• Michael Randall

The Difficult 2nd List – What is the Best 2nd Album? (That I Listen To)

Last time on the blog, I had a debate with myself about what can be considered to be the best debut album released of all time – the caveats being that I have to own the album, and it has to be something that I actually do listen to.

This was a bit of a research exercise, and in limiting myself to a few nominations, there were good albums which didn’t make the cut. It also took me more than 15 minutes to work out what my overall serious answer was – Meat Loaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell’.

Naturally, when trying to come up with a follow up, the mind drifted towards what is the best 2nd album. There is an infamous concept that the 2nd album is very difficult for a band/artist. Do you stick to the formula which made you successful on the debut (which can lead to diminishing returns), or do you go experimental and try to change your sound (which can backfire spectacularly)? How long do you wait before you release the 2nd album – has the world/music scene moved on in the meantime? If your life is record album, tour and promote album, record album, are you burned out?

This actually made writing this list more difficult in a way. When I asked myself the question as to what I think is the greatest 2nd album of all time, an instant serious candidate came into my head. But I wanted to try and give other albums a shot to see if they came close. And coming up with another 5 examples of decent follow up albums that I listen to is quite difficult.

I could lie, and you wouldn’t know. I could pretend that I listen to Daft Punk’s ‘Disc-Overy’, but I listen to ‘Random Access Memories’ instead (and not frequently enough to include them). I could pretend that I frequently listen to Adele’s ‘21’, which has sold an awful lot of copies, but again, I don’t listen to it.

So, clutching at some straws, I have come up with 5 (what I’m going to call) ‘honourable mentions’, before giving the out and out clear answer. One thing this exercise has shown is I tend to listen to 3rd album onwards, but relax – I’m not doing a ‘best 3rd albums’ list. I also know, again, that my colleagues will think others deserve a mention. The one I should like, for example, but have never really clicked with is Weezer’s ‘Pinkerton’ – that’s the glaring omission/oversight.

Honourable Mention #1 – The One With the Singles: The Killers, ‘Sam’s Town’

In the last list, ‘Hot Fuss’ was overlooked in favour of We Are Scientists’ ‘With Love and Squalor’. Now don’t get me wrong, I like The Killers. I just don’t think, as of yet, they’ve made an album which is all the way through consistent. Sam’s Town is a good example of this – ‘When You Were Young’ was an excellent lead single. ‘Read My Mind’ is my favourite Killers song. The trouble is there are quite a few songs I skip – ‘For Reasons Unknown’ and ‘Bling (Confessions of a King)’, for example. It’s an album where you get to experience them at their peak, but also a lot of ‘it’s ok, I guess’. They have, of course, recently released a new album, 'Imploding the Mirage' - an album I described in a text to my dad as "decent".

Honourable Mention #2 – The Under Rated One: Feeder, ‘Yesterday Went Too Soon’

It’s surprising to go back and realise just how much music Feeder have released. Equally, their Singles collection features song excellent songs – I’d argue it is one of the best greatest hits compilations. Yet they can be classed as the band who did the song about the Jaguar with a CD player (‘Buck Rogers’ on Echo Park). However, Yesterday Went Too Soon gets overlooked in my opinion. Stand out tracks include ‘Insomnia’ and ‘Radioman’ (which is a bit Paul Weller-y). However, the titular track, 'Yesterday Went Too Soon', is honestly up there with their best. Guitars. Strings. Key change/singalong chorus. Lovely stuff. For balance, my sister thinks there’s a bit of filler on this – it’s possibly a couple of tracks too long – but let’s say we disagree on many things musically.

Honourable Mention #3 – The Annoying Obscure Pick: The Duckworth Lewis Method, ‘Sticky Wickets’

I’ve written on this blog before about how I am a cricket fan, and it is the only occasion when I consider myself to be ‘English’. So when you hear that there is a cricket concept album by a band which features Neil Hannon from the Divine Comedy, it’s going to pique my interest. When you discover there are actually two albums, all the better. I want a third. I probably won’t be getting one. The music here is good, but it’s the lyrics which appeal to the cricket geek in me. The portrayal of an umpire in ‘The Umpire’ and the indignity of making a mistake in the field and being sent to the position where you can do the least damage in ‘Third Man’. The references might not appeal to anyone else, but I like them. As a slight aside, ‘Jiggery Pokery’ on their debut album about Shane Warne’s ‘ball of the century’ to Mike Gatting is genius.

Honourable Mention #4 – The ‘I Know You’ll Judge Me, But I Don’t Care’ Pick: Taylor Swift, ‘Fearless’

In recent correspondence with a student, they said “I definitely wouldn’t have put you down as a Taylor Swift fan”. I said this is a bit like not knowing that The Pope is Catholic. I am unabashedly, unashamedly a Swiftie. I’ll spare a full breakdown of my fandom (believe me, the restraint to not write a review of ‘folklore’, because it will be very long and self-indulgent). However, Fearless features breakthrough near-perfect pop music. We get upbeat. We get ballads. We get the standard track 5 ‘vulnerable’ song with ‘White Horse’. And it’s not even close to being her best album. Honestly, park pre-conceived ‘you only write about failed relationships’ (so does Adele and a plethora of other artists) – there’s a lot here to like.

Honourable Mention #5 – The ‘Recent Revisit’ Pick: Chvrches, Every Open Eye

Full disclosure – I revisited this because Lauren Mayberry recorded a video for our virtual LLB graduation. It was a very good video congratulating our students. I took some annual leave after that, which included many a walk, and listening back to Chvrches’ music. That might come across as only listing them because they did something nice for us, but I did already own the albums, I just hadn’t played them on a heavy rotation. I’m glad I’ve revisited this, though. ‘Leave a Trace’ is excellent. ‘Clearest Blue’ and ‘Down Side of Me’ are very good. Looking forward to when they have some new music out.

The Serious Answer: Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’

The absolute stellar candidate here. Most people would be aware of Nirvana, but sometimes people forget just how big a band they were and how meteoric their rise was. Their first album, Bleach (released in 1989) was solid, but not spectacular. However, Nevermind was such a success (admittedly with the support of a major label) that it knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of the Billboard 200 in 1992 – that shouldn’t happen.

The flagship/opening song, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ with its iconic video is a classic opening track/start to an album. If you've never heard it before, it sounds unlike anything else you've listened to (unless you hear the link to Chicago's 'More Than a Feeling') - catchy opening riff, the drums exploding in, the lyrics which are, initially, half-decipherable. The difficulty is ‘how on earth do you follow this up’? The best example I can give of this problem is Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell 2 – it starts with ‘I Would Do Anything for Love’, which is great, but after 14.5 minutes what comes next? (The answer is ‘Life is a Lemon and I Want My Money Back’…bit of a comedown).

Nevermind follows up with ‘In Bloom’ and ‘Come As You Are’ – both singles which other bands could only dream of having. Yes, the album is a grunge album, but they also include some surprises which show some variety – ‘Polly’, in spite of its subject matter, is not a grunge song. Recently, the album’s closing track ‘Something in the Way’ featured in the trailer for the new Batman film – I had forgotten just how good it is. As a special mention, there is a Classic Albums DVD where the producer, Butch Vig, breaks down how he recorded each of the songs which is fascinating. For Something in the Way, he says he literally held his breath for 3 minutes to not make any sound.

The follow up album ‘In Utero’ has its moments, but is a little bit of an awkward listen. Nevermind is, at least, more accessible and more simple. I’m not sure we’ll get another Nirvana – we’ve had/will get big rock bands, but I would struggle to think of another rock band which has reached that cultural impact since (I can hear some colleagues saying “how about…?”). That doesn’t happen without Nevermind. So for me, this is the out and out winner. Of course, this is entirely subjective. Still, it’s interesting to see what I actually listen to.

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