I think it is safe to assume that if there were an award for the most popular album of all time,Thriller would win without any serious contention. However, popularity is never an indication of quality, a fact that is reinforced by Transformers 2 holding the top position at the box office and the Black Eyed Peas maintaining the top spot on the Billboard 200 Chart. As a tribute to the late Michael Jackson, I am going to do my best to critically listen to Thriller and offer an objective review of this acclaimed album. I want to examine how well the album lives up to the hype.
The simple conclusion is this: Thriller is a wonderful album that sounds fresher today than many other discs by Jackson’s contemporaries. Although the album cannot completely shake its ties to the music of the 1980s, its pioneering fusion of pop, R&B, rock, funk, and soul created a formula for music that artists still borrow from today. It is hard to listen to Justin Timberlake without feeling the influence of Thriller.
Before getting into the specific details of the album, it is important to notice the historical context of this work. My tastes in popular music grew and developed in a post-Michael Jackson era, so I’ll never be able to listen to Thriller with the surprise and wonder that those living in 1982 must have felt. To my ears, Thriller sound a bit rehashed, only because I have heard many of its musical themes in works released in the album’s wake. I think it is important to recognize that my impression of this album comes from a point of view that will never be able to accurately represent the music scene in 1982. I will do my best, but inevitably I will fall short.
Finally, I am going to do my best to ignore the way that Jackson’s music videos influenced his songs. That’ll be a daunting task, especially with respect to the title track, but in order to objectively analyze the disc I’ll limit my observations to what was originally pressed onto vinyl. Let’s begin.
I was surprised at myself for not realizing sooner how paranoid Michael Jackson sounds on Thriller. Perhaps this is something that only stood out to me in the wake of his death. In Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ he’s under attack, along with his girl. In Beat It, “you wanna stay alive, better do what you can.” In Billie Jean, he is under accusation from a crazy baby mama. In the title track, the demons of the night are after his girl. Even in the saccharine duet, The Girl is Mine, Jackson is threatened by Paul McCartney’s love for his crush. I think it is pretty clear that fame is what is stressing Jackson, as evidenced by the lovely ballad, Human Nature. He yearns for a simpler life. Alas, that is something he will never have. Perhaps this theme in Thriller points to Jackson’s desire for a reclusive lifestyle. After all, where else can he avoid those fanatics who would “dance on the floor, in the round?”
Theme notwithstanding, the craftsmanship on this album is remarkable. Each song has a remarkable hook and there is not an ounce of filler on the entire disc. Musically, he ranges from disco funk (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’) to rock (Beat It) to R&B (Baby Be Mine) and everywhere in between. Admittedly, listing only one song for each genre creates a limiting portrait the actual range of styles and influence the album. This review could easily ramble on, so trust me when I say that Michael Jackson effortlessly blended genres to create songs that were uniquely his. Although you can see his fingerprints all over pop music today, to my understanding, nothing sounded quite like Thriller before 1982.
One other thing…This album would not be half as powerful without Jackson’s voice. I could go on about how talented he is: His piercing tenor, that easily slips into and out of falsetto; his scream, that gives Beat It its power; his smooth tone, that makes The Girl is Mine wash over you; his yelps and hiccups, that add to Billie Jean’s funk. I sincerely hope that years from now, his instrument will be remembered as one of the best in history
I do not have anything else to say about this masterpiece. I lack the talent as a writer to effectively use words that would do justice to Thriller. I really wish I could create a more moving and powerful tribute to one of the greatest pop classics of the modern era. Even without his music videos and historical perspective, I still find this album incredibly powerful. All I can say is that in the wake of his personal struggles, I hope that Thriller lingers in people’s memories and not the difficulties he faced in his later years. I know that I will do my best to honor his legacy. You should too.
Rating: 5/5 Stars
Savage Songs: All of them. However, if forced to pick I would most strongly recommend Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', Billie Jean, Thriller, and Human Nature