Hanson – “Where’s the Love”
It feels right to start this list off with Hanson. Before “You’re Beautiful” and “Hey Soul Sister” annoyed any radio listener, there was their debut single, “MMMBop”, dominating the late-‘90s airwaves and making jokes about boy bands easy to write. Now, unlike other boy bands, the Hanson brothers actually performed their own music and wrote some of it, too… but that didn’t matter. “MMMBop” pretty much summed up everybody’s worst fears about boy bands. But what about their second single? There is a good amount of cheesiness as well, but the song is also just a fun mix of sunshine pop and power pop, making it slide well onto ‘90s mixes between bands like New Radicals and Deep Blue Something. The lyrics aren’t exactly stellar, but they are a significant step up from “ba du bop, ba duba dop” and don’t really do much to dampen the lively pop sound the trio is clearly having a blast performing. The brothers were always adept musicians, something that became patently clear later on in their career, but maybe if this had been their debut single, it would have been easier to admit 20 years ago.
Jonas Brothers – “Hold On”
The mid-2000s version of Hanson, Jonas Brothers were another band perhaps undeserving of the boy band hate. But when you partner with Disney so willingly and frequently, what do you expect people to think? Like Hanson, we’d surely view them in a different light had their beginnings been altered slightly. If you’re unconvinced, then listen to “Hold On”, a track that rocks harder than a boy band song has any right to. Sure, pop rock and boy bands aren’t that far apart, but there’s also hints of pop-punk that would make Yellowcard and New Found Glory proud of this song, not to mention the lyrics that seem to strive for a bit more than the usual boy band fare. Sure, it might still be a song you skipped on the radio back then, but it wouldn’t seem completely out of place next to other rock hits from that year like “Thanks Fr the Mmrs” and “Face Down”, even if it was 100 times more polished. No wonder Alan Garner prioritized a Jonas Brothers concert over a Las Vegas trip.
98 Degrees – “She’s Out Of My Life”
The distant third boy band of the late ‘90s snuck in this Michael Jackson cover at the end of their second record, and it might just be the most remarkable display of their talent. There’s no arguing which version is better, but Nick Lachey and company truly hold up their own on this piece, replacing MJ’s vibrato sadness with an ornate a capella arrangement that has voices flowing from harmony to counter-melody. This type of music isn’t for anyone, but it’s hard to ridicule something this lush and wistful. Sure, Lachey may be more known for being part of one of the dumbest reality TV moments in history, but the man is definitely a capable singer and also has a well-trained ear, as evident by the harmonies and arrangements of this song. And the other three are no joke either, deftly ebbing and flowing just like the backing instruments in MJ’s original. Again, there’s no doubt which one’s better, but when you can re-work a classic and deliver something memorable, that’s definitely cause for celebration.
BBMak – “Out Of My Heart”
BBMak was always a band that leaned more towards pop rock than boy band, with a sound more comparable to a band like Train than Backstreet Boys. But with smooth voices, longing lyrics, and an army of young teen fans, it was hard to think of them as anything except boy band. Their signature song, “Back Here”, seems like a good addition to any boy band canon, too, though it’s not the type of song that will ever win over a non-fan. On the other hand, a song like “Out of My Heart” seems to add fire to their pop rock status, with a much more driving sound and a country-tinged alt-rock guitar part. Lyrically, it covers the same thought as “Back Here”, but in a much more articulate way, eschewing the half-phrases and “baby” utterances for lyrics that actually draw you in a bit. The result is a solid song that would have fit in comfortably on any 3 Doors Down record of the 2000s, which is not a glowing testament but at least a small step up.
Backstreet Boys – “Incomplete”
By 2005, the world had pretty much moved on from the boy band fever of the late ‘90s. It seemed the only real person to make it out alive was Justin Timberlake, after the world let it be known they had little time for the solo careers of Nick Carter or JC Chasez. But here came Backstreet Boys, roaring back to life with perhaps the best group performances of their career. Dramatically stunning, thanks to the sheer power of their voices, “Incomplete” showed that boy bands offered more than just love songs and dance hits, even if that’s all we remember them for. “I Want It That Way” may be catchier, but this type of vocal performance stays with you. “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” may make you want to dance, but this can really move you if you let it. In the case of who was better, Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC, a song like “Incomplete” pretty much seals the deal. BSB may not have had a singular voice better than JC or JT, but as a group, they couldn’t be touched by anyone in the boy band canon, past or present, and they proved just that in a song that isn’t even supposed to be a hit for a boy band. A song like this proves why boy bands are no joke. Now if we could only get them to deliver songs like this more often…