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Michael Jackson - Thriller Print E-mail
Tuesday, 23 November 1999

Michael Jackson
format: SACD
label: Sony - Epic
release year: 2002
performance: 10
sound 3.5
reviewed by: Jerry Del Colliano

ImageMichel Jackson’s Thriller is the defining album of mainstream pop music in the 1980s. Produced by the legendary Quincy Jones, Thriller literally wrote a new playbook for what it takes to create a great pop record from then on. To this day, Thriller stands as the largest-selling pop record of all time, with over 47 million copies sold, although Jackson’s fall from popularity (to put it politely) has allowed country singer Garth Brooks to take over the title of “the best-selling artist of all time.”

With the format war between DVD-Audio and Sony’s SACD raging on, titles like Thriller give cause for music lovers and audiophiles alike to give SACD a shot. While this stereo SACD is not a hybrid title (meaning it cannot play on a CD player at all), it is frequently one of the first discs people pick up when getting into SACD. I was no exception. My first trip to Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood was complete with the purchase of Thriller, among other high-profile SACD titles.

What I heard when I got home was nothing short of heartbreaking. The sound of the remastered SACD had some improvements over the 16-bit CD in terms of openness in the height and width of the soundstage, but the bass was seemingly missing from the mix. Other SACDs were better in terms of bass, notably Dave Brubeck’s classic Time Out and Joe Satriani’s Strange Beautiful Music. The highs were thin and edgy, even compared to Thriller on CD on the same transport, through the same DACs and the same AV preamp. To say I was disappointed would be to put it too mildly. I felt sold out and left wondering if Jacko actually ever heard the SACD of Thriller before it was released. If so, and if he approved it, you might make the argument that he has had plastic surgery on his ears and can no longer hear what I consider to be the smooth, dynamic and present sound that I expect from a cutting-edge new audio format like SACD.

Musically and creatively, Thriller is as good as it gets in the pop genre. You know the hits, because the record is almost exclusively comprised of them. The concept of the celebrity duet is in full effect with “The Girl is Mine,” with Jackson fighting it out over a girl with Paul McCartney. Music industry lore states it was during the recording of Thriller that McCartney, one of the wealthiest people in all of music thanks to music publishing, taught Jackson about the profitability of owning music publishing catalogs. Soon after Thriller became a hit record, the likes of which no one had ever seen before, Jackson got himself in the bidding for the early Beatles catalog. McCartney had plenty of cash at the time to make the acquisition, but thought he was bidding directly against Yoko Ono, not his music publishing prodigy Jackson. In the end, it was Jackson who landed the Beatles publishing rights, which is pretty much of an evergreen of an investment. It is also rumored that he recently put up his Beatles catalog as collateral with Sony Music versus the incredible promotional budget needed to promote his last flop of a record from 2001, ironically entitled Invincible.

Part of the incredible success of Thriller was the newly-developed power of MTV and no song more than the title track of Thriller made a greater impact on the network, even to this day. The John Landis-directed video, the Vincent Price narration and an infectious backbeat make for an all-time great pop song. Unfortunately, SACD doesn’t (or hasn’t to date) offered videos as an added value, unlike the competing format DVD-Audio. A version of the uncut video and/or “The Making of Thriller” video would have greatly added to the value of the Thriller SACD for those with SACD players that have any kind of video outputs, which many do.

An even better pop song than “Thriller” is “Beat It,” which is a pretty soft political statement about gang violence. It was more about the video and its “West Side Story”-inspired choreography. More Jackson lore comes into play on “Beat It” with the Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo. As a (terrible) guitarist myself, it is my opinion that Eddie Van Halen is the only guitarist second only to the immortal Jimi Hendrix on the list of all-time greatest to ever play the instrument. His solo, rumored to have been amazingly recorded in one take, is my favorite Eddie Van Halen solo of all time, including those on all of the studio Van Halen records.

“Billie Jean” is one of the biggest sonic disappointments on the record. While the tune musically is so very tight with a truly solid beat and melodies that pass the test of time, the audio on the SACD sounded even shriller than the CD. The tone of the high hat is more lively on the SACD but definitely more bright and thin. This was a particular disappointment to music editor Bryan Dailey, who actually studied with Billie Jean drummer Ndugu Chancler. The mids on the tune are more open on the SACD, but the bass is better on the CD. I demand more from a high-resolution audio format with a specific mix designed to sound great on a dedicated player.

The unsung hero on Thriller is “P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing).” Without any kind of political statement, this neat little pop track has a tight bass line that accents a great Jackson vocal performance. Sampled and effects-laden backup vocals make up the rest of the sonic picture on “P.Y.T.,” but the shrillness of the high hat and cymbals were tough for me to take.

It pains me to not be able to rave about the audio quality of Thriller on SACD. It is deserving of the ultra-rare 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 for performance. Its 3 for sound is about as low as I can remember giving to any record on any format. That is how disappointed I am in the way this title sounds. I have heard much better recordings, both newer and older than Thriller, on SACD and expect more from such an important record. I urge you not to judge SACD on one listen to Thriller in this format. SACD can do better sonically.

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