It’s been just another ordinary week for the biggest boy band in the world, One Direction: the quintet scored its best Hot 100 rank ever this week when new single “Best Song Ever” promptly blasted to No. 2 on the tally. “Best Song Ever” has notched the biggest debut sales frame for a single this year, and marks another typically huge achievement for a group that has a pair of No. 1 albums, an 3D film coming out later this month, a stadium tour scheduled for 2014 and the fanatical devotion of millions of young music fans.
The hearts of the screaming kids — well, maybe not of those particular kids, but of the lung-deflated tweens of yesteryear — used to belong to a different collection of reliably handsome, generally clean-cut gents; the bubble letters written in glitter marker on neon-green signs used to spell out “BSB,” not “1D.” Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, New Kids on the Block and Hanson all remain names recognizable to practically everyone, but mostly for songs and albums released a decade ago, or more. They now primarily exist as answers in trivia games, entries in nostalgic playlists and essential options for karaoke enthusiasts searching for multi-part harmonies. Sure, there are still scores of devoted fans who still consider “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” a pop product worth regularly returning to, and others unafraid to trumpet the gorgeousness of Nick Lachey. These fans are passionate, genuine, and not to be patronized. But for the most part, they are large-hearted outliers in a society obsessed with the swoop above Harry Styles’ green eyes.
The four aforementioned groups have all released new albums in 2013 — NKOTB issued “10” in early April, 98 Degrees returned with “2.0” in May, Hanson dropped “Anthem” in June and BSB released “In A World Like This” earlier this week. According to Nielsen SoundScan, “10,” “2.0” and “Anthem” sold 51,000 copies, 7,000 copies and 13,000 copies in their first weeks of release, respectively. As reported earlier this week, “In A World Like This” is on course to sell around 50,000 copies in its first frame. Those numbers are nothing to sneeze at — but compared to the 540,000 copies that One Direction’s “Take Me Home” album sold in its first week last November, the debuts demonstrate the lack of attention that these groups, who were such a force in the 1990s, are now receiving from music purchasers in the 2010s when compared to the fresh-faced boy bands. While NKOTB and Hanson have seen recent singles pop up in the lower reaches of the Adult Pop Songs chart, none of the four groups have graced the Hot 100 this year. As easy as it would be to provoke the stodgiest of listeners to remember the refrain of “I Want It That Way,” it would be equally as difficult for most casual pop fans to name a Backstreet Boys single released after 2006, let alone their latest radio offering. The cultural tsunamis that these collectives created by releasing new music in their heydays have now turned into inoffensive ripples.
Not surprisingly, all four collectives are tirelessly touring in support of their new albums, because that’s where they make legitimate bank. Hanson will traverse the world behind “Anthem” through mid-December, Backstreet Boys kick off a lengthy international run on Friday night (Aug. 2), and NKOTB and 98 Degrees have linked up, along with Boyz II Men, for the Package Tour, which winds down this weekend after beginning in May. According to Billboard Boxscore, Hanson grossed $420,000 over the course of nine shows on its Shout It Out world trek in 2011-12, and the NKOTBSB Tour — a cleverly named mash-up of New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys — grossed a whopping $48.5 million from May 2011 to May 2012. These groups can still book arenas inside and outside of the United States, because what pop fan wouldn’t enjoy one night (una noche, if you will) of singing along to “Larger Than Life,” “MMMBop,” “Step By Step” or “Because of You”? For large swaths of Top 40 junkies, Backstreet Boys, New Kids on the Block, 98 Degrees and Hanson are the new heritage artists, soldiering into their third decades (or nearing their fourth decade, in the case of NKOTB) and celebrating their bubblegum pasts while their brethren have either shimmied into new creative territory (Justin Timberlake) or stepped away from the game altogether (the rest of *N SYNC).
Does this revenue reality make these groups’ new albums complete afterthoughts? Let’s take a look at all four new albums from the 90s giants.
Of the four LPs, 98 Degrees’ “2.0” is the only one that can be called a “comeback” record. The quartet spent a solid six years apart before reuniting at the inaugural Mixtape Festival last summer, and soon after announced that it would head into the studio to record the follow-up to 2000’s “Revelation.” 98 Degrees boasts a largely congenial canon of singles and visuals, mostly on their “98 Degrees and Rising” album from (duh) 1998. “Because of You” has a sunny two-note acoustic flicker at its center, “I Do (Cherish You)’s” music video had a record-scratching cameo from Dustin Diamond, and “The Hardest Thing” still has the single best “Doctor Zhivago” shout-out in the history of pop music. The group’s main problem was the timing of its ascent, which coincided with the dual “Total Request Live” takeover of Backstreet Boys and *N SYNC, and left the Lachey bros. and co. as something of a third banana. Perhaps a reunion after 13 years of studio inactivity would produce some more hummable moments now that the 90s boy band debates have long been put to bed.
“2.0” was pieced together by an army of producers and songwriters, and as a result, the album flails around without ever deciding what it is. There are undercooked electro-pop entries (“Girls Night Out,” “Hush, Hush”), swollen piano ballads (“Let Go Of My Heart”), and a song that is definitely not a Supertramp cover but is definitely about getting naughty while driving (“Take The Long Way Home”). The first single, the unabashedly phallic “Microphone,” is deep-fried cheese that never congeals, while “Can’t Get Enough” tweaks that formula and at least comes across as a pleasant Bee Gees homage. Nick Lachey’s distinctive tone can still carry a vocal group, but 98 Degrees never had a chance to croon anything of substance with this unimaginative batch of songs. It’s a bitter pill to swallow that the best two songs on “2.0” are tacked-on acoustic refreshers of “Because of You” and “Invisible Man.”
Relatively speaking, the biggest hit to thus far emerge from this quartet of full-lengths is “Remix (I Like The),” the first single from New Kids on the Block’s “10” album, which has sold 87,000 downloads according to Nielsen SoundScan and earned 1.9 million global YouTube clicks for its music videos. The impressive numbers make sense: “Remix (I Like The)” is one of the smartest and most downright enjoyable pop singles of 2013, and, compared to a single like 98 Degrees’ “Microphone,” actually expands NKOTB’s sonic territory. An ode to the outcast being transformed into an object of unhinged desire, “Remix” doubles as a declaration for the revitalized New Kids themselves. The group’s last album, 2008’s “The Block,” was a reunion effort mired in label-approved collaborations with contemporary pop stars like Lady Gaga and Ne-Yo, and was the equivalent of an graying artist being hosed down with black dye. As the lead single to “10,” which comes a half-decade after “The Block” and has no vocal guest stars, “Remix (I Like The)” is a spiky soul track highlighted by a smirking guitar riff, and lets the band exhale a bit.
Aside from Jordan Knight’s still-great solo single “Give It To You” — which, fun fact, was co-written by Robin Thicke! — the NKOTB boys haven’t released much noteworthy music since their stunning run of success in the late 80s and early 90s. “Remix (I Like The)” changes that, and while nothing else on “10” grazes the quality of its first single, the album achieves a certain steadiness thanks to the slick production from Danish crew Deekay. Tracks like “Wasted On You,” “We Own Tonight” and “Miss You More” seesaw between R&B hooks and highly manicured pop arrangements, and the New Kids are entertainingly melodramatic throughout, a necessary skill when delivering lines like “Every dream I have unfulfilled/I wanna scream, but I lost the will!” After hearing “Remix (I Like The)” as the album’s second track, listeners could be understandably bummed by the rest of “10’s” material, but in reality, the album steers New Kids on the Block in the right direction after the scattershot “The Block.” The NKOTB guys have bestowed fans with a full-length with very few missteps, and their work with Deekay will hopefully continue to produce more “Remix”es.
First thing’s first: Kevin’s back on Backstreet. After amicably leaving BSB in 2006, Kevin Richardson makes his official studio return on “In A World Like This,” which was recorded in London and Los Angeles over the past year. Compared to 98 Degrees and New Kids on the Block, who both took extended breaks when the pandemonium died down, Backstreet Boys have been workhorses, consistently releasing albums and touring to live up to the name of their 2005 album “Never Gone.” Those who stopped listening after BSB’s last mega-seller, 2000’s “Black & Blue,” have missed out on some real treats in a hit-or-miss latter-day catalog, including the blow-the-speakers-out epic 2005 single “Incomplete” and some shimmering dance tunes on the first half of 2009’s “This Is Us.” Dependability is the name of BSB’s game at this point in their careers — the Boys will continue issuing albums every three-to-five years, with songs that vary in replay value but are never laughable.
The independently released “In A World Like This” is less of a dance album than “This Is Us,” especially once the listener moves past the flashes of “Shape of My Heart” memories that the Max Martin-produced title track conjures as well as the cracked-disco-ball antics of “Permanent Stain.” Instead, the majority of “World,” from the mid-tempo chest-thumper “Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of)” to the sly “The Call” callback “One Phone Call,” is the type of easily digestible rock material that you could hear on the current Train/Gavin DeGraw/The Script tour. The fingerprints of Swedish producer Martin Terefe — who, natch, produced Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” and co-produced Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” — are on four songs here, with the saccharine “Trust Me” most resoundingly embracing the coffee-shop bebop that Mraz has sunk into so deeply. “In A World Like This” is not riveting, but a quiet evolution is occurring within BSB, to the point where it wouldn’t be surprising if the group’s next album included one or even zero dance tracks (in an interview with MTV last summer, Richardson stated that the group wanted Terefe to produce the entire album). The lyrics are more grown-up and the songs will induce teary sing-alongs on this arena tour and the next. Backstreet Boys — all five of them, now — keep chugging along.
Allow, if you will, a sports detour: J.J. Redick is a 29-year-old NBA player who, once upon a time, was the most popular athlete in college basketball. The sharpshooter set multiple records during his four years at Duke and became a household name before being selected 11th overall by the Orlando Magic in the 2006 draft. Redick fell to 11th because he is not a freak athlete like LeBron James or Dwight Howard; despite his star power and high expectations, he is considered a three-point and free-throw specialist, a role player on a team that needs better players around him to compete. And in his seven years as a pro (mostly with the Magic), Redick has been a reliable scoring threat and sound teammate, showing up every night as a niche player and succeeding.
Hanson, of course, is the J.J. Redick of music. The decade and a half that has followed trio’s Hot 100 chart-topper “MMMBop” has never produced another single that entered its onomatopoeic stratosphere, and sooner rather than later, the Hanson brothers became completely fine with that. Like Backstreet Boys, Hanson bang out new albums with remarkable consistency and without major label affiliation, but unlike BSB, their albums are front-to-back rock-solid and never stray too far from the sort of well-rounded Americana that came afloat when their voices deepened on 2000’s “This Time Around.” “Anthem” has pieces of blues, soul, funk and country being refracted through a pop-rock prism, and lead single “Get The Girl Back” grooves forward with a timeless catchiness that pays no mind to current radio trends but doesn’t feel like a retread either. If you want to nitpick, “Anthem” is a tad too long, but Hanson continues to operate in an aesthetic that’s always welcoming to strangers and never lets down diehard fans. That’s something worth celebrating.
So what’s the future look like for this collection of “man bands”? Growing pains have occurred all around, and some have learned to manage their post-boom musical output better than others. It’s probably too late in the game for any of these artists to issue “edgy” material that rejiggers their universally accepted images — to do so would risk both alienating longtime fan bases who keep buying concert tickets, as well as coming off like a mockery. There can be subtle shifts in a group’s sonic DNA, like what Backstreet Boys is trying to pull off with “In A World Like This,” but scorching a well-worn brand is not in the cards for any of these four acts.
For 98 Degrees, NKOTB, Backstreet Boys and Hanson, then, the best-case scenario is to continue dropping new material that pleases the lifers while trying to engage casual listeners with fresh ideas. That what’s New Kids on the Block achieves on “Remix (I Like The),” and it’s what Hanson has done to avoid self-combusting as a one-hit wonder. These groups aren’t firing off Hot 100 smashes like One Direction is, and probably never will again. Fortunately, that’s not the only measure of success in pop.