Entertainment » Music

The Second Album :: The Good the Bad and Everything In Between

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Saturday Oct 26, 2013

Second albums are tricky to say the least. Most artists spend years honing a special sound to make a big splash as a debut album. In very rare cases, that initial splash turns into a wave that can ride into a second and third effort. In more cases, that splash ebbs into varying degrees of disappointment otherwise known as the dreaded "sophomore slump."

This month, in honor of EDGE monthly's second anniversary, we've rounded up some of the most notable second albums; some big disappointments and second records that received mixed reception, all to explore what happens when an artist's proverbial "tough act to follow" ends up being the artist themself.

Second to None:

Adele - 21 (2011)

Adele’s 2008 debut album 19 was nothing short of a success, earning the British singer-songwriter a handful of Grammy nominations and a win for Best New Artist. But it was her 2011 sophomore effort that put Adele on the map. 21 topped the charts in more than 30 countries and broke a number of records; the LP became the United Kingdom’s best-selling album of the 21st century and was the most popular album in the United States for 24 weeks - longer than other album since 1985. 21 also spawned a number of huge singles, including the unforgettable "Someone Like You," becoming a worldwide hit. Adele’s first single, "Rolling in the Deep" also reached Billboard’s No. 1 spot as did her third single, "Set Fire to the Rain." Not only was the album a commercial success, but it was also hailed by critics. Most praised 21’s impressive production and Adele’s ability to conjure up old, classic jazz sounds while still sounding fresh and modern. Though Adele’s second album is barely two years old, it’s widely considered a stone cold classic.

Daft Punk - Discovery (2001)

With each new Daft Punk release, fans, and sometimes critics, create a wave of backlash against to the French robotic duo for changing up their sound. After debuting with their rich and funkafied 1997 debut Homework, Daft Punk dropped Discovery in 2001, a collection of music based on samples, loops and disco. At the time, the album received mixed reviews. A Rolling Stone review called the record "muddled" and said none of the other tracks stood up to the single "One More Time." Pitchfork gave Discovery a rating of 6.4 out of 10 and founder Ryan Schreiber wrote the music was "harmless," but the lyrics were amateur, and a placeholder for the repetitive tunes. Despite the average score, Pitchfork placed the LP as its third best record of the 2000s. Commercially, Discovery peaked at No. 2 in the U.K. and 44 in the U.S., selling 2.6 million copies worldwide as of 2005 - unlike Daft Punk’s latest effort, Random Access Memories, which went to the No. 1 spot on Billboard. Nevertheless, fans and music critics consider Discovery as a classic dance album that has undeniably shaped the way music has progressed over the past two decades.

Joanna Newsom - Ys (2006)

Chances are that you haven’t crossed musical paths with harpist Joanna Newsom. But the folk singer, (recently married to Saturday Night Live hottie Andy Samberg) has been active since 2004; the year she quietly released her excellent debut The Milk-Eyed Mender. Two years later, the singer put out Ys - a breathtaking five-track LP named after the mythical city that was swallowed by the ocean. The avant-garde record features a full orchestra and was produced by the legendary Van Dyke Parks, who has collaborated with everyone from Brian Wilson, Rufus Wainwright, Harry Nilsson, the Byrds, Grizzly Bear and more. Though Ys sold 250,000 copies, it peaked on the U.S. Billboard at 134 and has been lauded by critics, landing on several year-end lists and end of decade lists. The album may not be for everyone. Newsom’s voice has been compared by some to Lisa Simpson and the track’s lengths range from 7 to nearly 17 minutes with lyrics that conjure up images of the Renaissance. And yet, there is something special about Ys gives it a rare timeless relevance.

Sloppy Seconds:

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Some Loud Thunder (2007)

Being a buzzband has its advantages but also comes with a set of obstacles that many acts fail to over come. When the blogosphere clamors around a band or singer, listeners have high expectations of a debut. When it came to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the Brooklyn-based indie rock band delivered on their 2005 self-titled LP, making their mark with the single "The Skin of my Yellow Country Teeth" (now considered to be an "indie one hit wonder"). But CYHSY found it difficult to continue the hype on their follow up, Some Loud Thunder, and were bogged down to a sound that people didn’t find interesting in 2007: twangy guitars were replaced with synthesizers, smattering live drums were no match for the dusty beats of a drum pad and yelping vocals were tired. Indie rock was on its way out and CYHSY’s second record came off as outdated and bland: "The songs start running together till they’re not distinct tracks so much as guitars and bass and drums and yelpy indie vocals that happen to have been recorded at the same time," the Boston Phoenix wrote in their review of the album.

The Killers - Sam’s Town (2006)

What happens when a popular band ditches their post-punk, new wave, David Bowie and New Order inspired sound that was brilliantly crafted on their debut album and channels Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Tom Petty on their second record? In the Killers’ case, you get their shoddy sophomore LP Sam’s Town. The record mystified critics and fans, thanks to the Killers unexpected choice in direction. Gone were the throbbing, sexy synths that clouded hit singles, like "Mr. Brightside," "Somebody Told Me," and "Smile Like You Mean It" and in their place were gritty guitars that seemed like an odd progression for the Killers to make. Though the record was more commercially successful than the Killers’ debut, Hot Fuss, critics were slammed the album’s try-too-hard approach and it received mixed to poor reviews.

MGMT - Congratulations (2010)

In 2008, almost out of nowhere, the duo that make up the psychedelic rock group MGMT, blew up thanks to their debut album Oracular Spectacular and the massively popular singles they produced ("Kids," "Electric Feel," "Time to Pretend"). But after the dust settled, Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden found themselves at a crossroads of where to go next. A few years later, the two musicians came up with Congratulations and album devoid of any pop sensibilities and lacked the radio friendly tracks that populated their debut. The duo fully embraced their weird, trippy psychedelic side, but the ideas MGMT put out on their sophomore effort were half-baked (like the awkward 4-and-a-half-minute instrumental "Lady Dada’s Nightmare"). Complex called the album "a shell of its predecessor, making the band victims of the tragic sophomore slump phenomenon." While it’s interesting to watch a band known for making euphoric pop songs explore a different route, MGMT missed the mark on Congratulations, making it one of most disappointing records of 2010.

Second Best:

Lady Gaga - Born This Way (2011)

Just like some of the biggest pop divas before her, Lady Gaga is constantly evolving her sound and look. With each album cycle comes a new Mother Monster. But in Gaga’s case, fans and the general music listening audience, became so familiar with the glossy pop version of Gaga: the singer who gave us sexy, sugary jams like "Poker Face," "Just Dace," "Paparazzi," (and later on) "Bad Romance," "Telephone" and "Alejandro." After releasing The Fame and its companion EP, The Fame Monster, and shooting to stardom, Gaga had more control of her imagery and the music she wanted to make. In interviews, the singer said she only made The Fame to rise to, well, celebrity status, so she could later execute the pop-art idea she had stewing in her head. Her first showcase of "her own ideas" was "Born This Way" - the lead single off her second full length with the same name. The response, however, was probably not one Gaga was looking for. Many accused her of ripping off artists like Madonna and TLC with that track (she also met the same criticism with the album as a whole); while others hailed it to be an astounding pop record, noting her use of blending heavy metal, and other rock elements with dance music. Despite the controversy, Born This Way reached the No. 1 spot on Billboard and Gaga’s singles, like "Judas," "The Edge of Glory," and "You & I" all entered the top 10.

The Strokes - Room on Fire (2003)

When the Strokes released Is This It, the debut album by the now indie legends, they probably didn’t know how the LP would define the tone of indie music for the first part of the Millennium. Their simple rock sound spawned countless of copycat groups and tracks. Even the Strokes themselves attempted to capitalize on Is This It with their sophomore record, Room on Fire. The album sounds good: the Velvet Underground guitars are sharp and lead singer Julian Casablancas’ unmistakable deep voice stands strong at the forefront of each song. But the band didn’t reinvent the wheel as they did with their first effort. With Room on Fire, they spun the wheel into a collection of 11 tracks that are satisfying, but aren’t mind-blowing. Still, Is This It threw down the indie rock gauntlet making it a difficult act to follow. Commercially, Room on Fire did better than its predecessor, climbing to the number four spot on Billboard and is certified gold.

The xx - Coexist (2012)

No one denies that following up the xx’s eponymous debut would be a difficult task. In 2009, the trio who makes up the minimalist band created one of the most important and fascinating records in some time - critics, music listeners and even pop culture lauded the xx. Their music has been used in movies, TV shows and commercials and has been sampled by huge musicians, like Drake and Rihanna. Even Shakira has covered the group’s single "Islands" during her live shows.
When it was time for the xx to put out a follow up, it was hard to pin down the direction they would go in. Unfortunately, for some, the xx didn’t change their sound much as they buried deeper into their quiet aesthetic on Coexist. Instruments were used sparingly, Jamie Smith’s production was thinner and Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim’s vocals sound hollow and more fragile. The songs utilized space and used silence as an instrument but not all fans and critics, supported the xx’s choice to put out a stripped down version of their debut. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson, best summed it up in his review for Coexist: "It’s hard not to be disappointed given what came before, but the xx are still a special band, and time could possibly be kinder to their second LP as its place within a longer career comes into focus. For now, they’ve earned the right to make this record. Every band that creates a new world deserves a chance to return to it, to play around some more and see how much inspiration still exists. Asking for a third shot at it, on the other hand, is generally a harder sell."


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