As part of the 16 Albums That Changed My Life Challenge, I am doing posts on the albums (more than sixteen) that helped define my musical tastes and meant the most to me. In addition, I am unofficially doing a series of posts about Michael Jackson. You can take a look over the last few days to see some of those. As for the albums that have written about in the above challenge, you can find them here and here. The next album I have chosen is a companion to the last album I wrote about. Last time out, it was Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall; this time it is Thriller.
It’s been suggested that Michael Jackson went to work on Thriller to create an album to reach the broadest possible audience. It was the same goal he had when he did Off The Wall, but when that album failed to win Album Of The Year, Jackson’s goal was to do something even bigger, despite the massive success he had with the previous album. I would guess that no one involved in the making of Thriller had any idea how successful it would become. Yes, it won Album Of The Year at the Grammys. Yes, it spun off seven top ten pop hits (leaving only “Baby Be Mine” and “The Lady In My Life” off the list). Yes, it became the greatest selling album of all time (hundreds of millions worldwide). But as good as it was—and it was spectacularly good—it benefited by a few fortuitous items that combined to make a perfect storm.
First of all, Thriller wasn’t bracketed with two albums from the Jacksons around a year or so of its release on either side of it like Off The Wall had been. Prior to the 1979 release, Destiny was on the charts; just over a year after, Triumph by the Jacksons was out, perhaps to ride the wave Michael had created with Off The Wall. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the second single release from Thriller, “Billie Jean,” arrived with a video that MTV simply couldn’t ignore. That video proved to be the one that broke the barrier that kept black artists from being featured on the channel, and as the singles and videos kept coming, Jackson’s album kept getting bigger and bigger. Michael was good for MTV, and MTV was good for Michael; that kind of airplay was something that Off The Wall never had in its favor. Finally, Michael’s performance of “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25 TV special, and its debut of his signature “moonwalk,” brought even more appeal and hype to the party.
Needless to say, Jackson had a monster smash on his hands. There really isn’t a need to do an album review; there are nine great songs on the release. It’s just a matter of which ones you like better than others. For me, “Thriller” is one of the weaker songs on the album; I think the mini-movie he made for the song did most of the heavy lifting in making it the seventh top-ten pop hit. “The Girl Is Mine,” a duet with Paul McCartney, is a little too cutesy for me also, but it was the first single and got the ball rolling. Everything else is A+.
Only Jackson could get away with adding Eddie Van Halen on one song, and having Vincent Price on another, and McCartney on a third, all while sharing real estate with a song as beautiful as “Human Nature.” But he did it, and it resulted in an album that sold over 40 million copies.
Interestingly, “Human Nature” and “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” did not make the top ten on the R&B chart; meaning that Michael had only five top-ten R&B chart hits from Thriller.
So in summary, Michael, Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton and the crew got back together to make a bigger, better, more successful Off The Wall. That they succeeded is a testament to the talent involved, but also to a range of factors that helped push the album to heights previously unheard of. The previous post explained why I love Off The Wall more than Thriller; but that isn’t to say I didn’t love Thriller too. After all, I bought it within days after it was released and wore the grooves out of it when I got it in my possession.
Sadly, things were beginning to change around Michael as well. You can hear some of it in a couple of the songs: the sense of paranoia on “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” and “Billie Jean” serve as two examples. And of course, the beginning of the saturation of media coverage of what were deemed Michael’s eccentricities in the years to come; so much so he wrote “Leave Me Alone” as a response to it. And I also believe that he spent the rest of his career trying to top, or at least match, what he did with Thriller; and while he had many more hits, he was never able to reach that high water mark again. Thriller was an album of its time; it landed in a sweet spot that pushed it to heights previously unknown. The same factors never collided in the same way again.