Anniversary CD wants to start something, but can't beat first

The Baltimore Sun

Although Michael Jackson's career as a hit maker flatlined years ago, Thriller, his crowning achievement and pop's biggest-selling album, lives again.

An expanded 25th anniversary edition is in stores today. It includes a CD of the original nine-song album, pristinely remastered, with six new remixed songs by current pop stars will.i.am, Akon, Fergie and Kanye West. The album's groundbreaking music videos and Jackson's career-defining 1983 performance on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever are on a DVD.

Both discs are housed in an attractive casebook with 48 glossy pages of Thriller song lyrics and nostalgic pictures of Jackson before his skin turned alabaster and his face morphed into an expressionless mask. There are also several ghoulish shots from the awesome "Thriller" video.

But ultimately, the 25th anniversary edition offers nothing fans haven't been able to obtain for years. And the new remixed tracks are hardly worth getting excited about, as the modern pop stars, especially will.i.am, muddle up songs that have managed to stay fresh-sounding after all these years.

Although the music is still vibrant, charged by Jackson's rhythmically expressive vocals, it's hard to detach the '80s from Thriller, especially if you were around then. The album encapsulates a long-gone era when everybody heard new music on the radio or saw breaking acts on this new thing called MTV.

A skinny guy with a Jheri curl and a fresh nose job single-handedly brought black music back to the mainstream, polishing and fusing elements of styles that were in limbo during the late 1970s and early '80s. Glints of disco, R&B;, new wave, punk and rock suffused Thriller, which CBS Records (now Sony-BMG) brilliantly mass-marketed. Jackson, who had long been refined by the Motown machine during his years as a child star, became the era's most important artist.

Thriller's iconic status has been well-documented over the years. It remains pop's biggest-selling album with more than 100 million copies sold worldwide. It still sells about 60,000 copies a year. Everything about Thriller - Quincy Jones' surreal, stylish production, the videos with the Broadway-style choreography, the red leather jacket, glittery glove and socks Jackson sported during that time - forever changed the sound and look of pop.

Jackson's dynamic dance moves are still imitated today by the likes of Usher, Justin Timberlake and Chris Brown. One of the most memorable commercials during Super Bowl Sunday two weeks ago showed animated lizards in a SoBe Life Water ad, re-enacting the dance moves from the "Thriller" video.

No other album released in the past 25 years has managed to be so musically transcendent, which makes the seemingly rushed execution of the expanded edition a bit disappointing.

Given that so much of Jackson's music has been repackaged in just the past five years, maybe there was nothing else in the vaults to revisit. In 2001, the year Thriller turned 19, Sony released "special editions" of Jackson's four mega albums on Epic. Each disc included demos, outtakes and insightful interviews with key Jackson collaborators, including Jones and songwriter Rodney Temperton.

Such bonuses would have been ideal for the 25th anniversary edition of Thriller, which doesn't even come with liner notes. The state-of-the-art-remastering job of the original album is nice, revealing just how intricately layered the production is. But previous digital versions of Thriller, which won a Grammy in 1983 for best-engineered non-classical album, were fine.

The new remixes do absolutely nothing to buttress the album's legacy. The retooled songs - especially "The Girl is Mine" by will.i.am and "Billie Jean" by West - are unimaginative with generic hip-hop beats and pointless rapping (that would be from will.i.am) added to Jones' already superlative tracks. And Akon's slowed-down version of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" sounds as nasally and overly processed as any of his own hits.

If anything, the reworked "bonus" cuts only reinforce what pop fans have known since 1982: Nobody can mess with Thriller.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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