Most notable for its status as the highest-selling album of all time, Thriller is a must-listen.
Michael Jackson openly declared his intention for Thriller to set the world record it did, if only in sheer bitterness for being overlooked for a Grammy for his disco-era spectacular Off The Wall, which was the first album ever to have four US top-ten singles. While recording, Jackson continually insisted that he would model the album on Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in that every track should be a show-stopper. Hence the now-cliched phrase: "All Thriller, no filler".
Off The Wall was the first solo album for which Jackson had creative control. Thriller was the first album Jackson recorded after becoming estranged from his father and securing the then-highest royalty deal for a recording artist. A time of personal loss and loneliness produced a work of creative sublimity.
Thriller opens with a massively beat-ensconced, disco-funk opus, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”. One of the highlights of the album, as are two of the other three Jackson-penned tracks, “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”, this track silenced the naysayers in the wake of the first release off the album, the appalling “The Girl Is Mine”, a flaccid piece of balladry crafted in conjunction with Paul McCartney. Jackson hoped to equate his own craft with that of The Beatles with this track; instead he proved his own superiority with unpalatable results.
The only other bad track on Thriller is the title track. It might have had better potential without the child-like lyrical content and overall embarrassing Vincent Price rap, but the only salvation to be found in “Thriller” is the catchy, main bass riff. And the video, which in conjunction with “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”, helped create MTV, which in turn helped create Thriller.
At this point it is probably worth mentioning the war between CBS’s Walter Yetnikoff and MTV. Despite the artistic and commercial appeal of the videos of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” (both released within a month of each other), Yetnikoff had to threaten MTV with a total CBS boycott and public accusations of racism in order to get the videos shown. Jackson then became the first black artist to be aired on MTV. A year later, a full half of MTV’s airtime was given over to the video of “Thriller”. The first single, the biracial love dirge “The Girl is Mine”, positioned Jackson on a par with McCartney as intended; the second single - “Billie Jean”, the biggest selling of Jackson’s lifetime - cemented his position as an R&B maestro; the third single, “Beat It”, with its guitar-rock, allowed young white people respectable entree to Thriller. Finally, the videos to the latter two - including the Motown 25 performance of “Billie Jean” - as well as the video to the title track, refused to allow the Jackson brand out of the popular consciousness, where it reigned supreme for a full two years. The other issues with racism included Rolling Stones' refusal to feature Jackson in a cover article, to which Jackson responded: “Just wait. Someday those magazines are going to be begging me for an interview. Maybe I'll give them one. And maybe I won't.”
It’s unfortunate that “The Girl is Mine” and “Thriller” are positioned on the track listing consecutively, and in the middle of the album. They show the worst excesses of Quincy Jones’ cinematographic production, and little substance. The rest of the album, however, is absolute brilliance.
The second, better, half of the album is heralded with “Beat It”, centred around unusual verses that Jackson laces with sharp notes and aggressive breath vocals, just as in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”. It’s braced by two strong guitar riffs in the verses and chorus, further enhanced by Eddie Van Halen's guitar solo towards the end.
Quincy Jones wanted “Billie Jean” off Thriller entirely, and faced with Jackson’s intransigence, urged that the intro be cut. When Jackson refused, Jones had engineer Bruce Swedien construct a minimalist masterpiece around Jackson’s melodies and vocal mastery, beginning with a blank, instantly recognisable drum beat, then the rising-and-falling bassline, a single, distinctive Jackson whisper-chant, a recurring, simple four-note synth motif, and finally Jackson’s verse introduced by his vocal hiccup. Besides the memorable bridge, chorus, and the instantly recognisable, ostentatious, string riff in the chorus, not much else musically is involved in “Billie Jean”, nor need it be. Like "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", "Billie Jean" sports paranoid and visceral lyrics.
Ballad-wise, “Baby Be Mine” and “Human Nature” are without parallel. “Baby Be Mine” is a much-ignored, immaculate piece of R&B. It's a compulsively danceable mid-tempo track, jammed full of beautiful production, including Jackson’s unrelenting vocal magnificence. “Human Nature”, coming after the two big singles of the album, is more emotive, written by members of Toto. Its synth melodies could have been produced in the 1990s by someone like Babyface. Sampled countless times in popular culture, the most memorable refrain from this track is Jackson’s exquisite, haunting “Why?” cry. “The Lady In My Life” is less formidable, but still holds its own as the closing ballad on such an ambitious album. In between comes the loosest, funkiest track on Thriller: “Pretty Young Thing”.
Many a pundit has tried to analyse the reasons behind Thriller’s extraordinary commercial success; Bruce Springsteen admitted that he tried to replicate the tempos of Jackson’s biggest hits on Born In The USA.
In the end Jackson surpassed his own standard from Off The Wall, with all seven singles - lifted from a nine-track album - entering the US top ten. Perhaps this is why Thriller remains the highest-selling album of all time 30 years later. Perhaps it was the videos. Whatever the case, the artistic merit of the album itself shouldn’t be questioned, especially coming at the point in history at which it did.