Did you really expect the world's biggest boy band to drop the ball on 2013? "Midnight Memories," the third full-length from the "X Factor"-formed quintet (out Nov. 25 via Columbia/Syco), follows up on what worked best on last year's "Take Me Home," and tosses in some proficient new ideas to keep listeners eager for the band's continued evolution.
For a band comprised of 19- to 21-year-olds, growth is going to be a key theme. In general terms, "Midnight Memories" doesn't sound like much of a departure from its predecessors, but a closer look reveals hints as to what lies ahead. Guitars feature more prominently in the new songs, whether they're loud and electric ("Little Black Dress"), soft and acoustic ("Story of My Life"), or of the fast-strumming, Mumford & Sons variety ("Happily"). One Direction proves once again that there is more Jonas Brothers than *NSYNC or Backstreet Boys in their boy band DNA, and given their increased role in the writing process (the band contributed lyrics to 12 of the 14 songs), perhaps the rock band vibe will be an even greater theme as the band grows up. Lyrically, the boys remain in the PG-rated themes of young love, heartbreak, and staying out late, so parents (and the music industry) can rest assured they're still tween-friendly.
One Direction's first two albums topped the Billboard 200 in their debut weeks of release, making them the first British male group since the Beatles to accomplish the feat. The first two singles from "Midnight Memories," "Best Song Ever" and "Story of My Life," have each enjoyed Top 10 peaks on the Hot 100 chart, so there is every indication that the new album will fare quite well in the 2013 holiday season.
Still want more? According to this week's Billboard cover story, the One Direction team is already eyeing another album for late 2014. For now, though, join Billboard in a track-by-track look at the latest from Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan, and Zayn Malik.
1. Best Song Ever
This is the sort of song you just know is going to be a hit the first time you hear it. Of course, One Direction's previous lead singles -- "What Makes You Beautiful" and "Live While We're Young" -- were immediate successes, so it certainly had history on its side. The way "Best Song Ever's" massive chorus bobs along with tight group harmonies makes the song sneakily sound like its two predecessors. When the boys hit the "oh oh oh" and "yeah yeah yeah" parts, you're in bubblegum pop bliss.
2. Story of My Life
If "Best Song Ever" is the new album's "Live While We're Young," this song -- the album's softer, acoustic-based single -- is definitely its "Little Things." Ed Sheeran didn't have a hand in this somber love song, but it sure sounds like it, thanks to writing and lyrical contributions from every member of the band.
On a track like this, one can hear One Direction's sound carefully shifting from straight-up pop to more of a pop-rock feel. This week's One Direction cover story compared it to the Police -- a fitting pick, especially in the verses. Production-wise, its sound is firmly rooted in modern pop, though this is still a song that plenty of parents of One Direction fans should appreciate.
4. Midnight Memories
There's always been rock influence in One Direction's music, but it really comes to the forefront on "Midnight Memories'" title track. It opens with groovy guitar licks, leads into a peppy pre-chorus, and rocks out in the chorus behind a riff reminiscent of Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me."
5. You & I
"Not even the gods above can separate the two of us," goes the chorus of this slow jam, which sounds ready to get middle school gyms in a slowdance frenzy.
6. Don't Forget Where You Belong
For five young adults who've been on the road so much the past few years, it's easy to see why a song like "Don't Forget Where You Belong" would appear on the new album. The sentiment is still youthful, though a mid-tempo, soft rock track like this sounds like it could connect One Direction to a more mature audience. That being said, it leaves the listener yearning for a little more of the uptempo energy that dominated the earlier tracks.
This one's a love song in the earnest, mid-tempo vein of previous track "Don't Forget Where You Belong." It's the sort of song plenty of boy bands and well-meaning soft rockers have pulled off before, and though it doesn't exactly disappoint, it's not likely to be one of the tracks lodged in the listener's head after spinning the album the first or second time.
Who's not trying to sound like Mumford & Sons these days? On "Happily," the 1D boys sing and stomp along in unison to a giant chorus about trying to win someone back. Regardless of your opinion on Mumford, the Lumineers, and their influence, there's no denying this is one of the album's catchiest songs.
9. Right Now
This one sounds like it could have been one of Maroon 5's mid-tempo ballads, but One Direction pulls it off as well as Adam Levine ever could have. In fact, it was actually composed with help from another adult contemporary, One Republic's Ryan Tedder. While One Direction are still courting a teenage crowd, a track like breaks the mold, sounding like it could resonate with a much older audience.
10. Little Black Dress
The guitars make their triumphant return to the fold here, asserting themselves in the opening bars with riffs that could have come from late-70s FM radio. This one was recorded entirely in a live setting, and considering the results, it would be interesting to hear 1D explore the approach more on future albums.
11. Through the Dark
Here's another Mumford-sounding jam, driven by fast acoustic strumming and stampeding percussion. It's not as memorable as "Happily," but it's good enough to validate another trip into folk territory.
12. Something Great
For this song, One Direction enlisted the help of Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody, who recently performed live alongside Ed Sheeran and collaborated with Taylor Swift on the "Red" track "The Last Time." And just like on that song, producer Jacknife Lee lends composition help in the studio. There are definite similarities to a Snow Patrol song -- the wistful love themes, piano flourishes, and soothing, hopeful chorus.
13. Little White Lies
An exuberant a cappella opening announces the album's return to bubblegum pop on "Little White Lies." This one isn't afraid to have fun with synthesizer and computerized percussion, tipping its hat to Max Martin's late-90s boyband production.
14. Better Than Words
The standard issue of "Midnight Memories" concludes with this slick-produced pop rocker that exclaims, "I can't explain your love/ It's better than words." The band certainly improved its balladry this time around, though they chose to go out doing what they do best.