Everyone has heard about the “sophomore slump” or “difficult second album syndrome.” Riding high on the success of their debuts (which may have been written over many years) bands go into the studio to record their second albums. They’ve got no songs. “Fuck it”, they think, “we’ll write it in the studio.” This has led to some truly questionable albums over the years. For this post however, I’ll be considering five albums which shattered the convention and were either better received or more commercially successful than their predecessor. To qualify, the album had to be at least equal in quality (in my opinion) to band’s debut. I may prefer the debut, but if I judge the sophomore to be of equal worth then it is up for inclusion.
Nirvana – Nevermind
Let’s get the most obvious example out of the way first. While, I prefer Nirvana’s debut album Bleach, Nevermind is an extremely well written & produced album. In the fickle world of hipsterdom, Nevermind is shunned like a pariah. It is dismissed as “pop music” or “overplayed”. I personally don’t believe these people. I’m sure they actually love it. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy throwing themselves around their kitchen to the chorus of Smells Like Teen Spirit or Lithium. Nevertheless, at the time of release, Nevermind was universally loved by those selfsame hipster-types who shun it now. It was a blast of fresh air in a stale and stagnant mainstream & it’s enormous success (it knocked Michael Jackson’s Thriller off the top of the Billboard Chart!) opened the door to alternative rock music for countless young people. This is where the problems arise, I suspect. Gatekeeping alternative rock fans didn’t want to admit their younger siblings or people who were previously Pop music fans into their exclusive club.
There is also a feeling that the success of Nevermind was based on more on luck than quality. Everyone thought that their favourite alternative Rock band was the one which should have experienced the success. There is a story which Lou Barlow (Dinosaur Jr) tells about how he bumped into his bandmate J Mascis shortly after they had split up & Nevermind had charted. It was not a happy encounter. “I was like totally high and drunk,” says Barlow, “and I was like, ‘They fucking beat you to it! You could have done it, you asshole, we could have fucking done it!’”
Slint – Spiderland
While Slint’s debut long-player, Tweez, is a decent debut, it wasn’t until their second album, the genre-defining Spiderland, that they hit upon an exciting new formula. Where Tweez is heavy, industrialised Post-Punk, reminiscent of a great deal of other bands around the time (Helmet etc.), Spiderland takes slow grooves & hypnotic guitar riffs & molds them into an atmospheric new artform. Many hold Spiderland to be the Year-Zero of the genre which is now referred to as Post-Rock. It’s easy to see too. Without Spiderland’s mesmeric exploration of guitar chords & composition, it’s difficult to imagine a world where bands like Mogwai & Godspeed You! Black Emperor could even exist.
Despite being a relative flop at the time, Spiderland (and to a lesser extent, Tweez) has gone on to achieve a cult status among fans of atmospheric music like Post-Rock & Shoegaze. It’s ponderous rhythms & heavy riffing can even be heard in Nu Metal artists like Deftones & Korn & the slower sections of Post-Hardcore artists like At The Drive-In. Truly significant developments in music which bring us neatly to the next entry.
Mogwai – Come On Die Young
Mogwai, heavily inspired by the instrumental rock music like Spiderland; as well as classical & cinematic music, started in 1995 & are favourably looked upon as a founding band of Post-Rock. Their debut album Young Team was incredibly well loved & received by the Indie music press at the time of release. Itis also incredibly well loved in the Post-Rock community (& even close/adjacent genres like Shoegaze & Alternative Rock). Their sophomore effort, Come On Die Young (often abbreviated to C.O.D.Y.), luckily delivered on all of the promise of Young Team. Mogwai had further refined their sound from their debut. While the quieter sections of the songs were a lot quitter & gentler, the louder more aggressive sections were so much louder & more aggressive. C.O.D.Y. features more sophisticated & imaginative use of samples, like in the opening song Punk Rock: (yes, with a colon), which features a long sample of Iggy Pop being interviewed by CBC host Peter Gzowski in 1977.
Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump
Jason Lytle & co. followed up their 1997 debut, Under The Western Freeway with one of the most loved Indie Rock albums of the 2000’s. The Sophtware Slump had to appear in this list, it is partially named after the phenomenon of the sophomore slump. I have already written about the Sophtware Slump in this blogpost & I’m currently writing a retrospective for The Sophtware Slump’s 20th anniversary on 29th May (which I intend to publish on that day), so I won’t dwell on it here. Nevertheless, it does deserve to be in this list.
Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
A lo-fi Indie-folk concept album which imagines a world where the singer (Jeff Mangum) imagines himself going back in time & saving Anne Frank from the Nazi’s & bringing her to the present (1998) sounds like the kind of concept that someone might come up with at 3am while suffering from their 3rd or 4th night of insomnia. It seems like an amazing idea in the moment but in the cold light of day, looking at the lyrics you wrote in the dark watches of the night, you wonder what you were even thinking.
This unlikely album, despite barely making a splash when released in 1998, is a cult classic in 2020. Everyone online has an opinion on In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. There are whole communities on social media networks dedicated to it. People satirise it’s distnictive cover art to create all manner of memes. It’s almost become a meme. In fact some of it’s more abstract lyrics are used in/as memes (“semen stains the mountaintops”). You can’t say the same for their debut, 1996’s On Avery Album. Despite being a very good lo-fi Indie Rock album, it just doesn’t seem to have the same broad appeal as its successor.
As you can imagine from its lofty concept, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is a hugely ambitious album, both musically & lyrically & most modern Indie Rock owes it a huge debt on both of these fronts.
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