2012 marks the thirtieth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s classic Thriller album, which was originally released on November 30, 1982. Here’s a list of ten reasons why you should love the King of Pop’s best and most successful album:
10. “The Girl Is Mine.” The third track on the album, this song brings together two of the most popular and gifted musicians in popular music history: Jackson and Paul McCartney of the Beatles. It’s as if through this duet, McCartney is handing over the title of the “World’s Most Popular Musical Artist” from the Beatles to Jackson. Both singers sound sweet and energized in this performance, and the closing lyrics – which include a good-natured and cheeky cut-down contest – perfectly cap things off.
9. The Photograph on the Original Gatefold Sleeve of the Vinyl Release. The reclining Jackson’s white suit can’t help but remind fans of the disco threads that John Travolta made popular in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever. Jackson’s clothing choice definitely announces him as the new dancing king. But what’s really cool about this photograph is that, for some inexplicable reason, a cute baby tiger lounges on Jackson’s knees.
8. Eddie Van Halen’s Guitar Solo on “Beat It.” When Jackson and producer Quincy Jones decided that “Beat It,” Thriller’s rock song, needed a guitar solo, they called on Eddie Van Halen – the leader of the hard rock band Van Halen, whose guitar virtuosity encompassed finger tapping and high frequency feedback. Van Halen’s solo helped make the song a crossover hit, landing at the top of the US R&B singles chart and at number fourteen on the Billboard Hot One Hundred chart.
7. Vincent Price’s Monologue on “Thriller.” When Rod Temperton wrote “Thriller” for Jackson, he wanted to include a creepy monologue by a well-known horror-movie actor. Vincent Price was his man. In the song’s video, it’s terrific when Price intones his campy monologue – which begins, “The foulest stench is in the air / The funk of forty thousand years / And grizzly ghouls from every tomb / Are closing the seal to your doom” – and the zombies simultaneously begin to rise from their caskets.
6. Position as the World’s Best-Selling Album. Thriller has sold – get ready for it – around 110 million copies worldwide. To put this number into perspective, the album has sold more than twice as many copies as the runner-up, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), and more than three-times as many as the best-selling Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). It may seem crass to mention sales figures, but an album’s popularity says something about the universal appeal of its music.
5. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” The opening track of Thriller – and what an opener! – “Wanna Be Startin’ Somthin’” is perhaps Jackson’s most overlooked song. Funky and catchy, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” opens Thriller, announcing to the world Jackson’s identity as the new King of Pop to all comers, with lyrics such as “You’re stuck in the middle / And the pain is thunder / It’s too high to get over / Too low to get under.” Knowing the greatness of the songs to follow on Thriller, Jackson is unabashedly confident in his abilities.
4. The Bass Line on “Billie Jean.” “Billie Jean” is, of course, one of Jackson’s best and funkiest songs. It’s also my personal favorite. But I single out the bass line – and not the song itself – because it’s quite simply the funkiest piece of music that Jackson ever borrowed. That’s right – borrowed. Jackson famously took the bass line from the Hall and Oates song, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” (1981). But Jackson’s addition of a shaker to add percussion and his iconic vocal hiccups takes the funk to a new level. “Billie Jean” is the best song on Thriller, one of the best of Jackson’s career, and a number one hit on both the US R&B and Billboard Hot One Hundred charts.
3. The Video for “Billie Jean.” The video for “Billie Jean” is just as cool as the song for two reasons. First, Jackson’s costume sports a tremendously high number of sparkles, from his shirt to his iconic single glove to his socks, which his high-water pants show off. These sparkles make Jackson the center of attention: a glowing sun, spinning as one of the sole sources of light before the video’s dark backdrop. Second, the sidewalk squares that light up when Jackson takes a dance step. These squares not only look incredibly cool, they also highlight Jackson’s extraordinary abilities as an innovative dancer.
2. The Video for “Thriller.” I have to mention another Jackson video because he pretty much invented the modern music video as we know it and, in the process, almost single-handedly made MTV popular. Directed by John Landis and clocking in at fourteen minutes, the “Thriller” video is many things: an homage to horror films of the 1950s, an innovative piece of choreography, and a special effects extravaganza, featuring zombies and Jackson himself as a were cat.
1. The Performance of “Billie Jean” at Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever. In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Motown, Jackson’s label at the time, Jackson performed “Billie Jean.” But, as we all know, he didn’t just perform the song – he recreated himself as the pop star of the 1980s. Donning a costume similar to the one that he wore in the “Billie Jean” video, he amazed the audience, who watched at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and on national television. His charisma and dancing continue to astound to this day, especially the moonwalk, which he premiered on the show. Jackson’s performance still needs to be seen to be believed.