The sophomore slump is a phase that has become ubiquitous across everything from music, to athletics, to academics. Yet, ironically, as you look across nearly every genre of music, the landscape is littered with seminal second albums. To prove it, we’ve compiled a list of the top 20 full-length albums, in no particular order, that exceeded even the wildest influence and success of their debut hits. This is the first half of that list.
Nirvana – Nevermind
In many ways Nirvana’s debut studio album, Bleach, is an amazing collection of songs. It is full of raw emotion and is undoubtedly one of the most important grunge albums of all time. However, Nevermind propelled Nirvana into the stratosphere. Arguably there has never been another time in history when such a heavy record (both in sound and content) has been atop the charts. Not only was Nevermind an unprecedented commercial success (estimated over 24 million copies sold to date and RIAA certified diamond in the 1990s), but its sound was an amazingly unique dichotomy. There are quiet choruses met with howling and violent choruses. There are quiet and composed tracks like ‘Polly’ that bleed directly into powerful and dissonant tracks like ‘Territorial Pissings’. And finally there were monster commercial hits like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ paired with deeply personal songs like ‘Something in the Way’. Beyond being a great second album, Nevermind is just a great album, period.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II
‘Whole Lotta Love,’ ‘The Lemon Song,’ ‘Heartbreaker,’ ‘Ramble On,’ ‘Moby Dick,’ the track listing for Led Zeppelin II reads more like a classic rock greatest hits album than the second release of a single band. Largely recorded while the band was on tour, the energy of a live performance is clearly transmitted through the speakers in stereo. Led Zeppelin II features a unique mix of blues riffs, pop hooks, psychedelic sounds, blaring vocals, and at times even acoustic guitar. While the musical medley is hard to pin down, the hard rock influence of the album is often cited by critics as the blueprint for heavy metal bands to come.
Weezer – Pinkerton
Following a multi-platinum success, and emerging from the failed throws of a rock opera, Pinkerton is the definition of a cult classic. Written largely during Rivers Cuomo’s academic breaks from his studies at Harvard, Pinkerton is a fantastic album that tackles complex sexual themes rarely referenced in popular music. With singles like ‘Pink Triangle,’ ‘El Scorcho,’ and ‘Tired of Sex’, Pinkerton explores a wide array of sexual topics from the lack of emotion in causal hook-ups to sexual orientation to inter-racial relationships; all while weaving the context of contemporary music and reference to Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, into its lyrics. Despite debuting to mixed reviews, and being temporarily shunned by the band, Pinkerton has endured and actually continued to gain new traction and appreciation over time.
Black Sabbath – Paranoid
Containing the bands biggest commercial successes, ‘War Pigs’ and ‘Iron Man’, Paranoid is one of the most quintessential albums in rock and metal history. Gloomy riffs echo within a deep cave of despair and angst as Ozzy’s vocals penetrate the buzz in tracks like ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ and ‘Electric Funeral’. Inspiring future covers from the likes of everyone from Green Day, Cake, Pantera, Faith No More, and others, the lasting impact of this album is indescribable.
Brand New – Deja Entendu
The second album from Long Island juggernaut Brand New was all about maturation. While touring for over two years playing material from their debut album Your Favorite Weapon, critics of the band began to poke at the theme of “break-up songs” that littered Brand New’s catalog. With Deja Entendu, front man Jesse Lacy began to stray from this formulaic ritual. Instead the tracks of the album are full of pop culture anecdotes, such as a shout to Home Alone 2 in ‘Okay I Believe You, But My Tommygun Don’t’, and historical reference to the 1951 shipwreck of the FV Pelican at Montauk Point in ‘Play Crack The Sky.’ While the album still holds all the emotional power of Your Favorite Weapon, it’s clear that the group progressed both lyrically and musically as they moved away from strictly fast-paced pop-punk exclamations and into layered, methodical, and beautifully composed songs.
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
The Low End Theory was a cultural bridge no one was expecting to be built, especially by a group of young men from Queens. In the early 1990s when the hip-hop scene was dominated by the arrival of gangster rap, A Tribe Called Quest was able to layer elements of jazz and blues into hip-hop like never before. Somehow the album is incredibly simple and yet extraordinarily complex. The simplicity lies in the elements of the music – a layering of vocals, bass, and drums. Yet the way the songs are composed, especially tracks like ‘Check the Rhime’ and ‘Buggin Out,’ are meticulously crafted and feature complex rhyme schemes that are missed in today’s hip-hop culture.
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Every week I check the Facebook posts on my local record store (Crooked Beat in Washington, D.C.) and without fail one of the top 10 albums sold that week is In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Arguably one of the greatest indie albums of all time, the record is a low-fi amalgamation of hope, loss, love, and longing. With a range of theories from fans postulating that the album is about the Holocaust, or even more specifically Anne Frank, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in my mind is simply about the loss of love and the desire for human connection. As illustrated in the title track, there is a clear appreciation for human beauty and fulfillment. Moreover, in the touching lyrics crafted throughout ‘Ghost’ and ‘Oh Comely’, it’s clear that Mangum often can’t separate himself from those he loves. These twisted themes of love and loss are universal and are part of the reason why this record will continue to be sold for years to come.
Billy Joel – Piano Man
Before the title track rang out from drunken lips in bars and weddings across the country, Piano Man was the second studio album from Billy Joel as he broke from his original label, Family Productions. In short, Piano Man was Joel’s breakthrough. With future hits such as ‘Piano Man’, ‘The Ballad of Billy the Kid’, and ‘Captain Jack’, the album has a timeless ethos and made the Long Island pianist a staple of popular music for decades to come.
Bikini Kill – Pussy Whipped
While it is debatable if Revolution Girl Style Now! is a full-length album, I am counting it as such which places Pussy Whipped as one of the best sophomore albums ever. With feminist anthems ‘Rebel Girl’ and ‘Alien She’, Kathleen Hanna perfectly depicts both the inner-struggles and societal pressure women experience every day. Composed of a series of brutal, stops, starts, and crescendos, Pussy Whipped carries all the punk clout of any 1980s headliner as the group outlines a vitriolic manifesto that grants a voice to the unheard. Furthermore, their political convictions and rejection of the mainstream media only adds to the allure of the band and the album’s artistic accomplishment.
Foo Fighters – The Colour and the Shape
The release of Foo Fighters’ 1995 debut album Foo Fighters was the tepid start of a new journey for Dave Grohl after the passing of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. For one, in 1995 Grohl was the only official member of the group. However, by 1997 the Foo Fighters had solidified to produce one of the most important modern rock albums of the 2000s. Leveraging guitar legend Pat Smear, formerly of The Germs, and Sunny Day Real Estate bassist Nate Mendel, The Colour and the Shape showcases an emotional journey through Grohl’s relationship with his ex-wife, his childhood, and even himself. As illustrated in several interviews, Grohl wrote the majority of the lyrics alone near his home in Northern Virginia and in those moments he produced some of the biggest hits of the album, including the pivotal track ‘Everlong.’’Scanning the rest of the album, songs such as ‘Monkey Wrench’ and ‘My Hero’ peaked within the top ten on United States rock radio and brought a significance back to mainstream rock n’ roll.