Why the Hell Should I Like… post-‘Thriller’ Michael Jackson?

Why the hell should I like… ?” is an experiment of sorts between Popblerd and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. What we’re going to attempt to do is to pick 10 songs from our favorite artists — one for which the other has professed dislike or disinterest — and show them why they’re wrong.

Michael JacksonOn June 25th, 2009, the world lost one of the greatest entertainers of all time — Michael Jackson. Although recent history had not been kind to Michael, after his passing it seemed like a light switch went on in the collective mind of the American public and they began to view him with respect again.

Because let’s face it, despite his obvious issues, the man was a one-of-a-kind talent. A fantastic singer, a great dancer, a solid songwriter and producer, and, if you look over the current pop music landscape, certainly the most influential musician of his time.

Unfortunately for Michael, he lost his “cool” card somewhere in the mid ’80s. Once Thriller became a phenomenon, it became uncool to like MJ. He was yesterday’s news. You know the routine — we build people up only to tear them down. So, despite the fact that he put out quite a bit of good music in the twenty-seven years between the release of his landmark album and his tragic death, much of it doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Not that he was the only artist to have that problem.

For example, think about Stevie Wonder’s run of classics during the ’70s. Anything he released was going to pale in comparison to Talking Book, Innervisions, and Songs in the Key of Life, right? It’s why albums like Hotter Than July aren’t regarded as classics, even though they would be had they been recorded by anyone else.

Anyhow, Stevie’s another topic for another time. Let’s go back to the King of Pop. I was challenged to pick ten songs from the post-Thriller era that I felt would most convince someone of the validity of Michael’s later work. Here are the ten songs I came up with.

1. “Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin'” (1984) — When big brother Jermaine left Motown and signed with Arista, he figured out pretty quickly how to make a seamless label transition — cut a record with the hottest pop star in the universe, who just happened to be his little brother. “Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin'” is pretty ordinary ’80s synth-funk, but Michael’s vocal performance is positively electric. It sounds like all of the confidence he gained immediately following the success of Thriller manifested itself in his vocals on this song. Jermaine sounds like a guest on his own record. And to add insult to injury, allegedly Michael wouldn’t allow Jermaine and Arista to release this song as a single. It wound up hitting #1 on Billboard’s dance chart and earning a Grammy nomination anyway.

2. “Torture” (1984) — Jermaine’s release from Motown also allowed him to return to the Jacksons after a nine-year absence. “Torture” is the only track on the Victory reunion album to feature a lead vocal from the older brother, and he and Michael’s chemistry is put to much better use on this song. Translation: Michael played nice and didn’t kick his big brother’s ass all over the song.

3. “The Way You Make Me Feel” (1987) — One song that proves Michael’s worth as a singer. I have a relatively boyish speaking/singing voice, and I can’t go near the notes Michael hits here. Almost makes me wonder if certain songs on the Bad album were sped up, seeing as he usually dropped this song (in particular) a step or two when performed live. Still — a stone cold dance groove, at least partially inspired by Stevie Wonder’s “Go Home” (at least if you believe Stevie).

4. “Man in the Mirror” (1987) — Interestingly, the song that came to define Michael the most post-Thriller was one of the few songs from that era that he had no hand in writing. He proved himself to be a sympathetic interpreter on songs like these, going for a reflective tone in the verses to straight-out gospel testifyin’ in the song’s coda.

5. “Smooth Criminal” (1987) — You know, I wasn’t so crazy about this song until recently. This was the beginning of Michael doing the whole “singing through clenched teeth” thing that he was so fond of in his later days. Still, great melody and totally danceable, too.

6. “Can’t Let Her Get Away” (1991) — I had a conversation with some friends earlier today, in which the point was made that Dangerous was the first album to find Michael following the herd rather than leading it. I kind of disagree with that statement. I feel as though much of the work Michael did with Teddy Riley for this album was pretty avant-garde and ambitious. The first six songs on Dangerous are a non-stop dance party. If you don’t get up and shake your ass at least once during these songs, there is something wrong with you. This is the best of the bunch — you can actually hear Michael dancing in the mix. The bridge makes me crazy every time I hear it. I can’t help dancing like a fool whenever it’s on. And I think this might be the only time Michael has ever sung on top of a James Brown sample!

7. “Remember the Time (New Jack Jazz Mix)” (1992) — The studio version was an obvious bid to recapture the magic of “Rock with You.” Very lush and melodic. This remix strips the song of some instrumentation (and its bassline) to make it even more lush and melodic. Love the 3 million Michaels harmonizing with one another here.

8. “Stranger in Moscow” (1995)HIStory gets a lot of crap, and I have to say much of it’s justified. The album contained the first completely unlistenable songs of Michael’s career (“Money,” “D.S.,” and “Little Susie”). That said, it contained some very solid material as well, even though you had to dig a little deeper to find it than one normally would with a Michael Jackson album. “Moscow” is the album’s best song, a very personal document of what Michael was feeling when the first abuse allegations hit in 1993. This song has a bit of a “Human Nature” feel, and with good reason — the Toto guys played on the record and assisted with its composition as well.

9. “Butterflies” (2001) –The girls from Floetry gave Michael this song for Invincible, and it turned out to be the last Top 40 pop hit he had in his lifetime (and also spent over a month at #2 on the R&B chart). What I find most amazing about this song, besides its beautiful melody, is that Michael knocked this vocal out of the park. Can you imagine getting through a song like this (or any song) with part of your nose missing? (And for those that say something didn’t happen to his nose in the late ’90s, please take note of the fact that his speaking and singing voices got a) lower and b) more congested-sounding around this time. Something happened.)

10. “Whatever Happens” (2001) — An excellent, forgotten track. Strong lyrics — this would’ve made a fantastic “story” video. Additionally, Carlos Santana (two years removed from Supernatural), plays guitar on this song. If Michael’s label at the time gave half a crap about the Invincible project, they would’ve capitalized on the Carlos connection, released this as a single, and it would’ve been a ginormous hit.

…and, there you have it. Ten songs that match up to the standards set by Thriller and Off the Wall (to say nothing of The Jacksons’ Destiny and Triumph, from the same period). Michael’s later albums may not have lived up to the commercial expectations that were set for them, but The King of Pop certainly wasn’t slacking in the quality department!

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