Friday, December 21, 2007


This month was the 25th anniversary of the release of the best-selling album in history, Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Given the general freak show that Michael has become over the past dozen years or so, it's getting harder and harder to remember a time when he was just about the damn coolest person anyone had ever seen before.

The Guinness Book of World Records puts the total number of copies solid to date at north of 100 million copies. That's absolutely ridiculous to think about, considering that the next highest in terms of worldwide sales is less than 50 million.

There have only been a handful of genuine phenomenon's in music that seemed to come out of nowhere. Elvis in 1955. The Beatles in 1964. It's a pretty short list. Stuff like New Kids On The Block in the late 80's or Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears a decade later, the hype around them seemed forced, artificially manufactured, media driven.

Michael Jackson had been on the public stage for over a dozen years since the Jackson 5 had their first hit in 1969. So while it sounds strange to say that he came out of nowhere, there could have been no way to predict the way he exploded on the scene starting December 1, 1982.

It was a perfect storm. For starters, MTV had been on the air for just sixteen months and the medium was still fairly primative. The technological leap forward for music videos was staggering, compared to the junk that was on the channel at that point. He became the biggest star on the channel; cable was a fairly new revelation in its own right, and MTV quickly joined ESPN as the most relevant options in this new world. His look, with the parachute pants and the sunglasses and sequined gloves was totally different from other performers, something new and fresh that kids could latch onto. Pop music was en vogue at this point in the post-disco, post-punk New Wave era that had emerged, and he did it better than anyone else. Still, there was no way to see it coming.

"Thiller" is not the best album ever, in my estimation. It could have been, if there had been one subtraction. "The Girl Is Mine" is simply a terrible track that completely doesn't fit in this collection. Proving that there's no accouting for taste, this worthless bit of tripe was the first release from the album and promptly spent three weeks at #2 on the charts. The far superior Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney collaboration "Say, Say, Say" would enter the countdown nearly a year later off of a McCartney solo album and spend six weeks at #1. If these songs would have switched albums, I could comfortably put "Thiller" ahead of "Joshua Tree," "Rubber Soul," or "Zeppelin IV."

"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" has a hypnotic synthesizer intro that grips you immediately, one of the best kickoffs to an album ever. Accomplished bass player Louis Johnson, who figures ever more prominently later on, weaves in and out, and the first examples of ear candy, the short trumpet bursts that pop up, are very distinctive. And Jackson is singing in a much more mature manner, not messing around with a lot of the falsetto that he utilized on "Off The Wall" several years earlier. A lot of the same elements pop up on "Baby Be Mine," but in a much less frenzied manner than the prior track. It has some very slight funk elements, but is much more of a pop song. What follows next is the abominable "The Girl Is Mine," which I believe my good friend Lonnie would lump into the category of craptastic or craptacular. Seriously, why could "Say, Say, Say" not have been in this place?

There's no denying that the single "Thriller" is pure camp. I can't possibily fathom anyone else doing a song like this and pulling it off. It's kind of like trying to imagine someone else doing "Bohemian Rhapsody." The interesting thing for my is always trying to pick out the different layers to the song. It seems pretty minimal if you're listening superficially, but there's always four or five different things going on underneath the main structure and Jackson's singing. Of course, as fun as this song in on the album itself, nothing beats seeing it in video form.

The album is already picking up steam at this point, but goes into a completely foreign direction with "Beat It." Never before had an R&B act attempted a foray into guitar rock quite like this. Eddie Van Halen's searing solo shot during the bridge (rated the 67th best guitar solo in rock history by Guitar World) attracted the bulk of the attention, but Steve Lukather's guitar work during the remainder of the song is solid as well. As for Jackson, it was probably the most aggressive vocals in terms of both content and delivery thus far in his career. The fusion of rock and R&B served as a template for future cross-genre collaborations, starting with "Walk This Way" three years later.

"Billie Jean" is quite possibly the perfect pop song. I simply don't hear any flaw in it. The only other potential heir to that throne is U2's "One." The bass line is seductive, the ear candy is plentiful and yet not overdone, the subject matter is far weightier than any that Jackson had previously tackled...hell, the lead vocals were done on one take, with no overdubs or editing. It wound up as a much-deserved #1 single, arguably the best song of 1983 along with "Every Breath You Take."

A slice of weenie rock, the confectionary "Human Nature" comes down from the heaviness of the three previous tracks. Still, the melody is impressive and this was another top 10 hit. The album picks up the tempo with "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." Backup vocalists included Janet Jackson and James Ingram; this single was another impressive combination of pop with a funk undertone. I would have liked to see "P.Y.T.," yet another of the seven top 10 hits, be the song that had wrapped up the album. However, Jackson and Quincy Jones opted for "The Lady In My Life," a surprisingly effective love song. Its impact is a little diminished because of all the rumors and innuendo regarding Jackson's sexuality over the rings a little false today in a way that it wouldn't have in 1982. But it's very good as far as 80's ballads go, and I remain surprised that it was never released as a single.

It goes without saying that the impact and achievement of this album will never be surpassed. No one will every churn out a trio of videos as groundbreaking and legendary. No album is going to top seven top ten hits. No album is going to sell 100+ million copies. And yet the lack of note that was taken took me off guard.

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