You know that old saying about a band’s first album? You know, the one about how a band has their entire life to write that illustrious first album? Let’s be honest; it’s probably true. If you take a second, think about your favorite band. Next, think about their discography. And think about which album you hold nearest and dearest to your heart. There’s a good chance it’s their debut album. It’s far from a bad thing. Hell, most bands cut their teeth dogging it in ratholes and half-empty holes perfecting their art long before that gloried recording contract falls into their laps. Often times, a band’s debut is a collection of everything they’ve road-tested along their way to the top. And make no mistake, if your debut album falls flat on its face, you may not even get the opportunity to put out the follow-up.
But what about that follow-up? What’s it called- the sophomore slump? You can probably name a handful of bands you know a single or two from but have no idea they even put out a second album due to them suffering the second-album-blues. I could name a couple quick for you- but where’s the fun in that? Take a second and you’ll probably surprise yourself with who you come up with.
So how about those bands that rocked the killer debut and the furious follow-up? The bands who grabbed life by the balls with their debut and then rode the wave of momentum by upping their game. The bands who forever etched themselves into the rock & roll ethos by rising to the occasion and experiencing critical and commercial euphoria the second time around. Those are the bands- and more specifically, the albums, we’re here to talk about today. This is the definitive Top Ten Alternative Rock Sophomore Albums. The criteria for the ranking is two-fold; based on the commercial success of the album and where the album ranks among the band’s own discography. Without further ado, let’s do this.
- Nirvana- Nevermind (1991)
Pretty much any alternative list will contain at least one thing pertaining to Nirvana. I’m not positive but it might actually be an unspoken rule when writing about music. Still, say what you will (and I usually do when it comes to this topic), even if at times there seems to be a Nirvana- over-saturation, it’s well-warranted. Bleach and In Utero are not musically inferior to Nevermind. One is merely the calm before the storm and the other the aftermath. Nevermind is more a cultural movement than an album at this point in time. Yet nearly twenty-seven years later, no album released since reverberated with the massive impact this did way back when in 1991.
- Smashing Pumpkins- Siamese Dream (1993)
Billy Corgan has famously described the debut album by the Smashing Pumpkins, Gish, as almost an instrumental album that just happened to have lyrics. You can kind of see what he meant. That album possessed a certain jam-band, dreamy feel to it. So much so that the album feels like one large piece of music rather than a collection of songs. With the band’s sophomore release Siamese Dream, Corgan took his love of eclectic, rich instrumentation and came into his own as a lyricist. The album ends up over-shadowed by its own follow-up but upon revisiting, it’s a killer album and one that goes a long way towards defining the era in which it was released. “Cherub Rock”, “Disarm” and the monster “Today” remain favorites among Pumpkins fans to this day as well as staples of modern rock radio.
- Tool- Aenima (1996)
Tool sit in a league all their own. Aenima plays like the most bizarre album on this list. But in the most wonderful way. Tool mastered the art of blending progressive, complex rhythms with an insatiable groove in a way that has been often imitated but never duplicated. For their sophomore album, Manyard James Keenan and the gang built upon their already tripped out foundation and created a brand all their own. At any given time, the guitar, bass and drums can all be playing counter melodies in conflicting time signatures but somehow, inescapably- it works to perfection. “H”, “46 & 2” and “Stinkfist” rest comfortably as some of the most insanely bizarre yet delicious rock songs you can consume.
- Pearl Jam- Vs. (1993)
How about Ten? You can’t think about grunge, or 90’s rock or really Pearl Jam without that immediately jumping to the forefront of your thoughts. And it’s understandable. But as far as debuts go, Ten- for everything great about it, it seems a little too, polished. Is it possible Pearl Jam themselves even felt that? One listen to Vs. and you kind of get that idea. Vs. took everything Pearl Jam did to perfection the first time around and kind of, muddied it up a bit. The hard rocking seemed a little harder. The softer moments played off a little more vulnerable (save for “Black”). Vs. works so well due to the underlying tension you feel when listening to it. Everything seems a little disjointed at times. “Go” takes a bit before it actually goes. But when it does, it carries you away to another dimension you probably weren’t expecting coming off of Ten. Not to mention “Animal” and “Rats” and their lifelong status as classics among the Pearl Jam camp. Vs. may not sound as friendly as Ten, but it’s no doubt the superior album if for nothing other than the moody vibe and aggressive musicianship.
- Rage Against the Machine- Evil Empire (1996)
“Yeah we better turn the bass up on this one.” Zack de la Rocha makes a good argument right off the bat on opening track, “People of the Sun”. Rage Against the Machine perfected the art of socially conscious, swinging, hard-hitting funky rocking with their eponymous debut but it was on the follow-up, Evil Empire, that the band raised it to eleven. Their debut album no doubt defined the Rage Against the Machine sound. The band shunned the obvious- easier choice of repeating their proven attack and crafted something completely out of this world. They sound less like a rock band and more like a sound factory. Furiously hellbent on creating the most unique, eyebrow-raising shrieks, squeals and thumps using nothing more than their guitars and a boundless imagination, never before nor since has a band so uniquely crafted a masterpiece with such little regard for the norm. An argument can be made still to this day that “Bulls On Parade” is the ultimate rock song of the 90’s.
- Jane’s Addiction- Ritual de lo habitual (1990)
Mark my words. There will never be another Jane’s Addiciton. The band’s debut, Nothings’ Shocking proved in some circles just that; shocking. A rhythm section that would make John Paul Jones and John Bonham jealous with the masterful guitar of Dave Navarro and an absolute madman for a lead singer, Perry Farrell, Jane’s Addiction are like a shooting star in the night. And Ritual is like looking directly into that star and letting it consume you. The most alternative of all the alternative bands, Jane’s Addiction went out on top following the inaugural Lollapalooza where the band took Ritual from the record to the stage. From its censored album cover to the rock anthem, “Been Caught Stealing” and it’s amazingly ridiculous video, everything about Ritual screams alternative and helped pave the way for the cultural explosion of rock music that followed.
- Stone Temple Pilots- Purple (1994)
How do you follow up an eight-times Platinum certified debut album that exploded onto mainstream music during a complete changing of the musical guard? Here’s how: You release a straight to the throat, no holds barred sonic assault richer in the melodies, harder in the hard rock and more purely defined in terms of artistic definition. Oh- and also, you watch it debut at number one on the Billboard Top 200. That’s exactly what STP did in 1994 with their sophomore release, Purple. “Interstate Love Song”, “Vasoline” and “Big Empty” serve as just three tracks off of this killer album. Critics may have accused STP of hopping on the grunge bandwagon a few years earlier, but by the dawn of Purple not one of them could argue the impact and staying power STP possessed.
- Foo Fighters- The Colour and the Shape (1997)
You can make the argument that for Dave Grohl and company, The Colour and the Shape is the band’s debut album as for their eponymous debut, Grohl handled ninety-nine percent of the workload. But still, that quasi-solo effort still comes in as an official release by the band. For the sophomore album, we got the full band on display as well as some top-notch production from famed Pixies produced Gil Norton. The Colour remains an intriguing album over two decades later in large part because it laid out the groundwork for every Foo Fighters album to come. Whereas some bands wait seven or eight albums in to look back and incorporate everything they’ve done into a “rebirth” alum, the Foo Fighters covered a massive amount of sonic territory, expanding upon their proven hard-rocking leanings while opening the door wide open melodically. The album remains a favorite among fans and proved the Foo’s were Rock’s newest heroes, all while giving us classics “Everlong”, Monkey Wrench” and “My Hero”.
- Weezer- Pinkerton (1996)
Pinkerton sits way out in leftfield on this list. There’s no question that it is not an absolute masterpiece of an album. The band’s defining album, in fact. The one time Weezer absolutely perfected the craft. The one time Rivers Cuomo got every single lyric, every single note completely perfect. From the chaos of album opener “Tired of Sex” all the way through the beautifully melancholy “Butterfly”, the album is a ten! It’s a god damn ten! But still, upon its release back in 1996- coming off the heals of the insanely popular Weezer (The Blue Album), Pinkerton fell flat on its face. And so did Weezer. Ask anyone now and they’ll tell you- love or hate Weezer- that Pinkerton is a masterpiece- and that they knew it from the first time they heard it. But I’m here to tell you, definitively, that person is a liar. Even Rolling Stone named it one of the worst albums of 1996- only to completely retract that years later. Sometimes what you get isn’t what you want at the time but in the end it proves to be exactly what you needed. That half-ass explanation is the only way I can properly describe the wonderful, anxiety-inducing Pinkerton.
- Alice in Chains- Dirt (1992)
With the exception of Pinkerton, Dirt is most definitive album on this list as it relates to the band who released it. Alice in Chains swung for the fences on Dirt and god damn did they ever connect. For all the glory of the big four of grunge, Layne Staley, vocally, sat one rung above the rest. Was he the song-writer Chris Cornell was? Or Eddie Vedder? No. But he didn’t have to be- not with Jerry Cantrell solely penning anthems of not only grunge, but rock music in general like “Would?”, “Rooster” and “Damn That River”. Everything just clicks on Dirt. It’s moody, dreary and at times flat-out depressing. But in the most exhilarating way possible. The simultaneous beauty and horror of “Down in a Hole”. The sardonic humor of “Hate to Feel”. The album kicks you in the face from the get-go with “Them Bones” and keeps the pedal to the floor all the way to the finish. Alice in Chains have released five studio albums, two amazing EP’s and an all-time -classic Unplugged album. But for all the glory of those- and that glory is abundant- Dirt just owns. The sound you hear is the sound of a band on absolute fire; dark, fierce and pardon the pun, dirty. They say it’s hard to catch lightning in a bottle- well, if you ever want a lesson in that, go no further than Dirt.