Friday, March 20, 2009

CD Review: Michael Jackson/Thriller 25th Anniversary Edition

Michael Jackson
Thriller 25th Anniversary Edition
Original disc 5/5
Bonus tracks 1.5/5
Sony BMG

A long long time ago, a pop singer named Michael Jackson brought out a music album called Thriller. Little would he have imagined that it would turn out to be the landmark disc that it became. Hundreds of thousands of young kids and not-so-young adults all over the world would put on their white socks, turn up their trouser cuffs and try out the ‘moonwalk’ from his Motown performance of “Billie Jean.” (Yes, you did, too. Admit it.) The dance moves from the “Thriller” video would go on to ripped off and then ripped to pieces by everyone from Mithun (in a B-grade movie, the name of which escapes recall, thankfully) to Madhuri (in her 2007 comeback, Aaja Nachle). The album would waltz off with a record-breaking seven Grammy Awards in 1984. (Jackson himself got eight trophies that night, including one for the E.T. Storybook).

This 25th anniversary edition of Thriller underlines why it went on to become the best-selling album of all time. And it shows why it should not be messed with: the package includes newer versions of five tracks, as interpreted by some current artists. The original “Beat It,” - despite its slightly cheesy synthesised drumlines and assorted ‘uunhs’ and ‘trrrrrs’ – had pocketed a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance in 1984. The Van Halen solo helped, perhaps. Unfortunately, in the 2008 version, singer Fergie in her earnest attempt to get some of that original street-gang aggression ends up sounding, well, constipated. “The Girl is Mine 2008” knocks out Paul McCartney and brings in instead. While the original was slightly laidback, turns up the r.p.m. and adds some funky beats and drum loops, basically make it a bit more danceable. But his experiment with “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” falls flat. Jackson had laid down an extremely groovy rhythm, one that was guaranteed to make you move. on the other hand morphs it into something eminently forgettable, bearing little resemblance to the original other than the occasional vocal snatches. Akon is one of the current crop who actually does something good with his mandate, on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ 2008.” He does this by starting off the song as a nice, piano ballad that revs up into full ‘will-have-you-moving’ mode with that original bassline thumping down below. And he hasn’t forgotten the ‘mama-se, mama-sa’ loop. (Trivia time: Jackson was sued by African musician Manu Dibango for flicking that very loop from his 1972 single “Soul Makossa.” They settled out of court later.) This leaves us with “Billie Jean 2008,” rapper Kanye West’s attempt to recreate the original magic. Boo! Go south, West! All those drums and ‘unh-hunhs’ seem unnecessary and pointless – what exactly is he trying here?

So why should you buy this album? More than a few reasons. One, there is the imaginative Thriller, in all its original glory. Clichéd and hagiographic as this next sentence might appear, this is seriously one album that is timeless. This is ‘classic pop,’ ‘classic disco,’ ‘classic call-it-what-you-may.’ From the foot-tapping, hand-clapping groove of “Baby Be Mine” and “P.Y.T.” to the lilting vocals on “Human Nature” and “The Lady in My Life,” each of the original nine tracks is a splendid treat. In fact, seven of these nine would go on to feature in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100.

Reason two is the accompanying DVD. The stripped down live video for “Billie Jean,” – a Motown anniversary performance – while it looks lip-synced to, has Jackson at his dancing best. He requires no more than a single spotlight – no flashing lights, no pyrotechnics, nothing – to deliver a scintillating performance. And the DVD’s got the videos for “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Thriller”. Yes, the same ones you used to wait for endlessly when music television had just arrived in the country.

Is it worth your money? Yes, actually. You get the videos and for completionists who wish to round off their Jackson collection, there is also “For All Time,” a ballad that was left over from the Thriller sessions, but was rather wisely left out from the album. Thankfully, the new versions which you are advised to avoid are all bunched up together at the end of the first disc. So the moment Vincent Price’s maniacal laughter track ends, just go back to the very beginning.

© Bobin James/Rolling Stone India, 2008

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