It's frightening to imagine how, if Thriller were released today, Jackson would deal with the media circus that surrounds our biggest popstars. If 24-hour news had existed in 1983, he'd probably have been given his own channel. Yet, despite all the court cases and wacky face modifications that have sullied his reputation, once upon a time Jacko was much more than a tabloid staple. This 25th anniversary release of Thriller, his seminal album, should dispel that myth once and for all. Because, before the pet monkeys, theme parks and baby-dangling, there were tunes and every single one of them was ruddy brilliant.
From the jittering, rat-a-tat funk of 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' to the blissful soul of 'Lady In My Life' to the sexually-charged crunch of 'Billie Jean', Thriller never slips below the level of genius. It achieves that rare feat of rendering the skip button useless, recalling an era before iPod shuffles and MySpace, a time when artists needed to make great albums rather than one decent tune to earn recognition. Elements of all today's great pop artists can be traced back to this record; Timberlake, Kanye, Spears and pretty much everyone else that matters can find the roots of their success here. The blend of crunching rock and hip-swivelling disco on 'Beat It', the tender R&B caress of 'Human Nature', the sheer bombast of the title track: each one has been copied, re-hashed and plagiarised a million times, but never have they sounded as energised or as wonderful as they do here. While it would be pleasurable to spend the rest of this review enthusing further about the original LP, this version, alas, features new tunes.
Perhaps testing the waters for new material, Jacko has roped in the big guns to play karaoke with his hits. The results are a mixed-bag to say the least. Will.i.am takes a butcher's cleaver to the innocent charm of 'The Girl Is Mine', installing his own brand of crass, over-produced Black Eyed Peas faux-funk, while Fergie's attempts to play rock chick on 'Beat It' are laughable. Worse still is Akon's nasal warbling on a super-speed reggae version of 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'. However, if the extra tracks prove anything, it's that the original LP hasn't lost any of its lustre over the past quarter of a decade: the hotch-potch updates actually sound more old-fashioned than the originals. Only Kanye West comes out of the sorry affair unsullied, with his cinematic, big-beat re-model of 'Billie Jean' retaining the original's haunting menace. If Jackson is eyeing up a comeback, he'd best advised to keep West on speed dial.
In an age when Snow Patrol, James Blunt and Coldplay are considered global stars, it's hard to remember what it was like when our musical heroes were as fascinating and magical as Michael Jackson. Hopefully this CD will serve as a timely reminder.