It's 'Smooth Criminal' vs. 'Man in the Mirror'

By Chuck Arnold
August 31, 2017 at 11:28 AM EDT

How do you top the best-selling album of all time? Well, you don’t. But Michael Jackson sure gave it an epic effort when he followed up his 1982 juggernaut Thriller with another blockbuster, Bad, which was released 30 years ago today on Aug. 31, 1987. While Bad couldn’t measure up to its predecessor commercially or artistically, it was still a regal achievement for the late King of Pop, becoming the first LP to score five consecutive No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 — that’s three more chart-toppers than Thriller. And just consider the fact that Jackson’s final collaboration with super-producer Quincy Jones was released just two days after the singer’s 29th birthday, which means that he gave the world Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad before he even turned 30. In honor of the LP’s 30th anniversary, EW ranks all 11 tracks on the last album of MJ’s ’80s domination.

11. “Just Good Friends”

After pairing up with Paul McCartney on Thriller’s “The Girl Is Mine,” Jackson teamed up with Stevie Wonder for this song, written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, the duo behind Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” But this meeting of Motown legends didn’t live up to its star billing. As hard as Jackson and Wonder try to funk it up, this track — which sounds as if it would have been better suited for their teen-phenom selves — isn’t worthy of them. They fared better later in 1987 on their duet “Get It,” off Wonder’s Characters album.

10. “Speed Demon”

Between 1982’s Thriller and 1987’s Bad, Prince had arrived in a big way. And, in his first post-Purple Rain effort, Jackson attempted to strike an edgier pose on tracks like this funk-rock ode to driving fast, which he wrote after reportedly getting a speeding ticket and consequently arriving late to the studio. With the production — and MJ’s agitated vocal — being better than the actual song, it never quite shifts into high gear.

9. “Leave Me Alone”

Musically, this was an obvious rewrite of the superior Bad track “The Way You Make Me Feel.” But lyrically, it tapped into the growing paranoia that Jackson was feeling at the time. It’s a bit sad to hear that now, knowing how it all ended up for Jackson, but it was still a bit of a revelation to hear him opening up about his struggles with being the King of Pop.

8. “Liberian Girl”

This song was especially important to Bad because it was the only real R&B ballad on the album. And while it’s not in the same league as Thriller’s “The Lady in My Life” or Off the Wall’s “I Can’t Help It,” it had the same kind of soulful sumptuousness, while also nodding to his global impact and vision.

7. “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”

The first single from Bad was also the first of its five No. 1 hits. A duet with Siedah Garrett — who stepped in after both Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston reportedly passed on this chance to sing with MJ — it melted their voices together in romantic unison. Maudlin, yes, but only the biggest hater could resist.

6. “Another Part of Me”

Originally featured in Captain EO — the 3D short film directed by Francis Ford Coppola that was shown at Disney theme parks — this song sets out to unite the planet with “a major love.” The infectious groove — punched up with some of Jackson’s trademark “hee-hees”—makes his mission undeniable.

5. “Bad”

When Jackson threatens that “your butt is mine” at the beginning of Bad’s title track, your first thought is, “Really, dude?” As a badass, he is utterly unconvincing. But despite the suspense of disbelief that it requires, the second single — which spawned an iconic video directed by Martin Scorsese — sizzles on the sheer enormity of Jackson’s and producer Quincy Jones’ talent.

4. “Dirty Diana”

No, Bad’s fifth and final No. 1 hit wasn’t about Jackson’s mentor Diana Ross. Nor was it about Princess Diana, although she reportedly told MJ that it was her favorite of his songs. Instead, the lyrics are about a groupie who won’t “just let me be.” Taking the rock of Thriller’s “Beat It” to the next level — with help from Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens — it is a headbanging blast.

3. “The Way You Make Me Feel”

While Bad sometimes may have felt like Jackson was trying too hard after Thriller, the third single is effortless bliss. From the moment those pistons set it off, that rubbery bounce just makes you feel all kinds of good. A soulful update of the classic Motown sound, it also displayed a sexual urgency that gave a little more meaning to those crotch grabs.

2. “Smooth Criminal”

If there was one song on Bad that truly captured the sense of artistic freedom that Jackson felt after Thriller, it was this track. Making the evil spirits of “Thriller” look pretty soft, it’s a menacing tale of a woman named Annie being struck down by an assailant in her apartment. As MJ spits out the gory details, the beat attacks you relentlessly. This is pop music as suspense drama.

1. “Man in the Mirror”

In addition to crooning with Jackson on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” Siedah Garrett made an even more important contribution to Bad by co-writing its fourth single with Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill). Surpassing another message song that Jackson had penned with Lionel Richie — 1985’s all-star anthem “We Are the World” — this is a towering tune that defined Jackson’s career as much as “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” “Billie Jean” or “Beat It.” It showed just how much he had learned from both Stevie Wonder and the Beatles. For five glorious minutes — with MJ taking it to church midway through — it really feels as if a song could change the world.