I love when the record label doesn’t even tell you they are releasing a new ‘NSYNC album tomorrow ! #TheyCare
— Lance Bass, after discovering The Essential NSYNC existed the day before its release date, on Twitter
Ask anyone who was a teenager in the ’90s, and the question was simple: are you a Backstreet Boys fan or NSYNC (or, perhaps, maybe *NSYNC)? Oh sure, you might have pined for the hits of 5ive, O-Town, 98 Degrees, or maybe even LFO — the latter of whom was responsible for the biggest accidental comedy song of all time — but, really, at the end of the day, the battle of the boy bands came down to BSB or “Justin Timberlake & Friends”.
Yet unlike great pop rivalries like the Beatles/Rolling Stones or Blur/Oasis, very little actually distinguished the two great boy bands. They both consisted of five members, they both shared the same record label, producers, and even the same creepy manager in the form of Lou Pearlman. The Backstreet Boys wound up selling over twice as many albums worldwide, but Justin Timberlake proved to be the only one to really break out of the teen pop era aside from Britney Spears, becoming a small entertainment empire unto himself (not to mention a really shitty business investor). Even with diehard fans of these two groups still in existence, the tradition of hiring young men to sing songs to young girls with disposable incomes will never truly run out of style, because even removed from the genre’s oversaturation at the start of the millennium, it’s a formula that will always be profitable.
Now, a decade since the genre’s apex, the Backstreet Boys still record and tour to their remaining believers, while NSYNC, despite having reunited as part of a recent Justin Timberlake tribute at the MTV Video Music Awards, were given Sony Legacy’s traditional double-disc Essential treatment, even as the band members noted how not even they were informed of the record’s existence. While Timberlake has since released a string of successful solo albums, JC Chasez released a surprisingly-underrated disc solo disc in 2004, and somehow Joey Fatone’s comedy album never came into existence, The Essential NSYNC is designed to be the definitive statement on the band’s legacy, grabbing all the big tracks while also collecting the collaborations and one-offs that pepper their discography, thereby making it the one-stop shop for those curious as to that group that Timberlake was in prior to him being a famous solo star. Intended to enshrine their achievements writ large, The Essential actually does the exact opposite, proving just how utterly sappy, limited, and ultimately dated their output turned out to be.
When producing music designed for the sole purpose of topping the charts, it’s of no surprise that a great majority of the band’s early material is very much of-the-era. Pair late ’90s drum machine sounds with a few simple piano chords and a warm synth pad and — voila! — you have a chart entry. This would inevitably become known as “the Max Martin sound” despite the fact that he worked on only a select few of the quintet’s early dance-pop singles, namely “I Want You Back” and the scorching “Tearin’ Up My Heart”. Producer Veit Renn was the only regularly consistent collaborator that the group had at the time, because all of the band’s early output was either written by committee or by an established schmaltz-machine like Diane Warren (“Music of My Heart”) or Richard Marx (“This I Promise You”).
So while the Backstreet Boys broke first, NSYNC was hot on their heels, scoring easy hits done in the same style as their Jive counterparts. Yet listening to songs like “Thinking of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)” and the vapid meta experiment that is “Pop” in 2014 reveals a certain thinness to the band’s recordings, a performance aesthetic that is far removed from any sort of emotional honesty. Ultimately, honesty is what helps determine a recording’s staying power. For example, the group’s 1997 debut is littered with cover songs, and hearing their mostly-acapella version of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” or even their unimaginative take on Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” highlight how despite Timberlake (the charisma) and Chasez (the actual vocal talent) being the only two people ever allowed to take lead vocal, the group never really gelled as vocalists. The band would through the motions of a pop vocal group, but it never really utilized its limited talents to try and get to anything meaningful in their performances. (Say what you will about the Backstreet Boys, but each and every one of those members could sing solo and do it damn well to boot.)
While Timberlake did take on more writing and even some production duties on later efforts, he still couldn’t stop the group’s natural inclination towards overt sentimentality. Ballads like “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time On You” and “I Thought She Knew” prove to be cloying in the sappiest of ways, produced to a shiny polish that removed all life and emotion out of them. Sure, upbeat tracks like “Tearin’ Up My Heart” still has some pump and everyone knows “It’s Gonna Be Me” is still horrible, but in listening to The Essential, it’s obvious that NSYNC’s songs never really defined their era so much as were merely a product of them. These songs entertain on a purely nostalgic level, but as standalone pop efforts, it is genuinely surprising to find them aging as poorly as they have.
That being said, The Essential‘s second disc is actually one worth seeking out for collectors, as it winds up grabbing a lot of lesser-known and sometimes downright obscure tracks to try and tell the NSYNC story. As a result, it’s a far more interesting listen, then, say, the group’s one-off collaboration with Joe. Of all their cover songs, their Disney-fied take on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” actually proves entertaining due to its spritely vocal arrangements, while the remake of “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You” with Alabama turns out to fit its country makeover surprisingly well (and gave Alabama their fourth highest US pop hit in the process). “Trashin’ the Camp”, a ridiculous, wordless one-off from Phil Collins’ Tarzan soundtrack, is the kind of fun collector’s number that fans would love to have, and the mere notion that The Essential has the gall to include the theme song from On the Line, Lance Bass & Joey Fatone’s ill-fated 2001 romantic comedy, is a campy treat in and of itself. As if that weren’t enough, the fact that the album ends with a song taken from their Seasame Street appearance and not, say, “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays“, is in itself worthy of praise.
Ultimately, for fans, The Essential NSYNC is actually worth the price of admission, containing every hit they could possibly want while including a lot of oddities and extras which helps give the boy band some actual personality. In terms of the music itself, it has aged atrociously, mainly due to the fact that mainstream dance-pop has never known to have a generous half-life. For fans, it has everything you could possibly need. For everyone else, it’s a lengthy time capsule that is best kept where most time capsules should be: buried underground where no one can find it.