Classic Front-to-Back Albums: Michael Jackson - Thriller


By Greg Kennelty, September 10, 2017, 2017


Despite becoming a phenomenon, Michael Jackson's sixth album, 1982’s Thriller, was the child of frustrations personally and commercially. These frustrations stemmed partially from Jackson’s 1979 Off The Wall album, which won him his first Grammy and allowed him to become the first solo artist ever to have four singles from the same album to break through the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. Despite this success, Jackson was feeling lonelier than he ever had before in his personal life, which led him to hire manager John Branca.


According to J. Randy Taraborrelli's 2004 book The Magic and the Madness, the then-21-year-old Jackson told Branca that he felt completely frustrated in his career, and that it was "totally unfair that [Off The Wall] didn't get Record of the Year and it can never happen again." Jackson asserted that someday music journalists would be "begging me for an interview. Maybe I'll give them one, and maybe I won't."


With a budget of $750,000 (about $1.9 million when adjusted for inflation in 2017) and 30 songs under his belt, Michael Jackson entered the studio in April 1982 to record what would become Thriller with producer Quincy Jones. Of the 30 songs written and demoed, nine ultimately made the cut for Thriller. Carousel written by songwriter Michael Sembello, Got the Hots written by Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, and Hot Street written by Rod Temperton (who also wrote Baby Be Mine and Thriller), were all completed but were left off the final album. Of the three, Carousel eventually did see the light of day on Thriller: The Ultimate Fan Extras Collection in 2013 via an iTunes release.


Jackson told Ebony in 2007 that his goal for Thriller was to craft an album without any filler tracks, and that the so-called "album tracks" used to fill empty space confused him. Specifically, Jackson stated his goal for Thriller as such: "People used to do an album where you'd get one good song, and the rest were like B-sides. They'd call them 'album songs,' and I would say to myself 'Why can't every one be like a hit song? Why can't every song be so great that people would want to buy it if you could release it as a single?'"


Thriller was unleashed on November 30, 1982, and would go on to sell more than 66 million copies worldwide. At its peak, Thriller was selling roughly 1 million copies worldwide per week, though the album got off to a rough start with the first single The Girl Is Mine. The single drew criticisms and accusations that Jackson was pandering a to a white audience, and that the single was a poor representation of the album. However, the following trio of Billie Jean, Beat It, and Thriller more than made up for lost ground and ultimately cemented Jackson as one of the most important and widely-recognized artists of all time.


Michael Jackson - 1988

Thriller also effectively changed the way the music industry functioned. Jackson achieved the highest royalty rate in the music industry at two dollars for each copy of Thriller sold, and changed the perception of the album format as one that could effectively be loaded with hit singles (eventually seven of its nine tracks).


While Thriller is widely known to have featured a guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen on Beat It, the album's lineup runs much deeper than that. The album features both Janet and LaToya Jackson on backup vocals, The Brothers Johnson bassist Louis Johnson, Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, keyboardists David Paich and Steve Porcaro, and drummer Jeff Porcaro, The Beatles bassist and vocalist Paul McCartney, and legendary session guitarist David Williams, whose resume includes Earth, Wind & Fire and Boz Scaggs.


Looking at the covers of Thriller versus Off The Wall, it’s hard to believe the albums were only three years apart. Off The Wall depicts a young Michael Jackson standing against a brick wall, looking as though he’s all set to walk into his high school prom, while Thriller shows off a much older, mature Michael Jackson dressed to kill. The stylistic juxtaposition seems to be intentional, as Jackson wanted to set himself apart from the disco styles of Off The Wall. Thriller incorporates a wide variety of styles, such as the hard rock riffing found on Beat It, the synth-heavy funk of Baby Be Mine, and straight up pop like Billie Jean.


Ultimately there’s no denying the cultural significance and overall importance of Thriller, but how does the album hold up in 2017? In short, shockingly well. Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ kicks off with some fairly dated-sounding MIDI-based instrumentation, though once things get into full swing with the entire band and Jackson’s vocals overtop, the song holds just as much space and weight as it did in 1982. From the song’s funky start to Frank Zappa-esque vocal runs about halfway through, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ pretty much speaks for the entire album – it’s still just as interesting and mind blowing as it’s always been.


Behind all the funk, rock, and pop that we've all come to know and love over the years, there are Jackson's lyrics, which tell some rather powerful and occasionally sorrowful stories. Beat It is about Jackson's recollections of witnessing gang violence in his hometown of Gary, Indiana, while Billie Jean is about groupies Jackson would encounter during his time in The Jackson 5. Of course it's not all gloom and pain, as songs like Thriller are meant to evoke the spirit of 1950s horror films, a theme portrayed in its iconic music video.


One thing that appeals to me personally about Thriller is its compositional density. Ask anyone to sing the title track and you’ll likely hear them either recant the lyrics or the bubbly bass line. Though what about the funky guitars that sprout up in the background of the chorus? Or the multitude of horn pops, or the fuzzy sine wave synthesizers that back up the chord progressions throughout the verses? Sure, Thriller as an album is basically part of our collective consciousness, but the composition and pure density of each song’s performance is incredible and frankly a ton of fun to dig into.


Digging into Thriller is also pretty easy, considering the phenomenal production of the album. Each instrument occupies its own space in such a way that it’s easy to pick out layers in each song, no matter how deep down or quiet they might be. Thriller is a spacious album overall whose soundstage seems to be as wide as each song’s instrumentation. For instance, the title track opens things up nice and wide with some Foley work and minimal instrumentation, prefacing that dark space with a thin layer of horns, and then shows you everything in the light with the rest of the band’s entrance. One of the most impressive things about Thriller is the vocal production. Each layer of Jackson’s vocals seems to occupy its own space, rather than having everything lumped together in its own little cordoned-off playpen.


Thriller is a classic for a multitude of reasons. Every single song is literally a hit, the album sounds great, and no matter what song you might choose to put on no matter where you are, it’s likely to draw some smiles and sing-alongs. Thriller is a timeless album that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, though who would expect it to?


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