Artist: Michael Jackson
Release Title: Thriller 40
Label: Sony Music Entertainment
Release Date: 18 November 2022
Location: California, United States
The 18th of November marked the release of the Thriller 40 edition, and boy was I excited to hear some of the new content on it. As a lifelong MJ fan Thriller isn’t necessarily my favorite of his albums, but it is certainly one of the best, and a legendary title in art history. The influence of MJ’s work can’t be adequately summarized in a Cave Dweller review – that’s the sort of effort that people write books about – so I’m not going to focus too much on that aspect of Thriller as I’m sure most of you are aware of just how important Thriller was.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t be giving an overview of every track. Instead, I’ll be focusing mostly on the demos and remixes that accompany the main album, as the main point of an anniversary release is highlighting previously unknown or unheard aspects to the release. With Thriller 40, a lot of this content has been heard by more hardcore fans, but it has been compiled in a way that many new listeners will hear it.
There’s plenty of that on Thriller 40. Let’s start out with the remixes, which are always divisive, especially among MJ fans. Many of them were previously released on 2008’s Thriller 25. For example, there’s a remix of Billie Jean done by Kanye West. Ye slowed it down a bit, added some extra drums, and you have something that has his fingerprints on it for sure. Another 2008 remix included in Thriller 40 is a remix of Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ that features Akon. While it’s weird to hear Akon’s watermark at the beginning of the track, his smooth tones do make for an interesting take on the track and hearing this song as a duet was a fresh direction to go here.
There’s even, strangely, a remix of Beat It from 2008 that features Fergie and it isn’t bad at all. I imagine her featuring there was probably something to do with MJ’s friendship with Will.i.am, whose remixes are, in my opinion, the best on Thriller 40. His mix of The Girl is Mine includes his vocals, and omits Paul which is a shame, but it has those jangly 00s synth beats and Will.i.am does a decent job there. It isn’t a match for the original, but it’s a fun listen. His remix of P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) somehow makes it sound like a Black Eyed Peas track, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing either as it really works. These Thriller 25 remixes are all decent, but it’s a shame that we didn’t get more remixes by modern artists – hearing some remixes with people like The Weeknd sure would have been an awesome addition to MJ canon. There are still several other remixes I haven’t mentioned here, so there’s quite a few to have fun checking out.
Besides the remixes, there are quite a few demos here too. Worth noting is that there are two kinds of demos on Thriller 40 – demos of unreleased songs which were never fully realized in Michael’s lifetime, and demos of songs that Michael did end up fully realizing. Some of them have been released on previous collections before, and some have been floating around on the web as leaked tracks for years. But many listeners will find these demos to be new to them, and there is at least one track new to everybody – What A Lovely Way To Go – which has never been released or leaked anywhere. What A Lovely Way To Go sounds to me like something David Bowie might release in the 70s, or perhaps Paul McCartney. It doesn’t at all sound like the type of song Michael would normally record, but man, it has a lot of potential.
It’s a great little track to include, with pianos that sound almost like something from an Elton John or Paul McCartney track. Lots of little “hey!” and “oh!” cries throughout, and Michael’s trademark clicks and beatboxing can be heard too. It’s only a demo so it has its rough moments – for instance, the piano instrumentals and the beatboxing don’t always line up well together – but then, this is a demo so that sort of roughness is to be expected. I’d love to hear a full mix of this someday, or even for someone new to record their own version of it, because while it’s a shame we’ll never hear Michael’s complete vision for the song, that doesn’t mean we can’t hear someone else fully realize the track.
Some of the other demos of songs MJ never fully realized are pretty good. Sunset Driver is a real bop from the Off The Wall sessions, and I can imagine a parallel universe where a fully realized version of this song burned up the charts. She’s Trouble has some catchy 80s synth and it does sound a little simple, being a demo, but it’s a fun listen nonetheless. With a bit of development this track could’ve become something even greater. Got The Hots has elements that really remind me of Thriller in a lot of ways, and it was a song cut from the album. It’s a decent track, but cutting it was the right decision, but that shouldn’t be construed as a harsh comment, because Thriller is a veritable list of GOATed tracks.
Besides What A Lovely Way To Go, one track I highly recommend listening to on this album is the cleaned up version of Starlight. This is a hell of an important track for music history reasons – it was the song Michael originally wrote that had the Thriller instrumentals. Yes, the legendary Thriller was not originally a song about horror. That famous chorus has Michael singing instead, “We need some starlight, starlight sun!” This isn’t just a demo, it’s a track, quite far along in development, that Michael thought just wasn’t right somehow, and he ended up re-writing the entire track to have a horror theme, producing the legend we know today. Starlight is a good track but it’s just so… strange! It’s truly like hearing something from a parallel universe, something that a secret government program managed to retrieve from a secret interdimensional mission. Give it a listen and maybe you’ll get those same eerie interdimensional vibes.
Something I’ve always loved in Michael Jackson songs are those little moments of banter and chatter. Like in The Girl Is Mine where there are brief little moments of talk between Paul and Michael, or in Whatever Happens at the very end where Carlos Santana can be heard saying “thank you, Michael”, to which Michael responds, “thank YOU, Carlos!” There’s something wonderful in those moments, a sense of artistry and play at work. Besides that, those moments where you hear an artist comment on the mix, like in The Notorious BIG’s track Victory where you can hear him commenting back and forth, “the music is loud, now the mic is loud” and such. There’s a bit of those moments in these Thriller demos. You can hear Michael in the Beat It demo talking about the harmonies and the choruses or complaining about needing more kick in the phones in the Billie Jean 1981 home demo. They’re also interesting with the lyrical parts Michael mumbles and does some scat singing, sections where he obviously hadn’t written lyrics yet.
Word is that there is new video content coming, such as this Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ lyric video with some funky graphics and art. Beside that, there are 4K remasters of the Beat It and Thriller music videos which is just brilliant. If somehow you haven’t seen them before, or it’s been a long time since you have – you need to go watch them right now. Seriously – Thriller is a GOAT music video and seeing it in 4K is amazing. With picture quality like this, it somehow brings a modern, fresh quality to what is a 40 year old music video. No longer does it have the quality of something a bit old, grainy and a bit blurry as video from that era often looks. No, we have Thriller looking better than ever.
Besides all the demos, remixes, and video content on its way, there are of course lossless, Dolby Atmos versions of the original tracks on Apple Music. Being a Michael Jackson album, you’ll find Thriller 40 on virtually every music platform available, and you can buy the CD for $12 (USD) if you like hard copies.
Thriller is still an all-time great album with a hell of an array of tracks, including one of my favourite guitar solos (Eddie van Halen on Beat It). Give it a listen and check out some of the extra content because there’s some interesting stuff in there too. It’s always a good time to listen to Thriller, but with the 40th anniversary – now is the time to check it out again.
I hope you enjoy Thriller 40.