Those who want to re-discover the musical catalog of Michael Jackson might want to skip right over the “Thriller” era and head back to 1969-1973, the height of the Jackson 5 and the beginning of Michael’s solo career
The Jackson 5 was quite simply one of the greatest soul/R&B/pop music acts in the history of popular music.
And so I generally agree with these thoughts by Jim DeRogatis on Jackson’s recorded output:
For that matter, more moving than anything on “Thriller” is the 1972 ballad “Ben,” another No. 1 hit and a song that Jackson, right at the start of his solo career, invested with so much emotion that it instantly transcended its origins as a love song to a killer rat from a B-grade horror film.
And, of course, there are the irrepressible, irresistible, unrelentingly upbeat songs of the Jackson Five, the family group that featured Michael and four of his eight siblings. Dismissed as bubblegum pop by some critics during their hit-making prime from 1969 through 1971, in retrospect, they stand as one of the most heartfelt and enduring acts that the legendary Motown Records ever produced. Michael’s vocals in particular shine through, with the prepubescent star somehow singing in a voice wise and soulful beyond its years.
Pop music just doesn’t get any better than the best of the Jackson 5, from “I Want You Back” to “The Love You Save” to ballads like “I’ll Be There”. At least, not in my world. That kid could sing, and the band was great too. Quality material and the full power of the Motown production powerhouse. What more do you need?
The opening guitar riff from “I Want You Back” still sounds as fresh and energetic today as it did forty years ago.
“The Love You Save” sounds a lot like the best of the Sly Stone output. “Never Can Say Goodbye” is still the best-ever version of that song. I forgot how much I liked “Maybe Tomorrow” until just now, after listening to it again. “Mama’s Pearl”, even though I don’t much like the chorus, is a pretty inventive piece of music, especially the instrumental breaks and vocal interplay.
And like Jim says above, “Ben” is a classic ballad. You just have to forget that it’s about a rat.
Even some of the more pedestrian material, like “Sugar Daddy” and “Little Bitty Pretty One”, is a cut above pretty much everything else that was going on with AM radio at the time.
Numerous other songs showcase their unique, youthful vitality, the kind of “it” factor that comes along once every generation. They stand frozen in time with that youth and energy, and who doesn’t gravitate to that?
His later solo output got progressively worse from a music perspective. Of course, these are just opinions, and others may disagree. But those of us that like music for listening rather than dancing tended to not like the influences that the disco era had on popular music. And that seems to apply here as well.
“Off the Wall” was largely a disco record during the height of the disco years. And that was just not the kind of music I was into at that point in my life. But I always did like “Rock with You”. And the song “Off the Wall” wasn’t bad either. Smooth R&B with killer harmonies has always been a favorite of mine.
“Thriller” had lots of energy and volume and rhythmic stuff going on, and sold gazillions of copies, but is far less musical than much of the best of the Jackson 5. It wasn’t so much music as it was an event, larger than life. I do get why some folks would like “Thriller”, but it did little for me. Too many vocal hicks and tricks and breathy weirdness: hey, how about if you just knock all that off, and sing? Is that possible?
In fact, the more I heard “Billie Jean”, which was on the radio about 45 times a day back then, the more I started to believe her side of the story over his: she is too your lover, dammit! And the kid is your son! Come on, admit it!
At home I have my old Jackson 5 anthology album with the black cover and the familiar Motown blue and silver label on the records that I bought in, maybe 1979? Maybe tonight I’ll play it to remove all traces of “Beat It” from my brain, and give my kids an example of what Michael Jackson could do with a song before he turned into a psychotic freak-show.
For me, I guess it comes down to this: he was a better, more compelling artist when he had a melody to work with, and some harmonizing from a deeper voice like older brother Jermaine, and a band that stretched out musically a little bit, and a producer that forced him to focus on creating small works of art rather than giant masterpieces.