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.”
An indelicate balance of gentle and tough that stands the test of time, Doolittle delivers classic rock with a side of alterna-mayhem – like a volatile friend whose unpredictability could make or break your evening. The brutal Surfer Rosa, produced by Steve Albini, was the low-budget 1988 calling card that introduced Kim Deal's cantering bass, guitarist Joey Santiago's reverb-heavy guitar, and singer-songwriter Black Francis's deceptively tender and startlingly violent delivery. This was all smoothed out on 1989's Doolittle, which – surprise! – turned out to be the superior album. It begins and ends, naturally, with songs about sliced and gouged-out eyeballs. In-between there is both sweetness ("Here Comes Your Man," "La La I Love You") and a sense of impending doom ("Wave of Mutilation," "There Goes My Gun").
The accessible, audience-building sequel to the gnomic critic's pick Slanted & Enchanted, 1994's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain showcases an indie-rock band that wants to be loved – but hold up, not too much love, a little less love please, OK, that's enough love. Ambivalence colors every note and nuance – the guitars are both jangly and tangly, the tone simultaneously elegiac and bitchy, the lyrics cryptic in a plainspoken way – and all comes to fruition on "Gold Soundz," Stephen Malkmus' obliquely eloquent demand to be misunderstood solely on his own terms.
Released a mere six months after his eponymous 1968 solo debut, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere introduced the world to Neil Young's erstwhile backing group Crazy Horse, as well as the 1953 Gibson Les Paul (code name "Old Black") that would produce his signature sound. Comprising nearly half the album, the enigmatic and expansive "Down By the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" represent neoprimitivist acid rock at its finest. With the singular exception of an unextended "Cinnamon Girl," the rest of the album consists of bittersweet and evocative country rock performed in a simpler, more immediate fashion than on Young's less immediate and more ornamental Jack Nitzsche-produced predecessor.
Is this where punk rock comes from or where it goes when it dies? Until the final anarchic collapse of "L.A. Blues," the riffs and grooves of Fun House zoom along with taut aggression, an occasional sax darting like a suicidal rush-hour motorcyclist between lanes. But frontman Iggy Pop doesn't let you harness that music's power for your own fantasies of dominance. He stalks listeners as victims, prancing along the music's edge, clubbing you with a feral yowl then stroking you with a rubbery murmur, teaching you the subtle pleasures of being the stunned mouse batted between a cat's paws.
Dense with about 105 samples and more hilarious references than anyone could count, Paul's Boutique is a pop-culture Finnegans Wake of a rap album. Co-produced with sampling demons the Dust Brothers during hip-hop's pre-clearance golden age, it's the equivalent of a Hollywood pre-Code masterpiece. Arriving three years after the trio's debut, Paul's Boutique was downright avant-garde compared to 1986's highly successful, Rick Rubin-produced, anthem-laden head-banger Licensed to Ill. And while the Beasties still specialized in perfectly pitched self-deprecating braggadocio, every laugh line about owning "more suits than Jacoby & Myers" was balanced by a self-aware notion like "expressing my aggressions through my schizophrenic verse words."
A curious syllogism took shape in the Nineties: Jazz was black and cool; rap is black and cool; therefore rap is like jazz. While a logical misstep, it still sparked plenty of ingenious attempts to fuse those two great American art forms, but none expanded vistas quite this broadly. Initially pegged as the cute kid brothers in De La Soul's Native Tongues movement, here Q-Tip, Phife Dog, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (with significant low-end assistance from onetime Miles Davis sideman Ron Carter) crafted a bass-heavy gem that reminded listeners that hip-hop's heart was in its groove.
As much musical theater as rock and roll, the Jersey giant's first two albums introduced a colorful cast of seaside and big-city lowlifes while launching one of the longest-running and most consistently exhilarating (and exhausting) shows in touring history. Springsteen's September sequel to January 1973's Greetings From Asbury Park offered more snapshots of his carnivalesque hometown, as in "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)." But it was in future tour warhorses like the Shakespearean "Incident on 57th Street" and "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" where he evinced the musical depth, man-for-all-seasons ambition, and tension-release drama that would make him and his E Street Band American rock's preeminent ambassadors for decades to come.
Their self-titled debut not even a year old, these spooky Brits were already dredging up sludgy new ingredients for their post-blooze mud pies. Tony Iommi's opening fillip on the title track is the perfect anticipatory set-up for the frenzied Ozzy Osbourne psycho-rant that follows, and "Iron Man" is forged around a riff that seems less a human invention and more a mathematical inevitability awaiting discovery – the heavy metal equivalent of the quadratic equation.
Precious few pop albums have been as contradiction-embracing, thought-provoking, and downright entertaining as The College Dropout, Kanye West's maximalist 2004 coming-out party. And yet, a year later, Late Registration built on its predecessor like an upgraded operating system: The same annoying "neighbor" returns to kick off more anti-education skits, there's Seventies slow-jam tributes ("Roses"), deep sentimentality ("Hey Mama"), consumerist critiques ("Diamonds From Sierra Leone"), glam-pop universalism ("Gold Digger"), and A-list guest appearances (Jay Z, Nas, Common, the Game, and more). Meanwhile, co-producer Jon Brion expands West's grandiosity exponentially with the addition of strings and horns.
Hey, whatever happened to those guys who did “Creep”? Well, they decided to fill the U2-sized hole left in Nineties popular music when Bono discovered irony, expressing the arena-scaled ambition of Britpop with none of its laddish swagger. Jonny Greenwood’s enormous yet tonally nuanced riffs enveloped rather than walloped audiences, while Thom Yorke, whose uneasiness hadn’t yet triggered the full-on paranoia of OK Computer, painted your shared anxieties as something grand and gorgeous rather than offering petty lies of consolation.
Declan McManus's first album with the Attractions is a caffeinated corker. After recording 1977's My Aim Is True during work-skipping "sick days" with members of California country rockers Clover, Costello quit his day job and banged this out the following year. Obviously synergized by the Attractions – a baroque-rock keyboardist, melodic bassist, and powerful drummer – the Costello persona expanded exponentially in British hit singles like the hyperkinetic "Pump It Up" and cinematically inspired "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea." Apparently too wired to reprise slow-burners like "Alison" or "Watching the Detectives," the Attractions fired on all cylinders behind their devastatingly expressive frontman.
Dylan's eponymous debut was a scraggily collection of blues and folk tunes topped off with just two original songs. This 1963 follow-up belatedly introduced Bob Dylan, songwriter. "Blowin' in the Wind" is a metaphysical rumination disguised as a protest song, serving as the new folk movement's anthem and its epitaph. Long before Dylan ever strapped on an electric guitar, the apocalyptic wrath of "Masters of War" and "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" should have clued in folkies that this guy might just have some different priorities.
Rock guitar's Charlie Parker proved himself a superior songwriter and an uncanny studio experimentalist on an album released less than seven months after May 1967's Are You Experienced? Hendrix sings about his childhood in "Castles Made of Sand," recalls losing his musical virginity in "Spanish Castle Magic," and confesses his emotional vulnerability in "Bold as Love." But he speaks most lucidly through pure electricity. The sound of his guitar is in nearly constant motion, oscillating between channels in the psychedelically symphonic "If 6 Was 9" and spiraling into the stratosphere in the coda to "Up From the Skies." And as a career moment, Axis perches perfectly between the revelatory rock of Experienced? and the even more outré surprises of October 1968's(!) Electric Ladyland.
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' 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 Lennon–McCartney 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.