Music Commentary

'Thriller' at 25: Still Can't Beat It

Though a flawed masterwork, a new anniversary edition reminds us how well the best of Michael Jackson's seminal album holds up a quarter century later (even if the bonus tracks are mostly Bad)

MICHAEL JACKSON Thriller was a collection of songs that cohered as the statement of a young artist proclaiming his freedom, writes Ken Tucker
Image credit: Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis
MICHAEL JACKSON Thriller was a collection of songs that cohered as the statement of a young artist proclaiming his freedom, writes Ken Tucker

''Thriller'': Can't beat it

By now, it's simply assumed that Michael Jackson's Thriller is some kind of masterpiece, its legacy sullied only by the private-life shenanigans-or-worse of its principal creator. But Epic/Legacy's release of a 25th-anniversary edition of Thriller — tricked out with five remixes, an unreleased track, and a DVD — is a good time to place this creation in its proper art-historical context. When it was released in November 1982, Thriller initially seemed an extension of 1979's Off the Wall. Here was another solo album from a young man trying to gracefully separate himself from the family act that made him a star, produced once again by Quincy Jones, as a mixture of hits-plus-filler that characterized the then-dominant pop-music delivery system: the LP.

It soon became apparent, however, that Thriller was something unique. Its first single, the goofy-sweet Paul McCartney duet ''The Girl Is Mine,'' was a safe choice, but the second single, ''Billie Jean,'' exploded everything around it. Its driving funk beat and atypically aggressive, fascinatingly obscure lyrics — which found Michael vehemently denying some woman was his lover — lent ''Billie Jean'' an urgency that only became more intense when Jackson used it on the March 1983 TV special Motown 25 to unveil his signature dance moves, including the moonwalk.

That performance is included here on DVD, plus the three long-form music videos for ''Billie Jean,'' ''Beat It,'' and ''Thriller.'' The shock and awe that a human being could inspire navigating a stage with such effortless yet almost supernatural command (not for nothing did legends Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly congratulate Michael on his dancing) vaulted Jackson and Thriller to a new level of prominence. Songs such as ''Beat It,'' with its stinging hard-rock guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen, and ''Wanna Be Startin' Somethin','' instantly one of the greatest party songs ever, were no-brainer hits, but Michael's sudden pop culture pervasiveness carried even a weaker song like ''P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)'' into the top 10.

Here's the thing: Thriller isn't a perfect creation. Quick, can you hum ''The Lady in My Life,'' the album's hookless closer? Didn't think so. The core of Thriller's music was executed by members of Toto, the ultimate L.A. session-hack band (remember their hits ''Hold the Line'' and ''Africa''?), in arrangements that sometimes required Michael's masterfully expressive vocals to mask their mere slickness. And if you ignore the hype and look around at other 1982 releases, Thriller is arguably not even the most-sustained quality album of that year: I could make strong arguments for George Clinton's Computer Games (come on, ''Atomic Dog'' alone influenced more hip-hop than any Michael song ever did), Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, and, yes, Marshall Crenshaw.

Largely due to its staggering business figures — more than 100 million copies sold — its longtime ''world's best-selling album'' tag, and media domination, Thriller transcended mere musical achievement. In a way that is unthinkable now in a landscape that doesn't view the album as its primary medium of expression, Thriller was a collection of songs that cohered as the statement of a young artist proclaiming his freedom, a boy grown into manhood as a compleat entertainer — singer, songwriter, performer. (Director John Landis brought out the best in Michael's rebellious, angry side in the ''Thriller'' video.)

The thing to celebrate about Thriller's 25th-anniversary release is the pleasure still to be taken from its best songs, and the opportunity to, for at least a few moments, put aside all the tabloid controversy that has since engulfed an undeniably gifted artist. Because, to paraphrase one of the album's lyrics, when it comes to Jackson's Thriller phenomenon, tenderoni you've got to be.

NEXT PAGE: Grades for each of the six bonus tracks added to the 25th-anniversary edition of Thriller

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