‘Thriller’ and the lessons of the mega-super-Album. The best-selling album of all time may not have even been the best album of 1982.

From The New York Times:

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” turns 30 this year. It is still the biggest-selling album ever, worldwide, by a lot. As is the case with most biggest-evers, actual or perceived (“I Love Lucy,” say, or “Star Wars”), it’s hard to imagine a world in which “Thriller” didn’t exist. And who would want to remember the pre-“Thriller” days anyway, at least the stretch of months right before it was released, which were nasty ones for the music business? To paraphrase Don McLean’s “American Pie,” the year that “Thriller” came out, 1982, was the year the music almost died.

Since the beginning of time (1954, or when Elvis came along), there had never been a bleaker year for pop than 1982. Disco had been gone for a couple of years, but nothing — not punk, not new wave, not Journey — had replaced it as the music industry’s cash cow. Top 40 radio, the usual confluence of musical rivers, where Motown met Zeppelin, was in decline. MTV was ascendant, but black artists were routinely shut out there. There was no one place where an open-eared music fan could find Luther Vandross and the Clash and Grandmaster Flash and Tom Petty. Perhaps the clearest indication of the parched pop-music field, other than the fact that Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” was the summer’s biggest song, was that there were only 16 No. 1 singles that year (the average in the ’70s was more than 25). As Time magazine reported, the music industry was floundering among “the ruins of punk and the chic regions of synthesizer pop”; it needed a messiah.

As early as April, the industry was looking to Westlake Recording Studios in Los Angeles. That’s where Michael Jackson and the producer Quincy Jones started to record the follow-up to Jackson’s 1979 album, “Off the Wall.” Jackson had been a superstar for more than a decade, since he was a Motown wunderkind, and “Off the Wall” was a critical and commercial juggernaut, one of a handful of albums to have four top-12 singles. (The Carpenters’ 1972 album, “A Song for You,” had five, which was unheard-of at the time.)

Yet as spring dragged into summer dragged into fall, there were more than two dozen songs recorded for “Thriller” and still no release. Word circulated that there was no money track on the album. And as pressure was mounting from Jackson’s label, Epic, then a division of CBS Records, he was growing increasingly frustrated. He wanted something bigger than “Off the Wall,” and he wasn’t quite hearing it yet. And probably, not seeing it yet, either. “ ‘Thriller’ sounded so crappy to me that tears came to my eyes,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Moonwalk.” He then told someone to “call CBS and tell them they are not getting this album.” At that point he decided to take a few days off.

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