The difficult second album is a trope that has captured artists into its deadly grasps for decades. There have been countless occasions that musicians have delivered debuts that lead to them being hyped to the hilt, talked about as future Glastonbury headliners and then — after all the bluster has lifted them to the heavens — to fall and fail to replicate the same magic. All before disappearing straight back into obscurity. I’m looking at you, Klaxons.
In truth, it’s often not an artist’s fault that their first album sees them hailed as the messiahs here to save music. Equally, there’s little they can do about avoiding it and are better set to go with the flow. There’s been plenty of their bands who were blessed never to receive it in the first place. A lack of hype means an increase in freedom, and it allowed many bands to prosper, lightened by removing the weight of expectation around their necks.
Some of the most beloved artists of all time didn’t truly find their voice until their second album, and their first album, no matter how flawed, allowed them to work out who they are. As their debut record hasn’t been heralded as ‘the saviour of music’ or another hyperbolic title on those lines, which usually works as a death penalty, then their sophomore attempt sees them explode and finally receive the praise they deserve.
This feature is celebrating ten artists who didn’t have an Arctic Monkeys-style rise to fame and had some time cutting their teeth in relative obscurity before their second album saw them hit the heights they have maintained ever since. These ten albums are the exceptions to the difficult second album rule and show why the sophomore album is the finest talent indicator.
10 sophomore records that were better than their debuts:
Nirvana – Nevermind
Nirvana, up until 1991, were a relatively obscure band entrenched in Seattle’s ferocious rock scene. If you were outside of that scene in the North West Pacific, chances are you had no idea Nirvana existed, and you were likely unaware of their 1989 debut, Bleach.
Then Nevermind changed everything. Their major-label debut remains a masterpiece that transcended music, becoming a zeitgeist cultural phenomenon, sending shockwaves across the globe in the process. Every aspect of the pioneering record was unprecedented, all the way from the challenging themes that the band tackled on the LP to the most controversial facet of the record; the album sleeve.
Whilst sonically, you’ll find an ocean of purists who prefer Bleach to Nevermind, the latter lit up the world. Nirvana gave millions a reason to believe that the world was changing in the right direction, with Kurt Cobain steering the revolutionary ship to a place of tolerance and armed with decade-defining anthems.
Radiohead – The Bends
Radiohead were an anomaly in the ’90s and beyond. They’ve never succumbed to trying to fit in with the crowd, and The Bends confirmed that there was nobody else around like this Oxfordshire quintet. There’s plenty of grungey angst on this album, but it was The Bends when Radiohead set themselves apart from the rest of the growing alternative rock scene.
People were crying out for Radiohead to make ‘Creep 2.0’ and Pablo Honey was a strong effort, but nothing to suggest that they would grow into the band they are today. They shied away from doing what was expected of them and delivered an iconic record that stands up with anything they’ve made since.
‘Fake Plastic Trees’ may well be one of the band’s best songs, and its place on this record is cherished by all. Equally, ‘Bones’ and ‘Street Spirit’ may well be other songs to challenge the Radiohead pile’s top.
Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
The second album from Bob Dylan saw the young folk singer assert himself as a writer and singer and as the captain of the New York scene. He would later be labelled “Spokesman of a Generation” — a title he repudiated.
With Freewheelin’, Dylan created one of the most iconic records of the 1960s, and its presence can still be felt to this day. The album is full of classic Dylan moments, and through his clever lyricism, it firmly shone a light on the singer’s growing songwriting ability. Dylan’s self-titled debut had only included two original songs. Eleven of the thirteen tracks on Freewheelin’ are Dylan’s own.
Dylan proved on this record that he wasn’t just another young troubadour to come out of Greenwich Village, and it’s time everybody took notice of his magical prowess.
Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
While the brand of indie rock that they pioneered was critically acclaimed, they never achieved the level of mainstream success that their sound duly deserved, but that was never what Pavement cared about. Their sophomore effort, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, is one of the truly great alternative albums of the last 30-years, and few have been more influential.
The Portlanders were the antithesis of the grunge era, and their delectable melodic songs were created for a different part of the brain than the more abrasive grunge sound. Whilst bands like Nirvana became the talk of the town, the sound that Pavement made had to fight the hard way to be recognised like it is today.
Tracks like ‘Cut Your Hair’ and ‘Gold Soundz’ are archetypal serotonin-boosting indie anthems, which should be on prescription from the NHS. The album shows off Stephen Malkmus’ knack for writing an infectious song that immediately plunges itself into the listener’s veins and stays there for eternity.
Amy Winehouse – Back To Black
Amy Winehouse’s talent seemingly knew no bounds after she burst onto the scene with her staggering debut album Frank in 2003, but it was on the seminal Back To Black that landed the late singer her iconic status.
The record stood out like a welcomed sore thumb in a pool of vanilla-pop and manufactured fakes, where her authenticness shone through like a beacon of light.
The popular musical landscape pre and post Back To Black are two different beasts, with flocks of major labels trying to mould signings into becoming the next Amy Winehouse. Over a decade on, nobody has come close to recapturing what Winehouse did to make Back To Black such a triumph and one of the last true timeless records.
Blur – Modern Life Is Rubbish
Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree as a collective are national treasures. Their ascendancy to this status arrived off the back of the rich successes of Parklife and The Great Escape. However, without Modern Life Is Rubbish, their iconic legacy may never have happened, and who knows if Oasis would have ever had any challengers to their throne.
Their debut album, Leisure, isn’t the sound of a band anyone could describe as a voice of a generation and didn’t signify that Blur were anything but just another indie band with a couple of strong singles, but not much else more. Modern Life Is Rubbish made people take Blur seriously and the kaleidoscope of genres that they travelled through on the record.
It was a bold and adventurous risk that saw them run a mile away from their comfort zone, a modus operandi that Albarn continues to live-by today.
Daft Punk – Discovery
Thriving at the top of the music industry since their emergence in the early-1990s, Daft Punk built the foundations of their music as part of the bustling French house movement and didn’t look back.
It wasn’t until their sophomore album Discovery that forced everyone to notice everybody’s favourite French robots.
The album spawned hits like ‘One More Time’, ‘Digital Love’ and ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’, which would all define the noughties. Daft Punk achieved that rare balance of managing to be both a hit with critics and a chart-topping anthem that saw Daft Punk become the messiahs of modern music.
Pixies – Doolittle
Doolittle saw the Pixies given some large airplay among indie radio stations and seemingly announced the group’s arrival into the mainstream thanks largely to the irresistible, ‘Here Comes Your Man’.
The single helped lure countless ears on the record, who were then blown away by the Pixies’ sonic display on offer.
Their quintessential “loud-quiet” shifts that they perfected on the album would see the band influence countless other artists. Without this record, who knows the musical route that Nirvana, Radiohead, the Smashing Pumpkins and Weezer would have travelled upon. It also marked out Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering out as some of America’s finer songwriters.
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers’ 2017 debut, Stranger In The Alps, arrived with little fanfare. Although the singer-songwriter still provided a keen sense of self and a clear talent for songwriting, the record failed to land — especially when put next to her sophomore record, Punisher‘s huge impact.
The timing of Punisher coincided with everyone being locked in their homes, and it served as the perfect pandemic soundtrack.
The record’s hard-hitting, cuttingly personal collection of deeply evocative sounds announced Bridgers as a star. Her slow rise to the mountain top of alternative music has taken years of gradual steps, including a collaborative album with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst but this album shines brightly. The experiences improved her as a writer, which flooded out on Punisher. Bridgers’ has now set herself an Eiffel Tower sized bar, and all eyes remain on her to see if she can reach it once more.
Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, m.A.A.d City
Lamar didn’t waste any time when it came to making his second record which was released just a year after his 2011 debut. Arriving off the back of his independently released debut after the rapper was quickly snapped up by Interscope Records, who provided him with a big budget to create magic with and Good Kid, MAAD City sees Kendrick scale everything up.
The album saw Kendrick graduate from the underground to the mainstream, which he did with ease. Lamar refused to waver his integrity, but his growth as a songwriter and storyteller is clear for all to hear on Good Kid, m.A.A.d City.
The added production value and brutally honest autobiographical lyrics make it one of the ultimate hip-hop records from the modern era.