Few artists could match Michael Jackson's chart dominance. On his own, he had 13 singles that hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts; tossing in the Jackson 5 adds another four chart-toppers to his tally, with one more courtesy of USA For Africa.
While a complete picture of Jackson's talent can only be gleaned from a thorough survey of his entire output, it's worth looking at the most notable musical moments from his No. 1 hits, times when nobody was being listened to more than the "King of Pop."
"I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5 (1969)The Jackson 5's first Motown single was also the group's first chart-topper, a rather auspicious national debut. From that first piano glissando through to the fadeout, it ranks with the best that Hitsville U.S.A. had to offer, with a joyous, bubbling bassline, popping drums and a rhythm guitar so dead-on funky that there was no need to change notes no matter where it was in the chord progression. If there'd been any doubt that an 11-year-old could credibly front a major pop group, it was wiped clear away by the time little Michael finished the first chorus.
“Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough” (1979)This wasn't Jackson's first solo No. 1 single — that honor went to 1972's ode to man-rat devotion “Ben” — but it was his first to top the charts that he wrote himself. In fact, it was the first single that Jackson wrote himself, period, the importance of which can't really be overstated, since his musical legacy rests just as much, if not more, on his songwriting as on his singing and performance. He tested the waters with a pure disco tune, complete with swirling strings and a thumping rhythm that was as much an injunction to hit the floor and dance as the lyrics themselves. It was essentially a declaration of independence by a 20-year-old who'd just figured out how to stand on his own.
“Billie Jean” (1983)
There are plenty of historical reasons to celebrate “Billie Jean” that treat the song itself as little more than incidental baggage. The video broke down MTV's color barrier, and it was during his performance of this song during the “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” TV special that he first unveiled the moonwalk. But such facts ignore the song itself, which is one of the toughest of Jackson's career by virtue of the fact that he didn't feel the need to push too hard. Atop a low-key but pulsing beat, the singer oozes confidence to such a degree that he captures the song's ominousness without a hint of a snarl. It's also worth noting that the lyric finds Jacko defending himself against malicious gossip. He'd return to that topic a few years later with the more tongue-in-cheek “Leave Me Alone,” but nothing could top the original.
“Beat It” (1983)
Released a mere six weeks after “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” featured one Mr. Eddie Van Halen on guitar, signaling a rare accord between R&B and heavy metal at a time when they were quite firmly segregated from one another. On paper, Jackson's thin, nasal voice is about as wholly unsuited to lyrics about youth violence as Morrissey's would have been, even if he's preaching calculated retreat (also known as “running away”). The metallic guitar and heavy drums have other things to say about it, though, and the song picks up enough momentum by the time of Van Halen's fiery solo for Jackson to pull off the role of no-nonsense peacemaker. The singer would try to make lightning strike again with rockers like “Black Or White” (with Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash) and the squealing “Dirty Diana,” but none of them could crawl out of the shadow of “Beat It.”
“We Are The World” by USA For Africa (1985)
Co-written with Lionel Richie, the utterly inescapable “We Are The World” might not have been released under Jackson's name, but it was the song that maybe most explicitly laid out Jackson's vision for himself and his place in the world. It brought together one of the most staggering collection of great pop voices ever assembled — that's Ray Charles, Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nelson, Steve Perry, Diana Ross and Bruce Springsteen all on one track — and galvanized them into a great pop gospel choir dispensing the feel-good argument that global human crises could be resolved through little more than empathy. It wasn't an unproblematic sentiment by any stretch, but to borrow the title of one of his later songs, Jackson wanted nothing more than to heal the world through his music, and for one brief, shining moment, it sounded as though he was going to do exactly that.
“I Just Can't Stop Loving You” (1987)It's not that Jackson shies away from love in his lyrics, but when he broaches the subject at all, he tends more towards upbeat jams (think “P.Y.T.,” “Rock With You,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” etc.) than straight-up love songs. “I Just Can't Stop Loving You” is the grand exception and one of his most convincing romantic ballads. It helps that he gets a handy vocal assist from Siedah Garrett, whose presence forces a distinct focus on his declarations so that he can't get away with vague generalities to nobody in particular. But the deal is sealed by a bed of lush keyboards and one of the creamiest melodies Jackson ever came up with.
“You Are Not Alone” (1995)Jackson's final No. 1 pop hit came at a time when he'd seemingly been eclipsed by his sister Janet, who was still riding her own incredible hot streak, and he had to turn to an outside songwriter to get there. It would have been a step backwards to his pre-“Off The Wall” days, but R. Kelly's song was the perfect vehicle for Jackson in the mid-1990s. Musically, it was cut from the same inspirational slow-jam mold as “I Believe I Can Fly,” but there's an introspective sadness that's all the more bittersweet for the implication that he was singing the songs to himself and trying desperately to believe.