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Music | Opinion

The 10 most underwhelming sophomore albums

You’ve heard the expression: “You have your life to write the first album, and a month to write the second”. Well, there’s truth to that. Take a look at Noel Gallagher, who had to piece (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? from scratch; take a look at U2, who had to return to their Christian roots to write their second effort; and take a look at The Stone Roses, who called it a day after their second album.

And such is the power of the world’s presses that bands are frequently given the opportunity to try again for a third time. For Oasis, Be Here Now stood as a decided improvement over their lacklustre second effort, and War gifted U2 the breakthrough they so desperately wanted. And there are bands who got it just right with their second album: 10cc’s Sheet Music stands heads and shoulders over the other records in the canon. Meat Is Murder is also the best album The Smiths put out.

But there are other artists who falter at the second album, unsure whether or not it’s their finest hour. Instead, they limp on, hoping to build a career, leaving it to the others to impart whether or not it stands up to their other work. Certainly, it feels like another part of a widening career.

This is a small sampling of acts who released underwhelming (nay, out and out disappointing) albums on only their second stab at the role. And so it comes to pass that a feature should be made detailing these efforts.

The 10 most underwhelming sophomore albums:

10. Demon Days – Gorillaz

Just as he started the fictional band, Damon Albarn quickly pivoted into another corner. The band snowballed into something more docile on their second work, and arguably never recovered from the pratfall. Lacking both the intimacy and the awareness of the first album, Demon Days takes the precarious route of utilising a band of celebrities, who walk in and out of the sessions with the interest of a canteen worker signing in and out for the day. Does that sound like the recipe to a winning album? Didn’t think so.

The album boasts the astonishing ‘Dare’ and the ram-shackled fun of ‘Feel Good Inc.’, but there’s no denying the fact that this sophomore album has none of the invention, foresight or originality of the first album. Even Albarn sounds guarded, unwilling to let out those bellowing yelps that made the first Gorillaz album so enjoyable to sit through. What is the purpose of the work, when it’s demonstrated by apathy for the material?

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9. This Is The Modern World – The Jam

Even Paul Weller says this one is no good. Whether it was fatigue or writer’s block that halted his process, there’s no denying the fact that Weller is fighting with limited strength on this one. It certainly feels like the singer is only giving a certain degree of his intelligence and originality to the finished proceedings. It takes Rick Buckler’s thunder to bring a sense of edge to the proceedings, but Bruce Foxton’s bass also helps keep the music pummelling along. The lyrics, sadly, fail to match up with The Jam’s explosive first album, or the more well portraitures of All Mod Cons, which was released following a crusade back to the Weller house in an effort to reconnect with his family and albums.

If the album can claim a hero, it’s Foxton, who imbues a certain sense of ennui and danger to the yearning sensibilities of ‘London Traffic’. He was growing as a writer, and could well have gone to become their dominant writing force, but for a renaissance in his writing with such anthems as ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’ and ‘The Butterfly Collector’.

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8. A Quick One – The Who

The album least dependent on Pete Townshend’s writing is also the weakest album in The Who’s canon, an exhibit that includes such duds as It’s Hard and Endless Wire. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the ambition of the title track, this album would rank much, much higher than it does on this list. But as it happens, it does hold a superb title track, and ‘So Sad About Us’ is also noteworthy, creating a new form of lyrical writing for the field of British pop. Townshend was showing his abilities as a writer, but he was short of songs, so his bandmates had to fill the gaps

There’s Keith Moon’s dreadful ‘I Need You’, Roger Daltrey’s pedestrian ‘See My Way’, and John Entwistle’s ‘Whiskey Man’, a bouncy track that was likely more fun to record than it was to listen to. Then there’s the instrumental that was so embarrassing they gave it to Moon to claim as his own: ‘Cobwebs and Strange’. It’s quite simply the worst thing on this list by a country mile.

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7. One Way Ticket To Hell – The Darkness

The world’s greatest viagra joke? The Darkness really slipped up on this one, plunging headfirst into the realms of self-parody with this their second album. It’s a cocktail of tawdry hooks, bellowing falsettos and piercing, rapier-sharp gags that miss each and every one of their marks. To their credit, the songs sounded excellent live, but they were propelled by a selection of fiery guitar hooks that were bolstered by the reaction of the live audience, giving it an added punk-like edge

The title track is simply dreadful, as is the pounding, propulsion of ‘Girlfriend’, both of them led by the propensity of Justin Hawkins’s shrill falsetto. What the band needed was to take some time off, and recognise where they were going in life, before deciding if this was the correct course of action or not.

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6. Communiqué – Dire Straits

Bassist John Illsley explained Dire Straits‘ success in an interview in 2021: “Yes, it really depended on what sort of songs we were dealing with. Mark was writing, pretty much from 1976, constantly, so one didn’t know what was going to come next. So, when something like Romeo and Juliet turns up on your doorstep, I mean somebody might say to you, ‘What do you think of Making Movies as opposed to the first Dire Straits album?’ I understand the rawness and everything like that, but when you’re faced with songs of that quality, that’s what made Making Movies a really important album for an awful lot of people.”

And that’s why the band’s second album comes across as dull. It stands as a virtual carbon copy of the blues-oriented debut, creating a more pedestrian backdrop for the band, who feel that their motions are being replicated. Guitarist David Knopfler was clearly bored by the process and by the time the band regrouped for their third effort, he was gone.

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5. Once Upon A Time In The West – Hard-Fi

Hard-Fi’s second album is one of their weaker efforts in sound, no question about it. Putting it generously, it may have been down to the pressure of getting the album out on time. “The label were breathing down our necks as soon as we started this album,” Ross Philips explained. “When we were recording, the label wanted it yesterday. They didn’t want to take any chances. We built our own studio for the sessions so everything took a little longer than expected. We were in there working, experimenting with our new setup and the label weren’t hearing anything. They started freaking out and talking about pulling the plug and putting us in a new studio with a new producer. I had to tell them to get a f**king grip.”

The album sounds hurried, and not in a very good way. The guitars belt along with no semblance of subtlety or cohesion. Indeed, the whole thing feels forced, creating a sense of destruction underneath the pummelling friction. ‘I Shall Overcome’ is the weakest track of all, standing with some of the worst songs from 2007. And considering the pedigree of that dismal year, that’s saying something.

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4. Give ‘Em Enough Rope – The Clash

Seated between the fire of their debut, and the versatility of their third album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope was always bound to be disappointing. And that’s all the pity, because it features the presence of Topper Headon, the band’s rock steady drummer and most accomplished musician. He plays freely on ‘Safe European Home’, but there’s a lack of breathing space between some of the cavernous guitars on the other tracks on the album.

Highlights include the sparse, slickly produced ‘Stay Free’, and there are other tracks that merit re-listenings, but the uncompromising density of the album is squandered by the freewheeling apathy that is felt in every element of the band’s history. Such is the propensity of the album, the band wisely decided to peel back the layers for their third effort, which showcased the band at their most expressive. And how!

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3. Trespass – Genesis

Genesis were not a great band before Phil Collins joined. They needed him as a singer, just as they needed him as a percussionist. And his presence is greatly lacking on Trespass, an album that is likely the weakest in the Genesis canon (even Calling All Stations had some blinding guitar solos). The band were guided by Johnathan King (now a rightfully disgraced producer) for their debut, meaning that the vocals and hooks sounded polished in their demonstration and in their resolve. As a debut, it had great form, but the band were determined to do things by themselves for the next album.

And what a mistake that was: They play desperately around the studio, hoping to come across some semblance of cohesion in an industry that offers very little to them. In their own precarious way, the band were already guilty of pandering to some of their failings as artists, so it served them well to put their faith in producers Hugh Padgham and Nick Davis for future efforts.

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2. Long Player – Faces

Let’s face it, Faces never sounded brilliant on record. They played well, they wrote well and they sang well together, but none of their albums – not even Ooh La La – matched the Small Faces for invention or far-reaching promise. They were clouded by pints upon pints of alcohol, ensuring that their songs were hampered by an inability to tell themselves apart from the audiences who gravitated to the band like a person searching for a point of resolution. And on their second effort, they really sounded like they didn’t want to work on their craft.

The results are lazy, and frequently terrible. The best song on the album is a track Paul McCartney wrote: ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’. Sung by bassist Ronnie Lane and vocalist Rod Stewart, the song shows what potential they had if they were just willing to push themselves that little bit harder. But why would they when there were pints to consume?

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1. Imagine – John Lennon

Now, this is one that’s going to crucify me. Yes, I’m saying that John Lennon’s album Imagine isn’t that great. No, it’s not that great. The brilliant title track and the biting ‘Gimme Some Truth’ aside, it’s not that great. And when you consider the work Lennon released in 1970 – ‘Instant Karma’. ‘Mother’ et al – it simply didn’t stand that his second solo album didn’t match up with the efforts of his startling debut. And in his own idiosyncratic way, he seemed to enjoy the fact that it didn’t match up with his first album.

Take my advice, and buy Fly instead. It showcases Yoko Ono at the peak of her creativity, featuring some of the barrelling hooks that should have ended up on the Imagine album. It’s easy to “imagine” a future where the world in question could appreciate one another, but this album (the Imagine album) simply wasn’t the one to unite the world together.

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