After many years of listening to and discovering a vast range of artists and their discographies, I have come to find that the dreaded “sophomore slump” is nothing more than a myth. Yes, many artists fail to live up to expectations the second time around because their first effort set the bar too high. But there are even more artists that have enough talent, innovation and spark to go above and beyond, to grow as musicians, writers and composers following their debut records. The following artists’ second albums refute the notion of the “sophomore slump,” and prove that the only place to go from these artists’ first albums is up.
3. Neon Bible by Arcade Fire. When the Canadian ensemble exploded onto the indie pop scene with its triumphant debut Funeral, nobody expected that the band would climb much higher. But when Win Butler and co. followed up their ingenious first effort with Neon Bible, Arcade Fire solidified itself as one of the most inspired bands of the decade. If Funeral confronted our fear of growing up and leaving the comfort of family behind us, then Neon Bible, the sequel to Funeral for all intents and purposes, tackled the paranoia and anxiety of being left to our own devices in a cruel world. While Funeral instilled hope beneath its tracks about solitude and the uncertainty of youth, Neon Bible left us without a hint of promise. Take the opening tracks of each album: Funeral’s soaring “Neighborhood #1: Tunnels” depicts kids running away to unite with their loved ones, while Neon Bible’s haunting “Black Mirror” forces the same kids to look inward and confront their innermost fears. If Arcade Fire has anything to say about the world today, it’s that it is one very dark place; only by sticking together, according to anthems like “No Cars Go” and “Keep the Car Running,” can we survive it.
2. Stereopathetic Soulmanure by Beck. Before he established himself as the unofficial leader of losers across the skate parks of America, Beck Hansen was just another one of them, putting out songs like “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack” and “The Fucked Up Blues.” Just a week before he would release his career-defining single “Loser” off the classic LP Mellow Gold, Beck released an hour-plus album of early gems that exhibit the multi-instrumentalist’s unmatchable composing talent, a skill that has helped him become the go-to producer of albums by such artists as Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stephen Malkmus. Even early on in his career, Beck displayed his talent for juxtaposing experimental, distorted amalgamations of sound effects and traditional blues riffs with gloriously tongue-in-cheek lyrics. The bizarre blues number “Satan Gave Me a Taco” is the perfect example of Beck’s knack for pairing completely out-there lyrics with skilled musicianship and arrangement. Even the heartbreaking ballad “Rowboat,” which would later be covered by none other than Johnny Cash, is so charming you can’t help but smile. But Beck didn’t stop impressing us with Stereopathetic Soulmanure; he would go on to release several more classic albums, including the Grammy-winning Odelay and the break-up record Sea Change, solidifying his position as alternative rock’s slacker hero.
1. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. On the album that ended up being its second and final LP, notorious recluse Jeff Mangum’s Neutral Milk Hotel followed up On Avery Island with perhaps the most brilliant indie rock record of the century. Taking a cue from the deafening distortion of his debut album under the Neutral Milk Hotel moniker, Mangum paired guitar fuzz, a singing saw and a horn section with heart-shattering lyrics about love, death and sex inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank. Mangum strums his guitar violently and wails his stunning lyrics yearningly on an album that is impossible to listen to without feeling a broad range of emotion over its 40-minute duration. From Mangum’s crying expression of love for Jesus Christ on “King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2” to Holocaust references on the 8-minute epic “Oh Comely” to the exuberant bagpipes and distortion of the instrumental track “Untitled,” In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a cult classic that is too beautiful, inspiring, poignant and miraculous to pass by, and is perhaps the greatest sophomore effort from any band in recent memory.