No Sophomore Slumps Here: Classic Rock’s Greatest Second Albums

Generally speaking, the debut album is always easier than the follow-up. Artists have often been plugging away for years before they finally get their chance to record, which gives them a nice backlog of quality material. But when they do well and get a second chance, it can be tough to cobble together another helping of winners like they did the first time ’round.

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It’s a conundrum that has caused the dreaded “sophomore slump” to befall many classic rock artists throughout the years. But these five legendary acts were able to not only sidestep the slump, but come up with bona fide classics that equaled or even surpassed their debuts.

1. This Year’s Model by Elvis Costello (1978)

Elvis Costello is a guy who would have a better chance than most to appear on this list, if only because he’s proven to be ridiculously prolific, with songs rolling out of him at a much faster pace than what most of his peers can manage. In the case of This Year’s Model, he also benefitted mightily from the first appearance of the Attractions as his backup band.

Despite being hastily thrown together, the trio of Bruce Thomas on bass, Pete Thomas (no relation to Bruce) on drums, and Steve Nieve on keyboard proved uniquely capable of handling Costello’s speedy, wordy compositions. In fact, they brought unique textures and colors to the mix, while Costello served up a batch of songs, including “Pump It Up” and “This Year’s Girl,” that surpassed even the caliber of his highly-celebrated debut album.

2. The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle by Bruce Springsteen (1973)

Springsteen had released his debut just 10 months before he came back with his follow-up. While the debut showed flashes of brilliance, it lacked a cohesive sound. The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle rectified that with help from an early incarnation of the E Street Band, including familiar faces like Clarence Clemons, Garry Tallent, and Danny Federici, as well as daring stylists like David Sancious and Vini Lopez.

The result was perhaps the most musically ambitious album of Springsteen’s career. Then again, those arrangements needed to be complex to hang with the sagas Springsteen was writing. Side A is great, but Side B is simply staggering—three epic tracks that show off every facet of the Boss’ songwriting arsenal in breathtaking fashion.

3. Imagine by John Lennon (1971)

Technically, this was the fourth non-Beatles album release by Lennon, but we’re counting Imagine here because the first two were experimental records. John was stung by the tepid commercial response to his proper solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970). So on Imagine, he focused on radio-friendly tracks, polished up by Phil Spector for maximum impact.

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But accessibility in no way dulled his songwriting potency. The title track was an anthem every bit as far-reaching as anything he’d ever done with the Fab Four. Lennon spat out “Gimme Some Truth,” “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier,” and “How Do You Sleep?” (his infamous putdown of Paul McCartney) with ferocity, then lightened the tone with beautiful ballads like “Jealous Guy,” and “How?” He would lose the plot a bit on his next few records, but Imagine is spot-on all the way through.

4. The Band by The Band (1969)

After their debut album, Music from Big Pink, inspired a firestorm of praise from critics and fellow musicians alike, the five men who comprised The Band could easily have wilted under the pressure to deliver their follow-up record. To combat the hype and interference, they decamped to California and recorded what would become known as “The Brown Album” at their own pace and leisure.

Robbie Robertson hit his stride as a songwriter, detailing the wonder and heartbreak of the American tableau like few others had done before (not bad for a Canadian). His cohorts, then, brought their inimitable talents to the proceedings: Rick Danko’s nosediving bass line on “Up on Cripple Creek,” Richard Manuel’s aching vocal in “Whispering Pines,” Levon Helm’s resilient, wounded lead on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and Garth Hudson’s instrumental prowess in practically every nook and cranny of the record…it all made for Americana magic.

5. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere by Neil Young (1969)

As was the case with Costello and Springsteen, Neil Young steered clear of the sophomore slump with much assistance from a newly-discovered batch of musical co-conspirators. In his case, it was Crazy Horse (Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot, and Ralph Molina) providing the foundational, chunky grooves that allowed Young all the space he needed to go on fuzzed-out guitar explorations for minutes at a time, with confidence they’d always be right where he needed them to be when he came back down to Earth.

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