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Five Surprisingly Great Albums from Former Boy Bands

Members of One Direction and their hair at a 2012 show in Phoenix.
Members of One Direction and their hair at a 2012 show in Phoenix.

The Jonas Brothers are coming to Phoenix this week, and if I'm counting right, they're at least two major boy band generations old -- Justin Bieber stole their thunder, and then One Direction became the subject of more fanfiction than any other real people on earth (unless you've read either of the manuscripts I sold to Alex Jones, One Direction Is a False Flag and Harry Potter Is a False Flag Is a False Flag.) They've had their hiatus, they've had their label exodus, they've had their weird and apparently imaginary sex tape meta-scandal.

Now they're getting ready for their We're-Real-Artists-Man comeback. V isn't out yet, but in honor of the attempt, here are five boy-band albums that did fulfill those primal artistic needs.

5. Hanson - Underneath - 2004

Look, I'm not going to ascribe any unheralded genius to Hanson's post-Mmm-Bop output -- I'll leave that to my friend Mallory, the superfan who insisted I listen to this album on my comically ungainly, tiny-screened iPod when she was 18, I was 17, and neither of us had a particularly good excuse to own a Hanson album.

But man, is "Penny and Me" catchy, much as I generally avoided rolling the windows down and turning the radio up in the high school parking lot while it was playing. Their career trajectory since the late '90s is completely in keeping with the knowledge that Taylor Hanson eventually founded a supergroup featuring Bun E. Carlos, James Iha, and Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne.

 

4. Boyz II Men - II - 1994

I don't know that "surprisingly" works here -- I'm partial to their debut, because I'd be satisfied with basically anything so long as it had those four or five ubiquitous New Jack sound effects in it -- but

II

is probably the most successful transition any boy band has ever made to young-adult-band, in terms of simultaneous critical and commercial approval. In hindsight, there was nothing at all guaranteeing that the playbook behind "Motownphilly" would work as they slid more fully toward the II Men side of the conceit.

Of course, 2000's Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya, their true We're-Real-Artists-Man album, failed to connect with audiences, which probably serves as a terrifying warning to all boy bands navigating this transition. These are treacherous waters.

 

3. The Jackson 5 - G.I.T.: Get It Together - 1973

This near-perfectly named album -- couldn't they have gone the extra step and made it a recursive acronym? -- contains "Dancing Machine," their first big hit featuring the pubescent version of Michael Jackson.

Of course, their next album, Dancing Machine, also contains "Dancing Machine," their first big hit featuring the pubescent version of Michael Jackson, probably on account of an especially bitter Motown winter that had killed much of that year's crop of disco songs.

 

N/A. SMAP - 1991-present

Important International Sidebar: Japan is a strange place. One of the ways it's strange, musically, is illustrated by the continued success of SMAP (

S

ports

M

usic

A

ssemble

P

eople, obviously), a 22-year-old boy band that collectively hosts one of the country's most popular and longest-running TV shows,

SMAPxSMAP

(

S

ports

M

usic

A

ssemble

P

eople

byS

ports

M

usic

A

ssemble

P

eople, presumably.)

Their albums still sell, but at this point SMAP is more famous for their own sake than they are as musicians -- imagine if Justin Timberlake had never much progressed past "It's Gonna Be Me" musically, but he and the rest of *NSYNC had been regular cast members on Saturday Night Live since 2001. (In the embedded video, from when Michael Jackson "lit hopes and dreams" in SMAP by surprising them in person, a subtitle off-handedly notes that the footage comes from when, in "the year-end four hour special show, the SMAP members discussed things." That explains a lot.)

The continued social acceptability of manufactured bands (Google "AKB48") and goofy variety shows makes this trick a little easier in Japan than it would be in the states, but becoming plain-old-celebrities is probably a better bet for most ex-boys than becoming well-regarded musicians.

I talked to Micky Dolenz from the Monkees recently (to preview their show in Mesa this week) and he told me that when he auditioned he saw himself as both an actor and a musician -- an entertainer, basically. Entertaining is what most boy bands were assembled to do; SMAP was wise and lucky enough to embrace it.

Which, oh, yeah --

 

2. The Monkees - The Monkees - 1966

The Monkees' competence is a surprise to

us

, maybe, more than it would have been to people in 1966, because the idea of a "professional songwriter," and professionalism or careerism in music generally, has mostly been relegated to country acts and shadowy Europop figures.

But the music industry as a monolithic whole was considerably stronger then than it is now, and -- and this is another thing Dolenz was insistent on -- the project attracted some supremely competent songwriters. ("I'm a Believer," composed by Neil Diamond and the guy from Smashmouth, is the canonical example, but most of their debut album was courtesy Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.)

Starting with Headquarters, the Monkees had one of the first (and more successful) We're-Real-Artists-Man second acts, writing and performing their own music. But from the beginning they were conduits for some excellent pop.

 

1. The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1967

Do you see the Jonas Brothers' next album as a

Sgt. Pepper's

or more of a

Pet Sounds

?

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