A.J. McLean, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, Kevin Richardson, Nick Carter: The Backstreet Boys. That line itself will have you, the reader, exit or read further; it all depends on how you feel about this pop phenom.
The late 90’s five-piece found international success in 1996 before finally cracking the American market a year later. You know the rest. Blockbuster sales, hormonal teenage fans (girls and boys), drawing the ire of the rock press, and even a scandal or two. Through it all, the five men of Backstreet maintained an unexpected level head.
The fellas more importantly managed to break out of the boy band mold of lesser followers (★NSYNC) and spotlight their polyphonic pop harmonies; without question, Backstreet have the pipes to play at the big boys table in popular music. Their stream of now classic and (of course) unsung material spread across seven albums is baffling. To boomerang the subject back to “classic and unsung” material, this entry is an attempt to peek at some (of my) favorites from the Backstreet Boys.
The listing specifically coincides with their official 20th anniversary marker on April 20, 2013 to commemorate their first formation. The celebration has an already heady set-up: an eighth album, new tour, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Big events. This is my way of giving kudos for their longevity; 10 cuts (album and single fare) will be selected and discussed. I hope you all enjoy it.
Thoughts: The Backstreet Boys were always vocal about how inspirational their fans were to their success. “Larger Than Life” moved that notion forward by putting their dedication over a pile-driving Euro-Americana-beat that ranked as one of their best uptempo moments to date. The wicked laugh of A.J. McLean that accompanies the opening is nothing short of a premonition that the Backstreet Boys were going to drop one of their stanker tracks on an unsuspecting populace. Mission accomplished.
[Watch/Listen to “Larger Than Life“]
Thoughts: The Backstreet Boys’ material from Never Gone (2005) onward took many surprising detours. “Undone” was one such turn in direction. The coiling groove worked at a boiling level, never reaching higher than needed. It allowed the Boys to take their harmonies right to the center of the cut and keep them there. A song of a darker color, which by then was not something the outfit was unfamiliar with, “Undone” was romance in shadow done to a high standard.
[Listen to “Undone“]
Thoughts: Arguably, the Backstreet Boys calling card that everyone from Brooklyn to Budapest could sing the chorus from. Fit and trim, the song was easy with its melody and rolling harmony. Looking past its amazing hook, the rest of the composition hangs alongside other great male-vocal group love staples like “I’ll Be Around” (by The Spinners) and “End of the Road” (by Boyz II Men).
[Watch/Listen to “I Want It That Way“]
Thoughts: The Backstreet Boys have (insanely) not compiled an album of just their love songs. If they were to do so, this forgotten number would most definitely warrant inclusion. At the time of its release, it somewhat stalled on the charts. However, it soared on the back of its skyscraping singing (some of BSB’s best) and played the heartstrings of even the hardest cynic.
[Watch/Listen to “More Than That“]
Thoughts: Backstreet Boys do a-ha? It sure sounded like it. The swiftness of this electronic backdrop recalled Minor Earth Major Sky (2000) era a-ha, but had a wall of vocalizing that only the Backstreet Boys could offer. Proof that not all of their uptempos had to be of the mentioned Euro-Americana-beat variety, “Everything But Mine” made a great case for BSB to (possibly) recast themselves in this sonic set-up more often.
[Listen to “Everything But Mine“]
Thoughts: Unbreakable had the Backstreet Boys at their most energized and vital. Despite the (temporary) departure of Kevin Richardson, the four remaining gentlemen drew together to craft an outstanding effort powered by emotional superchargers like “Unmistakable.” A showcase for each of the Backstreet members, the song held one of their strongest verse-and-chorus arrangements recorded.
[Listen to “Unmistakable“]
Thoughts: The first time the Backstreet Boys dimmed their light, in terms of their (then) saccharine image machine, and allowed something visceral to guide their music. Melancholy, lush, with (dare I say it) a touch of discernible ambience that heretofore hadn’t existed for the BSB; it endeared them to adults and gave them their shot at longevity.
[Watch/Listen to “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely“]
Thoughts: After their artistic indulgences had been engaged on their two previous platters, the Backstreet Boys returned with a single that was thoroughly throwback. “Bigger” was all classic emoto-harmonies, enormous chorus, and melodically fortified pop to the T. One of the disappointing commercial misses of their tenure, “Bigger” isn’t any less of a fantastic piece of pure pop because of that.
[Watch/Listen to “Bigger“]
Thoughts: Largely an acoustic fantasia, Never Gone compelled most on the expansive “Siberia.” Devastatingly in-tune lyrically and musically, the track ushered in, like its parent album, the “official” adult turn-of-season for the Backstreet Boys. Solid vocals that had their blends front-and-center like never before, “Siberia” was a true career highlight.
[Listen to “Siberia“]
Thoughts: Firstly, the premise of the song may still confuse some. The Backstreet Boys, as discussed, had already broken Europe. This was a single lifted from their second album of a similar name abroad. However, Stateside, their debut was just rearing its head. The song was so strong that despite the narrative confusion for the U.S. public, the song remained on their first U.S. recording. Probably their second largest anthem (w/ “I Want It That Way”), “Everybody” is a funky, nasty get-down of urban-pop that still fills up the floor when the beat drops.
[Watch/Listen to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)“]
[Editor’s Note: *-denotes single, **-denotes album cut. All recordings mentioned are readily in print, physically and digitally. For current information on the Backstreet Boys, visit their official site.-QH]