To find longevity as an artist, one must have growth, and no one is a better example than Justin Timberlake. On Justified, he was a bad boy. On FutureSex/LoveSounds, he was a cool guy. On The 20/20 Experience, he’s a gentlemen.
He continues to reinvent himself while still breaking new ground in mainstream pop music working with his beat partner in crime Timbaland. Justin also shared a photo in the studio with Pharrell Williams, instantly transporting fans’ minds back to his strong 2002 solo debut album Justified, mainly produced by The Neptunes.
Working with both legendary producers, one can only imagine what heat the trio are cooking up in the lab for JT’s upcoming Man in the Woods project. So far, it’s been a slow start for the first single, but was “Suit & Tie” really that good compared to the rest of the album?
Regardless, Justin is looking to take over 2018 early by dropping his new single “Filthy,” releasing his fifth studio album in February, and also prepping for a highly anticipated Super Bowl halftime performance comeback since the controversial Janet Jackson boob flash back in 2004.
To get ready for the year of Justin Timberlake, lets take a look back at JT’s 20 best songs of all time.
20. “Damn Girl” featuring Will.i.am
A sleeper hit on the fantastic FutureSex/LoveSounds, “Damn Girl” turns J.C. Davis classic “A New Day Is Here At Last” into a radio bop. Featuring Will.i.am, JT sings about meeting that one special girl that takes your breath away over an impressive, drum-heavy beat. On a tracklist that features heavy hits like “My Love,” “SexyBack,” and “Summer Love” it’s hard to get shine, but don’t sleep on this deep album cut.
19. “Pusher Love Girl”
As the opening track to his long awaited comeback album The 20/20 Experience, JT and Timbaland pick up right were they left off in FutureSex/LoveSounds delivering a strong introduction and set up for the rest of the album. The song serves as a metaphor based on his love for his lovely wife Jessica Biel. JT’s catchy falsetto weaves through figurative lyrics as he sings about his new drug of choice, “Cause now you got me hopped up on that pusher love/So high, I’m on the ceiling baby, you’re my drug.”
Mixed with Timbaland’s orchestral strings “Pusher Love Girl” is a melodic drug you’ll want to listen to over and over again.
Justin is a master at crafting break up ballads, and back in 2001, we witness that ability on “Gone.” It may be billed as an N’SYNC song, but it was our first glimpse at JT as a solo artist. He wrote the song himself, which was initially intended for Michael Jackson, and took the lead singing about dealing with a nasty break up.
The boy band delivered a hit out of the ordinary. No pop hooks or choreographed dance moves, but a stripped-down beat with only a string section and percussion that put their singing ability to the forefront. It was accompanied by a black and white music video that helped the group break into the hip-hop and R&B world, which Timberlake would later dominate, as it was the first video by an all-white boy band featured on BET’s 106 & Park.
17. “I’m Lovin’ It”
Produced by The Neptunes, written by Pusha T, sung by Justin Timberlake, is a big three we need more of. The trio spazzed on “Like I Love You” and that spark continued on “I’m Lovin’ It.” In 2003, the single helped launch McDonald’s classic marketing campaign tied around the slogan “I’m Lovin’ It.” The advertising blitz marked, surprisingly, the first time the venerable fast-food company had ever used a single message and set of commercials worldwide at the same time.
“I’m Lovin’ It” became by far the longest-running McDonald’s slogan in history. And the jingle’s “ba da ba ba ba” vocal hook, sung by Timberlake, might have grown more famous than Timberlake’s whole resume of hits.
16. “Love Never Felt So Good”
First worked on as a demo, Michael Jackson co-produced the song during a 1983 recording session with Anka. It was later revamped and added to his 2014 Xscape album. The new version of the song was co-produced by Timbaland and J-Roc and given a revision as a disco-pop sounding track with JT and Michael going back and forth on a duet we didn’t know we needed. Timbaland also sampled the percussion and breaths from Jackson’s 1979 song “Workin’ Day and Night”. The classy disco-soul of this single could easily have been lifted from Off the Wall or Thriller.
15. “Suit & Tie” ft. JAY-Z
It’s debatable if “Suit & Tie” is one of Justin’s best songs, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most successful and important singles in his catalog. It solidified his return to the music industry, and set up his soon-to-be classic album, The 20/20 Experience. He had the winning formula. It was a sleek dance number featuring JAY-Z, one of the biggest rappers ever. The single went platinum with ease and made people fall back in love with JT’s music all over again regardless.
We can thank “Girlfriend” for starting the promising relationship between JT and Pharrell Williams. Produced by Pharrell and Chad Hugo’s The Neptunes, the single is one of the first times N’SYNC dipped their toes into hip-hop waters and delivered. It even garnished a second version dubbed “The Neptunes Remix” featuring Nelly. It was the group’s last song that entered the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, being their sixth top ten hit overall.
13. “Last Night”
A very strong album cut that holds its own against “Rock Your Body” and “Seńorita” is another Timberlake/Neptune gem on Justified. JT has said that this is one of his favorite songs from their collaboration, and we couldn’t agree more. The song is about a girl that ended things with him, even though he was willing to do anything for her. He realizes that he can’t keep trying to love her when there is no reciprocation. The lyrics are deep, but the uptempo dance beat with Spanish guitars, violins, and xylophone ringing making a pleasant contrast, and feels like a close cousin to “Seńorita.”
12. “Until the End of Time” featuring Beyoncé
“Until the End of Time” is a stripped-down slow jam with a gorgeously simple melody. Justin and Beyoncé’s chemistry from start of finish is contagious as they go back and forth exchanging high notes and putting their singing ability on full display. Beyoncé is always going to Beyoncé, but Justin holds his own. This serves as the pairs first collaboration, and certainly not the last. They would become frequent collaborators later on, particularly on Beyoncé’s self-titled studio album, in which he helped produce several tracks, most notably both halves of “Partition.”
Also, shout out to the melodic “Set the Mood” prelude that plays before this song on the album. If this isn’t number one track on your sex playlist there’s something wrong with you.
A hidden gem in Justin’s catalog, finds him yet again delivering another radio hit on a Neptunes-produced track. By 2005, the chemistry between Snoop Dogg, Timberlake, Pharrell and Chad had hit a high point. They all found success with multiple singles working with each other, so it was nothing for JT to add his R&B style to track 3 of Snoop’s Rhythm & Gangsta.
The song is exactly that, a mash up of rap, soul, and pop, which all four artists excel at. Also, Justin singing “Don’t fuck with me” is surprisingly very satisfying, especially coming right after the Janet Jackson incident at the Super Bowl.
10. “Strawberry Bubblegum”
“Strawberry Bubblegum” is a music delight we didn’t expect given the titles name. Who knew hearing the words “strawberry” and “bubblegum” sung over 30 times in the span of eight minutes would be this pleasant? The track is musically rich and rewarding paired with silly, but irresistible lyrics. Thanks to a delicate beat filled with string loops by Timbaland and JT’s undefeated falsetto turned “If you’ll be my strawberry bubblegum, I’ll be your blueberry lollipop” into a sophisticated melodic bop thats more reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies” than a cheesy pop song from his former N’SYNC life.
9. “Summer Love”
“Summer Love” rocked every iPod, stereo player and stadium back in 2007 for its subject matter of “wanting to fall in love with the lusty seasonal lover.” We all can relate. Slap on a hard hitting boom clap beat from a mix of keyboards, drums, guitars, pianos, and handclaps created by Timbaland, and you got yourself a perfect summer anthem.
8. “What Goes Around/Comes Around”
What goes around is really a sequel to “Cry Me A River.” In the Grammy Award winning single, Justin opens up about betrayal, forgiveness and most of all consequences in one of his more darker songs to date. Justin puts his heart on his sleeve, but featuring an uptempo beat filled with Turkish string ornamentations, he maintains a smooth and melodic sound throughout as he reminds us all that karma is a bitch.
“Mirrors” was Justin’s return to pop prominence in 2013. “Suit & Tie” was his first comeback single, but the massive hype surrounding the track made it difficult to have an unbiased opinion about the record. Then “Mirrors” dropped, and Timberlake proved once again that his hybrid rock/pop/R&B sound is flawless. Singing over layered synths and a ridiculously club-ready handclap-style pop production, Justin delivers falsetto crooning and a heavy dose of “oohs” and “aahs” over an impressive eight-minute track that made us wanting even more.
6. “Rock Your Body”
We can’t imagine a time where people won’t stampede their way to the dance floor like a Black Friday sale at Target when “Rock Your Body” drops at a party. The single, a Neptunes beat originally intended for Michael Jackson, the King of Pop himself, was undoubtedly destined to prosper. Its uptempo, disco groove, soul-infused sound, containing influences from Jackson and Stevie Wonder, has all the ingredients of a classic. Mixed with Timberlake’s near-perfect sing along chorus and vocals, you have one of the greatest party songs ever.
Justified helped JT establish a solo career passed being that “guy from N’SYNC, but when “SexyBack” dropped, the frenzy it caused solidified his legacy as a grade A hit maker. The record went on to become Timberlake’s first No. 1 single as a solo artist. It was is an experiment gone right from the sort of synthesizer influence to the distorted vocals. Timbaland’s production was a blistering premonition of the electro wave as Timberlake’s vocals transcended from a teenage heartthrob to grown and sexy mature artist.
“Señorita” is a “Spanish number” infused with an R&B, up-tempo ballad with a distinctive beat that only the Neptunes could cook up. Written imagining a “dark-skinned, voluptuous lady whose attention he is trying to capture” and influenced by Stevie Wonder, Justin blends funk, soul, and his irresistible R&B crooning perfectly. It’s a fun dance ballet all the way through with him dishing out instructions to both fellas and ladies midway in. Then, he ends with arguably his best lyric of all time: “Gentlemen, good night. Ladies, good morning.” Classic.
3. “Like I Love You” featuring Clipse
“Like I Love You” is the beginning of Justin’s evolving relationship with hip-hop. Over a lo-fi Neptunes-produced track dashed with Spanish guitar, infectious live drums, and 2001: A Space Odyssey-like electro bleeps, Justin gives one of the best solo music starts ever. He ditches his youth-friendly voice from N’SYNC for a mature bad boy approach. The infusion of hip-hop, R&B, and funk combined with his soulful lyrics would go on to become the quintessential sound of the Timberlake/Neptunes relationship, and it’s worked every time.
2. “Cry Me A River”
“Cry Me A River” made fans forget all about N’SYNC and embrace Timberlake as a solo music star. Over an exceptional Timbaland beat, JT sings about the pain, regret, and sadness from his once fairytale romance with Britney Spears. Their relationship was one of the most iconic of the ’00s, and its end was like a big bang that neither could escape from.
However, through that dark time came something beautiful – “Cry Me A River.” Justin put his emotions on full display in the Grammy Award winning track. You feel his pain from the start of the opening verse as he sings, “You were my sun/You were my earth/But you didn’t know/All the ways I loved you, no.” I’m not crying, you’re crying!
Up until this point, we’ve rarely seen this side of JT, but he would continue to channel his emotions and love for his now-wife Jessica Biel into his music to make it way more personal.
1. “My Love” featuring T.I.
Surprised? If I had to explain Justin’s sound to a newcomer I would play “My Love.” It embodies everything we’ve come to love about his music. It’s more futuristic sounding than most of his music, but crosses more than a few genre boundaries perfectly with its satisfying rock-techno sound, thanks to Timbaland, a pop-heavy hook smothered with soulful falsetto notes, and the inclusion of hip-hop with T.I.’s verse.
“My Love” has grown to become a timeless love ballad that still has fans singing along to every melody, rapping every bar, and bopping to every synth chord and staccato sound that breathes all over the Grammy award winning record. The single is arguably the corner stone of JT’s sound as he continues to reinvent mainstream pop music and increase his artistic credibility at the same time.
For more of our best song rankings, check out Eminem’s top 25 tracks of all time right here.
- Cover Image: Christopher Polk / Getty Images