Let The Groove Get In: Justin Timberlake’s 20 Greatest Songs

While you were still talking about Miley, Justin Timberlake’s new album–his second of 2013–was released this week. The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 might be a disappointing “data dump” to some, but it’s not terrible enough to discredit all the jams JT has given us over the years.

In that time, with *NSync and solo, Timberlake has tested the boundaries of his vocals and dutifully studied the masters he’s lucky enough to call friends (Timbaland, Pharrell Williams). We can (and do) fall down a rabbit hole of his complete catalog much too easily, so deciding on his 20 best was seriously taxing. Read on for our picks, and let us know your favorite Timberlake joint in the comments below.

20. “D**k In A Box” Featuring The Lonely Island, Saturday Night Live

Sure he can front a boy band, release two successful solo albums, and act in C-Level movies. But can he make you laugh? Timberlake earned lifetime access to Saturday Night Live with his performance opposite Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island in 2006. Executing a successful parody on gift-giving at the holidays that is both humorous and believable is largely due to his delicate falsetto. By channeling early ’90s R&B groups, with disturbingly authentic facial hair, we wouldn’t think twice about finding this video on the floor of a recording studio frequently visited by Color Me Badd.

19. “Girlfriend,” Celebrity

The idea that Justin Timberlake ever had to fight for a girl’s attention with some sub-par excuse for a man is comical. It was back in 2002, too, but maybe a bit more plausible since he was sharing the stage with four other dudes? The Neptunes grace Celebrity with their presence, helping the group transition from Swedish-made pop perfection into gender-bending pop/R&B.

18. “Last Night,” Justified

Yet another reason why we should be oh-so-thankful for Pharrell Williams.

17. “(Oh No) What You Got,” Justified

Don’t let the youth and Disney pedigree fool you–he’s a man now! Mr. JT vocally dances over the most inventive Timbaland beat, with whistling Arabic flair, while basically getting an over-the-pants sneak preview in the club.

16. “Let The Groove Get In,” The 20/20 Experience

Because you always wanted a duet from Gloria Estefan and JT, right? Timberlake explores a variety of genres on The 20/20 Experience, to varying degrees of success. In addition to using a few of his more successful techniques (echoed call-and-response, general clapping) Timberlake dives into the sounds of the Miami Sound Machine, bringing back an electric dance number unlike anything else in his catalog.

15. “Like I Love You”  Featuring Clipse, Justified

The seeds for Timberlake’s solo career had been planted well before the final days of *NSync (see: song No. 10) but he still needed a breakthrough track that shook off any lingering boy band traits. Crashing radio with those flashy guitar chords (and playing them live, whenever possible) was an excellent start. And using his producers The Neptunes to connect him to Clipse? Genius. It’s urban pop meets heavy hip-hop; it’s “Girlfriend Part II”; it’s JT realizing what he used to dream about as a little boy… we’re not complaining.

14. “Until The End of Time,” Featuring Beyoncé FutureSex/LoveSounds

On an album thats stuffed with delicious Timbaland morsels and raw sexual energy, it’s refreshing to hear someone mention commitment. Beyoncé is always welcome, but you knew this already.

13. “Summer Love,” FutureSex/LoveSounds

A track that chronicles the transformation from a seasonal fling to something… more via booming, stadium synths and a whole lot of clapping. JT oozes cool, even when he’s begging on his knees–it’s probably the Destiny’s Child reference. His ability to see a future is his most attractive quality, making the other nine months of the year just as sexy.

12. “That Girl,” The 20/20 Experience

Benefiting from the big band instrumentation of The Tennessee Kids, Timberlake elongates each line of this love song–which is minuscule in comparison to the lengthy tracks that surround it on the album. The slow delivery is effortlessly old school, but also sweet and to the point: he’s in love with her, so why should the rest of us care? Even if she is Jessica Biel. The hook will never not makes us bounce, but we’re still trying to figure out what “other side of the tracks” Jessica Biel is from.

11. “Losing My Way,” FutureSex/LoveSounds

Whether he’s trying to infuse an album of tracks aimed at panty-dropping with a little social commentary or simply wanted to get more into acting, this non-single is as infectious as it is ridiculous. Where is Bob? Does he still make $40something dollars a day? We’re a sucker for a gospel choir and any kind of clapping breakdown, and this song (and its lore) just gets bigger and bigger over time.

10. “Gone,” Celebrity

*NSync let Timberlake take the reigns on the second single from their third album, which in retrospect, was probably the best case scenario. It signified he was ready to move on, but also highlighted the raw vocal power of a band typically shrouded in distracting choreography and auto-tune. Over sparse guitar a scorned lover laments his recent loss, but having and audience doesn’t change his reality. And through the stretched vocals and growling we feel his pain.

9. “Pusher Love Girl,” The 20/20 Experience

Described by many as JT’s “Prince track” off The 20/20 Experience, this ride is all-encompassing and just plain long (the full-length album version runs just over eight minutes). Once again drugs become the vehicle for Timberlake to get his message across, with a bevy of narcotics playing the role of his intoxicating love. Like “Gone,” he uses lush instrumentation to create a cinematic opening, hooking you from the beginning only to carry out several movements.

8. “What Goes Around…/…Comes Around Interlude,” FutureSex/LoveSounds

Lyrically, it feels like the continuation of a certain Justified track said to be inspired by a former Mouseketeer-turned-girlfriend, although this track is rumored to be about Justin’s pal Trace Ayala and his former girlfriend, Elisha Cuthbert. After the grieving comes the revenge, and Timberlake’s bitterness seethes in the best possible way. With an instantly recognizable introduction, Timberlake teaches a master class on consequences. We’re firm believers in karma, and the Mediterranean-style guitar paired with his soaring falsetto are as haunting as the unnamed girl’s poor choices.

7. “Senorita,” Justified

Timberlake aims to be the shoulder the girl of his dreams can cry on, while also rattling off the itinerary for one hell of a dream date (flying?!). Sympathetic and kind, he compliments her physical and emotional beauty on top of a Spanish-infused rhythm section. Maybe his unconventional gender study is a little dated (what if the “lady” wanted to ask the “fella” to leave with her?) but having JT address us directly is too much fun to argue with.

6. “Mirrors,” The 20/20 Experience

Grand and ambitious, The 20/20 Experience track celebrates the person Timberlake has only recently realized is his other half. Dripping in compliments over layered synths, no praise is as strong as that directed towards himself (“You reflect me/I love that about you”). It’s an interesting character study and an even more interesting ride, completely changing up the rhythm and arrangement after five minutes. Act II relies on punctuated falsetto delivery, repeating “you are, you are the love of my life” until it’s engrained deep within your frontal lobe. If you start to propose to the delivery guy, blame JT.

5. “SexyBack,” FutureSex/LoveSounds

Timberlake reinvented his sound even more in ’06, handing himself over completely to Timbaland’s furistic brainchild. From where we’re standing sexy never left, and slavery isn’t something to joke about, but at least we have something to say to Timbaland if and when we meet (“take it to the bridge!”).

4. LoveStoned/I Think She Knows,” FutureSex/LoveSounds

FutureSex/LoveSounds was meant to be listened to in its original order, and nowhere is that more apparent than “LoveStoned.” The pulsating tale of spotting a beautiful stranger (“Those flashing lights come from everywhere/The way they hit her I just stop and stare”) is immediately followed by the introspective admission that she is fully aware of his complimentary gaze. Hot damn! Timberlake transitions from fast-paced disco to lush strings and a chugging guitar riff, needing only his comforting hum to bring the song to a conclusion.

3. “Rock Your Body,” Justified

With an arrangement originally intended for Michael Jackson, and vocals featuring Pharrell himself, JT had a bona fide dance floor hit in his third Justified single. The keyboard-synthesizer progression has a disco feel, which is only intensified by Timberlake’s falsetto and call to the floor. Once again he’s making it fun, dividing his lyrics by gender which gives us the ability to add a little attitude (and hand claps) when we inevitably play this scenario out at home. And that beat-boxing definitely redeems his performance on “Pop.”

To see how long two friends will listen to the same riff on loop, check this out:
Just two friends making a Top 5 Billboard smash happen.

2. “My Love,” FutureSex/LoveSounds

“SexyBack” prided itself on how different Timberlake (and largely, Timbaland) sounded from any of his previous material and anything on the radio, and FutureSex/LoveSounds’ second single only ups the ante. By hooking up with an of-the-moment hip-hop King (T.I.), Timberlake reinvents mainstream pop music and increases his artistic credibility at the same time. The song is more sonically futuristic than others; the only way to dance to “My Love” is to pretend you’re walking in slow motion in front of a strobe light. The staccato delivery punctuates what he wishes to do and where he wants to take you–even if it’s only in his mind. It’s a strong pitch, and we like walking along the beach barefoot.

1. “Cry Me A River,” Justified

Is Britney Spears breaking Justin’s heart the most pivotal thing to happen to 21st century pop? Say what you will about “Work Bitch,” and Britney’s more recent television appearances, but the world would be a very different place had Ms. Spears (his sun, his Earth) not inflicted such emotional duress on poor JT. On a debut album that’s sprinkled largely with sounds of The Neptunes and Timbaland, this track signified what that latter and Timberlake could create together. By stretching the boundaries of pop–and fusing it with notes of R&B, lots of electric goodness, and haunting choral vocals–Timberlake’s kiss-off song instantly becomes more poignant, a pointed reaction to the hurt he’s experienced by someone he once loved. This might not be a club banger you can dance to, but… WHOA! It’s difficult to beat a song that is simply this good. Even among a list of hits.

Think we’re crazy to leave off “Tearin’ Up My Heart”? Do our choices make you wanna say “Bye Bye Bye”? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.