Thriller is the sixth studio album by American pop musician Michael Jackson. The album was released on November 30, 1982 by Epic Records as the follow-up to Jackson's critically and commercially successful 1979 album Off the Wall. Thriller explores similar genres to those of Off the Wall, including funk, disco, soul, soft rock, jazz and pop. However, Thriller's lyrics deal with generally darker themes, including paranoia and the supernatural.
With a production budget of $750,000, recording sessions took place between April and November 1982 at Westlake Recording Studios in Los Angeles, California. Assisted by producer Quincy Jones, Jackson wrote four of Thriller's nine tracks. Following the release of the album's first single "The Girl Is Mine", some observers assumed Thriller would only be a minor hit record. With the release of the second single "Billie Jean", the album topped the charts in many countries. It reached number one in the United States and the United Kingdom simultaneously, becoming the first album to do so. At its peak, the album was selling a million copies a week worldwide. In just over a year, Thriller became the best-selling album of all time. Sales are estimated to be between 47–108 million copies sold worldwide. Seven of the album's nine songs were released as singles, and all reached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album won a record-breaking seven Grammy Awards at the 1984 Grammys. Despite numerous five-star reviews, Thriller was not universally praised.
Thriller cemented Jackson as one of the predominant pop stars of the late 20th century, and enabled him to break down racial barriers via his appearances on MTV and meetings with President Ronald Reagan at the White House. The album was the first to use music videos as successful promotional tools—the videos for Thriller, "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" all received regular rotation on MTV. In 2001, a special edition issue of the album was released, which contains additional audio interviews, a demo recording and the song "Someone In the Dark", which was a Grammy-winning track from the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial storybook. In 2008, the album was reissued again as Thriller 25, containing re-mixes that feature contemporary artists, a previously unreleased song and a DVD.
Thriller ranked number 20 on Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list in 2003, and was listed by the National Association of Recording Merchandisers at number three in their Definitive 200 Albums of All Time. Thriller was preserved by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry, as it was deemed "culturally significant".
In 1973, Jackson's father began a secret affair with a woman 20 years younger than him; the couple had a child in secret. In 1980, Joseph Jackson told his family of the affair and child. Jackson, already angry with his father over his childhood abuse, felt so betrayed that he fell out with Joseph Jackson for many years. The period saw the singer become deeply unhappy; Jackson explained, "Even at home, I'm lonely. I sit in my room sometimes and cry. It's so hard to make friends ... I sometimes walk around the neighborhood at night, just hoping to find someone to talk to. But I just end up coming home.
The relationship between Jackson and Jones became strained during the album's recording. Jackson spent much of his time rehearsing dance steps alone. When the album's nine songs were completed, both Jones and Jackson were unhappy with the result and remixed every song, spending a week on each. Jones believed that "Billie Jean" was not strong enough to be included on the record, but Jackson disagreed and kept it. Jones told Jackson that Thriller would be unlikely to sell successfully like Off the Wall had, because the market had since weakened. In response, Jackson threatened to cancel the album's release.
In one interview, Jackson said that he was inspired to create an album where "every song was a killer" and focused the basis of Thriller as to ask, "Why can't every one be like a hit song?". Jones and songwriter Rod Temperton gave detailed accounts of what occurred for the 2001 reissue of the album. Jones discussed "Billie Jean" and why it was so personal to Jackson, who struggled to deal with a number of obsessed fans. Jones wanted the long introduction on the song to be shortened; however, Jackson insisted it remain because it made him want to dance. Jones and Jackson were determined to make a rock song that would appeal to all tastes and spent weeks looking for a suitable guitarist for the song "Beat It", a song Jackson wrote and played drums on. Eventually, they found Eddie Van Halen of the rock band Van Halen.
When Rod Temperton wrote the song "Thriller", he originally wanted to call it "Starlight" or "Midnight Man" but settled on it because he felt the name had merchandising potential. Always wanting a notable person to recite the closing lyrics, Temperton brought in actor Vincent Price, who completed his part in just two takes. Temperton wrote the spoken portion in a taxi on the way to the recording studio. Jones and Temperton said that some recordings were left off the final cut because they did not have the "edginess" of other album tracks.
Despite the light pop flavour of these two records, Thriller, more so than Off the Wall, displayed foreshadowings of the contradictory thematic elements that would come to characterize Jackson's later work. With Thriller, Jackson would begin his association with the subliminal theme of paranoia and darker imagery. This is evident on the songs "Billie Jean", "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" and "Thriller". In "Billie Jean", Jackson sings about an obsessive fan who alleges he has fathered a child of hers; in "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" he argues against gossips and the media. In the former song, Jones had Jackson sing vocal overdubs through a six-foot-long cardboard tube, and brought in jazz saxophonist Tom Scott to play a rare instrument, the lyricon, a wind-controlled analog synthesizer. Bassist Louis Johnson ran through his part on a Yamaha bass guitar. The song opens with a long bass-and-drums introduction. In the song "Thriller", sound effects such as creaking door, thunder, feet walking on wooden planks, winds and howling dogs can be heard.
The anti-gang-violence "Beat It" became a homage to West Side Story, and was Jackson's first successful rock cross-over piece. Jackson later said of "Beat It", "the point is no one has to be the tough guy, you can walk away from a fight and still be a man. You don't have to die to prove you're a man". "Human Nature" is a moody, introspective, this is conveyed in lyrics such as, "Looking out, across the morning, the City's heart begins to beat, reaching out, I touch her shoulder, I'm dreaming of the street".
By the late 1970s, Jackson's abilities as a vocalist were well regarded; Allmusic described him as a "blindingly gifted vocalist". Rolling Stone compared his vocals to the "breathless, dreamy stutter" of Stevie Wonder. Their analysis was also that "Jackson's feathery-timbered tenor is extraordinary beautiful. It slides smoothly into a startling falsetto that's used very daringly". With the release of Thriller, Jackson could sing low—down to a basso low C—but he preferred to sing higher because pop tenors have more range to create style. Rolling Stone were of the opinion that Jackson was now singing in a "fully adult voice" that was "tinged by sadness". "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)", credited to James Ingram and Quincy Jones, and "Lady in My Life" by Rod Temperton, both gave the album a stronger R&B direction; the latter song was described as "the closest Jackson has come to crooning a sexy, soulful ballad after his Motown years" by Taraborrelli. The singer had already adopted a "vocal hiccup" which he continued to implement in Thriller. The purpose of the hiccup—somewhat like a gulping for air or gasping—is to help promote a certain emotion; be it excitement, sadness or fear.
Thriller was mostly well received by critics. A four-star Rolling Stone review by Christopher Connelly described it as "a zesty LP" with a "harrowing, dark message". Despite the positive response, the title track came under strong criticism. Rolling Stone expressed a negative sentiment, criticising its "degenerat[ion] into silly camp". The magazine expressed confusion at the use of Vincent Price over Count Floyd for the track's concluding rap. The New York Times gave a positive review of the album, and dedicated a large amount of its coverage to the song "Human Nature". They described it as the most "striking" song on the record, and wrote, "this is a haunting, brooding ballad by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis with an irresistible chorus and it should be an enormous hit". Concluding their review The New York Times added; "there are other hits here, too, lots of them. Best of all, with a pervasive confidence infusing the album as a whole, Thriller suggests that Mr. Jackson's evolution as an artist is far from finished".
Robert Christgau published a positive (A−) graded overview of the album a few days before its release. He acknowledged that there were "fillers" on the record but still labeled it "almost classic". He expressed the opinion that "Beat It" was the album's best track, calling it "the triumph and the thriller", but criticized "The Girl Is Mine" as "Michael's worst idea since 'Ben'". He was of the opinion that the collaboration did not work well, but still praised it for "getting interracial love on the radio". A year after the album's release, Time summed up the three main singles from the album, saying, "The pulse of America and much of the rest of the world moves irregularly, beating in time to the tough strut of "Billie Jean", the asphalt aria of "Beat It", the supremely cool chills of "Thriller". Conversely, in a Melody Maker publication, Paolo Hewitt stated "[t]his is not a good LP"; in his opinion there were only "two songs worthy of mention". "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" was praised as an "exciting", "uptempo electro-funk song", as was "Billie Jean". Hewitt's stance was that as a whole, the album could only be described as "bland", particularly the closing tracks. He summed up: "Jackson seems to have lost his talent for turning gross into gold".
The album won a record-breaking seven Grammy Awards in 1984, including Album of the Year. That same year, Jackson won eight American Music Awards, the Special Award of Merit and three MTV Video Music Awards. Thriller was recognized as the world's best-selling album on February 7, 1984, when it was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records. It is one of only three albums to remain in the top ten of the Billboard 200 for a full year, and spent 37 weeks at number one out of the 80 consecutive weeks it was in the top ten. The album was also the first of three to have seven Billboard Hot 100 top ten singles, and was the only album to be the best-seller of two years (1983–1984) in the US. Thriller was certified 27x platinum in 2005 by the Recording Industry Association of America, for shipments of at least 27 million copies in the US giving it Double Diamond Award status there. The album topped the charts in many countries, and sold 3.7 million copies in the UK. Still popular today, Thriller sells an estimated 130,000 copies in the US per year; it reached number two in the US Catalog charts in February 2003 and number 39 in the UK in March 2007. The album is cited as having sold between 47 and 108 million copies worldwide; the Guinness Book of World Records lists Thriller as having sold 65 million copies as of 2007.
At the time of the albums release, a press statement from Gil Friesen, the then President of A&M Records, read that, "The whole industry has a stake in this success". Time magazine speculated that "the fallout from Thriller has given the [music] business its best years since the heady days of 1978, when it had an estimated total domestic revenue of $4.1 billion". Time summed up Thriller's impact as a "restoration of confidence" for an industry bordering on "the ruins of punk and the chic regions of synthesizer pop". The publication described Jackson's influence at that point as, "Star of records, radio, rock video. A one-man rescue team for the music business. A songwriter who sets the beat for a decade. A dancer with the fanciest feet on the street. A singer who cuts across all boundaries of taste and style and color too".
Jackson transformed the medium of music video into an art form and promotional tool through the use of complex story lines, dance routines, special effects and cameo appearances by well known personalities. When the 14-minute-long Thriller video aired, MTV ran it twice an hour to meet demand. The short film marked an increase in scale for music videos and has been named the best music video ever. The popularity of the video sent the album back to number one in the album chart, but Jackson's label did not support the release of the third music video from the album. They were already pleased with its success, so Jackson convinced MTV to fund the project. Author, music critic and journalist Nelson George wrote in 2004, "It's difficult to hear the songs from Thriller and disengage them from the videos. For most of us the images define the songs. In fact it could be argued that Michael is the first artist of the MTV age to have an entire album so intimately connected in the public imagination with its imagery". Short films like Thriller largely remained unique to Jackson, while the group dance sequence in "Beat It" has been frequently imitated. The choreography in Thriller has become a part of global pop culture, replicated everywhere from Bollywood to prisons in the Philippines.
For a black artist in the 1980s to that point, Jackson's success was unprecedented. According to The Washington Post, Thriller paved the way for other African-American artists such as Prince. "The Girl Is Mine" was credited for getting interracial love on the radio. Time noted, "Jackson is the biggest thing since The Beatles. He is the hottest single phenomenon since Elvis Presley. He just may be the most popular black singer ever".
The author Nelson George wrote that Jackson "has educated R. Kelly, Usher, Justin Timberlake and countless others with Thriller as a textbook". As a sign of the album's longevity, in 2003 Thriller was ranked at number 20 on the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, and was listed by the National Association of Recording Merchandisers at number three of the Definitive 200 Albums of All Time. In 2008, 25 years after its release, the record was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and, a few weeks later, was among 25 recordings preserved by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry as "culturally significant".
In February 2008, Epic Records released Thriller 25; Jackson served as executive producer. Thriller 25 appeared on CD and vinyl with seven bonus tracks, a new song called "For All Time", Vincent Price's voice-over, and five re-mixes featuring American artists Fergie, will.i.am, Kanye West, and Akon. It also included a DVD featuring three music videos, the Motown 25 "Billie Jean" performance, and a booklet with a message from Jackson. The ballad "For All Time" supposedly dates from 1982, but is often credited as being from Dangerous sessions. Two singles were released from the reissue: "The Girl Is Mine 2008" and "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' 2008".
Thriller 25 was a commercial success and did particularly well as a reissue. It peaked at number one in eight countries and Europe. It peaked at number two in the US, number three in the UK and reached the top 10 in over 30 national charts. It was certified Gold in 11 countries including the UK, received a 2x Gold certification in France and received platinum certification in Poland. In the US, Thriller 25 was the second best-selling album of its release week, selling 166,000 copies, 14,000 short of reaching the number one position. It was ineligible for the Billboard 200 chart as a re-release, but stayed on the Pop Catalog Charts at number one for 10 weeks, the best sales on that chart since December 1996. This was Jackson's best launch since Invincible in 2001; in 12 weeks the album had sold 556,000 copies in the US and three million copies worldwide.