At the dawn of the 80s, the world already knew Michael Jackson as the cute little kid who fronted the Jackson 5 and sang a hit song about a rat, but nothing could have prepared them for his adult solo career. Nobody expected a force of nature. A singing, dancing, one glove wearing, crotch grabbing, fedora throwing force of nature.
Absolutely everything about Michael Jackson became iconic, from his multi-zippered red leather jacket, to his vocal tics (shamone!), to his moonwalking. (How many people get their own dance move? MJ had half a dozen associated with him. And nobody could strike a pose like Michael.) His music videos turned the medium into an art form and are still widely imitated. (MTV should devote their own holiday to him. They owe him big.) Everything he did was a capital letter EVENT.
Was he weird? Oh, man, the weirdest! But initially it was more light-hearted, like fabulously rich, elderly English uncle weird. So what if his best friend was a chimp named Bubbles and he slept in a hyperbaric chamber? That’s colorful. So what if he had a shrine to Elizabeth Taylor? She was a beautiful woman, a fine actress, and had violet eyes to die for. And what’s the big deal if he bought the bones of the Elephant Man? Maybe he truly enjoyed the study of Victorian Era osteo-history. After the 80s, everything got darker and more bizarre (with, unfortunately, a corresponding drop in quality and quantity of work).
Anyway, he’s the King Of Pop. The heart and soul reside in the music. And here’s the least you need to know:
Off The Wall (1979) Michael’s first adult solo album. Straddles the line between his past and his future—traces of disco remain and some songs would have fit comfortably on the previous album with his brothers, but you can hear the future coming. And it sounds good. That joyous “Woo!” that kicks off opening track “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”? That’s a “Woo!” of total freedom. Check: Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough & Rock With You
Thriller (1982) A monster record. Out of its 9 tracks, 7 were released as singles and reached the Top 10. The album won 8 Grammys. It’s the best-selling album of all time. Combining elements of pop, R & B, hard rock, soft rock, and dance, Michael and producer Quincy Jones forged a slick and addictive mix that appealed to everyone on the planet. Check: Beat It & Billie Jean
Bad (1987) Song for song, not quite as strong as its predecessors, but 5 of the singles from the album went to #1. So, still pretty impressive. A slightly darker, edgier tone began to emerge. His last full-fledged classic. Check: The Way You Make Me Feel & Smooth Criminal
The Essential Michael Jackson An excellent distillation of MJ’s career, including his biggest hits with the other Jacksons in the 70s. Covers everything you need from the 80s and most of the essentials from the 90s. A good place to start and probably all you’ll ever need, but the original albums should be listened to as well, just to get an idea of their initial impact. Check: Black Or White & Leave Me Alone
In addition, Michael’s videos should be tracked down as they were highly original and influential in comparison to just about every other contemporaneous video. The long-form edit of “Thriller” can be seen below.