Michael Jackson’s Thriller wasn’t just a massive album. And was and still is the highest selling album of all time. With 42.4 million units shifted since its release, it’s almost double the sales of the record in second place, Back in Black by AC/DC. Even though I was only two when it came you, I have clear memories of the album and its many singles still being massive cultural touchstones a few years later when I was just old enough to start recognising things like pop music and cultural touchstones. But, 33 years after its release, and a solid 20 since Michael Jackson became a joke and monster, does Thriller hold up?
Thriller is one of those albums that is so huge, you probably know every song on it, even if you’ve never listened to the actual album. A theory immediately supported by opening track, Gotta Be Starting Something. This is a perfect example of why Michael Jackson was the undisputed King of Pop for so long. This is immaculate pop music that at first sounds like any old immaculate, but generic pop from the period. But the more I listened, the more I appreciated how unique Jackson’s singing style was. The percussive way he spits out certain inflections makes his voice drive the song in a way that no other singers do.
OK, so my ‘you know every song on this record’ theory cops an early setback with Baby Be Mine. Because I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard this one. Or maybe I have, but it’s been overshadowed by Thriller’s mega hits. Because it sort to of sounds like someone trying to write a Michael Jackson song, and doesn’t really stand out in any way compared to those mega hits.
After the opening duo of dance floor fillers, things get a little sentimental and syrupy when Jackson teams up with Paul McCartney for the cheesy The Girl is Mine. The instrumentation is the worst kind of 80s, artificial, over polished dreck. And just when it sounds like things couldn’t get any worse, there’s a terrible back and forth spoken word section where Jacko and Macca vie for the title of worst actor ever as they argue over just whose the titular girl actually is.
With Thriller, Beat it and Billie Jean, this record offers possibly the best three in a row ever in the history of long players. These three songs alone are enough for me to totally understand why Thriller is the highest selling album of all time. From the weird combo of vintage horror and pop of Thriller, to the then revolutionary combo of rock and pop on Beat It, to the weird combo of dark content and pop sound that is Billy Jean. This really is an impressive 15 or so minutes that may have never been equalled.
After a trio of songs that inspired the above hyperbole, it was pretty much impossible that whatever came next couldn’t maintain that quality. And Human Nature does not maintain that quality. It’s perfectly fine, but in that Baby Be Mine kind of way. Next up, P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing) benefits from its upbeat tempo and booty bumping bass. While The lady in My Life closes things out with the most underwhelming, least essential song on offer here.
While Thriller didn’t quite live up to the top to bottom perfection I had built up in my mind, it never made me second guess its legacy or incredible album sales. Those three biggies in the middle really are that good. And enough of the songs round them are more than good. Good enough that they more than make up for the few klunkers.