The Times went to the archives to find reviews of three of Michael Jackson's landmark albums: "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad." Below are excerpts from each.
"Off the Wall"
published Oct. 14, 1979
Michael Jackson, once the prince of Bubblegum Soul, isn't a kid anymore. His growth as a singer, though, is incomplete. To some degree he's still singing the way he did as an 11-year-old. His voice is no longer siren-pitched but it isn't full-bodied or strong and suffers, on ballads, from too much vibrato.
The adolescent frailties that linger in Jackson's voice are nagging enough to, if uncontrolled, undermine good material and production. Thanks to producer Quincy Jones, that didn't happen here. The result is one of the year's best R&B; albums.
This is Jackson's first collaboration with Jones, who handled him better than any previous producer. Jones didn't steer Jackson in any new directions but with superb material and imaginative production has camouflaged or shrewdly used Jackson's vocal weakness. "She's Out of My Life" -- a teary, touching ballad about the end of a romance -- is produced and arranged so that Jackson's quivery and rather underpowered voice is an asset because it enhances the anguished tone.
There are countless other places on the album where Jackson gets vital support from the production.
Jackson, when free of the various group limitations, has a style, that though somewhat flawed, is distinctive and appealing. Is it possible that he's outgrown the Jacksons? With a boost from the Top Five single, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," this is the biggest-selling album -- solo or group -- in the family's history. It's obvious Jackson can do quite well alone.
Dennis Hunt --
published Dec. 12, 1982
Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones gave themselves a tough act to follow with "Off the Wall," Jackson's landmark 1979 album that yielded four Top 10 hits and came as close as anything in recent years to reuniting the splintered factions of today's pop audience.
Jackson and producer Jones don't seem at all intimidated by the challenge on "Thriller," which revives some of "Wall's" appealing surface qualities while introducing some intriguing new elements. It's not as consistent, but "Thriller" has more gears, and Jackson's peaks as a songwriter and singer overshadow even the high points of "Off the Wall."
. . . . Most typical of the LP's scope is the opening "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." This searing look at the price of celebrity (one of several on the album) is set in a laser-etched groove, and Jackson, his voice scampering, punching and wobbling, really earns the triumphant affirmation that comes at the summit of this musical Everest.
"Billie Jean," its companion piece, also deals with the twisting of the truth. Its slinky, bass-centered riffs and dark-toned string motif distinguish the arrangement, and Jackson's stabbing falsetto lends it a haunting air. If this cut doesn't quite put Jackson in Prince's league as an innovator, it at least signals that he's ready to challenge any time he chooses.
Jackson's hard-rock venture, "Beat It," is sonically exciting with its prodigious sounds but is less interesting as a song. Eddie Van Halen, though, contributes a guitar solo that matches Jackson's singing for bravado and alacrity.
The other selections, including three by Rod Temperton, are reminiscent of the classy but more conventional R&B; of "Off the Wall." . . . Temperton's best moment is the driving, high-spirited title track, a Disneyland for the ears with its creak, howls, whooshes, screams and moans. It features a "rap" by Vincent Price, and you have to hear him, in his best Boris Karloff accent, intoning. "Creatures crawl in search of blood / to terrorize y'awl's neighborhood."
Richard Cromelin --
published Aug. 31, 1987
Rumor had it that the world's favorite frail man-child was in a state of panic as he struggled to make an album to follow 1982's "Thriller," the biggest-selling LP in the history of the universe and a cultural phenomenon of the first order.
So what does Michael Jackson do? He turns in two supremely relaxed performances: the gospel anthem "Man in the Mirror" and the classic Motown update "Just Good Friends," a duet with Stevie Wonder. Those are the two cuts that immediately jump out from "Bad," an album whose consistency, sureness and scaled-down intentions make it a respectable successor to "Thriller."
The fact that the LP's key tracks are rooted in established traditions is a clue to "Bad's" relatively modest aims. "Thriller's" hallmark was the vaulting ambition and hair-raising power of two startling songs, "Billie Jean" and "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' " (and, to a slightly lesser degree, "Beat It"). "Bad's" retreat from that kind of ambition is a letdown, but it's understandable: It would have been hard to out-thrill "Thriller" without the strain showing.
Beyond those two standout songs, "Bad" is a fair-to-strong array of soul and rock blends. If the aims are modest, there's nothing low-key about the way producer Quincy Jones assembles a track, and his sound is typically forceful, vivid, rich and deep. It also tends to be a little mechanical -- especially the way he splices in Jackson's tightly woven multi-tracked backing vocals. . . .
And there's one crashing dud, the single "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." As if the lightweight ballad's lack of substance weren't enough, the album version opens with Jackson cooing a tremulous spoken intro that goes, in part, "I just want to lay next to you for awhile. You look so beautiful tonight. . . . A lot of people misunderstand me. That's because they don't know me at all. I just want to touch you and hold you. . . ."
"Dirty Diana" is trying to be "Beat It" -- a hard-rock song about a tenacious groupie that's sent into orbit by a Steve Stevens guitar solo. "Smooth Criminal" ends the album on an odd note (the CD has an extra track, the Stevie Wonder-like shuffle "Leave Me Alone"). This stuttering rocker is a grim, cryptic account of a woman being killed by an intruder, and there isn't much point beyond giving Jackson a chance to sing "Annie-are-you-OK?" over and over. . . .
All in all, "Bad's" not bad -- more reminiscent of "Off the Wall's" uniform strength than "Thriller's" peaks and valleys. It would be disappointing if this album's creative level is where Jackson wants to stay. But if it gives him breathing room and clears the air for future ground breaking, great.
In a way, Jackson would be better off without having to deal with another phenomenon.