The quarter-century mark carries weight for
Thriller -- not necessarily for the anniversary of the album's release itself, although it offers as good an opportunity as ever to revisit one of the true pop phenomenons of the 20th century, but rather for another anniversary: Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever, the television special where Michael Jackson performed "Billie Jean" and unleashed the moonwalk, sending Thriller into the stratosphere. For those who hadn't paid attention to Off the Wall -- and despite its success there were some, often older listeners who didn't bother with discos -- this performance was the unveiling of a marvelous, mature Jackson, a musician whose growth seemed sudden, swift, staggering. Maturity isn't a word that was much associated with Jackson over the next 25 years. Not long after Thriller was logging its second year on the charts, well on its way to becoming the biggest album ever (a title it eventually lost to the Eagles' Their Greatest Hits, which is merely a technicality; that was a catalog item, not a supernova that burned up the charts), Jackson methodically turned himself into a man-child, first through his public appearance -- he was first seen with ET, then Emmanuel Lewis -- and that antiseptic mass appeal crept into his music, so by the tenth anniversary of Thriller, there was not much adult about his music.
Because of this gradual morphing into something other, many listeners may have not listened to Michael Jackson or Thriller in years, maybe even two decades, so the album was given a much-hyped re-release in February 2008, with Epic/Legacy releasing Thriller 25 complete with bonus tracks and an extra DVD, in several different editions with different covers, too. There was so much hype surrounding this reissue that it's easy to overlook the fact that this is the second pumped-up reissue of Thriller within a decade. Six years earlier, Michael Jackson's Epic catalog was refurbished to coincide with the release of , so the album was given a bunch of bonus tracks and a new cover -- an outtake from the photo shoot that produced the gatefold pic of Jacko cuddling with a baby tiger, playing right into his frozen childhood -- and it didn't garner much attention, possibly because only two of the 12 bonus tracks were interesting (the rest were almost all interview snippets). Those two songs, "Someone in the Dark" and a demo of "Billie Jean," are left behind on that issue, and Thriller 25 likewise contains none of the assorted oddities and rarities MJ released during this era. Unlike the 2001 reissue, this is not targeted to listeners who care about digging deep into the vaults, curious about how the album was made and what was left behind. No, Thriller 25 is for fans who want to take a trip back and for younger listeners who may have never heard the entire album before -- and to rope the latter in, this reissue has five new remixes all featuring modern stars. That sounds more impressive on the surface than it actually is, as, for whatever reason, such Michael-mimicking superstars as Invincible Justin Timberlake and Chris Brown did not participate, but Kanye West, Akon, Fergie, and will.i.am did. By and large these are outright embarrassments -- only Akon has the guts to rework the original track, turning "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" into moody piano murk, so he gets credit for vision; it's not great, but it is better than Fergie parroting the lyrics of "Beat It" back to a recorded Jackson, and it's better than will.i.am turning "The Girl Is Mine" into a hapless dance number -- but it's also true that these artists can't help but seem small when compared to Michael. Kanye is the closest of these four to having anything close to the musical and cultural impact in 2008 as Jackson did in 1982-1983, but even that is a bit of a reach, as Kanye isn't nearly as close to being as omnipresent as Michael was at his peak.
Of course, those were different times, as one listen to the proper album makes clear. Thriller built upon the disco breakthroughs of Off the Wall but was designed to cross over to all audiences: baby boomers (a duet with Paul McCartney on "The Girl Is Mine"), hard rockers ( Eddie Van Halen's guitar on "Beat It"), electro-funk (the paranoiac "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," the stark "Billie Jean"), modern R&B (the bright "Baby Be Mine"), quiet storm ("The Lady in My Life"), soft rockers ("Human Nature"), and kids (the cartoonish title track). That large streak of softness is often overlooked in memories about Thriller; it's rightly overshadowed by "Billie Jean," "Beat It," and "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," and the visual extravaganzas of the video (all documented here on the DVD, with only the overcooked "Thriller" seeming old). But the genius of Thriller is that Jackson, producer Quincy Jones, and writer/arranger Rod Temperton made it with L.A. studio pros (including many members of Toto, Greg Phillinganes, and David Foster), so it has an alluring slickness placing it as firmly within pop as it is within R&B. Jackson, Jones, and Temperton meticulously assembled these tracks, finding a balance where the tight grooves laid down by the studio musicians and the synth sequencing by Michael and Rod felt precise yet pulsated with a human heart. This polish helped bring Thriller to a mass audience who otherwise might have paid no attention. Once Thriller got their attention, it captivated because Jackson did everything and he made it seem so easy. Once his dazzle wore off, the songs stuck around because there were no weak tunes -- even the weakest, the slow-burning closer "The Lady In My Life," is a fine generic R&B ballad -- and the best are eternal.
Even so, classic pop can be overplayed and several of the Thriller signature hits no longer sound fresh -- that creaky title track and the clenched posturing of "Beat It" are the worst offenders -- but "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" and "Billie Jean" remain startling in their futuristic funk and "Baby Be Mine," one of two songs not to be a hit single, sounds positively incandescent, perhaps because it isn't as familiar, but more likely because it is a brilliantly crafted piece from Temperton. And, again, it's that craft that impresses after all these years -- it's possible to hear past the myth, past the baggage that Jackson accumulated in the years since its release, and hear what he created on this singular sensation. It's not necessary to purchase the 25th anniversary reissue to appreciate this -- for those who appreciate the craft behind the album, the only worthwhile extra is the perfectly fine unreleased ballad "For All Time" -- but the set does have one trump card up its sleeve: the DVD has that performance of "Billie Jean" from Motown 25. It is the one thing on the set that comes close to capturing the excitement that Thriller generated upon its initial release -- and since excitement was as necessary to Thriller's success as craft, such a jolt is needed for this, although it may not be quite enough of an enticement for millions of fans to purchase this album a second time.
All Music Guide - Stephen Thomas Erlewine