When it comes to Michael Jackson’s solo albums, there are usually three that get the most attention. And, not coincidentally, they’re the three consecutive Quincy Jones produced sets: Off The Wall (1979), Thriller (1982) and Bad (1987).
Usually, most of the glory goes to Thriller.
After all, with its otherworldly record sales and chart success, groundbreaking music videos and general omnipresence for the better part of two years after its initial release, Thriller became the standard by which many later albums – particularly Jackson’s – have been judged, fairly or not.
Thriller indeed changed pop music and pop culture forever. It made black music acceptable again after it had been essentially blacklisted after disco ran its course in the earlier 1980s.
In the years 1981 and ’82, for instance, the only black artists who could even top the pop charts were Lionel Richie, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder, all of whom did so with safe, middle-of-the-road ballads – or, in Stevie’s case, by teaming up with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney for a cheesy pop tune about racial harmony (a partnership choice, btw, that MJ employed to kick off Thriller later that same year, with nearly the same Hot 100 singles chart results).
Thriller also changed the way albums were marketed. Before its success, only a handful of albums had ever generated as many as four hit singles (Off the Wall among them). After Thriller, labels began mining albums for four, five, even seven singles regularly.
Off the Wall, on the other hand, had been considered MJ’s crowning career achievement before Thriller came along.
Stylistically, Off the Wall had marked a turning point in MJ’s post-Motown solo career; it was certainly the critics’ darling during a time when radio was moving further and further away from black music. It managed to strike the public’s collective musical nerve despite primarily containing songs that, for the most part, rode the dying disco wave.
With dated-sounding tunes like “Burn This Disco Out” and “Get On The Floor,” MJ and Quincy unabashedly embraced a genre that everyone from Rod Stewart and The Rolling Stones to Ethyl Merman and Cher had already exploited. Radio favorites like “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” “Rock With You” and “Off The Wall” were also disco, but with enough pop sensibility to become big crossover hits (with the first two topping both the Billboard soul and pop charts).
They essentially were the tunes that made Off The Wall great, along with album cuts like “I Can’t Help It” and “Workin’ Day and Night.” But there were also enough throwaway tracks to keep Off the Wall from being MJ’s G.O.A.T. album.
Which brings me to Bad.
That album, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this Thursday, August 31, became MJ’s second-biggest seller, with worldwide sales nearing 40 million according to some accounts.
As large as that figure is, it pales in comparison to its predecessor’s sales, but then no album has – or likely ever will – come close to what Thriller did.
Thriller had the benefit of three key factors when it came out. First, MJ was still a young, somewhat sympathetic, big-name artist whose full potential had yet to be realized. Secondly, Thriller had a great setup. In hindsight, issuing “The Girl Is Mine” (a safe, middle-of-the-road McCartney duet) as the first single was a stroke of early ’80s genius at a time when black dance music still wasn’t playing well in pop markets.
The third thing was great timing.
There was no one else with Michael’s pop music credentials who was making good quality (and highly accessible) dance-oriented pop/R&B in 1982. In a sense, MJ was filling the huge void created by pop radio’s resistance to anything that sounded too black at the time. By the time “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” were released, radio’s pump was primed for more MJ.
The circumstances for Bad were different.
In 1987, MJ was no longer the naïve man-child he was perceived to be during the Thriller era. In the years leading up to Bad, he had become a less sympathetic character who was the envy of several in the music world. He had become a shrewd business person who was keenly aware of his status as a young, African-American power player in a white-dominated field.
During a self-imposed, roughly two-year public hiatus between Thriller and Bad, he’d purchased the publishing rights to not only his own music, but the highly coveted Beatles catalog, which placed him out of favor with many of their fans, some of whom had supported Thriller.
That – coupled with the tabloid media’s thirst for anything Jackson-related – led to a lot of negative press for the singer. The press became obsessed with what they perceived as his bizarre behavior – some confirmed, some not – and a change in his physical appearance that caused unsavory rags to use terms like “wacko jacko” when describing him.
Even Jackson’s black fan base began to question his motives – particularly with the physical changes (lightened skin and thinning nose and lips) which many believed was an affront to his natural heritage.
So, for several reasons, Michael was already experiencing somewhat of a backlash as a highly targeted megastar by the time Bad was released in ’87.
Keenly aware of his new situation, Jackson used it as inspiration for much of the music on Bad. The result was yet another iconic pop album – this one with eleven tracks that are considered among his best work.
The songs were more polished in their production quality – likely the combined result of how far technology had advanced in the five years since Thriller, but also due to the King of Pop’s and Quincy Jones’ notoriously impeccable attention to detail.
Plus, Bad eventually carved out some chart history of its own – becoming the first album ever to generate five number one singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 (something only one album – Katy Perry’s 2010 opus Teenage Dream – has done since).
In essence, by being really good, Bad avoided becoming to Thriller what Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, for example, was to Rumours – a wildly anticipated follow-up to a blockbuster album that couldn’t meet the high expectations set for it.
The eleven songs on Bad reflected the genius of a man approaching his 30s but who was still coming of age. They reflected a lyrical maturity not seen on many of the songs on either Off the Wall or Thriller.
Simply put, the Bad songs were collectively damned good, and for that reason, there’s a possible case that one can make for Bad actually being MJ’s best album – even better than Off the Wall…or Thriller.
The Songs from Bad:
The first single was the lightly regarded ballad “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” a song that posed somewhat of a risk for an album launcher.
In this case, despite it being highly anticipated as the first new MJ music in three-plus years, three things were working against “I Just Can’t Stop.” One, it was a ballad. Secondly, there was no official music video (although a makeshift one surfaced some time later). And finally, MJ chose to share vocal duties with an unknown singer (Siedah Garrett).
Still, the song worked. It flew to #1 on both the pop and soul charts and became the only one of Bad’s singles to sell a million copies. That it accomplished those things despite not bearing some of the traits of a lead-off single certainly doesn’t make it Michael’s greatest song, but those feats cannot be removed from its legacy.
But then things got better…
The album’s “event” single would be its next one, the title track. Without waiting for “IJCSLY” to finish its climb to the top, Epic Records released “Bad,” which was followed by a world première video launch on network TV. The album and video were released simultaneously on August 31.
“Bad” wasn’t the best MJ song – not even on its own album – but it was the perfect pop song that fulfilled a role that was usually reserved for first singles. It generated excitement for the album and let the world know that we were in for another thrill ride with Jackson.
It also famously introduced a vocabulary (“shamone” for c’mon), something that MJ would use on another Bad single (“Man in the Mirror”), which helped make the word a Jackson trademark that people still liken to the singer to this day.
The album debuted at No. 1 (only the sixth record in Billboard history to do so) and the single’s No. 1 ascension soon followed.
The fact that “Bad” wasn’t even the album’s best track would bode well for future single releases, like the next two: “The Way You Make Me Feel” and Jackson’s opus, “Man In The Mirror.”
“The Way You Make Me Feel,” with its driving, bass-heavy beat and boy-meets-girl lyrical theme had more bravado than any MJ single before it; even Thriller’s flirtatious “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” didn’t quite match its level of machismo.
“Man in the Mirror” was MJ’s “We Are The World,” but without Lionel Richie and the rest of the USA for Africa crew. And smartly, given his larger-than-life status at this point, he chose to look inward for change versus preaching to the world to do so (save for those “make that change” lines at the end).
“Mirror” also became the album’s fourth No. 1 (after “The Way You Make Me Feel”) and still ranks as a fan favorite to many.
But the King of Pop wasn’t done.
Next up was “Dirty Diana,” perhaps the slickest song on Bad. It was the album’s “Beat It,” a rousing rock-oriented track, but more complex in its structure. The standard verses and choruses were there, in true narrative form, but MJ also added suspense-building pre-choruses to set up each guitar-filled crescendo (“Dir-dee Diana! Naw!”).
“Another Part of Me” touched on global unity and love and was the album’s sixth single. It’s the only one to miss the pop top ten (it peaked at No. 11). In fact, “Another Part” became the only one of MJ’s singles from any of the three Quincy albums to miss the top ten (although it did return Jackson to the top of the soul chart, something “Dirty Diana” failed to do).
The album’s last single in America was perhaps its best (it certainly had the best video). That would be “Smooth Criminal,” Jackson’s amazingly descriptive narration of a tale that a decade earlier would have been termed a “story song.” The tune took full advantage of the technological advances of the day, with unusual sound effects, a uniquely programmed drum pattern and that famous pre-chorus (“Annie, are you okay. So, Annie are you okay, are you okay, Annie”) that seeped into your mind like an earworm.
The gravity-defying video for “Smooth Criminal” is often compared favorably with that of “Thriller” when discussing Michael’s best work, which is not at all surprising considering both were seventh (and last) singles from highly successful albums. Michael clearly wanted to close each project with a bang, and he did.
Except there was still more with Bad.
For the would-be eighth single, “Leave Me Alone,” which Epic Records ultimately decided against releasing, Michael unleashed some of the paranoia and frustration that ultimately became synonymous with his music (perhaps beginning with “Billie Jean”), but which in ’87 hadn’t yet been so consumed by it (as later albums would be).
The video for “Leave Me Alone” was a carnivalistic take on the tabloid-like existence that MJ was living at the time. Jackson was seen riding through a “house of horrors” that featured dogs in business suits, shrines to people (and things) that the singer was rumored to have had, well… enshrined, and images of Jackson himself singing through tabloid newspaper headlines, dollar bills, etc.
It was a total acknowledgment of the impact that negative press was having on the reclusive singer whose eccentricities were likely viewed as normal in his own mind.
The songs “Liberian Girl” (with its “mystery girl” dynamic) and “Speed Demon” (a song thought to be metaphorical in nature but which, in retrospect, might have literally been about escaping the law) also got video treatments, although the songs were not released as singles here in America.
In fact, the only track on Bad for which there was no video was the Stevie Wonder duet, “Just Good Friends,” a ’80s keyboard-driven, melody-filled pop number that was this album’s “Baby, Be Mine” (Thriller) or “Girlfriend” (Off the Wall) – not good enough to be a single but not so bad as to be left off the album.
My guess is, Bad was so chock full of goodies that Jackson could’ve released at least two more singles after “Smooth Criminal” (like “Leave Me Alone” and “Liberian Girl”) and they would have charted (maybe not No. 1s, but they would’ve charted nonetheless).
But I guess restraint is the better part of valor. Perhaps it was best that they let those last two sleeping dogs lie.
So would Bad have been as successful without the groundwork laid a few years earlier by Thriller? Likely not.
But Michael Jackson likely would not have been able to call himself the King of Pop without the accomplishments of Bad, for it was that album’s success – largely due to its stellar quality coupled with some good marketing – that solidified him as pop royalty and eliminated any chance of MJ being considered a two-trick (Thriller and Off the Wall) pony.
I, for one, believe there’s at least one song on Bad that can actually hang with any given song on either Thriller or Off The Wall.
But that’s just my opinion. What do you think? Is Bad the album that deserves the title as Michael’s best work?
Let me know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
In the meantime, enjoy this video for one of its best songs: “Smooth Criminal”