Deep Album Cuts Vol. 115: Michael Jackson

I've long wanted to do a Michael Jackson playlist and just kept putting it off. But Wednesday is his 60th birthday, and next summer is the 10th anniversary of his death, and given the choice I'd always rather celebrate the occasion of birth than death.

Michael Jackson deep album cuts (Spotify playlist):

1. Girl Don't Take Your Love From Me
2. What Goes Around Comes Around
3. Up Again
4. Cinderella Stay Awhile
5. Workin' Day And Night
6. I Can't Help It
7. Burn This Disco Out
8. Get On The Floor
9. Baby Be Mine
10. The Lady In My Life
11. Just Good Friends featuring Stevie Wonder
12. Speed Demon
13. Why You Wanna Trip On Me
14. Can't Let Her Get Away
15. Money
16. This Time Around featuring The Notorious B.I.G.
17. Morphine
18. Heaven Can Wait

Track 1 from Got To Be There (1972)
Track 2 from Ben (1972)
Track 3 from Music & Me (1973)
Track 4 from Forever, Michael (1975)
Tracks 5, 6, 7 and 8 from Off The Wall (1979)
Tracks 9 and 10 from Thriller (1982)
Tracks 11 and 12 from Bad (1987)
Tracks 13 and 14 from Dangerous (1991)
Tracks 15 and 16 from HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I (1995)
Track 17 from Blood On The Dance Floor: HIStory In The Mix (1997)
Track 18 from Invincible (2001)

One of the reasons I've taken this long to do the playlist is that Michael Jackson's solo career is such a hodgepodge of wildly divergent eras. His first four solo albums, released between the ages of 13 and 16, were moderately successful, but very much live in the shadow of The Jackson 5's early burst of hits and his superstar adulthood. The brilliant, era-defining Off The Wall and Thriller are cut from the same cloth and feel like a distillation of his musical essence. But he only made 4 more albums in the last 25 years of his life that each have great songs but also feel like increasingly bombastic attempts at staying current, and those albums sit awkwardly together as the often disappointing output of the King of Pop after he received his crown. Plus, Michael made albums with the Jackson 5 and then The Jacksons in between all of his solo albums up through Bad, so isolating his solo career kind of loses the connective tissue of his parallel work with his brothers (might have to do a Jacksons deep cuts playlist at some point).

I was born the year Thriller was released, so I don't remember a world where Michael Jackson didn't feel like the center of the universe on some level. One of my earliest experiences with music as a tactile object was when my brother had a cassette of Bad, and if memory serves I may have stolen the tape from him and broken it, because I was a crappy 5-year-old little brother. But I definitely remember finding "Man In The Mirror" kind of boring and being entertained by "Smooth Criminal" and "Speed Demon" with its zany synth bass 32nd notes. So I feel like my lifelong preferences for hyperactive grooves over schmaltzy sentiment, both in Michael Jackson's music and in music in general, were ingrained in me from the very start.

Picking MJ deep cuts is a little funny because his 2 biggest albums, Thriller and Bad, each only had two songs that weren't released as singles, so there's not much choice in what to include. I love "Baby Be Mine," though, I hate when it gets disrespected as somehow a weak link of the album. In a way it's the only track on Thriller that didn't touch the top 10 in any form, since "The Lady Of My Life" was sampled on LL Cool J's 1995 hit "Hey Lover." Those two songs and "Burn This Disco Out" are more top shelf work from Rod Temperton, the British songwriter famous for penning "Rock With You" and "Thriller." And having so few '80s songs to include at least gave me plenty of room for songs from his best album, Off The Wall.

Listening to R&B stations like D.C.'s Majic 102.3 has given me an appreciation for Michael's best work put into a proper context -- they regularly play deep cuts like "Workin' Day And Night," "The Lady In My Life," and the Stevie Wonder-penned "I Can't Help It" alongside his more romantic hits and a few disco-era Jacksons singles. Cherry-picking through the minor early albums turned out to be a lot of fun, too, I particularly like "Girl Don't Take Your Love From Me," which has tricky verses that are partially in 7/8. I always kind of assumed there was some awkward adolescent era where Michael didn't sound as good as he did as a child prodigy or as an adult, but his vocals never really faltered.

It's easy to think of our current era of daily microcontroversies and Kanye tweetstorms as the most surreal time in popular music. But I don't think people of my generation have entirely reckoned with just how odd it was to grow up in a world where a superstar recorded the top-selling album of all time, and then over the next 10 years completely changed physical appearance with little explanation, and was accused of pretty much the most heinous crime short of murder. You can't talk about '80s music without Michael Jackson, but in the '90s he kind of felt like a strange, sad tabloid sideshow to the real narrative of popular music. It's taken a couple decades for me to really gain some perspective and appreciate his catalog in its entirety. I like some of the music where MJ angrily shot back at the public and the media like "Leave Me Alone" and "Scream," but deep cuts like "Prvacy" and the infamous "D.S." haven't aged as well.

The post-Thriller stuff has its virtues, though. "Just Good Friends" with Stevie Wonder is kind of a "The Girl Is Mine" sequel where Jackson banters with a fellow music legend about competing for the affections of the same girl, except it's way way better than the McCartney duet. Michael and Teddy Riley were a killer combination, I love the "South Bronx" sample on "Can't Let Her Get Away." Biggie was really just starting to impact the top 10 when he appeared on HIStory, and it's kind of an underrated verse in his catalog. It's weird to think that maybe MJ bumped Ready To Die a lot. And the new material on the remix album Blood On The Dance Floor includes some of his very best later tracks like "Morphine."
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