It seems strange, given that Michael Jackson was, ultimately, a man who sang songs for a living, but we remember exactly where we were when the news broke that he had died. Isn’t that the sort of thing usually reserved for major disasters, horrific events that can change the course of history? Of course, there were dozens of factors that made Jackson’s passing so instantly notable. The lives he had touched with his music. The controversy that had surrounded him in recent years. His relatively young age, and the circumstances in which he had passed away. And, of course, the fifty shows he was due to play at London’s O2 just weeks later.
Five years have now passed since Michael Jackson died, and in tribute to his extraordinary talent, we thought we’d take a new approach: what better way to consider a musician’s legacy than by looking at the musicians he influenced? We’ve put together a playlist of our favourite Michael Jackson covers – you can listen to it here and read about the tracks below:
Got To Be There
One of Michael Jackson’s earliest solo singles, ‘Got To Be There’ came out when he was just thirteen years old. The song has been covered numerous times, but Diana Ross’, released two years later (and already marking Ross’ fourteenth year in the industry!) is our favourite. There’s an eerie similarity between the two artists’ voices, and Ross surrounds herself with lush strings and an easy vibe.
Black or White
There are only two raps that we are capable of doing off by heart. Rather embarrassingly, they’re from Robbie Williams’ ‘Kids’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’. We’d go so far as to say that this is Jackson’s best song; an irresistible little number that begs to be danced to. A bossa nova touch makes perfect sense. Joana Duah’s version is summery sweet, and best listened to as the late evening sun sets over a picnic in the park.
There aren’t as many good Michael Jackson covers as you might think – but those that do exist stretch across genres and attract the work of some of the most famous musicians the world has seen. Miles Davis, arguably the coolest man ever to have lived, delivers an ice-cold (and incredibly 80s) take on ‘Human Nature’ here.
She’s Out Of My Life
Here’s another music legend, albeit from a completely different side of the musical tracks. Willie Nelson’s cover of ‘She’s Out Of My Life’ is every bit as a delicate as Jackson’s original, though it somehow picks up a certain similarity to Kermit the Frog’s ‘Rainbow Connection’. Don’t ask us why, it just does.
Man In The Mirror
Given that ‘Man In The Mirror’ took on a whole new level of meaning in the weeks after Jackson’s death, when fans re-christened it as the anthem of the artist’s life and took it to number two in the UK charts, there aren’t very many covers of the song. James ‘Don’t Mistake Me With Blunt’ Morrison recorded the most convincing of the lot, with a satisfying rasp and plenty of reverence for the original track lingering in his acoustic approach.
I Want You Back
The Civil Wars are an underrated act that are to American folk music as The White Stripes were to blues. They clearly love Michael Jackson, too – they’ve also paid tribute to Billie Jean in the past. We’re usually adverse to the trend for soft, almost delicate covers of classic pop hits, but their take on The Jackson 5’s best known single plays out like some sort of audible duvet. A pretty cosy one, too. As songs go, this is 13.5 togs.
Not enough attention is paid to the origins of ‘Billie Jean’. We all know that the song was supposedly written about a woman who claimed Michael Jackson was the father of her child, but what often is escapes the telling is that ‘Billie Jean’ had two children. Jackson was only accused of paternity for one of the children, which would be fine were the two children not twins. Chris Cornell, best known in the UK for singing the Bond theme for Daniel Craig’s debut ‘Casino Royale’ puts an almost apocalyptic roar into his vocals on this intense, raw cover.
The Way You Make Me Feel
Another cover demonstrating the versatility of Jackson’s back catalogue, Paul Anka delivered this smooth-as-silk swing tune. The album this is from, ‘Rock Swings’ is generally pretty terrible (though never quite as bad as its title), but there’s a simplicity to the lyrics that makes ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ a natural swing song. Just a shame the drummer was being paid by the decibel.
Not so suited to the genre is ‘Beat It’, which lounge artist/comedian Richard Cheese still takes a valiant swing at. With tongue firmly in cheek, Cheese sounds like he might kick off into a camp Spandau Ballet song at any second. When the chorus finally kicks in, it’s so (briefly) catchy that it’s easy to lose any sense of irony.
The Easy Star All-Stars are a collective of musicians that specialise in releasing classic albums entirely reimagined in the reggae genre. Which, we know, sounds about as tempting as Miley Cyrus releasing an album of Nickelback covers. But bear with us – this jaunty new ‘Thriller’ (from an album spelled, distressingly, as ‘Thrilla’) is cool, under-played and enough to almost convince you of the dodgy premise.
I Wanna Be Where You Are
This brief Marvin Gaye song brings our playlist full circle – not only does the original song feature on Jackson’s ‘Got To Be There’ album, but it was co-written by Diana Ross’ little brother. What Gaye’s version lacks in length it more than makes up for in easy soul.
You can hear the mix in full here, and buy Carlton’s book ‘Michael Jackson: The King Of Pop‘ here.