"I Want You Back" on American Bandstand, 1966
The first four singles released by the Jackson 5 reached number one on the charts, and "I Want You Back" was the one that got it all started. During their first appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, Michael steals the show, as he would for years to come. His dancing is just a little smoother than the others', a little more expressive, even at age 8. Look at his eyes throughout, and you'll see a kid who can't seem to figure out if performing on national television makes him feel safe or scared to death.
"Rock With You" from Off the Wall, 1979
After years kept under impossibly tight wraps by his father and the entire universe of the Jackson 5, MJ had his unofficial coming out party with the 1979 release of Off the Wall. It's a slightly uneven record, but "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You," are more than enough to make it a classic. It's also right around the time we start to see his face changing (after a botched rhinoplasty the year before) and his unique sense of style begin to take shape.
"Billie Jean" and the Moonwalk at the Motown 25th Anniversary Celebration, 1983
Probably the single most famous performance of his career, and maybe in the history of pop music altogether. After reuniting with his brothers for a brief performance to celebrate the history of Motown, Jackson set out on his own for "Billie Jean," which first introduced us to many of his iconic dance moves, most notable, of course, the moonwalk, which still seems like something a person shouldn't be able to do.
"Thriller" Video, 1982
"Thriller" probably isn't the best Michael Jackson song ever, but its inclusion on the album of the same name, along with its groundbreaking video, has made it his best-known. At over thirteen minutes in length, the video was massively ambitious and surprisingly clever. Jackson's interaction with the female lead is sweet and funny, but the real high point here is the expertly choreographed dance sequence after he turns to a monster or whatever.
"We are the World," 1984
It may have become something of a punchline in the years after it was released, but "We Are the World," which Jackson co-wrote with Lionel Richie, is in many ways the apex of his career. Two years removed from the release of Thriller, he was on top of the world, completely untouchable and just starting to show signs of the eccentricity that would characterize the rest of his life. Watch for his first appearance in the video below, at around 1:20. He's got it all: the loafers, the short pants, the glove, the blinged-out, military inspired jacket, and the hair. If there's one image of him that should last, it's this one.