Set aside whatever bias (good or bad) you may have about either artist and revisit each album solely on its musical merits. Dig the song craft, the effortless ebb and flow of the arrangements, and the go-for-broke vocal performances that still give you a chill down the spine. Try breaking down the components of songs you've heard a million times and see if you can tell what makes them tick and what makes then soar.
This is music that transcends the artist, the genre, the industry, and mere life itself. Need we remind you, quite sadly, that this music has already outlived both of its creators and will go on to inspire and influence millions.
So without further adieu:
The first thing I think of when I hear anything from Thriller is just how truly bad-ass Quincy Jones was as a producer. Anyone who wrote him off as a relic of the swingin' sixties did so at their own peril. Jones's production is pristine, spirited and flawless in arrangement and execution. There is not a note, a phrase or a high-hat out of place. Sure, you can say that about most albums, in a sense, but there is a sense of order about every second of this album that defies logic.
Not bad for a guy who has been a groundbreaking producer and, let's face it, the hippest cat in the room since the 1950's. Lest we forget it was his label that signed New Order in North America.
On the purple side, Prince Rogers Nelson circa 1984 was a modern-day Quincy Jones in the making, and then some, as he could not only write a great pop song, but he could play every instrument while also engineering the session. Add to that the fact that he was the consummate showman, capable of delivering a stirring visual performance that is every bit the equal of his musical gifts.
In 1982, he'd finally gotten the attention of the world-at-large with his fifth album 1999, which spent the better part of 1983 high atop the charts as singles "Little Red Corvette", "Delirious" and the empirical title cut were in constant rotation on radio and MTV.
While 1999 had put him on the map, it would be his next album that would either propel him to the upper echelon of the pop elite or send him back to the R&B/funk bins with the likes of Roger, Con Funk Shun, and Chico DeBarge.
To say that Prince knocked the proverbial ball out of the park with Purple Rain would be an understatement, especially when you consider the fact that Purple Rain wasn't just his next album, it was also the soundtrack to his first theatrical film.
No pressure there.
So, in that sense, one would almost have to call Purple Rain superior to Thriller due to the simple fact that all Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones had to worry about was the music.
Even so, Thriller is a musical tour de force with few equals that boasts a production that is so expertly executed as to not be noticed at all due to Jones's attention to detail and keen ear for subtle nuances. making it an album that you can still listen to and find yourself catching things you never noticed before, like the subtlety of Steve Porcaro's guitar work in "Human Nature" or how Michael's backing vocals always manage to stick out no matter how many others are singing.
While one would never confuse one for the other, the two albums are not without similarities:
Both albums contain nine songs, for example. Also, each album was unarguably the creative and commercial peak for each artist.
But which album is superior, you ask?
Considering how much Prince actually had to do with its creation, it is impossible to deny the completely singular artistic statement that is Purple Rain. The songs drip with a palpable sexual tension and many a lyrical chance is taken ("Darling Nikki" anyone?) whereas a song like "Billie Jean" - sung from the POV of someone accused of fathering an illegitimate child - came across as completely innocent in Jackson's hands.
It's even cuter when sung by a busload of first graders.
And, at the end of the day, it's the cute factor that ultimately does Thriller in whereas Purple Rain is still as playfully and cheekily an adult listen today as it was when our young ears first heard it.