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.