Thriller is Michael Jackson's sixth studio album that was released on November 30, 1982 by Epic Records (in the U.S.) and CBS Records (internationally).
The album topped the Billboard 200 and became the world's best-selling album, having sold an estimated 66 million copies; it is also the second-best selling album in the United States [behind the Eagles' album "Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)] and became the first album to reach 30x platinum with 33 million shipped album-equivalent units certified in the US.
In 1984, it also won a record-breaking eight Grammy Awards including "Album of the Year."
Tracklisting[edit | edit source]
- Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' 6:02
- Baby Be Mine 4:20
- The Girl Is Mine 3:42
- Thriller 5:57
- Beat It 4:17
- Billie Jean 4:57
- Human Nature 4:05
- P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) 3:58
- The Lady In My Life 4:57
Album Background[edit | edit source]
Michael Jackson's 1979 album, "Off the Wall" received critical acclaim and was a commercial success, selling over 20 million copies worldwide.
The years between "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" were a transitional period for Jackson, a time of decreased independence.
The period saw Jackson become deeply unhappy; he said, "Even at home, I'm lonely. I sit in my room sometimes and cry. It's so hard to make friends ... I sometimes walk around the neighborhood at night, just hoping to find someone to talk to. But I just end up coming home."
When Jackson turned 21 years old in August of 1979, he hired John Branca as his manager. He told Branca that he wanted to be the biggest and wealthiest star in showbusiness. He was also upset about what he perceived as the underperformance of "Off the Wall", feeling that it had deserved the Grammy Award for Record of the Year.
Jackson also felt undervalued by the music industry; in 1980, when Rolling Stone declined to run a cover story on him, Jackson responded: "I've been told over and over that black people on the cover of magazines doesn't sell copies ... Just wait. Some day those magazines are going to be begging me for an interview. Maybe I'll give them one, and maybe I won't."
Recording[edit | edit source]
Jackson reunited with "Off the Wall" producer Quincy Jones to record his sixth studio album, his second under the Epic label. They worked together on 30 songs, nine of which were included on the album.
The album was recorded at Westlake Recording Studios in Los Angeles, California, with a production budget of $750,000 (US$1,926,319.15 in 2017 dollars).
The recording for "Thriller" commenced on April 14, 1982 at noon with Jackson and Paul McCartney recording "The Girl Is Mine"; it was completed on the final day of mixing, November 8, 1982.
Several members of the band Toto were involved in the album's recording and production.
Jackson wrote four songs for the record: "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", "The Girl Is Mine", "Beat It" and "Billie Jean." Unlike many artists, Jackson did not write these songs on paper. Instead, he dictated into a sound recorder; when recording he would sing from memory.
The relationship between Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones became strained during the recording. Jackson spent much of his time rehearsing dance steps alone. When the album was completed, they were unhappy with the result and remixed every song, spending a week on each.
Jackson was inspired to create an album where "every song was a killer" and developed "Thriller" with that in mind.
Jones and songwriter Rod Temperton gave detailed accounts of what occurred for the 2001 reissue of the album.
Jones discussed "Billie Jean" and why it was so personal to Jackson, who struggled with obsessed fans. Jones wanted to shorten the long introduction, but Jackson insisted that it remain because it made him want to dance.
The ongoing backlash against disco made it necessary to move in a different musical direction from the disco-heavy "Off the Wall."
Jones and Jackson were determined to make a rock song that would appeal to all tastes and spent weeks looking for a suitable guitarist for the song "Beat It". Eventually, they found Steve Lukather of Toto to play the rhythm guitar parts and Eddie Van Halen of the rock band Van Halen to play the solo.
When Rod Temperton wrote the song "Thriller", he wanted to call it "Starlight" or "Midnight Man", but settled on "Thriller" because he felt the name had merchandising potential.
Wanting a notable person to recite the closing lyrics, Jones brought in actor Vincent Price, an acquaintance of Jones' wife; Price completed his part in two takes. Temperton wrote the spoken portion in a taxi on the way to the recording studio.
Jones and Temperton said that some recordings were left off the final cut because they did not have the "edginess" of other album tracks.
Composition[edit | edit source]
"Thriller" explores genres including pop, post-disco, rock and funk.
According to Steve Huey of AllMusic, it refined the strengths of "Off the Wall"; the dance and rock tracks are more aggressive, while the pop tunes and ballads are softer and more soulful.
The album includes the ballads "The Lady in My Life", "Human Nature" and "The Girl Is Mine". The funk tracks "Billie Jean" and "Wanna Be Startin' Something'", and the disco songs "Baby Be Mine" and "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" have a similar sound to Off the Wall.
"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" climaxes in an African-inspired chant (often misidentified as Swahili, but actually syllables based on Duala), giving the song an international flavor.
"The Girl Is Mine" tells of two friends' fight over a woman, arguing over who loves her more, and concludes with a rap.
The album's songs have a tempo ranging from 80 beats per minute on "The Girl is Mine", to 138 on "Beat It."
"Thriller" foreshadows the contradictory themes of Jackson's later works. With "Thriller", Jackson began using a motif of paranoia and darker themes including supernatural imagery in the title track; this is evident on the songs "Billie Jean", "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" and "Thriller".
In "Billie Jean", Jackson sings about an obsessive fan who alleges he fathered her child; in "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" he argues against media gossip.
For "Billie Jean", Jones had Jackson sing overdubs through a six-foot (180 cm) cardboard tube and brought in jazz saxophonist Tom Scott to play the lyricon, a wind-controlled synthesizer.
Bassist Louis Johnson ran through his part on a Yamaha bass guitar. The song opens with a long bass-and-drums introduction.
"Thriller" includes sound effects such as creaking doors, thunder, footsteps, wind, and howling dogs.
The anti-gang-violence "Beat It" became a homage to West Side Story and was Jackson's first successful rock cross-over piece.
Jackson later said of "Beat It": "the point is no one has to be the tough guy, you can walk away from a fight and still be a man. You don't have to die to prove you're a man".
"Human Nature" (co-written by Steve Porcaro of the band Toto) is moody and introspective, as conveyed in lyrics such as, "Looking out, across the morning, the City's heart begins to beat, reaching out, I touch her shoulder, I'm dreaming of the street".
By the late 1970s, Jackson's abilities as a vocalist were well regarded; AllMusic described him as a "blindingly gifted vocalist".
Rolling Stone critic Stephen Holden likened his vocals to the "breathless, dreamy stutter" of Stevie Wonder, and wrote that "Jackson's feathery-timbred tenor is extraordinarily beautiful. It slides smoothly into a startling falsetto that's used very daringly."
With the release of "Thriller", Jackson could sing low—down to a basso low C—but he preferred to sing higher because pop tenors have more range to create style.
Rolling Stone critic Christopher Connelly wrote that Jackson was now singing in a "fully adult voice" that was "tinged by sadness".
"P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)", credited to James Ingram and Quincy Jones and "The Lady in My Life" by Rod Temperton, both gave the album a stronger R&B direction; the latter song was described as "the closest Jackson has come to crooning a sexy, soulful ballad after his Motown years" by J. Randy Taraborrelli.
Jackson had already adopted a "vocal hiccup" (which was first used in 1973 on "It's Too Late to Change the Time"), which he continued to implement in Thriller. The purpose of the hiccup—somewhat like a gulping for air or gasping—is to help invoke a certain emotion, be it excitement, sadness or fear.
Album Cover[edit | edit source]
The cover for "Thriller" features Michael Jackson in a white suit that belonged to photographer Dick Zimmerman.
The gatefold sleeve reveals a tiger cub at Jackson's leg, which, according Zimmerman, Jackson kept away from his face, fearing he would be scratched.
Another picture from the shoot, with Jackson embracing the cub, was used for the 2001 special edition of "Thriller."
Chart Performance[edit | edit source]
"Thriller" was released on November 30, 1982, and sold one million copies worldwide per week at its peak.
On December 16, 2015, the album was certified 30× platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, for shipments of at least 30 million units in the US.
After the inclusion of streaming and tracks sales into the RIAA album awards in 2017, it was certified 33× platinum for a total of 33 million album-equivalent units.
The album topped the charts in many countries, sold 4.2 million copies in the UK, 2.5 million in Japan and was certified 15× Platinum in Australia.
The album sells an estimated 130,000 copies in the US per year; it reached number two in the US Catalog charts in February 2003 and number 39 in the UK in March 2007
"Thriller" remains the best-selling album of all time, having sold over 66 million copies worldwide.
It was ranked also ranked as the third best album of all time on the "Billboard Top 200 Albums of All Time."
Critical Reception[edit | edit source]
In a contemporaneous review for Rolling Stone, Christopher Connelly called "Thriller" a "zesty LP" with a "harrowing, dark message".
He compared the songs on the album with the life challenges that the 24-year-old Jackson had faced since "Off the Wall", while observing that he "dropped the boyish falsetto" and was facing his "challenges head-on" with "a feisty determination" and "a full, adult voice".
John Rockwell wrote in The New York Times that perhaps Jackson was a "sometimes too practiced ... performer", that at times Quincy Jones may "depersonalize his individuality" with his "slightly anonymous production" and that Jackson may be hiding his true emotions behind "layers of impenetrable, gauzy veils".
Rockwell nonetheless deemed the album "a wonderful pop record, the latest statement by one of the great singers in popular music today" and that there are "hits here, too, lots of them".
Rockwell believed it helped breach "the destructive barriers that spring up regularly between white and black music", especially as "white publications and radio stations that normally avoid black music seem willing to pretend he isn't black after all".
In The Village Voice, Robert Christgau said "this is virtually a hits-plus-filler job, but at such a high level it's almost classic anyway." He later wrote in his 1990 book, "Record Guide: The '80s": "what we couldn't know is how brilliantly every hit but 'P.Y.T.' would thrive on mass exposure and public pleasure."
A year after the album's release, Time magazine summed up the three main singles from the album, saying:"The pulse of America and much of the rest of the world moves irregularly, beating in time to the tough strut of 'Billie Jean', the asphalt aria of 'Beat It', the supremely cool chills of 'Thriller'."
In 1989, Toronto Star music critics reflected on the albums they had reviewed in the past 10 years in order to create a list judging them on the basis of "commercial impact to social import, to strictly musical merit."
The album was placed at #1 on the list, where it was referred to as his "master work" and that "commercial success has since overshadowed Jackson's artistic accomplishments on Thriller, and that's a pity. It was a record for the times, brimming with breathless anticipation and a dread fear of the adult world, a brilliant fantasy that pumped with sexual heat, yet made room for serious reflection".
The album won a record-breaking eight Grammy Awards in 1984 (including "Album of the Year").
Jackson won seven of the Grammys for the album, while the eighth Grammy went to Bruce Swedien. That same year, he won eight American Music Awards, the Special Award of Merit and three MTV Video Music Awards.
"Thriller" was recognized as the world's best-selling album on February 7, 1984, when it was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records. It is one of four albums to be the best-seller of two years (1983–1984) in the United States.