Thriller is the biggest-selling album of all time; it says so on the cover of its latest reissue package. What it doesn’t say is that, on a worldwide scale, it outpaces the Eagles, Pink Floyd, the Foo Fighter and Celine Dion by more than just a marginal million or so: At 100 million+ copies sold, it’s estimated to have sold more than twice its nearest rival.
And so people try to concoct explanations. The album was focus-grouped for broader appeal– but then why haven’t focus groups worked so well since? Jackson made the racial crossover breakthrough on Americas music channel MTV– but once that door was opened, why didn’t the sales crossover work for others? Jackson’s stunning dancing and videos exploded pop’s visual formatting– but the Thriller album, until DVD-era reissues like this one, wasn’t a visual experience but only a auditory one.
When Thriller opens, those 100 million sales feel just. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” is pure confused, shocked teenage rush. So there’s another theory: Thriller is the best-selling record ever because it’s the best record ever made. That one holds up for six minutes and two seconds, during which Jackson and Quincy Jones mix the tension of rock’n’roll with the rapture of disco and hit perfection. But then you get “Baby Be Mine”– one of the original tracks that wasn’t a single– and the momentum fades: On the heels of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”, it should maintain the temperature; instead, it goes nowhere, starts nothing.
Thriller is inconsistent in style, which gives it something to appeal to everyone, but it’s oddly tough to listen to even the great bits sequentially– its peaks are from different mountain ranges. “Thriller”‘s joke-shop horror segues well into Eddie Van Halen’s headbanging guitar on “Beat It”. But to follow that into the paranoid celebrity funk of “Billie Jean”, the meltingly tender “Human Nature”, and the smooth R&B of “P.Y.T.”? These are all brilliant singles, though; Thriller’s greatness lies in its great songs not in it “working like an album.”