Off the Wall or Thriller – Which is Michael Jackson’s Greatest Work?: Head to Head with Edd

Welcome back to Head to Head with Edd, where yours truly goes toe-to-toe with the superfans of the game’s biggest artists. We’ll take a look at the selected artist’s biggest hits and misses and see where we can find common ground.

The world has spent the past few weeks celebrating the greatest of MJ with The Last Dance, so today we’re showing love to an even greater MJ – the incomparable Michael Jackson. Seun Ojo joins me to debate the career of one of music’s true greats.

Name Michael Jackson’s three best albums

Seun

1. Off the Wall

2. Thriller

3. Dangerous

Off the Wall is the reason I decided to listen to all of MJ’s albums. Thriller is just full of great songs. Most of the other albums have songs that I skip regularly but I can listen to these two from beginning to end. Stick around to find out why I’ve got Off the Wall at #1.

The final spot goes to Dangerous. Its credentials: No super-producer Quincy Jones (Off the Wall, Thriller). A completely new sound; courtesy of a producer known as just “Teddy” since April 18, 2020. A more socially conscious writing style. Four or five legendary songs and some of the strongest album cuts in MJ’s catalog.

Edd:

1. Thriller

2. Off the Wall

3. Dangerous

The top two spots are no-brainers, though I’ll expound on my thoughts about ranking Thriller No. 1 later on. Dangerous is an interesting one, though – while it was certainly beloved in its day, I’ve seen several younger fans proclaim it as MJ’s best album. That’s probably because it was the first album they were introduced to and, as I’ve said many times before, the album that launches your fandom often comes with preset biases. Dangerous is incredible – I’ve ranked it 4.5 out of 5 stars in the past – but it doesn’t reach the pinnacle of MJ’s two greatest. Honestly, few albums on the planet ever have.

And what’s MJ’s worst album?

Seun: Forever, Michael

Ben is a strong contender but I’ve got to go with Forever, Michael.

It’s the only album where MJ sounds like he doesn’t believe what he’s singing about. I’d happily throw it away with zero regrets.

…and that “Dapper-Dan” song is TRASH!

Edd: Music & Me

I actually like Forever, Michael. It’s main issue is that it’s just forgettable, not necessarily of poor quality. Music & Me is a much weaker album – between Michael’s prepubescent voice changing and the shifting musical tone at the time, he really struggled to find his place here. It’s not a terrible album by any means but it’s nowhere near the heights he’d later obtain.

Hit us with your pick for MJ’s most underrated album

Seun: Invincible

You know it’s Invincible.

This album has no major weaknesses. It showed that MJ could personalize any genre and still make hits in his fourth decade. It even gave us guilty pleasures like Two (two) thousand (thousand) Watts (Watts). WHAT?! But I digress.

Point is, Invincible is a good album; one that’s aging well after 20 years. It’s also at the bottom of many MJ-themed “best of” lists. If that’s not underrated, I don’t know what is.

Edd: Got to Be There

Gotta be real with you Seun, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Invincible when it dropped in 01. I thought it was merely OK. But in the years that have followed, I’ve really begun to embrace it – and in recent years I was also shocked to learn that it had such a cult following online. So while it may have been underrated in the early 00s, that doesn’t seem to be the case so much today. So instead I’ll go with Got to Be There. Nothing annoys me more than so-called MJ fans who pretend that his pre-Off the Wall recordings are irrelevant or “shouldn’t count” (yes, I’ve been told this many times and no, I wasn’t arrested for dropkicking the offenders on-sight). Got to Be There was MJ’s first attempt to break away from his Jackson 5 roots and it holds up very well today. You can’t hide talent.

And while we’re on the topic, what’s his most underrated single?

Seun: “Stranger in Moscow”

This song is exceptional on so many levels. Heartfelt lyrics. A beautiful arrangement that never distracts from the message. A vocal performance that conveys MJ’s emotions effortlessly. Add in the music video and it becomes a masterpiece.

It peaked at #91 back in the day, was (and probably still is) a commercial failure and I’ve never heard it mentioned among MJ’s best songs.

Edd: “Butterflies”

Yeah, I know it’s a fondly-remembered single but it’s much more than that – I’d put it among MJ’s greatest songs of all time. That’s pretty high praise considering his iconic discography, but I stand by it. And I’m STILL MAD we never got a video for this.

What’s Michael’s most overrated single?

Seun: “The Girl is Mine”

It peaked at #2 on the Hot 100, stayed on the charts for 18 weeks and sold 500,000+ units. How, Sway?!

Edd: “You Rock My World”

I’m sorry but I’m not hearing what y’all are hearing in this one. It has absolutely none of MJ’s trademark energy, the lyrics are pretty pedestrian and the video was Great Value Godfather. Everything felt dated and lethargic here. There were MUCH better tracks on Invincible

And most overrated album goes to…

Seun: Bad

Is that the sound of millions of people fainting after what they just read? I’m sure they’ll be fine.

Here’s my reality:

“Liberian Girl” is still in heavy rotation. I like “Just Good Friends” (a song many people dislike for some reason). You’ll often find me playing a solo arrangement of “Man in the Mirror” or the main riff from “Dirty Diana” on guitar. My 5-year-old son is partial to “Leave Me Alone.”

Yes, this is a great album and a family favorite. But, at its core, it’s just trying to be (or be better than) Thriller. Compared to the other albums from MJ’s classic period, it’s got the weakest singles and album cuts; yet it’s second only to Thriller in commercial success. And, if you fainted earlier, it’s probably in your top three.

It deserves our respect but I think it unfairly overshadows other albums.

…and “Speed Demooooooooooooooon” is also TRASH! [I’m smiling but I’m dead serious]

Edd: Dangerous

Whew, you’ve got some strong opinions about Bad, huh? I gotta disagree with you on that one, Bad’s pretty close to a 5-star release filled with solid cuts. Sure, it tries to be as good as Thriller and fails but what album on the planet has beaten Thriller? Also I LIKE SPEED DEMON.

I really struggle to think of an overrated MJ album. For the sake of argument I’ll say Dangerous.

HEAR ME OUT, INTERNET: Dangerous is NOT a bad album.

As I said earlier, I’d score it 4.5/5 stars, meaning it’s pretty close to a complete album and light-years ahead of any current music I’ve reviewed in the past two or three years. And it’s No. 3 on my Best MJ Albums list, so clearly I love it. But to reiterate my point from earlier, I’ve recently seen it classified as BETTER than both Off the Wall AND Thriller, and that’s a pretty major stretch.   

Let’s switch gears for a minute. What’s the first MJ song that made you a fan?

Seun: “Off the Wall”

My earliest memory of MJ is the 1930s/white suit/fedora version; thanks to “Smooth Criminal.” I was a child at the time so I didn’t care what he was singing about. I just wanted to move like he did. It wasn’t until I heard “Off the Wall” as an adult, that I became an official fan.

Once that bass line kicked in, it was over! That song was the gateway drug for me.

Edd: “Beat It”

Isn’t it funny how so many of our early music memories are tied to Michael? My earliest memory of not just music but life in general is sitting at the kitchen table singing “Beat It” to my mom and dad. The first memory I have on this planet is of Michael Jackson – that says all you need to know about his impact. 

Michael is the king of music videos. Which is his best?

Seun: “Smooth Criminal”

It just looks great, for starters.

Then there’s the choreography. There are 50,000 things going on in that video but MJ glides through every scene and everyone’s timing is precise.

I never skip through any parts of this one because every element is somehow important; from the kids outside the lounge (shout out to self-anointed sensei Brandon Quintin Adams!) to the guys doing the 45-degree lean inside it.

Edd: “Thriller”

Yes I know this seems like the obvious choice – but it’s obvious because it’s the RIGHT choice. In 13 minutes, Michael completely wrote the rules for music videos, changing the game forever. I know it’s a little overexposed and even feels slightly dated today, but you can’t deny history. It’s been hailed as the greatest music video of all time, and I see no lies.

What’s Michael’s best collaboration?

Seun: “Scream” with Janet Jackson

Michael and Janet were at the height of their popularity when they gave us this incredible joint. And Janet came through with the muscular vocals. If this is the same Janet known as “The Whisperer,” then we’re all whisperers!

Edd: “Scream” with Janet Jackson

Another no brainer. I remember how incredible the hype was for long-awaited collabo between Janet and Michael and boy did they deliver in a major way. Many an ankles were broken trying to re-enact the choreography in this video.

While we’re on MJ’s family roots, share your favorite Jackson 5 song

Seun: “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”

It’s not even my favorite song on Destiny but I’ve chosen it because it’s a great song and their most significant.

The Jacksons wrote, produced and recorded it after they’d left Motown and their most recent album had flopped. Their legacy was pretty much on life support when they dropped “Shake Your Body.” It was their first Top 10 hit in years and became their most commercially successful song.

Without it, we wouldn’t have Triumph, Victory or Off the Wall.

Edd: “I Want You Back”

We could have done a whole article on the Jackson 5’s hits alone – they have no shortage of 70s bops. But I don’t see how anyone could bet against I “Want You Back.” Their first hit is arguably their most memorable, and most assuredly their most sampled. This song has lived forever due to that legacy.

Name an album cut that should have been a single

Seun: “Whatever Happens”

Apparently, it was one of MJ’s favorite songs on Invincible. There are better album cuts in his catalog but none of them is as unique as this. With its radio-friendly groove and Carlos Santana’s Midas touch (at the time), it could’ve been a very successful single. Sadly, we’ll never know.

Edd: “Heaven Can Wait”

I could have sworn “Heaven Can Wait” was an official single, but according to the all-knowing, never inaccurate source known as Wikipedia, that wasn’t the case – at least not officially. Apparently it was set to be rolled out to radio but plans were canceled. That’s a shame, it was one of Invincible‘s best offerings and might be MJ’s last great vocal performance.

Time to break the Internet: MJ was considered the best performer of his era. Which current artist is the most worthy of this title?

Seun: Bruno Mars

What made MJ the best performer of his generation?

  • Solo dancing: Smooth movement on his own.
  • Choreography: Precision within a group.
  • Charisma: Self-explanatory.
  • Little/no smoke and mirrors: He could give a captivating performance with just a piece of string and a safety pin.
  • Reach: Strong album sales and/or touring success.
  • Consistency: Rinse and repeat

Bruno Mars ticks most of these boxes for me. Like MJ, he’s a seasoned performer; having been on stage for most of his life. He dances well enough but he really shines when he’s with the Hooligans.

Does he have charisma? I’m not sure if anyone comes close in this department. People seem to like him a lot. I know he makes great music but even MJ had haters! And speaking of music, each of his albums has sold 5M+ copies worldwide. That 24K Magic World Tour? Only one of the highest grossing tours in the history of music.

He just needs to keep doing his thing and he’ll earn the title.

Why not Chris Brown? He’s the best dancer out there but it seems he just wants to freestyle. That shouldn’t matter but after seeing MJ or Janet perform, one might understand why choreography is so essential.

…I’m also not sure if people actually like him.

Why not Beyoncé? Smoke and mirrors everywhere! She’s also polarizing. Some love her while others are suspicious of her “flawlessness” (I know quite a few).

Janelle Monáe would be my second choice but she’s rather mysterious and doesn’t have that reach (yet). Otherwise, I think she has everything needed to be the best of this generation.

Edd: Beyonce

WHOAAAAAAAA. Seun, I applaud you for your bravery in going with Bruno because the R&B True Believers are GONNA BLOW A GASKET.

But let them. It’s funny how R&B critics throw stones at artists like Bruno and Justin Timberlake for ‘BeInG pOp NoT rEeL aRrUh-N-BeE’ when Michael Jackson himself hadn’t been “pure R&B” since the 70s! He was a pop star who occasionally made R&B records but wisely infused those pop track with funk and soul – just like Bruno has been doing his entire career.

You laid out some incredible points for Bruno, but I’m taking it one step further and go with Beyonce.

LET THE PEARL CLUTCHING BEGIN.

Not only does she check off all the boxes you mentioned, she has one thing that Bruno doesn’t yet have – worldwide name recognition and influence. Say the name “Bruno” and there’s a portion of public who will shrug their shoulders. Say the name “Beyonce” and EVERYONE knows who you’re talking about. We haven’t seen that level of impact since MJ left us.

And yes, I get your point about Bey being polarizing. Well, let’s not forget the controversies that have haunted MJ for decades before and after death. He’s romanticized a bit now that he’s gone but we can’t pretend he didn’t have major detractors out there. He was just as polarizing in some circles.

Of course, y’all, neither of us are saying Bruno or Bey are BETTER than MJ, so chill.

RIP to BOTH our mentions, regardless.

Thriller or Off the Wall: Which do you prefer and why?

Seun: Off the Wall

Off the Wall. A collection of amazing songs with the fluidity of a concept album.

The bass lines on “Get on the Floor” and “Off the Wall” are special. Many of the guitar parts on the album are so good that I sometimes wish I’d written them. Even the cowbells and glass bottles sound legit! Thriller is amazing for a lot of the same reasons but it loses some of the organic elements of Off the Wall and doesn’t inspire me in the same way.

I don’t think Off the Wall is objectively better than Thriller but I believe it’s just as good without trying as hard.

Music aside, I prefer Off the Wall to Thriller because it shows Michael as I’d like to remember him. He looks happy on the album cover. He seemed even happier in the “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” video. This was a time before he made any major changes to his appearance. Before he was plagued by the allegations that followed him even beyond the grave.

Edd: Thriller

We’re choosing between two of the greatest albums ever made, there really is no wrong answer here. I feel you, Seun, Off the Wall MJ feels so much more fun and lighthearted, which may be why some prefer it. But y’all know me, I’m a picky, analytical reviewer, and when it comes down to nuts and bolts, I give the very slight edge to Thriller due to one variable – unparalleled impact. I mentioned earlier how the title track rewrote the rules for music videos. It doesn’t end there. The popularity of “Billie Jean” helped break down MTV’s segregated mindset, proving black artists deserved to be in rotation with the hottest pop records of the day. Every track on the album is instantly recognizable. It’s one of the most important albums in music history, and easily the most monumental album of my lifetime. Off the Wall might be a good time, but Thriller emphatically changed our times.

So who are you riding with? Are you a Thriller stan siding with Edd or an Off the Wall loyalist rolling with Seun? Let us know below.

Check out the Head to Head with Edd archive here

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