‘Thriller’ at 35: A retrospective look at the highest selling album of all time
Michael Jackson’s legacy is deeply engraved in popular culture, but no piece of work turned in by the pop legend matches the momentous impact of his 1982 album, “Thriller,” which turns 35 years old on Nov. 30. Released when Jackson was only 24 years old, “Thriller” would revolutionize the music industry and launch Jackson into worldwide acclaim.
Jackson’s previous album, 1979’s “Off The Wall,” his first collaboration with producer Quincy Jones, was highly successful in its own right. But despite a Grammy win for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and multi-platinum sales, Jackson wasn’t satisfied. The artist wanted his next work to be an even grander storm. He wanted the album to be a pop version of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” — he wanted every track to be “a killer,” according to a 2007 interview Jackson did with Ebony.
This ambition was a focal point in the making of “Thriller.” Departing from the pop-funk and disco restrictions from his last work, “Thriller” had a wider appeal and even offered Jackson and Jones’ take on rock and post-disco.
Michael Jackson appeared fully matured on “Thriller”. The themes, while still mostly romantic, grew heavier, and during recording. Jackson admitted to feeling lonely and unhappy, as told in J. Randy Taraborelli’s book about Jackson, “The Magic and The Madness.” This sentiment permeated through the album’s tone and added another dimension to Jackson’s artistry.
The album’s high energy feels like a graceful panic with brief, deceptive lapses of restraint. The product has an unshakable appeal that, like its title, is almost supernatural. It’s as if an uncontrollable craze set in on Jackson. He was inspired by newfound independence: systemic issues and isolation, sexual heat and a need to dance.
These themes are housed by Quincy Jones’ unshakable production — founded on his driving bass riffs and wonderful command of synths. The two artists complement each other ravishingly, playing around within each other’s respective moments of rest. Taking every opportunity he could to display his world-class virtuosity, Jackson and his one-of-a-kind voice come through powerful and genuine.
Seven out of the nine songs included on the album were released as singles, with everyone breaking into the top 10 charts on Billboard, which speaks to how loaded this album was in terms of appeal. The intro, “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” personifies the hectic tone of the record. In the meat of the album, the trifecta of great hits —“Thriller,” “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” — confront listeners.
Other songs like the introspective “Human Nature,” the love-stricken ballad/duet featuring Paul McCartney, “That Girl Is Mine,” and “P.Y.T.,” which offers perhaps the greatest harmony between Jackson and Jones, uphold Jackson’s wish to make every track lethal.
“Thriller” would go on to sell over 66 million copies worldwide, be certified as platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America 33 times and, to this day, is the highest-selling album of all time. At the 1984 Annual Grammy Awards, “Thriller” beat out the competition eight times, the most ever during one ceremony.
Today, “Thriller’s” brilliance has mostly been regulated to Halloween playlists and the occasional look-back to Michael Jackson’s stellar music videos. But it’s important to maintain “Thriller” in high regard because, without the album, the music world would be much different.
With the record, Michael Jackson gave birth to what the world now knows as the modern music video. Before “Thriller,” MTV mostly focused on rock music, and hardly ever featured black musicians. Jackson changed all this with the album’s numerous, awe-inspiring, choreographed music videos, which made music videos pivotal to the promotion and release of a record.
“Thriller” even caused an economic boom in the music industry upon its release, almost single-handedly giving the recording industry its greatest fiscal year up to that point over the last five years. TIME Magazine even referred to Jackson as “a one-man rescue team for the music business.”
“Thriller’s” legacy is unimaginable. After 35 years, the album’s reverence spans across generations and cultures. Few musical works equal “Thriller’s” status or outreach; it truly is one of the greatest albums of all time.
Follow Jordan on Twitter @montero_jor.