Thriller is one of the best-selling albums ever made, and barring some massive and unforeseen shift back to traditional musical ownership, it’ll stay that way until the end of humanity. Listeners exploring the history of pop music will still find their way to Thriller hundreds of years from now, many of them unaware of the context—Michael Jackson’s preexisting stardom, the advent of MTV, the power of the monoculture in an offline era—that enabled the album’s insane success. All of them will press play expecting magic, and none of them will be disappointed, because Thriller’s precision and polish makes its place in the annals of pop feel almost preordained.
The album’s producer, Quincy Jones, once told Rolling Stonehow he kept a sign in the studio that read, “Always leave space for God to walk into the room.” You can’t find God in Thriller’s credits, but Michael Jackson is something close. He’s an agent of chaos, slithering and leaping through songs that are otherwise buffed until blinding: playful and hammy on the title track, bashful and competitive on “The Girl Is Mine,” wide-eyed with wonder on “Human Nature.” The album’s epoch-defining singles—the frenetic “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the snarling “Beat It,” and the smooth “Billie Jean”—are bold, disparate visions of pop, linked only by Jackson’s charisma. All three songs are colored by the desperation and paranoia that would come to suffocate his work, but here they’re rendered more exciting by their astringency. Jackson just wanted Thrillerto top Off the Wall, a smash hit that nevertheless failed to satisfy his considerable ambitions. He ended up creating a high-water mark for musical superstardom, one that’ll stay there until the “Thriller” ghouls start dancing in the streets. –Jamieson Cox / Pitchfork.com