*Photo taken by your intrepid blogger which explains why ‘Led Zeppelin II’ is obscured. Sigh.
There’s a certain theory, not exclusive to music, known as the sophomore slump. I almost called it a canard, a word I dislike for reasons unclear. According to Webster, a canard is an “unfounded rumor or story.” For example, our previous story about Zeppelin being booed off stage in KC was a canard and proved to be untrue. However, even I will admit, there is some foundation to the sophomore slump theory in music and sports. I’ve heard it applied in football to quarterbacks who have a great rookie season. Their second (aka “sophomore”) season can often be seen as a setback and not as good as that first, rookie season. Defenses adjust, they’re more prepared for you and what not and so the QB in question takes a step “backwards.” I guess in this example the rookie year is akin to the freshman year. Personally, while I had a number of disasters my sophomore year in college they paled in comparison to the absolute dumpster fire my freshman year was. Even though that sophomore year was awful it was an improvement for me over that accursed freshman year in college. When you’re a senior in high school you’re on top of the food chain and then suddenly you’re a freshman in college and you’re back on the bottom of the ladder. Sophomore year was a cake walk in comparison… at least in my case.
I guess there’s probably a reason the sophomore slump applies to both sports and rock n roll. A rookie quarterback has a lot to prove. He likely has to justify his draft spot and prove he can make it in the league. And, much like that, rock n roll bands are typically starving artist types and when they get that record deal, they too have to prove themselves on that first album. They likely put everything they’ve got into it. You only have one chance to make a first impression as they say. That “giving it your all” on the first LP doesn’t leave a whole lot for the follow-up album. There’s a saying in music, “you have your whole life to write your first album, you only have 18 months to write your second.” I don’t know who said that but it’s brilliant. And as long time B&V readers know I’m a huge fan of debut albums and even solo debut albums from guys who have been in a band we like. I’ve also highlighted rock n roll acts whose third album was the commercial breakthrough for them… I doubt any record company is going to show that kind of patience any more.
Recently I began thinking about second albums because… well, I’m obsessed with rock n roll? I couldn’t help but ponder the rock n roll sophomore slump. Even I have to admit there have been some bad second albums. I think the group, for me, who takes the trophy on this is a little band out of Australia named Jet. When their debut Get Born came out I thought they were going to be “the next big thing.” I saw them open for Oasis at Red Rocks outside of Denver and they rocked. I was so into them I bought the t-shirt, which is a pretty big commitment from a rock n roll fan. I don’t buy a t-shirt every time I go to a concert… I saw Fitz And the Tantrums on Tuesday and no shirt purchase was even considered… Anyway, a few years later when they came out with Shine On I was baffled. They sounded like a second-rate Oasis. Maybe they spent too much time hanging around Noel Gallagher. It ruined them for me. I sold that record at the Used CD store a few months later. Sadly, I still wear the t-shirt, it’s like a tattoo I regret.
Jet was a pretty extreme case of the sophomore slump. There are examples, however, of big bands, bands we all love, who suffered through a bad (or not-as-good) second LP. I remember at their Rock Hall of Fame induction ceremony U2’s Bono saying something about the record company sticking by them even for “the difficult second album.” In U2’s case it was October, which would vie amongst only a few others for their worst album. The Police’s second LP Regatta De Blanc, despite having the great singles “Walking On The Moon” and “Message In A Bottle,” was pretty weak, or perhaps we should say it was only fair. Second albums don’t always have to be a disaster to be considered a sophomore slump. Van Halen’s second album is a record I still love, but everyone will universally admit it isn’t up to the level of their masterpiece debut Van Halen. The ideas had all been spent on the debut. The sophomore slump is just a slight and in some cases pronounced dip in quality. Van Halen was only going to get to sneak up on us once… unless of course you consider that Van Hagar debut to be a surprise (In Defense of Van Hagar, No Really… Complete With a B&V Van Hagar Playlist).
All of that said, let’s not get carried away with this thing. There are plenty of bands who released a great second album. In some ways I like Candy-O more than The Cars but I know I’ll mostly lose that argument. There wasn’t much of a drop in quality between those albums. And if I’m being honest, while I love Cheap Trick’s debut I’ve always dug In Color, the follow up. I’ve always wondered if I was in Cheap Trick back then, would they put me on the front cover with the good lookin’ guys or on the back with the carnival freaks? Sorry, I digress. The Byrds, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Allman Brothers – to name but a few – all had great debut albums and then put out a second album as good, or close to, the first album. I guess I’m just trying to underscore the fact that we shouldn’t consider the sophomore slump to be the norm. It’s hard to follow up a spectacular debut, the pressure the record company and the fans put on artists has got to be immense, but some artists actually do it. Some bands were just fortunate enough they didn’t have Axl Rose driving the car, making the creative decisions for them…
But then we have some acts who not only equaled their debut, they transcended it. There are some bands with a strong debut who took an enormous leap forward with their second. Ok, maybe not an enormous leap forward, but strides in creativity, songwriting and/or accessibility. Those are the albums I’ve been thinking about over the last week in between blasting Chuck Berry covers and Elton John’s Madman Across the Water. I don’t know what alchemy causes it but some acts just got stronger after their debut. Maybe it’s the uptick in touring that helps them hone their skills. A successful debut might breed more confidence. There are just some bands who defied the odds and defied the sophomore slump. It’s those albums we celebrate here today.
Here is our list of 20 of our favorite 2nd albums. It’s certainly not meant to be definitive and if you’ve got an example of a great, sophomore-slump-defying, second album please let us know in the comments. I highly recommend listening to each of these albums and if you hear something you like you haven’t before, explore the catalogs of these artists, it’s worth the journey… I have listed the artists’ name, album name and my explanation for it’s inclusion on the list. As usual I’ve tried to stray a little off the beaten path (at least somewhat) here…
- Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique – After Licensed to Ill and all that “You’ve Got A Fight For Your Right (to Party)” stuff did anybody see this massive leap in creativity and sophistication coming? Paul’s Boutique is arguably their masterpiece. The jump between the two albums is staggering and was completely unexpected.
- Def Leppard, High And Dry – We all thought those Def Leppard kids were a novely act after On Through the Night. I saw them in concert on that tour (they were openers) and I was older than them and I don’t think I could drive. This album was such a leap forward. It rocks harder than anything the put out before or after. Even though Mutt Lange is onboard to produce he hasn’t yet dipped them in amber gloss nor smoothed out the rough edges yet. This was a sign that Def Leppard would be around for a long while.
- Aerosmith, Get Your Wings – Aerosmith’s self titled debut was one of the first Aerosmith LPs I purchased, probably because of “Dream On,” an FM staple when I first started listening to music. I still love that album but don’t know anybody else who owns it. I loved “One Way Street” and “Movin’ Out,” they’re amongst Aerosmith’s finest songs. However, it’s on Get Your Wings where they found their stride. Tunes like “Same Ol’ Song And Dance” and “Lord of the Thighs” are cornerstones of the Aerosmith foundation. I love their version of the Yardbirds’ “Train Kept A’Rollin’.”
- The White Stripes, De Stijl – This album will always be my favorite White Stripes’ album. It’s bluesier than anything else they put out. They hadn’t hit it big yet, that’d happen on their third LP, White Blood Cells, but all the pieces are all here – Jack White’s tortured vocals and more tortured guitar solos with Meg White’s primal drumming. This is the LP to start your White Stripes’ collection on.
- Fiona Apple, When The Pawn… – I fell in love with Fiona Apple on her debut, Tidal. She was still so young when that came out. Despite the Guiness Book title, When The Pawn… showed such a leap forward in maturity and strength from Fiona as an artist it signaled her debut was no one off.
- Bruce Springsteen, The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle – I judge every Springsteen fan I meet by their opinion of this album. The evolution forward on this album is incalculable. He started penning epic 7-plus minute songs. Side two: “Incident On 47th St,” “Rosalita,” and “New York City Serenade” may be the greatest side of music Bruce ever recorded… I’ve always also loved “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”
- Black Sabbath, Paranoid – Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut always gets slagged as sounding like a bad version of Cream. I like it but the Cream influence is palpable. Paranoid is where they forged their own identity. It’s truly their masterpiece. Master of Reality may rock harder, but tune for tune this is the greatest thing they ever put out.
- Social Distortion, Prison Bound – People tend to forget about Social D’s early, pre-big label LPs. I like the debut but Prison Bound is the greatest fusion of country and punk rock – and who’d have thought that was possible – ever recorded. As a Stones’ fan I love their version of “Backstreet Girl,” but “I’m An Outlaw (For You)” is my favorite Social D song… well, one of them anyway.
- Buffalo Springfield, Again – Buffalo Springfield is proof that one band can have too much talent. Too many songwriters, too many singers, too many lead guitarists. After breaking up after the debut they’d gotten back together and issued this, their masterpiece. The debut was awesome but Neil Young is on fire here: “Broken Arrow,” “Mr. Soul,” and “Expecting To Fly.” Stills has some of his best stuff here too including “Bluebird.”
- Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream – Gish is an amazing debut album. I think it’s better than Nirvana’s debut, Bleach. But even through turmoil and almost breaking up, Billy Corgan delivered a brilliant batch of songs. They spent the rest of their career trying to outdo this one.
- Cream, Disreali Gears – I love Fresh Cream but even I’ll admit it was mostly a blues covers LP. On Disreali Gears Cream took the blues, added psychedelics and turned the world on its axis.
- Lou Reed, Transformer – Lou was pretty low after the Velvet Underground broke up. I think he took a job as a typist at his father’s company for a while. His solo debut was a disappointment… enter David Bowie and Mick Ronson who produced this, Lou’s most commercially successful album.
- The Cult, Love – The Cult’s debut Dreamtime is a great album but it sounds like a debut. Love is my favorite Cult LP. It doesn’t rock with the abandon of the follow-up, Electric, but the songs are amongst their best. “She Sells Sanctuary” blows me away every time I hear it but “Rain,” “Hollow Man” and “Revolution” are all great rock tunes.
- Nirvana, Nevermind – I doubt this one needs any explanation. Bleach was good but a fairly typical debut LP… Nevermind destroyed everything that came before… This is a once in a generation album.
- Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – Dylan’s debut was a folkie’s delight. His talent exploded on Freewheelin’. It’s one of the greatest albums ever recorded. And to think it was only his first masterpiece.
- Van Morrison, Astral Weeks – Astral Weeks was different than anything that Van Morrison did before it. I like to listen to it in it’s entirety, it’s like being on a spiritual retreat or listening to a meditation app.
- Faces, Long Player – First Step was a great well, first step. Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood had joined the Small Faces, but they stood a head taller than the rest of the band. The debut was really the sound of Rod and Wood integrating into the band. Long Player, more than any of their other LPs really captures the spirit of the Faces.
- Metallica, Ride The Lightning – This album ranks up there with Paul’s Boutique as a stunning leap forward. I mean the sophistication and sheer strength and power of this album dwarfs Kill Em All and that one is a classic as well. This is by far Metallica’s best album.
- Little Feat, Sailin’ Shoes – Little Feat’s debut was an awesome record but even I’ll admit, quirky. Lowell George was nothing if not an eccentric. Sailin’ Shoes was just as good but much much more accessible. The title track, “Easy to Slip” and “Apolitical Blues” are all essential Little Feat tunes that have been covered by countless bands.
- Led Zeppelin, II – Zeppelin’s debut laid out the blueprint for who they were. It too was one of the first LPs I ever purchased, likely because of “Dazed And Confused.” But it was very much of that late 60s, British blues rock sound. On Led Zeppelin II they took that and blew it up to 11. They were still very blues based but this rock n roll went places the music had never been. All the pent up aggression and hedonism and stress of their first U.S. tour was poured into the grooves of this record.
If you’ve just started something new and are worried about a sophomore slump, just put on one of these albums and turn it up loud. Hell, if you like these records, dive into these artists’ back catalogs. It’ll get you through any “slump” they can come up.
Now that the Summer Solstice has passed and it is “officially” summer, let me just say… stay cool out there, and have a happy summer! Find something cold to drink and kick back… they say if you’ve started drinking chardonnay you’re becoming your mother and if you put ice in your chardonnay you are your mother. Here’s to all you mother’s out there!