5 sophomore slump albums worth giving another chance

High hopes hurt these otherwise great albums.

September 26, 2016

The dreaded sophomore slump album — It’s derailed the careers of countless can’t-miss artists over the years, and is usually signified by a drastic change in artistic direction, comparatively low sales, or some combination of the two. But just because an album gets saddled with this unfortunate label doesn’t always necessarily mean it isn’t any good. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of a band or artist just not living up to the artificial expectations set by fans, critics or record executives. Sometimes it’s just unexplainable bad luck.

Here are five awesome albums that unfairly fell victim to the sophomore slump.

Panic! At the Disco – Pretty. Odd.

If you happened to come of age during the golden age of emo/pop-punk around the turn of the century, the emergence of Panic! At the Disco was pretty much a bucket of cold water to the face, shocking you into the realization that you were now old and out of touch, and that the music that once was an integral part of your identity had morphed into something unrecognizable. With their fast-track to superstardom after being discovered on a Fall Out Boy message board, their penchant for obnoxiously long song titles (even by emo standards of the time), and their just-discovered-a-chest-of-grandpa’s-old-clothes aesthetic, they were an easy band to hate, even if they did display some songwriting talent. So, when word got out that their follow up to their hugely popular, double-platinum debut was going to shift gears away from emo into a more 60’s psychedelia, Beatles-influenced direction (after scrapping an entire album’s worth of written-and-recorded material), P!AtD detractors smelled blood in the water and were gearing up to enjoy the schadenfreude of  sweet, sweet failure.

And while it’s true that the resulting LP wasn’t nearly as popular as their debut, something quite unexpected happened. Pretty. Odd. was actually (wait for it) Pretty. Good. Though “20-something emo band tries to sound like The Beatles” sounds like inherently a losing premise, this album still managed to do about a good a job of it as is possible, starting with the one-two punch of “We’re So Starving” and lead single “Nine in the Afternoon” through 51 minutes of quite enjoyable throwback rock. Though it’s doubtful that anyone is going to nominate Panic! At the Disco for a position on the rock n’ roll Mount Rushmore, the fact is that when four incredibly popular musicians decide to just do whatever they want to do, regardless of what their fans or label executives think, oddly enough, there is nothing more punk rock than that.

The Darkness – One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back!

It feels like, after their first record Permission to Land became an unexpected smash hit, the Darkness wanted their follow-up LP to pay homage to the classic, preposterously excessive “cocaine album,” but maybe took the act a bit too far. After all, the title track and leadoff song is literally about doing cocaine, starts with an epic pan flute intro and a sound clip of someone blowing lines, and also features a wacky electric sitar solo midway through. These are the kinds ideas that only seem like good ones when you’ve done way, way too much cocaine. Indeed, when singer/lead guitarist Justin Hawkins took a hiatus from the band to enter rehab for alcohol and, you guessed it, cocaine addiction, it started to seem like his carefully-maintained simulacrum of the hard partying Rock God of eras gone by had left the realm of parody/homage in the rearview mirror.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back! is still a pretty great rock album, and absolutely a worthy successor to Permission to Land. Part of the problem with the Sophomore Slump trope is that often it’s simply a matter of a band failing to reproduce whatever lightning-in-a-bottle magic propelled them to stardom in the first place. Most of the time, it’s simply not possible. In this case, “One Way Ticket,” despite its utter ridiculousness, is still a propulsive, catchy single, “Hazel Eyes” has one of the Darkness’ most fist-pumpingest choruses, and “Girlfriend” expands the band’s hard rock sound into new, symphonic, Queen-like territories, which is fitting considering the legendary Roy Thomas Baker, producer of Night at the Opera, was actually conscripted into producing this album (another reason why it deserves another look.)

The Stills – Without Feathers

Without Feathers very well may have changed the course of Canadian rock history; the point of divergence in the alternate universe where Montreal’s The Stills are mentioned alongside garage rock superstars like The Strokes or The Hives. They were, after all, one of the bands at the very forefront of both the burgeoning Montreal indie music scene and the worldwide post-punk revival in the early 2000s, as they garnered international acclaim and major buzz with the release of their first album Logic Will Break Your Heart in 2003. They needed a timely follow up that would resonate even more and launch the band to the next level. But prior to the recording of the album, founding guitarist Greg Pacquet departed the group, while drummer and primary songwriter Dave Hamelin switched to guitar and assumed frontman duties, which relegated vocalist Tim Fletcher (whose performance on Logic had been widely praised) to more of a backing role. The end result of the sessions eschewed the dark, shoegazey post-punk that had been their calling card in favour of a more upbeat, classic rock and Americana-influenced sound, but after a long recording process and a few costly delays with the album’s release, Without Feathers came out nearly three years after their debut and failed to make an impact at home or abroad.

But that’s not to say it’s a bad album; it’s excellent. “In The Beginning” and “The Mountain” perfectly set the tone for the new direction the band was pushing towards, while “Halo The Harpoon” (one of the few songs featuring Fletcher on lead vocals) experimented with interesting textures and atypical melodies that still fit in nicely with the rest of the record. This was also the first Stills LP to feature Liam O’Neil on keyboard in a full-time capacity, who remained an integral piece to their collective until they went their separate ways in 2011. More than anything, it seems as if Without Feathers represents a band possibly on the verge of superstardom who wanted to do something a little different, rather than rest on their laurels and coast on what had gotten them to that stage, which is something that should be commended.

The Strokes – Room on Fire

The Strokes were famously supposed to “save rock and roll,” and despite those ridiculously unfair expectations, they actually kind of did, ushering in a garage rock-revival that proved to record labels and radio stations that there was an alternative to saccharine boyband pop or faux-edgy rap metal, which, inexplicably, seemed to be the only commercially viable genres of music at that time. Is This It, in addition to being wildly influential, was also a big seller – but not quite as big as the band’s reputation seemed to suggest, though this is also an across the board symptom of releasing music commercially in the post-Napster era. In any case, The Strokes did everything they needed to do to build on this success for their follow-up, pushing their sound into a slightly more new-wave, neo-disco direction, but without giving up too much of the indie grittiness and quality songwriting that drew fans and critics to the band in the first place.

So, when Room On Fire dropped in late October 2003, The Strokes were poised to ride the waves of a true monster hit and propel themselves to undisputed biggest-band-in-the-world status. Only, that didn’t happen. The album peaked at number 4 in the US and was later certified gold, which is a definite success and a huge accomplishment for any band to achieve, but was disappointing considering the internal and external expectations. It’s hard to say what happened. Again, the band did everything right, but ultimately fell victim to a level of hype that was simply impossible to live up to, and the saddest part is that Room On Fire is really great, and absolutely should have been as huge as it was supposed to be. Singles “12:51” perfectly introduced the sound the band was going for on album two, “Reptilia” has become an undisputed classic, and “The End Has No End” may very well be the best Strokes song.

Alanis Morissette – Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie

Though SFIJ was technically Morissette’s 4th studio album, it was her 2nd internationally released LP following her ginormous smash-hit, Jagged Little Pill, so it totally counts. And, unfortunately for Alanis, there was simply no way she could have ever lived up to, or even matched, the expectations that came along with producing what was one of the absolute biggest records of the 1990’s, and at the time, the biggest ever album by a female solo artist. Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie was destined to become a sophomore slump album regardless of how good it was.

Also, credit where credit is due, Morisette could have very easily taken the easy route and conscripted a team of songwriters to ensure she had five singles in the can that were meticulously crafted to for mainstream radio. Instead, she opted instead to work again with Jagged Little Pill co-composer and producer Glen Ballard, resulting in a quite complex, and dark, follow up. But that’s not to say it wasn’t a commercial success. It may come as a surprise that Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie actually sold over 5 million copies within its first month of release, which is roughly 5 Taylor Swift 1989’s. But it didn’t even come close to Jagged Little Pill’s astounding sales, and thus, unfairly or not, was considered a disappointment. Song-wise, “Thank U” was the only single to really make a dent in the charts, and it surprised critics and fans by eschewing the angry, grungey elements that many felt she exemplified. Another standout track is “Joining You” which wasn’t even an official US single despite coming the closest to sounding like it belonged on Jagged Little Pill.

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