7 'Difficult Second Albums' Better Than the First

BY Andy Richardson

1st Jan 2015 Music

7 'Difficult Second Albums' Better Than the First

Once bands deliver their successful first album, they are often met with the curse of the difficult second album. Here are seven bands who not only nailed it but changed the face of music in the process!

25 years ago The Pixies released Doolittle, the band’s second and, arguably, best LP. It is regularly features as one of the finest albums ever made. An anniversary edition is out now, featuring bonus tracks, demos and live cuttings.For most bands the first album, assuming it’s a runaway success, is the album that opens the door to fame, money, notoriety, a drug and alcohol dependency and all the other glamorous trimmings that come with truly ‘making it’. However, there will always be that niggling feeling:  riding the coattails of your first album can’t last forever and in some cases this thought can be a curse (see The Stone Roses or The La's). Rarely do bands surpass the expectations put on them in lieu of that ‘tricky second album’ (a syndrome in its own right) but read on to learn of seven bands who actually went and wrote a belter of a second album; so much so, it’s better than their first and in some cases went on to change the course of music history!

07. Black Sabbath – Paranoid (1970)


Sabbath’s first, self-titled, studio effort demonstrated a provocative concoction of musical and artistic inclinations, a penchant for gothic novels, and the supernatural. But it was with this demonic subject matter—influenced partly by an apparition guitarist Geezer Butler witnessed—that they somewhat inadvertently created a whole new, subversive genre; a style the band later referred to as ‘heavy underground’. It wasn’t until the second LP, Paranoid, however, that the band really hit the nail on the coffin. Incorporating themes of war and social chaos, with equal measures of prog, supernatural psychedelia and maybe a few shots of whiskey, Black Sabbath created one hell of an aperitif for destruction (see War Pigs, 1970). As it goes, Paranoid was the LP that really propelled the band to global success (and future reality TV stardom – but let’s not linger on that point). Until 2013, it was the band’s only album to top the UK charts. Containing several of the band’s signature songs, including the naturally cool and menacing ‘Iron Man’ and the title track, Paranoid truly paved the way for what we know now as heavy metal.

Fun Fact: The Paranoid album artwork depicts a blurred, neon warrior; a reference to the track, ‘War Pigs’, which happened to be the initial title for the album before the group changed their minds. Unfortunately, they had already paid the photographer.


06. The Beatles – With the Beatles (1963)

The Beatles, With the Beatles

John: Where are we going lads?

George, Paul and Ringo: To the toppermost of the poppermost, Johnny!

Following the success of Please Please Me (at this point sitting comfortably at number one), With the Beatles was an even bigger success and The Beatles, bizarrely, knocked themselves off their own perch, which ultimately meant that the fab four occupied pole position in the UK charts for 51 consecutive weeks. This probably came as a relief to the band as they worked harder on this than their previous LP, spending four months in and out of the studio. The result: eight original compositions including All My Loving and George Harrison’s debut, Don’t Bother Me, and over a million copies sold by 1965.   

Fun Fact: During the recording of Hey Jude (not on the above album), Ringo (bored with all that “recording music gold nonsense”) took a visit little boy’s room when the ‘record’ button had been hit. Cannily enough, he made it back behind the kit just in time to come in with that quintessentially Ringo drum fill at 0:49 seconds. If you listen carefully, you can hear the flusher go. Ok, maybe not, but at 2:57 you can definitely hear a distinct ‘f***ing hell’. Perhaps Ringo needed to go again.  


05. Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat (1968)

White Light/White Heat - The Velvet Underground

WL/WH was an “anti-beauty” record according to John Cale, and severed their earlier Warhol/Nico connection. Made up of snarling feedback, distortion and extended jams, it was everything The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) was not and, according to Lou Reed, “No one listened to it!” The album’s anarchic sound is ironically more pure than its predecessor but simultaneously captures the band’s own chaotic lives and drug habits (White Light/White Heat) with extended cacophonous improvisations (Sister Ray). Somewhat cleverly, it’s heavily distorted production masks the intellectual intricacies that the album possesses – breathing, whispering and heartbeats (Lady Godiva’s Operation). The album is iconic in its transgressive and challenging approach to popular music and it’s influence not only punk music of the coming generation, but various future musicians.

Fun Fact: Drummer, Maureen Tucker, was hired mainly because she had a car and an amplifier, both of which the band sorely needed. 


04. Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)

Pavement - Cooked Rain, Cooked Rain

Pioneers in the now all-too-popular alternative, slacker scene (see Real Estate, Mac Demarco and Parquet Courts), Pavement’s departure from debut, Slanted and Enchanted’s lo-fi aesthetic put them on the map. Moreover, their music was, at this point, receiving high praise from the likes of Nirvana and The Pixies. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is arguably the most typically 90s DIY album of its time which merged their slack-pop with complex musical influences from jazz (5-4=Unity) to country (Range Life). Ironically, their big hit and closest brush with mainstream success, Cut Your Hair, was all about the transparency of mainstream success. To this end, despite not meeting critical acclaim upon its release, it has since been re-evaluated by critics as a classic alternative rock album and has, as of 2007, sold more than half a million copies.

Fun Fact: The track Gold Soundz was voted number one out of 200 in internet music guru Pitchfork’s ‘Best Tracks of the 1990s’ poll.


03. Frank Zappa – Hot Rats (1969)

Frank Zappa - Hot Rats

This was Zappa’s second solo album and was described, by his own admission, as “a movie for your ears”. Hot Rats is arguably Zappa’s most commercial and succinct record to date, and one of the first records to be recorded using a 16-track recording device—very complex stuff—with drums being recorded on multiple tracks (another first). With tracks like Peaches en Regalia, a Zappa composition akin to mathematics and the not too dissimilar, Son of Mr. Green Genes, an incredible classically informed piece that would have Beethoven rolling around in his grave, the weird world of Zappa can be felt in every note and unusual timbre with intricacies (only possible using this 16-track machine) that go beyond a mere mortal’s comprehension. In all seriousness, Hot Rats, without question, solidifies Frank Zappa as the genius he was (if not a little bit of an egoist); manipulating tape speeds and overdubs out of necessity and for comedic value. Hot Rats even treats us to a cameo with the swaggering and gravely vocal lunges of Zappa’s ol’ pal, Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) on Willie the Pimp.

Fun Fact: Frank Zappa’s eldest daughter, Moon Unit Zappa (a fun fact in itself), sings lead vocals on the band’s 1982 single, Valley Girl.


02. The Pixies – Doolittle (1989)

Pixies - Doolittle

The reason we’re here right? Not quite at number one but definitely a close second in the list of the seven seminal sophomores. Doolottle, however, is no close second. For all intents and purposes, Doolittle is the band’s best LP; a melting pot of peculiar ideas and striking imagery. Common Pixies themes of death (Dead), torture, surrealism (Debaser) and biblical violence (Monkey Gone to Heaven) are alive and well in Doolittle—originally titled Whore after ‘The Whore of Babylon’. The band’s other central tropes are present too; Spanish chord progressions, punk rock tempos (Crackety Jones) and balanced, melodic pop tracks (Here Comes Your Man) that perfectly bond bassist Kim Deal’s silky vocals with Francis’s more abrasive tones. Moreover, Doolittle better demonstrates the dynamic between the two voices of Deal and Francis, epitomising a kind of star-crossed temperament; a friction and tension that’s unnervingly perfect.

Fun Fact: The lyrics to ‘Debaser’ reference Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1929 Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, in which a woman’s eyeball appears to be sliced open with a straight razor.


01. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)

Nirvana - Nevermind

So here it is, the best second album ever. It reaches the number one spot out of sheer track-to-track consistency, innovation and commercial impact. It’s arguably one of the greatest and most iconic rock albums in history. But, more to the point, it’s an alternative record that traversed the mainstream in an instant, making alternative commercial—and it was only the band’s second outing! Out of the sludgy, fuzzed-out spirit of the band’s debut, Bleach (1989), comes a sharper, more honed force that has since been unparalleled. Every track that wasn’t already a hit sounds like a hit. It’s Beatles meets Black Sabbath; melody amidst dissonance. Lyrically abstract but largely about relationships and sickness in loneliness (Drain You, Lounge Act), Cobain was able to connect with people and in turn became the voice for disenfranchised youth. Another minor point to add is that this was Dave Grohl’s first album with the band (Nirvana’s fifth drummer!) and his mark as one of the great rock drummers is firmly carved into that *ahem* little known opening track, Smells Like Teen Spirit. His arrival undoubtedly transformed the shape of the band.

Fun Fact: While we’re celebrating The Pixies in all of this, it seems appropriate to inform you that Nirvana’s big hit, Smells Like Teen Spirit, was actually a self-proclaimed rip-off of (or homage to) The pixies. The track is an amalgamation of The Pixies’ trademark riffage and loud/quiet dynamic, particularly ‘Debaser’. Oh, and it’s even more of a rip-off of Boston’s ‘More than a Feeling’. But everything’s cooler in minor chords.

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