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The 10 greatest sophomore albums of all time

The curse of second album syndrome is one that everyone knows all too well. In fact, it is so ubiquitous in music speel that it seems to be a headline in waiting upon a promising debut. However, when you look back at the annals of musical history, it is more often the case that those who stumble at the second hurdle were lucky to be heralded at the first. With that, many who are set for a good run, surpass it with even more intent and grace than their debut. 

Ringo Starr may have once said, “For me, that was more important than anything else. That first piece of plastic. You can’t believe how great that was. It was so wonderful. We were on a record!” But after that thrill, the real work starts. 

It can be difficult to match a masterful debut and often second efforts, for instance, The Strokes’ Room On Fire, are closer to the first than many would like to admit as sentiment gets in the way. And sometimes it seems the looming potential to fail leads to an artist barely sticking their neck out of the wheelhouse and even that can be highly creditable sometimes. However, there are a few follow up records where the brilliance of anything that went before is built on and brandished with a takeover smile. 

Below we’re looking at ten debut albums the secured themselves a place in history among the greatest records of all time. Our apologies to Simon & Garfunkel, Radiohead, Public Enemy, Arctic Monkeys, Nirvana and ever-growing lists of regrets that are suddenly besieging me.  

The ten greatest sophomore albums of all time:

10. Tapestry by Carole King

Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett cherishingly holds Tapestry and declares, “Every song is a hit, you’re kind of waiting for a moment to get up and go to the toilet or something and there is none!” 

Bookended by the two masterful singles, the album retains quality right throughout. However, its peak achievement is that it is not simply a collection of hit singles, it swings and swoons through the moods while retaining the same creative thread, as is the measure of many great albums.

9. Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane

The 1967 summer of love was a seismic moment in American culture and, as such, owing to the globalised hegemony, a huge summer for the world at large. The defining sound of that summer was Jefferson Airplane, and the world can be very thankful for that. The record is a raucous journey. 

The glorious unfulfillable crescendo of ‘White Rabbit’ is the perfect allegory for the era, speeding at 100mph with a tailwind of progress and hope right towards a red light. Then ‘Embryonic Journey’ is another act of societal mirroring, in a whirlwind of beauty, teetering on the line between a tragic overture and ecstatic fun. The sixties sounded glorious and, by God, if the first verse of ‘Somebody to Love’ (“When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies/Don’t you want somebody to love?”) didn’t get close to answering the whole thing!

8. The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest 

It is worth remembering that when A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory in 1991, hip hop was still finding its way in the world. And as is the case with every new genre, converts become very precious about what follows, like members of some purist cult. 

A Tribe Called Quest managed the near-impossible task of expanding the sensibilities of the genre and gaining some mainstream attraction while keeping just about everyone happy. They did this because their sonic expansion was done with integrity at the centre and a swirl of skill thrown into the pot.

7. (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis

Nearly 30 years on from its release, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? remains as divisive as ever. However, if you have had some arm in arm singalong to ‘Champagne Supernova’ under a star-clad sky or you’ve joyfully engaged in a horse-throated end of the evening hollering of ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ at a wedding, then it’s a record still worth celebrating for its behemoth impact on culture. 

It has got the jukebox friendly hits, the pint-fuelled energy and the swaggering originality that singled Oasis out as the group of a generation. The ultimate middle finger from the band is that with this record they etched every word into the mind of anyone who ever listened to it, and that includes the few contrarians that weren’t swept up in the Britpop storm.

6. Axis: Bold As Love by Jimi Hendrix

With Axis: Bold As Love Jimi Hendrix not only declared himself as the greatest guitarist the world had ever seen but with an exhibition of sheer diversity from the classically structure rock brilliance of ‘Wait Until Tomorrow’ to the softer tones of the beautiful ‘Little Wing’, he seemed to be brilliantly showing off. 

And never has peacocking sounded so good or so perfectly realised. Even his lyricism, which he doesn’t often get credit for, in songs like ‘Castles Made of Sand’, in particular, are an exultant success…and lord knows how hard it must be the play that and sing it at the same time. Skill is one thing, but making it sound so joyous is another. 

5. Paranoid by Black Sabbath 

From the opening salvo of ‘War Pigs’, Paranoid smashes the saloon doors off their hinges and introduces something called ‘metal’ to the mainstream. It has never sounded as good since. 

This record is the Promethean force that all genres deserve to yield when they attempt to usurp the status quo, or at least shoulder out a small place to call its own amid the mainstream. However, its breakneck originality is considered and mellowed tracks like ‘Planet Caravan’ stand as testimony that the band had artistic chops to go along with stellar musicianship.

4. Fun House by The Stooges

The Stooges second studio album, Fun House, released back in 1970, was a controlled explosion that serves as a measured incendiary attack on all that’s banal. But the reverberations would mostly be second hand as the record proved to be quintessentially ahead of its time. 

One such artist swept up in its glorious legacy of adrenalised aftermath is Charlie Steen of Shame, who told Far Out: “The Stooges changed my life… It seems as if this band has nothing to lose when you listen to them. No willingness to sacrifice their sound in hopes of achieving a high rank in the charts. No sign of trying to mould themselves to be something they were not. Nobody had seen anything like them at the time and nobody has seen or heard anything as real as them since. This album has tracks like ‘Down on the Street’ and ‘Loose’ that sit in their own elevated world.”

3. Doolittle by Pixies

Sam Fogarino of the band Interpol once told Q Magazine during an interview in 2011 that he thought Pixies were the most influential band of the last 25 years. He said when he first listened to them, he “felt vile, then I felt violated, then I thought it was the most brilliant fucking thing since sliced bread and that hasn’t changed because it’s ageless music and that’s a very rare thing to stumble upon.”

Fogarino’s statement gains an awful lot of credence when you consider the mind-blowing reality that the record was released way back in 1989. And his testimony goes up a notch further when you consider the mercurial originality of the record – does anything else actually sound like this album?

2. Astral Weeks by Van Morrison

Leonard Cohen once said, “Music is the emotional life of most people,” and that holds more than a grain of truth. That is not to say that those without a Fender under their arms go reticently bumbling through life, but on a groggy Tuesday morning with a long shift ahead it can be difficult to grasp the same profundity of existence that Van Morrison seems to be seized by in the crafting of Astral Weeks, thus we can be forever thankful for the way that he fished it from the ether to serve as a load lightening boon for the rest of us.

It is a record that is unbridled by the fear of judgement. Striding over cynics who would call it pretentious, Van Morrison and his band seem to propagate the mantra of the zeitgeist put forth in Pierrot Le Fou, “Life might be sad sometimes but it is always beautiful.” It’s a record performed at the rousing depths of what Federico Garcia Lorca called Duende, “a mysterious force that everyone feels, and no philosopher has explained. The roots that cling to the mire from which comes the very substance of art.” Not bad considering there are swathes where you can’t understand a bloody word.

1. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan

The opening track to Bob Dylan’s first masterpiece is a spiritual ode that pairs God, racism and the ways of this world. The second track is a lament to a lover long gone in a nostalgic daydream pitted against the mellowed pain of acquiescence. The third track pokes a finger at warmongers in an eruption of acerbic bile that has perhaps never been matched in protest music. The record unfurls thereafter in a musical maelstrom that leaves no stone of the human condition unturned. And this was in 1963 before pop culture had happened and Dylan was barely out of his school shorts. 

With this record of seismic importance, Dylan seems to have one foot in the evergreen pastures of the past and one firmly in the multi-coloured kaleidoscopic cultural stew of the future. But it isn’t just a timeless Promethean feat, it has an unrivalled mysterious depth to it. You could drop a ten-tonne atom bomb in this record and you’d never live to hear it explode.