Thriller is a 1982 album by Michael Jackson. It was released in December 1982 and went on to become the single best selling album of all time worldwide, selling at last count an estimated 51 million copies worldwide. To put that in perspective, for every 122 people in the world, one copy of Thriller was sold. It won eight Grammy awards and spawned three #1 singles and four more top ten singles in the US. It was the number one selling album in the United States for 37 weeks in 1982 and 1983, still a record. Why? Because it is, unquestionably, one of the greatest pop albums of all time and one of the few that actually deserved its monumental success. The album was remastered and re-released with some bonus material on October 16, 2001, the day I write this review. I was standing in line as the store opened to purchase it. The album was produced by a living legend himself, Quincy Jones, and features guest appearances by Vincent Price and Paul McCartney.
This album fused pop, rock, and rhythm & blues in a way that had never been done before. Today, with twenty years of hindsight, the genres mixed here seemed old hat, but this album broke a lot of ground and blazed paths for thousands of artists to come. What's amazing, though, is that he made it sound and look absolutely effortless, as though this fantastic music was almost off the cuff; at least, that's the feeling I got the first time I heard this album and when I hear it now. His mastery of modern music, at that moment in time, is absolutely unparalleled.
Sure, there are a few weak points on the album, such as the vocal interaction between Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney at the end of The Girl Is Mine. But there are so many magnificent pop songs on this album that the sheer power of songs like Thriller, Beat It, and probably best of all, Billie Jean, make up for it. Even twenty years after its release, it still sounds absolutely fantastic.
The album opens with Wanna Be Startin' Something, an appropriate opener. It's a very danceable track with some nice horn elements and electronic effects. It's definitely a worthy song to open this album, as the beat is fantastically catchy and almost forces you to tap your foot. This would be a career song for most pop musicians; here, it's merely an opener that foreshadows the things to come.
Baby Be Mine is much more of a ballad-style song with a lot of subtle electronic elements and a nice flow. Again, it's a very good song, good enough to make you enjoy playing the whole album straight through, but it is unquestionably overshadowed by the next four tracks, which are among the most masterful pop songs ever recorded.
The first of these four, The Girl Is Mine, is a duet recorded with Paul McCartney and was the first single from the album; Michael would repay the favor with Say Say Say from Paul's album Pipes of Peace. It's a very nice duet between the two, detailing their competition over a girl. This is a fantastic mellow pop song, only really hindered by the spoken word interaction between the two at the end of the track.
The next three tracks were all number one singles, and the run starts off with Thriller. It's an excellent pop song with some spoken word pieces by horror movie king Vincent Price and some nice sound effects to accompany the great beats and excellent vocals from Michael. The song is perhaps even better known for its 1950 horror movie style video that is considered to be the greatest video ever made (according to VH1, anyway).
And it just gets better. Beat It is just a fantastic dance song, using lots of guitars and an excellent, danceable riff. I would argue that it is the best dance track made in the 1980s and definitely among the most innovative with the meshing of dance elements, rock elements, and great vocalization. It broke new ground in the fusion of rock and dance, even more impressive when you consider that it is just a great little song.
And it gets even better...
I would be willing to argue with anyone that Billie Jean sits alongside only Yesterday by The Beatles as the greatest pop song ever made. Period. I have heard this song more times than I can count and I still get goosebumps during the first few beats and during the first singing of the chorus. One could argue that the beat is merely ordinary or that the lyrics are not noteworthy at all. To them I say I don't really care. Michael's vocal improvisation on this track is amazing and it is the one song that I've ever heard that made me literally wish that I had a singing voice that could carry a note; lord knows I've found myself singing this song badly in the shower enough times. This is an amazing five minutes of pop, folks; pure magic from beginning to end, and besides Yesterday, I can't think of anything comparable.
After the first two thirds of the album, the rest of the disc could be utter tripe and this album would still be great, but the remaining tracks are solid as well. Human Nature is a mellow track following the very upbeat tracks that preceded it and provides some great contrast without disrupting the flow of the album. It has a bassline that I often find myself humming; a pretty catchy song, indeed.
P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) is another solid pop track, a much more uptempo track comparable to the album opener. The only real complaint I have with the track is that during the choruses the electronic elements are overused, but the underlying catchiness of the song makes it still work.
The closer, The Lady In My Life is, as you might expect from the title, a tender love ballad. It's very gentle and probably the most stripped-down song on the album, but in that, it may be the least interesting song on the album. The beat does pick up later in the song, but it still remains a low-key track, and thus a surprising closer to a largely upbeat album.
The special edition of the album, released on October 16, 2001, includes a very nice booklet, but what's really of note is the fact that the remaining space on the disc is filled up with all sorts of audio treats that make this one worth picking up. Given the high quality of the bonuses, the fact that the album is remastered (and the remaster is excellent) and that my older copy of Thriller had a large scratch on it and I was planning to replace it anyway, I eagerly anticipated this release. It was well worth it.
The tenth track is an interview with Quincy Jones, where he discusses the fact that he and Michael, while recording this album, were also making a storybook for the Steven Speilberg movie E.T., which included a song by Michael that appeared on the record included with the book. This is the eleventh track, a nice number called Someone In The Dark that meshes well with the film, in my opinion. It's a mellow track which lyrically describes the emotional feel of the film... further proof that everything Michael touched in 1982 turned to gold... or platinum.
The twelfth track is a continuation of the interview with Quincy Jones, where he discusses The Girl Is Mine, Thriller, Beat It, and Billie Jean. He focuses on Billie Jean, telling the story behind the song, but it builds into the amazing thirteenth track, a home demo recording of Billie Jean, before the lyrics are even finished and he is literally building the song on the fly. He's throwing up vocal phrases on the beat as he made them up; it's really amazing to hear pop history in the making. He has the chorus finished and the tempo on this version is just a touch slower. It's much like the magic of hearing some of the better tracks on The Beatles' anthology project, an amazing feeling as you hear your favorite songs actually being made.
Track fifteen is a continuation of the interview with Quincy Jones. This time he talks about how many genres were combined and how amazing the mixture was. He mostly focuses on Beat It here. After that, there is an interview with Rod Temperton, who wrote Thriller, and discussed the choice of using Vincent Price in the song; an amusing tale of how Vincent Price was kind of concerned about recording a pop song and how his vocal part was written in two hours. Then there is more of the interview with Quincy Jones, who mentions how he finds Vincent Price and how well he did during the recording sessions. Of particular interest, though, is track seventeen, Vincent Price's previously unheard second verse from Thriller, which is amusing to say the least; the man has an amazing voice, in my opinion.
Tracks 18 and 19 are interviews with Quincy Jones and Rob Temperton, who discuss an unreleased but completed track from the sessions, Carousel, which is track 20. It's very much a ballad and I believe the choice to leave it off the album was the correct one; it's a good track, but it doesn't really fit on the album at all. The disc closes with some final comments from Quincy Jones, who pretty much sums up why this album is great: great songs.
This album is the best selling album of all time, for good reason: it is a fantastic pop record. The best album to pick up if you liked this one is his Off The Wall; his later works, in my opinion, aren't as interesting as his earlier ones. This is undeniably a peak, though; not just for Michael, but for pop music in general.