(The Rewind Button is a group blogging project. Every week we review an album from Rolling Stone magazine’s greatest albums list.)
Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the best-selling album of all time with estimates pegging total sales at anywhere between 65-110 million copies worldwide. Stop and think about that for a moment. Now think about the placement of Thriller at number 20 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Albums list.
One part of me wants to applaud Rolling Stone for placing this album far enough down the list to recognize that album sales alone do not guarantee greatness. Still, placing this album at number 20 surely creates controversy on both sides of the discussion.
There is no disputing the greatness of Michael Jackson. He single-handedly revolutionized music in the late 70s and 80s. He created the template for pop music’s evolution. Pop music today is merely an evolution of what he created. Just look at the showmanship in the video below where Jackson debuted the Moonwalk and the rhinestone-studded white golf glove.
But this isn’t a list of the greatest artists, it’s the greatest albums. And it’s an interesting irony that arguably the greatest solo artist of all time, and certainly the best-selling, is so far down on this list.
For this I have a theory. A hit does not equate to great music. In fact, often it’s the opposite – see Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Nickleback (the list is long).
Let’s consider the facts: Jackson rose to solo prominence in 1979 with his album Off The Wall. Releasing Thriller in 1982, Jackson became the undisputed king of pop music. Yet, the 80s are widely derided as being a musical wasteland best forgotten. The music from this period is the punch line to many jokes. Whether or not it was this way thanks to poor imitation of Jackson’s music, the fact remains that Jackson presided as the King of Pop over arguably the worst decade in music.
I can remember playing Thriller on a faulty record player, the speed alternating occasionally which in turn raised Jackson’s already high-pitched voice or slowed it down to a deep drawl.
I remember the hype behind the release of the Thriller video, and how much it scared me when I first watched it. I also remember watching it repeatedly, despite my fear, because it was unlike anything I’d seen before. Bear in mind – I was five years old at the time. I’ve put the video for Thriller below. It has 115 million views on YouTube. ’Nuff said.
Despite hearing this album countless times, I never noticed that the three biggest hits were grouped together right in the middle. Thriller, Beat It and Billie Jean are the core of this album.
That doesn’t make them the only worthy songs. The opening track, Wanna Be Startin’ Somthin’, sets the tone for the whole album – the drum machine right off the top, the punctuating horn section followed by that distinctive child-like, somewhat effeminate voice, spewing lyrics from the moment Jackson starts singing. Changing his voice more than Nicki Minaj, Michael Jackson recreated the pop genre in his image.
A consummate businessman, Jackson signed the highest royalty rate for an artist in 1980 at 37% of wholesale profits. This was two years before he would release the best-selling album of all time. With legendary producer Quincy Jones at the helm, Thriller had seven singles reach the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Yet interestingly, Jackson didn’t even write the title track. In fact, he only wrote four songs on the album.
In my research for this post, I came across some doubters of Jackson’s musical abilities. Incredulous, I read on and found surprising ignorance of the star’s true talents. But then I found others who rose to his defence. Most interesting was when I stumble upon some of his beatboxing. The way he translated the sounds he heard in his head into sounds from his mouth, well, there are few things more impressive than listening to this and hearing how closely they mimic the final product he produced.
In as much as pop music appeals to the masses, Jackson was revolutionary. But if Thriller was the blueprint for 80s music, perhaps the musical contribution is smaller than the sum of his parts – the marketing, video, music, dance and theatrics.
Other than Nirvana’s Nevermind falling in the top 20 on this list, there have been few surprises from Rolling Stone. Strangely, Thriller stands out as a surprise, not so much because of it’s placement but because of the feelings of controversy it stirs in me as I inwardly debate its placement. In terms of sheer influence, it should be much higher – in terms of artistic value, perhaps a little lower. Which brings me to the question that’s plagued me since the beginning of this project – what is greatness?
One thing I know for sure – Michael Jackson was great. Thriller was record-breaking.
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To read what other Rewind Button bloggers thought about this album, click on the links below. I’ll update them as they post their reviews.