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 Killer 'Thriller'

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In memory of Michael Jackson, Super Seventies RockSite presents
a reviews page on his greatest triumph, 1982's 'Thriller'

Michael Jackson

Epic 38112
Released: November 1982
Chart Peak: #1 (37 weeks)
Weeks Charted: 120+
Certified 20x Platinum: 12/31/87

Michael Jackson in 'Thriller'
n the three years since Michael Jackson's first solo album, Off the Wall, sold 7 million copies and spawned four hit singles, black music has veered away from the danceable but ultra-slick style that Off the Wall epitomized. From Prince to Marvin Gaye, from rap to Rick James, black artists have incorporated increasingly mature and adventurous themes -- culture, sex, politics -- into grittier, gutsier music. So when Jackson's first solo single since 1979 turned out to be a wimpoid MOR ballad with the refrain "the doggone girl is mine," sung with a tame Paul McCartney, it looked like the train had left the station without him.

But the superficiality of that damnably catchy hit belies the surprising substance of Thriller. Rather than reheating Off the Wall's agreeably mindless funk, Jackson has cooked up a zesty LP whose uptempo workouts don't obscure its harrowing, dark messages. Particularly on Jackson's own compositions, Thriller's tense, nearly obsessive sound complements lyrics that delineate a world that has put the twenty-four-year-old on the defensive. "They're out to get you, better leave while you can/Don't wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man." It's been a challenging time for Jackson -- his parents may separate, he's been involved in a paternity claim -- and he's responded to those challenges head-on. He's dropped the boyish falsetto that sparked his hits from "I Want You Back" to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and chosen to address his tormentors in a full, adult voice with a feisty determination that is tinged by sadness. Jackson's new attitude gives Thriller a deeper, if less visceral, emotional urgency than any of his previous work, and marks another watershed in the creative development of this prodigiously talented performer.

Take "Billie Jean," a lean, insistent funk number whose message couldn't be more blunt: "She says I am the one/But the kid is not my son." The party spirit that suffused Off the Wall has landed him in trouble, and he tempers that exuberance with suspicion. "What do you mean I am the one," he quizzically asks his femme fatale, "who will dance on the floor?" It's a sad, almost mournful song, but a thumping resolve underlies his feelings. "Billie Jean is not my lover" is incessantly repeated as the song fades out.

Billie Jean is mentioned in passing in Thriller's most combative track, the hyperactive "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," wherein Jackson also takes on the press, gossips of all kinds and other grief-givers. Here the emotions are so raw that the song nearly goes out of control. "Somebody's always tryin' to start my baby crying," he laments, and that sense of quasi paranoia yields to near-bitterness in the chorus: "You're a vegetable, you're a vegetable/They'll eat off you, you're a vegetable." It's a tune that's almost as exciting as seen Jackson motivate himself across a concert state -- and a lot more unpredictable. These lyrics won't keep Elvis Costello awake nights, but they do show that Jackson has progressed past the hey-let's-hustle sentiments that dominated Off the Wall.

Michael Jackson - '25th Anniversary of Thriller'
The impact of Thriller was first felt when the LP's second single, "Billie Jean," debuted on Billboard's Hot 100 at number 47 during the week of Jan. 2, 1983. When it reached number one six weeks later, Michael Jackson became the first artist in the history of the charts to simultaneously top the singles and album charts in both pop and black categories. For good measure, Thriller was also number one on the dance/disco chart. One week later, "Billie Jean" and Thriller were number one on their respective charts in Britain, giving Michael a worldwide sweep. In Feb. 2008, Sony released a 25th Anniversary edition of Thriller (above) with seven bonus tracks, six of which were previously unreleased, along with a bonus DVD with digitally restored versons of the three videos from the album as well as his groundbreaking "Billie Jean" performance on the 1983 Motown 25 TV special.
The sheer vitality of the musical setting obviates any sense of self-pity. Quincy Jones' production -- Jackson coproduced his own compositions -- is sparer than usual, and refreshingly free of schmaltz. Then again, he's working with what might be pop music's most spectacular instrument: Michael Jackson's voice. Where lesser artists need a string section or a lusty blast from a synthesizer, Jackson need only sing to convey deep, heartfelt emotion. His raw ability and conviction make material like "Baby Be Mine" and "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" into first-class cuts and even salvage "The Girl Is Mine." Well, almost.

Maybe the best song here is "Beat It," a this-ain't-no-disco AOR track if ever I heard one. Jackson's voice soars all over the melody, Eddie Van Halen checks in with a blistering guitar solo, you could build a convention center on the backbeat, and the result is one nifty dance song. Programmers, take note.

Jackson's greatest failing has been a tendency to go for the glitz, and while he's curbed the urge on Thriller, he hasn't obliterated it entirely. The end of side two, especially "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," isn't up to the spunky character of the other tracks. And the title song, which at first sounds like a metaphoric examination of the same under-siege mentality that marks the LP's best moments, instead degenerates into silly camp, with a rap by Vincent Price (Couldn't they get Count Floyd?)

Jackson has made no secret of his affection for traditional showbiz and the glamour that goes with it. His talents, not just singing but dancing and acting, could make him a perfect mainstream performer. Perish the thought. The fiery conviction of Thriller offers hope that Michael is still a long way away from succumbing to the lures of Vegas. Thriller may not by Michael Jackson's 1999, but it's a gorgeous, snappy step in the right direction. * * * *

- Christopher Connelly, Rolling Stone, 1/20/83.

Bonus Reviews!

Jackson's second Epic album has the same mix of rhythmic dance tracks and plush midtempo ballads that made 1979's Off The Wall one of the most acclaimed albums of recent years. The lead-off single, a duet with Paul McCartney, is already in the top five, and there are several strong followup candidates here, suggesting that this album could repeat the four-single attack which led Off The Wall to its multi-platinum heights. The title track has the eerie, macabre touches that distinguished "Heartbreak Hotel," a hit from the Jacksons' last studio album, while "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin" has Jackson tackling a bolder reggae rhythm. Still other cuts have the irresistible pulse and energy that most memorably characterized the last album. That LP spent the better part of nine months in the top 10; you can bet this one will waste no time getting there.

- Billboard, 1982.

"Thriller is a combination of unbridled passion and sheer genius," Don Topping writes in choosing this his all-time number one. In this respect he is in union with his Mother Earth: Michael Jackson's worldwide winner is the best seller in the history of the globe, moving over thirty-six million units at the last reliable published count.

Ironically, some record company executives didn't think this would do as well as it's predecessor, Off the Wall, which had shifted a cool eight million itself. Certainly the public got a misleading idea of what Thriller would be like when Epic led its singles programme with "The Girl Is Mine," a light duet with Paul McCartney. Label strategy was that the former Beatle's world fame would open all channels at home and abroad to the new sequence of singles by Jackson.

There may have been some logic in that reasoning, but it was unnecessary. Thriller became the first album to generate seven US top ten singles, "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Human Nature," "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" and "Thriller" following the original duet into charmed circle.

Among Jackson's eight Grammies at the 1984 ceremonies were Record of the Year for "Beat It" and Album of the Year for Thriller.

Eminences who graced Thriller included not just McCartney and Jackson's producer Quincy Jones but also James Ingram, members of Toto, and Vincent Price, who recited the immortal "Thriller" rap. Curiously, the lyrics on the sleeve state that Price's last line before his hysterical laughter was "Can you dig it?," but this does not appear on the disc.

In 1987, Thriller was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #23 rock album of all time.

- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, 1987.

30 Michael Jackson mugshotsWith Thriller, Michael Jackson topped even his previous efforts with superb songs offering unforgettable hooks, first class production and a promotional package that included one of the most costly, and most successful, pop videos. Of the nine tracks on the album Jackson charted six, scoring two American No. 1s.

Commercial and recording perfection reach a peak a second time round. Only a CD can do true justice to the infinite care and mixing and balancing on this album -- a text book example. Jackson and Rod Temperton again collaborate to produce an album that topped even the runaway success of Off The Wall The superb title track comes at the cost of the cloying and corny duet "The Girl Is Mine" with Paul McCartney.

The talents of the Toto members Paich, Pocaro and Lukather team up with guitarist Eddie Van Halen (who provides the solo on "Beat It") while Quincy Jones' brass arrangements belt it out.

The recording, by Bruce Swedien, has all the reserves of sweetness, brilliance, transparency and dynamics across the full frequency and dynamics across the full frequency spectrum yet all without a digit in sight. Bass runs on impulse power.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

What impresses after a decade is Jackson's range of musical expression, one that touches the schmaltzy pop of Paul McCartney (his duet partner on "The Girl Is Mine") on one side and the hard rock of Van Halen (whose lead guitarist, Eddie Van Halen, is heard on "Beat It") on the other, with plenty of mainstream rock/pop and dance music in between. It's no accident that the record found a home in so many record collections -- there's good music here for everyone. And of course, by summing up the state of pop music, Jackson also redefined it -- this was a high-water mark for pop music never equaled since, even in his subsequent music. * * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

The most artistically satisfying record of Jackson's career also happens to be his most successful, Thriller. From the sinewy funk of "Billie Jean" to the rock-tinged "Beat It" (with a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen) and the epic title track, Jackson and producer Quincy Jones created a perfect fusion of commercial R&B and pop sensibilities -- with the good luck to release it at a time when such naked ambition wasn't yet considered uncool. At more than 40 million albums sold, Thriller still stands as the most successful album ever. * * * * *

- Eric Deggans, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Michael Jackson towered over the 1980s the way Elvis Presley dominated the 1950s, and Thriller is the reason why. Still in his early twenties when Thriller was released, the R&B child star of the 1970s had ripened into a Technicolor soulman, a singer, dancer and songwriter with incomparable crossover instincts. He and producer Quincy Jones established the something-for-everyone template of Thriller on 1979's Off the Wall, on which Jackson captures the rare mania of his life -- the applause and paranoia; the need for love and the fear of commitment -- in a crisp fusion of pop hooks and dance beats. On Thriller, the pair heighten the sheen (the jaunty gloss of "The Girl Is Mine," with a guest vocal by Paul McCartney), pump up the theater (the horror-movie spectacular "Thriller") and deepen the funk. With its locomotive cadence and acrobatic-metal guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen, "Beat It" was arguably the first industrial-disco Number One. (Jackson had such an impeccable nose for the down-and-dirty that Jones called him Smelly.) But the most thrilling thing about Thriller was the autobiography busting through the gloss; the angry hiss of denial in Jackson's voice in the funk-rock noir of "Billie Jean"; the to-hell-with-the-haters cock strut of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." Jackson was at the peak of his art and adulthood. It is hard now to separate the wonder of Thriller from its commercial stature (Number One for thirty-seven weeks, seven Top Ten singles, eight Grammys) and Jackson's current nightmare of tabloid celebrity and self-destructive egomania. But there was a time when he was truly the King of Pop. This is it.

Thriller was chosen as the 20th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Let's just get this out of the way: Thriller is the best-selling record of all time. If God were to record a compendium of catchy pop tunes, it is unclear as to whether the sales could compete. At last count, Thriller had sold 46 million copies, and although it's hard to believe, there are still some people in the world who do not own this album, which only means that this astronomical number will continue to grow. In the year of Thriller's release, Michael Jackson was twenty-three, and the album, a collaboration with friend and veteran producer Quincy Jones, was a follow-up to the singer's impressive but hardly record-shattering or prophetic debut effort, Off the Wall.

It is truly difficult to view Thriller in a vacuum, as a musical offering separate from its context, because the album itself played a part in defining the time of its release. Few people who were sentient beings in the early eighties can hear tracks from the album and not be transported to their past. It is also hard to determine the flashpoint of Michael Mania, a truly innocent phenomenon that rivals the hysteria inspired by the Beatles, but his performance on Motown 25 in May 1983 is certainly a moment during which many people sat up and took notice. It was then that the formerly adorable boy genius who'd fronted the Jackson 5 showed the signs of being a genius all his own. The singer unleashed "Billie Jean," and perhaps his most famous dance move, the moonwalk, on an unsuspecting public that night -- and the rest, as the self-proclaimed King of Pop might claim, is history. Inspired by Jackson's style -- displayed through the videos which irrefutably mandated space for black artists on MTV's airwaves -- self-respecting people donned single white gloves and horrifically tacky and expensive red and black leather jackets as seen in the videos for "Thriller" and "Beat It."

Thriller, for all of its furor, is composed of a scant nine tracks -- seven of which were Top 10 hits. The album dominated the charts in 1982, occupying the number-one spot for thirty-seven weeks. The record-buying public wasn't the only group who thought Thriller was a triumph: Jackson walked away from the Grammys that year with eight statues.

Individually, the songs leap off the album as perfect pop creations. The title track, opening with a delightfully hokey horror movie intro complete with eerie howls, has Jackson insisting "Girl, I could thrill you more than any ghoul could ever dare try." B-horror flick mainstay Vincent Price closes out the song with a cameo voiceover (described on the liner notes as a "rap") and what might be considered the definitive campy maniacal laugh -- that echo reverberates for a while.

Price is not the only famous friend to appear on the album: Eddie Van Halen lends a compact, safely dangerous guitar solo to the peace-promoting "Beat It," and "The Girl Is Mine" finds Jackson and Paul McCartney verbally sparring over the affections of what one can only assume is one hell of a woman. In a chummy spoken break of playful rivalry, McCartney informs Jackson he was told he was the woman's "forever lover," while Jackson assures the former Beatle he's "a lover, not a fighter."

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Album Review:

DVD Review:
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Single Review:
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Single Review:
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Single Review:
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Single Review:
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Single Review:
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Michael Jackson Lyrics

Michael Jackson Videos

Michael Jackson Mugshots

Album Reviews:
"70's Black Music -
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Thriller is truly an album of its time: It is wrapped in the rich, synthesizer-laden production that came to be the hallmark of much of the music of the eighties. The recording is so multilayered and techno-infused that at times, it almost shimmers. Beyond that, within the irresistibly catchy universe of Thriller, Jackson skillfully traverses many moods. "Billie Jean," with its insistent, ever-present bass line, is probably the only treatment of a paternity accusation to create both a feeling of claustrophobia and the need to tap one's foot. "The Lady in My Life" and the exquisite, expansively mellow "Human Nature" are the album's slow-tempo offerings, with Jackson playing the role of a seductive Romeo, while "Baby By Mine" and "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" are straight-up pop confections that expertly follow the rules of the form -- Jackson pleads for the attention of a girl to an addictively upbeat rhythm.

No discussion of Thriller would be complete without acknowledging, not what Jackson says, but what he doesn't say on the nine tracks. It was on this album that Jackson cemented his ability to seduce listeners with sounds not used in common conversation: He peppers the recording with undeniably seductive incidental exclamations ("Hoo-hoo," "Hee-hee," "Ow!," etc.), guttural grunts, heavy breathing, hiccups, and at times, pure nonsense. "Diddy-baum" and "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma coo sa" are phrases delivered with commitment on this album, and through Jackson's sublime, inspired delivery, it all works. There's also the lyric from the hit that millions sang along to, "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin,'" that technically, is plain English: "You're a vegetable." What on earth Jackson really means with this line is somewhat elusive, but like the rest of the record, it sounds so good it's hard to really care. At last count, 46 million people are not troubled by this ambiguity, and no doubt in years to come, several more million won't be either.

Thriller was voted the 23rd greatest album of all time in a VH1 poll of over 700 musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, radio programmers, and critics in 2003.

- Mimi O'Connor, VH1's 100 Greatest Albums, 2003.

"I don't care if his nose is falling off," say spectators of the "freaky" MJ circus, this "blockbuster" is "magic"; this survey's Top Contemporary Pop is an innovative "benchmark", fusing funk, R&B, dance, rock," "pop and soul" into a "masterpiece" "so full of hits, it's ridiculous"; given the "thrill of 'Billie Jean', 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" and other cuts, "how could you not sing along?'" -- "ma ma se ma ma sa ma ma coo sa', 'nuff said."

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

Thriller is surrounded by a cloud of statistics -- the biggest album in history, it sold more than 40 million copies on its first release; it shifted a million copies a month in 1983; of its nine tracks, seven were hit singles.

It does not stand up as well as Off The Wall overall, but some of its meticulous fusions of pop, rock, and R&B manage to improve on even that template. Ignore the ridiculously camp title track -- a song that drains the life out of the record at the end of side one -- and concentrate on the undisputed masterpieces. The funk opener "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" serves the same function as Off The Wall's 'Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" -- a minimal, riff-based framework for Jacko's hyperkinetic hiccups. It also "borrows" rather heavily from Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa" (Jacko's lawyers made a large out-of-court settlement). Elsewhere you will thrill to the airbrushed funk-rock of "Beat It" (Eddie Van Halen's guitar solo was cut and spliced from 50 different takes); while "Human Nature" is a digital ballad so beautiful that Miles Davis covered it.

But the star turn is "Billie Jean," on which a creepy, electronic bassline gets under your skin while the dubious lyric asks you to side with the paranoid millionaire superstar rather than the impoverished single mother. Like the rest of Thriller, it is machine-tooled pop that has been painstakingly crafted by state-of-the-art session men for months, but there is not a note out of place.

Jacko's increasingly freakshow lifestyle should not detract from the brilliance of this album.

- John Lewis, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Those effervescent Jackson Five singles notwithstanding, Michael Jackson's artistic peak didn't begin until "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough," the disco-strings fantasia that was the first single from Off the Wall (1979). It ended somewhere around "Man in the Mirror," the inspirational trinket from the intermittently bad Bad (1987). After that, the artist the tabloids called Wacko Jacko continued to generate hits (and grab headlines, first for his facial transformations, then the notorious pajama parties with preteen boys at his Neverland Ranch), but something fundamental about his enterprise changed. If he started out easing down the yellow brick road, he wound up the fearful little man behind the curtain, a "King of Pop" desperate for loyal subjects.

Between those mileposts sits Thriller, a confluence of craft and inspiration that sent shockwaves through popular culture. The sounds on this record expanded the palette of the pop hit. The dances became stock elements of music presentation -- except for the moonwalk, which only Jackson could do anyway. Thriller's stylized visuals established the basic "language" of music videos. The clothes changed street fashion. And on and on.

How deep is this record? Seven of its nine tracks were Top 10 hits. As of late 2007, the album had sold over sixty million copies. When it came time to put out the "comprehensive" Jackson career overview boxed set, Sony left off one of Thriller's gems, "Human Nature," perhaps because it would have been the seventh of the album's nine tracks to appear on the set.

One revisionist take on Thriller says it's really producer Quincy Jones's baby, that the orchestral lushness he provided would have been successful no matter who was singing. The 2003 Special Edition, a significant sonic upgrade, reveals Jones's strings and horns as catalysts and complementary forces, always providing exactly the right amount of fairy dust. But the hooks are Jackson's doing, as is the ambitious songwriting, which takes him from his dance floor comfort zone into rock and slithery post-disco and even caramel-cream balladry. Jackson turns every selection into high drama, punctuating his lines with fitful sighs and grunts and that squeaky "whee-hee" that soon grew irritating. Heck, he soon grew irritating. But before he crossed that line, he made a record you wanted to hear again and again. And after those zillions of spins, it's thrilling still.

- Tom Moon, 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

A quarter century of cultural ubiquity tends to obscure the sheer ingenuity and creative genius behind the record, which was certified 28 times platinum this year. From the urgent funk of opener "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" and sweet synth stutter of "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" to the iconic rock stomp of "Beat It," Thriller offers pure, transporting euphoria in pop form. A

- Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly, 7/10/09.

If you grew up in the '80s, this isn't just an album; it's the soundtrack of the first half of your life. Your first dance, your first summer romance, your first (and, rest assured, not your last) heartbreak. Thank you, Michael. Signed, everyone.

Thriller was chosen as the 4th greatest album of all time by the editors of Entertainment Weekly in July 2013.

- Entertainment Weekly, 7/5/13.

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