This week is one of those times when I am thankful for the constant inflow of news and information that comes pouring onto my phone 24/7. Otherwise, I would have overlooked the 35th anniversary of arguably the greatest album ever recorded. A lot of things have been said about Michael Jackson over the years, but when it comes down to it, you can’t deny the greatness of this album. Personally, I went through many years of debating what the greatest album of all time really is. I know I have my personal favorites that many people probably either haven’t heard of or would never place on the pedestal I put them on (i.e. Aimee Mann‘s fantastic 2005 album The Forgotten Arm is a great example of an all time favorite of mine that most people have probably never heard of). I also tried comparing Thriller to some of the other best-selling albums of all time, but honestly, I think the numbers don’t lie in this particular case. Whether you are more of a rock fan, pop fan, country fan, etc, you can’t deny how great of an album Thriller really is.
As I listened to this album during my commute to work, I wondered what would be the best way I could pay tribute to this album. Rather than go on and on about its greatness, I decided to do a track by track analysis of each song. Thriller is not only a great album, but it contains just the right amount of songs. Each one makes a unique statement that deserves to be recognized in that sense.
Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ is a great example of what the opening track of an album should sound like. It doesn’t have to necessarily be an uptempo song that jumps out at you, but it has to set the tone in some way. Usually, an upbeat number like this one will do the job. For me, the best part of the song is the “mama-say mama-sa mama-coo-sa” chant that can be heard for much of the second part of the song. If you read the link for this song, you will learn that this was actually taken by an artist i’ve never even heard of. I figured it had to come from somewhere, but didn’t really know the origin until now. All I get out of this song is that somebody is trying to start something and he apparently hates vegetables. Nonetheless, it is a fantastic song that is actually kind of hard to define. It’s a dance song, but not necesarily in the same style as many of his other songs. That is one of the things that made the recording of this album so great. So many songs on this album have a very unique flavor to them yet they all come together to form a cohesive masterpiece.
Baby Be Mine
Baby Be Mine is an interesting track. Although it is probably the least talked about song on the album, personally, it has always been one of my favorites. That could either be due to the fact that it hasn’t be played out quite as much as all of the others or it could very well be an underrated song. This song contains a nice dancey groove to it that probably would have fit in very nicely on his Off The Wall album, but somehow seems to fit in nicely here as well. For many artists, this song would be a hit. For Michael Jackson, it is more or less a “throwaway” album track among many other great songs.
The Girl Is Mine
The Girl Is Mine is another song that gets lost in the mix of many great tracks on this album. Paul McCartney’s time collaborating with Michael Jackson was cut way too short due to their falling out over the ownership of The Beatles catalogue. Although their previous collaboration Say Say Say was a fun, Michael Jackson sounding track with a great video to go with it, The Girl Is Mine tops it by a longshot. This is probably one of the most fun ballads you will ever come across. The thing that makes it great is that while it is a fun song, it takes itself just seriously enough that it doesn’t come across as a joke. I always liked to view what was going on here as a “fun argument” between the two of them. Although they had a falling out after this, it was probably a good way for Paul McCartney to bounce back after the sudden death of John Lennon. It’s a shame they weren’t able to continue working together as I think they could have come up with some more great stuff together. Instead, we are left with this great track fitting in nicely around all of these other upbeat tracks on this masterpiece.
Thriller is an interesting song for me. While I full recognize and appreciate its signifiance, it doesn’t necessarily stand out as one of my favorites on this album. The thought that was put into the video is remarkable. I can still remember seeing the making of Thriller special that showed all of the work that went into making this video. It came at just the right time as this was the time period when the music video business was really taking off thanks to MTV. Not only did this video help his career, it also helped MTV too. Surprisingly, even though I was very young when this song came out, I can’t ever remember being too freaked out by Vincent Price’s narration or the creaking of the door and other sound effects that went into it. I don’t think Michael Jackson failed to spook anybody here, but for some reason it didn’t affect me in that way. More than anything, I think this song would make for a great Broadway musical number. Especially the chorus. Perhaps that is something he had in mind when creating such an elaborate video.
Much like Thriller, Beat it is famous for so many reasons. Although much shorter than Thriller, the music video upped the game quite a bit with its theatrics and choreographed dancing between the two rival gangs. It also managed to spawn a famous spoof by “Weird Al” Yankovic called Eat It that managed to help launch his career to a new level. That is the kind of impact Michael Jackson was having at this time. His impact was felt pretty much everywhere. The song is also notable for the amazing guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen who apparently did this free of charage according to Wikipedia. To me, this is just a great song. It probably ranks atleast a notch above Thriller in terms of my enjoyment level.
Billie Jean not only contains a very interesting backstory, it is also another example of how Michael Jackson would casually just kind of take ideas from other artists and make them better. I don’t know if it’s necessarily right of him to do it in the causual manner that he did it, but he did manage to take a great song like Hall and Oates I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) and make it better. It’s almost as if the Hall and Oates version was the demo and Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean was the final copy. If you don’t know what I am talking about, click here to read about how MJ was influenced by Hall and Oates. Regardless of how the song was created, much like I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do), you can’t help but to crank this one up to 11. There is nothing I enjoyed more this week than cranking this song up to 11 in the middle of Washington D.C. on my way to work. There is something about this song that just says masterpiece. It is also notable as being one of, if not the first, video by an African American to be played regularly on MTV. An issue that occured despite the immense popularity of Michael Jackson and Thriller. Much like many of the other songs on this album, this one was a gamechanger and very influential.
How do you follow Thriller, Beat It, and Billie Jean on an album? By recording a song that was actually intended to be recorded by Toto. Oddly enough, Michael Jackson and Toto have more of a link to each other than I ever imagined. Some members of the band even played on this song. This was thanks to producer Quincy Jones accidentally hearing the demo. It just amazes me how all of these little facts keep popping up as I write this blog. Toto was always a very tight band so it’s no surprise that my favorite song from a musical standpoint would be this one. Toto songs like Georgy Porgy and Africa really showcase the type of musicianship this band was capable of. I feel like they brought that same level to Human Nature as well. Although this song may not have been quite as popular as the previous three tracks, Human Nature has to be atleast the second best song on the album with Billie Jean being the best (in my opinion). The sampled version recorded by SWV is also worth a listen. Obviously not as good as the original, but as somebody who isn’t always a huge fan of cover songs, this one gets a thumbs up from me as it put an interesting twist on something that must have been awfully difficult to cover or sample.
P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing)
As I’ve worked on this blog, I have learned a lot of little facts that I didn’t know before. Knowing that Michael Jackson always thought big, the summary of each song has become similar to a scavenger hunt. Since i’ve listened to this album several times while writing this blog, one thing I became curious about is if any well known singers/people were recruited to be the “pretty young things” we hear in the song. As it turns out, when glancing over the Wikipedia page for this song, I discovered that Janet and LaToya Jackson were in fact the “pretty young thing” backing vocalists on this track. Even I learn something new everyday! With that said, this is obviously a terrific track that once again gets a little overshadowed by the big three tracks in the middle of the album. No music video for this one, but it did crack the top ten. It has that early-mid 80’s funk/dance sound that I love. One other thing that makes this and several other songs on this album so great are all of the little changes that go on. You could chalk that up to being one of the main reasons this album was so successful and so well liked. The ability to incorporate so many appropriate changes within each song so that it never gets boring to the ear. That is exactly what happens in this song. There are so many smooth changes of tempo that makes it sound so effortless.
The Lady In My Life
Much like Baby Be Mine, The Lady In My Life is an under appreciated track on an album filled with stellar songs. As a child of the 80’s and 90’s, I can’t really pinpoint what influenced MJ to record this song, but I almost feel like it was very influential on the sound of R&B ballads in the future. From the opening note, you can hear that 90’s R&B style/sound. One thing i’ve learned from writing this blog is that Michael Jackson tended to “borrow” from other artists like a housewife would borrow eggs or milk from the next-door neighbor. This was no big deal to him. This might be a topic worth exploring as i’ve rarely ever heard anybody talk about this great track. Regardless of how this song came to fruition, It is probably one of the smoothest, most R&B flavored song he ever recorded. Oddly enough, English songwriter Rod Temperton wrote this song and Baby Be Mine. Two of the most R&B flavored and least known songs on the album. I know a lot of songs got released from this album, but I think it’s a shame this one didn’t. It actually shows a much different side of MJ than pretty much anything else he’s ever recorded.
When I started this blog, I didn’t think it would be possible to gain a greater appreciation for an album that has pretty much achieved every praise and accolade imaginable. However, learning about all of the little influences and other occurrences that lead to the creation of these songs just makes it so much more fun to listen to. This is probably one of the top reasons I do these blogs. Sure, I do it for myself. I hope to find common ground with other audiophiles and music lovers over the course of time. However, when I work on a project like this and learn all kind of new things that I get to share as well as talk about how the music affects me, that makes the time I put into it worthwhile.
Putting that aside, much like everybody else, I have my list of artists and bands that I love. Although I am a pretty big fan of Michael Jackson, I can’t say he is my absolute favorite. What I can say is that it is hard to argue with the place this album holds in the history books. This one album was the absolute peak of a rather interesting persons life and career. It also represents the absolute pinnacle that any artist can shoot for. People often talk about who is going to make the next Thriller. You usually don’t hear people say “Who is going to make the next Eagles Greatest Hits” or “Who is going to make the next Zeppelin IV”. Both amazing albums that deserve their places in the record books. What most other albums are missing is that phenomenon factor. Thriller was a phenomenon. So much so that even I remember it pretty vividly despite being 3-5 years old during its lifespan on the charts. This album is one of my first memories of popular music. Its impact was everywhere in popular culture for years. There is a reason for that. Thriller was an album that everybody could agree on. You might define it as dance or R&B or even pop. I would say this is a well orchestrated piece of music filled with so many interesting changes within each song that its hard to not like it. It has some edge, but not too much edge. Everything about this album is just right. Sadly, for both this artist and every other one who has come and gone since, it is a masterpiece that is hard to duplicate. 35 years later, although i’ve heard some really good albums, I can’t say any of them compare to the type of magic that Thriller contains. Considering the direction the music industry is going in, i’m not sure if we will see/hear something like this ever again. That is what makes this album even more extraordinary to me.