As I noted in the last post, as great as Prince’s “1999” album was, that and every other album on the charts would soon be overshadowed and dominated by the worldwide greatest-selling album of all time, “Thriller” by Michael Jackson. Rated as the #12 all-time album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, I fully recall the monumental impact this record had on the music world upon its release. From both an audio and video perspective, this record was literally everywhere. Seven of the songs were released as singles, and they all reached the Top 10. Almost every song on this album is really good, and several are all-time classics. For all of his success, “Thriller” still stands as the high point of Michael Jackson’s career.
This landmark record opens with “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”, one of four original Jackson compositions. Building off the disco-era success of “Off The Wall”, this upbeat track is a classic. I had to learn a lesson the hard way on this one, and we can put this in the category of me usually being wrong. At the end of this infectious track, the coda repeats a Cameroonian chorus, “Mama say mama sa ma ma coo sah”. For most of my 39+ years with this album, I 100% thought they were singing “I was saved by the song that Michael sung.” Yep… wrong most of the time.
Next comes “Baby Be Mine”, one of two tracks on the album that didn’t really stick, but that was followed by “The Girl is Mine”, the duet with Paul McCartney. This song is utterly ridiculous, including the chorus, “The doggone girl is mine”, as well as the laughable concept that Michael and Paul would have a fight (maybe a pillow fight?) over a girl. It is charming in its absurdity, and my son and I always laugh that with all of the titanic material on this album, THIS is the song Jackson and the record company chose to release as the first single.
Side one ends with the title track, which remains a legendary song, especially around Halloween, to this day. With the voice-over from horror movie legend Vincent Price, its funky beat, and the famously produced music video that was directed by film director John Landis, this served as the perfect example that everything Michael did turned to gold, as well as proving that everything he did at the time was just a little bigger than everyone else.
The magic continues on side two, with the rock tune “Beat it”. I don’t know if this is true, but Van Halen singer David Lee Roth claims he didn’t know Eddie Van Halen recorded the guitar solo for this song until he heard it on the radio. True or not, this is fully plausible, as any novice rock fan would easily recognize Eddie’s unmistakable sound on this track. Along with the West Side Story imagery of a dance fight in the video, this was one of the two biggest hits among the hits of this album.
Next comes the other one, my all-time favorite Michael Jackson track, “Billie Jean”. Tapping into Michael’s growing fear and paranoia of the world around him, this obsessive fan ode is just about the cleanest and meanest groove I have ever heard. Originally, producer Quincy Jones tried to convince Michael the magical bass-beat intro was too long, but thankfully Michael stuck to his guns and that opening riff is just untouchable. The rest of the song is also legendary, as is the music video, another step up the ladder of all-time greatness for Jackson. Jackson further elevated his status by performing this song on the 25th Anniversary tribute to Motown, where he debuted his infamous moonwalk and the world literally lost their collective minds.
Continuing on, we have the highly successful ballad “Human Nature”. As Eddie Murphy claimed, “Michael is just so sensitive”, and this song is the best evidence of this reference on “Thriller”. The hits carry on with “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”, an up-tempo dance track that includes his sisters Janet and LaToya on backing vocals. The last song on the album, “The Lady in My Life” is not very memorable, but I think that is excusable considering the hit factory the rest of this record became.
“Thriller” was so big and so enduring, it was the number-one selling album in the U.S. for 1983 AND 1984, and as noted above, has sold more copies worldwide than any record in history. I’m not here to judge Michael Jackson’s remarkably unique personal life. There are plenty of people on this list who were highly imperfect and flawed individuals, and furthermore, I don’t have any factual basis to make such a judgment if I chose to do so. I do know that he was a one-of-a-kind talent who truly was the “King of Pop”, and growing up under the microscope of fame and an abusive and controlling father, it isn’t inconceivable to see how he struggled to cope with his fame and fortune with any remote sense of normalcy. I loved this album when it came out, and listening to it again from beginning to end was a great look back to the unmatched achievement of its release.