The “Sophomore Slump” is real.
What once was industry jargon and urban legend has more or less been proven by cold, hard statistics. In early 2015, one brazen team compared the scores of 80 prized debut albums to those of their follow-ups, discovering that 66.25% of the time the grades dropped and that was for acts across all genres, cultures, and historical periods.
Here’s the problem with that study, though: None of the numbers account for context. Which is why albums like Weezer’s Pinkerton or Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory were considered slumps in the interactive chart, even though they’ve since been heralded as incredibly influential records that changed their respective genres.
Still, there are plenty of examples where the ratings actually speak to the slump. For example, is anyone going to agree that Nas’ It Was Written was a triumph over Illmatic? Or how about Television’s Adventure over Marquee Moon? Sometimes, the hurdle is just too high to jump, and that’s when the respective numbers (at times) make sense.
But there have been exceptions to the rule. Artists have been able to top themselves triumphantly, and it’s those rare moments that we’re invested in today. As such, we’ve collected what we believe to be the 10 greatest sophomore albums of all time. The ones that changed everyone’s lives. The ones that might very well be their best.
It wasn’t easy, and we left off many, so feel free to share your own thoughts below.
10. Weezer – Pinkerton
The Long Con
The Hurdle: If anyone was set up for a sophomore slump, it was Weezer. Their self-titled debut album came out of nowhere to land a trio of alt radio staples (“Buddy Holly”, “Say It Ain’t So”, and “Undone – The Sweater Song”), with “Buddy Holly” going on to win four MTV VMAs. It wound up selling more than three million copies following its release in 1994 despite holding little in common with the grunge rock that populated the radio at the time. This success made Cuomo get “woke.” He became disillusioned with the celebrity that came with his radio hits and retreated to study at Harvard University. He originally intended for a rock opera called Songs from the Black Hole to follow the Blue Album, but scrapped that idea in favor of another collection of 10 punchy songs titled Pinkerton.
The Jump: By many metrics, 1996’s Pinkerton was a failure. It debuted at only No. 19 on the Billboard 200, with its best performing single, “El Scorcho”, also topping out at No. 19 on the Modern Rock chart. The release of the album was marred by a lawsuit from security company Pinkerton, Inc., and the poor reception saw the group lose two members and go on hiatus for the rest of the ’90s. It was decidedly less polished than the Blue Album, which explains why alt radio didn’t embrace the singles. Critics at the time didn’t see the more-emo lyrics for what they were: honest, confessional, and brave. But acclaim did come as the album saw its influence spread over emo bands of the late ’90s and early aughts. It went to feature on Best of the ’90s lists from Rolling Stone, Spin, and Pitchfork and became the most beloved album in Weezer’s catalog.
09. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
The Game Changer
The Hurdle: Let’s be clear from the get-go: Public Enemy’s 1987 debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, also changed the hip-hop game. The album cover remains jarring nearly 30 years later: the iconic group logo of a black man in crosshairs, black men wearing paramilitary gear in a dimly lit bunker, and several deadly serious glares. Has an album cover ever better invoked the idea that some serious shit is about to go down? Drop the needle and out of this corner comes Chuck D’s booming right hooks as hypeman Flavor Flav bobs and weaves around him while delivering jabs atop The Bomb Squad’s relentless knockout counts. Gone is the pull-myself-up braggadocio of most ’80s hip-hop, replaced instead by the anger, frustrations, and concerns of a community voiced by its own members. What gets filed as a hip-hop record acts more like a neighborhood assembly you can bust a move to.
The Jump: If Bum Rush changed the game, then It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back took it to another level. (Dr. J, meet Air Jordan.) The album accelerates to match the intensity of the PE live show; Chuck D and Flav amplify their hard-hitting, odd-couple dynamic; and Terminator X and The Bomb Squad supply the scratches, feedback, and samples to create a dense sonic Armageddon that still fucks with your brain three decades later. “Years of saved-up ideas,” reflects Chuck D, “were compiled into one focused aural missile.” And whether it’s the bum-rushing, rallying “Bring the Noise”; the blaring anti-crack “Night of the Living Baseheads”, or the high-pitched, chilling fictional prison escape of “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, this missile still runs hot and locked in in 2016. It Takes a Nation… is the album that proved a hip-hop record can be a PSA, and much of its enduring relevance owes to Public Enemy making that PSA a party that rages on until the break of dawn.
08. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
The Vindicated Genius
The Hurdle: After five years of seemingly never-ending lineup changes and multiple EPs, My Bloody Valentine finally released a proper debut in 1988’s Isn’t Anything, a loud and raucous statement that more or less established a genre in shoegazing and scorched the hair off every critic who had been waiting with salivating eyes. “What’s next?” Someone at Creation had to ask, and that’s when the labored sessions for Loveless began a year later. Frontman Kevin Shields went full Brian Wilson, dragging the band through 19 recording studios and countless engineers for two years, racking up a bill that allegedly amounted to around £250,000. In a way, life for the Irish outfit had become as erratic as their own candied chaos.
The Jump: But that unease certainly worked for them. When Loveless finally arrived in November of 1991, it was hardly a commercial success — after all, how do you sell glazed stompers like “Only Shallow” or sprawling soundscapes like “Soon” to rock radio? — but its influence was paramount. Jim DeRogatis wrote that “the forward-looking sounds of this unique disc have positioned the band as one of the most influential and inspiring bands since The Velvet Underground” while creative minds like Brian Eno, Billy Corgan, and Robert Smith took notes. Decades later, Loveless still doesn’t feel of this world; it’s a timeless collage of ingenuity, a magnetic snapshot of fractured genius too inspiring to ever dry up.
07. Adele – 21
The Unlikely Blockbuster
The Hurdle: If you get a call from the boss of XL Recordings a few months after graduation, chances are you don’t believe it’s really him on the line. That was the case for Adele when she received that very phone call in 2006 after a few MySpace songs grabbed the company’s attention. With their help (and funds), she released her debut LP, 19, to critical acclaim. Truth be told, her breakthrough success would have been well earned even without the company’s help. Her vocal flexibility stretched through quiet ballads “Daydreamer” and “Make You Feel My Love” as well as uptempo numbers “Cold Shoulder” and “Right As Rain” with equal control, showing a voice that hit golden notes in every range of the spectrum. Closer “Hometown Glory” hinted at the emotional impact Adele was about to make in years to come, and yet 19 still fulfilled as is, the type of full-length neatly wrapped in a way that doesn’t ask to be surpassed.
The Jump: It’s easy to say Adele’s sophomore album benefited from timing, but that would also be rather dismissive of the emotional struggles that come with becoming an adult. In the wake of a breakup, the singer penned a slew of songs that punched with teary eyes and fiery revenge for 21, a full-throttle burst of energy that came across in every backing vocal session, every cymbal crash, every piano interlude. From the moment “Rolling in the Deep” surfaced to singles “Someone Like You”, “Set Fire to the Rain”, and “Rumour Has It”, listeners worldwide were lined up in salute. Adele showed strength in the face of heartbroken wretchedness, and they were all too ready to belt along in unison. Her lyrics and her passion hit hard, both for listeners experiencing similar situations in the now and those reminiscing on past pain. All it took was one look at 21’s title for listeners to shake their head in disbelief. Here was a woman who tapped into inevitable personal lows so real that even constant radio rotation couldn’t kill her authenticity — or the comforts that it offers.
06. Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
The Indie Darling
The Hurdle: Sometimes it’s easy to forget Neutral Milk Hotel isn’t a household name given all the influence they held — and continue to hold — in the indie rock landscape. Then you look at their debut LP, On Avery Island, and it all comes flooding back. At the time of the album’s release in 1996, frontman Jeff Mangum finally settled on a stable roster for the outfit: Jeremy Barnes on drums, Scott Spillane on horns, and Julian Koster on bass, accordion, saw, banjo, and just about everything else he could play while dancing in a knitted hat. On Avery Island is quintessential lo-fi: From the gritty fuzz of “Marching Theme” (thanks to that four-track reel-to-reel) to the moving acoustics of “A Baby for Pree” (with Mangum’s iconic earnestness), Neutral Milk Hotel tapped into a world of intimacy amidst distorted guitars and flawed vocal pitches. If nothing else, the album’s charming, overblown opener, “Song Against Sex”, positioned the band as an act to keep your eye on for honest songs bursting at their seams, in part because the seams were so poorly sewn.
The Jump: Then, barely two years later, Neutral Milk Hotel returned with their epic: In the Aeroplane over the Sea. Mangum attributes several of the songs as responses to dreams he had about a Jewish family during World War II (most notably “Holland, 1945” and its direct nods to Anne Frank), though much of the album was written with intentionally vague lyrics, left descriptive but open-ended enough to be applied in numerous scenarios. It stepped up production values without losing the crunchy grain of lo-fi aesthetics. As such, it became the sophomore album so many musicians needed to shift how they viewed music. Neutral Milk Hotel captured magic in the singing-saw romanticism of the album’s title track, the tempo increase in “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three”, the shift from manic yelps to solemn sighs in two different songs about a two-headed boy. In the 15 years that followed the album’s release and saw both their hiatus and 2013 reunion, Neutral Milk Hotel’s sophomore album was passed between fans and musicians alike. It’s the indie rock staple that influenced just about everyone — Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Beirut, Brand New, Bright Eyes, The Mountain Goats, and more, all of whom covered them at some point — and the one that continues to inspire almost two decades later, as beloved as ever.
05. Kendrick Lamar – good KID, mad city
The Young Prodigy
The Hurdle: Hype is a dangerous thing, and Kendrick Lamar received a wealth of it early in his career. When Dr. Dre brings you in to work on the eternally delayed Detox and you receive cosigns from Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg, that’s what happens. But on his first widely heard release, his debut album Section 80, K-Dot proved himself more than deserving of the attention. The record didn’t receive radio support or MTV coverage in 2011, but still managed to make a dent on critics’ lists while finding Lamar playing his first major music festivals. This set the stage for a major-label debut that people legitimately anticipated, and the pressure to deliver swelled with each passing month.
The Jump: Whatever people expected from Lamar, it’s safe to say that good kid, m.A.A.d city exceeded that. From a purely commercial standpoint, the record debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, dominating his previous effort by more than one hundred spots with four Grammy nominations to boot (including Album of the Year and the famous loss of Best Rap Album to Macklemore). While promoting the record, Lamar opened for Kanye West before soon becoming an arena-level, festival headliner himself. But the real triumph of good kid is on an artistic level: Lamar drew on his own experiences to paint a vivid portrait of growing up in Compton that felt real, honest, and accessible in ways few hip-hop albums ever have.
04. Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
The Final Statement
The Hurdle: After being kept under wraps as the recording industry’s best kept secret for years, Amy Winehouse finally waved hello to the world with her 2003 debut album, Frank. Influenced by old jazz standards, undoubtedly culled from the English singer’s own experiences in and out of jazz clubs, the album climbed the UK charts and dazzled critics and audiences alike, enough that Winehouse garnered nominations for BRIT Awards and was even shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize. However, like so many singers before her, she wasn’t pleased with the final result, telling The Observer in 2004: “Some things on this album make me go to a little place that’s fucking bitter. I’ve never heard the album from start to finish. I don’t have it in my house. Well, the marketing was fucked, the promotion was terrible. Everything was a shambles. It’s frustrating, because you work with so many idiots—but they’re nice idiots. So you can’t be like, ‘You’re an idiot.’ They know that they’re idiots.” Ouch.
The Jump: That all changed three years later with her sophomore followup, Back to Black. Gloriously produced by Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, with delicate mixing by Tom Elmhirst, the record found Winehouse channeling legendary doo-wop girl groups who owned the airwaves decades prior, stunning new generations with catchy, if not achingly honest, dramas like “Rehab”, “You Know I’m No Good”, and the magnetic title track. Nearly 70 artists, musicians, and engineers helped Winehouse paint her album with lush, broad strokes, including Sharon Jones’ dynamic Dap-Kings crew, capturing a style of R&B that felt both vintage and renewed — a timeless bridge of sorts. Once again, critics and fans devoured it, once again it lost the Mercury Prize, but this time, it scorched both the British and American charts, going on to win Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal Album at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards. From there, she would inspire future juggernauts like Florence + the Machine and Adele, making her, as Spin’s Charles Aaron wrote, “the Nirvana moment for all these women.” Sadly, much like Cobain, she also left us too soon, leaving a tragically brief musical legacy … but one we’ll remember for years and years to come.
03. Nirvana – Nevermind
The Big Breakthrough
The Hurdle: At the ripe age of 21, Kurt Cobain put the finishing touches on Bleach, the first full-length Nirvana would ever release. It’s a monumental record for many reasons, but when revisited, many of the album’s holes stand out. For one, it’s an album of straight-forward grunge, in part because Cobain felt pressure to conform to Seattle’s favoring of the genre. Then there were his lyrics: bleak phrases and dejected lines that Cobain passed off as the result of negative feelings the night before recording when, supposedly, he wrote most of them down. But the album’s a solid listen, one responsible for riffs like the loopy crunch of “School” and the saucy snaking of “Love Buzz”, never mind the iconic intro to “About a Girl”. As good as those songs were, at the time, they failed to capture the attention of fellow Americans let alone the rest of the world. They were a trio of young dudes with plenty on their minds without the allure that they would give off in a few years’ time — perhaps for the better.
The Jump: Nevermind flew out of the gates like a rabid bull at the time of its release in 1991, and for those who listen to it for the first time now, it still spins in a dizzying, frightening fashion. With a little influence from Pixies and The Melvins, Cobain turned his attention towards melody and the sophistication of simple songwriting, merging the band’s original grunge sound with something much fiercer from dynamic alterations and hooks. That, paired with the shift from Sub Pop to Geffen Records, saw the band enter the studio with a new goal — and they found a stronger style in the process. Nevermind is the album that threw them onto the cover of Rolling Stone, onto the main stage at Reading in a straightjacket, and into the car stereos of teenagers in other countries. With one naked baby and a devoted marketing team, Cobain and co. found permanent fame. Now, with only three albums to their name, Nirvana remain one of the best-selling bands of all time (with one of the best alt-rock radio hits), a statistic that won’t budge given the never-ending spawn of angsty teens and the music they need in order to understand (and grow out of) that phase. But Nirvana climbed to that level thanks to Nevermind, the album where a band finally found the right megaphone to blast their manic mindset through.
02. Madonna – Like a Virgin
The Queen Crowned
The Hurdle: Madonna was already very much a “thing” in the early ’80s. Granted, her 1983 self-titled debut took a year to garner some recognition, but by late October 1984, she was sitting at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 with close to three million copies sold in America alone. Fueled by five hit singles — ahem, “Everybody”, “Burning Up”, “Holiday”, “Lucky Star”, and “Borderline” — the album convinced Sire Records that they had someone special on their roster. Ever the fighter, Madonna wasn’t interested in floating on the ensuing success of her first record; instead, she was adamant on releasing a follow-up, one that would not only be another blockbuster for Sire but would cement her future in the music industry. Basically, she was watching the throne.
The Jump: Only there wasn’t one for the taking. Like a Virgin changed all that, carving out the throne, the crown, and the title that would be Madonna’s forever: the Queen of Pop. From its provocative sleeve to its controversial lyrics, the album quickly became an unprecedented tornado, ripping through conservative social norms and values with aplomb, as the music turned into a revolution. It was also an unstoppable commercial smash, the first album by a female artist to sell over five million copies in the States, making Madonna more of a pop auteur who rewrote the rules of the game. “I had to prove them wrong,” she argued, “which meant not only proving myself to my fans but to my record company as well.” Long live the Queen, long live Lady Madonna.
01. Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
The Legend Begins
The Hurdle: The outside world has always lured young men away from small towns. In Bob Dylan’s case, the call came from that world as depicted in folk songs. Drawn to the rugged morality, outsider topicality, and bygone wisdom of those tunes, Robert Zimmerman left Hibbing, Minnesota, and arrived in Greenwich Village. He slept on record store floors, made like-minded acquaintances, and frequented the haunts where folk songs could regularly be heard, collecting the melodies and stories as though they were elusive bits of truth wafting through the air.
By the time Columbia’s John H. Hammond signed Dylan to make a record, the young drifter was every bit the folksinger, with a Woody Guthrie corduroy cap on his head and a trunk of songs from his travels. At the time, nobody paid much attention to Bob Dylan, a collection of 11 folk standards and two original compositions. “I’m out here a thousand miles from my home,” Dylan sings on “Song to Woody”, one of those originals, “walkin’ a road other men have gone down.” Ironically, the voice that begins to emerge in this gentle ode to his hero foretold Dylan traveling a much different path than the folksingers he so greatly admired.
The Jump: How Dylan went from being a nasally, strumming incarnation of the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music to a singer-songwriter who would shape, reroute, and influence the course of music history for decades to come remains one of the great, unanswerable questions of our times. A little more than a month after arriving as a folk jukebox on his debut, Dylan began recording The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, an album that would include the quintessential American protest song (“Blowin’ in the Wind”), a scathing polemic against the military-industrial complex (“Masters of War”), and sprawling, prophetic poetry (“A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”).
The Witmark Demos, a collection of original songs Dylan recorded between 1962 and 1964 for other artists to purchase, shed some light on the mystery, as we hear Dylan annotate, false-start, and even cough his way through songs that would soon become classics. If you ask Dylan, he’d simply attribute his transformation to a newfound dedication to craft. “I wrote wherever I happened to be,” he recalled years later. “Sometimes I’d spend a whole day sitting at a corner table in a coffeehouse, just writing whatever came into my head.” Whether his secret really was hard work or something more mystical was blowin’ in the wind, Dylan discovered a way to breathe his singular voice and worldview into the traditional styles that first sparked his imagination, and music as we know it is forever indebted.