Friday, June 15, 2007

No. 20: Thriller

Band: Michael Jackson
Album: Thriller
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The greatest selling album of all-time, "Thriller" had seven top 10 singles. Iconic of the pop R&B genre that Jackson helped create, "Thriller" is nearly flawless. The non-single tracks are all solid and the singles, are, well, you know. You know all the words to, at least, three of the seven singles. You do. The video for the album's title track is probably the greatest video of all time and certainly cemented Jackson as the biggest star in the world. Jackson's vocal style may be the most imitated in modern music. It's hardto hear to an R&B song today that doesn't have Jackson's singing style dripping all over it.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Like "Nevermind," "Thriller" should probably be up a little higher on this list. You could make an argument for "Thriller" to be a top five album, mostly on the strength of its influence in modern hip hop.
Best song: My MJ favorite is, was, and always will be "Billie Jean." There was a time when I knew the whole dance.
Worst song: The two non-singly tracks, "Baby Be Mine" and "The Lady in My Life" aren't as good as the other songs. Also, "That Girl is Mine" has a pretty misguided Paul McCartney guest appearance, but the song is still great.
Is it awesome?: An emphatic "yes."

Forget about all the alleged child molestation. Forget about the stuff with Bubbles. Forget about the Elephant Man's bones. Forget "Jesus Juice." Forget everything that came out after "Bad." Hell, you might as well forget about "Bad."

Remember "Thriller?" Remember dancing around as a kid (I'm making the assumption that my readers are around my age)? Remember being scared/exhilirated at the part of "Thriller" where Jackson turns into a zombie? Remember that behind the scenes special with John Landis, where they showed some makeup artist putting the giant yellow werewolf contacts in Jackson's eyes? Remember "Billie Jean?" Remember the sidewalk that lit up? Remember the guitar solo from "Beat It?" You know that's Eddie Van Halen, right? Remember the hokey, Jets v. Sharks gang fight in the video for "Beat It?" Remember "Mama-se, mama-sa, ma-ma-coo-sa?"

Of course you do.

Michael Jackson was the biggest star of the '80s, only rivaled by Madonna. And while Madonna was a little too controversial for the time, Jackson didn't begin being controversial until he started sleeping with little boys. His music never really took on any important topics. He just sang. And sang. And sang.

His James Brown style "ooos," "ahs" and "ows" were delivered in a falsetto that meant something other than Brown's quasi-sexual grunts. His shout/sing delivery took as much from the Ohio Players as it did from Marvin Gaye.

Rod Temperton, James Ingram and Quincy Jones produced an album that really fit Jackson's skills as well as a record has probably ever fit a performer. "Human Nature" is the slow jam Jackson was meant to sing, while "Billie Jean" has the desperation of a man accused. "Thriller" is delightfully hokey; It's an updated "Monster Mash" complete with the ridiculous Vincent Price rap. "P.Y.T." is the '80s equivalent to a modern club jam. The type of thing Rick James wishes he recorded.

In short, it's brilliant. It's so hook-heavy and fun that I don't know if I've ever met anyone who doesn't like it.


I DJed a couple of parties when I was in college, thanks to the radio station. Our station is a typical college radio station. Lots of Cat Power, Pavement, etc. Not a lot of dance music. I do, however, believe in a very simple formula as to how to get people dancing from the DJ booth at a party: The first two Michael Jackson albums, Prince and Madonna. If you play that stuff, people will dance. They just will.

"Thriller" has, basically, seven danceable songs.


This is the first real '80s-sounding album on this list, so it gives me the opportunity to write about a pet opinion of mine. I believe a lot of great songwriting happened in the '80s that is mocked now beause the production during the time was so formulaic and, well, bad. Producers in the '80s overused certain synths and sounds in order to create a certain type of song atmosphere. I'm not anti-synth, I just think the violin synth sound that filled a lot of songs ruined them.

The Police are one of the groups emblematic of this phenomenon; Listen to Tori Amos' (shut up) cover of "Wrapped Around Your Finger." If someone went and recorded the Police catalog on accoustic guitars and pianos, you'd love the record ever more. A lot of the one-hit wonders are similar.

"Thriller," however, isn't. Because its a dance record, the cheesy atmospheric synth is minimal and the production adds to the music. "Thriller" is so good, it is enhanced by cheesiness. That, in and of itself, is pretty amazing.

1 comment:

bob_vinyl said...

I think he stretched out a bit more on Bad and I like that more. Still, this is a great pop record and I think RS was pretty close on their ranking. I'm not sure I agree that it was such a singular influence on hip-hop though.