DAR Classic Music: Michael Jackson's Thriller

By @TrueGodImmortal 

1. Wanna Be Startin Somethin
2. Baby Be Mine 
3. The Girl Is Mine
4. Thriller 
5. Beat It 
6. Billie Jean 
7. Human Nature 
8. P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) 
9. The Lady In My Life 

There are some albums that truly change the landscape of music. There are some albums that are revered in history as classics and legendary. There are some albums that will forever stand the test of time. For Michael Jackson, he would have about 4 of these, but the one that remains his most infamous work is the album that is the greatest selling album ever, Thriller. Yes, the album that is rumored to have sold over 65 million records worldwide and counting is seen by many as the greatest album of all time. Is it really the greatest album of all time? From a sales and impact standpoint, I'd say yes, but from a musical standpoint, I don't even think it's the best MJ album. Still, despite it not being the best MJ album quality wise to me, it's still his most important album and arguably the most important album of all time. Today, we look back at what many call the greatest album and go behind the scenes a bit to bring you the info on the songs that didn't make the cut, what Michael set out to do with the album, the key players on the album, the production, the music videos, and of course, the track by track breakdown. Let's get into it.

Michael's Goal
After the release of his immensely successful 1979 album Off The Wall, Michael set out on a mission to top that album. Domestically, Off The Wall sold 10 million copies (and 24 million worldwide) and garnered Michael the national acclaim he craved as a solo artist. The plan for the next album was clear and methodical: to top it. Michael didn't just want to exceed Off The Wall, he wanted to demolish it. In between the time period of Off The Wall and Thriller, Michael would grow as an artist and person, in multiple ways. He was extremely unhappy at some points and for some reason, he sought success beyond belief to make him complete. Driven by ambition and his overall goals, Michael would end up beginning the Thriller process hoping to create the biggest album ever and become the biggest star in the world.

Michael was frustrated that Off The Wall didn't get the Record of the Year award and also felt a bit slighted by Rolling Stone magazine when they said they weren't interested in doing a cover story on him in 1980. For someone who craved the spotlight like MJ, this was unacceptable and a true showcase of bias because much lesser artists were featured on the covers of the magazines. Meanwhile, Michael had been a longtime favorite from the Jackson 5 era and released his breakthrough multi platinum solo album, but somehow Rolling Stone didn't want to feature him? Using this as fuel, Michael set out to create an album that was so massive and so legendary, that he couldn't be denied. Originally, the album was going to be called "Starlight", but for some reason, the title just didn't click and we ended up getting the masterpiece and the one word title for the album that is etched in our brains forever: Thriller.

Songs Left Off The Album
There aren't as many leftover tracks on this album as perhaps some of his later albums, but MJ had a few classics in the stash that we deserved to hear. The best of these songs? I'd say "Carousel" and "Got The Hots", two smooth yet bouncy tracks that show Michael at his best while still letting him spread his wings musically some. Other tracks like "Nite Line", "Trouble", "Hot Street", and the demo version of "Starlight" were left off, as I believe they felt that these songs weren't strong enough for the album, and couldn't have the intended effect they wanted. Speaking of they, the album featured a number of key players and vital artists and producers who helped make the album what it is.

Key Players
Michael would bring in a number of key components for this album and though Thriller is of course a Michael Jackson album, the supporting cast is what makes the album so special. It's a huge production, one that requires guitar players, piano players, bass players, background singers, and assistance via songwriting. One by one, these key players helped make up an album that would come to be revered and nationally loved.

*Quincy Jones
-The mind behind the production, the true genius that helped cultivate the vision of Michael into a number of classic albums. Though Quincy clashed with Michael a lot when they recorded the albums, the one thing that they had in common was their drive for being perfect. Being a perfectionist is very taxing on an artist, but when you want to put out the best product, you will work yourself to the bone to make something special. Quincy was the piece needed to push Michael to perfection and without him, this album wouldn't have been as amazing as it was.

*Rod Temperton
-Temperton was a key component of Off The Wall as well, but here his role was slightly more important considering the success of the songs he wrote and how great they were. Temperton wrote three songs on the final cut of the album, including the iconic title track, which is the biggest moment in Michael's career. Temperton would also write "Baby Be Mine" and "The Lady In My Life", two other gems as well.

*Steve Porcaro & John Bettis
-This duo was responsible for writing one of my favorite songs on the album, "Human Nature". Though their contribution was limited to one song on the final cut of the album, the song they contributed to the album is a gem.

*Eddie Van Halen
-A part of the legendary group Van Halen, this front man would end up doing the solo guitar work on "Beat It", giving it that extra Rock N' Roll kick that it needed. While "Beat It" would have been successful without the guitar solo, that solo took it up a notch in overall quality.

*Paul McCartney
-The Beatles front man worked closely with Michael before and while he gifted him the smooth track "Girlfriend" from Off The Wall, on this album he appears vocally as well for a huge duet, "The Girl Is Mine". Michael wrote the lyrics for this one, and Paul came in and did what was needed, though I'm sure Michael could have done the song just fine by himself.

*Steve Lukather
-This Toto guitarist helped to provide some of the infamous rhythm guitar riffs on "Beat It" alongside Eddie, who did the solo. He was also featured playing guitar on "The Girl Is Mine" and "Human Nature" also.

*James Ingram
-One of the hitters within Quincy Jones' team, James is super underrated overall in music. His contribution to the album is simple, yet very effective: he wrote "P.Y.T." for Michael, one of the most upbeat numbers on the entire album.

*Bruce Swedien
-The recording engineer of the album, the vital point of mixing and mastering. He worked heavily to record and mix/master this entire album, and there's no denying the sound would not be as crisp without Bruce.

*Vincent Price
-The title track was seen as the most important piece to the album and without the spoken intro, outro, and heavy evil laugh to close out the song/video, the effect wouldn't have been the same. Vincent Price was the voice behind it, and in the video they pay homage to him as well.

The production here was a bit different from the funky disco vibe of Off The Wall and that's likely a good thing. While disco was on the way out, Thriller would keep the intense rhythm of disco on the synth and horn heavy "Baby Be Mine", and they would also hint at some leftover disco influence on "P.Y.T." as well. Quincy made sure to also put a little jazz influence into the music, as the jazzy yet seductive rhythms helped to take over the sounds of "The Lady In My Life". Diversifying the sound was also vital, as evidenced by the rock tinged sounds of "Beat It" or the bass and harmony driven vibes of "Billie Jean". For those seeking a majestic sound, look no further than "Human Nature". The dizzying speed of the instruments and the sounds combined makes it something beyond what I expected upon the first note, including the beautiful breakdown at the end.

All in all, the greatness of this album not only rests of the vocals and lyrics, but the production is also flawless, which makes it THAT much better. I could listen to instrumentals from this album over and over honestly, particularly "The Lady In My Life" and "Human Nature".

Track By Track
Each song on Thriller has its own feel and message within it. From the upbeat rhythms early on to the soulful seductive ending, every track has its own identity, and that's what makes Thriller such a classic album to many of us.

*Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'
This is probably one of my least favorite songs on the album, and yet it's still a classic track. That should show you the quality of the album right here. The beat inspires dancing and the moment you hear the opening beat, you can virtually see Michael dancing and moving to the production before the words even come in. The hook is super infectious and catchy, and it allows Mike to create yet another anthem in his catalog.


*Baby Be Mine
The most underrated song on this album. I've heard some people say they don't like it, but I personally have always loved this song and thought it was a classic. From the way Michael comes in with the opening lines to the synth and horn heavy disco style production to the catchy sing along chorus, this song is another one that I think people overlook because of the rest of the singles. I'd dare say this song was BETTER THAN a number of the singles. All opinion, but just my belief.


*The Girl Is Mine
-I could have done without Paul McCartney on this song. Vocally he can't keep up with Michael, and Michael could have held the song down by himself, however, the song is good and a memorable track on the album due to the collab, though I could do without it and replace it with "Carousel". Still, like I said the song is really good and Michael vocally carries it, it's just missing the extra pizzazz that made every other song on this album so great.


The title track is more revered for the legendary video than the actual song. The song itself is solid, and a great listen with the iconic opening and the bass line that carries the production. The horns also create a horror film feel to it, and allows for Michael to vocally do his thing. My favorite part of the song however is the harmony on the chorus, as the verses paint a picture, but it's the chorus that really carries the song.


*Beat It
This rock tinged track is great, but once again, the video adds to the greatness of the song itself. While I enjoy the production, the guitars, and the chorus as well, the song is still slightly missing something by itself. However, when I hear it now, much like when I hear the title track, I instantly get flashbacks of the video, and that is the mark of a classic.


*Billie Jean
When I hear this song, I instantly think of Motown 25. That's what Michael did so well on this album. In addition to giving you great music, he gave you moments that were memorable to go along with the song, so that every time you hear it, a visual memory would pop up. This song starts off with one of the greatest opening riffs in music history and the way Michael talks in depth, you knew he had to be living every word in some way.


*Human Nature
A majestic sounding track that allows Michael to showcase his vocal range and the production is flawless. This is probably one of the greatest songs in his catalog and definitely tied for my favorite song on the entire album. It is purely flawless.


*P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)
When I first heard this song, it inspired me to get up dance. I was young. Now, some years later, I still get inspired to dance when I hear this song. The James Ingram penned gem is honestly a surefire hit and I wish there would have been a full length video, because the song would have easily took off and became another iconic moment like "Thriller", "Beat It", and Billie Jean".


*The Lady In My Life
This is my favorite song of the album. It's not often that MJ gave us a seductive anthem, but this was the ultimate. From the jazzy yet soulful production to the mellow vocals that led to MJ going off at the end, everything about this song is perfect. My favorite part? The horn section coming in after Michael says "you're every wonder in this world to me...", and every time I hear it, I realize why this song is just perfect. Every detail of it is flawless.


The Videos
When we look back on the album, one of the most memorable things to come from it were the music videos. At the time, MTV wouldn't play any black artists on their channel, until Michael broke that barrier with his epic videos. The videos for "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" were hugely successful, but it would be the video for the title track that really won the acclaim for MJ. Inspired by horror films of the past, the music video for Thriller showed Michael transform into a werewolf, dance with zombies, and go to see a Vincent Price film. For the "Beat It" video, Michael got slightly tough, wearing a leather jacket, walking through a pool hall and engaging in a Westside Story like street brawl at the end.

For "Billie Jean", Michael would have a mysterious woman be the focus of the video, but my favorite part if the video? Every step that Michael took made the sidewalk light up. It's so iconic when we think back to the video, and it's the most memorable part of that video. I mean, who wouldn't want the sidewalk to light up every time you walk? That's power. Still, I wish he would have done videos for "Baby Be Mine", "The Lady In My Life", and "P.Y.T.", because I think Thriller could have gotten pushed to 80 million sales worldwide with videos and promotion of those songs as hits. As crazy as it sounds, I think Thriller could have been even bigger sales wise with videos for those songs.

What is the legacy of Thriller? For me, it's the biggest album of all time and the greatest album impact wise. There's not one artist who has albums that have sold 22 million (HIStory), 25 million (Off The Wall), 33 million (Dangerous), 41 million (Bad), and 65 million (Thriller), and for Michael to reach a height that no one else reached, it speaks clearly to his star power and his talent. Thriller isn't the greatest MJ album overall, but it is certainly the most important and when we look back on Thriller, one has to remember every moment that came with the album, from the music videos to the Motown 25 performance to his run on the Victory Tour with his brothers. Thriller not only marks a great moment in black music, but it also marks a great moment in time.



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