Janet Jackson’s 30 best songs – ranked!

Michael Cragg
<span>Photograph: François Nel/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: François Nel/Getty Images

30. Feedback (2008)

A career curio, 2008’s Discipline album was mainly notable for what it lacked, with no songwriting input from Janet Jackson and no songs written with longterm collaborators producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Still, its Darkchild-produced lead single is a metallic-sounding, electropop-leaning behemoth built around the uncompromising lyric, “heavy like a first day period”.

29. Better Days (2001)

The upbeat All for You’s closing track is the sound of Jackson letting go, or as she put it, “untying the knots that were choking me”. That sense of release permeates a song that blooms from a small ballad into a sweeping, mid-tempo 60s reverie that utilises a skipping guitar solo and lush orchestral flurries.

28. 2 B Loved (2015)

While much of eleventh album Unbreakable sees Jackson musing on topics such as loss and injustice, it still finds time to showcase Jackson’s unshakeable ability to project happiness like a beam of light. The squelchy, hand-clap heavy 2 B Loved stacks layers of Jackson’s pillow-soft vocals until it feels as if you’re floating on a candy floss-scented cloud.

Janet Jackson at the 2018 Essence festival in New Orleans in 2018.
Janet Jackson at the 2018 Essence festival in New Orleans in 2018. Photograph: Amy Harris/Invision/AP

27. Enjoy (2006)

This track from 2006’s oft-forgotten 20 Y.O album sits so neatly in Jackson’s sweet spot – you can practically hear her beaming that famous smile as she sings – that it almost feels parodic. In fact, it’s so effortlessly breezy, it manages to make the children’s choir that appears towards the finale sound transcendent.

26. The Great Forever (2015)

Musing on the public’s obsession with her personal life, the decidedly odd The Great Forever (at one point, a sneeze is offered a quick “bless you”) opens with Jackson seemingly impersonating her most-famous brother over a grinding bass line. It’s built around a typically sky-scraping Jackson chorus, with melodies tumbling over themselves as it ramps through the gears.

25. Rock With U (2008)

Created specifically for her gay fans, this throbbing dancefloor anthem from Discipline – co-written by Ne-Yo – could easily have nestled on X, Kylie’s similarly minded album released the previous year. “Strobe lights make everything sexier,” coos Jackson, clearly not with a sticky-floored provincial club above a Wetherspoon’s in mind.

24. Strawberry Bounce (2004)

Damita-Jo saw Jackson not only experiment with her sound – Richard X, the DFA and Basement Jaxx were approached for sessions – but also her alter egos. The lascivious Strawberry Bounce – co-produced by then-newcomer Kanye West, who creates the song’s backbone out of a chopped up Jay-Z sample and a glockenspiel – showcases Strawberry, who promises to be a lover’s sex-focused playground.

23. Someone to Call Me Lover (2001)

Over a sampled riff taken from 70s rock band America’s sun-dappled Ventura Highway and a web of splintering synths, All for You’s second single is Jackson at her most straightforwardly goofy best. “Maybe we’ll meet at a bar, he’ll drive a funky car,” she coos, lost in the possibility of brand new love.

Jackson in 1993.
Jackson in 1993. Photograph: Snap/Rex/Shutterstock

22. Shoulda Known Better (2015)

Opening as a delicate ballad before blossoming into a dance behemoth, Shoulda Known Better finds Jackson asking for global unity while also touching on how little has changed since she posed similar questions on 1989’s Rhythm Nation (“I don’t want my face to be a poster child for being naive”). Like 1997’s Together Again, it heals pain through the freedom of pop.

21. Got Til It’s Gone (1997)

A year before 1997’s personal opus The Velvet Rope, Jackson signed a record-breaking $80m deal with Virgin. It’s tempting to wonder what the label made of this, the album’s decidedly low-key lead single, a mellow, J Dilla-inspired ode to taking nothing for granted that fused a Joni Mitchell sample with a Q-Tip verse, and that was purposefully made chart ineligible in the US.

20. R&B Junkie (2004)

Gliding around a sample of Evelyn “Champagne” King’s 1981 disco-funk classic I’m in Love, the immaculate R&B Junkie was another victim of Jackson’s post-Super Bowl blacklisting. She sounds in her element throughout, all giggles and effervescent “oohs”, while Jam and Lewis encase her pure pop vocals in an early 80s glitterball.

19. The Best Things in Life Are Free (1992)

Recorded for the soundtrack to Damon Wayans comedy Mo’ Money, this duet with Luther Vandross sounds like new love. The pair are almost giddy with excitement as they race around Jam & Lewis’s featherlight concoction, all sugar-coated synth strings and a chorus that feels like a warm hug after a first kiss.

18. Come Back to Me (1989)

Critics often discuss the “slightness” of Jackson’s voice – ludicrous given the amount of genres, tones and moods she’s able to effortlessly crisscross – but her delivery on this soft-focus ballad perfectly matches Jam & Lewis’s silken production, all tactile beats and sighing strings. Her best ballad? Probably.

17. I Get Lonely (1997)

Leaning closer to neo-soul and pure R&B, The Velvet Rope’s crisp, expertly polished third single finds Jackson wallowing in her sadness. Eschewing a propensity for close mic ballads anchored by breathy vocals, here everything is turned up to 10, from the sky-scraping chorus to the horn stabs and Jackson’s yearning vocals.

16. Any Time, Any Place (1993)

Built around twinkly percussion, delicate rainfall and what sounds like the rise and fall of someone sleeping, the Janet album’s slow-burn epic represents Jackson’s peak sex-jam majesty. While her later attempts at recreating the candlelit mood often slip into unintentional comedy (see Damita Jo’s graphic Moist), here there’s real, tangible yearning at the heart of the song’s excellent chorus.

Jackson performing the the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2011.
Jackson performing the the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2011. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty

15. All Nite (Don’t Stop) (2004)

Lost in the maelstrom of controversy that followed Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at that year’s Super Bowl half-time show, this sweat-drenched single feels like a lost classic. Built around a lithe bassline and Jackson’s trademark breathy vocals, it fuses elements of house, electro-funk, R&B and Latin to create a heady, future-facing concoction.

14. Control (1986)

Having ditched her father as her manger, divorced her husband and moved out of the Jackson family home, Control finds a 20-year-old Jackson channelling that desire to prove herself into a big bold statement. It’s a typically taut funk workout, but the highlight comes when the music drops and Jackson sings “Got my own mind, I want to make my own decisions”. Pop heaven.

13. Miss You Much (1989)

Instantly iconic for its chair-based video choreography (later referenced by Britney Spears for 2000’s Stronger), this lead single from Rhythm Nation 1814 is Jackson’s biggest hit on the US chart. Balancing Jackson’s keening vocal with sky-scraping synth stabs, a wobbly guitar figure and that staccato chorus it feels more like a demand for attention than a quiet plea.

12. All for You (2001)

Keen to return to the dancefloor after the introspection of The Velvet Rope, All for You feels like a throwback to the effortless, loved-up optimism of her 80s imperial phase. Dismissed by some critics as “frothy”, it luxuriates in its post-disco influences, while lyrically it’s Jackson at her cheeky best, not least when she shrugs at a guy with “a nice package” and says “guess I’m gonna have to ride it tonight”.

11. When I Think of You (1986)

Jackson’s first US No 1 single set the template for Jackson’s deliciously breezy take on loved-up pop. Effortless, like Whitney Houston’s best 80s moment, the chorus’ lyrics – “When I think of you, baby, nothing else seems to matter” – sound like they were sung right in the middle of a dawning realisation she had found the one.

10. Together Again (1997)

Inspired by losing a friend to Aids and a letter she was sent by a young fan who had lost his father, this soothing balm in song form initially started out as a ballad. The final version ups the tempo, Jackson soaring over pristine dance-pop that places the song’s immaculate chorus front and centre.

9. That’s the Way Love Goes (1993)

After a run of full-tilt singles throughout the 80s, this hypnotic opening salvo from the softer Janet album was seen as a risk. Leaning more into languid, won’t-be-rushed R&B, it takes the feeling of sliding into silk sheets and turns it into a song, all honeyed, multi-tracked vocals and slowly unfurling melodies.

8. Island Life (2004)

Co-written by British pop star turned hitmaker Cathy Dennis, the seductively buoyant Island Life is the musical equivalent of that exact moment a bronzed, diving body pierces the surface of a crisp, cold swimming pool. It’s a Solero in musical form. It’s Lilt, three ice cubes and a clean beach towel. If it’s not on your barbecue playlist in July, then no one’s coming, sorry.

7. Rhythm Nation (1989)

With its post-apocalyptic setting and stylish unisex military outfits, complete with augmented flat cap, it’s the video for this near title track that typically hogs the spotlight. But the song itself is no slouch, channelling metallic new jack swing, banging industrial funk and a chorus-line of regimented soldiers on backing vocals. Even its earnest lyrics feel like proper rallying cries in this context.

6. Nasty (1986)

Released a year before brother Michael started dabbling in harder-edged, more aggressive pop on Bad, the youngest Jackson sibling went playfully confrontational on Control’s second single. Written after being harassed on the street, it’s a swaggering kiss-off to “nasty boys” buffed to a high-gloss sheen. The lyric “My first name ain’t baby, it’s Janet – Miss Jackson if you’re nasty” elevated it to pop canon status.

Jackson in 1989.
Jackson in 1989. Photograph: Michel Linssen/Redferns

5. Empty (1997)

Years before the internet changed dating for ever, Empty explores the strange disconnect of trying to build relationships via a computer. It’s forward-thinking subject matter is matched by the music, which cocoons Jackson’s delicate vocals in a bed of jittery, double-time beats and a swirling synth line that sounds like a laptop coming to life. Basically invented “alt-R&B”.

4. What Have You Done For Me Lately (1986)

Control’s opening statement immediately dismisses the pop ingenue caricature created via Jackson’s rightfully forgotten first two albums. Harnessing her newfound freedom, Jackson takes aim at some hapless ex (“little things are all you seem to give”), while Jam & Lewis channel ex-collaborator Prince for the spectacular funk backdrop.

3. Love Will Never Do (Without You) (1989)

It’s a sign of just how great a singles act Jackson was in the 80s that this slice of pure pop ecstasy was Rhythm Nation’s seventh single. Another US No 1, it was initially billed as a duet with Prince, hence Jackson’s singing lower for the first verse. If the joyful little melodic lift into the chorus doesn’t make your stomach flip, I’d see a doctor.

2. If (1993)

The Janet album’s frantic second single is a lesson in pent-up desire. Musically, it constantly feels like it’s on the verge of blood-pumping implosion, unable to control swirling guitar riffs, stuttering synths and an escalating chorus melody that never quite reaches its climax. It’s a similar story in the lyrics, as Jackson details vivid masturbation fantasies, lost somewhere between passionate desperation and playful teasing.

1. Escapade (1989)

Pure joy is hard to get right in song. Go too far and it becomes jazz hands-level cloying. Too sickly sweet to really hit the mark. Try too hard to find that sweet spot and you end up showing your workings and losing that key sense of effortlessness. Everything about the undeniably joyous Escapade, however, is perfectly constructed; there’s that twinkly opening riff, the cute “let’s go” ad-lib, the full throttle charm, and the way the seemingly never-ending chorus makes you feel like you’re on a bouncy castle. As lockdown lifts, lyrically it couldn’t be more relevant, either; I, too, hope you can find the time this weekend to relax and unwind.