[10 February 2008]
I almost find it strange that I’m sitting here, figuring out how to write a review on Michael Jackson’s Thriller. This strange feeling is not just because I consider myself one of Michael’s “superfans” (I’ll spare you by not going into detail. Thank me later.), but, I also kind of assume that anyone reading this is already extremely familiar with both the album and the artist. Love him or hate him, Michael Joseph Jackson has been a key figure in the music industry for nearly 40 years now. Come to think of it, he might be more key now, past his commercial heyday, than he was a quarter century ago when Thriller topped the album charts for 37 weeks, on it’s way to becoming the best selling non-compilation album in history, a record that may not ever be broken, particularly if record sales continue to slide the way that they do.
I was six when Thriller originally came out in 1982, and I can remember more incidental facts about the album than I can about the rest of my record collection combined. The first couple off the top of my head: The first music I ever received as a Christmas present was a 45 of “The Girl is Mine”. A couple months later, I remember coming home from the second grade and hearing “Baby Be Mine” coming out of my family’s stereo. I almost broke my neck running up the stairs to look at the album cover, and I remember oohing and aahing over the pics of Michael and the little baby tiger that adorned the album‘s gatefold sleeve. I distinctly remember the performance that solidified Michael as a legend-the performance of “Billie Jean” on Motown’s 25th Anniversary Special in May of 1983. My family had just gotten our first VCR the day the show aired, and I was promised that the show would be taped in the event that Michael and his brothers went on past my bedtime. I managed to con some of my younger aunts and uncles into keeping me awake, cloak and dagger style, so I could watch it right along with the millions of folks who saw the former cherubic child star dance his way into history in a performance that still stuns me although by now I’ve seen it hundreds if not thousands of times.
I know for a fact that stories like these are pretty common among those who came of age in the midst of Michael-mania, and that is why this 25th anniversary reissue has to exist. It exists for each of the 26 million people who have bought this album (that doesn’t include used copies, bootlegs or dubs… so with that in mind, imagine how many people REALLY own Thriller). It exists for all the people who rocked red leather jackets, high water pants, a single white glove, and that greasy-ass Jheri curl back in the day. It exists for people who listen to Justin Timberlake, Usher, Omarion, Britney, Janet, Madonna and every other artist who has stolen a lick or a dance move from The King of Pop. It exists for the folks who don’t realize that two of the Top 20 songs on the recent Billboard Singles chart (Kanye West’s “Good Life” and Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music”) both sample tracks from Thriller. It also exists as a reminder that before he became a Human Freak Show, Michael Jackson was America’s sweetheart, the boy next door, and he made some kick-ass tunes to boot.
1979’s Off the Wall might be the better overall album (and, seriously, we‘re almost splitting hairs when it comes to comparing the two), but Thriller was the album that seemed almost genetically engineered to be huge. Everything about it was big, from Michael and Quincy’s epic production to the tight dance grooves on tracks like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “Billie Jean”. Listening to it in retrospect, it’s clear that Michael and Quincy had their ears attuned to Top 40 radio at the time. While some of the sources they borrowed from seem a bit more obvious in retrospect—listen to, respectively, Rick James’ “Give It to Me Baby”, Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do) and The Dazz Band’s “Let It Whip”, and then listen to “Thriller”, “Billie Jean” and the intro to “Beat It”—no one was able to fuse everything together the way Thriller did. Michael stuck Eddie Van Halen’s screaming guitar on the same album with “The Lady in My Life”, a slow jam that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Teddy Pendergrass album, and made them BOTH work. And he made the hard-rock kids and the slow-jam folks like every second of all of it. It’s pop, rock, easy listening, soul, funk, disco and even a little bit hip-hop (it’s played for laughs, but Vincent Price IS rapping at the end of “Thriller”). Besides, any album good enough to make you forgive (although maybe not forget) a song as bad as the Paul McCartney duet “The Girl is Mine” has got to be DAMN good.
The 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition is notable for featuring a couple of noble, if not always successful attempts to update the album’s sound for the 21st century, with a guest roster that includes Black Eyed Peas’ will.I.am and Fergie, Kanye West and Akon. The latter artist, who is of African descent, is actually an inspired choice for an update on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, as sort of a nod of the head to the original song’s itchy groove and tribal chants (borrowed from Manu Dibango’s disco hit “Soul Makossa”). It also appears to be the only track for which Michael re-recorded his vocals. Will.I.Am puts a breezy spin on “The Girl is Mine” (now completely devoid of McCartney and not suffering a bit because of it) and “P.Y.T.” (in which Michael’s demo vocals, featuring completely different vocals and melodies) are fun.
While none of the revisions hold a candle to the originals (except maybe for “The Girl is Mine”), they’re all pleasant with the exception of Kanye’s lazy remix of “Billie Jean”. You’ve been given the opportunity to remix the most iconic single from one of the most iconic albums of all time, and all you can do is stick a drum machine on top of the song’s original arrangement? Normally, I love Kanye, but this remix is a letdown. The one never-before-heard track, “For All Time”, is a decent sounding, atmospheric synth ballad that’s a bit reminiscent of “Human Nature”. The vocals on this one also sound significantly more like latter-day post-nose surgeries Michael as opposed to his higher-pitched vocals of the Thriller era.
If you’ve never purchased an MJ DVD before, the one included in the Thriller 25 package contains all the Jackson footage you’ll need in a pinch-the still-riveting “Motown 25” performance, as well as the groundbreaking videos for “Billie Jean”, “Beat It” and the album’s title track. A quarter-century later, these videos still look innovative, a testament to Michael’s foresight when it came to using visuals to enhance the album-listening experience.
Twenty-five years after Thriller‘s original release, amidst everything that’s gone on in Michael Jackson’s crazy, insane, screwed up life, this album still makes people smile, the grooves still make people dance, and the videos still make people stop and stare in awe. This, folks, is where the mere pop stars get separated from the legends. Times may change, music may change, but Thriller is one of those few iconic records whose influence seems to be prevalent no matter the climate. This re-issue just adds another chapter to the legacy.