(June 24, 2022). It’s hard to believe, but this weekend marks the thirteenth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s passing on June 25, 2009.
Although the King of Pop’s musical legacy lives on and we will forever have his enormous catalogue of mega hit songs and groundbreaking music videos to remind us of just how immensely talented this supernova was, his unexpected departure in 2009 came before any of us true fans were prepared to say our final goodbyes.
The old quote “the star that burns twice as bright burns half as long” was obviously true in his case. Michael Jackson reached astronomical career heights during his lifetime that few have before or since. His is a legacy that will likely never be matched in our lifetimes (and no, Chris Brown and Drake are not on Michael’s level!).
But much of that legacy has been rooted in the familiar MJ hits, the big ones that we all know and love…the ones that scaled the upper reaches of the charts for more than half a century from the time he and his brothers made their chart debut in 1969 to his unprecedented solo success and right up to the present day (the Thriller album is approaching its 40th anniversary this December and is still on the current Billboard 200 chart at No. 93 and its title single has returned to the upper half of the Hot 100 the past several Halloweens, while his greatest hits collection makes regular recurrent chart appearances).
In a bit of a departure from the norm, this blog article gives a remembrance to The Gloved One by listing 25 of his “non-hits,” sung either solo or with his brothers, that made a huge musical impact on yours truly… songs that are, in some cases, as good as (or even better than) the chart toppers. These songs might have been hits had they been released commercially as singles or promoted heavily (in post-millennium cases where single releases weren’t a prerequisite to being a chart hit).
Oh, and as a disclaimer, non-singles like “I Can’t Help It” or “The Lady In My Life” are excluded because, even thought they weren’t singles, they’re largely regarded as classics by the larger community (especially MJ fans).
So scroll through the below list and enjoy. And remember, feel free to vote the individual songs and leave a comment below or in any of the social media feeds where this article is posted.
Here are my 25 unsung MJ songs, listed alphabetically by title:
Some angst from Michael’s most personal project ever, ‘HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1.’ This 1995 funk jam paired MJ with rapper and NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal (who wasn’t yet a legend when this song was released). Co-written by one of the era’s hottest songwriters Dallas Austin and co-produced by the iconic Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (who also did “Scream” and “Tabloid Junkie” for the album), “2 Bad” found Michael “screaming and shouting” it to the rafters, further underscoring the anger the singer felt towards the media and his accusers at the time.
The last full album Michael recorded in his lifetime was 2001’s ‘Invincible,’ an ironic title considering his fate just eight years later. But that album contained some stellar mid-tempo numbers, including the big hit single “Butterflies” (omitted from here due to its hit status) and “Break of Dawn.” “Break” was considered banal by some critics upon its release two decades ago (and nearly two decades after ‘Thriller’), but that’s likely because listeners weren’t used to Michael’s macking skills being on display as much as they were here. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think MJ had it like that with the ladies. Wait, actually, we didn’t KNOW any better.
I’ve come to appreciate this spirited disco nugget from Michael’s ’Off The Wall’ album more and more with the passage of time. For one, it’s pretty good disco a la Quincy Jones in his prime. Secondly, it came at a time when disco was being burned out, literally. Just four weeks before the album’s release, the infamous Chicago Disco Demolition had taken place at Chicago’s Comiskey Park during the intermission in a doubleheader between the White Sox and the visiting Detroit Tigers.
While ‘Off The Wall’ was spared that indignity due to fortunate timing, the disco backlash was in full swing by the time of the album’s release. Still, it did extremely well, remaining on the chart for years and producing four top-10 pop singles, including two No. 1s (“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You”), and a slew of other great tracks, like this personal fave.
This stellar moody track from the Jackson 5’s ‘Third Album’ builds in intensity from the very beginning, with Michael’s 12-year-old voice adeptly tackling the song’s many sonic changes. It feels like psychedelic soul in the beginning with those minor chords and that Moog synthesizer weaving in and out, but the mood shifts as the song builds to a frenzy and then slows again for the finish. Despite its use in their cartoon (above), there’s nothing bubblegum about this gem at all!
Written by MJ and Teddy Riley, “Can’t Let Her Get Away” is the best track off the ‘Dangerous’ album not to get a single release. I didn’t come to appreciate this absolute jam until I moved to Philly in 2007, nearly sixteen years after the album’s release. That was when the DJ at this local neighborhood pub in West Philly called Top Shelf Lounge used to play it regularly to everyone’s delight! I couldn’t believe the positive reaction the crowd gave this tune, which should’ve been a single release in 1992.
There’s something intriguing about Michael Jackson explaining his way out of being on the wrong side of a love triangle: “she tried to live a double life, lovin’ me while she was still your wife. She thought that lovin’ me was cool, with you at work and the kids at school.”
How dare Michael go all adult on us?
Michael originally recorded this tale of a cheating woman in 1999 while making the ‘Invincible’ album (released two years later). But it was left off that album and didn’t see the light of day until 2014 when Timbaland remixed it as part of the posthumous ‘Xscape’ project. Written solely by Cory Rooney who’s created songs for Destiny’s Child, Jennifer Lopez, Toni Braxton, and a whole host of others, the remixed version of this should’ve been given a single release (according to word from Timbaland at the time, it was supposed to have been the first single from ‘Xscape’ before the label went with the Justin Timberlake-assisted “Love Never Felt So Good” instead).
The ‘Destiny’ album is best known for its two big disco numbers: “Blame It On The Boogie” and “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).” But it’s the more thoughtful ballads like “Push Me Away” (nearly made this list) and this title track that showcase the Jacksons’ true versatility as songwriters, producers and performers. They did all three on “Destiny,” which has an arrangement reminiscent of their last big hit on Motown, 1975’s “I Am Love.” By the way, the ‘Destiny’ album (on Epic Records) was the first album by the Jacksons to be officially certified platinum (for 1 million sales), since Motown wasn’t a paying member of the RIAA until 1980 and their record sales weren’t being audited by the firm during the Jackson 5 years.
Watch the above video where Jermaine, who had left the group three years earlier to remain with Motown, joins his brothers. The playful slow-motion banter at the end between Michael and Tito is worth checking out as well.
How do you improve on a Stevie Wonder classic? You put an 11-year-old Michael behind the mic and let him vamp away. Stevie, who co-wrote and recorded the original (called “I Don’t Know Why”) when he was 18, had a modest hit with it before Motown started promoting the single’s B-side, “My Cherie Amour.” The Jackson 5 covered “Don’t Know Why” two years later on their second album ‘ABC,’ and it’s probably the most grown-up vocal performance of Michael’s young life at that point. No one could’ve convinced me that MJ hadn’t already been through some adult pains the way he sang this song. Catch those adlib shouts at the end.
Before little Foster Sylvers gave us “Misdemeanor” in 1973, little Michael Jackson was handed the mic on this similarly kid-funky tune from the 1972 Jackson 5 album ‘Lookin’ Through The Windows.’ The two songs aren’t constructed the same, but they evoke the same funk elements and they both sport vocals by young talented adolescents. “Don’t Let Your Baby” was also a departure for the Jackson 5, as was the whole ‘Lookin’ album. Motown toned down the jangly tambourine-heavy percussion of the J-5’s earlier hits and went with sparser, bass-friendly arrangements, creating a more soulful and funky vibe.
Every time I hear this gem from MJ’s ‘HIStory’ album, it evokes Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” particularly the “ahhhhhh, oohhhhhhh” choruses. Except, where “Goodbye” was Elton John in his ascendency, “Earth Song” was Jackson in his decline, commercially speaking. Still, “Earth Song” is easily the best song MJ released post-‘Dangerous’, and I’d put it up against most of his material prior to 1991. It’s almost unfair to include this one on the list since it got a music video release and widespread play on video outlets back then, but it was never officially commercially released as a single here in the states, thus it never charted in Billboard and therefore qualifies. It was a huge hit in other countries, however, selling a million copies in the U.K. alone and become Jackson’s first No. 1 in Germany.
This song on the Jacksons’ ‘Triumph’ album is the only one on that LP to include an outside co-writer. It was written by MJ, older brother Tito, and Mike McKinney, the only non-Jackson to be given a writing credit on the entire album. While the uptempo song’s lyrics cover familiar Jackson territory—getting down and shaking your tail feather—one can’t help but wonder if it was also presaging Michael’s desire to free himself of his brothers and move on full bore with his solo career. In “Everybody,” Michael sings (in perfect falsetto on the chorus): “I’ve done my time and I have paid the price; all you have to do is state my name out loud. Forget your worries and let’s dance and shout; I’m here to live so free, I’ve got to let me be…”. His next studio album was a little one called ‘Thriller.’
The ‘Goin’ Places’ album was the Jacksons’ least successful with Michael Jackson singing the majority of the lead vocals, but something good came out of it: this soul ballad helmed by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff and featuring a 19-year-old Michael singing a simple song about what most teenage boys (or men) dream of doing at that age. I’m cheating a little because this song actually was released as a single, unlike most of the others on this list, but it barely dented the charts, only reaching No. 38 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles list and failing to make the Hot 100 altogether in 1977.
Ahhh, the good ol’ days when Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney were buds. Someone in a Facebook music group I belong to accused Sir Paul of going soft whenever he teamed with Black superstars (“Ebony and Ivory,” “The Girl Is Mine” and “Say, Say, Say” were cited as examples). Well, if you’re looking for something to disprove that theory, don’t look here. “Girlfriend,” from MJ’s ‘Off The Wall’ album, is about as soft as it gets from the ex-Beatle. But it’s ear candy nonetheless and was the song that got the MJ-and-Mac train rolling for the next several years before the infamous Beatles song catalogue purchase that ended their bromance for good.
Those of you counting will find three songs from the Jacksons’ best album ‘Triumph’ on this list. “Give It Up” is the second of them and is an example of how talented and underrated the remaining Jackson brothers (aside from Michael and Jermaine) really were. The song is a duet between Michael and next older brother Marlon. It was co-written by Michael and younger brother Randy, and produced by all the brothers jointly. In fact, all the songs on ‘Triumph’ were written by various combinations of Jackson brothers. That shuffling, military marching-band beat in the song’s outro was a nice touch, too!
This is a song that’s more of a guilty pleasure that likely won’t resonate with others. It’s full of late-‘90s/early-2000’s dated production techniques and sound effects courtesy of Jackson and then-hot song creator Rodney Jerkins. No matter, I needed this from Michael at that time: a raucous, all-over-the-map, experimental floor banger that, with a single release and a phat remix, could’ve been an even bigger statement from MJ. But no single happened, and “Heartbreaker” was relegated to this list of MJ coulda-woulda-shoulda beens.
Michael’s 2001 ‘Invincible’ album had a few club bangers and hip-hop nods, but its best tracks were those that gave us that quiet storm vibe, like this one. “Heaven Can Wait,” written by Jackson and frequent collaborator Teddy Riley, was so appealing that, even without a single release, radio pushed the song onto the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for 16 weeks (peaking at No. 72). Some critics called it his best vocal performance since “The Lady In My Life” from ‘Thriller.” It is an underrated gem that should have been given bigger promotion from his label, Epic Records.
This thoughtful jaunt through world history through the eyes of a man who’d made plenty of history himself was the defacto title track from his alternately capped 1995 ‘HIStory’ album. The song’s sections alternated between spoken passages about famous historical world events, Michael grittily singing the verses over a taut funk beat, and then Michael crooning the choruses over a pop melody with the backing of Janet Jackson and the era’s biggest group, Boyz II Men. Overall, it was a somewhat sappy but extremely satisfying effort, one of many from a highly underrated album.
In the above video from a live performance in Munich, note that “History” is introduced by the instrumental track from “They Don’t Care About Us” from the same album.
This is a guilty pleasure that not many MJ fans appreciate. Contained on his 1997 ‘Blood On The Dance Floor’ EP, “Is It Scary” is less about the occult (despite what the eerie musical arrangement and sound effects would suggest) and more about Michael’s frustration with the media and the monster they painted him to be. In the song, Michael flips the script and concludes that, “like a mirror reveals the truth, see the evil one is you.” Another great collabo with Jam & Lewis, btw.
Is it sad that, as one of Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5’s biggest fans, I didn’t hear this song until many years after it had been sampled on Puff Daddy’s “It’s All About The Benjamins” in 1997? I discovered it when I downloaded the ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ album in 2012, fifteen years after the sample and more than 40 years after the song’s original release. Tsssk, tsssk.
No self-respecting MJ fan should ever be able to say that about “It’s Great To Be Here,” but maybe redemption comes in the form of this tribute, and the song’s inclusion on this very exclusive list of underrated MJ tunes. Check out the lyric video above, with Mike crooning about his fiery Señorita and his cold-as-ice Eskimo.
Before Siedah Garrett there was Patti Austin, the Quincy Jones protégé who teamed up with Michael on his first Q-produced album, 1979’s ‘Off The Wall.’ This criminally underrated mid-tempo R&B number has some disco moments but mostly finds Michael and Patti complementing each other vocally, especially in the chorus where they harmonize perfectly.
If you’re ever in need of a good cry, isolate yourself in a room and play this one from MJ’s ‘HIStory’ album. The old Charlie Chaplain tune was given an even sadder makeover by Michael, who croons over lilting strings and a mid tempo arrangement before the song morphs into Jackson whistling along to a piano melody of the song at the finish. It’s this part that creates the waterworks, as you can just picture a battered Michael sadly walking out the studio door as the song and his off-beat whistling concludes. This stuff is not for the faint of heart.
It’s kind of unfair to include a song from the ’Bad’ album considering nearly all of them received some kind of exposure back when the album was released (I excluded all ‘Thriller’ songs for this reason). As part of the short ‘Moonwalker’ anthology musical that accompanied the ‘Bad’ album’s release, MJ included an animated video for “Speed Demon” in which the real-life superstar interacted with claymation characters. Recommended: “Leave Me Alone” and “Liberian Girl,” both non-singles of which were on ‘Bad’ but received far more MTV exposure than “Demon.”
Okay, this song is one of the few on this list that actually did get a single release, but it wasn’t until more than two years after its album, ‘HIStory,’ came out and, as a result, it barely made the charts (No. 91 on the Billboard Hot 100; No. 50 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Chart). In this stellar tune, Michael sings “Lord have mercy; we’re talking danger, baby” about the titular dilemma. I’d say that would be an understatement today (especially if you’re an American caught in the “Big Village”).
This hard-hitting, straight-up thumper from MJ’s ‘History’ album is the only song MJ ever recorded where both “shit” and the N-word are uttered in the lyrics (twice each!). Of course, the N-bomb came courtesy of guest rapper The Notorious B.I.G.’s intervention where he spits 16 bars during the song’s bridge, which perfectly supports MJ’s intended themes of anger and paranoia. But to hear Mike sing “shit” with as much fervor and clarity as he did let us all know that he really was stark-raving mad about what had transpired during the two years prior. Recommendation: check out “D.S.,” the track that follows “This Time Around” on the ‘History’ album, to learn who the “he” is that Michael refers to in the latter’s refrain “he really thought…”
Here’s another example of a great song from the Jacksons’ ‘Triumph’ album. Written by brothers Jackie and Randy, this swirling love ballad finds Michael at his most sincere vocally (which is saying a lot for someone who’d whimpered his way through “She’s Out Of My Life” a year earlier). The song’s title suggests a more universal message than the wistful longing for love’s return contained in the lyrics, but you can’t help but feel for Michael either way (and the song has another one of those great Jackson climaxes at the end). And it’s a great way to end this list because time truly waits for no one. Continue to R.I.P. Michael Jackson!
DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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