I was initially planning this article to be a review of Justin Timberlake’s new album Man Of The Woods, but it quickly became clear upon listening to it that none of its baffling cyber-country sounds had any chance of matching the dizzying heights of JT’s previous hit material. Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime performance just confirmed this fact- the dude seemed so ashamed of his “hot” new single “Filthy” that he started the show by playing it BELOW the stage, before ascending to energetically perform the older songs that people actually wanted to hear. No, seriously.
So, instead of writing a downer album review bemoaning the fall of Justin Timberlake the pop music god, I figured I’d follow the halftime show template and celebrate the good times. They’ve been truly special after all- going through this list, it’s hard to think of anyone in popular music period who can match this electric catalog of hits. Here’s a ranking of Justin Timberlake’s ten best songs as a solo artist (sorry, “Bye Bye Bye”!).
As surefire an arena anthem as there ever could be. Too bad I can barely stand to hear this beautiful, soaring chorus anymore after the radio beat it to death in my brain.
9.) Summer Love
One of the most fruitful collaborations in pop music history has been the career-long partnership JT has forged with master beat-producer Timberland. Their teamwork peaked on JT’s 2007 magnum opus FutureSex/LoveSounds, and “Summer Love” is a booming example. There’s much more where that came from further down this list.
8.) Like I Love You
Possibly JT’s most edgy-sounding hit song- I have absolutely no idea why this one didn’t get more popular than it did. Maybe his teen girl audience back in 2002 couldn’t handle Pharrell’s vicious drum beat; the rap cameo from Pusha T’s old group Clipse also doesn’t do the song any favors in that department. But those addictive acoustic guitar strums and that hook?? Marvelous.
7.) Suit & Tie
His official comeback song in 2013 after a long hiatus! Timbaland brought in dapper horns on the free-swinging beat to signal his welcome return. JT lusciously sang how he was gonna “show you a few things.” Jay-Z showed up to the party. Shit was poppin’.
Timbaland deservedly gets the credit as the go-to producer, but it was Pharrell and his crew The Neptunes that got the party started on JT’s debut solo album. More light-hearted and breezy than Timbo’s brand of heavy electro-vibes, they gave off the feeling of JT just chilling at a lounge bar, casually wooing beautiful senoritas with his charming voice. It’ll still get stuck in your head to this day.
5.) My Love
A reason for JT’s success has always been his impressive vocal versatility, and “My Love” is a prime showcase. Over Timbo’s skittering synths and audible beat-boxing, JT interestingly shows off his high falsetto in the verses then switches to a fast, almost rap flow for the chorus. T.I.’s slick guest verse reminds us that he was like the hottest rapper around at this time period (this was ten whole years ago, WTF!).
4.) What Goes Around…Comes Around
Another FutureSex/LoveSounds classic, this one stands out on its own for being a long, two-part slow-burn with a lyrical narrative about an ex who cheated. Timbo somehow made seven-plus minutes of an exotic guitar sample and dramatic string sections into a smash hit. Scarlett Johansson shows up in the music video as JT’s love interest and (spoiler alert) ends up dying in a car crash. Whoa.
3.) Rock Your Body
The most unabashedly bright and shiny record of his career. No futuristic synth warbles or heavy strings here, just a funky baseline and blissful keyboard stabs from Pharrell that demand you to get your ass to the closest dance floor immediately. And JT singing don’t BE so quick to…WALK AWAY…
2.) Cry Me A River
This beat is mind-boggling. There’s rain, moody keys and what sounds like an opera singer, then a sharp synth melody and ominous strings while Timbo’s mouth sounds like it’s doing half the percussion, then maybe the weirdest vocal sample ever heard runs through the choruses before it fades out to a gospel chant. The fact that something so weirdly unique got so big is a testament to JT’s star power as a singer; he somehow made it all convincingly add up to an epic drama about the end of a relationship (with Britney Spears).
The definitive Justin Timberlake song. It’s just nasty sounding; I still don’t think I’ve heard anything quite like it in my life. Having the gall to begin a song breathing “I’m bringing sexy back” through a weird vocal processor then musically pulling it off is what makes JT one of the greats. The beat is actually relatively simple by Timbo-lake collab standards; it’s built around just a 4/4 bass stomp and a buzzsaw synth hopping back and forth between two notes. But as anyone who’s ever heard it knows, there’s raw power in it. Timbo then brings in the glorious bells and whistles as JT takes it to the bridge, takes it to the chorus. An iconic song from an even more iconic pop musician.