Distilling Michael Jackson’s career into one CD-length list is impossible. Instead, we offer you an essential selection of his best singles, from his earliest releases with the Jackson 5 onwards:
1. “I Want You Back” 1969
A plea to a lover left too hastily (“Oh darlin’, I was blind to let you go”) somehow becomes a jubilant call-and-response celebration, built on that ridiculously funky bassline, shivering piano runs, and Michael’s honeyed, impossibly high-altitude vocals.
2. “Who’s Loving You” 1969
Smokey Robinson wrote this heart-bruising ballad in 1960, and countless artists have covered it since, but few can match the then-10-year-old Michael’s mix of pitch-perfect phrasing and genuine pathos.
3. “I’ll Be There” 1970
What begins as a hushed promise blooms into a full-force soul showstopper, with Michael pleading, “Just look over your shoulder, baby!”; the stuff of countless couples-slow-skate and junior prom memories.
4. “ABC” 1970
More kids probably learned the “I before E except after C” rule from the Jacksons’ effervescent, irresistable pop anthem than in any classroom — and how to “shake it, shake it, baby” for extra credit.
5. “Mama’s Pearl” 1971
A flurry of glorious Motown bum-buh-bums support Michael’s provocative (if age-inappropriate) plea — “Goody girl, let down your curls/let me give your heart a whirl.”
6. “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” 1979
The thrum of the bass, the clang of the cowbell, and then — that inimitable falsetto, blowing the chorus wide open. When Michael commands, “Keep on with the force / Don’t stop,” the dancefloor obeys.
7. “Rock With You” 1979
Like the giddily transportive “Off the Wall” from the same album, “Rock With You” offers a sweet escape from the everyday: A place where sequin-encrusted bodysuits are de rigeur, hangovers don’t exist, and “riding the boogie” is a physical possibility.
8 “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” 1983
The most obvious bridge between his Off the Wall-era disco kicks and the dawn of the Casio-obsessed ’80s, this block-party stomper kicks Thriller off in slick, inimitable style.
9. “Billie Jean” 1983
Who else could turn the tale of a paternity battle with a desperate and possibly deluded groupie into a worldwide smash? No one who hears that spare, hypnotic opening synth thump can resist what comes next.
10. “Human Nature” 1983
Thriller‘s fifth single, a stunning, slow-burn ballad, offers gorgeous contrast to the brash, Halloween-y shenanigans of the title track. Its airy synths and achingly tender vocals hint intriguingly at a private Michael — one we never really knew.
11. “Thriller” 1984
Always difficult to separate from its legendary video, the song is in fact eminently funky beneath its silly-spooky effects and Vincent Price overdub. But can you even listen today without breaking into the zombie-claw shuffle?
12. “The Way You Make Feel” 1987
In contrast to the almost cartoonish street-tough affectation of “Bad,” this bouyant slice of funk-pop lets Michael play the simpler role of girl-watcher with charming, boastful bluster.
13. “Smooth Criminal” 1988
The galvanizing, guitar-heavy centerpiece of Jackson’s short film Moonwalker presents a murky murder scenario with that infamous refrain, “Annie, are you OK?” Both foreboding and ridiculously, repeatedly listenable.
14. “Man in the Mirror” 1988
“We Are The World” may be some fans’ MJ concsciousness anthem of choice, but this Bad track’s unvarnished message — “if you wanna make the world a better place/take a look at yourself and then make the change” — makes for a far more compelling, impassioned imperative.
15. “Black or White” 1991
The jokes it incited at the time about Michael’s own struggles with his skin tone aside, the Dangerous single still holds up, due in large part to its indelible guitar riff (courtesy of Guns ‘n Roses’ Slash, no less).
16. “Scream” 1995
Michael’s first collaboration with sister Janet since she sang backup on 1983’s effervescent “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” is a far darker, more aggressive effort, about as hard-rock as either of the two ever got. Somehow, the duo still manage to deliver its makes-me-wanna-holler rage in a sleek, undeniably catchy pop package.
More from EW on Michael Jackson:
Black Eyed Peas top the albums chart despite big Michael Jackson sales
“Scream” director Mark Romanek on Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson: 18 key moments in the life of the King of Pop
Michael Jackson’s music dominate on iTunes and Amazon
Michael Jackson’s musical legacy: Tell us how you remember him
Michael Jackson dies at 50
Jackson on TV: A classic artist, a revolutionary
‘Thriller’ at 25: Still Can’t Beat It