Elvis Costello once said you had your whole life to write your first album and six months to write the follow-up. I don't think he's the first artist to discover this truth. But then I'm not the first person to realize it gets dark at night. Yet. I take credit for it all the time and refer to it as "O'Connor's Law." (You see why most people don't like to hang around me for very long.)
Now, the best way to make a great second album is to record a terrible first one. Apply this principle to life and you're set. I always made sure I did poorly on the first couple tests in my high school classes just so everyone would be proud of all the "work" and "effort" I put into "improving" myself.
Low standards and expectations are always easier to exceed. Never tell someone you just saw the most amazing movie. It has nowhere to go but down and most people will spend their time figuring out ways to tell you why you're wrong. Let them tell YOU how amazing the movie was.
By that logic, I should tell you that these albums are nothing special. Just second albums by bands that were allowed to make second albums. Unlike today where many labels decide you shouldn't record a second single. There could be no sophomore slump for these folks because no one cared in the first place.
Pearl Jam -- Vs.:You were probably expecting Nirvana's Nevermind. But I've grown tired of them. Not the hoopla, Not the St. Cobain routine. But the actual music. Overexposure? Too much pressure put upon it? Maybe in a few years I'll hear it completely opposite. But right now Pearl Jam's second album sounds better to me. And I'm not a Pearl Jam fan, per se. I find their music interesting. Which is saying a lot about something. I think.
24) Damien Jurado -- Rehearsals For Departure: I am the person who called for Jurado-mania back when I first heard "Treasures of Gold" off his first album and "Ohio" from this one made me believe in him even more. I'm happy to report that his latest, 2010 release, Saint Bartlett, upon the first couple of listens, has the chance of being his best album to date. As long as I don't get tired of it.
The Cars -- Candy O: Their first album was mighty cool. But I always liked the best tunes on the follow-up even more. Not as consistent, but this is music, not Zoloft. We're looking for peaks and valleys not a consistent numbing line.
22) American Music Club - Engine: Their debut album, The Restless Stranger, had too many keyboards and not enough songs. With Engine, Mark Eitzel began writing the songs that would make him a critics' fave and a commercial un-superstar.
Elliott Smith -- Elliott Smith: He'd played in Heatmiser, but it was with his first four-track recordings that he came to the songs that would be his legacy. Some consider Roman Candle to be an EP and this to be his first solo album. But it's my blog and I'm counting things my way!
20) The Beatles -- With the Beatles: Their first album was energetic but in no way prepared the world for this one. I'll always prefer the U.S. releases, since that is how I learned them, but I can't complain about any album that contains "All I've Got To Do," "Don't Bother Me," "All My Loving" and "Not A Second Time." Wouldn't it have been cool if this album had come with a special hidden bonus track of relentless screaming and atonal feedback?
Joni Mitchell - Clouds: Her debut album was artsy and weird, but it was with Clouds that Joni came into focus. No matter how much of a bitter, old crank she's become, nothing can change the genuine naïve excitement of "Chelsea Morning," "Tin Angel" (done even better by Tom Rush) or the faux experience of "Both Sides Now," where a young woman pretends to have seen life from so many different perspectives. Unlike the previous year, when she was so dumb!
18) The Hold Steady -- Separation Sunday: They've turned into a critics' band aimed at large arenas, but back before everyone loved them and they tried their hand at emulating Bruce Springsteen with some extra keyboards, they sounded like a Midwestern Fall, with "singer" Craig Finn ranting like Mark E. Smith gone Catholic.
Jefferson Airplane -- Surrealistic Pillow: Without an adequate child-leave program in place, Signe Anderson left the Jefferson Airplane to give birth and found Grace Slick in her place. Hits such as "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" ensured that Slick remained in the band and that Anderson would need to seek work elsewhere.
16) Aerosmith -- Get Your Wings: Always kind of considered a Rolling Stones ripoff with Steven Tyler's pouty lips and Joe Perry's dark coolness, Aerosmith were actually a decent hard rock band with R&B roots. Their cover of "Train Kept-A-Rollin'" was a better choice than, say, "When the Saints Go Marching In," and I've always thought "Lord of the Thighs" would've made for a great tune for Jim Morrison had he stayed alive to sing it.
Robin Trower -- Bridge of Sighs: One of the heaviest albums I've ever heard. Each note means so much. Between the title track and "In This Place," there was little reason for music to exist after this point. After all, they'd done it all and turned you deaf in the process.
14) The Steppes -- Drop of the Creature: Neo-garage rock or whatever you want to call that stuff that started appearing in the 1980s where Farfisa organs and 1960s harmonies and fuzzed out guitars suddenly became valuable once again led to many records that were only so-so. However, the Steppes managed to record several albums that made you feel like you'd stepped back in time and found albums that never made it out of the garage because everyone was too lazy to move them out.
Red House Painters -- Rollercoaster: It's officially a self-titled release, as was its follow-up, so the albums have become known by their covers, "Rollercoaster" and "Bridge." Their first album, Down Colorful Hill, had been a set of demos that 4AD deemed releasable with only minor tweaks. This was the band's first time in the recording studio on someone else's dime and it sounds like it. Leader Mark Kozelek dragged out every song he'd ever written and recorded enough material for what could have been a 4-LP set. Just in case he was never invited back, he wanted to get it down before anyone changed their minds.
12) Led Zeppelin -- II: This is one of those albums that you buy to test out your stereo. Jimmy Page panned the guitars, vocals and effects like a drunk twiddling knobs to see if he could open the garage door. I bought this thing on cassette and didn't even know there were guitar solos on certain tracks, since my stupid, cheap tape player only played the left channel. Boy, was I surprised when I got a real stereo!
Tim Hardin -- 2: Any album with a song called "You Upset the Grace of Living When You Lie" deserves to be on this list. "Tribute to Hank Williams," "The Lady Came from Baltimore" and the much-covered "If I Were A Carpenter," written back in the days when songwriters were expected to know their grammar, fill out an album that can make a better life for me and you. Just because Hardin died young, doesn't mean that his music doesn't keep living.
10) Elvis Costello and the Attractions -- This Year's Model: Yes, this is technically Costello's first album with the Attractions, but it's his second album and this wonderful relationship with the best band in the business coupled with his own abilities to write even better songs than his first album means gold stars on the refrigerator for everyone. Is there an outtake where they perform the hit as "Pump It Down"?
Momus -- The Poison Boyfriend: Any album that has a song that obsesses on earwax is an album you should own. The debut, Circus Maximus, might be better, but it might not be. How do you accurately weigh air?
8) Prefab Sprout -- Steve McQueen (Two Wheels Good): I prefer Jordan The Comeback, but that's also because I came to the game a little late. However, there is no arguing that this is one of the finest, most nicely polished albums of all time. You can even forgive the high-waisted jeans of the period. If you get the bonus version, you can hear Paddy McAloon recreate the entire album on acoustic guitar. It was like the band was formed so McAloon wouldn't look so lonely.
Vic Chesnutt -- West of Rome: Vic recorded many fine albums throughout his short life, but this is one of the ones you could should consider paying close attention to. "Florida" alone is a reason to avoid that state and explains why certain people leave and go on to become music obsessives who spend most of their time huddled in their garage.
6) Public Enemy -- It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back: There was a time when you could hear this album piping from the windows of every moving vehicle in the tri-state area. Or at least the people playing it were playing it much louder than those who were listening to Whitney Houston. The tea pot whistle still makes me lunge for the Xanax.
Big Star -- Radio City: Another unpopular band in their day now considered all-so-important, Big Star made at least three great albums. I chose number two because it won the coin toss. (Three-sided coins sold separately).
4) Iggy and the Stooges -- Fun House: Now it's considered a classic and has even been given the crazy limited edition boxed set routine with 400 takes of each song. Stick to the original seven song album and memorize every note for the good of the nation.
Joy Division - Closer: I chose their debut, Unknown Pleasures, as a great debut and it's even more incredible to say that this album is even better. Would they have gotten better if Ian Curtis hadn't killed himself? Obviously, he didn't wish to stick around and find out.
2) Nick Drake -- Bryter Layter: I picked Five Leaves Left as a great debut and I'm choosing this album as a great follow-up. "Poor Boy" annoys me, but everything else is as close to perfection as I could hope. If "Northern Sky" doesn't give you chills, you might be dead.
Van Morrison -- Astral Weeks: It's considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time for a reason. Because it is.
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