50 Greatest Boy Band Songs of All Time – Rolling Stone
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50 Greatest Boy Band Songs of All Time

From the Monkees to 1D: pre-fab pop’s most scream-worthy songs

'N Sync, The Osmonds and Backstreet Boys

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Irresistibly catchy, unapologetically inauthentic, sexy and they know it — the boy band is the most fabulously pre-fab of all musical outfits. From the scripted TV shenanigans of the Monkees to the surprisingly grown One Direction, as long as there are junior high school notebooks to deface, there will be outfits providing pop spectacle in its purist, least filtered form.

In deciding the right stuff for a list of the 50 greatest boy band songs, we had to exclude bands that weren’t sufficiently svengali’d (apologies to Hanson and 5 Seconds of Summer — you kept it too real) and avoided acts too close to the Motown vocal group tradition (Boyz II Men, All-4-One and even Color Me Badd just seemed too much like our old 45s). What remains is a plethora of sugary delights from Eighties malls, Nineties Total Request Live playlists, contemporary X-Factor seasons, our Korean pop future and more. Check out the list below, and click here to listen to a playlist of all the songs.

New Edition

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of New Edition Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

11

New Edition, “Candy Girl” (1983)

When Maurice Starr saw Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Bobby Brown, Ronnie DeVoe and Ralph Tresvant at a talent show in the Dorchester section of Boston, he had a feeling . . . that he had another Jackson 5 on his hands. Enter "Candy Girl," an extra-sugary update of the Jacksons' "ABC" that gave New Edition their first taste of fame. Tresvant's high, sweet voice made him the band's Michael analogue, but the bridge — where the boys rap their devotionals to their girls of choice — added just enough edge to help it top the R&B chart in the U.S.

One Direction

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 07: (L-R) Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik and Niall Horan of One Direction perform onstage during Z100's Jingle Ball 2012, presented by Aeropostale, at Madison Square Garden on December 7, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Kane/Getty Images for Jingle Ball 2012)

Kevin Kane/Getty Images for Jingle Ball 2012

10

One Direction, “Story of My Life” (2013)

"Story of My Life" changed the musical course of this glossy X-Factor crew. Their third album, 2013's Midnight Memories, saw the boys not only co-writing their songs but exploring Def Leppard-style hair metal, Big Star-esque power pop and Mumford & Sons-infused folk rock. "Story of My Life" was the clear star, featuring an adult-pop guitar riff and soaring vocals from matured members who found a way to gracefully enter adulthood together. "The demo that we played the boys sounds a lot more folk-y than it does now," co-writer Jamie Scott told MTV. "That's what amazing about their voices — straight away it sounds like them."

New Kids on the Block

UNSPECIFIED - circa 1970: Photo of NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK (Photo by Michel Linssen/Redferns)

Michel Linssen/Redferns

9

New Kids on the Block, “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” (1988)

This lighter-than-air bubblegum track was the second single from New Kids' Hangin' Tough, and it ably showed off Jordan Knight's ability to embody an R&B crooner. It's a bit of an improbable hit, if only because it has so much space — thumping bass and drums, synth hits only when absolutely necessary, Knight's voice carrying the whole thing on a wave of infatuation and moxie. (Not to mention the Bauhaus shirt he wore in the song's careening-around-Boston video.) But that mix, especially when added to the "oh, oh, oh-oh-oh" chant that became a siren call in school hallways, was — and is — a potent one.

Take that

English boy band Take That pose in combat boots, boxer shorts and red boxing gloves, as worn in their first video 'Do What You Like', 1991. From left to right, Mark Owen, Howard Donald, Jason Orange, Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

8

Take That, “Back For Good” (1995)

In 1995, a simple tale of kitchen-sink heartbreak was enough to elevate Take That from U.K. teenage obsession to national treasures to international stars. With the boys smartened up in Versace suits for the single cover, "Back For Good" signified a new maturity for the band, which disappointed those fond of TT's campier disco origins — the NME called it "just too classy." It's doubtful Take That's 2006 comeback would have been quite as successful without "Back For Good" having laid the groundwork, preparing adolescent fans to become a grown-up pop audience. Having finally proven his songwriting chops, Gary Barlow later boasted to have written "Back For Good" in less than 15 minutes. "The songs I write quickest seem to come out the best," he told biographer Justin Lewis. Now firmly part of the British songbook, even the drunkest of traffic-cone-wearing rugby players could wipe a tear from their eye and bellow out "Whatever I said, whatever I did — I didn't mean it!"

Jackson 5

LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1972: R&B quintet "Jackson Five" pose for a studio portrait sitting on a bench in circa 1972 in Los Angeles, California. L-R: Tito Jackson, Jackie Jackson, Jermaine Jackson, Marlon Jackson, Michael Jackson. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

7

The Jackson 5, “ABC” (1970)

The Jackson 5 finished recording their debut album, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, in August of 1969. Before the month was over they were already back in the studio: Lead single "I Want You Back" seemed like a sure thing and Berry Gordy needed a follow-up ready. Hence "ABC," the sound-alike single that would knock the Beatles' "Let It Be" off the top of the charts less than seven months later. For a preteen Michael Jackson, it was a thrill just to watch songwriting team the Corporation come up with parts of the tune — the old-school "shake it, shake it, baby" bit, for instance — on the spot. "I loved 'ABC' from the first moment I heard it,'" he said. "I had more enthusiasm for that than I did for 'I Want You Back.'"

N Sync

American boyband N'Sync pose for a group portrait in London in 1998, L-R Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone, Lance Bass, Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez. (Photo by Mike Prior/Redferns)

Mike Prior/Redfern

6

‘N Sync, “Bye, Bye, Bye” (2000)

"There's a little more edge to this album, a little more grit," Justin Timberlake told Rolling Stone shortly before the release of 2000's No Strings Attached, joking about the lawsuits that prevented its release. "We're pissed off now — that's what it is. We're angry white boys who didn't get our props." 'N Sync's opening volley was "Bye, Bye, Bye," a kiss-off from Sweden's Cheiron Studios that had previously been turned down by Britishers Take That. It remains their defining track, a four-minute blast of big hooks, tight harmonies and intriguingly meta subtext.

Backstreet Boys

American boyband The Backstreet Boys at the MTV Awards in New York City, 4th September 1996. They are Brian Littrell, Nick Carter, A. J. McLean, Howie Dorough and Kevin Richardson (Photo by Tim Roney/Getty Images)

Tim Roney/Getty Images

5

Backstreet Boys, “I Want It That Way” (1999)

Swedish songwriters Andreas Carlsson and Max Martin were still working on their English when they came up with the couplet "You are my fire/The one desire." "The lyric doesn't really mean anything," the former would eventually admit. "The record company was like, 'We need to bring in maybe another lyricist to help work on this.'" Jive flew Def Leppard and Shania Twain producer Mutt Lange to Stockholm's Cheiron Studios for edits, but the Backstreet Boys preferred the original and recorded it as "I Want It That Way." Then the two songwriters completed the finishing touch: "The last thing that was added was the [opening guitar line] 'ba-do-do-ba-do-do-do,' which was like a Metallica kind of riff — which was off for the boy band scene at the time."

The Monkees

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of MONKEES (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

GAB Archive/Redferns

4

The Monkees, “I’m a Believer” (1967)

What was the biggest selling record in the year of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Light My Fire” and “Respect”? The answer is a TV sitcom band’s take on a Neil Diamond song. “I’m a Believer” had reached the Monkees by way of Brill Building publisher Don Kirshner, who reached out to Diamond and producer Jeff Berry after hearing the former’s nearly-as-catchy “Cherry, Cherry.” Diamond had written the tune with country singer Eddy Arnold in mind; and, upon hearing it, Monkees guitarist Michael Nesmith told Kirshner that it wouldn’t be a hit. Nesmith was happily wrong: The song is so ebullient that 35 years later, even Smash Mouth could land a cover in the Top 40.

Bay City Rollers

LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1975: Scottish rock band 'The Bay City Rollers' pose for a portrait in circa 1975 in Los Angeles, California. (L-R) Leslie Mckeown, Eric Faulkner, Alan Longmuir, Derek Longmuir and Stuart 'Woody' Wood. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

3

Bay City Rollers, “Saturday Night” (1975)

The Bay City Rollers intended to make their American debut with U.K. hit "Love Me Like I Love You," but Arista boss Clive Davis insisted they push "Saturday Night" instead. The Scottish group may not have lived up to their "next Beatles" billing, but the song — part Gary Glitter, part Frankie Valli — became the new label's first Number One. It also made some unlikely admirers. "I hate to blow the mystique, but at the time we really liked bubblegum music, and we really liked the Bay City Rollers," Ramones frontman Joey Ramone would later say. "Their song 'Saturday Night' had a great chant in it, so we wanted a song with a chant in it: 'Hey! Ho! Let's Go!' 'Blitzkrieg Bop' was our 'Saturday Night.'"

Jackson 5

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Photo of JACKSON FIVE; Posed group portrait Front ot Back - Michael, Marlon, Jermaine, Tito and Jackie Jackson -, (Photo by Echoes/Redferns)

Echoes/Redferns

2

The Jackson 5, “I’ll Be There” (1970)

“‘I’ll Be There’ was our real breakthrough song,” Michael Jackson, who didn’t know what a harpsichord was until he heard the track’s demo, wrote in his memoir. “It was the one that said, ‘We’re here to stay.'” On the ballad, the young singer gives the most astounding performance of his preteens, skating and yelping and handing things off to older brother Jermaine. Recorded in the summer of 1970, “I’ll Be There” went to Number One by early fall, becoming not just the Jackson 5’s fourth chart-topper of the year but Motown’s then all-time best-seller.

Jackson 5

The Flip Wilson Show -- "Jackson Five" Episode 8 -- Aired 11/04/1971 -- Pictured: The Jackson Five -- Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank

NBCU Photo Bank

1

The Jackson 5, “I Want You Back” (1969)

Sure, the soaring strings on the Jackson 5's first Motown single skip along like carefree first-graders, and the thumping bassline is one of pop's closest appropriations of the heartbeat. But the real hero of "I Want You Back" is Michael Jackson, then still a preteen but blessed with a voice and interpretive skill that could turn a desperate attempt to rekindle romance (originally thought of as a Gladys Knight or Diana Ross vehicle) into something visceral and joyous. Jackson's octave-leaping tour de force established him as a star almost as soon as the song's first 45 was pressed.

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