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New Kids on the Block's 10 Best Songs: Staff Picks

New Kids On The Block
Michel Linssen/Redferns

New Kids On The Block photographed circa 1989.

In celebration of Jordan Knight turning 50 on May 17, we're spotlighting the best of NKOTB.

When New Kids on the Block debuted in 1986, few people took notice, and those who did didn't seem to think the adolescent quintet would last for another album -- much less another 30-plus-years.

After all, this was a group of teens propped up by a behind-the-scenes mastermind, Maurice Starr, who wrote the bulk of their music and controlled their direction. Plus, their self-titled album featured a self-titled song where these clean-cut New England kids criticized "cuss" words and less-than-accurately boasted "we're the funky MCs of the hip-hop craze."

But with 1988's Hangin' Tough, a certified boy band classic, everything changed. Jordan Knight, Jonathan Knight, Joey McIntyre, Donnie Wahlberg and Danny Wood matured lyrically and certainly vocally, demonstrating that they were just as capable selling silky-smooth harmonies as they were getting the party started; they weren't exactly bad boys, but they had more of an edge than their squeaky-clean debut suggested.

After three decades, seven albums, three Hot 100 No. 1s and one 14-year hiatus, New Kids on the Block are still going strong, demonstrating that we underestimate boy band heartthrobs at our own peril -- sometimes, they turn into man bands that keep fans singing decades after the posters have come down from the bedroom walls.

From earnest ballads to stomping sing-alongs to highlights from the surprisingly successful second act of their career, here are the 10 best NKOTB tracks (not including their work with disciples Backstreet Boys as NKOTBSB).

10. "I Wanna Be Loved By You"

Are you interested in the five kids on this album cover telling you their names and signs in dramatic spoken word, á la The Floaters' "Float On" from a decade earlier, and then making the title declaration? Maybe not at the moment, but as a young teen in the late '80s you might've found it significantly less resistible, particularly with all the gorgeous harmonies and waves of synths going on in the six-word chorus.

9. "Remix (I Like The)"

It might be a slight exaggeration to call NKOTB's 2013 comeback single the "Sucker" of the early '10s -- that song debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100, this didn't sniff the chart -- but the quintet's ode to a girl from a past life's recent glow-up was just as pleasantly surprising and punchy as that JoBros jam. At the very least, with its updated funk-rock stomp and classic soul-styled vocals, you can bet that Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson were yelling at one another, "Why didn't you think of that first?"

8. "Dirty Dawg"

A group of white-boy heartthrobs severing ties with their behind-the-scenes string-puller (Maurice Starr) and going all-in on a pivot to a Black-created art (new jack swing) sounds disastrous on paper, but NKOTB surprisingly pull off the mixture of seduction and danger that made the genre so beguiling. When Knight growls "oooh" at the minute-and-a-half mark, you can bet Timberlake was listening and taking notes for his solo career.

7. "Summertime"

Prior to their celebrated Backstreet Boys team-up as NKOTBSB, the reunited man band scored an unexpected top 40 return in 2008 with "Summertime." The song's sonic template has strong shades of co-producer RedOne and co-writer Nasri (Chris Brown, Justin Bieber), but New Kids are still the star, with lead vocalists Wahlberg, Knight and McIntyre demonstrating that their velvety harmonies could sell the romantic, affable radio pop of '08 just as well as that of '88.

6. "My Favorite Girl"

Teen boy band whisperer Maurice Starr typically had sole songwriting credit on most early NKOTB tunes, but this non-single Hangin' Tough standout also boasts the pens of Jordan Knight and Danny Wood (who share lead vocals here) and Donnie Wahlberg. This album cut exemplifies why New Kids managed to stretch their time in the spotlight: Prince this ain't, but "My Favorite Girl" is convincingly funky '80s pop delivered with adept, sweetly soulful vocals that proved they were more than just the product of a pop marketing Svengali.

5. "I'll Be Loving You (Forever)"

Over a soft mist of uber-processed adult contemporary flourishes, Jordan Knight channeled his inner Bee Gee on the gentle, falsetto-filled ballad "I'll Be Loving You (Forever)" and helped New Kids on the Block make the leap from preteen poster fodder to the pop A-list; not only was it their first No. 1 on the Hot 100, but the first song from a group of teens to top the chart since the Osmonds' "One Bad Apple" 18 years earlier.

4. "Tonight"

By the end of its first minute, NKOTB's most ambitious single has already hit you with a flamenco guitar intro, a plodding, softly falsetto'd first verse that sounds borrowed from the Alan Parsons Project (if not for self-referential lyrics: "Told you 'bout 'Hangin' Tough'/ Long as you got 'The Right Stuff'...") and an ornate pre-chorus straight from Sgt. Pepper's. It's a bizarre concoction -- particularly for an ostensible teen-pop single, one that hit the Hot 100's top 10 -- but 30 years later it continues to fascinate and delight like few other top 40 songs from its era.

3. "Hangin' Tough"

Mixing stomping arena rock (the riff is not a far cry from "I Love Rock 'n' Roll") with Whodini-flavored sing-speak and some "Tarzan Boy" woah-oh-ohs for good measure, this would be the strangest No. 1 to top the Hot 100 in a normal year, except 1989 also saw "Batdance" and "We Didn't Start the Fire" crown the chart. Regardless, this Donnie Wahlberg-captained ship is one strange trip: Unlike the album version, the "Tougher Mix" heard on radio actually cuts to some operatic mezzo-soprano wailing after the line "it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings." Bravissimo.

2. "You Got It (The Right Stuff)"

Still the New Kids song that probably best illustrates the group's core appeal: an effervescent pop production, a simple-but-unstoppable bubblegum hook, just enough hip-hop edge that your parents couldn't confuse 'em with The Osmonds, and even a little corresponding dance in the video for good measure. Best moment: the final way through the "All that I wanted was you… " bridge, when instead of Jordan finishing his "You made all..." thought with "...my dreams come true," he hits 'em with the spoken word "You know what you did." Guaranteed he'd be scoring solo hits written by Robin Thicke a decade later.

1. "Step By Step"

The one New Kids song that even haters had to give it up for at least a little bit. Meshing a Motown-ready melody and lyric -- the "STEP ONE!" count-off section is a little goofy, but nothing you couldn't imagine the Supremes or Temptations pulling off a quarter-century earlier -- with a gorgeously lush, pulsing production that sounds like it could've adorned an ABC or Pet Shop Boys hit, "Step by Step" still plays as a classic pop song, straight up. It probably demonstrated at the time why the group's days were numbered (once Donnie shows up to the music video on a motorcycle wearing a Public Enemy tee, it really is just a matter of time) but as far as final No. 1 singles go, it's as obvious a career apex as you could ask for.

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