Sophomore Slumps, worst second albums, bad follow up albums

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You’ve seen it in books, movies and several thousand episodes of “Behind the Music”: A scrappy young group of rock & roll dreamers sets out to take the world by storm, and – after countless gigs, demos, rejection letters and groupie-borne social diseases – they finally make good on their promise. The debut album sells like gangbusters, spinning off numerous hit singles, possibly an award or two, and even more frantic trips to the pharmacist. They are conquering heroes.

And then comes the second album.

There’s an old rock-dork saying that is sadly close to the truth: You get your whole life to make your first album, and two weeks to make your second. “Making it” is only half the battle; as those “Behind the Music” episodes have made repeatedly clear, there’s a whole new set of problems and pressures waiting for you once you reach Billboard magazine’s promised land. To cop a phrase from Angela Lansbury, it’s a tale as old as time, which is why we’ve made it our business to sift through musical history’s second-album wreckage and deliver some of our favorite cautionary tales. Some of these falls from grace were driven more by schadenfraude than true artistic transgressions (Puff Daddy, white courtesy phone, please), and some were only temporary commercial lulls in long and fruitful careers, but they all have one thing in common: They represent some of the most famous examples of music’s sophomore jinx in action.

Nas: It Was Written (1996)
Album Sales: 3 million
Previous Album Sales: 1 million (certified in 2001)
What Went Wrong? No, your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you – It Was Written really did outperform Nas’ debut, Illmatic; in fact, it remains his highest-selling album. That hasn’t kept Written from going down as one of the most poorly received second acts in rap history, however. Not that this was all Nas’ fault – to be fair, Illmatic was such a landmark release, he could have followed it up with almost anything and it would have been regarded as inferior. That being said, did he really have to abandon his debut’s from-the-street aesthetic so completely?

Terence Trent D'arby: Neither Fish nor Flesh (1989)
Album Sales: 2 million
Previous Album Sales: 12 million
What Went Wrong? Rarely has an artist bought so loudly into his own hype as did the future Sananda Maitreya after his 1987 debut, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby, thrilled critics and consumers alike. All of 25 when Hardline was released, D’Arby/Maitreya was hailed as the rough equivalent of Sam Cooke, Prince, and Brian Wilson all in one – predictions he proved irrefutably, hilariously wrong with this muddled, self-indulgent mess of a second album. If it hadn’t come on the heels of such a huge success – and if D’Arby hadn’t come off as such an egotistical jackass in interviews – critics probably wouldn’t have taken such delight in thrashing Fish. Alas.

The Stone Roses: Second Coming (1994)
Album Sales: 300,000
Previous Album Sales: 250,000
What Went Wrong? The band’s self-titled debut, released in 1989, sparked a tidal wave of English adoration that remains unchecked to this day – in a recent NME poll, The Stone Roses was named the greatest British album of all time. Here in the States, enthusiasm was more subdued, but still, when the band re-emerged five years later with the foolishly titled Second Coming, even American audiences felt the sting of disappointment. Time has been kind to Coming – quite a bit of the backlash directed at the band had to do with the fact that a host of Stone-influenced bands had popped up during its absence, and fans had become inured to a sound that was no longer fresh. Regardless, the band never stood a chance, and imploded in 1996.

Spin Doctors: Turn It Upside Down (1994)
Album Sales: 1 million
Previous Album Sales: 5 million
What Went Wrong? The Spin Doctors were never anything but a victim of their own success. Public opinion of the band has long wavered between derision and disgust, but in the summer of 1992, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes” were a breath of fresh air. That fresh air quickly went stale, however, a problem compounded by the songs’ annoyingly long lifespan at Top 40 stations; by the time Upside was released in 1994, the listening public was just looking for a reason to turn on the band. They found it in “Cleopatra’s Cat,” one of the lamest choices for a leadoff single in the history of Epic Records. The group still tours and records, but it’ll never be anything but a punch line to most.

Asia: Alpha (1983)
Album Sales: 1 million
Previous Album Sales: 7 million
What Went Wrong? The band’s self-titled debut was one of the biggest releases of 1982, which made it easy to ignore the deep personality conflicts between its members. When it came time to crank out the quickie follow-up, however, the intra-band tension was impossible to ignore – particularly when the record tanked on the charts. Bassist and lead vocalist John Wetton was dumped on the tour and replaced with Greg Lake, only to return later on and engineer the ouster of guitarist Steve Howe. All this infighting wouldn’t have mattered as much if Alpha had been a fun listen, but for the most part, it consisted of warmed-over ingredients from the first album. Alpha sent Asia into a 20-year tailspin of legal battles and Eastern European tours.

Christopher Cross: Another Page (1983)
Album Sales: 500,000
Previous Album Sales: 5 million
What Went Wrong? It’s a long list. Was Cross’ biggest mistake taking three years to follow up his Grammy-hogging debut? Was it performing “Arthur’s Theme” in a tux at the Oscars? Or was it signing off on Another Page’s soft pink artwork, and posing in a jumpsuit and loafers (no socks) on the album’s back cover? Call it a three-way tie, and lament the fast rise and fall of a fine rock guitarist who chose to spend his time spinning his wheels with goopy ballads like “Think of Laura.”

Puff Daddy: Forever (1999)
Album Sales: 1 million
Previous Album Sales: 8 million
What Went Wrong? Call it Puffy fatigue. The dancing, sample-happy rap impresario was never what you’d call a universally loved figure, but for a while, it didn’t matter – Puffy had his fingers in too many popular projects to be kept off the dial. Hooking up with the Notorious B.I.G. was almost certainly the best thing that ever happened to his career, but give him credit for having the foresight and panache to parlay that connection into top-selling collaborations with a host of other artists. Do not give him credit, however, for this arrogant, uninspired mess of a second album. (Fun fact: In an awesome convergence of sophomore jinx mojo, Puffy sampled Christopher Cross for this album’s “Best Friend.”)

Hootie and the Blowfish: Fairweather Johnson (1996)
Album Sales: 3 million
Previous Album Sales: 16 million
What Went Wrong? The band’s 1994 debut was a refreshing, albeit extraordinarily safe, antidote to two years of loud grunge angst – but after selling more than 15 million units, even Hootie knew the group was headed for a fall. All things considered, triple platinum isn’t anyone’s idea of a failure, but when those three million copies represent less than a fifth of what you sold two years ago – and when they’re accompanied by an array of uniformly lukewarm reviews – you’re officially a victim of the sophomore jinx. Never the world’s most exciting band, Hootie and the Blowfish said everything they needed to say with their first album. So why do they keep making more?

The Knack: ...But the Little Girls Understand (1980)
Album Sales: 500,000
Previous Album Sales: 5 million
What Went Wrong? The Knack’s sleazy pop debut offered an alternative to disco and/or punk in 1979, but when the band returned a year later with this warmed-over collection of retreads – and made it sneeringly obvious that they were more interested in cashing in than anything else – the public’s brief love affair with the group was over. After making one more album for Capitol – 1981’s Round Trip – the Knack weren’t heard from for the rest of the decade. At least those “My Sharona” royalties keep rolling in…

Meat Loaf: Dead Ringer (1981)
Album Sales: 6 million
Previous Album Sales: 30 million
What Went Wrong? Pretty much everything. At the peak of his success, Meat was drowning in drugs, killing himself on tour, and mired in legal battles with his former partner, songwriter Jim Steinman. When it came time to follow up Bat Out of Hell, he developed a psychological singing block, and Steinman eventually recorded what would become Bad for Good on his own. By the time Loaf was ready to sing again, the moment had passed, and American audiences were no longer interested. Meat Loaf’s career would remain in stasis until he and Steinman wised up, mended fences, and released Bat out of Hell II in 1993.

Elastica: The Menace (2000)
Album Sales: A few
Previous Album Sales: 500,000
What Went Wrong? Take a promising debut, add five years of shifting band lineups, creative malaise, and a drug habit or four, and you get The Menace – which is pretty impressive, really, considering how well the album has held up. Elastica needed to release something incredible to live up to the weight of half a decade of expectations, though, and these tracks – recorded in a single week – feel more like a tossed-off stopgap than an album that needed years of work. Reviews were kind, albeit rather bemused, but sales were modest to say the least, and Elastica called it quits less than a year after its second act began.

A-ha: Scoundrel Days (1986)
Album Sales: Less than 500,000
Previous Album Sales: 1 million
What Went Wrong? Even though this Norwegian trio won fame on the strength of bouncy New Wave-ish singles, state-of- the-art videos, and lead singer Morten Harket’s cheekbones, a-ha never intended to be a group of pinup idols – and they set about proving it with their second album, Scoundrel Days. In terms of worldwide sales, it did just fine, moving 6.6 million copies as opposed to the debut’s eight million – but here in the States, the lack of anything resembling a suitably catchy follow-up to “Take on Me” doomed the band to American one-hit wonder status.

Thomas Dolby: The Flat Earth (1984)
Album Sales: Less than 500,000
Previous Album Sales: 1 million
What Went Wrong? Any of Dolby’s thousands of passionate fans would be happy to tell you what a talented guy he is; unfortunately, when your first hit is as silly as “She Blinded Me with Science,” you’re never going to escape novelty status. This became a problem when Dolby released The Flat Earth, a thoughtful, solidly crafted pop record still believed by many to be one of the finest albums of the decade. Nobody bought it, of course, and four years later, Dolby was back on MTV, clowning around in a video called “Airhead.” Unsurprisingly, most of the last 15 years have found Dolby more focused on business concerns -- specifically, those involved with running his successful audio software company, Beatnik -- than musical ones.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood: Liverpool (1986)
Album Sales: 1.5 million
Previous Album Sales: 3.5 million
What Went Wrong? Though it would be unfair to lump FGTH in with dance-novelty acts such as Los Del Rio, Aqua, or the Vengaboys, there are certain similarities. Of course, Frankie’s big song – 1984’s “Relax,” which moved an astounding 1.9 million copies, becoming the best-selling single in British history – wasn’t an overt joke, like “Barbie” or “Macarena”; on the other hand, like those acts, Frankie Goes to Hollywood led off with such an absolutely perfect (and completely over-the-top) song that it was all but impossible to follow it up. Hence Liverpool, the years-in-the-making second album that stamped Frankie’s one-way ticket to the cutout bins – and consigned it to the history books.

Gin Blossoms: Congratulations I'm Sorry (1996)
Album Sales: 1 million
Previous Album Sales: 4 million
What Went Wrong? The short, cynical answer would be to say that the band lost founding member (and writer of hits “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You”) to alcoholism and suicide; given that the Blossoms eventually regrouped for 2005’s surprisingly good Major Lodge Victory, however, it’s hard to dismiss Congratulations so blithely. Really, the album’s biggest problem was that it took the band four years to release it – and then it ended up sounding pretty much exactly like its predecessor. To top things off, the band elected not to include “Til I Hear It From You,” its hit from the Empire Records soundtrack, thus depriving A&M of some easy marketing pull.

Go-Go's: Vacation (1982)
Album Sales: 500,000
Previous Album Sales: 2 million
What Went Wrong? Vacation is a glossier and more self-consciously commercial album than the band’s surprise hit debut, 1981’s Beauty and the Beat, but that actually worked in its favor. The group’s worst enemy, here and always, was itself – the members were more interested in recreational pursuits than musical ones, and they couldn’t get along with each other besides. By the time the band returned in 1984, with the superior Talk Show, its audience had moved on. The Go-Go’s have regrouped on and off since the mid ‘90s, but not even a Belinda Carlisle Playboy spread could get their last album into the Top 40.

The Hooters: One Way Home (1987)
Album Sales: 500,000
Previous Album Sales: 2 million
What Went Wrong? As soon as they named themselves the Hooters, the band was facing an 0-2 count at the plate; when they followed up their hit debut with an album bereft of anything as instantly memorable as “And We Danced” or “Day by Day,” they quickly turned into yesterday’s news. In retrospect, One Way Home isn’t a bad album – in fact, it holds up a lot better than the band’s follow-up, the wretched Zig Zag – and anybody would have had problems following up an album as big as Nervous Night. Still, for that all-important second album, the band needed to do better than this.

Julian Lennon: The Secret Value of Daydreaming (1986)
Album Sales: 500,000
Previous Album Sales: 1 million
What Went Wrong? Well, let’s see: His parents divorced when he was a young boy, his father was murdered in cold blood, and he wound up with Yoko Ono for a stepmother…oh, were we talking about what went wrong musically? When you get right down to it, most of Julian Lennon’s career problems can be traced back to the fact that he had the temerity to look and sound a lot like his slain dad without actually, you know, being John Lennon. Daydreaming is no worse, really, than his platinum debut, but quite a bit of Julian’s early success could be traced to the public’s fascination with the grown-up son of a martyred hero. Unfortunately for Julian, the novelty wore off quickly.

Living Colour: Time's Up (1990)
Album Sales: 500,000
Previous Album Sales: 2 million
What Went Wrong? 1988’s Vivid – and its inescapable smash hit single, “Cult of Personality” – positioned Living Colour as a black hard rock band, something most suburban kids had never heard of. But the group was always more ambitious than that, something made painfully evident to Sony’s accountants with the release of the sprawling, 15-song Time’s Up in the fall of 1990. The album was kicked off at radio with the dense, somewhat hook-deficient “Type,” an instant turnoff for fans, and though the band eventually notched another bona fide hit with the tongue-in-cheek “Love Rears Its Ugly Head,” the die was cast.

De La Soul: De La Soul is Dead (1991)
Album Sales: 500,000
Previous Album Sales: 1 million
What Went Wrong? You could see it coming. No matter how incorrect the label might have been, or how hard they tried to wriggle out of the pigeonhole, De La Soul were pegged as “hippie rappers” from the moment their classic debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, reached American shores in 1989. They could hardly be blamed for crafting a somewhat more self-consciously dark follow-up. Still, it bears saying that – title and album cover aside – De La Soul Is Dead really isn’t the mopefest it’s frequently made out to be; more than anything, it was just subtler and more complex (and, yes, loaded down with more stupid between-song skits) than the rappers’ fans were expecting. It was a pyrrhic victory, but De La Soul eventually had the last laugh – this album has gone down as one of the genre’s true classics.

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