Michael Jackson's Off The Wall

Here at MHW, we have two absolutely diehard Michael Jackson fans on the team. Aside from almost sharing a birthday (we were born 48 hours apart), me and GG have a shared Jackson obsession. That’s why, when he threw down the challenge for me to make the ultimate Michael Jackson mix CD, I accepted it with relish. I knew he understood that trying to narrow down my favorite MJ songs would be like trying to pick my favorite kids…if I had kids.

Can you narrow Michael Jackson down to 80 minutes? Well, I tried my best. Out of something like 160-something MJ songs in my iTunes (cobbled together from his Motown anthology and all of his Epic albums, including the hits compilations and the box set…and various guest appearances), I deleted, organized, organized and deleted until I felt I’d come up with the perfect Michael primer. I also searched Youtube for a couple of cool clips instead of posting the standard videos.

So…how much of an obsessive am I? A month or so ago, rummaging through the used bin of a local record store, I found a copy of “Off the Wall” on CD. Not just any copy, mind you, but a copy of the CD with the original cover (which Michael eventually changed, I guess because he didn’t to be reminded of his original skin color). Needless to say, I bought it. This despite the fact that I already own three copies of the same album (1 each on vinyl, cassette and CD). If I found an 8-track copy somewhere, I’d probably pick that up too.

Oh, AND I have the “E.T” Storybook Soundtrack. Neener.

Anyway, I stretched out the time limit a bit, but here’s my Ultimate Michael Mix. Scream at me about what I left out in the comment section. Oh, and I decided not to include any J5 or Jacksons stuff-that’s another mix for another time.

1) “Music & Me” (1973)- A proper opening for a variety of reasons. The acoustic guitar and strings backdrop gives off a dramatic vibe akin to the opening scene of a movie. A not-quite-out of puberty version of Michael is singing about his relationship with music as if it were a best friend or a lover. It sets the tone for the rest of the mix. Vibe aside, get a load of this kid’s voice on this song. Clear as a fucking bell. How does someone sound like that?

2) “Billie Jean” (1982)- Well, DUH. If one song in MJ’s discography crystallizes the essence of Michael Jackson, this would be it. The best song of the decade from the biggest album of all time.

3) “The Way You Make Me Feel” (1987)- One of the last songs on which Michael actually sounds like he’s having fun singing. He sounds effortless as he emotes to the song’s shuffling groove, but do you know how hard this song (or most of his songs, to be honest) are to sing? Try this next time you do karaoke.

4) “Workin’ Day & Night” (1979)- An MJ hood classic. In my house, this was as popular as any of the actual singles from “Off The Wall”. Definitely a dance floor heater. Check out the range of his voice as he goes from near shriek (“How can you live girl?”) to attitudinal grunt (“Well you must be seeing/Some other guy instead of me”).

(not the whole song, but you get the picture…)

5) “Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin'” (1984)

A forgotten gem, this duet comes from brother Jermaine’s 1984 solo album. As the legend goes, Michael refused to allow the song’s release as a single, in which case it would have most likely become Jermaine’s first (and only) Number One hit. Nevertheless, the song topped Billboard’s Dance charts and was nominated for a Grammy. If I was Jermaine, I wouldn’t have even wanted this song to be released, because their individual vocal performances make abundantly clear who the major talent is in the family.

Check out this live clip for proof: Jermaine starts the song horribly off-key. When Michael pops in for the second verse, it feels like someone just turned on all the lights in the room. Great stuff.

6) “Rock With You” (1979): It doesn’t get much smoother than this. The definition of effortless. Michael doesn’t even break a sweat vocally until about 2/3 of the way in.

7) “Remember the Time” (1991): Essentially “Rock With You” part two. Fantastic background harmonies here.

8) “Butterflies” (2001): This was the song that would have saved “Invincible”. Michael proves himself relevant in the age of neo-soul. How can a man without a nose still sound so good? His vocal acrobatics in the second verse are amazing. Without being released as a single, this song hit the Top 15 on the pop charts and spent over a month at #2 on the R&B charts. Here’s the rare remix, featuring Eve.

9) “Got To Be There” (1971): His very first solo single. Again, amazing singing for a kid (he was 13 at the time).

10) “Beat It” (1982): Mike was hangin’ with the Bloods & Crips 6 years before N.W.A.!! Among this song’s several cover versions is this awesome (or awesomely bad?…awesomely incongruous?) meeting of Charlotte Church and Amy Winehouse, proving that Wino was a hot mess before U.S. audiences knew of her. The band fucking cooks, though.

11) “Can’t Let Her Get Away” (1991): MJ takes his talent for percussive singing (learned from the master, James Brown), and applies it to a hip-hop framework on this underrated jam from “Dangerous”.

12) “Off the Wall” (1979): The title track to Michael’s best album. I could be in the process of getting gnawed to bits by wild boars and if this song came on, I would start smiling.

13) “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” (1979): Well, geez, Mike, why don’t you just put the whole damn “Off the Wall” album on this mix? (answer: because then I’d have to sit through “She’s Out of My Life”). Power-pop fans: Joe Jackson (not Mike’s dad, the other one) quotes a portion of this song in his 1982 album cut “T.V. Age”.

14) “Get on the Floor” (1979): Damn, there really are a lot of “Off the Wall” cuts on here, aren’t there? Five out of 10 cuts with one more to go. Yep, the album’s that good. Michael’s joyful vocal over a smoking Quincy Jones dance arrangement= disco goodness!!

15) “Stranger in Moscow” (1995): A perfectly lonely portrait of solitude. The sadness of this song is palpable.

16) “Human Nature” (1983): Probably the most sampled MJ song of all-time (SWV’s “Right Here”, Nas’s “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”, Ne-Yo’s “So Sick (Remix)”), I’ve always wondered exactly what *are* those lyrics about?

17. “I Can’t Help It” (1979): Stevie Wonder blessed Michael with this amazingly atmospheric song. Ever wondered what Michael would sound like singing jazz? Dig this one up.

18. “The Lady in My Life” (1982): Michael goes the sex-you-down route and comes up with a slow-jam classic as sheet-steamin’ as anything by Luther or Teddy P.

19. “Ain’t No Sunshine” (1971): Again, I ask…how can a kid sing a song like this and make the lyrics sound so soulful, so believable? The spoken recitation borders on corny (and sounds *very* Diana Ross-ish), but the instrumentation is delectable. Dare I say this is better than Bill Withers’ original?

(I’m going to hell for saying that, but fuck it)

20) “One Day in Your Life” (1975): Michael’s recent excursions into syrupy pop balladry have been quite regrettable (um…”The Lost Children” or “Speechless”, anyone?), but this Carpenters-esque ballad from the mid Seventies (which was re-released and hit #1 in the U.K. in 1981) proves that there’s a place for well-written and beautifully sung sap (and I mean “sap” in the nicest way possible). If I was one of his brothers standing in the background, I’d be wondering “what the hell does he need *me* for?”

There are a ton of songs I left off here that I could’ve just as easily added: “I Wanna Be Where You Are”, “You Can’t Win”, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”, “Somebody’s Watching Me”, “PYT”, “Liberian Girl”, “Jam”, “This Time Around”, “Say, Say Say” and a handful of others, but this set is a fairly handy-dandy guide to all that is good about The King of Pop. Hope you enjoyed.