Monday, 17 March 2008

Michael Jackson - Thriller 25

Album review for The Skinny

Thriller’s status as the biggest selling album of all time is advertised heavily on this 25th Anniversary Special Edition. In fact, the album appears to have been renamed Thriller 25: The World’s Biggest Selling Album Of All Time. That’s a pretty safe tactic, because it’s a sales record that will never, ever be beaten: at 104 million sales Thriller is already 60 million or so in front of challengers like Back In Black, Saturday Night Fever and Come On Over; and the physical album sales market is in terminal decline, with only fancy and expensive editions seeming likely to find a market in the near future. This fancy and expensive edition consists of a shiny sleeve, a 24-page full colour lyrics booklet, bonus remixes from some of the biggest names in pop in 2008, and a DVD with videos. If you still believe in having a physical version of music that deserves the commitment of your money, then Thriller deserves the entire contents of your wallet.

The bizarre thing about Thriller is that you can never really hear it for the first time. Thriller consists of nine tracks, seven of which were Top 10 hits in the US, with six reaching the top 11 in Britain. No other album comes close to being so well known throughout popular culture, so that virtually all of these tracks are instantly recognisable even the first time you put the record on. Thriller opens with the breathtaking groove of "Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’", one of the greatest pop tracks of the 80s that still guarantees to fill dancefloors in all manners of different clubs. "Baby Be Mine", the first of the two non-singles, is a decent slab of Rick James-style funk, but third track "The Girl is Mine" is a minor disaster. A soppy duet with King of Uncool Paul McCartney, the song reaches its nadir with an embarrassing spoken dialogue section that would surely put any self-respecting girl off both massively rich pop stars. But that’s OK, because the next three tracks feature three of the greatest basslines ever written in pop music: "Thriller", "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" is the peerless triumvirate on which Thriller’s reputation and massive sales figure is built. "Human Nature" is a dream-pop ballad that has been sampled repeatedly by hip-hop heavyweights like Nas and 2pac, and "P.Y.T" is an under-rated Cameo-like funk jam. Finally, second non-single "The Lady in My Life" closes the album in a slow haze. Thriller is by no means a consistent album, or one of those records that exceeds the sum of its parts, but "Thriller", "Beat It", "Billie Jean", "Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’" and "Human Nature" reach such heights that it’s impossible to deride its massive commercial success as some kind of sign of banality. Simply, Thriller is a killer, with only a little filler.

This redux edition incorporates remixes by some of today’s biggest pop stars, in an attempt to persuade you to buy this massively selling album again. All the remixers lazily volumise and compress the drums and bass, a cheap and nasty trick to take advantage of the rather obvious point that most of Thriller’s greatness comes from the beats and the basslines. Kanye West’s string-heavy mix of "Billie Jean" is passable but for this tackiness, while’s version of "P.Y.T" arguably improves on the original by adding horns and sizzling the synths. You could also argue that’s "The Girl is Mine" is an improvement on the original, but only in the sense that any regular shit is better than sloppy runs. He heavily sizzles the synths again, syncopates the rhythms, and in an attempt to reprise Macca’s embarrassing dad routine, blurts out nonsense like “She like the way I rock!” It’s not essential. Akon’s take on "Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’" is frankly terrible, an impressive feat considering the source material. He introduces it with a flowery piano motif, which seems to miss the point completely, and attempts to turn the song into an autotune-dependent ballad before finally introducing the loud, compressed rhythm section. Finally, Fergie’s attempt at "Beat It" is another failure, not because she messes with it too much, but simply because she’s got a painful bleat of a voice. This 25th Anniversary Edition also includes an unreleased Jacko song from the Thriller sessions, a saccharine ballad called "For All Time" that’s cut from the same branch as "Human Nature".

Even if the added bonus tracks aren’t up to much, this special edition also includes a DVD with videos for "Billie Jean", "Beat It" and "Thriller", and a so-called live performance of "Billie Jean" that is clearly lip-synched. The "Billie Jean" video sees a young, agile black performer moonwalking through film noir backstreets, followed by an insidious private dick character, while in "Beat It" Jacko leads a cast of dodgy street characters in a choreographed dance. The most notable thing about both these videos, unfortunately, is the stark difference between Jacko then and now. For those of us who were a little young at the time to notice, seeing how young, athletic and black Michael Jackson was in 1983 is difficult to compute. "Thriller", on the other hand, is notable for at least 30 different things besides the subsequent exploits of the singer. After careful study it has become my belief that the "Thriller" video is the height of all human achievement so far; not just for the zombie dance, but also for the genuinely scary werewolf sequence at the start (it is a 15-certificate), as he shouts “get away!” and the girl screams instead of running; Michael’s big stupid grin as he watches the chase; Michael dancin’ and slidin’ and groovin’ around his date as she walks away from the cinema; Vincent Price’s monologue as the zombies break out of the ground; how everything stops as the zombies encircle the couple; then Michael shockingly becomes a zombie!; then there’s the zombie dance; then, when the chorus kicks in, dance-leader Michael is no longer a zombie!; during the fade-out, the date is chased into a house and again it’s really frightening as the zombies, including Michael, bust their way in; they’re just about to get her and she looks up and sees normal Michael!; and as he leads her away, he turns back to the camera and reveals his evil eyes, as Vincent Price cackles away like a maniac again. It’s incredible. As good a 42 minutes as the album Thriller is, mankind has yet to devise a better way of spending that same amount of time than watching the full "Thriller" video three times back-to-back. In fact, you can apply that formula to anything: as good as bungee jumping/rampant sex/swimming with dolphins/walking on the moon/fun thing x, y or z might be, it’s still not guaranteed to be as fun as watching the "Thriller" video instead; ergo, height of human achievement.

----[(unfortunately the real "Thriller" video on YouTube has embedding disabled - you know where to get it - in the meantime, here's one of many parodies...)]----

Now, as we already know, almost everyone on the planet already owns Thriller, and the additional 2008 remixes add nothing to an album that is already, bar the Paul McCartney bits, among the greatest ever recorded. But those few poor souls who don’t already have it owe it some attention, rather than letting some vague process of osmosis rule their awareness of "Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’" and the like. Also, 14 minutes of DVD-quality "Thriller" is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick; try as you might and say what you like, but Thriller is a killer and there ain't no way to beat it.


Anonymous said...

Why does the cover look so bootleg? (they photoshopped off the background). T25 is a rip off, the 2001 re-release of Thriller is much better, and worth your money. They include (as well as Off The Wall and Bad special editions) interviews with Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton, and home demos of the original tracks Michael had made.

Ally Broon said...

Yeah, that sounds much better. Thriller 25 isn't really worth it if you've got Thriller already - and even the presence of the "Thriller" video... well you can watch that on YouTube, can't you? I suppose part of this article was an intimation to get Thriller - any version of it - instead of drifting by on the assumption that you know the songs already; it deserves closer attention than that.