So the other day whilst randomly going through some MP3s in my iTunes I had a revelation. As I arrived at the artists whose names begin with the letter "M" I came to my Michael Jackson collection. There they all were - all of his songs from both his Thriller and Off the Wall albums. Because I have OCD I also use the iTunes star-rating option, so every song I have is rated accordingly. Looking at the ratings I applied to each individual track I noticed something strange that had never made itself apparent to me before: As a collective group I had MJ's songs off of Off the Wall rated higher than I did Thriller's. How could this be? After all, isn't Thriller the late King of Pop's masterpiece? Isn't it? Being more familiar with the tracks off of Thriller I decided to play Off the Wall as my background noise while I went about my daily business. Halfway in, the stark truth of the matter was staring me in the face: 1979's Off the Wall is a better LP than is 1982's Thriller.
A bold declaration, to be sure. Before any hardcore MJ fans read this and flip their top I will be forthright in admitting that Thriller's single "Billie Jean," perhaps the single most perfect track ever produced, sung and recorded in the history of music (and I say this as only a casual fan of Michael Jackson) is the creme de la creme in terms of Jackson's extensive song library. However, in terms of a collection of tracks, which is the first and foremost concept of what it is that makes an album an album I have to tell you that Thriller doesn't match up to Off the Wall.
To make my case I wan to first have a look at the five most memorable songs off of the Thriller release. So here they are, beginning with the best track and then working our way down.
#1 - "Billie Jean": As I've already stated, "Billie Jean" is the best track off of this album, best track of MJs, possible best track of the entire 80s. We're all familiar with the legend that is "Billie Jean."
#2 - "Human Nature": Not the biggest hit off of Thriller, that achievement off course goes to "Billie Jean." But not only did "Billie Jean" outperform "Human Nature" on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart so did "The Girl is Mine," "Beat It," "Wanna Be Startin' Somthin'" and the single "Thriller." The highest Hot 100 rank "Human Nature" reached was #6. Nevertheless, with over 30 years of perspective in between its initial release up to the present I think most people would agree that "Human Nature" is without a doubt the second best track off of Thriller.
#3 - "Beat It": After "Billie Jean" the single "Beat It" might be Jackson's most signature track. Unfortunately for "Beat It" it does not sound as timeless as does "Billie Jean" or "Human Nature." Though I realize I'm merely splitting hairs here, it must be noted that of these three tracks "Beat It" sounds the most dated. That might have something to do with the fact that "Beat It" is not so much a pop song as it is a rock song. The 80s might of been rock's worst decade in terms of laying down and recording something that would be worth listening to on its own merit at any time in any place in the future. That's not to say Eddie Van Halen's guitar solo or the track "Beat It" itself is no good - I'm simply saying that it bears some of the hallmarks which made rock in the 80s what rock was in the 80s. Cocaine is a motherf_cker. Despite it being a song that lies in a genre outside of MJ's wheelhouse, "Beat It" remains a masterwork of sound by producer Quincy Jones, and Van Halen's solo is still extremely bad ass.
#4 - "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'": "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" was a track which was originally going to appear on Off the Wall, and when you hear it you can tell as much. The iconic drum-machine pattern combined with the percussion of Paulinho de Costa is as vintage as 80s pop gets despite the fact that you can hear the echoes of the dying disco era.
#5 - "Thriller": It was a real chore deciding whether or not "Thriller" should occupy the 5th spot ot "Baby Be Mine." "Baby Be Mine" is more of a Michael-centric track in terms of his vocals being the main draw of the song. Quincy Jones' production of "Baby Be Mine" might be the weakest on the album (though look at what we're comparing it to) as it comes across as a little lazy and even a little sloppy. Jones' work in "Thriller" is top notch, rivaling that of his work in "Billie Jean." The use of the organ is most innovative. As such I have to give the single "Thriller" the nod over "Baby Be Mine." Even if the music video was more interesting than the song, the track is still one to be reckoned with.
Thriller was, and is, a monumental achievement, there is no question. Commerically speaking there isn't even a debate. Nothing touches Thriller in that respect. Thriller was so successful both artistically and commercially that it overshadowed all of Jackson's solo work prior to its release at one level or another and launched Michael into an ionosphere of global fame that nobody had ever achieved prior to him outside of maybe The Beatles. So Off the Wall, being Jackson's most recent release when Thriller was unleashed on the consuming public, was the work most readily forgotten about and overlooked - I think even by MJ himself sometimes. How ironic when you consider that the work on Off the Wall is better than that of Thriller. Don't believe me? Well, let's look at Off the Wall's five best tracks, but this time working our way up.
#5 - "She's Out of My Life" - A simple touching and emotional track, "She's Out of My Life" has more in common with "Human Nature" in terms of its sound than any other song on either list. It's not a song to dance with, rather, it's a song to reflect to. Michael would record a number of songs of this type throughout his career - but this might be the most heart-wrenchingest one of them all - and it's eff'ing beautiful.
#4 - "Off the Wall" - Quincy Jones took his magic crucible and in it combined funk, disco and pop and his finished product was the gem that was the single "Off the Wall." There is a magic in "Off the Wall," as well as in the remaining three songs on this list, in that when you hear it you can't help but move to it. That is very much magic - almost by definition. Oh, and by the way, Jackson's vocals are flawless.
#3 - "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" - What I said about "Off the Wall," the same goes for "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and then double it! My head is bumping to "Dont Stop..." as I'm writing this, and I'm not even listening to it.
#2 - "Rock With You" - The smoothest track ever recorded by anyone, ever. Now those of you reading this who know Off the Wall intimately might be upset that this track isn't #1. If you are of the position that "Rock With You" should be #1 I wouldn't argue with you because I know exactly where you're coming from; and with the right argument there is an outside possibility that you'd even convince me to see it your way. "Rock With You" is so good its stupid to think that humans could ever achieve such a sound.
"Rock With You," "Don't Stop...," "She's Out of My Life," and all of the tracks on Off the Wall have something that every single, EP and LP Jackson would release after it lack. There is a rich organic earthy tone to Michael's vocals on Off the Wall that are absent in all his other work, even Thriller. Remember, when Off the Wall was recorded there was no guarantee that Michael Jackson's career was going to be successful without his brothers. So that being the case Michael had to pour everything he had into this work. In "She's Out of My Life" you practically hear his soul break, that's the kind of devotion to his art Jackson had in creating Off the Wall. By the time Thriller came along, Michael's vocals and lyrics seemed a little more detached from his emotions and who Michael was as a human being.
That would be a pattern that would continue throughout his career before his untimely end. Off the Wall also suffered from the fact that it is heavily influenced by the sound of both disco and funk - two genres that the world was eagerly looking to move away from popularly by the time the 80s had arrived. In point of fact, it is the genres of disco and funk evident in the #1 song on this list which play a role in making it the #1 song on Off the Wall and, imo, Jackson's second greatest single ever recorded.
#1 - "Get On the Floor" - What I said about "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You," the same goes for "Get On the Floor" and then cube it! Talk about a song that makes you wish you could dance like a funkadactic demon, this would be the one. It's appeal isn't evident right away, unlike "Rock With You" and "Don't Stop..." with those songs you're hooked immediately. You have to give "Get On the Floor" a good 10-20 seconds before you realize what you're listening to. But once that realization hits, you can't help but say to yourself "Sweet Jesus, this song!" The bass riff is ssssssick (giving rise to a number of YouTube cover vids), the background vocals are sultrier than Marilyn Monroe on E, the horns are immacute, the bongos are tight and Michael leaves his heart all over the recording studio's floor. The end result is the greatest song ever to dance to that everyone seems to have forgotten about.
Ultimately it is of course for everyone to judge for themselves, but as far as I'm concerned there can no longer be any denying of it. Off the Wall is Michael Jackson's opus magnus, not Thriller.Follow Alexander Quaresma on Twitter @AQuaresma_529