Album Review: Michael Jackson - Thriller

Album Review: Michael Jackson - Thriller | Random J Pop

Thriller is one of the most successful albums of all time. Period. The stats and data is there. This is not up for debate. But whether it is one of Michael’s best albums is very much up for debate. And I’ll tell you this now. I don’t think that it is. But not for the reasons you think.

Thriller is a really good album. Quincy Jones’ approach was ‘Let’s just make an album where every song could be a single’ and Thriller achieved that. Thriller’s gambit is the strength of each song individually. But when you take Thriller as an album, there’s no theme or flow to it, as is the case with Off the Wall, Bad and Dangerous.

Thriller is the one Michael Jackson album that I think flows the worst out of all of his albums. The whole thing doesn’t feel like a considered body of work, it feels like a collection of great singles, which was producer Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson’s goal with this album. But Thriller is an album which is easy to forgive for not having the best sequencing or much of a theme, when the songs that make up the album are pretty much perfect. The only bad song on this album is “The Girl Is Mine”. Everybody seemed to be so blinded by there being a Michael and McCartney collaboration, that everybody seemed to turn a blind eye to how trash the song was. Paul McCartney definitely drew the right straw with “Say Say Say”, which is a far better song than “The Girl Is Mine” and would’ve fit Thriller far better.

Thriller being an album of singles isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because much like the album title track, each song kinda lives in its own world, with its own story. It’s the musical equivalent of Marvel’s What If…?. But there’s no getting away from the fact that Thriller isn’t an ALBUM album.

Thriller is an album of 3 parts, which you can pretty much equate to the 3 names involved with it. Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton. This album is the brainchild of all 3, who seemed to all want different things, but also the same things.

Rod Temperton was the bridge between Off the Wall and what would become the most monumental album Michael would ever release, and one of the biggest albums in history. Rod Temperton’s contributions to Thriller honoured where Michael had been with Off the Wall (he is the sole writer of “Rock With You”), but also steered Michael into where he should go next. Rod Temperton’s writing was magic. He seemed to get that Michael Jackson had to exist in this space musically where he almost didn’t seem real, but he still had to be tangible and relatable. With “Rock With You” Michael felt like the smoothest guy at the prom, except that prom only happens in your dreams. And this quality carried through into the Thriller song “The Lady in My Life”, which is a severely overlooked song on Thriller, where Michael’s vocals and delivery shone the brightest. But then you had Rod saying ‘Fuck it’ and leaning fully into creating this world where Michael exists as a character of complete fiction with something like Thriller, which is a lynchpin song on this album. Despite it being such a stand out and the only song which isn’t tethered to any form of Michael’s reality at all, so many of the other songs on the album tie into it sonically, and coincidentally, visually; such as “Beat it” and “Billie Jean”. And “Thriller” also feels like an evolution of “Off the Wall”, which people forget also opened with scary movie vibes, another song written by Temperton himself.

Michael is of course the vessel through which all things work, but he had more of a hand in Thriller than he did Off the Wall, and this is clearly reflected in the songs he wrote himself. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” all managed to say a lot about Michael despite none of the songs really being about him personally. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” was written about his sister LeToya and a shitty relationship she was in at the time. “Beat It” was written about the gang violence he saw in his neighbourhood, romanticised through his love of West Side Story. And “Billie Jean” was written partly about his brothers’ experience with groupies. These songs spoke to Michael’s nature as an observer, with the remarkable ability to take something and meld it into something which feels like his own. And over time these songs would each manage to find a way to make Michael a part of their narrative, to the point where it’d be easy to assume he actually wrote them about himself.

Quincy Jones was the guiding force of Thriller. Ensuring everybody and everything was servicing Thriller being the best thing that it could be. The production on Thriller is meticulous, and the effects of what Quincy Jones managed to achieve on this album have continued to reverberate throughout pop to this day, and will do for many more years to come. And then there’s the work of engineer Bruce Swedien, whose mixing still holds to this day. Some of the songs on Thriller are so dense musically, between the instrumentation and Michael's stacked vocals, that it’d be easy for songs to sound like a loud and flat mess. But Swedien managed to mix every song on Thriller in a way where everything feels perfectly balanced. Every time I listen to a song from Thriller I manage to catch something sonically that I hadn’t done before.

It never astounds me how great the melodies are on every single song on this album, and how they’re introduced. It’s common for a song to really hammer home its melody in the chorus. But every song on Thriller introduces them in the intro, so by the time the chorus hits, it’s already familiar. Every song is constructed in a way where it’s intended to feel familiar before Michael even utters a single word. The intro’s of every song on Thriller are also immediately recognisable. You listen to Thriller once, and then from that moment on, when you hear the first 5 seconds of any song on the album, you’ll be able to identify it. Just like that. As soon as you hear those drums, you know it’s “Billie Jean”. As soon as you hear that haunted gong, you know it’s “Beat It”. As soon as you hear those pads and guitar licks, you know it’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”. And these are all things which great pop producers take note of when they’re crafting songs, and is a common thing in some of the most popular songs on the charts. “I’m Your Baby Tonight”, “Oops!...I Did It Again”, “Thong Song”, “If You Had My Love”, “Like I Love You”, “It’s Not Right (But It’s Okay)”, “The Boy Is Mine”. Part of the magic is that it all feels so natural and seamless. None of the science that goes in making pop songs this good is evident when you're listening to it, because you're just so caught up in the song itself.

Whilst Thriller is very much of an album of its time, it still manages to feel timeless for a whole bunch of reasons. One is that the most notable songs on the album are just so fucking good. The other is how the songs manage to fuse and transcend genres. All of the songs can fall under pop, but some can fall under pop and R&B, whilst some can fall under pop, rock AND R&B. And despite the brevity of Thriller being due to the technical restrictions which came with pressing to vinyl, it makes the album work perfectly in the age of streaming; where listeners have short attention spans and want every song to sound like it could be a hit single. It speaks to the genius and purist approach that Michael and Quincy had. And that if you make a solid album, it will always hold, no matter which point in time you listen to it.

The success of Thriller clearly shows that Quincy Jones made the right calls when it came to what made the final cut, but there are a couple of songs which didn’t, which I kinda wish did. And it’s a shame that even when Thriller was re-released for its 25th anniversary, we got foolishness from and Akon and half of “Carousel”, instead of the full leftovers. “Got the Hots”, “Hot Street” and “Carousel” are all such good songs that I play far more than “Baby Be Mine” and “The Girl Is Mine”. Although I do get why “Got the Hots” was left off of the album, given that it feels like a slight retread of “Off the Wall” due to how similar their chorus structures are. And in the grand scheme of things, whilst I like both of these songs and don’t like “The Girl Is Mine”, that shit was still a hit.

Album Review: Michael Jackson - Thriller | Random J Pop

As somebody who has always listened to a range of musical styles and genres, and had often been ridiculed for such, Thriller was exhilarating for me. Michael Jackson didn’t give a fuck about genre. Here was this Black guy. Singing R&B. Singing pop. Singing rock. Singing ballads. Killing each one. Putting out an album which crossed genres in a way which wasn’t very common at the time.

Thriller made me feel seen.

It was an affirmation for me that even if my taste in music was weird and all over the place, it was fine, and not some singularly uncommon thing. The same goes for the song subject matters. Michael was able to hop from a song where he’s singing about gibberish and startin’ something, to singing a song about Halloween, to singing about some groupie hussy lying about her baby, to something angst ad tension ridden like “Beat It”, to something soft and tender like “Human Nature”. Michael showed that it’s not only fine to be a fan of all manner of musical genres, but we as people can be fun, a little crazy, anxious, uncertain and romantic, and that it’s okay to display these sides of ourselves. We don’t have to be just one thing ALL of the time. There’s beauty in the spectrum of who we are as human beings, if we embrace it in ourselves and in others.

Thriller features great songs. Regardless of how I feel about it as AN ALBUM, the quality of the material on this thing cannot be denied nor overrated. But what this album managed to do for Michael’s musical future was huge. Thriller was not only the right step for Michael to have taken from an album like, Off the Wall, but it was masterful in how it presented Michael. Off the Wall was a wholly funk and R&B affair. Regardless of how good an album it was, it could only carry Michael so far. But Thriller is what put Michael on the path to becoming the King of Pop, and creating a baseline from which all of his future releases would stem. Even when Michael would ditch Quincy and work with a range of different talents, the DNA of Michael’s music could always be traced back to Thriller in some form. And despite the level of planning and precision in making Thriller the album that it was and continues to be, nothing about the album feels forced. The formula isn’t obvious. The agendas aren’t clear. Because no matter what the goal for Thriller was; whether it was album sales, getting on MTV, becoming a pop star - the only things that could make these things a reality were great songs, and 8 out of the 9 songs on Thriller were and still are.

“The Girl is Mine” is garbage. Y’all will not change my mind. Who the hell uses the word ‘doggone’ in a song?! Michael musta been on edibles.

VERDICT: Why? Why!?

■ Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' 🔥
■ Baby Be Mine
■ Thriller
■ Beat It
■ Billie Jean
■ Human Nature 🏆
■ P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) 🔥
■ The Lady in My Life 🔥