Of all the trite music-journalist lingo that has peppered reviews and features for decades, nothing is as irritating as “sophomore slump.”
The phrase alone demeans musicians, letting them know that their first album is never enough. We, the critics and the fans, are waiting to see if you'll mess up. Indeed, the “sophomore slump” implies that a band's second album is something that should be played with caution, as there is a high likelihood that it will suck. It's a make-or-break moment. If you don't totally screw this up, we'll stick with you. Otherwise, you'll have to deliver a “comeback” on your third or fourth album.
But sophomore slumps exist more in a critic's imagination than in reality. Paul's Boutique, the second album for The Beastie Boys, was certainly no slump. The same goes for Public Enemy with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Amy Winehouse with Back to Black. For some artists, like Duran Duran and Madonna, the second album solidified their status as superstars. For others, like Prince, the second try was their breakout hit.
Even when second albums don't make the same impact as the first, it's not necessarily the fault of the artists. Sometimes a second album fails to rack up the listens because the sound is no longer in fashion. Other times, it's because the artists are evolving and they need that album to make the bridge into the next phase of their development.
Below are my 10 picks for overlooked second albums that you should listen to now. All of them are available to stream on Spotify.
10. Morrissey, Kill Uncle
I have a complicated relationship with Morrissey's second proper solo album. Kill Uncle was the album that led to the tour on which I saw him live for the first time. It was my first concert and the life-altering moment when I realized that there were a hell of a lot of other misfit L.A. teens who also found solace in Morrissey's voice and lyrics. As for the album, though, I didn't like it as much as Viva Hate or singles compilation Bona Drag, although I adored the way the songs sounded live. Now, I'm not sure if my lukewarm feelings for the album were legitimate criticism or a case of longing for '90s teenage cool points by saying that I liked the “old stuff” better.
Overall, Kill Uncle has aged pretty well. It's not flawless; I still want to fast-forward through “Asian Rut,” which sounds even more racially insensitive now. The high points of the album, though, are plenty. “Our Frank” and “Sing Your Life,” the radio songs, are strong, but they're outshone by the bitter, lovelorn lyrics of “King Leer” and the understated melancholy of “Driving Your Girlfriend Home.” The best moment, though, comes near the end with “There's a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends,” which is really the only song I want to hear when I'm with my best buddies and last call is approaching.
9. Trashcan Sinatras, I've Seen Everything
Trashcan Sinatras were never a huge band. The Scottish group emerged in 1990 with Cake, which earned some buzz and alternative-radio airplay here in the United States. I first heard them on KROQ right as I was entering my sad-sack teenage years, and the maudlin guitar pop stuck with me for years to follow. Their follow-up, I've Seen Everything, hit around the time the world went grunge. Needless to say, it was largely ignored, despite its beauty. Thankfully, the band secured a good following and continue to make music and tour today.
I'll admit to a bias with I've Seen Everything. I got the album upon its 1993 release. Its subtle, forlorn melodies and clever lyrics became a major part of my daydream soundtrack when I wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of high school and the San Fernando Valley. To this day, it stands alongside The Smiths' Strangeways, Here We Come and The Cure's Disintegration as albums I need to hear when I'm in a funk.
8. Siouxsie and the Banshees, Join Hands
Go to a goth club where Siouxsie and the Banshees' songs practically mark the top of the hour, and you'll hear music from across the band's career. Yet there's one album that gets little love on the dance floor, and that's Join Hands. It's not a reviled album; it's just not one made for dancing. Still, it's a damn fine record that pops into my head now whenever I listen to Savages.
Punk angst is still with the band on Join Hands, although it takes a drearier form here. At times it rambles, as on “The Lord's Prayer,” which goes on for more than 14 minutes and plays out like a post-punk jam-band encore. “Icon” is my personal favorite, as Siouxsie Sioux's voice rises with power while tribal drumming swells and piercing guitar noise makes sense of this big burst of energy.
7. Blur, Modern Life Is Rubbish
Blur's debut album, Leisure, came out in 1991, at the end of the shoegaze craze. They had some success with the album but easily could have fallen by the wayside after Nirvana broke and marked alternative radio's shift toward heavier sounds and more American bands. Meanwhile, Blur had their own evolution. With Leisure, particularly on the standout track “There's No Other Way,” the band sounded an awful lot like The Charlatans and other bands whose psychedelic bent stood at the crossroads of rock and rave. On their sophomore album, though, Blur sounded like themselves. Of course, they drew heavily from tradition of British guitar-based pop, but this is the Blur that would go on to put out Britpop staples like “Parklife” and “Girls & Boys,” as well as the '90s-flashback-inducing hit “Song 2.”
6. The Human League, Travelogue
Think of The Human League and the first album that comes to mind might be Dare, the band's big commercial breakthrough, which spawned the hit “Don't You Want Me” and features other '80s synth-pop jams such as “Sound of the Crowd” and “Seconds.” Dare, however, was the band's third album and marked a significant change in the lineup. Travelogue is the peak of Human League's first wave as a fairly experimental, weirdo synth group that helped lay the foundation for synth-based dance music. It's stark and eerie, but also groovy. After Travelogue, members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left the group, later reconvening as Heaven 17. The Human League pushed forward with a more radio-friendly (but still very interesting) pop sound, with the addition of members Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley.
5. Soft Cell, The Art of Falling Apart
Soft Cell's debut full-length, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, is a hard act to follow. It's a perfect album filled with essential synth-pop jams like “Sex Dwarf,” “Bedsitter” and, of course, their more-famous-than-the-original cover of “Tainted Love.” In fact, Soft Cell followed their debut with the EP Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing, which featured remixes and club-oriented tracks. Technically, though, The Art of Falling Apart is the band's second full-length, and one that likely goes unnoticed by anyone who isn't mildly obsessive about the band.
The Art of Falling Apart puts the spotlight on Marc Almond's narrative lyrics and theatrical style of singing. It plays out more like a collection of dark short stories than conventional songs. This could be off-putting for a lot of listeners, but for those whose tastes lean toward dramatic, artful albums, it's addictive.
4. Ministry, Twitch
Ministry didn't just jump from synth-pop to metallic industrial music. In between With Sympathy and The Land of Rape and Honey is Twitch. In fact, you can hear that stylistic transition clearly on “All Day Remix,” an updated, tougher version of a song that appeared on the same 1984 single that contained “(Every Day Is) Halloween.” The tracks here are still quite dance floor–friendly, but they sound more at home at clubs where the guys wear knee-length shorts and Doc Martens with their Skinny Puppy T-shirts. Skip over Twitch and there's a part of Ministry's evolution that you will never quite understand. Listen to it and you'll find the band's catalog is more cohesive than many casual fans realize.
3. Suede, Dog Man Star
Apparently Dog Man Star was not a commercial success for Suede, a tidbit of info that's as frustratingly stupid as their U.S. name, The London Suede. This is by far Suede's best album and a must-have for any fan of British rock music.
I still remember the moment I ripped open the plastic wrap and shoved Dog Man Star into my car's tape deck for the first time. “Introducing the Band” sounded more like the opening of a film than an album. Even for someone who was already a Suede fan, this album was a revelation. When Brett Anderson opened the album's third track, “Heroine,” with a Lord Byron quote, I was fighting back teenage “Best Album Ever” hysterics. Even now, I listen to this with a racing heart as the energy builds to a peak on “New Generation,” which plays out like the climactic moment of a favorite romance flick. But the album later slows down to heartbreaking tempos and you realize this movie isn't playing out the way you expected it would. “Cinematic” is usually a term used to describe instrumental albums that sound like film scores, but I've been imagining scenes for a Dog Man Star movie for more than 20 years now. It doesn't get old.
2. Depeche Mode, A Broken Frame
Depeche Mode's second album, A Broken Frame, came out at a critical point in the band's history. They had already made a splash with debut album Speak & Spell thanks to pop gem “Just Can't Get Enough.” Then Vince Clarke left the fold and Martin Gore stepped up as the band's principal songwriter. In this transitional period after Clarke's departure and before Alan Wilder became an official part of the band, Depeche Mode released a criminally overlooked piece of their catalog. Casual fans are no doubt familiar with a few of the album's tracks, such as “Leave in Silence” and “See You,” but there's so much more here. “My Secret Garden” is just as lovely a pop song as “See You,” and “Monument” has the vibe of underground, minimal synth tracks that have been rediscovered in the past decade. The instrumental “Nothing to Fear” is an unsung precursor to techno, made to get your feet moving when there are no words to drag you onto the dance floor. If you don't have A Broken Frame, get it. If you have it, go and listen to it again today.
1. Elastica, The Menace
Sometimes timing is more important than the music. Elastica released their self-titled debut at the height of the Britpop era, and the group had ties to an already major group in the movement — frontwoman Justine Frischmann was part of an early lineup of Suede. That helped catapult Elastica to the top of the scene, even if their sound was derived more from late-'70s/early-'80s post-punk than from the British invasion and glam influences that typically marked Britpop.
For a lot of reasons, five years passed between the debut and follow-up album, The Menace. To put that into perspective, I was obsessing over the first album while getting through my senior year of high school. By the time The Menace was released, I was a college graduate and a DJ at an L.A. club called Bang!, where the music was morphing from '90s Britpop to early–21st century indie. Still, I loved The Menace and worked “How He Wrote Elastica Man” (which featured Mark E. Smith from The Fall joining in on vocals) and their cover of Trio's “Da Da Da” into my sets. Elastica were ahead of the curve and The Menace predates the explosion of post-punk revivalists that marked the ensuing decade. Elastica are the link between actual post-punk and every band of Gang of Four fans that emerged in the '00s. While that wasn't obvious at the time of Elastica's 2001 breakup, it is now. That's why The Menace is the inspiration for this list and sits at the top of it.