4 Great Classic Rock Albums That Came Right Before the Breakthrough

Rarely are there true “overnight sensations.” Many of the most popular bands in rock history toured and recorded for years before unleashing a lengthy run of best-selling albums.

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The four bands included here are all titans of rock, yet none enjoyed sustained success right away. When it takes a band a while to find their groove, it often makes for an interesting discography. As we progress from album to album chronologically, we can notice the subtle changes over time that helped to develop the band’s distinctive sound.

These albums in particular are interesting examples of this phenomenon. We can hear elements of what eventually became the signature sound of each group, but we can also hear other elements that defy our expectations of how we think they are supposed to sound. Here are some albums that stand up as stellar records, but came just before the albums that made these classic bands what we know them as today.

1. Steely Dan, Countdown to Ecstasy

One could reasonably argue that Steely Dan was something of an overnight sensation, as their 1972 debut, Can’t Buy a Thrill, spawned two hit singles in “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” However, they didn’t start to consistently place albums in the Top 20 until their third release, Pretzel Logic, and their most successful run of singles didn’t begin until the late ‘70s.

Countdown to Ecstasy was a transitional album for Steely Dan in a couple of important ways. Not only was it the last one in which Steely Dan was a true band, relying heavily on their core five members instead of studio musicians, but it was the first one in which Donald Fagen handled all of the lead vocals, solidifying his status as the focal point of the group. All of their albums have a jazz flavor, but on Countdown, the balance between jazz and rock still leaned heavily toward the latter.

While the album’s Billboard 200 peak of No. 35 is by far the lowest for any entry in Steely Dan’s catalog, it’s nearly as loaded with memorable songs as Pretzel Logic or Aja. “My Old School”and “Bodhisattva” are both familiar to listeners of classic rock radio, and deeper cuts like “The Boston Rag” and “Your Gold Teeth” are equally captivating.

2. Queen, Queen II

Even on their self-titled debut album, there is no mistaking Queen’s sound for that of any other band. But the feel of their albums did gradually evolve over the years. On Queen II, the band tempered the metal and progressive aspects of their songs, but there was nothing yet with the pop appeal or personality of “Killer Queen” from their breakthrough album Sheer Heart Attack.

“The March of the Black Queen” gives us a sense of Queen’s ability to pull off an epic production, which was fully realized less than two years later on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” In fact, the quiet piano and guitar on the false ending for “The March of the Black Queen” almost feels like a prelude to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Funny How Love Is” is Queen II’s poppiest moment, and it features some of their best-ever vocal harmonies—a high bar to clear. While Queen II was only moderately successful, peaking at No. 49 on the Billboard 200, its cover art has become an important part of the band’s lore, having been replicated in the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video.

3. U2, October

U2 didn’t become megastars until the 1987 release of The Joshua Tree, but their third album, War (1983), was the one that put them in heavy rotation on album-oriented rock stations and in front of stadium crowds.

[RELATED: Top 6 U2 Albums Ranked]

War was preceded by October, which has neither the sonic variety nor the consistency of U2’s later albums. Yet all of the essential parts of U2’s sound—Bono’s commanding vocals, The Edge’s ricocheting guitar, Adam Clayton’s powerful bass, and Larry Mullen Jr.’s crisp beats—are all evident here. “Gloria” was a presence on MTV, and it remains a highlight in the band’s catalog. “I Fall Down,” “I Threw a Brick Through a Window,” and “Tomorrow” may not grace a U2 setlist ever again, but all belong on a playlist of their greatest songs. The big changes in U2’s sound didn’t start to occur until their fourth album, The Unforgettable Fire (produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois), but October represents the first step away from the claustrophobic sound of their debut, Boy.

4. R.E.M., Life’s Rich Pageant

On R.E.M.’s first three albums, Peter Buck’s catchy riffs tended to be understated. They would often fade into the swirl of the band’s murky sound, or get overshadowed by Mike Mills’ melodic bass lines. Starting with the very first notes of “Begin the Begin,” Buck demands our attention throughout Life’s Rich Pageant, as this album opener ushers R.E.M. into a new era characterized by a harder rock edge. What makes this album a bridge between the quieter Fables of the Reconstruction and Document—their first Top 10 album in the U.S.—is the balance between bombast and jangle.

That transition is marked as much by the change in Michael Stipe’s vocal style as it is by Buck’s louder riffs. While his vocals aren’t quite as clear and sharp as they are on, say, “Finest Worksong” from Document, on songs like “Fall on Me,” “Cuyahoga,” and “I Believe,” we’re no longer left wondering what Stipe is singing about (or whether he is actually singing about anything at all). Perhaps it’s how effectively R.E.M. blends the firm with the muddy that makes Life’s Rich Pageant a favorite of so many of their fans.

Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

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