In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1983 & 1984: Michael Jackson’s Thriller
Imagine being Michael Jackson in 1982 and thinking of Off The Wall as a disappointment. The album served as Jackson’s real introduction to the world as a solo artist separate from his brothers who he had been famous with up to that point. Working with a new producer in Quincy Jones, he and Jackson created an endlessly fun album of dance floor jams that showed what Jackson was capable of on his own. And it succeeded with Off The Wall going on to sell nine million copies and while it only got to #3 on the album charts, it kept selling into 1980 that it wound up as that year’s #3 album with only Pink Floyd’s The Wall and the Eagles’ The Long Run selling more. It also had hits spawning two #1 hits and two more Top 10 hits which tied Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack for the most Top 10 singles from one album. But to Jackson, that wasn’t enough.
Jackson felt Off The Wall deserved better and for his next album Thriller put all the effort into making something bigger while aiming to be the biggest artist ever. That was not going to be an easy task considering the music environment in the early ‘80s. The disco sound that defined Off The Wall had been scrubbed off the charts by 1982. Black artists in the early ‘80s weren’t crossing over a lot to the pop mainstream due to the after-effects of the disco backlash with radio formatting that segregated Black and white music and MTV early on often excluding Black artists from their rotation for not fitting their rock-centric format. And as I mentioned in the last post about Asia, 1982 was not a great year for the music business with sales way down than they were when Off The Wall was released. This led to Quincy Jones saying that Thriller would be considered a success if at least six million copies were sold.
When Thriller was put out into the world right after Thanksgiving 1982, all signs initially pointed to that lowered figure. The album debuted at #11 on the Billboard 200, a pretty good debut in those pre-Soundscan days. It wouldn’t be until the start of 1983 when Thriller finally made it into the Top 10 but kept moving slowly up the chart. For a while, Thriller couldn’t get past the Australian new wave band Men at Work’s massive breakthrough hit Business As Usual which would eventually finish behind Thriller as 1983’s #2 album. But by the end of February, Thriller finally made it to the top and after that, there was no looking back kicking off one of the most exciting eras for pop music.
From February 1983 to April 1984, Thriller was the #1 album in America for 37 non-consecutive weeks. At one point, Thriller was selling over a million copies in a week. Today it’s platinum 33 times over in the US and is listed as the second best-selling album of all time behind only the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) but until recently was considered the best-selling album though worldwide it still holds that distinction. It was so undeniable that it wound up as the best-selling album for two straight years in 1983 and 1984, the third album to be the best-seller in two different years after the Broadway soundtrack to My Fair Lady and the movie soundtrack to West Side Story with one more album matching that feat almost 30 years later.
When it came to hit songs from Thriller, there was no shortage of those. We’ve already covered Rumours and the Saturday Night Fever and how they expanded the notion of the number of hit singles you could release from an album with those two albums releasing four after years of industry practice limiting albums to two or three singles. Thriller though blew that figure out the door by releasing seven of its nine tracks as singles. Only two songs hit #1 but the other five singles were also Top 10 hits. That success helped the music business reshape its thinking of hit-making by starting to milk an album for as many hits as possible. Thriller today still holds the record for the most Top 10 singles off an album and it shares that record with three other albums that will eventually appear in this column.
Obviously, those figures are just scratching the surface of the insane cultural phenomenon Thriller was at its peak. I wasn’t alive in the ‘80s but from what I’ve heard and read about Thriller, it was a major cultural event along the lines of a blockbuster movie or a big sports game. It didn’t matter who you were, you were listening to Thriller. It’s the kind of thing that feels impossible to pull off today when music sales are barely a thing and shared pop-cultural experiences are becoming less and less. While the music execs at CBS Records must have been very surprised to see all the sales and money Thriller was making, to Jackson this was what he had been hoping for all along, an album that would appeal to every group possible regardless of age, race, gender, or genre.
Before sitting down to write this review, I don’t think I’d ever listened to Thriller the whole way through and yet the album felt very familiar listening to it. For someone who grew up well after Thriller, it’s always existed as a major cultural signifier of the ‘80s and one of those albums you feel like you have to know if you want to get into music. Plus, it’s an album full of songs that refuse to die almost 40 years later. The album’s two #1s “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” as well as other hits like the perennial Halloween favorite “Thriller” featuring narration from the legendary horror actor Vincent Price and “Human Nature” still get lots of play that they feel like a part of the air. You can’t imagine a world without Thriller.
True to Michael’s mission, Thriller is an album that never gets boring or feels like filler for the most part. Thriller is essentially Jackson making songs that represent the dominant pop and R&B styles of the early ‘80s in his best way. There are the mainstream crossover jams, (“Billie Jean,” “Thriller”) funk-driven R&B dance-pop, (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Baby Be Mine,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)) radio-friendly adult contemporary (“The Girl Is Mine,” “Human Nature”) and quiet storm. (“The Lady In My Life”) Quincy Jones brought on a lot of professionals for Thriller using a lot of the same players he had used on Off The Wall along with Toto, the LA-based soft rock band who were known in the industry as some of the best session players around. Together, all these players perform to their very best in making these songs hit as hard as they do. With all this talent, it’s no surprise that Thriller sounds as good as it does.
And of course, Michael Jackson sounds great here on an album that marks new ground for him. Up to this point, Jackson’s voice had radiated pure joyfulness and delicate featherness largely floating with the beat. Jackson still commands each song on Thriller but does so in new ways. Most notably, Jackson begins to adapt many of the vocal techniques we would come to associate with him- the percussive grunts, “hee-hee,” “hoo.” Jackson also starts to adapt more of a harder edge in his voice, another vocal style that would be put to good use in his later music. Songs like “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” are tense songs about scary situations whether it’s fighting off a deranged fan or trying to stay away from violence. Jackson channels the increasingly paranoid feelings he was processing through these songs. As Jackson got more and more famous and closed himself from the outside world, he would only grow in making harder-edged and paranoid-sounding songs.
Thriller notably boasts two big musical guests that were key in assuring the album’s massive crossover potential. For the album’s first single, Jackson recruited Beatles legend Paul McCartney for the soft breezy duet “The Girl Is Mine” which is easily the worst song on Thriller just for how boring and laughable it is hearing these two legends unconvincingly fight over a girl. Compared to the rest of the album, “The Girl Is Mine” isn’t much of anything and is easily ignorable but was able to reach #2 on the Hot 100 on pure hype and name recognition alone. For the other musical guest, Jackson brought on the late guitar great Eddie Van Halen to perform a short shredding guitar solo for the rock track “Beat It.” Van Halen played for free at the request of Quincy Jones who suggested Jackson write a rock song in the vein of the Knack’s “My Sharona.” Van Halen is only on the song for 20 seconds but in those 20 seconds give Jackson and “Beat It” the rock credibility it needed alongside the playing from Toto resulting in a fun rocking song.
Having both Paul McCartney and Eddie Van Halen on Thriller helped Jackson in his vision for the album. With McCartney on “The Girl Is Mine,” Jackson got to have the blessing of one of the biggest icons of the previous music generation and with the song’s inoffensive feel and McCartney’s name attached was able to crossover easily to mainstream and by in large white audiences hitting #1 on both the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts. Eddie Van Halen on “Beat It” helped Jackson crossover to rock audiences, an audience that didn’t interact a lot with Jackson, by featuring arguably the hottest rock guitarist of the moment. No one’s going to think of “Beat It” alongside songs from actual rock groups but the plan worked with the song managing to get up to #14 on the Mainstream Rock charts.
Another big plan in getting Thriller out to the world was by getting played on MTV. After not making a video for “The Girl Is Mine,” Jackson and team began filming videos for his next singles “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” As I mentioned in the beginning, MTV had started by positioning itself as a TV rock station scarcely playing songs from Black artists before 1983 but were perfectly fine with videos from white R&B artists. There’s a lot of conflicting arguments about what happened as explained in the oral history book I Want My MTV but the main gist is that MTV at first were unwilling to play “Billie Jean” for not fitting into their rock format instead preferring “Beat It” for fitting their format better. This led the head of CBS Records Walter Yetnikoff threatening to withhold all his label’s videos if “Billie Jean” wasn’t played so they relented and pretty soon Michael Jackson became a major MTV star.
With that, MTV itself became the pop-cultural behemoth we know them as today as they started to play Black artists more regularly and broaden themselves into playing videos from other genres that they would have dismissed before. By the end of 1983, Jackson became such a big MTV star that the network helped to pay for the cost of the video for the Thriller title track, the album’s final single. The video along with a making of documentary premiered on MTV in December 1983 to huge buzz and viewership as well as increased sales of Thriller a year after the album came out. The “Thriller” music video became one of those moments that if you were alive at the time you just had to see.
Aside from the music, it’s the music videos that have also been Thriller’s big legacy. Even if you’re not like me and watch old music videos all the time, you probably have the images of the videos in your head now whether it’s Jackson lighting up a sidewalk in a fancy suit in “Billie Jean” or leading two gangs in a West Side Story style dance routine in “Beat It” or morphing into a zombie in “Thriller.” Working with veteran directors like Jon Landis, Bob Geraldo, and Steve Barron, Jackson created the type of music videos that will never escape from your eyes. At the time, these videos proved influential as before Jackson no one had thought to make videos as more than performance clips with some cheap storyline thrown in. After Jackson, people took notice and budgets soon skyrocketed as music videos became more elaborate in dancing and storylines. Michael Jackson was one of the first people to realize that a music video could function as a little film of its own.
While the music videos were a memorable part of the Thriller phenomenon, arguably the biggest cultural artifact of that period came on May 16, 1983, when almost 34 million Americans watched Motown’s 25th-anniversary special on NBC. The TV special was largely Motown legends performing but what most people remember is seeing Michael Jackson perform first with his brothers in a Jackson 5 medley/reunion before performing “Billie Jean” on his own though he really lip-synced to his vocals. But the big moment came during the song’s break when he busted out his famous moonwalk that caused everyone to lose their shit forever cementing Jackson as the King of Pop. Even today, you can still feel the excitement people felt then.
There’s no one definitive answer as to how Thriller became the biggest album ever. On a basic level, Michael Jackson was riding high off of Off The Wall and people were simply excited for the next thing he would put out. It could also be people wanting something more exciting from the increasingly staid studio rock dominating the early ‘80s. A lot of the big selling albums in 1983 and 1984 represent a lot of the exciting trends of the ‘80s whether it was cross-genre pop, the early waves of glam metal, or the British-led new wave and synth-pop. (There’s also Jane Fonda’s Workout Record that somehow became 1983’s #7 album but I’m glad that exists.) People wanted something new and exciting and with Thriller provided a little bit of everything to everybody and gave people something to get excited over.
After Thriller, Michael Jackson wasn’t just the most famous person in music but the most famous person ever in the world. Following up what would become the best-selling album ever is a highly daunting feat and one you shouldn’t think you’ll ever top but Jackson kept pushing himself and by releasing more best selling albums like Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory maintained his incredible hold on the public imagination. Along the way, Jackson would become more known for his many controversies, eccentric behavior, and changing appearances. There were also the child sexual abuse allegations that led to a civil suit in the ‘90s, a high profile trial and acquittal in 2005, and the 2019 HBO documentary series Leaving Neverland that continues to cast a dark shadow over Jackson’s extremely lucrative legacy. But when Jackson died in 2009, people weren’t thinking of all of his many controversies but instead why they fell in love with him in the first place and the wide impact he had on music.
With Thriller, Michael Jackson set out to change the world and he did just that. Right away, the music business and artists were playing by a new set of rules entering into the peak era of the music blockbuster.
Honorable mentions: A lot of the big albums of 1983 and 1984 still sound fun and exciting today that it feels tough to pick out other favorites from each year. But for 1983, my pick is Def Leppard’s Pyromania, 1983’s #8 album, which saw the band enjoying breakout success with an album that feels like a preview of the glam metal wave to come in the late ‘80s with fun and catchy hook driven bangers recorded with Mutt Lange’s crunchy and clean production that brings a lot of power and energy to each song.
For 1984, my pick is Huey Lewis’ & The News’ Sports which was big enough to finish behind Thriller as the #2 album of that year. It’s an album that isn’t going to change your minds about music but for nine tracks presents itself as a good fun time ‘80s radio-rock record with some cool sounding jams. I certainly wasn’t expecting to get much out of Sports that’s for sure.
Next time: Bruce Springsteen brings his New Jersey style heartland rock to Thriller-like blockbuster levels with Born in the USA