This was Michael Jackson's first studio album. In places it is a remarkably mature performance from Jackson, such as on the wonderful cover of Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine. His voice is still considerably in "transition", shall we say, (not quite there yet) but he has a great ability to deal with whatever song he is asked to sing. Berry Gordy brought in lots of Motown big hitters to play on the album and the backing and sound quality is excellent. At the time, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were releasing seriously credible, socio-political and adult romantic material, but it has to remembered that Jackson was still just a twelve year-old boy and they were grown men. There was still a huge market for teen pop, and this was teen pop-soul of the highest quality.
Coming only seven months after his debut solo album, this was another age-defying offering from the only just teenage Michael Jackson. He copes with a variety of different songs with consummate ease and displays a remarkable ability to read a song's requisites.
In Our Small Way, for some reason, was included both on this album and also on its predecessor, Got To Be There. This sometimes happened on Motown albums. Strange, it was not as if they were short of tracks. Stevie Wonder’s Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day has a clavinet-backed funky rhythm to it which again makes this cover version a worthwhile listen. It is still amazing to hear what an effortless soul Jackson had in his voice, at thirteen. Brenda Holloway’s 1965 single, You Can Cry On My Shoulder, is a pleasant slow number with a nice, melodic bass line. Once more, Jackson “owns” the song. Look, this is certainly no work of genius, no What’s Going On or Talking Book but as an enjoyable half hour spent listening to the precocious talent of a thirteen year-old Jackson it is worth your time.
Jackson's cover of Paul McCartney & Wings' Girlfriend is pleasant enough, but lacks the coper-bottomed funky credibility of the previous songs. She's Out Of My Life is heartbreaking and beautifully sung by Jackson, but I prefer the upbeat tracks on the album. I know this is probably heresy, but there you go. There is a lovely bass line underpinning the song's "bridge" half way through, though. Stevie Wonder's late night, laid-back jazzy I Can't Help It is excellent, instantly recognisable as a Stevie Wonder song. Carole Bayer Sager's It's The Falling In Love sees a welcome return to that intoxicating rhythmic vibe of the first five tracks. The pumping Burn This Disco Out is an underrated Jackson classic to end this highly enjoyable, iconic album. It also has to be said that across the whole album, the remastered sound quality is simply superb, just as it should be.
1979's Off The Wall had been relatively successful, but it still remained only averagely so compared with this monstrous seller. Nobody could have really expected the incredible success of it, not the producers or Jackson himself. It launched him into the pop stratosphere and he became the "king of pop" from this moment on. While Off The Wall had a myriad of styles to keep all sorts happy, Thriller had even more - there was rock guitar riffage, a harder, more "street" funk, more schmaltzy ballads and an even more polished smooth soul sound. Blending all those together proved to be guaranteed to result in massive global sales. Together with the advent of MTV, which endlessly played the many videos this album generated, Jackson conquered the world.
I clearly remember the night in early December 1982 when Channel 4 showed the Thriller video for the first time, at about midnight I recall. The nation stood still. Everyone seemed to watch it, even people like myself who weren't particularly Michael Jackson fans. The next day it was all "did you see it?" from everyone you spoke to. To a certain extent, the album lost its focus as an actual album by the hype surrounding the video and, also because there were seven singles taken from the album it just seemed almost like a "greatest hits" package, and had no real "album" identity. Personally, I always preferred Off The Wall, finding it had a more authentic appeal. That is not to say this is without its obvious good points, of course. Maybe we all just know the songs so well.
As with Off The Wall, the music is immaculate, "proper" music i.e. no synthesised drums such as blighted later albums like Invincible, played by a proper band, not by a computer. My favourite track was always the Manu Dibango-inspired Wanna Be Startin' Something with its infectious AfroFunk-influenced rhythms. Billie Jean has that killer bass line intro and unforgettable hook.
Bad begins with a programmed drum backing and a typically hiccuppy Jackson vocal. There is a vaguely jazzy feel to the verses before the song kicks in to the instantly recognisable synthy chorus. The track has an in-your-face catchiness, though, that ensures it serves its purpose as a robust announcement that Michael Jackson was back. Next up is a classic serving of Jackson pop in The Man In The Mirror, which is again dominated by programmed drums and synth breaks but redeemed by a killer chorus. Now it is time for the "filler" - four tracks in a row. Speed Demon is a chunky, industrial chugger of a track that has a gritty appeal. Liberian Girl slows the mood down on an appealing slowie that has more about it than some of Jackson's earlier, more saccharine ballads.
Just Good Friends is so very 1987 - a pounding piece of synthy dance pop with Jackson fully using his trademarks whoops and yelps to the nth degree. Another Part Of Me does so too, although over a slightly less frenetic beat. Again, it is a solid enough track, if not anything special. It is certainly more than acceptable. Although these tracks had not been as bad as some said, The Man In The Mirror makes you sit up again, though, on a perfect slice of Jackson soul-pop. Great chorus and equally fine vocal, augmented by some gospel choir backing at the end. I Just Can't Stop Loving You is probably the album's most slushy song but it carries a considerable thump to its backing. Dirty Diana is an atmospheric and hard-edged heavy rock influenced number about a groupie that attracted accusations of sexism. I've heard far worse. So Diana was a bit dirty. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm sure Michael got over it. Smooth Criminal has often been dismissed as a sub-standard offering, but the slightly Prince-influenced number has always sounded powerful enough to me in a programmed funk sort of way. The album ends with another upbeat piece of pop-funk in the lively grind of Leave Me Alone. Sonically, this was an album very much of its time, but, taking that into account, it is still listenable, despite a bit of a bombastic production.
Remember The Time has a bit of an Earth, Wind & Fire vocal feel to it and a more understated, bassy beat. The problem has been that the previous few tracks have been, to an extent, petty indistinguishable from each other. That was certainly not the case with the songs on Off The Wall, Thriller or some of Bad. Like all Michael Jackson albums, there were numerous singles taken from this one - an incredible NINE singles out of fourteen tracks. Trouble is, I can't remember too many of them. The Prince-influenced groove of I Can't Let Her Get Away was not a single, but it is one of the album's catchier tracks, but it does sound a lot like many of the others in its synth drum-synth backing and the generally somewhat soulless approach from Jackson. I cannot help but feel he goes through the motions a bit on some of the tracks, in comparison to the verve and vigour of earlier material. You can't deny his commitment on the earnest Heal The World, however. Despite its obvious cheesiness, it is a melodic relief after what seemed like ages of synthy dance grooves. Jackson's voice is warm and beautiful on here. The best track on the album is Black And White, a glorious, riffy anthem, with a worthy message. I love the "kid in the bedroom" intro before it launches into that classic riff. Vocal hiccups all over the place, great bass, full of charisma, this is the killer Jackson track the album has been crying out for. At last. Despite the professional competence of much of the previous songs on the album, this is the one that really grabs you by the whatever. Love it. Who Is It has a lot of atmosphere, I have to say, and a yearning, soulful vocal from Jackson. Give In To Me is a low-key grower, which has some understated hidden depths and a great guitar solo (from Slash of Guns 'n' Roses). Will You Be There has a ghostly, classical-influenced extended opening, which is all very nice, but a little incongruous when the drum machines kick in. It is an odd song, slightly gospel-influenced and also reminiscent of a Christmas carol. It is different though.
By now, the album should have finished, so Keep The Faith just sort of passes me by, although it's harmless enough. The plaintive Gone Too Soon sounds like something from a musical. Dangerous ends the album on a high note, though, with a brooding, mysterious groove. Its spoken vocal intro leads into some more high-pitched yelping and a catchy refrain. Surprisingly, this one wasn't a single. Maybe it should have been. Ok, I've spent long enough listening to this and certainly long enough writing about it...it does have an appeal, though, for all its (admittedly a little bit nit-picking) flaws.
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