Thriller is the biggest selling album of all time, and will probably remain that way. In the 110-year-odd history of recorded music, no other artist has had their album bought an estimated 115 million times, though figures vary wildly between the official 42 million and the unofficial 50-65 million or higher. But there can be no doubt that the album is the Everest of contemporary musical works.
Thriller was in essence a coming of age for Michael Jackson, who was a sprightly 23-year-old when he began recording it in Los Angeles. He recorded it through his 24th birthday, releasing the album at the end of 1982. It was described as post-Disco or anti-Disco, and was a radical personal departure from the singer’s works of the 1970s. It was also around this time that MJ started changing his personal look & feel, and when the hair relaxing and plastic surgeries started taking shape.
Rumour has is that MJ’s road to success with this album was more than a little rocky, what with disagreements with producer Quincy Jones and record label Epic (an imprint of Sony), who did not think much of it initially. But as with all good things in life, the crew behind the album pushed through, and a modern-day masterpiece (at least in terms of the popular vote) was born.
The album spawned a number of über hits, starting with ‘The Girl is Mine’ with Paul McCartney, which was an ode to puppy love that did much to fuel the self-indulgent 80s culture (this was when the two were still friends, which ended when MJ bought the catalogue of The Beatles’ music). The unmistakeable intro to ‘Billie Jean’ set the scene for urban cool, while ‘Wanna be Startin’ Something’ became the anthemic undertone for Rihanna’s ‘Please Don’t Stop the Music’ and landed the singer in hot water with African artist Manu Dibango for using the hook “mama-say mama-sa mama-kossa” without getting the necessary permissions. ‘Pretty Young Thing’ was a call-and-response song that was done when Justin Timberlake was barely a sprinkle in his mommy’s eye, while ‘Beat It’ helped MJ cut his teeth as a rebel, something that teenagers at the time bought into. ‘Human Nature’ was the ballad choice, giving it the necessary introspection and balanced reflection to round the album off. But it was obviously ‘Thriller’ that thrilled and wowed the masses, with its cutting-edge video and organised dance moves which broke all sorts of barriers and was completely revolutionary for its time.
Like the Rubik’s cube, Thriller will forever remain an icon of 80s pop culture, with a musical presence like few others.