Let’s be clear: Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the Wall’ is better than ‘Thriller’

OPINION: It's Black Music Month, so let's clear up something that shouldn't even be open to debate. Albums are supposed to be cohesive, and 'Off the Wall' is more cohesive than 'Thriller.'

Michael Jackson thegrio.com
31 Jan 1993: Singer Michael Jackson performs during halftime at Super Bowl XXVII between the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. The Cowboys won the game, 52-17. (Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

This Black Music Month let’s start by solving a long-term debate. This isn’t hard. I know this will be emotional for some of you, but hold it together while we break down this truth. Being grown means knowing Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” is a better album than Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

I know some of you are clutching your pearls. Some of you may have fainted. Pull it together. Now to those of you who are cheering and saying amen, I can hear you. Stay strong: You were always right.

Here’s the thing — an album, in its highest form, is supposed to be a singular thing. The songs should all work together to build one statement. There should be a sense of sonic and/or lyrical cohesion that suggests that all of these songs were put together to reflect an idea. Prince’s “Purple Rain,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” and “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” are all albums that have this sort of cohesion. The songs congeal to create a singular argument about how music should sound and to explain what the artist is thinking about at that moment in their lives. 

I believe that a cohesive album is more difficult to create and more powerful to consume than a not-so-cohesive album. It brings you into a specific world and opens up a concrete conversation about who the artist is right now.  

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Nowadays, few artists make albums. Albums that are cohesive are hard because they require vision and the desire to say something. Many artists nowadays make music by telling various producers that they need beats. Then a plethora of producers will send beats and the artist will rhyme or sing over them. This, generally, does not lead to a cohesive album because the seed of each song comes from a vastly different place. Do they have a statement to make or do they have a deadline to meet? Usually, it’s the latter.

“Off the Wall” is an extremely cohesive album. All of the songs come from the genre of disco. This album is perhaps the greatest distillation of what disco is. And the songs reflect the world of a young man trying to find love. He dances, he loves the club life, he falls in love, he gets his heart broken. It’s almost like a movie about what it is to be an early twentysomething in the big city, and in that way, it speaks to who Jackson was then. He was then a former child star who loved to dance for dancing’s sake but also he was not certain that he was going to make it as an adult star. It’s abnormal for child stars to become adult stars. For sure, there have been some who made that leap, but there are way, way more child stars who were unable to transition to adult stardom. Before “Off the Wall” was released, some were not sure that Jackson could do it. That’s one of the big points in Spike Lee’s great documentary “Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall.” So Jackson was at that crossroads in his life, and he was in the clubs experiencing the explosion of disco at a critical moment in its rise, and he was trying to figure out who he was as a young man. All of that got poured into the album.

“Thriller” is not at all cohesive. It feels like a greatest-hits collection. Of course, it has many legendary songs, but there’s no thread binding the songs together sonically or thematically. “Off the Wall” has a thesis — it’s about the sound of disco and the world of a young man who loves to dance and is desperately looking for love. “Thriller” has no big idea pulling it all together. What do these songs have to do with each other? Each piece of “Off the Wall” makes it clear that they were thinking, how does this fit into the whole thing that we’re building? “Thriller” feels like, OK, these are the nine best songs we’ve made in these sessions. These are the ones that are most likely to get a huge commercial reaction. But where “Off the Wall” is exploring disco, “Thriller” moves from the sappy pop of “The Girl Is Mine” to the creepy funk of “Thriller” to the blissed-out soul of “Human Nature.” These are all great songs, but a stellar album is more than a collection of great songs. 

This has been a huge debate for years, and I hope that we can settle it here. The “Off the Wall” folks have suffered enough. I know the pro-“Thriller” people are like, “But ‘Thriller’ sold way more!” Sigh. I know. I was there. I lived through the years of “Thriller” dominating the culture. But sales are not an indicator of quality. They’re an indicator of commercial success. Decades removed from the hype, when we play these two albums, we are left with one album that’s a cohesive statement and another album that’s great but is a bit all over the place. I’m not saying “Thriller” isn’t great; it is. I’m just saying it doesn’t touch “Off the Wall.” And for those of you saying “What about ‘Bad’???” I have a totally unrelated question: Were you dropped on your head as a baby?

Touré, theGrio.com

Toure is a host and writer at TheGrio. He hosts the TheGrio TV show “Masters of the Game,” and he created the award-winning podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and its upcoming sequel “Being Black: The ’70s.” He is also the creator of “Star Stories” and the author of eight books, including “Nothing Compares 2 U an oral history of Prince.” He also hosts a podcast called “Toure Show.” He is also a husband and a father of two.