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20 Best Second Albums of All Time

If at first you don’t succeed – or even if you do – try, try again: Here are the best follow-ups in history

Top 20 Second Albums

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A knockout debut album is like love at first sight. But classic second records are like amazing second dates, the ones when you really get to know each other. Here are 20 artists that never knew the meaning of “sophomore slump.”

Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin II

Courtesy of Atlantic Records


Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin II’ (1969)

Their 1969 debut made it pretty obvious that these boys weren't just Jimmy Page's new heavy blues band. But at some point during the second album – during "Whole Lotta Love," maybe even from the guitar's first pelvic chug – you could hear the Seventies start. You could tell that this new decade was gonna be heavy, with riffs as much as melodies defining its spirit. And at some point during "Ramble On" – probably when Gollum steals Robert Plant's girl away – you could tell that this new decade was gonna get pretty weird.

The Beatles With the Beatles

Courtesy of Parlophone


The Beatles, ‘With the Beatles’ (1963)

The Beatles' debut, Please Please Me, was famously cut in a single day. It's tougher follow-up, however, came together in seven sessions over four months amid the group's cyclonic British success. While fashion photographer Robert Freeman's iconic cover shot captured four sober young men in chic black turtlenecks, the music inside couldn't be any more bracing, jubilant, or sexy. References to home and happy reunions pepper "It Won't Be Long," "All My Loving," and five other LennonMcCartney originals in addition to George Harrison's admonitory debut, "Don't Bother Me." And once the Beatles covered Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" and Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me," they stayed covered.

Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions

Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings


Public Enemy, ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ (1988)

Brutally spare? Public Enemy had already mastered that on Yo! Bum Rush the Show. Now they were ready to give us more. Chuck D's rhymes are more intricate and allusive, his moral tone more authoritative, his foes more varied and numerous. Flavor Flav's laces his comic routines with more absurdity, more personality, more flavor. And production crew the Bomb Squad sprays astringent caterwaul everywhere with a graffiti writer's hatred of blank space, yoking any prior musical movement once dismissed as noise – from free jazz to punk to metal – to a disciplined funk backbone.

The Band The Band

Courtesy of Capitol Records


The Band, ‘The Band’ (1969)

Offering a rustic American (if 80 percent Canadian) corrective to the heady excesses of the Sixties, the Band's 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink, evolved naturally out of the group's Basement Tapes sessions with Bob Dylan. Forget the future, these multi-instrumentalists seemed to argue; the past is an even weirder place to hang out. The Band slipped its Dylan connection almost entirely with Pink's sequel. It's a masterpiece of resonant, literate Americana thanks in large part to Arkansas drummer Levon Helm's deep Southern limning of Robbie Robertson "story songs" such as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek." Elsewhere, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko brought their own melancholy beauty to "Whispering Pines" and "The Unfaithful Servant."

Carole King Tapestry

Courtesy of Ode Records


Carole King, ‘Tapestry’ (1971)

Already a songwriting pro for more than a decade, the woman responsible for the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" and Aretha's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" realized that if she couldn't match the sweep of those definitive renditions she could do something better – translate them into an ordinary yet expressive voice that makes their sentiments all the more personal and relatable. New songs like "It's Too Late" and "So Far Away" took that aesthetic choice a step further, recognizing just how mundane and yet how insurmountable the obstacles to modern romance could be.

Van Morrison Astral Weeks

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records


Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’ (1968)

Whether you consider it Van Morrison's actual solo debut, as he does, or the 1968 follow-up to the artist-disavowed Blowin' Your Mind (whose title alone sends up a warning flare), Astral Weeks is music for the ages. Timeless and transcendent, it blends Celtic soul power, poetic blues, and bewitching jazz improvisation in an earthy gossamer alchemy never recaptured. Producer Lewis Merenstein put it in motion by hiring a trio of serious jazzmen to provide spontaneous accompaniment to Morrison's voice and guitar. Morrison recorded fine pop music both before ("Brown Eyed Girl") and after (Moondance), but the Yeats-ian title track, nostalgically sexy "Cypress Avenue," and mesmerizing "Ballerina" still move and groove like they're from another green world.

Nirvana Nevermind

Courtesy of DGC Records


Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’ (1991)

The sludgy muck of Nirvana's debut, Bleach, barely hinted at the band's pop potential. Producer Butch Vig shellacs Kurt Cobain's guitar in high-coat gloss without pruning any barbs or prickles, new drummer Dave Grohl pounds like he's working on a Dischord Records tribute to Zeppelin and Krist Novoselic's bass helpfully restates the melodies whenever chaos looms. Yet the focal point is always Cobain's voice – equal parts whine and taunt, rendering lyrics either epigrammatic or incomprehensible, momentarily purging your misery if not his as it reaches each triumph of a chorus.

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