FEATURE: Beating the Curse: The Artists Who Overcame the ‘Difficult Second Album’ Pitfall in Style




Beating the Curse


PHOTO CREDIT: @adigold1/Unsplash 

The Artists Who Overcame the ‘Difficult Second Album’ Pitfall in Style


EVERY artist who releases a controversial or exceptional debut…


 PHOTO CREDIT: @tjump/Unsplash

has that initial praise…and then they have that burden of expectation. Critics and fans want something even better and, given the fact they came out of the traps so fast and hard; it can be hard replicating that success. So many artists have failed and not been able to reproduce the magic and heat of their debut – producing a whimper of an album and losing all that momentum. There have been, however, plenty of artists who have motivated and moved their way past the hurdles of the ‘difficult second album’ and come up with something if not better than as good as what came before. There are many examples out there but I have collated together the artists who laid down a remarkable second album after a promising/hard to follow/average debut. Whatever the reason for that expectation and pressure; here are the albums that subverted expectations and…


PHOTO CREDIT: @akshar_dave/Unsplash 

OVERCAME idle talk of a ‘difficult’ second album.



Oasis (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995)


Debut: Definitely Maybe (1994)


Fortuitously arriving at the mid-point of the '90s—and representing the peak of a Britpop narrative that took root with the retro-rock renaissance of the Stone Roses and the La’s five years previous—(What’s the Story) Morning Glory? is Oasis' absolute pinnacle. If Definitely Maybe presented Oasis' raw materials—’60s psychedelia, ’70s glam and punk, Madchester groove—Morning Glory melted down and remoulded them into a towering sound that was unmistakably their own, with those omnipresent (but never ostentatious) string-section sweeps classily dressing up the songs like ribbons on a trophy. And yet the real triumph of Morning Gloryis measured not by the tracks that have since become karaoke classics, first-dance wedding standards, and go-to bathtub sing-alongs, but the exceptional album tracks that never got a shot at certain chart supremacy—like the jet-roar jangle of “Hey Now” (for my money, the best Oasis song never to be issued as a single) and the crestfallen “Cast No Shadow”, dedicated to a then-mostly-unknown Richard Ashcroft of the Vervea band that would soon reap the benefits of Oasis’ American incursion” – Pitchfork

Standout Track: Wonderwall

The Beatles With the Beatles (1963)


Debut: Please Please Me (1963)


What’s particularly distinctive about these early Beatles records is their unapologetic, working class Britishness. The lyrics have the colloquial immediacy of everyday chatter and the band play with a kind of rough house energy, not attempting to match the sophistication of the American records that inspired them. When Lennon lets rip on 'It Won’t Be Long’, there is no attempt to disguise his Liverpool roots, no prettification, just an unadorned vocal (although McCartney is slightly more polite, his over precise enunciation on 'Til There Was You’ sounding like he’s trying to please his headmaster, or, more probably, George Martin).

The songwriting partnership is starting to flower. The loping, jangly rhythm and ascending and descending melody of 'All My Loving’ with its brilliant walking bassline seems utterly original. This is the point rider for where they are going but the cover versions are still the highlights. The Beatles could really rip the guts out of a song, and there’s a rich bluesy version of Smokey Robinson’s 'You Really Got A Hold On Me’, before they utterly take a wrecking ball to 'Money (That’s What I Want)’” – The Telegraph

Standout Track: All My Loving

Joy Division Closer (1980)


Debut: Unknown Pleasures (1979)


Opener "Atrocity Exhibition" was arguably the most fractured thing the band had yet recorded, Bernard Sumner's teeth-grinding guitar and Stephen MorrisCan-on-speed drumming making for one heck of a strange start. Keyboards also took the fore more so than ever -- the drowned pianos underpinning Curtis' shadowy moan on "The Eternal," the squirrelly lead synth on the energetic but scared-out-of-its-wits "Isolation," and above all else "Decades," the album ender of album enders. A long slow crawl down and out, Curtis' portrait of lost youth inevitably applied to himself soon after, its sepulchral string-synths are practically a requiem. Songs like "Heart and Soul" and especially the jaw-dropping, wrenching "Twenty Four Hours," as perfect a demonstration of the tension/release or soft/loud approach as will ever be heard, simply intensify the experience. Joy Division were at the height of their powers on Closer, equaling and arguably bettering the astonishing Unknown Pleasures, that's how accomplished the four members were. Rock, however defined, rarely seems and sounds so important, so vital, and so impossible to resist or ignore as here” – AllMusic

Standout Track: Isolation

Nirvana Nevermind (1991)


Debut: Bleach (1989)


The music — fuzz-blast guitars, throbbing bass — roars and spits with enough in-your-face bluster to make your compact disc skip; left-of-center rock rarely sounds as alive as the metallic punk of ”Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the album’s first single. Adding to the music’s edginess, though, are the lyrics. The characters in singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain’s songs all seem vaguely pathological-and oblivious to it. Cobain’s strange idea of a love song, ”Come as You Are,” has a refrain of ”And I swear that I don’t have a gun,” as if that’s supposed to be comforting; in other songs, he mutters lines like ”the animals I’ve trapped have all become my pets.” Nirvana may not stand a chance of selling anywhere near as many records as Guns N’ Roses, but don’t tell Cobain; you never know how he’ll react” – Entertainment Weekly

Standout Track: Smells Like Teen Spirit

Pavement Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)


Debut: Slanted and Enchanted (1992)


Pavement's sophomore outing does not contain 12 perfect songs but it is close to a perfect album. Each of the best half-dozen-- "Silence Kit", "Elevate Me Later", "Cut Your Hair", "Unfair", "Gold Soundz", and "Range Life"-- contain Malkmus' catchy and highly unusual melodies ("Silence Kit" cribs from Buddy Holly, but even that's an odd gesture) and would be career highlights for most rock bands. But even the songs that aren't necessarily brilliant work well in the context of the album, moving things along in their own way. The Dave Brubeck send-up "5-4=Unity", for example, is a perfect placeholder between two unbelievably great songs. And the closing "Fillmore Jive" ends an album at least partly about the music industry on an appropriately classic rock note, with an extended group-jam coda on par with "Hey Jude". Not many records are this easy to put on in the car and let play start to finish” – Pitchfork

Standout Track: Cut Your Hair

Beastie BoysPaul’s Boutique (1989)


Debut: Licensed to Ill (1986)


There’s a lot that's already been said about the daring eclecticism and arguably irreproducible anything-goes technique with which the Dust Brothers assembled the album’s beats. The music is a big, shameless love letter to the 1970s filled with a conceptual bookend (the Idris Muhammad-sampling, ladies-man ether frolic “To All the Girls”), numerous line-completing lyrical interjections from Johnny Cash, Chuck D, Pato Banton and Sweet, and, just for kicks, nine truncated songs spliced together and stuck in at the end as a staggering 12 and 1/2-minute suite. If the sonics on It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back evoked a sleep-shattering wake-up call and 3 Feet High and Rising a chilled-out, sunny afternoon, the personality of Paul’s Boutique completed the trinity by perfectly capturing the vibe of a late-night alcohol and one-hitter-fueled shit-talk session. Even now, after being exposed to successively brilliant sample-slayers from the RZA to the Avalanches to J Dilla, it’s still bracing just how meticulous the beats are here. These aren’t just well-crafted loops, they’re self-contained little breakbeat universes filled with weird asides, clever segues, and miniature samples-as-punchlines” – Pitchfork

Standout Track: Shake Your Rump             

Amy Winehouse Back to Black (2006)


Debut: Frank (2003)


Any album that features the lines "What kind of fuckery is this?/ You made me miss the Slick Rick gig" demands closer investigation. Of course, 23-year-old Londoner Amy Winehouse demonstrated her aptitude for a tart couplet on her debut album three years ago, but this time the music, too, packs a similar punch, and the upshot is a 21st-century soul classic.

Starting with the pungent single Rehab, everything is in its right place: the exuberant neo-Motown swing supplied by producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi; the rich, sinewy vocals, somewhere between Lauryn Hill, Beth Gibbons and Etta James; and the thoroughly modern songwriting, in which infidelity is betrayed by a telltale carpet burn (You Know I'm No Good) and a lover is less desirable than a good supply of weed (Addicted). On the latter song she triumphantly declares: "I'm my own man." Only a fool would argue” – The Guardian

Standout Track: Back to Black                      

Adele 21 (2011)


Debut: 19 (2008)


While 19 went to number one and she picked up the inaugural Critics’ Choice Brit award, what distinguished Adele from the similarly retro-voiced Duffy was the name she made for herself across the Atlantic, where she won two Grammys and influential fans such as Bob Dylan and Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

It is that American success that has shaped Atkins’s follow-up album. It’s steeped in Southern blues, country and soul. In another singer’s hands this might seem a nakedly ambitious attempt to appeal to the American charts, but Atkins makes the material sound genuine, largely because it is perfect for her. Where previously her slight, observational songs seemed barely able to carry her powerful voice, the emotional and musical heft of these styles enables her to really spread her vocal wings.

And her voice is a thing of wonder. There is warmth, power and vulnerability, sometimes in the same note. She has less of the unpredictable edge of Amy Winehouse, or the am-dram cool of Florence Welch, but she has a far greater range and subtlety than either, and hers is a voice that seems to go right to your heart” – The Telegraph

Standout Track: Set Fire to the Rain           

Led ZeppelinII (1969)


Debut: Led Zeppelin (1969)


Clearly, with their hot streak of three LPs, Creedence Clearwater Revival had the most impressive multi-album year of 1969: Bayou Country in January, Green River in August, and Willy and the Poor Boys in November.

But still.

Still: Led Zeppelin II, which came out in October ’69, just nine months after its almighty, self-titled predecessor, must have benefited from the fast turnaround. The recording process was completed at different studios during the band’s near-constant touring in 1969, and maybe the reason it was so successful was the London group, while on the road, didn’t even have time to think about the hype they were building. With LZII, Led Zeppelin became Led Zeppelin, proving their essence at the same time. To speak cosmically about the matter: What happened was what was supposed to happen.

Even more than the debut, LZII is a document of the band’s technical ability, their musicianship. After one album with The Yardbirds — a good rock band, yes, but they had no balls — Jimmy Page linked up with Robert Plant, almost five years his junior but already one of the most dynamic rock vocalists in England, up there with Rod Stewart. A powerful foundation, then, was set from the beginning. Between Page’s solos on the likes of “Whole Lotta Love” and Goldilocks’ yelps on “What Is and What Should Never Be” and others, LZII dazzles. John Bonham, too, was able to shine from behind the kit, particularly with his “Moby Dick” solo. Generations of hard rock and metal musicians, from Metallica to Soundgarden and Mastodon, would be influenced by these very stretches. It’s a lot to think about while the record’s playing, but the physical force is there” – Consequence of Sound

Standout Track: Whole Lotta Love

MadonnaLike a Virgin (1984)


Debut: Madonna (1983)


Madonna had hits with her first album, even reaching the Top Ten twice with "Borderline" and "Lucky Star," but she didn't become a superstar, an icon, until her second album, Like a Virgin. She saw the opening for this kind of explosion and seized it, bringing in former Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers in as a producer, to help her expand her sound, and then carefully constructed her image as an ironic, ferociously sexy Boy Toy; the Steven Meisel-shot cover, capturing her as a buxom bride with a Boy Toy belt buckle on the front, and dressing after a night of passion, was as key to her reinvention as the music itself. Yet, there's no discounting the best songs on the record, the moments when her grand concepts are married to music that transcends the mere classification of dance-pop. These, of course, are "Material Girl" and "Like a Virgin," the two songs that made her an icon, and the two songs that remain definitive statements. They overshadow the rest of the record, not just because they are a perfect match of theme and sound, but because the rest of the album vacillates wildly in terms of quality. The other two singles, "Angel" and "Dress You Up," are excellent standard-issue dance-pop, and there are other moments that work well ("Over and Over," "Stay," the earnest cover of Rose Royce's "Love Don't Live Here"), but overall, it adds up to less than the sum of its parts -- partially because the singles are so good, but also because on the first album, she stunned with style and a certain joy. Here, the calculation is apparent, and while that's part of Madonna's essence -- even something that makes her fun -- it throws the record's balance off a little too much for it to be consistent, even if it justifiably made her a star” – AllMusic  

Standout Track: Like a Virgin

Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)


Debut: Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987)


In retrospect, Yo! Bum Rush the Show was a blueprint. What came after it was the work of a well-rehearsed unit keenly aware of its purpose and capabilities. Released the following summer, Public Enemy’s sophomore album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was a brash refinement of the themes of Yo! and a jab at the jaws of detractors, high and low. “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype” railed against the press, holding up the lurid sensationalism surrounding the group as a warning against trusting anything you read. “Caught, Can We Get a Witness?” is a nightmare where P.E. gets nabbed for sampling. (More on that later.) Nationteemed with a didactic social consciousness too. “She Watch Channel Zero?!” strikes out against junk television, while “Night of the Living Baseheads” addresses the crack epidemic, and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” leads a draft-dodging conscientious objector through a vengeful jailbreak. Chuck’s booming ministerial baritone sparred with Flav’s piercing yawp in a masterful hero-and-sidekick interplay. The message couldn’t entice the masses without the levity; the levity was gimmicky without revolutionary grit giving it weight” – Pitchfork

Standout Track: She Watch Channel Zero?!

Blur Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993)


Debut: Leisure (1991)


As a response to the dominance of grunge in the U.K. and their own decreasing profile in their homeland -- and also as a response to Suede's sudden popularity -- Blur reinvented themselves with their second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, abandoning the shoegazing and baggy influences that dominated Leisure for traditional pop. On the surface, Modern Life may appear to be an homage to the KinksDavid Bowiethe Beatles, and Syd Barrett, yet it isn't a restatement, it's a revitalization. Blur use British guitar pop from the Beatles to My Bloody Valentine as a foundation, spinning off tales of contemporary despair. If Damon Albarn weren't such a clever songwriter, both lyrically and melodically, Modern Life could have sunk under its own pretensions, and the latter half does drag slightly. However, the record teems with life, since Blur refuse to treat their classicist songs as museum pieces. Graham Coxon's guitar tears each song open, either with unpredictable melodic lines or layers of translucent, hypnotic effects, and his work creates great tension with Alex James' kinetic bass. And that provides Albarn a vibrant background for his social satires and cutting commentary. But the reason Modern Life Is Rubbish is such a dynamic record and ushered in a new era of British pop is that nearly every song is carefully constructed and boasts a killer melody, from the stately "For Tomorrow" and the punky "Advert" to the vaudeville stomp of "Sunday Sunday" and the neo-psychedelic "Chemical World." Even with its flaws, it's a record of considerable vision and excitement. [Most American versions of Modern Life Is Rubbish substitute the demo version of "Chemical World" for the studio version on the British edition. They also add the superb single "Pop Scene" before the final song, "Resigned” – AllMusic   

Standout Track: For Tomorrow

Carole KingTapestry (1971)


Debut: Writer (1970)


Conviction and commitment are the life blood of Tapestry and are precisely what make it so fine. Of course, commitment alone means nothing; but commitment coupled with the musical talents of a genuine pop artist mean everything. To paraphrase Pauline Kael, writing about director Jean Renoir, Carole King is thoroughly involved with her music; she reaches out towards us and gives everything she has. And this generosity is so extraordinary that perhaps we can give it another name: passion” – Rolling Stone    

Standout Track: It’s Too Late

Van Morrison Astral Weeks (1968)


Debut: Blowin’ Your Mind (1967)


Morrison doesn't reach out to the listener, but goes deep inside himself to excavate and explore. The album's centerpiece is "Madame George," a stream-of-consciousness narrative of personal psychological and spiritual archetypes deeply influenced by the road novels of Jack Kerouac. The climactic epiphany experienced on "Cyprus Avenue" paints a portrait of place and time so vividly, it fools listeners into the experience of shared -- but mythical -- memory. "The Way Young Lovers Do" is the most fully formed tune here. Its swinging jazz verses and tight rhythmic choruses underscore a simmering, passionate eroticism in Morrison's lyric and delivery. Astral Weeks is a justified entry in pop music's pantheon. It is unlike any record before or since; it mixes together the very best of postwar popular music in an emotional outpouring cast in delicate, subtle musical structures” – AllMusic     

Standout Track: Sweet Thing