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.