tournament archive: Michael jackson
Billie Jean Is the One
In the summer of 1958, on the continent of North America, three supernovas of North American popular music would be born. Now, on the 60th anniversary of this celestial episode, we at Choon Group celebrate the divine creations of these pop gods by launching 60 each of their greatest creations into glorious competition, allowing we mere mortal stargazers to decide the fates, and declare which of their classic jams shall henceforth be known as the Most Legendary Song for each of this trio we call, The Legends of '58!
"Billie Jean" concluded its dominant moonwalk to the title of Michael Jackson's Most Legendary Song, earning the most decisive victory of any of Choon Group's three LEGENDS OF '58 Tournament Championships, amassing 73.7% of the Final Round vote, to 26.3% for "Man in the Mirror." The song that ignited the Thriller phenomena to supernova levels in 1983 and implanted many of Michael's moves, looks, and vocals into iconic status in the public consciousness (not to mention just being a stone groove and undeniable draw to dance on the floor in the round) was more than enough to best the beloved and inspirational "Man in the Mirror" from the Bad LP, no slouch itself as a top seed in its bracket and tournament victor over classics "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" and "Rock with You."
Thanks to all the fans and Choon Group followers for their votes over the three weeks of competition, and all summer long as we commemorated three of the biggest pop stars the world has ever known. Click the links below to see how each successive round shook out, with breakdowns of every individual matchup:
You can reminisce with the full field of 60 songs, a career-spanning and creatively curated box set's worth of classics by Michael Joseph Jackson (Born August 29, 1958 in Gary, Indiana) via our Spotify playlist and Bracket Breakdown Podcast below.
The 60 competing tunes were divided into four ranked brackets of 15 songs, each bracket named after one of Michael's four brothers, who made up The Jackson 5ive's original lineup from 1964-1975. Each song's final overall ranking, determined by 1) how far they made it in the tournament, 2) the percentage of votes they earned in their final round, and 3) the higher seeded song breaking any ties after 1 and 2, is indicated in parentheses after the title. Clicking the title of each song will take you that song's primary video.
1. Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. (6th) Let’s push up our tuxedo sleeves and get stuck right in with this 1979 #1 hit floor-filler, the first single from the beloved Off the Wall LP. I’ll never quite make out the lyrics in his gliding falsetto. Something about "The Force."
8. Can You Feel It. (30th) Bonus points for the over-the-top cosmic superhero video of this 1981 Jacksons’ Triumph single, and the elemental floor-stomping uplift of the late-period disco jam holds up.
9. Baby Be Mine. (41st) A Thriller cut that wasn’t a single--there were a couple! The fact that this gloriously smooth R&B/funk wasn’t released as such speaks to the album’s incredible depth, even at only 9 songs.
5. Bad. (22nd) The title track from the hugely-anticipated 1987 album, it’s the beginning of later-period Seething Michael. Scorcese directed the ambitious video featuring young Wesley Snipes, but the vocals do not feature Prince as originally planned, as His Royal Badness reportedly bristled at the possibility of MJ directing the line “Your butt is mine” to him.
12. Love Never Felt So Good. (46th) The lead single from the posthumous 2014 Xscape album gave Michael a Top Ten hit in five different decades--the first solo act to do so. The song was reworked from a 1983 demo with Canadian schlockmeister Paul Anka, but we’ve come to love its Off the Wall-reminiscent joyfulness, and Michael is singing his ass off. Skip the JT version, though.
4. ABC. (12th) Wow, a #4 seed for this foundational piece of bubblegum pop goodness. Its ubiquity got it a selection committee downvote, but as the second and most famous of the Jackson Five’s unprecedented four career-opening #1 singles, it’s hard to argue with its enduring delights.
13. She’s Out of My Life. (52nd) This Off the Wall ballad hit #10 in 1980, but its treacly sound and Michael’s weepy vocal performance almost always make it a skip for me. Hell, I’ll cross the room and lift the needle.
6. I’ll Be There. (19th) The final of those first four Jackson 5 singles, with songwriting credits including Berry Gordy, Hal David and Willie Hutch, this gospel-feel ballad was memorably covered for a new generation on MTV Unplugged by Mariah Carey and Trey Lorenz in 1992.
11. Ghosts. (58th) One of the 5 new songs on the Blood on the Dance Floor remix album, this Teddy Riley collaboration did not hit in the U.S., despite its Cannes-debuting Stan Winston-directed let’s-make-”Thriller”-happen-again video, which featured Michael dancing as a ghoul, a CGI skeleton, and in heavy prosthetics and a fat suit made to resemble one of the prosecutors from his first round of child abuse allegations, which is more icky than him pulling off the flesh from his skull in the clip.
3. Thriller. (3rd) The 14-minute video directed by John Landis cemented MTV’s cultural dominance of the period and sent Michaelmania into supernova territory. Everybody knows someone who’s learned the dance, and the tune, with guest MC Vincent Prince, is a kitsch-pop blast with much slapping of the bass.
14. Just a Little Bit of You. (53rd) The biggest hit from his 1975 solo album Forever, Michael takes him to enjoyable Philly soul territory, with swinging strings and a four-on-the-floor beat, courtesy of Motown hitmakers Brian and Edward Holland.
7. Who Is It. (44th) Single #5 from Dangerous finds Michael down in his lower register and hiccupping all over the track, as he ruefully examines a lost relationship with an unfaithful lover. Madonna favorite David Fincher got the call for the stylish video.
10. Dirty Diana. (25th) The fourth and final #1 single from Bad pumps up Michael’s groupie blues with some raunchy rock guitars and immediately made some dumb folks think it was about Princess Diana, I guess because those two had met at some point and people can only conceive of one Diana in the world.
2. The Way You Make Me Feel. (9th) Certified choon and second #1 from Bad (sorry about the bunch-up here!), this horny street harassment anthem comes with bright n’ brassy production courtesy of that dude Quincy Jones.
15. Ben (51st) Full disclosure, I’ve never made it through all two minutes and 45 interminable seconds of Michael’s first #1 solo single, as I’m not big on mawkish ballads sung to rats.
1. Man in the Mirror. (2nd) Probably the most enduring of MJ’s big anthem moves, with a timeless message reminding us that, y’know, true change comes from within, "Man in the Mirror" features 17 gigantic hooks and a commanding vocal performance. It was #1 for 2 weeks in early ‘88, as Michael’s King of Pop stature continued to grow to messianic proportions.
8. I Can’t Help It. (37th) Silky-smooth romantic Off the Wall album cut co-written by Mr. Stevie Wonder and post-Diana Ross Supreme Susaye Green, it was expertly sampled by Prince Paul on De La Soul’s 1993 single “Breakadawn.” Brilliant jazz bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding notably covered "I Can't Help It."
9. The Love You Save. (31st) Another of those first four Jackson Five #1s, I’m not sure if the brothers are giving good advice to a girlfriend running wild here, or just slut-shaming. The songwriters worked in more education-themed lyrics to this follow-up to "ABC," with the second verse referencing classmates with names of historical figures.
5. Leave Me Alone. (24th) Bonus track on the CD version of Bad and a single outside of North America, this galloping groove is part of the Michael Jackson paranoia subgenre, and is best known for its inventive animated video that satirized tabloid obsession with Michael’s eccentricities, from Bubbles the chimp to the rumored purchase of the Elephant Man’s bones.
12. You Can’t Win. (45th) The 1978 film version of the musical The Wiz with Michael as the Scarecrow marked his first collaboration with Quincy Jones, and their re-recording of the soundtrack version of “You Can’t Win” was his first single for Epic Records, giving this the edge over “Ease on Down the Road” and “A Brand New Day” as Wiz representative.
4. Rock with You. (14th) Editor’s #1. That’s right, Matt's all-time favorite MJ. Written by the late Rod Temperton, then of the British soul band Heatwave, and turned down in its first offer to Karen Carpenter (can you imagine?!), I’m all-in for the pure, soulful vocal performance, butter smooth production, and as always, I’m a sucker for a great pop bridge. A #1 hit from Off the Wall. Brazilian star Seu Jorge of The Life Aquatic fame recorded an interesting cover.
13. Earth Song. (56th) This HIStory single is another one that performed much better outside the States, as U.S. Americans are not into addressing our own environmental irresponsibility. As years have passed, I’ve gotten past its cheesiness and now am pretty okay with its powerful buildup to gospel overdrive. But its memory may be doomed to Jarvis Cocker of Pulp's hilarious disruption of its over-the-top performance at the 1996 Brit Awards.
6. Dancing Machine. (16th) After a couple years outside the Top Ten, the brothers Jackson featuring teenage Michael’s maturing voice, stormed back in with this funky disco track. Starting with its performance on Soul Train, the Jacksons brought “doing the robot” to widespread attention in their routine to “Dancing Machine,” and a million elbow joints would soon dangle loosely.
11. One Day in Your Life. (47th) An album cut from Forever, Michael that was released as the title single 6 years later when Motown released the first of their multiple post-contract Michael cash-in compilations. I’m not usually one for his sweet, sentimental ballads, but this one manages to grab hold of my tattered heart strings.
3. Butterflies. (29th) This late-period choon garnered lots of selection committee support, as it’s the standout from 2001 album Invincible. English R&B singer Marsha Ambrosius co-wrote the midtempo neo-soul ballad with producer Andre Harris, and there’s a demo version out there worth checking out by Floetry, her group at the time.
14. State of Shock. (42nd) After Thriller, Michael teamed back up with his brothers in 1984 for the lucrative Victory album and tour and ill-fated Pepsi commercial. This dumb-fun jam with the big dumb guitar riff and the dumb echoey drums and a colossally dumb performance from Mick Jagger was the lead single and a #3 hit. Did you know, “State of Shock” was originally recorded with Freddie Mercury?
7. Off the Wall. (27th) Another Rod Temperton gem, this would be my automatic Friday 5 pm drive-time selection if I was a bad FM radio DJ in the ‘80s. Fuck that, it’s still a good one to leave the 9 to 5 up on the shelf in 2018. One question though: why the weird maniacal laughter at the top of the song?
10. Enjoy Yourself. (50th) “Off the Wall” suggests you should enjoy yourself, but this one demands it in the title! This #6 success was the Jacksons’ first single as “The Jacksons” after leaving the “Five” trademark to Motown and signing to Epic Records. Jermaine stayed with Motown, so he was replaced by Randy Jackson, but not the American Idol judge, dawg.
2. Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. (5th) Aw shit! Every classic album needs a great leadoff track and “Startin’ Somethin’” certainly fits the Thriller bill with its brassy, bassy funk and some weird lines about you being a vegetable. The famous “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah" coda was bitten from Manu Dibango’s 1973 song “Soul Makossa” and garnered Manu a million francs in a settlement.
15. In the Closet. (57th) One of the talk-singing featuring songs on Dangerous, this sultry #6 hit is notable for its famous co-stars: Princess Stéphanie of Monaco on the aforementioned talk-singing pre-chorus, and of course Naomi Campbell murdering Michael in the sepia-toned desert video. Oh yeah, and Madonna suggested lyrics to him for the song that he rejected as too provocative when they briefly considered collaborating. Hmmm...
1. Billie Jean. (1st) This song’s okay. Minimal pop-funk that maybe has some DNA borrowed from “I Can’t Go For That” or Donna Summer’s “State of Independence,” but it still came like a bolt from the blue into the onto the pop landscape, with Michaelmania kicking off fully with his performance of it on the Motown 25 TV special in 1983 when he debuted a little move called the moonwalk. “Billie Jean” was the #1 song in America for seven weeks, and its iconic video smashed the color barrier in the early days of MTV’s rotation.
8. Scream. (32nd) Michael’s only duet with sister Janet that crossed Rhythm Nation styles with new jack swing and the ever-present broken glass percussion Michael was enamored with during the Dangerous/HIStory period, I’ve always felt this song was drowned out by its garish, expensive video.
9. Got To Be There. (35th) His first solo single from the 1971 album of the same name went to #4. It’s a sunny little soul ballad with nice guitar figures and boom-tap drums. He was around 13 when he recorded it.
5. I Want You Back. (15th) Ooh damn! The very first one, from October 1969. Piano, bass, guitar, drums all drop in, then Michael unleashes his talent on the world, and we’ve been talking about him ever since.
12. Another Part of Me. (49th) Originally used as the closing credits for his Francis Ford Coppola-directed Epcot Center attraction Captain EO, this lite-funk single from the Bad album also found its way into the Moonwalker long-form video and video game.
4. Will You Be There. (18th) As featured in the motion picture Free Willy, “Will You Be There” was the 37th single from Dangerous (okay, 8th, but still). All the goodwill from its lovely melody and uplifting gospel choir gets harpooned in its final minute by Michael’s sickly monologue/prayer. Less is more, MJ!
13. Somebody’s Watching Me. (40th) This hilarious slab of ‘80s bat shit represents Michael-the-hook singer-for-hire. (Sorry, “Whatzupwitu” by Eddie Murphy and “Do the Bartman”!) Rockwell is Motown founder Berry Gordy’s son, so we can assume MJ was doing a favor for a childhood favor by giving him a boost during the break between Thriller and Victory. Holy crap, Rockwell’s fake British accent is the best/worst thing ever recorded in a decade full of best worsts.
6. Say Say Say. (38th) A #1 hit duet from Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace album and produced by George Martin, it’s an improvement on their earlier “The Girl Is Mine,” as the two pop geniuses pile on the hooks and play Depression-era grifters (for some reason) in the video.
11. You Are Not Alone. (26th) Well, what are we to do with this one? It’s Michael’s final #1 hit, from HIStory in 1995, its video features lots of nude MJ and then-wife Lisa Marie Presley, which is...awesome, and of course, it was written by yes, R. Kelly. One more important and lesser-known item outside of Belgium, R. Kelly lost a plagiarism suit that he had lifted the song from a 1993 song by twin Belgian songwriters, so “You Are Not Alone” is banned from being played in Belgium.
3. P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing). (13th) This is one where if you tell me this is your favorite song from Thriller, I’m gonna think you’re fairly cool. Co-written by Quincy Jones and Mr. James Ingram (and featuring Janet and LaToya on backup vox), “P.Y.T.” just bounces and really endured on black radio for years after Michael had crossed too far over to ever fully come back. Drop this one randomly at a party or a bar and watch people light up.
14. Jam. (55th) Opening track on 1991’s event album Dangerous, the Teddy Riley production is full of 90s new-jack signifiers and MJ favorite sounds (Orch Hit 2! Breaking glass!) and features a ridiculous verse from Heavy D. The MTV-heavy rotation video guest starred Michael Jordan and Kris Kross, who really should’ve been given a guest verse on a remix.
7. Never Can Say Goodbye. (43rd) A pop-soul staple originally intended for Diana Ross & The Supremes and later covered by Gloria Gaynor, it was a #2 hit from the Jackson Five’s 1971 album Maybe Tomorrow.
10. Black or White. (23rd) Another Dangerous single where I’m compelled to name the guest stars in the video (come on trivia hounds, please beat me to it--Macaulay Culkin and George Wendt of all people), it was the lead single from Dangerous and featured some cute but definitely not dangerous pop/rock guitars. That George Wendt-featuring video I mentioned debuted on primetime TV and set off a shitstorm with its post-song sequence of Michael turning into a panther, smashing some car windows, and massaging his crotch while dancing to no music.
2. Smooth Criminal. (8th) The delicious digitized bass and staccato vocals are so recognizable, I was surprised to learn this single from Bad did not go to #1. It was the centerpiece of MJ’s Moonwalker film and its ‘30s-gangster-styled video featured the debut of another one of his iconic dance moves, the anti-gravity lean, which required the invention of custom flooring and shoes for it to be performed live. Also: Alien Ant Farm.
15. The Girl Is Mine. (60th) Somebody at Epic Records chose this as the lead single from Thriller. I’m not mad--after all, I’m a lover, not a fighter, I just find it strange that the 9th-best song on a 9-track album got the nod. Maybe they were just banking on the pull of Sir Paul. Not that big of a disaster in the end, it went to #2 on the charts, inspired the Brandy and Monica song some 15 years later, and is a fine mild blend of English and American cheddar.
1. Remember the Time. (10th) There was more selection committee love for this choon than any other single from Dangerous, and it had an instant-classic feel to it upon release in 1992 with a melody that evokes the nostalgia that our boy is singing about. Again with the big-budget event video, this time the Egyptian one co-starring future collaborator Eddie Murphy, future basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, future Mrs. David Bowie Iman, and future Debo, “Tiny” Lister.
8. Working Day and Night. (21st) Another popular Off the Wall album cut, I remember this hyperactive dance track scoring highlight reels on the early-‘80s equivalent of NBA Inside Stuff, but haven'f found any internet-extant evidence of this.
9. I Just Can’t Stop Loving You. (33rd) The advance single from Bad, this power ballad duet with Siedah Garrett went to #1 and began a string of five straight #1’s from that album.
5. You Rock My World. (28th) This R&B throwback was the lead single from the relative-flop 2001 Invincible album and featured another bloated 10+ minute video featuring celebrity guest stars Chris Tucker and Marlon Brando, which brings to mind the enduring urban myth that MJ, Brando and Liz taylor shared a road trip out of New York immediately after 9/11.
12. Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground). (36th) Another Jackson Brothers disco rockin’ feel good in the pocket party jam, this one from their 1978 Destiny LP, it was their last Top Ten hit before Michael released Off the Wall and made them kind of obsolete. Apologies to fans of their Triumph LP single “Lovely One,” which we did not include because it sounds suspiciously similar to “Shake Your Body.”
4. Beat It. (4th) Inspirational '80s pop featuring Eddie Van Halen ax work that helped ratchet up Michaelmania in 1983. Everyone is now visualizing the legendary mean-streets video with the red zipper jacket and the West Side Story knife fight, brilliantly and ridiculously recreated by “Weird Al” for “Eat It.”
13. Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. (54th) This represents the beloved pop chestnut Jackson Five Christmas Album, as it got a selection committee upvote and probably inspired Bruce Springsteen’s evergreen version. I prefer “Give Love on Christmas Day,” but not enough to spend a vote on it.
6. Show You the Way to Go. (39th) This Gamble and Huff gem from the first LP as the rebranded Jacksons (called simply The Jacksons and co-released by Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label) shows a maturing soulful sound for the group, and is one of a few editor’s-favorite sleepers in the Marlon Bracket.
11. Rockin’ Robin. (17th) A #2 hit in the year 1972, (apparently before human beings developed taste), Michael's second solo single was a cover of Bobby Day's 1958 original that also went to #2. Suddenly I want ice cream.
3. They Don’t Care About Us. (34th) 1996 single caught some controversy for Michael’s use of an anti-Semitic slur in the lyrics, but garnered support among our selection committee for its enduring/timely message of resistance.
14. Blame It On The Boogie. (7th) Bigger in the UK than in the States, this 1978 Jacksons single from Destiny got some downvotes but remains good fun for its act-outable chorus vocals of “Sunshine, moonlight, good times, boogie.” Michael’s assertion that he just can’t control his feet may be a symptom of early-onset RLS, or just a reaction to more Jacksons dancefloor fodder.
7. I Wanna Be Where You Are. (20th) The third single from debut solo LP Got To Be There is fantastic old-school soul and another Marlon Bracket sleeper selection. It was memorably performed on late night TV by Erykah Badu and The Roots as a tribute soon after Michael’s death in 2009.
10. Maybe Tomorrow. (59th) Title track from Jackson Five album #5 is a sitar and strings-soaked 1971 ballad with multiple modulations. Hip-hop heads will instantly recognize it as the basis for Ghostface and Mary J. Blige’s “All That I Got Is You.”
2. Human Nature. (11th) Another Thriller song that wasn’t a massive smash at the time (it peaked at #7) but has maintained strong fan respect. This almost yacht-rocky ballad was sampled for the remix to ‘90s R&B group SWV’s remix of “Right Here” and features yet another illustrious MJ vocal.
15. We Are the World. (48th) Following the model of Bob Geldof’s Band Aid benefit single and urged on by Harry Belafonte, Michael, Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones helped raise millions for African famine relief through the writing, recording and successful marketing of “We Are the World,” which went on to become the top-selling single in U.S. history (before being supplanted by “Candle in the Wind ‘97”). It also became a cloying earworm for a generation--witness the selection committee downvotes that landed it as a bottom seed. Nonetheless, a worthy work, and I recommend getting some friends together to impersonate all the soloists at karaoke.