Having a solid debut album is something of a luxury – it’s difficult enough for a band to come up with a sound that audiences will appreciate, and getting it on the first try demonstrates a lot of talent. The problem with having a solid debut is that it can be hard – often impossible – to match in a way that pleases the critics and fans. Some artists make one or two forgettable albums before they nail it (such as Aerosmith) while other bands put out reliable material but never manage to surpass their first effort (such as the Arctic Monkeys).
A rare few, however, manage to exceed expectations and make a second album that surpasses the first album, meets expected potential immediately, or both. Names that come to mind include Interpol, Weezer, and Elvis Costello. For illustration purposes, I picked four artists of disparate genres to show what “sticking the landing” looks like.
There are two ground rules to this list:
1) This list is specifically about direct follow-ups to lead. Artists who had a solid first effort, average second effort, and overall superior third effort are disqualified, because having that extra album means that much more time to perfect one’s sound.
2) The first album must have been recognized at its time. Yes, Bat Out Of Hell was technically Meat Loaf’s second album but his first album received no notice at the time and many people still don’t know about it. It’s hard to defy expectations when no one had any. This includes first albums that were only recognized retroactively after the success of the second, leaving out otherwise prime candidates such as Neutral Milk Hotel’s On Avery Island and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.
Without further ado, the list:
The Beastie Boys
Debut: Licensed to Ill
Licensed to Ill is often listed as one of the most influential rap albums of all time. It was a pioneering recording on many counts, perhaps most prominently for 1) rap-rock and 2) white rappers. Every song off the album could have been a single – and more than half of them were. It’s full of tall tales about the band’s machismo, their troublemaking, and having rhymes like Abe Vigoda. More than anything else, it’s a fun album – it connects to the loud inner middle school delinquent in all of us who break into lockers and have their best prono mags thrown away.
Even with all the acclaim, people wrote them off as one-hit wonders. They’d have to work hard to shed that image.
Follow-up: Paul’s Boutique
Initially considered a failure both critically and financially, Paul’s Boutique is now called a landmark achievement in rap and the Beastie’s best album. Rolling Stone Magazine called it the “Sgt. Pepper’s of rap,” which is as apt a description as you’ll find – perhaps in part because Sgt. Pepper’s is sampled. It is a tightly produced, substance heavy collection of beautifully arranged samples. They weren’t just loud rap-rockers – they were artists. Unlike the modern method of taking a good beat from another song and making it one’s backing music, the Beasties took bits and pieces from everywhere and made it into a beautiful tapestry of sound. It takes talent to tastefully sample The Beatles, and the Beasties have (had?) that talent. Paul’s Boutique has received vocal praise from many notable names, ranging from Chris Rock to Miles Davis. Yes, THAT Miles Davis.
That voice. Robert Christgau best described her a “practical romantic” – a stark contrast to more abstract and fairy tale romantics, such as Almost Every Pop Singer Out There (read: Taylor Swift). Her songs were simple, her voice had amazing range, and the album showed remarkable maturity for a nineteen-year-old. She even managed to squeeze four Grammy nominations out of it and won Best New Artist.
Almost every review listed her as an artist with a ton of potential, with the only major criticism being that her singing was better than her songwriter – a sentiment with which she agreed. No one knew how long it would take to realize that potential. Turns out it was only one messy break up away.
Everyone knew Adele had potential, but nobody expected her to knock it so out of the park that it entered orbit. From a commercial perspective, 21 is a perfect album because it appeals to everyone – young people sick of autotune and overproduction, older listeners (or just older music aficionados) who miss the Ella Fitzgeralds and Joan Baezes of the music world, people who have experienced genuine broken heartedness, and people who just wanted sincere simplicity in a musical landscape full of costumes and pyrotechnics. She challenged her vocal ability and succeeded each time (perhaps best demonstrated on “Don’t You Remember”), nailed a Cure cover, and made an album that’s a rare combination – every song could be a single, but still manages to create an overarching theme when listened to in sequence. No wonder it stayed at the top of the charts for months on end.
Debut: Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ
It took one album for the famous “next Bob Dylan” label to be slapped onto Springsteen, and nowhere is Dylan’s influence more evident than on Greetings. While the album does have a decent amount of storytelling, much of it is short snippets or abstract, symbolic lyrics. He tells stories about growing up (such as, ahem, “Growing Up”) and some about a suicidal girl’s pony face and union jack. Through it all was a sense of sincerity with some old fashioned rock influences.
Follow-up: The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle
Ladies and gents, the hidden jewel of Springsteen’s discography. It was after seeing him perform music from this album that made Jon Landau famously write, “I saw rock and
roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Bombastic and complex arrangements, strong storytelling, and a solid all-around performance by the E Street Band make some Springsteen fans claim to this day that it is one his best albums. “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” is often called the best musical description of the Jersey Shore. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” is Springsteen live in a nutshell, even on a studio album. More than anything else, this may be Sprinsgteen’s most autobiographical album – every song IS him.
Bleach was known almost exclusively by those with their thumb on the pulse of alternative music at the time, but managed to get positive notice by critics. It even managed to get a review in NME, where it was referred to as ” This is the biggest, baddest sound that Sub Pop have so far managed to unearth” and told its readers to “Scrap all that Soft Metal [sic] crap and get behind these brats!” The album is something of a meeting point between hard rock and modern alt rock, with songs like “School” sounding like the distorted remains of a Led Zeppelin song. It was rough, but that was the point. How could it be maintained?
If there’s an album that defines the early 90s more than this, I haven’t heard of it. Whether Nirvana liked it
or not, this album is the definitive grunge album. Often credited with ending the era of hair metal, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Come As You Are, and Lithium are institutions of the part of the 90s Buzzfeed doesn’t remember so well. I could go on about its influence and cultural impact, but the simple fact that it got the Weird Al treatment should tell you everything you need to know about that.
That’s it for my list. Did any of your favorite musicians have beat the sophomore slump? Let us know in the comments!