It’s amazing how the critical knives that were used to attack the shit out of New Kids on the Block back in their heyday have softened-considerably. Whereas most pop publications at the time were busy metaphorically running over Joe, Jon, Danny, Donnie and Jordan with an 18-wheeler, their comeback this year has been greeted mostly by either silence or warm nostalgia. If you read this site, you’re well aware that I’m a fan, even though in retrospect, the albums (not counting 1994’s “Face the Music”, which will be featured in this column sooner or later) are merely average.

Which is why the fact that Jordan Knight’s 1999 debut solo album is so good initially startled me. I mean, I always thought he could sing a little somethin’…actually, he was the only member of the group that had truly impressive pipes. However, if you can get over the stigma of Mr. “You Got The Right Stuff, bay-bay” singing, you may wind up liking Jordan Knight a helluva lot more than you think you should.

Jordan linked up with two VIP-types who turned out to be great creative partners for his solo debut. First, he hooked up with a then-unknown Robin Thicke. While we know Thicke now as the musical equivalent of White Chocolate, he was then only barely known as a songwriter. Thicke and Jordan proved to be a solid combo, writing and producing much of Jordan Knight.

The next thing that Jordan did was finance a trip to Minneapolis to meet legendary producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Their melodic production touch results in some top-flight moments on this album.

Vocally, Jordan recalls Michael McDonald as much as he does El DeBarge (and his admitted idol Luther Vandross). On this collection of (mostly) soul/pop ballads, it becomes obvious that Jordan has mastered the art of communicating a lyric in a subtle fashion (although subsequent releases have hinted that this may have been Thicke’s doing). The uptempo tracks are the least essential parts of the album. The slightly salacious Top 10 single “Give It To You” has a bit of a fun atmosphere, with a Timbaland-styled double-time verse merging with a Miami-bass style chorus. However, “A Different party” has an ill-fitting sample of the classic rock hit “Green-Eyed Lady” and a relaxed-maybe TOO relaxed-vocal from Jordan. It’s my least favorite track on the album.

Jordan fares better when the tempo slows. “Finally Finding Out” is a summery light-funk jam with a bit of a Seventies feel to it. In a darker vein, there’s the pensive “Don’t Run”, which marks a reunion between Knight and his former NKOTB cohort Donnie Wahlberg, who produced the track. Wahlberg slaps some aggressive rock guitar over the eerie beat from Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Pt. II”, Jordan follows with his most forceful singing on the album. The result=greatness.

One of the album’s true highlights is a total deconstruction of Prince’s 1987 bar-rock/pop classic “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”. Knight turns the chugging, upbeat track into a pensive ballad, spotlighting the song’s mournful lyrics. It’s weird hearing a song you’re so used to being sung in a completely different style, but Jordan pulls it off.

Jordan Knight reaches its’ apex with the hushed piano ballad “Separate Ways”. The song has a very strong melody, and it should be pointed out that one of the track’s co-writers is Thicke’s dad Alan, who in addition to his sitcom track record, co-wrote some of the most addictively sing-along TV themes in history (including “Diff’Rent Strokes” and “The Facts Of Life”). “Close My Eyes” is another classic Jam & Lewis ballad that manages to sneak in a sample (and the opening line) from Kansas’ late-70’s ballad “Dust In The Wind”.

Sometimes your name is enough to keep people from making an investment in your album. When Jordan Knight this album came out, I was assistant manager at a record store. As it would play, people would inevitably ask who was singing, I’d tell them, they’d look at the album cover and promptly put it back down. Apparently there’s a lot of shame in owning a record by a former boy-band member, even if the music inside is stellar (unless your name is Justin Timberlake). This extremely underrated album (which can be found online for as little as a buck) is a definite must for fans of pop and soul music.