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For the longest time I never liked Michael Jackson. Originally it was a pop thing, I wasn’t into that genre of music. As I grew older I started listening to his early solo music, but purely out of interest rather than enjoyment. My strongest memories of Michael Jackson as a young kid were scenes of him on TV holding his kid from a balcony, the spoof scene of him under some bed sheets from Scary Movie 3, and soloing to Beat It on Guitar Hero. Most of my memories were of the person rather than his music. I still don’t click with Michael Jackson as a person, he’s a different kind of eccentric to what I usually gravitate to. But he had to have done something right to have gained the title of King of Pop, and to become such a notable figure in pop culture for over four decades. And to have created Thriller, the number one selling album of all time. This would be the first time I give Thriller, and any Michael Jackson material, a serious listen.
Thriller was released in 1982 and immediately received critical fame, winning more awards that you could throw a stick at. I don’t really need to elaborate, everyone in the world knows Thriller; from the sultry album art, to the theatrical movie style film clips, to the red jacket Jackson wore that influenced a fashion style. It has sold over 66 million copies and continues to be a cultural benchmark for not only pop music, but pop culture itself. Knowing all this, it is hard not to praise this album on what it has done for music on a world scale. You’d have to be a real dick to say Thriller isn’t a good album, even if you aren’t a fan of Michael Jackson. All the facts are against you, it would be like saying Trump’s inauguration crowd was larger than Obama’s. Thriller is the Obama of albums. That’s a surface level analogy, yes. We won’t bring up Presidential policies.
I had my reservations when I began the album. It wasn’t so much nerves, more so the expectation that I had to enjoy this album because of it’s tremendous accolades. And because of that, I hesitated on any enjoyment. But after half way through the opening track, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, I found myself grooving back and forth to the funky guitar riffs, slick bass lines and Jackson’s catchy refrain, ‘I wanna be startin somethin’, you gotta be startin’ somethin’.’ Jackson’s powerful vocals transition from the gutsy verses to the falsetto ‘wee hee’ that has become the cliché Michael Jackson trope. By the end of this track, all hesitation had been dropped. I was enjoying a Michael Jackson album. So far.
Baby Be Mine continues the clever mix of pop, funk and Motown music, but more importantly showcases the expert production and mixing on the album. The instrumentation is crisp, giving a thick wall of sounds that is gradually enhanced with the likes of horns and backing vocals. The tinny synth that carries the melody is the quintessential sound of the 80s, obviously this album influenced much of the popular music that would follow through the decade. Jackson includes a clever key change at the end of the song that further elevates the track. It’s unexpected and I like it.
Third track, The Girl is Mine, is my least favourite on the album, and still leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Featuring Paul McCartney, the track is slower and breaks the funky pace that the first two tracks set. The pairing of Jackson and McCartney’s should sound nice, but there is a stark contrast between the timbre of the two voices. Where Jackson is soulful and funky, McCartney brings his smooth flare and I don’t think it works as it should on paper. The song itself is fine, I just don’t enjoy hearing McCartney’s voice over the sweeping snyths of 80s pop.
The three tracks that follow make for some of the greatest singles of all time. Looking back, the pairing of these three side by side on an album is like looking at the immaculate conception. The fact that these three songs exist on the same album elevates Thriller further for me and makes me forget about the lacklustre track that came prior. Thriller, Beat It and Billie Jean sit snuggly in the middle of this nine-track album. Three pop anthems, three landmarks of pop music. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard your mum blast these in reminiscent of her younger days. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard all three of these at the local Skateaway or school disco. Or even the late-night requests at the local watering hole; they are all fantastic songs. Thriller’s bassy riff and Jackson’s anthemic chorus, Beat It’s stellar gutsy-guitar-riff that leads into one of the best guitar solos in pop and rock music, and Billie Jean’s hypnotic bass line paired with the tense synth chords. It’s all brilliant.
It’s hard to follow the big three, but Jackson does it with Human Nature; a slower pop-ballad featuring cascading synth melodies and subtle guitar lines. But it’s Jackson’s vocal performance that deserves recognition. The chorus is captivating, as his vocal melody descends while he sings ‘Tell him that it’s human nature.’ Jackson soulfully solos towards the end of the song, jumping registers from lower notes to his perfect falsetto. It’s mesmerising.
P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing) brings the funk back with a thick bass line and a groovy guitar lick. The instrumentation in P.Y.T is one of the best on the album. Musically, there’s so much going on from backing vocal harmonies, funky bass lines, synth arpeggios, Latin percussion, to electronic vocal passages. I’d love to sit with the raw mix of P.Y.T, everything works so harmoniously, it’s incredible.
Final track, The Lady of My Life, brings the album out with a soft closer. It’s the slowest track on Thriller and has an instrumentation that would have inspired much of the early hip-hop scene. It has an almost G-Funk sound to it; I can imagine Dr Dre using the instrumental, speeding it up and pairing it with a solid break beat. Though it’s a solid song, it’s not as great as the other songs on Thriller.
I did not expect to enjoy this album as much as I did. I knew it held the accolades and sold millions, and I didn’t want to think like I had to enjoy this album because of that. But I couldn’t help myself once it began. My reservations on Michael Jackson have been lifted, and I’ve now found myself listening to Off the Wall and Bad. Though I still don’t relate to Jackson as a person, I can’t help but get carried away with his music. It’s infectious once it begins, and that was the result with Thriller.
Thriller was, and still is, worth the hype.
After the Hype is a weekly series where I listen to an album after the hype dies down and give my general thoughts, sometimes a little whinge. It’s ok to disagree.