With a brand new album, upcoming world tour, and recent performance on the biggest stage in entertainment, Justin Timberlake has jumped back into music with both feet. The timing seemed right to take a look back at his catalogue and rank his solo albums. JT has been incredibly consistent and none of his albums have been bad. But that doesn’t mean some are better than others! Here’s how I would position his five studio albums from weakest to best..
#5. The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2 – There’s a case to be made that the two parts of 20/20 should really be considered one album but the fact that they were released separately (about 6 months apart) and part 2 having its own radio/marketing campaign are strong enough to view it as its own entity. There’s plenty of good here – singles “Take Back The Night” and “Not a Bad Thing” are as strong as any JT hits, another memorable Jay-Z feature happens on “Murder,” “Pair of Wings” is among his best ballads, and “Drink You Away” was a surprise country crossover hit. But too much of this album is unfocused and bloated. Condensing it would’ve helped some but I’m not sure editing could’ve even saved songs like “True Blood” and “Only When I Walk Away.” Unfortunately the strongest reason of all for separating the two 20/20 albums may be the disparity in their quality.
#4. Justified – When considering how fleeting and of-the-moment pop music is, it’s remarkable that this album sounds as good as it does some 15 years later. A handful of Justified‘s tracks – “Senorita,” “Like I Love You,” “Rock Your Body,” and “Cry Me a River” – remain JT staples and in some ways have never been topped. In fact, aside from some sprinkled moments of incredibly cheesy pandering (“hey, girl..”) every song here still sounds fresh and interesting. The Neptunes (aka Pharrell and Chad Hugo) and Timbaland share producing duties and their similar but ultimately different techniques still sound more cohesive by far than on Man Of The Woods. The problem is Timberlake hasn’t yet grown into the confidence that warrants their heavily layered and brash productions. Justified nonetheless stands as a strong and declarative debut – even with its singer being slightly buoyed by the tracks.
#3. Man Of The Woods – Timberlake confused everyone by first proclaiming that this album would be “personal, about my family, where I’m from” and then proceeding to drop a lead single with a chorus of “put your filthy hands all over me.” But aside from “Filthy” and a few ill-fitting Timbaland collaborations, most of Man Of The Woods did end up coming as advertised. There’s an ode to Montana, a song about the sweet nostalgia of a flannel shirt, taking in a “breeze off the pond” while “living on the land.” What’s really interesting (or really confusing) is the fact that Timberlake did not do much in the way of adjusting his typical pop-dance-R&B sound. It’s unique and unusual to hear such Americana-esque lyrics with no steel guitars or southern drawls in sight. That could be seen as a fascinating alchemy or non committal middling. I’m inclined to call it the former. It’s too early for this album’s final verdict to be written but the more I hear it the more I’m impressed by its fusion.
#2. The 20/20 Experience – An album of pure ear candy. Sure, there’s the ever smooth JT behind the mic but the production on 20/20 is so dense it makes the listener forget that most of these songs go on for 8 minutes at a time. Well, almost. Extended interludes, breakdowns and song shifts rule the day on this album and sometimes it really works. But it’s awkward on songs like “Pusher Lover Girl” and “Mirrors,” obviously cracks at singles, who’s outro jams sound forced and anti climatic at best. Lush tracks like “Tunnel Vision” and “Blue Ocean Floor” are best experienced while sitting and listening with headphones – aka, not a typical pop demographic. But it doesn’t deter from the songs themselves which showcase a swaggered JT in a much more likable form complete with ritzy horns and more modest grooves.”Pusher Lover Girl,” “Suit and Tie,” “Mirrors,” and “That Girl” are particularly excellent pop writing. Chances are most prefer the radio edits – which kind of defeats the conceptual purpose of the album.
#1. Futuresex/Lovesounds – It’s hard to remember because it’s been so often imitated since but there was nothing quite like mixture of trance, soul, funk, and R&B on Futuresex/Lovesounds when it came out. The magic of this album is the combination of Timbaland’s sweeping, polished tracks with the raw energy and sex appeal brought by Timberlake. I particularly love the string arrangements that are complimentary yet slightly unconventional. A lot of these songs (“My Love,” “What Goes Around..” “Until The End Of Time”) were so successful that their level of appreciation suffers from their pervasiveness. But listen with fresh ears to how brilliantly crafted a song and track “Sexyback” is and it’s easy to remember what made it so popular in the first place. Futuresex/Lovesounds remains Timberlake’s defining album, the one that made him a solo superstar and brought him out of *NSync’s shadow for good.
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