Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’: Ranked
On November 30, 1982, Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones released Thriller.
In the 36 years since the album’s release, it has gone on to shatter domestic and international sales records; becoming one of the best-selling original albums of all time. It redefined pop as a genre, and crushed racial barriers in the music industry at the time. To celebrate the occasion, I’ve ranked every track on the legendary album.
9. “Baby Be Mine”
The late, great Rod Temperton wrote the second song on the album (rest in power) and produced by Quincy Jones.
“Baby Be Mine” plays as a typical disco-R&B love ballad with Jackson singing about how he will give himself to his girl, if she is willing to give the rest of herself to Jackson. Some listeners might think Jackson is trying to only sleep with her. However, a deeper analyzation of the lyrics reveals that Jackson is actually negotiating, in a sense, with his lover; saying that he wants her to be honest with him and in return, he will be honest with her. It’s a jumpy track with a bouncing synth, booming trumpets, and a chorus so catchy that you’ll find yourself tapping your feet to the rhythm.
While not the most prominent track on the album, a demo of the song does exist (and it is just as catchy).
8. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”
The fourth single to be released from the album, Quincy Jones co-produced this song with Jackson
Some have claimed that the track was written for Jackson’s sister La Toya, but I have yet to find any evidence backing this story. Recorded during the Off the Wall sessions (around 1978-1979), the demo contains background vocals and instruments by Jackson’s siblings.
The lyrics, while rather odd, are mostly about gossip, tabloids, and why people start pointless arguments. Jackson almost sounds manic in the song, trying to wrap his head around the craziness going on around him.
The song became the subject of a plagiarism controversy when Cameroonian singer Manu Dibango claimed that the “mama-say mama-sa mama-coo-sa” riff towards the end of the track was used, without his permission, from his 1972 track “Soul Makossa”.
Jackson later admitted that he was inspired to use the riff, and a financial settlement was reached in 1986 of 1 million French francs ($173,928.53 USD). Under the agreement, Jackson was not allowed to perform the song unless he asked for permission from Dibango. The track became a staple of Jackson’s concerts later on, performing it countless times at the start of nearly all of his tours (including the doomed ‘This Is It’ concerts in London).
7. “The Lady In My Life”
Rod Temperton wraps the album together with this track, produced by Quincy Jones.
This is one of the most underrated songs on the album. Listening to this song gave me “I Can’t Help It” vibes from the Off the Wall album (written by Stevie Wonder). The track is smooth as butter, with Jackson oozing over his lady; singing about how lucky he is to have her.
According to American biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, “The Lady In My Life” is “the closest Jackson has come to crooning a sexy, soulful ballad after his Motown years” (p. 223–25). Here’s the full version of the song with additional lyrics (before releasing on the album).
Warning: You might not be able to listen to the Thriller version the same way after hearing this.
6. “The Girl Is Mine”
The first single released from the album, the track features former-Beatle Paul McCartney. Jackson wrote and co-produced this track with Quincy Jones.
While not one of the stronger songs on the album, “The Girl Is Mine” is a rather basic melody. It is a cheesy, simple love-ballad of two men fighting over a woman; which is what Jones wanted. Personally, I’m a sucker for duets like this so I find it rather charming!
In his 2004 book, The Magic and the Madness, biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli mentioned that Jackson wrote the song while watching cartoons with McCartney (p. 223). During a copyright infringement lawsuit in the mid-’80s, Jackson revealed that the tune for the song came to him after awaking from a dream. He said that he ran over to a tape recorder and laid down what had popped into his head. Jackson also revealed in the same trial that he could not read or write sheet music.
The song was met with widespread criticism upon release. Since the Thriller album had not been released yet, people began fearing that it would bomb. Listeners were also worried that Jackson began to focus solely on white audiences (p. 223).
It should be of no surprise that the intentions behind “The Girl Is Mine” were for a specific audience. The purpose of it being that it was necessary at the time for Jackson to get his foot in the door when it came to airplay.
If you are curious what the song sounds like with just Jackson’s vocals, there’s a demo of that too!
The seventh and final single from the album (fittingly) was written by Rod Temperton and produced by Quincy Jones.
If you skipped the rest of the list to see where “Thriller” landed, you’re probably pleased or disappointed as to where I’ve placed it. As most probably know, “Thriller” is the song that shattered the music charts and changed how music videos are created and produced.
With a funky synthesizer, spooky sound effects, and a rap by horror legend Vincent Price, it is a game-changer of a tune. It is a song that extends beyond a Halloween theme. My interpretation of it is that it is someone going through puberty while also pursuing a relationship. Under the guise of a horror-themed track, it all works beautifully.
“Thriller” was originally penned by Temperton under the name “Starlight”. The demo contains some mumbled lyrics, but the composition is very similar to the track that we are all used to hearing.
Jones wanted the song to be the track that graced the album’s cover, but felt that “Starlight” was a weak title. Jones wanted the song to be mysterious to coincide with Jackson’s personality. In an interview with M Magazine, Temperton described how the title eventually came to him.
“I’d go back to my hotel every night and start writing titles. One night I came up with Midnight Man. Quincy [Jones] said I was going in the right direction, but it still wasn’t right. The next morning it came to me – but it was a really crap word to sing: Thriller. It sounded terrible! However, we got Michael to spit it into the microphone a few times and it worked.”– Rod Temperton, M Magazine, Issue 31
So, how did Vincent Price end up on the track? It turns out that Price and Temperton’s wife, Peggy, were friends. That connection helped land Price a spot on the song. Jones suggested that Temperton write the rap for Price as if it were a script. Since time was short, Temperton wrote the rap verse in the taxi journey from his hotel to the studio.
“I told the driver to drive round the back of the studio and I raced in, told the secretary to photocopy what I’d written and was able to walk into the studio and calmly hand a copy to Vincent, who recorded it in two takes. He was just fantastic.”– Rod Temperton, M Magazine, Issue 31
In addition to topping music charts, the song was a pop culture phenomenon; inspiring flash mobs around the world to replicate the famous ‘zombie dance’ from the music video. The video, directed by John Landis, features Jackson and Playboy model Ola Ray as his girlfriend. It is an ode to the vintage horror classics of the ’50s. Also, one of the most legendary dance numbers ever.
The video became one of the best-selling VHS tapes at the time and transformed the way artists think about music videos. It is also the first, and only music video (as of this article) to be inducted into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. As of August 2018, the song “Thriller” has gone on to sell 7.024 million copies in the United States.
4. “Beat It”
The third single released from the album, the rock track was written and co-produced by Jackson, and produced by Quincy Jones.
This is one of my personal favorites from the album. Featuring a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen, “Beat It” is what separated Jackson from the usual soul sound that so many people had been accustomed to hearing from him. It’s an aggressive track with themes of violence and gang rivalries. According to Thriller 25: The Book, Quincy Jones wanted Jackson to write a rock track that resembled the mood of “My Sharona” by The Knack. Jackson recorded demo vocals and Jones was pleased with what he had theorized.
Bringing rocker Eddie Van Halen on the track is a wild story in itself. When Eddie was asked to perform on the track by Jones, he thought he was being pranked and hung up. Once he realized it was a legitimate request, Eddie apologized and decided to perform the solo for free. It has been reported that when Eddie put down the improvised guitar track, the monitor speaker actually caught fire.
In his 2011 book, You Are Not Alone: Michael: Through a Brother’s Eyes, Michael’s brother Jermaine suggested that the inspiration for the song likely came from the gang fights that the family witnessed when they were growing up in Gary, Indiana (p. 85).
The music video for “Beat It” contains Jackson performing around two rival gangs, and ends with him bringing both sides together through the power of music and dance. The video was directed and written by, Bob Giraldi, a notable commercial director at the time. Jackson brought Giraldi on board after seeing a commercial that he made for a local Chicago TV station. The video also featured rival gang members, whom Jackson had hoped to bring together on-set.
3. “Human Nature”
The fifth single released from the album, this track was written by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis, and produced by Quincy Jones.
This track is absolutely incredible. Featuring some of the smoothest vocals ever recorded by the King of Pop, the song takes you on a journey unlike any other through a dreamy city landscape as Jackson gently sings about a girl he just can’t take his eyes off of. Toto‘s own Steve Procaro wrote the original song and played one of the iconic synths on the track.
According to Steve Knopper in his book MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson, Procaro got the idea for “Human Nature” after his daughter (who was in first-grade at the time) came home from school crying because a boy had pushed her off of the slide (p. 107). Quincy Jones was looking for ideas for Thriller at the time and Procaro, as well as Toto keyboardist David Paich, had already been doing instrumental work on the album. A tape was sent to Jones with Procaro’s and Paich’s latest grooves (which included the demo for “Human Nature”). The cassette player that Jones listened to the cassette on happened to have an auto-reverse function, so right after Paich’s music was over, Procaro’s demo automatically started playing on the second side of the tape. Jones loved it but wanted the lyrics re-written (which was done by John Bettis).
The track was a hit, with some in later years crediting “Human Nature” as being one of the stepping stones to the “adult R&B” movement. The song was performed frequently by Jackson on the Bad and Dangerous tours.
2. “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”
The sixth single released from the album, this track was written by James Ingram and Quincy Jones, and produced by Jones.
“P.Y.T.” is a track that gets you jumping, moving, and singing all before Jackson’s vocal track begins. With an amazing electric bass by the iconic Louis Johnson, and background vocals by Jackson sisters La Toya and Janet, it’s an ear popper of a dance groove.
The history of the track is rather minimal. The song that you are accustomed to on Thriller was written by James Ingram and Quincy Jones. However, a demo version of the song actually contains lyrics by Jackson and keyboardist Greg Phillinganes.
1. “Billie Jean”
The second single released from Thriller is #1 on my list for best song of the album. It was written and co-produced by Jackson, and produced by Quincy Jones.
With a driving bassline that will get even the shyest of club-goers out to the dance floor, and a chorus guaranteed to never leave your brain, this song is a packed pop hit.
The track was written, composed and co-produced by Jackson. It’s a song about a woman named Billie Jean, who had a one-night-stand with Jackson, and claims that the child that came out of the love affair is his son.
“Billie Jean” was one of the three tracks on Thriller to also spawn a music video. Directed by Steve Bannon, it features Jackson running away from a paparazzo, famously lighting up floor tiles, signs and lampposts as he dances down a city block. The video is also famous for bringing MTV into the limelight, with Jackson being one of the first black artists to receive regular airplay on the network. Jackson and his label, CBS Records, fought tooth and nail to get “Billie Jean” on MTV, with the label’s president Walter Yetnikoff threatening to pull the rest of CBS Records’ artists if the network didn’t air the video.
“Billie Jean” began its rotation on MTV on March 10, 1983.
It’s one of Jackson’s most performed tracks; with the Motown 25th anniversary concert being the most well known. It’s also where Jackson famously introduced to the world, the ‘moonwalk’.
During his life, Jackson had been asked in interviews how he came up with the theme and bass-riff for the song. In a 1996 interview, Jackson said that the song is based on the “groupies” that would hang around him, and his brothers, during the Jackson 5 days.
“Billie Jean is kind of anonymous. It represents a lot of girls. They used to call them groupies in the ’60s. They would hang around backstage doors, and any band that would come to town they would have a relationship with, and I think I wrote this out of experience with my brothers when I was little. There were a lot of Billie Jeans out there. Every girl claimed that their son was related to one of my brothers.”– Michael Jackson, 1996
However, Jackson’s autobiographer J. Randy Taraborrelli wrote that “Billie Jean” was actually based on a real-life experience involving a crazed fan that trespassed on his property, and also sent him disturbing letters.
With regards to the bass-riff explanation, it was best put by Jackson in 1994; about 12 years since the album had been released.
Jackson was being deposed regarding the originality of the track “Dangerous,” from his 1991 album Dangerous; with the plaintiff, singer Crystal Cartier, claiming that Jackson had plagiarized her song (also titled “Dangerous”). In explaining how he came up with the bass-riff for “Dangerous”, Jackson dove into his songwriting process; explaining to the court how he came up with “Billie Jean”.
However, the ’80s duo Hall & Oates have a different story. In a 2015 interview with HuffPost Live, Daryl Hall claimed that Jackson apologized to the duo during the “We Are The World” sessions for “stealing” the bass-line from their track “No Can Do”. Despite this alleged confession, Hall insists that both riffs are not similar.
“… Michael came up to me in conversation and he goes, “Hey man, I hope you don’t mind if I stole ‘No Can Do.’” And I went, “What do you mean you stole ‘No Can Do’?” He said, “Nah, man, I used it for ‘Billie Jean.’” I said, “It doesn’t sound like ‘No Can Do’ to me!”– Daryl Hall interview with Marc Lamont Hill, 2015
Quincy Jones, on the other hand, claims that Jackson “stole” notes from the song “State of Independence”; which was covered by disco queen Donna Summer and produced by Jones (Jackson sang background vocals on that track).
Regardless of what you might believe when it comes to the originality of “Billie Jean”, it led the way for “sleek, post-soul pop music”, as written by one music critic in 2005 for Blender. It’s a perfect blend of funk, dance, soul, rhythm and blues.
The Eagles may have topped Jackson for the #1 spot as the ‘Best Selling Album of All Time’ in the United States, but that doesn’t shy away from the fact that Thriller continues to serve as an inspiration for so many artists and music listeners today. Jackson would go on to release five more studio albums in his life. While these albums did churn out some more chart-toppers, none would come close to reaching the record numbers that Thriller has produced.
What is your favorite track from Thriller? Let me know in the comments, or send me a reply on Twitter: @slisker.
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