Pepsi fires, plastic surgery disasters, and child molestation accusations aside, Michael Jackson is a genius. Some people may laugh at that statement, but those folks probably aren't included among the more than 104 million people who bought copies of Jacko's 1983 record, Thriller, which remains the best-selling album of all time, worldwide. And they probably fail to see the fact that Jackson influenced a whole slew of contemporary hit makers, from Lil' Jon to Justin Timberlake.
To mark the 25th anniversary of his opus, Jackson's released Thriller 25 (Epic), which includes the original album in its entirety, plus two previously unreleased tracks from the Thriller sessions and five remixes featuring the likes of will.i.am, Fergie, Akon, and Kanye West. The King of Pop also proves yet again that he's the master of slick packaging, with a massive, full-color booklet of lyrics and pre-plasticized Jacko photos included alongside a DVD featuring three videos ("Billie Jean," "Beat It," and "Thriller") and Jackson's performance at the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever TV special in 1983. The latter performance is legendary for being the first time Jackson performed his "moonwalk" dance.
There's not much that hasn't been said about Thriller already, but listeners who haven't heard the album in a while will be struck at how fresh it still sounds. The opening track, "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," suddenly sounds like the sonic springboard for Justin Timberlake's entire FutureSex/LoveSounds album, and hearing Jackson's trademark interjections of "Hee hee" and "Hoo!" brings to mind Lil' Jon's whole "Yeah!" and "What?!" crunk shtick. Thriller was also one of the first albums to include a star-studded guest list, with contributions from Paul McCartney ("The Girl Is Mine"), Vincent Price ("Thriller"), sisters Janet and LaToya ("P.Y.T."), Quincy Jones (producer), and Eddie Van Halen (the guitar solo on "Beat It").
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The unreleased tracks from Thriller include an outtake of Price's voice-over session (wherein Price actually asks, "Can you dig it?") and "For All Time," a low-key pop ballad that probably got bumped from Thriller's final track listing for the similarly smooth song "Human Nature."
And the remixes? Well, here's where things get really interesting. The two tracks featuring will.i.am — "The Girl Is Mine" and "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" — are both pretty bland, revved-up with synthesizers and drum programming and layered over with will.i.am's vocal samples. Ultimately, it sounds as if Jackson and will.i.am never shared a studio throughout the process of putting the remixes together. By contrast, the remix of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" with Akon contains a completely new arrangement, opening with piano and vocal harmonies before sweeping into a bumping techno-soul number that takes even more advantage of the unlikely earworm "Ma ma sa, ma ma se, ma ma coo sa" than the original. The remix of "Billie Jean" with Kanye West is disappointing, mainly because West's presence is felt more as a producer than a performer; the song's all booming club beats and chop-shop sampling, with West interjecting two whole phrases throughout the entire 41/2-minute tune.
The most standout remix here, by far, is, "Beat It" featuring Fergie. will.i.am redeems himself by contributing some stellar, sharp snare drums to the track, but it's Fergie and Jacko's visceral vocal swapping that breathes new life into the song — that, and an instrumental switcheroo that sees the original guitar riff reborn as a funky bass line.
Michael Jackson's worked hard to create an unparalleled body of art his entire life. And while he's built a reputation as "Wacko Jacko" with seemingly no effort, listening to a masterpiece like Thriller — and falling in love with it all over again — serves as a potent reminder of why, when all is said and done, Michael Jackson will still be hailed as one of the great musical geniuses of our time.