Michael Jackson - Thriller 25th Anniversary (2008)

Michael Jackson
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When Michael Jackson's Thriller won a bucketful of Grammy Awards in early 1984, it was a recognition of not only the artistic merit of an excellent album, but also of the tidal wave of popularity it garnered -- the enormity of public acclaim that would result in it becoming the biggest selling album of all time.

When Michael Jackson's Thriller won a bucketful of Grammy Awards in early 1984, it was a recognition of not only the artistic merit of an excellent album, but also of the tidal wave of popularity it garnered -- the enormity of public acclaim that would result in it becoming the biggest selling album of all time.

Thriller was more than an album.  It was a cultural phenomenon back at a time when an LP could capture black, white, pop, soul, rock, young and old audiences alike.  Of course, the concept of an album crossing so many boundaries seems foreign - almost quaint - in 2008.  Now "narrowcasting" dominates today's musical landscape, with thousands of specialized stations carving up audiences into such small groups that it has become impossible to have the kind of shared American cultural experience that Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen created back in the day. Thriller sold 27 million units.  Those kinds of numbers are almost mind-boggling today, and we won't likely see anything like that again in our lifetimes.  To put it in perspective, the biggest selling album of 2007, Josh Groban's Noel, didn't even sell 4 million, and most radio listeners never heard a single cut from it. Could you say that about Thriller or Born In The USA?  Back then it would be tough to find someone who hadn't heard at least 3 or 4 tracks or who couldn't sing one by heart.  

A new CD today can struggle to attract a focused target group of urban college aged men or 30 year old suburban housewives, but nothing now can even come close to connecting with the kind of mass audience that Thriller and its progeny did a quarter century ago.  In this era of uberchoice, popular music as a societal unifying force - as a common language - is virtually gone (save, perhaps American Idol), and we're left with our shared musical experiences all being in the past. Consequently, the 60s, 70s and 80s continue to be our culture's musical reference points.  So when Madison Avenue looks to attach music to their marketing, do they choose tracks by 50 Cent or Fall Out Boy?  No, because the vast majority of Americans couldn't identify even one song by either act.  So corporate America goes back to the familiar, calling upon the same tracks from the Motown catalog or 70s arena rock that we've heard for most of our adult lives.  Because those are the only songs we all know.

So the re-release of Thriller is coming at a time when, frankly, the original album's impact would be impossible to replicate.  And while Thriller is arguably not even Jackson's greatest album (I'd argue that Off The Wall was front to back his finest product), it is a sort of cultural icon that is still shared by generations (my kids know the songs on Thriller as well as they do anything on the radio now).  So it would be one thing to simply remaster the album, crispen up the sound a bit and rerelease it intact.  However, Sony took much more of a risk in messing with the original via the "high concept" of Thriller 25, where, in addition to a reissue of the original disc, remakes and remixes of the album featuring modern (arguably lesser) pop stars such as Fergie and Kanye are included.

The result of this experiment is essentially two distinct albums:  one a clean, crisp reissue of a classic, and one an utter disaster.  First, the original: Remastering and reissuing Thriller is a worthwhile endeavor, and it is great to hear it all again, generally surviving the test of time in good form.  While the stuff that was suspect the first time around ("The Girl Is Mine," "Baby Be Mine") sounds both lightweight and a bit dated, the album's highlights, from Bill Wolfer's pulsating keyboards at the beginning of "Billy Jean" to the frenetic "Wanna Be Startin' Something" to the straight ahead rock of "Beat It," are still immediate and fresh, and the remastering of these cuts alone brings some of the thrill back to Thriller 25, making the release a worthy historical preservation act.

Unfortunately, the second half of the new disc is as bad as the first half is good. From Will.i.am's complete whiff on "The Girl Is Mine" to Fergie's karaoke sing-a-long on "Beat It" and Kanye West's "Billie Jean" sleepwalk, there is virtually nothing remade that is even remotely interesting.  Contrary to the goal of "freshening up" the original to give it a modern sheen, the new tracks instead support the ageism of classic rock and R&B purists who argue that today's popular artists simply don't match up to past stars. 

Despite the flaws of Thriller 25, the foundation is still the original album, and it is tough to go wrong buying a disc that is both that important and plain fun to hear.  But the rest is less than filler, only providing benefit by making Jackson's 1983 versions sound that much better comparatively.  Ultimately, people will still be singing the original versions of "Billy Jean," "Human Nature" and "Beat It" a decade from now, but by then the half album of ill conceived remixes included on Thriller 25 will be long forgotten.

By Chris Rizik

 

 
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