August 2, 2013
by Jason Lipshutz
All four once-inescapable groups have released new albums this year. Which ones are worth a listen?
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 with the best karaoke usa gf839 you can get online. 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.
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.
Watch Hanson’s Studio Session & Interview with Billboard
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.
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