Hanson photographed in London in 1997.
This week marks the 20th anniversary of “MMMBop,” the somewhat-nonsensical, somewhat-nihilistic 1997 Hot 100-topper with the unforgettable chorus that forever cemented a certain trio of teenage brothers from Tulsa, Okla. into pop history. Hanson’s entire career outside of that tune, though, has been almost curiously poised to ensure they’re never considered a one-hit novelty act. They may be the most earnest, proudly squarest pop-rock act of the last two decades; maintaining a healthy, ongoing fanbase with regular album releases on their self-owned label, never having to compete on reality shows where other brief ‘90s relics/curios have ended up. They also have their own beer.
And they never really changed their sound! Dust Brothers’ scratching or not, “MMMBop” and the surrounding tunes on their debut played like a bunch of kids who grew up around their folks’ Van Morrison and Motown vinyl collection, and Hanson’s music only went on to resemble parent music even more from there. But they’ve stayed in that same Jackson-Browne-meets-Jackson-5 lane ever since. So here are eleven tunes that shouldn’t take long to please “MMMBop” devotees who never bothered to check out what else they were missing.
11. “Save Me” (from This Time Around, 2000)
Hanson were born cornballs, barreling down the AOR-soul lane that Hootie and the Blowfish opened up and quickly retired from, so it makes sense that they didn’t wait long before unleashing their bid for Adult Contemporary’s heart with “Save Me,” their finest power ballad — which lands somewhere between Switchfoot’s “Dare You to Move” and Avril Lavigne’s “Innocent” sonically, despite predating both by several years. (It also predicts a bit of Mumford & Sons’ twang in its stray instrumental licks.) Mildly generic sure, but sometimes professionalism guarantees a certain level of quality.
10. “If Only” (from This Time Around, 2000)
The lyric is not good, to be clear: It’s bizarre to foreshadow the post-chorus tagline “’Cause I need you” in the song’s intro when it’s so commonplace and so obviously needs a preceding clause, and even weirder to have all three brothers’ voices shouting it, Eureka-style. And the chorus is even worse: What the hell does “If only I had the guts to feel this way” even mean? But melodically this is Hanson’s most confident rocker, with fellow ’90s survivor John Popper pumping out joyful, staccato harmonica behind Pete Townshend-esque guitar chops like it’s the synth in “Baba O’Riley” or something.
9. “Man from Milwaukee (Garage Mix)” (from Middle of Nowhere, 1997)
That “Garage Mix” in the title is putting on airs of course; the teens wanted us to believe they inhaled carbon monoxide and got dirt on their fingers putting this surprisingly upbeat rocker together, even though it sounds kind of like the Lonely Island’s “Jack Sparrow” in the end. But that only makes it more enjoyable, that this was a bunch of kids’ idea of a “fun” bonus track and rocking out. It’s a little creepy to hear them paying homage to the weirdo bus-stop baldy though.
8. “This Time Around” (from This Time Around, 2000)
This is the moment Hanson shifted from de facto teenpop to straight-up roots-rock, partly because with Britney and Backstreet around, teenpop no longer had use for Gregg Allman-esque vocals and cookie-cutter blues credibility, provided here by their fellow schoolboy Jonny Lang. Taylor’s Rhodes-y pianer and the surprisingly disconnected New Orleans rock-out of the chorus are more surprising than you remember.
7. “Where’s the Love” (from Middle of Nowhere, 1997)
The follow-up single to “MMMBop” was pretty damn good! The backup vocals are particularly great, harmonized, asecendant “ooohs” leading up to a chorus nearly as memorable as their first hit, and the chiming, insistent guitar bit in the hook translates to what’s basically roller-disco string stabs. “Where’s the Love” was instrumental in keeping Hanson from sinking unceremoniously from view as one-hit wonders even if their commercial staying power quickly turned into respectable cult numbers.
6. “Optimistic” (from The Best of Hanson: Live & Electric, 2005)
So it turns out John Mayer’s “Kid A” isn’t the most surprising soft-rock tribute to Radiohead’s avant period extant. A mere five years after Kid A completed Radiohead’s dominance over the Western alternative-rock pulse, the boys knowingly dropped this bomb on their fans by opening a live album with it. And what do you know, it’s pretty great; both faithful to Radiohead’s original down to the creeping, descending guitar scale in the chorus and Hanson’s own swamp-rock lite. They could’ve gone the easier route like Jamie Cullum turning “High and Dry” into proto-Bublé fodder, but the fact these eager students challenged themselves with something so knotty and atmospheric makes it even better. Is it sincere? Who do you think they are? Hanson don’t have an ironic bone in their bodies.
5. “Thinkin’ Bout Somethin’” (from Shout It Out, 2010)
Hanson were completely off the pop radar by the 2010s, which makes it all the more amusing when sticking to their own retro-rock path comes full circle on the charts: this clap-happy bit of Wilson Pickett-style horn soul arrived a few years before Pharrell Williams‘ “Happy” but shimmers with the same Gap-commercial fervor™. It’s probably their most blissed-out summer jam since “MMMBop” itself, and Weird Al even cameos in the video on tambourine. If any latter-day Hanson song deserved to be a comeback hit, it was this one.
4. “Weird” (from Middle of Nowhere, 1997)
That Hanson’s most daring song to this day still comes from their adolescent debut says something of youth’s wide-eyed experimentalism. Middle of Nowhere’s fourth single is downright bluesy, with a powerful vocal performance, but the lyric is wiser, more sincere and more relatable than anything Britney Spears, *NSYNC and Justin Timberlake have ever done, combined. Rock’n’roll is full of kids singing about what it’s like to feel weird sometimes, but “Weird” is the rare gem of this niche to come from people so normal-seeming and -living that it feels downright touching for them to step into the shoes of the less confident, especially at the ages of 11, 14 and 16. It’s also the rare gem to come from songwriting gun-for-hire Desmond Child.
3. “Running Man” (from The Walk, 2007)
The soul-slanted chugger “Running Man” from The Walk, long after the trio accustomed to the indie trenches, is Hanson’s most alternative-rock song ever, with an actual, honest-to-god riff, and a full-on George Harrison-style droopy guitar breakdown. But all told, it mostly sounds like Spoon, whose sales numbers they’re probably jealous of these days.
2. “Penny & Me” (from Underneath, 2004)
Culturally, “MMMBop” is Hanson’s signature song now and forever, but “Penny & Me” sums up the actual sound they grew into: Taylor’s ‘70s soul piano moves and vocal inflections, a lightly Beatles-flecked bridge, and a massive early 2000s radio chorus that differentiates them from the old guys hard. It’s as tight and expert as anything Rivers Cuomo has ever penned, and it may arguably be their easiest song to enjoy. If they got signed in their 20s instead of their 10s, this would be the tune that a very different band scored worldwide with.
1. “Yearbook” (from Middle of Nowhere, 1997)
Here’s where I admit that “MMMBop” isn’t Hanson’s best song at all. That honor goes to the positively epic “Yearbook,” which takes a detour from the mostly all-ages-applicable Middle of Nowhere for a rare concept exploiting their kid-ness à la Kris Kross’ “I Missed the Bus,” and blows it up into an all-time widescreen melodrama ranking with Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” Namely: what happened to the classmate who disappeared before picture day?
But oh, it’s so much more than that. Funereal strings worthy of Lana Del Rey swoop, keyboards redolent of “Don’t Speak” pulsate, and Taylor Hanson harnessing the runaway imagination of the adolescent friends left behind, bellowing “Where did he go? I wanna know” like Tom Cruise shouting “You can’t handle the truth.” Behold the increasingly sinister noir to follow: “Mama said it made him mad / To know somebody knows,” “There’s a lying in your silence,” and Taylor Hanson grabbing you by the shirt collar to demand “Tell me where did Johnny go?” All delivered in complete and total earnestness, none of this build can prepare one for the full-on “Rolling in the Deep” choir of “whoa-oh” harmonies that punts the climax into another dimension.
It was so ambitious that Hanson didn’t even attempt it live until they recorded Middle of Nowhere’s acoustic anniversary show ten years later. Here’s hoping they “keep turning to that page.”