Note for Note

Let’s say that we, as humans in 2013, could hop in a time machine with the knowledge we currently have and educate folks fifteen years ago. Quite possibly lost among things like “oh hey, we elected the first black president” and “no one (except MJ) buys CDs anymore” would be “hey, know who the biggest pop star in the world is in 2013? That curly headed kid from *NSYNC!”

Yep. That guy.

Yep. That guy.

So, I offer you a question that might give you a headache. Would you be more surprised at a 1998 human’s reaction to Justin Timberlake being huge fifteen years after his initial dance with success? Or would you be more surprised as a 2013 human, that someone in 1998 would be incredulous in regards to JT’s star quality? I’ll give y’all a sec to process that…

At any rate, here we are, in October 2013. Justin is getting ready to top the charts for the second time in a year. He’s in the midst of one of the most successful arena tours of the year, he’s a mortal lock for the “Album Of The Year” Grammy at next year’s ceremony, and while there’s a very vocal contingent of folks who cast a side-eye at his success, you can’t knock the fact that the guy knows his way around a hit single. Oh crap, I haven’t yet mentioned that the guy gets movie roles at a regular clip (although he isn’t a very good actor,) kills it every time he hosts “Saturday Night Live,” produces/writes a fair amount for others (more on that later) and is married to a very, very, very beautiful woman. It’s good to be Justin Timberlake, and in commemoration of his pop culture omnipresence, here’s a look at his musical life, Note For Note style. We’ll start off with the *NSYNC albums, and hit his solo works in another post.

Let’s go back to where it all began…

*NSYNC (1998) It’s no question that ‘Nsync made some of the best albums of the boy-band boom that took over in the late Nineties and early Oughts. Not only did the team of songwriters and producers led by Max Martin craft their best songs for these guys, but ‘Nsync was really the only group of that era to boast a distinctive vocalist. Matter of fact, they had two-Justin and J.C., and the vocals straight through their career as a group were usually split between the two.

Nsync debutWhile you can find copies of *NSYNC lining dollar bins in just about every remaining record store in the U.S., the album’s not as awful as that may indicate.  “I Want You Back” and “Tearin’ Up My Heart” are peppy, hooky dance-pop that ranks among the best of its genre, while the ballad “For the Girl Who Has Everything” could’ve been recorded by Boyz II Men (OK, Color Me Badd) in their prime. The Full Force-helmed “I Just Wanna Be with You” boasts a funky sample of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Family Affair” and some fantastic harmonizing, while the hit “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You” (in its not-as-sappy as the single album version) is a decent rip of 112’s “Cupid.” This sound would be more finely honed on later albums, but really-you could do a lot worse. Bonus: a fucking fantastic cover of (believe it or not) Christopher Cross’ “Sailing.” As far as debut album cover versions, their “Sailing” beats the living crap out of Backstreet’s take on P.M. Dawn’s “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss,” although BSB gets extra points for creativity.

A quick scan of the track listing reveals that my memory has cherry-picked the better songs on *NSYNC and tried really hard to forget the lesser tracks. Thanks, Wikipedia, for reminding me of how many “lesser tracks” there are. Thank goodness for digital music (and the skip button,) because if I had to hear “Here We Go,” “Giddy Up,” or “I Drive Myself Crazy” again, I might hurt someone. So, let’s recap: there are definitely awful songs, but *NSYNC’s debut as a whole? Not a totally awful album.

Grade: B-/C+ (depending on how charitable I’m feeling that day.)

No Strings Attached (2000): 2.4 million copies sold-in a week. ONE WEEK. The 20/20 Experience is 2013’s best selling album so far, and it’s sold (in half a year) what No Strings Attached sold in SEVEN DAYS. It hadn’t happened before, and it’s highly unlikely that it’ll happen again.

StringsOne doesn’t sell records like that without appealing to an audience larger than teenage white girls, and No Strings Attached was set up so there was something for everyone, even if the more jaded music fans among us (I was certainly one at the time) took a little longer than others to admit that we dug the sounds here. Kudos to whoever decided that the group wasn’t going to be pigeonholed. No Strings Attached found the guys expanding the parameters of what a “boy band” was supposed to sound like. The sterling ballad “This I Promise You” (written by Richard Marx) appealed to the adult contemporary set, “It Makes Me Ill” was a neo-R&B jam that fit in nicely with other hits popular around the era like “No Scrubs” and “Bills Bills Bills” (probably because all three songs were produced by the same folks.) If you thought that the *NSYNC guys had questionable vocal chops like some of boy bands past, the acapella “I Thought She Knew” silenced that. Of course, the Swedish hit factory was at the top of their game here-“Bye Bye Bye,” “It’s Gonna Be May Me” and No Strings Attached’s title track were excellent examples of that sound. As for buried treasure, check out the smooth soul jam “I’ll Be Good for You,” which was co-written and co-produced by JT himself. I actually keep hoping that Justin manages to compose/produce a song this good as a solo artist. Although you might want to skip “Bringin’ Da Noise” (which must’ve wandered over from the first album) and “Digital Get Down” (a JC-led track that’s pretty sketchy in the manner that most of his “sexy” songs are,) the album is pretty seamless, and most of it still holds up-or is at least pleasant to listen to over a decade later.

Random Fact: “It’s Gonna Be Me” is the only *NSYNC song to hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles chart.

Grade: B

CelebrityCelebrity (2001): I feel like by the time Celebrity came out, it had already been established somewhere in the infrastructure that Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez would be making solo albums. Boy bands have a finite shelf life, and the group’s management/label/members must have known that something was gonna give at some point. So, while Celebrity didn’t necessarily come across as a “farewell” album at the time, it’s pretty obvious with a decade’s retrospect. At any rate, back to Timberlake and Chasez: the two handle a fair amount of the songwriting and production (more so than on most boy band albums) and the lead vocal assignments on Celebrity go strictly to one or the other (usually both—sorry Chris Kirkpatrick! Actually? Not sorry.) Both JC and JT were nursing a serious MJ jones by the time this album came out, which led to a lot of songs that sounded more like Michael Jackson than the songs Michael himself released on Invincible (which came out several months after Celebrity.) I’m sure utilizing former Jackson protege/alleged Britney-stealer/future Jackson post-mortem accuser) Wade Robson as a co-writer and co-producer helped as well.

The ballad “Gone,” which had originally been offered to the King of Pop by Timberlake, was the trigger to cross the group over to an R&B audience, peaking just outside the Top Ten on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart (even though black girls had been down with the group from the beginning.) Add in production from The Neptunes and guest appearances from Brian McKnight and Stevie Wonder (money/success talks, right?,) Celebrity actually holds up a bit better than a lot of other pop/R&B albums from the same period. One bad move they made? Thinking that “two-step” would become a thing. “Up Against the Wall” and “The Two of Us” are only worth listening to if you’re still sitting around waiting for that Craig David comeback. Not surprisingly, given the quality of the collaborators and the members’ musical maturity, Celebrity is *NSYNC’s best album.

Grade: B+

…and that’s all she wrote, folks. In 2002, *NSYNC went on “hiatus.” Although they reformed a couple of times immediately following the launch of Timberlake’s solo career, it became pretty apparent after a year or two that there was going to be no need to keep the other members on standby. Aside from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards (at which Timberlake was given the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award,) *NSYNC has lain dormant for the better part of a decade and is almost 100% likely to stay that way.

Odds & Sods: For completists, there’s a Christmas album (Home for Christmas) that’s about as necessary as a Christmas album by a boy band should be (although you should maybe download “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” and “In Love At Christmas.” Their Greatest Hits album (released as an afterthought) feels incomplete, although it isn’t. Maybe that’s just because they had better album tracks that all other groups of their ilk.

If you can find it, pick up the soundtrack to the movie Light It Up. The flick itself is forgettable, co-starring Usher and Vanessa Williams (“Save The Best For Last,” not Melrose Place,) but the soundtrack contains one of *NSYNC’s prettiest songs, the Babyface-penned “If Only Through Heaven’s Eyes.” Shoulda been a hit, for sure…at least, it’s miles better than “Music Of My Heart,” the Gloria Estefan-assisted piece of shit that’s improbably their second-highest charter in the U.S. (#2.)

Oh, this is pretty dope, too.

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