Janet Jackson's 10 Best Songs: Critic's Picks

Janet Jackson
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Janet Jackson performs onstage during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 13, 2009 in New York City. 

Janet Jackson might indeed have some very famous family members – that goes without saying. However, the young lady who charmed audiences with her brothers, and as Penny Gordon on the 1970s sitcom Good Times, carved out a career that was successful on anyone’s terms. Between sold-out concert tours, million-selling albums, and a sense of style that is second to none, Ms. Jackson stands as one of the most creatively successful female artists in pop music history.

Coming up with a list of the 10 best Janet Jackson song performances is a tall task, as there are so many eras to choose from. But, with three equally iconic albums in the world of pop culture – Control, Rhythm Nation 1814, and Janet -- it’s no surprise that quite a few selections from this list come from those three sets. And that’s not a knock on later hits such as “Doesn’t Really Matter,” but one could argue that, with the exception of possibly Madonna, no other female artist was as dominant on the musical landscape as Jackson was from 1986 to 1993. Here are 10 moments that showcase that vitality and influence.

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10. Janet Jackson - "Escapade"

A bit on the fluffy side perhaps, but who could resist the first Janet Jackson hit of the 1990s? The song had such an irresistible groove, and Jackson simply sounded like she was having fun on this song -- all about getting away from it all. She likely wasn’t the only one, as it’s easy to imagine this one blaring from many a car speaker in the spring of 1990. 

9. Janet Jackson - "Someone To Call My Lover"

Jackson tipped her hand to the 1970s for this satisfying hit from the summer of 2001 about a woman still in search of that perfect someone. The song borrowed the famous guitar riff from America’s 1972 hit “Ventura Highway,” and the result was one of the most pleasing performances of the later years of her career.

8. Janet Jackson - "Nasty"

This 1986 release from Control proved to be one of the singer’s defining moments in trying to establish her own identity as both a recording artist and a woman. The line “My first name ain't baby, it's Janet -- Miss Jackson if you're nasty” remains one of the top catchphrases in pop music history. And, the song found itself back in the news during the presidential election of 2016, where future President Trump referred to Democratic challenger Hillary Rodham Clinton as “That Nasty Woman.” Streams on Spotify soared by an astounding 250 percent following his remarks!

7. Janet Jackson - "All For You"

Upon this song’s release in the spring of 2001, Billboard said, "This offers the promise of good days ahead for a career that has never stalled, but at times has felt more deliberate than others. Expect instantaneous across-the-board act-ion on this from adult, rhythmic, and mainstream top 40s, as well as AC and R&B. It's going to be a 'Rhythm Nation' this spring, indeed. Quite likely another No.1 for Janet." Needless to say, those words were quite prophetic. The melodic number spent seven weeks atop the Hot 100, and represented her most recent trip to the summit of the charts. All in all, another successful hit from the Jimmy Jam / Terry Lewis production machine, which proved to be so beneficial for Jackson.

6. Janet Jackson - "Control"

The title track from her 1986 landmark album helped to further establish her as one of the top artists of her era, and helped her secure some degree of bragging rights in her family. The video for this Janet Jackson song earned the Soul Train Music Award for Best R&B / Soul or Rap Video, where she beat out many of the top artists of the day, including Whitney Houston and her brother, Michael. 

5. Janet Jackson - "That’s The Way Love Goes"

When Jackson unveiled the first single from Janetin 1993, it had been nearly four years since she had released a new album. This song and video were a lot different than the music from Rhythm Nation 1814, to say the least. After the dark texture scheme of the majority of her videos from RN1814, the look of this video was eye-catching. Of course, this Janet Jackson song also was her most sensual lyrically to date, and fans took notice, making this single the most popular song in the nation for eight weeks!

4. Janet Jackson - "What Have You Done For Me Lately"

Jackson had made five appearances in the Top 40 of the R&B charts with tracks from her first two albums, but this 1986 hit marked the true beginning of her reign in the world of pop music. The lead single from Control was partially inspired by an experience the singer suffered in Minneapolis when some men made sexual advances toward her. The singer fought them down, but the incident led her to walk more of an independent streak in her life and her music -- and this declaration of independence struck that tone, as well as with “Nasty,” which also was inspired by that same experience. 

3. Janet Jackson - "If"

The “new look” Janet Jackson was on full display on this tantalizing single from Janet that seemed to continue her sexual revolution of sorts. If you simply listened to the song, the singer played with the imagination of listeners in a way as she had never done before expressing how she would make the object of her affections feel if she only belonged to him. The video, however, left nothing to the imagination. Nearly a quarter-century later, the video can still scorch the screen -- or a hard drive!

2. Janet Jackson - "Miss You Much"

Released as the first single from Rhythm Nation 1814, this dance number with an undeniable pop groove seemed to set a standard for not only her music, but also video making.  The clip for this song is considered one of the landmark moments for choreography in a video clip (courtesy of Terry Bixler), and the chair routine Jackson performed in the clip has been since imitated by several, including Britney Spears in her “Stronger” clip. And, who could blame Britney? This song is as iconic as it gets when it comes to '80s / '90s dance-pop.

1. Janet Jackson - "Black Cat"

Rhythm Nation 1814 was one of those albums that only happen every once in a while. One of the things that set it apart was that while there were plenty of dance grooves such as “Miss You Much” and the title cut, Jackson was unafraid to record in a variety of moods and styles, and everything clicked. There were gorgeous ballads such as “Come Back To Me” and “Lonely,” and then, there was this Janet Jackson song that turned the pop music world on its ear. She could effortlessly slide into the fast lane of hard rock, with this song about drug abuse and gang violence. But with those tasty guitar licks, pulsating beat and a flawless performance from Ms. Jackson, you might not have even noticed the lyrics. And, almost three decades later, the song still sounds that damn good!