They were initially little more than teeny-bopper sensations, an Afro-haired, bell-bottomed, high-stepping quintet whose primary appeal was to the little girls who egged them on. And yet their songs proved far more than mere guilty pleasures, particularly such hits as the irresistibly infectious "ABC," "I Want You Back" (hip enough to be covered by Graham Parker), and "I'll Be There," Michael's first step toward a solo career.
9. Nailing it with Off the Wall
Michael matured, showing that he had it all: Wholesome looks (pre-surgery), singing skills ("Don't Stop 'Til You Got Enough" and "Rock With You," each a major milestone in the evolution of the modern pop and R&B crossover), and superb songwriting skills (ditto that last part). It also garnered a slew of awards, millions in worldwide sales, and the highest royalty rate in the history of the recording industry. Michael had arrived.
8. A Thriller indeed!
"Billie Jean." "Wanna Be Startin' Something." "Beat It" (with Eddie Van Halen in tow). All of these and more added up to the best-selling album of all time. Thriller gave the world seven hit singles and 29 million albums (shipped from the get-go) and sat 80 consecutive weeks in the top ten, 37 of them at number one. This was an album that helped redefine the standard of pop perfection. It also raised the bar for Jackson's career, one he would always aspire to top on his own.
7. Coming alive on Motown 25
It was the moment that made all the difference -- the deft dance moves accompanying "Billie Jean" that would eventually be known as the "Moonwalk." One glove, a black sequined jacket, and the cool confidence of a young man who knew he was about to rule the world. It was March 25, 1983, and what began as a reunion with his brothers turned into a solo tour de force. Nearly 47 million people saw it and marveled as the audience oohed and ahhed at Jacko's dexterity.
6. "We Are the World"
Cowritten by Michael and Lionel Richie, this song became one of the best-selling singles of all time, resulting in 30 million discs sold and four attendant Grammy nods (including one for Song of the Year). It also brought Jackson international status as a mover, shaker, and artist who mattered when it came to ascending to the world stage.
5. "Thriller" the video
Directed by Jon Landis, "Thriller" became the definitive example of how a video could transcend its form and become a standard by which all others would be judged. Considered the most influential music video of all time, it sold 350,000 copies on its commercial release and earned a spot in the National Film Registry as well. Nearly 30 years later, it is as captivating as ever, from the startling sequence where Michael is transformed from wistful innocent into a horrifying werewolf to the dancing zombies that form its ghoulish chorus line.
4. Gazing fondly at the "Man in the Mirror"
Michael takes a long, hard look at his battered public persona and vows to rise above it all. A song of redemption disguised as a plea to humanity ("I'm starting with the man in the mirror/I'm asking him to change his ways..."), it ranks among the most honest confessional ballads ever written or recorded. Sadly, it's also the last true glimpse at Michael's human side prior to his tabloid turnabout.
3. Halftime, Super Bowl XXVII, and Jacko scores!
Preceded by fireworks, Michael makes his appearance, standing stiff as a statue for a breathtaking minute and a half. When he finally commences with his performance, the crowd goes wild, and for the first time in Super Bowl history, the audience numbers actually accelerate during halftime. No wonder. It's still the most electrifying performance in Super Bowl history.
2. The Kiss!
The King of Pop marries Elvis' daughter, his princess, Lisa Marie Presley, and rock has a new royal couple. Still, many have lingering questions about whether Jackson's heart -- and other body parts -- were truly committed to this bond. To dispel the rumors, Michael and Lisa Marie appeared together on the 1994 MTV Music Awards, first strolling down the runway hand in hand, then engaging in a prolonged liplock that had the audience roaring its approval. If only the marital bliss had lingered nearly as long.
1. The "This Is It Tour," which never was
Judging by the footage shot at rehearsal and the film subsequently released after his death, Jackson's last production could have easily marked another watermark in Jackson's roller-coaster career. Planned as his first tour in 12 years, it would have proved to the world that he was as unstoppable as ever. The King of Pop would reclaim his crown. He had much to prove -- especially to himself -- and he gave every indication that he would rise to the challenge. Sadly, medical malfeasance, substance abuse, and a life that had long since unraveled cut that opportunity short.