Janet Jackson's 50 best songs of all time, ranked | EW.com

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Janet Jackson's 50 best songs of all time, ranked

EW toasts the pop diva's landmark birthday with a celebration of her finest songs

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Few artists are as singular as Janet Jackson. Over a 34-year recording career, the pop star has sold over 26 million albums in the U.S., scored five Grammys, notched 10 No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 (one of the most for a female artist ever), crafted some of the MTV Generation’s most memorable music videos—all while fashioning herself as a cultural icon who broke down barriers of race and sexuality in America and who continues to make killer records today. In honor of Miss Janet’s 50th birthday, EW’s celebrating her towering catalogue of music with a look at our Top 50 favorite songs from her solo career.

50. “Can’t B Good” (2008)
Jackson’s work with Ne-Yo on Discipline was one of her better moves away from her comfort zone with longtime producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. After all, Ne-Yo has worn his MJ influence like a sequined glove. In the lush atmosphere of this song that he cowrote and coproduced, you can hear echoes of Off the Wall’s “Can’t Help It” and Thriller’s “Human Nature.” –Chuck Arnold

49. “Someone to Call My Lover” (2001)
Jackson had already showed some love for ’70s folk-rock with the Joni Mitchell-biting “Got ’Til It’s Gone.” And here she lifted the guitar riff from America’s 1972 hit “Ventura Highway.” Although she has yet to find someone to call her lover, the mood is irrepressibly upbeat and optimistic about pre-Tinder match-meeting. Surprisingly, after a great run, the song would become her last Top 10 hit. –C.A

48. “I Want You” (2004)
Just as his own career was taking off as an artist, Kanye West collaborated with Jackson on three Damita Jo cuts, the best of which is this old-school slow dance. Also cowritten by John Legend, the song samples B.T. Express’ version of “Close to You.” But with its swirling, sumptuous ’60s nostalgia and a vocal that recalls a young Michael, it’s a love letter to her family’s Motown roots. –C.A

47. “Say You Do,” (1982)
With bright disco strings, horn tuttis, and a Fender Rhodes keyboard groove, the third single from her debut album is a carbon copy of her brother’s “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough,” released four years earlier. But with a hook as indelible as that, who cares? –Kevin O’Donnell

RELATED: 50 Janet Jackson Photos For Her 50th Birthday

46. “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” (2004)
“It’s time to dance,” Jackson declares at the outset of this electro-funk cardio session, but it’s pretty clear by the bridge—what with her orgasmic moans, don’t-wake-the-neighbors whispers and instructions to “get hardcore”—that she’s not really talking about tearing up the dance floor. Blurring the line between the club and the bedroom has long been one of Jackson’s specialties; too bad the fallout over Nipplegate kept this raunchy track from making much of an impact on the charts. –Nolan Feeney

45. “Enjoy” (2006)
Her brothers had a hit with “Enjoy Yourself” during their post-Motown incarnation as the Jacksons, and their sister captured the same kind of feel-good vibes on this buried gem. A midtempo slice of sunshine, it was a welcome escape from the trying-too-hard sexuality on some of the post-Nipplegate 20 Y.O. Bursting into “la, la, la, la la’s,” a children’s singalong and signature Janet giggles, it showed that even in her 40s, Miss Jackson’s girlish charm was still intact. –C.A.

44. “Son of a Gun (I Bet You Think This Song Is About You)” (2001)
In one of the most creative samples of Janet’s career, she anchored this track on the serpentine bass line from Carly Simon’s 1972 smash “Your So Vain.” She also got Simon to re-sing her hit’s key refrain and to rap (!) on the track. Meanwhile, the lyrics switch the original subject matter — male narcissism — to focus on a man who shakes down a woman for money. Was Janet singing about ex-husband Rene Elizondo? Like Simon before her, Jackson never confirmed or denied—but the world remains curious. –Jim Farber

43. “Don’t Stand Another Chance” (1984)
On the first single from her second album, Dream Street, Jackson got a little help from her bros: Marlon produced and cowrote the song, while Michael, hot off of Thriller, slays some background vocals. But the synth-heavy dance track is more Prince than Michael, foretelling that Janet would break free of her family and embrace the Minneapolis sound with Jam & Lewis on Control. –C.A.

42. “You Want This” (1993)
While it sampled both Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “Love Child” and Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” the seventh—and final—single off janet. continued the new jack swing movement of Rhythm Nation. It’s both a come-on and a challenge (“Girls may have been easy/But you have to please me”), with Janet making a man work hard for it. –C.A.

41. “Young Love” (1982)
When Jackson released her first single at 16, she was better known as a TV sitcom actress from Good Times and Different Strokes. Her self-titled debut album did little to suggest that she would fare much better than sister La Toya in her music career. But this disco twirl produced and written by René & Angela bubbles over with girlish innocence laced with a hint of Control defiance: “I may be young, but I’m not foolish.” Well, all right, Miss Janet. –C.A.

40. “Get It Out Me” (2006)
Jackson goes looking for the perfect beat with an Afrika Bambaataa homage that mixes the old (Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ retro toolbox) and the new (then-boyfriend Jermaine Dupri’s incessant love of hand claps) with some South Asian tabla thrown in for good measure. Jackson’s 20 Y.O. album wasn’t exactly deserving of the comparison to Control—its title was meant to celebrate two decades of her 1986 classic—but no track on the album better captured her glory days than this jittery planet-rocker. –N.F.

39. “Doesn’t Really Matter” (2000)
Her previous film, Poetic Justice, had boasted a No. 1 hit with “Again,” and Jackson scored another chart-topper with this track from her 2000 movie Nutty Professor II: The Klumps. With its shimmering melody and stuttering beat, this crazy-catchy tune was the perfect carefree pop confection after the darker, more experimental Velvet Rope. –C.A.

38. “Night” (2015)
Most of the tracks on Unbreakable, Janet Jackson’s 2015 comeback album, paired the superstar’s smooth-as-silk vocals with production ranging from contemporary electro-hop (“Dammn Baby”) to Velvet Rope-esque R&B beats (“No Sleeep”). Recalling Madonna’s 1994 hit “Bedtime Story,” however, the standout cut “Night” pulses with a subdued, house-y vibe, gently calling all of its listeners to the darkest corners of the dance floor. “I woke up in Heaven in the morning,” Jackson croons. This one will take you there, too. –Joey Nolfi

37. “Just a Little While” (2004)
Released just after Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, the first single from Damita Jo was blacklisted by some radio stations. Had it not been for all that drama, this guitar-riffing pop-rocker—a naughty nod to Dirty Mind-era Prince—would surely have continued the hit parade she had been on since Control. With Dallas Austin producing, it’s one of her best songs not involving longtime producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. –C.A.

36. “So Much Betta” (2008)
Janet went deep into electro-shock pop by sampling Daft Punk on this track. Reworking bits of their “Daftendirekt,” she recast her voice as a series of robotic bleeps, along the way expanding her rhythm nation into a new land. –J.F.

35. “This Time” (1993)
While the song wasn’t released as a single, “This Time” highlighted one of Janet’s strongest albums (janet.) through its clever guest vocal from opera star Kathleen Battle. Her high-flying voice references the drama queen vocals used by Ennio Morricone in his classic Spaghetti Western scores. Battle’s haunted sense of romance offered an ideally vulnerable foil for Janet’s voice of pure determination. –J.F.

34. “Go Deep” (1998)
The stomping funk of “Go Deep” owes plenty to George Clinton, and maybe more to Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.” But the combination of the throbbing bass line and Janet’s vocal coo made this song the perfect soundtrack for its video. Here, an average kid daydreams about Miss Jackson dominating him in bed for the ultimate fan fantasy. –J.F.

33. “What About” (1997)
Tackling domestic abuse, Jackson goes from vulnerable to vengeful on this deep cut from The Velvet Rope. And while she had already let her inner headbanger loose on “Black Cat,” “If” and “This Time,” the way she rocks out here—employing the soft-loud dynamic fashioned by Nirvana—is something more disturbing and dangerous. You feel her getting pushed over the edge. –C.A.

32. “Rock With U” (2008)
Jackson dedicated this song to “gay kids,” and while it’s hard to determine what’s specifically gay about it, the song does have a striking club beat, and a bass line that pushes the hook from Madonna’s “Into The Groove” in a fresh direction. Better, the vocal captures Janet’s most diaphanous coo. –J.F.

31. “Rope Burn” (1997)
Decades before Fifty Shades of Grey, Janet had her own foray into S&M. The most erotic track on the Velvet Rope finds her begging a lover to tie her up, in between pleading for hot candle wax to sting her flesh. The music borrows from trip-hop, jazz and funk to create one long, slow-jam moan. –J.F.

30. “Make Me” (2009)
Before her brother Michael’s death, Janet rarely made such obvious references to his music. But just a few months after his passing, she channeled his spirit on the only new song from her Number Ones hits compilation. Taking both lyrical and musical inspiration from “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” this soul-disco groove makes you move. –C.A.

29. “State of the World” (1989)
The second song on Rhythm Nation, coming after the album’s epic title track, keeps kicking the social consciousness to a new jack swing flow. Jackson addresses the problems of poverty, homelessness and runaway teen moms. “There’s got to be a better way,” she urges with pistons firing around her. This is Janet getting down for the struggle. –C.A.

28. “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” (1986)
There were so many hits on Control that the album’s final track often gets overlooked. But in its own way, it was just as defining for Jackson’s career as “Nasty,” “Control” or “What Have You Done for Me Lately.” Beginning with Janet whispering a bit of French, this quiet-stormer set the template for every sexy slow jam that she ever made. There is no waiting a while with this one. –C.A.

27. “Let’s Wait Awhile” (1986)
One of Control’s rarer tender moments, this rippling synth ballad made a sweet case for abstinence, or at least delayed gratification—to “save some for later/So our love can be greater”—a message with extra resonance in the dawning era of AIDS. –L.G.

26. “Black Eagle” (2015)
Like her earlier classics “State of the World” and “Rhythm Nation,” Janet goes into socio-political mode on this meditative stunner from her 2015 comeback Unbreakable. And heartfelt lyrics like “I’m singing this love song to show my support / To the beautiful people who have been ignored” had extra resonance in the wake of shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. –K.O.

25. “Alright” (1989)
It would be wrong to dismiss “Alright” simply as a rewrite of “Rhythm Nation.” Although the two songs share a new jack swing beat, “Alright” is all about popping and locking your troubles away, instead of taking on the world’s. This paean to friendship also reminds us that boos may come and go, but BFFs are forever. Bonus points for the remix featuring the Overweight Lover himself, Heavy D. –C.A.

24. “Come Back to Me” (1989)
Janet’s airily pretty plea to return to a lover she’s never quite gotten over became Rhythm Nation’s fifth single, and narrowly missed the top spot on the Hot 100—though it did reach No. 1 of the adult-contemporary chart. –L.G.

23. “Feedback” (2007)
Hailed as her comeback single following a few underperforming albums, “Feedback” saw Jackson go full-on cyborg with the help of Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins—and plenty of Auto-Tune. Over his futuristic dance beat, she spits out memorable, if sometimes head-scratching, metaphors like a Twitter bot gone haywire: at different points she compares her body to an electric guitar, a museum, an expensive Mercedes and—no joke—a pelican before delivering the love-it-or-hate-it mic drop, “My swag is serious, something heavy like a first-day period.” –N.F.

22. “Any Time, Any Place” (1993)
Of all of Jackson’s baby-making ballads, this one is surely responsible for the biggest spike in the population. Exalting the joys of getting busy in public, it bumps and grinds with a slow-burning sensuality, taking its time (over seven minutes on the janet. album version) to hit all the right spots. –C.A.

21. “Throb” (1993)
With this vogue-ready house track, Jackson showed that Madonna wasn’t the only one who could tap into the gay underground club scene of the ’90s. Going bigger, harder, thicker and deeper with the sexual exploration of janet., this fan favorite was the precursor to “All Nite (Don’t Stop),” “Rock with U” and “Night.” Pumping that “boom boom boom until noon noon noon” refrain, it sets out to rock the after-hours party. –C.A.

20. “I Get Lonely” (1997)
Although, like most Jackson singles of the time, it had success on the pop charts, this one is pure R&B. Taking its cues from ’90s R&B groups like Jodeci and Blackstreet (who appeared on a remix), this aching ballad from The Velvet Rope finds Janet digging deep into her soul as she longs for “the one that lives in me.” –C.A.

19. “Unbreakable” (2015)
Over her remarkable career, her fans have remain insanely devoted to their idol and this highlight from her 2015 album Unbreakable is a beautiful love letter in return—with all the hallmarks of great Janet: a funky bass groove, hip-swiveling R&B beat, and lush harmonies. –K.O.

18. “Runaway” (1995)
Jimmy Jam revealed this track was intended to be a duet with her brother Michael, but he opted for 1995’s harder “Scream” instead. Either way, never has a pop song made a geography lesson sound so fun—”I’ve had such fun around the world it’s true / African skies with a Nairobi mood”—and Jackson breaking the fourth wall towards the end (“Didn’t quite hit the note there!” she chirps) reveals a rare moment of vulnerability for the famously private star. –K.O.

17. “Again” (1993)
After appearing over the closing credits of Poetic Justice, which featured her first major film role, the delicate ballad “Again”—a lyrical callback to the lost-love sentiments of Rhythm Nation’s “Come Back to Me”—garnered both Oscar and Golden Globe nods. Though the late Tupac Shakur played her romantic muse on the big screen, that part went to future CSI: Crime Scene Investigation star Gary Dourdan in the song’s video. –L.G.

16. “What Have You Done for Me Lately” (1986)
Control’s lead single was Jackson’s first official leap into adulthood, signaling the end of her days as a teen ingenue controlled by her famously hard-driving father and the introduction of a fresh grown-lady fierceness. And she’d earned it; though still not even 20 years old at the time of the song’s release, she was already secretly a divorcee (from James DeBarge; eventually the marriage was annulled) and had left Papa Jackson behind for a new manager. Bonus points too for this sick lyrical burn: “You ought to be thankful for the little things/But little things are all you seem to give.” –L.G.

15. “All for You” (2001)
Co-written and produced by Jam and Lewis, this made history as the first single to land on pop, rhythmic, and urban radio the first week it debuted. The light and disco-inspired groove brings you to the dance floor with a quick, flirty chorus, buoyed by Jackson singing about the power of the female gaze. “Got a nice package alright,” she coos, “ ‘Guess I’m gonna have to ride it tonight.” –Jessica Goodman

14. “Black Cat” (1989)
Her experimental dip into a heavier, harder-edged guitar sound was rewarded with a No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 and a Grammy nod for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance alongside the likes of Tina Turner, Melissa Etheridge and Stevie Nicks. (Alannah Myle’s “Black Velvet” ultimately took the prize). Reportedly, Jackson was especially proud of the composition because it was the first she’d written entirely on her own—and no less a metal god than Motorhead’s late Lemmy Kilmister approved:  He called it “a great f—in’ song” and wanted to record his own version with her, though the record label ultimately wouldn’t allow it. –L.G.

13. “Together Again” (1997)
While another track from The Velvet Rope, “My Need,” sampled Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” this No. 1 hit showed just how much Jackson had been influenced by the woman who “presented” her brothers on their debut album. Mixing a Supremes sheen with a Studio 54 rush, it’s an unforgettable remembrance of those lost to AIDS, dreaming of a reunion under the big disco ball in the hereafter. –C.A.

12. “Control,” (1986)
Starting with that ominous spoken intro, Jackson let her family—and the world—know that “this time I’m gonna do it my way.” Then she proceeds to deliver a fierce declaration of independence set to the kinetic robo-funk of this classic Jam and Lewis production. The forerunner to all of Beyoncé’s female-empowerment anthems, it was a coming-of-age moment that was all about her control. And ever since, she’s had lots of it. –C.A.

11. “Broken Hearts Heal” (2015)
Janet opens up about her heartbreak following her brother Michael’s death: “It was in summer that you left me/The fall and winter never felt so cold.” But sweetly reminiscing about their childhood, she turns this airy, jazz-kissed ode into a celebration of a love that “ain’t no material thing.” And the uncanny way she breathes MJ into her vocal is the best kind of tribute a little sister could make. –C.A.

10. “If” (1993)
Screaming rock guitars, Broadway-bound strings, and a pulverizing dance beat coalesced perfectly on this single. Add to that industrial sound effects for an abrasive hook and you have an ideally edgy setting for lyrics which vow to fulfill every sexual whim. The video, set in a geisha house, added a voyeuristic panache. And she gets props for showcasing touch-screen technology a decade before the iPhone. –J.F.

9. “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” (1997)
Guest MC Q-Tip—who had played Jackson’s murdered boyfriend in the beginning of Poetic Justice—gave the first single from The Velvet Rope major hip-hop cred. But the biggest coup was receiving permission to use that sample of Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi,” which Jackson scored after personally asking Mitchell. Clearly the folk icon knew a dope chill-out groove when she heard one. –C.A.

8. “Nasty” (1986)
Vanity 6 had already excellently defined a Nasty Girl for us four years earlier, but Janet—or Ms. Jackson if you’re you-know-what—offered up a whole nasty universe, and told us exactly what she thought of every last thing in it: Nasty food (bad), a nasty groove (good!), and most importantly, nasty boys (don’t mean a thing). She later said the song was partly inspired by a real-life confrontation with a pack of men who followed her down a street in Minneapolis, harassing her; they’re all lost to history now, but this fantastic declaration of “my first name ain’t Baby” independence is forever. –Leah Greenblatt

7. “The Pleasure Principle” (1986)
The sixth (sixth!) Control single offered yet another killer treatise on choosing singledom and self-respect over the wrong kind of relationship. (“What I thought was happiness was only part-time bliss.”) And she was proudly alone in the video too: Just a girl in a warehouse, working it out and dancing in the opposite direction of a dude she clearly has no use for anymore. –L.G.

6. “Escapade” (1989)
Rhythm Nation’s third single was exactly what the title implied: a five-minute sonic vacation to a place with no stress or obligations. “Escapade” also showed Janet trying on a less-common role—an ordinary girl living paycheck to paycheck, just looking for a little fun with a cute boy and a good reason to shout out “Minneapolis!” somewhere in the middle (it is where the song was recorded, after all). –L.G.

5. “Miss You Much” (1989)
Tell your mama, tell your friends, tell anyone whose ears can comprehend: 27 years after it sailed to No. 1, Jam and Lewis’ amazingly dense, club-wrecking production and Jackson’s ecstatic vocals (“That’s the end?!”) still sound as excitable as ever. –K.O.

4. “That’s the Way Love Goes” (1993)
The lead single janet. wasn’t just the introduction of a newly sensual Jackson, with its thick, honeyed funk beat and unabashedly explicit lyrics (“Go deeper baby, deeper/You feel so good I’m gonna cry”)—it became her most successful U.S. single to date, spending a whopping eight weeks at the top. The video is also a fantastic place to spot then-Fly Girl Jennifer Lopez in a featured spot as a backup dancer, and generally celebrate the brief but potent reign of feathered chokers. –L.G.

3. “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” (1990)
Janet sings in two voices on this song—one low, the other high. It’s a small wonder her co-writers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, considered turning this into a duet, possibly with Prince. But even without such starry help, the song shot to No. 1, aided by its concussive beat, candied melody and a black and white video by Herb Ritts that caresses the star’s every curve. –J.F.

2. “When I Think of You” (1986)
There’s a reason this was Janet’s first No. 1: “When I Think of You” is simply the most ebullient piece of pop she’s ever recorded. And thanks to Jam and Lewis’ brilliant, bright production, never has an ode to an absent lover sounded so life affirming. Thirty years after its release, it still slays; anyone who doesn’t tap a finger when that horn hook kicks in needs to check their pulse. –K.O.

1. “Rhythm Nation” (1989)
Long before we were drinking Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Janet was getting in formation with her army of dancers to start a revolution. Yes, it rode to the new jack swing of its era, but this industrial-edged anthem—enlisting a sample of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again)”—is one of the most radical hits ever by a pop diva. It broke all of the lines, color and otherwise, high-stepping all the way. –C.A.