On the occasion of their 15th anniversaries.
Exactly fifteen years ago today, NSYNC gave the world No Strings Attached—the group’s second (and strongest) album. Six months later, the Backstreet Boys released Black & Blue. So to celebrate their anniversaries, we’re ranking all the songs on both albums—together.
These boy bands spent most of their careers being compared, for obvious reasons. Each group consists of five guys; both released their debut U.S. albums around the same time in the late ’90s; both No Strings Attached and Black & Blue were released by Jive Records. And both NSYNC and BSB started in part thanks to Lou Pearlman, a man who quickly made a name for himself as a boy band Svengali before everyone figured out he was a scammer. (He’s now serving time in prison for multiple fraud-related charges.)
But despite those oft-cited similarities, the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC are separate animals. The Backstreet Boys are ballad experts; NSYNC had the uptempo dancers. Both groups occassionally drifted into the other’s territory, and sometimes succeeded in doing so.
For the purposes of this ranking, though, we’re pretending like No Strings and Black & Blue are one big super album. So read on, and feel free to speed past the dull stuff to get to the good parts—just like you would on the actual CDs.
25. “It’s True,” Backstreet Boys
Is this Backstreet Boys, or a teenaged Backstreet Boys cover band? It’s hard to tell, because it sounds too much like a generic love song made specifically for Delilah to play on her evening show.
24. “I Promise You (With Everything I Am),” Backstreet Boys
Another built-for-weddings track that doesn’t have the heart of “Yes I Will” and doesn’t adequetely show off its singers’ voices. This could easily be any boy band’s ballad, and lyrics like “How do you prove the sky is blue?” don’t help elevate it. Like, really, Nick: You prove the sky is blue by going outside.
23. “That’s When I’ll Stop Loving You,” NSYNC
Every so often, Backstreet Boys will slip into NSYNC’s uptempo territory and NSYNC will slip into Backstreet Boy’s ballad territory. Sometimes it works; sometimes not so much—like with “That’s When I’ll Stop Loving You,” a track that’s too bland to truly deserve a place on this otherwise super-colorful album.
22. “How Did I Fall in Love With You,” Backstreet Boys
This Howie-penned song is inoffensive enough (that piano!) until you listen to the lyrics: “Remember when we never needed each other, the best of friends like sister and brother.” It’s a love song, and freakin’ Howie is trying to seduce this woman by recalling how they were like siblings when they were kids. Way to kill the mood, bro.
21. “I’ll Be Good For You,” NSYNC
Justin previews his future solo career by (mostly) taking the lead on “I’ll Be Good For You,” a song you might hear on the smooth jazz station—and that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album. At all. And that’s a pretty big feat to accomplish, given that this is an album that includes radio-ready singles as well as anthems blatantly advocating phone sex.
20. “Shining Star,” Backstreet Boys
This comes right after “Get Another Boyfriend” on Black & Blue, a track that’s so wonderfully manic the listener needs at least one ballad afterwards to calm down. “Shining Star” is the anti-ballad, though—which would be fine if it were as good, or even almost as good, as “Get Another Boyfriend.” Instead, it’s an exhausting attempt to emulate NSYNC that’s too turbulent to be enjoyable.
19. “Bringin’ Da Noise,” NSYNC
For you those times when you need to, you know, bring down da house or raise the roof, this track is here for you. It’s appropriately bouncy, and JC gets a chance to show off his voice (and to sing “y’all” a bunch).
18. “Yes I Will,” Backstreet Boys
This might as well be titled “We Hope You Play This At Your Wedding.” (That’s only partly intended as a dig—A.J., who’s credited as a co-writer, actually didn’t do so bad.)
17. “I Thought She Knew,” NSYNC
If “This I Promise You” is NSYNC stripped down, “I Thought She Knew” is NSYNC completely naked. Their voices take the spotlight in this a capella ditty that’d fit in great at a high school choir concert, adding a sort of innocence that makes it all the sweeter.
16. “This I Promise You,” NSYNC
Most songs on No Strings Attached are chaotic, sounding sort of like like the producer led his kids to the sound effects board and told them to go at it. But not “This I Promise You,” a relatively simple ballad with so-sweet-it-hurts lyrics and pretty Spanish guitars.
15. “Not For Me,” Backstreet Boys
“Not For Me” is the hidden treasure of Black & Blue. It’s buried in the album’s back half, between “Time” and “Yes I Will,” right before the sludge of pretty-but-dull ballads. An energetic palate cleanser, if you will.
14. “No Strings Attached,” NSYNC
“No Strings Attached” is a perfectly fine pop song, but compared to the album’s other tracks, it’s just… blah. It’s not themed like “Space Cowboy” or “Digital Get Down,” and it’s not as high-drama as “Bye Bye Bye” or “It’s Gonna Be Me.”
13. “Just Got Paid,” NSYNC
There they go again with those overlapping harmonies on “Just Got Paid,” a track that’s not especially special musically but has remained memorable nonetheless. Think about it: How often do you hear “Friday night” and immediately hum “just got paid”? (Note: This isn’t an NSYNC original—Johnny Kemp first debuted the song back in 1988.)
12. “The Answer to Our Life,” Backstreet Boys
Has this been used for an inspiring montage yet? Because it’d be perfect for that.
11. “Everyone,” Backstreet Boys
Backstreet were deep into a synth period during Black & Blue, and it shows in “Everyone”: Throughout most of the song, there’s a a little synthesized voice underneath the Boys’ real voices. But the kind-of-creepy effect works in the track’s favor, giving the otherwise clichéd song—an ode to their fans, featuring lyrics like “We’re standing strong cause of what you’ve done”—an added weirdness.
10. “It Makes Me Ill,” NSYNC
“It Makes Me Ill” sounds like a song someone created for NSYNC after listening to Destiny’s Child debut on repeat. It’s more subconscious knockoff than direct homage, a bouncy replica of Destiny’s “Bills, Bills, Bills” but with a more distressed, faster-paced vibe.
9. “Time,” Backstreet Boys
“Time” sounds straight off Backstreet’s Back, and that’s a good thing. Both BSB and NSYNC went for more cluttered sounds during this period, but the former has always been at its best when performing slower, simpler songs that puts the band’s varied voices front and center—which is exactly what this one does.
8. “Digital Get Down,” NSYNC
This is the song that thousands of pre-teen girls sang to each other, not realizing the lyrics were all about having dirty, dirty, phone sex. It’s completely dated, sure, but it’s also beautifully fitting of its time: the instrumentation mimics dial tones, and they really go heavy on the (bad) autotune.
7. “More Than That,” Backstreet Boys
A midtempo version of “This I Promise You,” “More Than That” rises above NSYNC’s song thanks to its breathless bridge and A.J.’s standout vocals. And how can you not melt each time Brian—the group’s strongest singer—croons about how much he promises to love you?
6. “Bye Bye Bye,” NSYNC
Timberlake’s opening, whiny-as-hell (and surprisingly sexy) “hey, hey” is evidence that he fully deserved his heartthrob status. As the opener to No Strings Attached, “Bye Bye Bye” announces “Hey, we’re here!” without holding anything back. Although its melody isn’t as instantly memorable as “It’s Gonna Be Me,” it still has that catchy drama—similar to “The Call” but not as intense—that makes it an ideal party song even years after its debut.
5. “Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay),” NSYNC
NSYNC excels at themed songs, and “Space Cowboy” is no exception: It’s four minutes of pure, galactic fun that would be fine on its own, but goes above and beyond (or rather, to infinity and beyond) thanks to Left Eye’s playful rap and the joyful mindlessness of the repeated yippie-yi-yays.
4. “Get Another Boyfriend,” Backstreet Boys
The urgency of the track’s message—see the title—is reflected in the music itself, chaotic like “The Call” but with more demanding pleading. Sure, it’s essentially Backstreet’s version of “It’s Gonna Be Me”—but “It’s Gonna Be Me” is a great song. So that’s forgiven.
3. “Shape of My Heart,” Backstreet Boys
Here, the Boys do what they do best: sing their little hearts out. The track starts out slow and soft, with subtle vocal echoing, but builds to a perfect sing-along—complete with all five voices—by the chorus. The fact that it’s sung from the perspective of someone begging for forgiveness, offering to expose himself completely (by showing his love the shape of his heart, of course) only adds to the intensity. Altogether, “Shape” remains one of the group’s all-time greatest. Plus, it includes the made-up word “tragical,” earning it extra points for creativity.
2. “It’s Gonna Be Me,” NSYNC
NSYNC is perhaps best known for “Bye Bye Bye,” but “It’s Gonna Be Me” is the album’s—nay, the NSYNC discography’s—real star. With a relatively simple melody and Justin’s slightly menacing vocals, “It’s Gonna Be May Me” is a track that takes the group’s strengths and puts them on blast. What results is an irrestible three minutes that climaxes with a bridge highlighting the kind of overlapping harmonies that define boy bands.
1. “The Call,” Backstreet Boys
The church-like a cappella bridge is enough to cement “The Call” as a member of our top five, but its juxtaposition against the song’s stalking, hyper instrumentals is what really makes this track stand out. Everything about it is so unapologetically dramatic, from the pounding beats to the spoken word interruptions to Nick’s desperate crooning. And the whole song is a narrative about a single phone call, making it somehow both hilarious and epic.