About the Album:
“Thriller brought Michael Jackson a level of fame that no human should ever have to endure.” EK That, along with “his posthumous beatification has made it just as impossible to be realistic about this album.” EK “A better title for this would’ve been Monster.” VB
However, in its day, Thriller was the album that gave MJ “artistic acclaim and monumental commercial success, and nothing seemed beyond his reach: music, videos, live performances, movies.” BN It was “a time when his music spoke for itself;” RV “when Jackson declared himself the King of Pop, everyone agreed.” RV
It was, of course, Thriller that gave Jackson the credentials for such a declaration. Even though previous album “Off the Wall was a massive success, spawning four Top Ten hits (two of them number ones)” AMG and selling 7 million copies, it was with Thriller that “the Jackson 5 pipsqueak emerge[d] as an unstoppable star.” UT From the opening track, the album “brings all the promise that Jackson demonstrated from the moment he walked away from his brothers to fruition.” EK One “can still hear glimpses of the astonishing little boy who took all the lessons he learned at the feet of the Apollo Theater masters and turned them into something new.” EK “He establishes himself as the funk-pop heir apparent to Stevie Wonder (who had basically abdicated by that time).” EK For good or bad, “almost as soon as Thriller arrived, that little boy was gone.” EK
Jackson didn’t just emerge as a star in his own right; the influence of his “mature, feisty and hit-laden pop set helmed by Quincy Jones” UT “on the record industry and subsequent popular music is immeasurable.” NRR “Jackson’s keen pop sensibilities” NRR “elevated the concept of the all-conquering, blockbuster album to reality…After Thriller, the industry initiated a super-league which only a precious few can aspire to, and which…recording artists had seldom glimpsed before.” WR “The magnitude of its success was simply unimaginable;” AMG it “stayed on the charts, turning out singles, for nearly two years because it was really, really good.” AMG In fact, seven of the album’s nine cuts went top ten on the U.S. pop charts, including two #1’s, three platinum singles, and a fourth single that went gold. The album has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, making it the biggest selling album of all time (although it does periodically trade that title off with the Eagles Greatest Hits 1971-1975 collection).
“After so much world-wide exposure, it remains a playable record,” WR “a big, bold, glossy, and gripping tour de force that consumed the pop world.” BN “Put it on right now and you’ll be amazed at how easily the most frightening public image of the late 20th century melts away.” TL “There's no whining about celebrity, no messiah complex, just nine immensely catchy tracks.” TL
“It never failed to make you move…More than a cavalcade of justly deserved hits, [it] was an album that…almost everyone could favorably agree on; it had a luxurious production…and the most expensive studio talent that money could buy, yet it never sounded manufactured or contrived.” BN
However, detractors – most notably Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn in the excellent PopMatters’ “Counterbalance” series – say that “sonically Thriller is forever locked in its time;” EK that as you put the album on, “you are acutely aware of when this album was made. It’s like, ‘BLAM! Welcome to 1982! We have drum machines!’ There aren’t too many highly regarded albums where you can narrow down the release date to within three years almost immediately.” JM
Mendelsohn says he is immediately struck “by is the high level of production values” and that “these songs – this entire album – sounds perfect.” JM However, rather than that being a compliment, he says the result is an “overly-groomed quality to the whole listening experience that I find slightly unnerving.” JM He says it feels “like most of this album has been faked, a sort of prefabricated attempt at solidifying Jackson’s pop icon status.” JM
Mendelsohn notes a suspicion that “Jackson wasn’t allowed to mature on his own,” JM “that there was someone behind Jackson’s every move, whether it was Papa Joe, or his brothers, or Quincy or the record label. Everything Jackson did seemed so pre-planned.” JM He suggests that there is a “lingering feeling that Quincy Jones was pushing a square Jackson into a round hole.” JM He notes both a “vaudeville-esque forced smile and feel-goodness (see ‘The Girl Is Mine’, ‘P.Y.T.’, and ‘The Lady in My Life’)” JM and “the pressing, unrelenting nature of the album to show off an artist who has “matured (see ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’, ‘Beat It’).” JM He suggests that “it wasn’t until Bad that we got to hear and see more of the ‘real’ Jackson.” JM
However, the National Recording Registry cited Jones’ “expert production” NRR as one of the reasons for the album’s blockbuster success and Rolling Stone’s Chris Connelly says the sound isn’t at all overdone, but actually “sparer than usual, and refreshingly free of schmaltz.” CC Of course, Klinger would disagree here, calling “The Girl is Mine” a “schmaltz-fest” EK and “The Lady in My Life” “even schmaltzier and less festive.” EK
Still, Connelly points out a potentially undeniable truth – that Jones is “working with what might be pop music’s most spectacular instrument: Michael Jackson’s voice. Where lesser artists need a string section or a lusty blast from a synthesizer, Jackson need only sing to convey deep, heartfelt emotion.” CC And, as even Mendelsohn acknowledges, “coupled with the undeniably catchy nature of these songs that is borderline hypnotic, I can see why people won’t stop buying this record.” JM
While built “on the basic blueprint of Off the Wall,” AMG this is not a “reheating [of that album’s] agreeably mindless funk.” CC “That alone would have given the album a good shot at a huge audience,” AMG but Jackson also benefited because Thriller “arrived precisely when MTV was reaching its ascendancy, and Jackson helped the network by being not just its first superstar, but first black star.” AMG
It is also important to note that “Jackson cooked up a zesty LP whose uptempo workouts don’t obscure its harrowing, dark messages.” CC In fact, Klinger notes it is surprising “to hear so much darkness on an album that became so inextricably linked to pop innocence.” EK He goes so far as to suggest that “Thriller is the sound of a man trying impossibly hard to keep the darkness at bay through slick production and moonwalking.” EK
Unquestionably, “Thriller introduced dread into Michael Jackson’s solo work. By 1995’s HIStory, this element curdled into overwhelming self-regard and out-of-touchness, but here it’s bracing.” AZ “Particularly on Jackson's own compositions, Thriller’s tense, nearly obsessive sound complements lyrics that delineate a world that put the twenty-four-year-old on the defensive. ‘They’re out to get you, better leave while you can. Don’t wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man.’ It was a challenging time for Jackson…and he responded to those challenges head-on. He dropped the boyish falsetto that sparked his hits from ‘I Want You Back’ to ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ and chose to address his tormentors in a full, adult voice with a feisty determination that is tinged by sadness. Jackson’s new attitude gives Thriller a deeper, if less visceral, emotional urgency than any of his previous work, and marks another watershed in the creative development of this prodigiously talented performer.” CC
“The Girl Is Mine”
“The sweet schmaltz of the Paul McCartney duet The Girl Is Mine” AMG “made interracial love pop.” TL “The superficiality of that damnably catchy hit belies the surprising substance of Thriller.” CC Actually, even that song “steers just the right side of vanity.” Q The song was a relatively weak single, but was released because of the big-name pairing and the fact that radio stations would have played the song anyway.
Michael originally called Paul on Christmas day 1980 about working together. The next autumn Jackson flew to England and the pair worked on “Say, Say, Say,” which would be released on Paul’s 1983 Pipes of Peace album and reach #1 for six weeks. They met again at Paul’s ranch in Airzona where they started work on “The Girl Is Mine.” They finished both songs as well as “The Man” (also released on Pipes of Peace in April 1982 in Los Angeles.
“The paranoia is already creeping in, manifesting itself in” AMG the massive “disco-inflected” NRR Billie Jean, truly one of the all-time greatest songs and “Michael’s clearest statement to date on sexuality and stardom.” RC The song was inspired by a real-life situation in which a woman claimed that Michael was the father of ONE of her twin boys.
With “one of the most recognizable bass lines ever,” RV this is “a lean, insistent funk number whose message couldn't be more blunt: ‘She says I am the one/But the kid is not my son.’ The party spirit that suffused Off the Wall has landed him in trouble, and he tempers that exuberance with suspicion. ‘What do you mean I am the one,’ he quizzically asks his femme fatale, ‘who will dance on the floor?’ It’s a sad, almost mournful song, but a thumping resolve underlies his feelings: ‘Billie Jean is not my lover’ is incessantly repeated as the song fades out.” CC
The song reached iconic status because of its video which broke the color barrier at MTV. Jackson’s record company threatened to pull all of their videos if MTV wouldn’t play the video for “Billie Jean.” Michael also delivered a memorable performance of the song for the Motown 25 television special in which he introduced his famous moonwalk dance.
“The tough, scared” AMG “pop-rock” RV of Beat It, the album’s second #1 song, is “maybe the best song here…Jackson’s voice soars all over the melody, Eddie Van Halen checks in with a blistering guitar solo” CC that “bridged arena rock and soul four years before Run DMC met Aerosmith.” TL “Before this, nobody would even have thought to bring in metal virtuoso Eddie Van Halen to play on a disco cut.” AMG “The result is one nifty dance song.” CC Van Halen reportedly did the guitar part for free, telling a magazine years later that he hoped Jackson might teach him how to dance.
The song was supported by one of the best videos of all time, the West Side Story themed turf war between gangs that ended with everyone dancing.
“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”
“Thriller’s most combative track, the hyperactive” CC and “delirious Wanna Be Startin' Somethin’, [is] the freshest funk on the album, but the most claustrophobic, scariest track Jackson ever recorded.” AMG “Jackson…takes on the press, gossips of all kinds and other grief-givers. Here the emotions are so raw that the song nearly goes out of control. ‘Somebody's always tryin’ to start my baby crying,’ he laments, and that sense of quasi paranoia yields to near-bitterness in the chorus: ‘You’re a vegetable, you’re a vegetable/They’ll eat off you, you’re a vegetable.’ It’s a tune that’s almost as exciting as seeing Jackson motivate himself across a concert stage – and a lot more unpredictable. These lyrics won’t keep Elvis Costello awake nights, but they do show that Jackson has progressed past the hey-let’s-hustle sentiments that dominated Off the Wall.” CC
The song was, in fact, originally recorded in 1978 with the intent of being included on Off the Wall. It was rerecorded in 1982 for Thriller. Jackson wrote the song originally for his sister LaToya about her troubled relationships with her sisters-in-law.
There’s also the “gentle and lovely…Human Nature.” AMG “Human Nature” was originally written by Toto’s keyboardist Steve Porcaro. Quincy Jones was working with the band for the Thriller album and when Jones heard the song he wanted it for Thriller. The song grew out of a conversation Porcaro had with his daughter. A boy pushed her at school and he explained that he probably liked her and that it was human nature.
“P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”
This is perhaps the weakest song on the album. Even with its “frizzy funk,” AMG it just “isn’t up to the spunky character of the other tracks” CC, although it was still a top 10 hit. The song was written by James Ingram and Quincy Jones. Ingram had his first chart entries with “Just Once” and “One Hundred Ways,” both top 20 hits from Quincy Jones’ 1981 album The Dude.
Jones got the idea for this song from lingerie his wife bought that said “pretty young thing” on it. Michael’s sisters Janet and LaToya provided backing vocals on the song.
“The compelling title track” NRR was conceived from the beginning as the title cut for the album. It “takes a cue from Parliament’s concept pieces in employing Vincent Price to warn that nonfunky forces will ‘terrorize y’all’s neighborhood.’” AZ “The ridiculous, late-night house-of-horrors” AMG “at first sounds like a metaphoric examination of the same under-siege mentality that marks the LP’s best moments” CC or it could be “trying like hell to hide Jackson’s increasing paranoia under a layer of cheese, pretending it’s nothing more than a tribute to scary movies.” EK Songwriter Rod Temperton was deliberately trying to find something theatrical to fit Jackson’s love of movies.
However, it is “the rare song that’s improved by its” RC “barrier-shattering music video future artists could only aspire to star in.” RV That video came about when Jackson felt interest in the album was starting to wane and he wanted to boost sales. The video was given a budget of $900,000 – the most ever for a video up to that point. The 14-minute, zombie-themed mini-movie was directed by John Landis, who had done An American Werewolf in London.
“Baby Be Mine” and “The Lady in My Life”
Finally, there’s the only two non-charting songs. “For the record, the terrific Baby Be Mine and the pretty good ballad The Lady in My Life are not like the others,” AMG although even they “do their jobs well enough.” Q
“Thriller remains both [Jackson’s] masterwork and a decade-defining album of the ‘80s.” BN “It has become the foundation for every single piece of pop-music released since the 1980s, and escaping its influence is nearly impossible.” JM “For better or for worse, that may ultimately prove to be Thriller’s true legacy.” EK
The full track listing for the reissues Thriller: Special Edition (2001), Thriller 25 (2008), and Thriller 40 (2022) are listed above. Here are some notes about some of the tracks from those reissues.
This was first recorded in 1979 with the intent of being included on Michael’s Off the Wall album. It was recorded again in 1981 for possible release on Thriller. It finally emerged on The Ultimate Collection, a 2004 box set.
“There Must Be More to Life Than This”
This isn’t included on any of the reissues, but was recorded in 1981 as a duet between Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury. It was intended for release on Queen’s 1982 Hot Space album. Mercury released the song on his 1985 solo album Mr. Bad Guy and then Queen finally released it on their 2014 compilation Queen Forever.
This demo of “Thriller” was released on Thriller 40.
“Can’t Get Outta the Rain”
This was the B-side of “The Girl Is Mine.” It is based on “You Can’t Win,” which Michael recorded for the 1978 soundtrack for The Wiz. “You Can’t Win” reached #81 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Can’t Get Outta the Rain” finally emerged on Thriller 40.
“Someone in the Dark”
This was released in November 1982 on the audiobook and soundtrack album for the movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Epic, Jackson’s label, took legal action and forced the album’s withdrawl because the album wasn’t supposed to be released until after Thriller. The song was released on Thriller: Special Edition.
“For All Time”
This track first surfaced on Thriller 25. It features backing from Toto. It is supposedly from 1982, but some sources have said it is from the sessions for the 1991 Dangerous album.
“Behind the Mask”
A demo version of the song was released on Thriller 40. The song was first recorded in 1982 during sessions for Thriller. It was reworked for the 2010 posthumous album Michael.
This is an early demo of “Best of Joy,” another song which was released on the 2010 album Michael.
“What a Lovely Way to Go”
This was reworked as “Lovely Way” by Mark Ronson in 2010 for possible inclusion on the Michael album.
This first surfaced on the Thriller: Special Edition. The full version was featured on the Italian fans’ selection version of 2008 compilation The King of Pop. The song emerged again on Thriller 40.