The 25 Best Janet Jackson Songs

We count down Janet’s 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites.

The 25 Best Janet Jackson Songs

Nothing summarizes Janet Jackson’s contributions to pop music any clearer than the interlude that serves as the transition between Rhythm Nation’s opening trio of socially conscious tracks and the largely feel-good love songs that follow: “Get the point? Good, let’s dance.” She’s gone through many phases (industrial trainee, man-conquering vamp, spiritual gardener, 20-year-old), but span her entire career and those stages seem less clearly delineated than most comparable icons’ respective chapters, with symmetrically uniform peaks and surprisingly rare valleys. With Janet, the pleasure principle has always served as her musical conscience, and it’s guided her through a career near unparalleled in its ability to serve unfussy pop confections. Unlike that of big brother Michael or her rival on the ’80s and ’90s dance charts, Madonna, there ain’t no acid in Janet’s delivery, just bubblegum. The nasty boys of Slant have decided once and for all to count down her 25 greatest songs, from her most iconic hits to her least heralded cult favorites. Eric Henderson

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2015.

25. “Feedback”

Technology is the thrust of 2008’s infectious and ridiculously weird single “Feedback.” With it, Jan got her 4/4 back, equating her vagina to a subwoofer (and, notably, her clit to guitar strings) and her swagger to a heavy-flow day. The beats are spare but oppressive, the synths scratchy and impatient, the perfect accompaniment for the singer’s libidinous frustration. Sal Cinquemani

24. “All for You”

Hard to tell which was bigger: this comeback disco anthem (which sat atop the Billboard charts for a lusty seven weeks in 2001) or the size of the impressive basket the guy who caught Janet’s eye apparently had (and upon which, according to the lyrics, she later sat atop). What was striking about “All for You” at the time wasn’t its unabashed frankness (the entire song is Jackson basically knocking the listener upside the head with the promise that she’s not hard to get), but the atmosphere of airless frivolity around it. It’s a sex jam that sounds like a carnival ride. Henderson

23. “Funky Big Band”

Realness, as anyone who’s seen Paris Is Burning knows, presumes aspirational designs among those who espouse it. “Funky Big Band” grasps that harshly glamorous concept right from its opening interlude, “The Lounge,” which drops listeners into the illicit milieu of a password-only speakeasy before reminding them, “You’ve got to be real/If you want to hear the funky big band.” From its tangy clavinet doodles to its roaring Lionel Hampton-sampled jazz loops (producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had clearly spun Soho once or twice), “Funk Big Band” is the militant bastard stepchild of the zoot-suit antics of “Alright.” Henderson


22. “Velvet Rope”

A song about self-empowerment, featuring a children’s choir and violin solo to boot, smacks of inevitable mawkishness. But with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s thoughtful production, Janet’s unpretentious delivery of even lyrics like “One love’s the answer,” and violinist Vanessa Mae’s edgy solo, this potential schmaltz-fest became a thoughtful theme-establishing introduction to Janet’s most personal album to date. Cinquemani

21. “Lonely”

Throughout Janet’s imperial phase, the template called for each of her albums to close out with a suite of love ballads. Skippable as any of them may have seemed when all you wanted to do was follow Janet’s own mantra “Get the point? Good, let’s dance,” the best of them—like this sultry, intimate invitation from one isolated soul to another—expose themselves at the most unexpected moments. Just like sex. Henderson

20. “No Sleeep”

Giving precisely zero fucks after dispensing a string of albums and singles that were desperate for them, Janet Jackson trusted the soft sell when choosing the lead-off single from her Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced reunion album, Unbreakable. The downtempo “No Sleeep,” languorous (or “plush,” as she coos twice) in every respect but for those sharp, assertive echoing claps on the backbeat, isn’t so much sexy as it is something increasingly less easy to come by in pop: intimate. Which isn’t to say its replay value hasn’t proven tantric. Like making love with someone you truly know, “No Sleeep” somehow gets better the more times you lay it down. Henderson

19. “Control”

Though the “live” video mix lent a more robust, organic quality to the title track from Jackson’s 1986 breakthrough Control, the original’s staccato drum programming, pristine clatter, and pitched-up vocals took the so-called Minneapolis sound (which Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis helped popularize alongside former boss Prince) in a more high-tech electronic direction. Crucially, though, it was the song’s lyrics, detailing Janet’s proclamation of emancipation from the watchful eye of her infamously domineering father, that makes “Control” a seminal moment in the singer’s career. Cinquemani


18. “Any Time, Any Place”

This unlikely smash is an oozing, slow-paced romp in the tradition of Barry White and Marvin Gaye, all reverb-y finger snaps and pronounced bass and guitar, with Janet’s vocals reaching a fervent and authentic pitch during the second pre-chorus, in which she vamps in full voice (or, at least, as full as her voice can get), “I don’t give a damn! I want you now!” Cinquemani

17. “Throb”

janet. was a cock-tease of an album—and not just lyrically. The nearly structure-less “Throb” is merely a suggestion of an actual pop song, existing primarily as a showcase for Jackson’s limp promises to “boom, boom, boom until noon, noon, noon” and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s more-than-convincing attempt at the hard, house-orgy beats of the era. Cinquemani

16. “You Want This”

If “The Pleasure Principle” wrote the book, “You Want This” lived it. Anchored by Good Time Island samples from Diana Ross and the Supremes and Kool and the Gang, and a direct lyrical lift from the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” the song plays coy (“You better work it, boy/No, it won’t come easy”), but this piano-slamming party track is quite literally the easiest, least complicated song she’s ever recorded. It makes “Escapade” seem like a fussy dissertation, and “Runaway” like a final exam. Henderson

15. “This Time”

On which opera singer Kathleen Battle emerges like a phoenix from the ashes of Janet’s rage against “nasty hoes,” some kind of fierce, industrial goddess of domestic vengeance come to render final judgment. Cinquemani


14. “The Knowledge”

A continuation of the sonic and lyrical themes of “Rhythm Nation,” “The Knowledge” is a clattering, industrial treatise on the necessity for education reform. Not exactly a sexy topic for the dance floor, but when the track ends and Jackson asks, “Get the point? Good, let’s dance,” the truth is that we already were. Cinquemani

13. “Come Back to Me”

Slant co-founder Sal Cinquemani once complained to me that you couldn’t understand a single word coming out of Janet’s mouth on this densely layered lamentation. After listening to the Spanish-language version, I don’t deny the point. But there’s something almost more moving about her struggling attempts to communicate painful feelings before she gives up entirely while the strings swell around her. Like the rest of her music at the time, “Come Back to Me” radiates the fabled Minneapolis sound, but its melodrama is straight out of Hollywood. Henderson

12. “My Need”

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were at the top of their game by 1997’s The Velvet Rope, their fourth album with Jackson, marrying the precision and detail-oriented arrangements of Rhythm Nation with the warmer, more sultry sounds of janet., but avoiding the latter’s occasionally stuffy over-production. Copping its hook from Ashford and Simpson’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “My Need” expertly blends Janet’s generously stacked harmonies, a barely there bed of the singer’s looped orgasms, and a sample of—what else?—Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” to concoct what is, perhaps, Jackson’s sexiest album cut ever. Cinquemani

11. “Scream” (w/ Michael Jackson)

Having always envied his little sister’s “Rhythm Nation,” Michael Jackson enlisted her chief collaborators, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, for much of his 1995 album HIStory, including this beast of a dance-rock duet, which addresses his fraught relationship with the media. “Scream,” then, is technically a MJ song, but the sound is patently Janet’s, even if, by the mid ’90s, it’s one she’d already begun to grow out of. Cinquemani


10. “Empty”

In 1998, Madonna more or less pretended she invented electronica. The year before, though, Janet quietly slipped one of the most sonically adventurous, genre-defying, lyrically clairvoyant tracks of the ’90s onto the tail-end of her densest, least penetrable album. “Empty” presages the simultaneously titillating and isolationist promise of virtual dating, social networking, and cybersex, raising tough questions about the future of human interaction and setting the debate against Jam and Lewis’s astonishing and potent amalgamation of R&B balladry, dystopian jungle rhythms, globetrotting vocal samples, dialup-modem tone poems, and skittering typewriter beats. Henderson

9. “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”

With its downbeat vibe, Janet’s slack (almost desultory) vocal performance, and that downright orthogonal Joni Mitchell sample, “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” to this day stands as one of the most perplexing left turns in Janet’s career, one which at least initially stalled the momentum behind The Velvet Rope and left many asking the very same question guest Q-Tip does: “Now why you wanna go and do that?” Business as usual it wasn’t, and in retrospect brilliantly so. A compressed, gender-reversed “Ordinary Pain,” the song presents a plaintive Janet lamenting the love she lost before completely undercutting her self-pitying disposition. Coming after the aggressive “You,” “Gone” has Janet taking her own advice. Henderson

8. “Alright”

“Escapade” is, of course, the ditty wherein Janet name-checked her new favorite town, but as a lifelong resident of the Twin Cities, I’ve always felt that “Alright” sounded the most Minneapolis of all her songs. Which isn’t to say it embodies the Minneapolis sound; to the contrary, “Alright” is maybe the softest, cushiest track from Rhythm Nation, free of the acidic edges that must come from annually enduring seven or eight months of intolerably frigid weather. Living here requires a certain submission to harmonious fantasy, and “Alright”—six-and-a-half minutes of drama-free new-jill-swing friendship bracelet-weaving positivity—could melt the frozen hearts of Prince, the Coen brothers, and Bob Dylan alike. Henderson

7. “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”

The seventh single from Rhythm Nation, and the album’s sole midtempo number, has become arguably its most enduring, thanks in large part to Herb Ritts’s iconic music video, which found the singer emerging from her battle fatigues and production-number pantsuits and into the full bloom of sensual womanhood. But even those memorable visuals would’ve only gone so far to push Janet toward icon status if the song weren’t equally nascent. Every love song she recorded leading up this one sounds like a schoolyard ditty in comparison. And if you don’t gasp when Janet jumps an octave going into the second verse, and if you don’t swoon when she scoops into the bridge while singing “I feel better when I have you near me,” you ain’t right. Henderson


6. “What Have You Done for Me Lately”

It’s cute that the single that introduced Janet as a pop force in her own right was a side-eye-darting kiss-off. Control was a project centered around the quintessential kid sister stepping out from the shadows and flexing her autonomy. “What Have You Done for Me Lately” is an obsessive snit building an entire case around the reasons someone else is in charge of our protagonist’s every waking mood. In other words, Janet’s first bona-fide hit is saddled with the notion that, despite all “this time I’m gonna do it my way” assertions elsewhere, one simply can’t do it alone. That’s a pretty bittersweet prologue for all that followed, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s brilliantly piquant piano accompaniment couldn’t be more appropriately calibrated. Henderson

5. “That’s the Way Love Goes”

With its measured hip-hop loop and titular one-line hook, the lead single from 1993’s janet. was, following the three-year onslaught of bombastic dance-pop chart-toppers from Rhythm Nation, unexpectedly sleek, understated, and ultimately era-defining. Cinquemani

4. “The Pleasure Principle”

While the title track of her 1986 breakthrough Control found the singer taking the reins of her professional life, the album’s final single, “The Pleasure Principle,” found her taking control of a personal relationship by refusing to settle for loveless materialism: “What I thought was happiness was only part-time bliss,” an all-grown-up Janet sings. Written and produced by one-time Prince keyboardist and Jam and Lewis cohort Monte Moir, the entire song parallels a fleeting love affair with a ride in a limousine, while the synths bump like busted shock absorbers and the electric guitar screeches like rubber on pavement. Janet, vis-à-vis Moir, invokes “Big Yellow Taxi,” a song she would more blatantly call on for 1997’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone,” while Moir, Jam, and Lewis—and, on the superior single mix, Shep Pettibone—pave over every soul tradition to put up a clanking, whirring, smashing industrial park. Cinquemani

3. “When I Think of You”

From its indelible opening piano chords to its crisp, reverb-y drums and joyous horn stabs, “When I Think of You” is less cluttered than many of the tracks Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis would go on to produce for Ms. Jackson. Her first-ever #1 hit, the single also practically defines the “feel-good” sensibility of nearly half of Jackson’s catalogue, capturing the exhilaration of new love without ever slipping into treacle. Cinquemani


2. “Rhythm Nation”

“No struggle, no progress,” Janet warns at the start of the second verse of her 1814 call to arms, but the only real struggle to be heard is her trying to shoehorn a slant rhyme from the last word by awkwardly emphasizing its second syllable. In that split second, yes, she’s very much a 23-year-old trying to justify her own contribution to the great conversation. In every other respect, “Rhythm Nation” still sounds like the most confident, assured, and focused of her soon-to-be profuse efforts to synergize her mass appeal with her need to proselytize. The brand of rebellion Janet’s peddling—racial equality, utopian dance combinations—was even then naïvely family-friendly, but that’s where Janet’s neophyte delivery makes all the difference. At the tail end of the ’80s, the promise of the ’60s couldn’t have seemed more dearly departed. But the youthful vigor of “Rhythm Nation” is eternal. Henderson

1. “If”

As mentioned earlier, much of the sex on janet. is impending or simply imagined. And “If,” the very title of which embodies that fact, is essentially about masturbation, with Jackson describing what her lover’s “smooth and shiny [cock]” feels like against her lips while ostensibly rubbing herself off under the covers. Even the dance-rock track’s principal sample, given full spotlight during a musical bridge that morphs the original’s buoyant anticipation into carnal frustration, bears out this theme: “Someday We’ll Be Together.” Just not yet. Or maybe ever. Cinquemani

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