up to the hype. In one song, Michael and Janet crush their critics, the media and papa Joe (do not be fooled into thinking this song is not about him too) and manage to do it while on a Kubrick-esque spaceship that, once again, made every other musician doing videos go back to the drawing board. Being the best is hard, but staying the best is harder. Michael Jackson somehow found a way to do that until the end -- and for that alone, we should commend his genius.
ABOUT JASON GILMORE
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.