You’ve heard of the sophomore slump that loads of bands go through on their second album, especially when they have an impressive début (more on that next week). But what about the third record? When a band hits the scene with a strong début and goes on to reach new heights (or lows) with their sophomore effort – where do they go from there? Some bands fade into obscurity, but many hit that sweet balance between innovation and consistency. The sophomore album often makes or breaks a band, but it is the junior album that shows what path they intend to follow into the future. Let’s find out who got better with age…
Deftones – White Pony – I must admit, I became a fan of this album (and band) well after the release of White Pony. It’s not only Deftone’s best record, it represents a major shift in sound for the band, much like Kid A did for Radiohead, only heavier. Plus, their collaboration with Maynard James Keenan on ‘Passenger’ is truly inspired, and ‘Knife Party’ is still my favorite Deftones song to this day.
Alkaline Trio – From Here to Infirmary – Goddamnit! and Maybe I’ll Catch Fire were both really good albums with great songs, but in my opinion, Alkaline Trio didn’t really become the band we know and love until they released From Here to Infirmary in 2001. The dark emo-punk that originated on MICF is more refined on FHTI, resulting in a richer sound and deeper songs. This album, coupled with Good Mourning, have to be the apex of A3’s illustrious career.
Bedouin Soundclash – Street Gospels – Your favorite Canadian reggae band dropped this gem on the world in 2007. Street Gospels finds the boys at full stride, creating underground classics that would make Joe Strummer proud. Interestingly, the band really show their chops when they step out side of reggae on cuts like ‘Hush’ (an acapella song full of lush harmonies) and ’12:59 Lullaby’ (a sweet acoustic diddy that is aptly named). At the end of the day, Street Gospels is a fantastic album that has sadly come and gone without much fanfare.
The Faint – Danse Macabre – I found this bad boy by chance when it was on display at Virgin Music back in 2001 and it is still one of the best blind buys I ever purchased (for the record, I just thought the cover looked cool). Danse Macabre is stacked with goth-punk-synth-dance-newwave-core songs, from top to bottom, that took the electro/synth sound of Blank-Wave Arcade and ran with it. The Faint have never really captured the magic of that album again, but you know what they say about catching lightning in a bottle.
Minus the Bear – Planet of Ice – Minus the Bear goes all Pink Floyd on the indie-rock scene? Count me in. After two albums of dancy math-rock, MTB delivered a prog-rock masterpiece full of sweet jams, dreamy melodies, and ice inspired lyrics (I still don’t really know what the album is about, but it’s gotta be a concept album right?). Planet of Ice is perfect on a set of decent headphones, when you are feeling lazy on a late Saturday night.
Gatsbys American Dream – Volcano – If we’re sticking to full-lengths, then Gatsbys’ third album is Volcano, rather than their EP In the Land of Lost Monsters. To be honest, either entry would make this list. Gatsbys American Dream, my favorite band of all time, makes music that is engaging in every imaginable way. Volcano is their pop-masterpiece, the epitome of art for art’s sake (while, on the other hand, In the Land of Lost Monsters remains the greatest middle-finger ever directed at the music industry). This band – and these albums – are peerless.
Jimmy Eat World – Clarity – I think I said enough about this in our last outing.
Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me – Brand New’s best record is the darkest, moodiest album in the long history of dark, moody albums. The days are getting shorter and the leaves have almost all fallen; if you’re not listening to this album at this time of year, you might need to re-evaluate your life.
Saves the Day – Stay What You Are – Probably the single greatest pop-rock record of my generation. That’s enough to make this list.
RX Bandits – The Resignation – I’m kind of going out on a limb here, as The Resignation was the third album released by RX Bandits, but not the third by that group of musicians (who had previously released a couple of records as The Pharmaceutical Bandits – see what they did there?). It’s an album that transcends genre, and the fact that it was essentially recorded with live takes is beyond astounding. Plus, album finale ‘Decrescendo’ is probably one of the top five or ten songs of the last decade.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs – This album is one of the few that actually deserves the credit it gets. I happen to think it’s not only a great album, but Arcade Fire’s best album, and even – dare I say it – one of the greatest albums of all time. There is so much going on here, in every aspect of the record, that it is hard to focus on any one thing. The fact that they tie everything to something as mundane as growing up in the suburbs and make it seem and feel very important is a major achievement. I have re-evaluated moments from my own childhood in the new light cast on them by this record. The songs are widely varied in sound and feel, and the fact that there are 16 of them that are all quality tracks makes it that much better. Must have, must listen, one of the greatest of all time.
Stars – Set Yourself On Fire – The opener on this album is one of the most melancholy songs I’ve ever heard. A pair of strangers is introduced at a party, the host not knowing that they had once been together. When the duelling male/female vocals that represent the two sides of this failed relationship come together and sing, “There’s one thing I want to say, so I’ll be brave. You were what I wanted; I gave what I gave. I’m not sorry I met you, I’m not sorry it’s over. I’m not sorry there’s nothing to save,” your heart aches, because we’ve all been there. The entire album is full of wonder and beauty that will take you through a wide range of emotions, and it sounds great while it does it.
The Bled – Silent Treatment – For some reason (on the message boards that I’ve read) this album gets very little love. It is frequently considered to be the Tucson hardcore band’s worst album, yet from my first listen, I’ve always thought it was objectively their best. The perfect blend of the albums that came before, and features the best hardcore drumming I’ve ever heard from Michael Pedicone.
Poison The Well – You Come Before You – I’ve written about my love for this album before. To quote myself about stand-out track, ‘Apathy Is A Cold Body,’ “It is the soundtrack to hindsight and regret. Moreira’s sadness soaks through the topsoil of the layered guitars to feed the roots of the listener’s desire to ‘start over, and do it right this time.'” It’s an amazing album that will stand the test of time.
Yeah Yeah Yeah’s – It’s Blitz – Karen O and company decide to add some electronics and dance-y beats to the mix on their junior effort, and man does it work well. In fact, the band goes into territory that it dared not tread before, showcasing haunting simplicity that creates moments of absolute beauty. The band had a great release in Gold Lion, but It’s Blitz is their swan song.
The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead – Whether you have a love-crush on The Smiths, or absolutely despise them, it’s hard to deny the creative genius that was present when Morrissey and Johnny Marr came together to write songs. They were the darlings of the indie britpop scene and they churned out haunting pop melodies highlighted by Morrissey’s characteristic vocal delivery. With songs like ‘Cemetary Gates’ and ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,’ The Smiths redefined the British alternative music scene and solidified The Queen Is Dead as a britpop masterpiece.
The Clash – London Calling – Given the nature of this site and the bands reviewed on it, it hardly seems necessary to explain why this album is listed here. Not just a landmark release in the world of punk rock, London Calling far exceeded the reach that I’m sure the band intended when it was released. With their perfect blend of punk rock, ska, reggae, pop, and jazz, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones delivered anthems of social unrest and self awareness that transcended the bounds of punk rock. Highly regarded upon its release, the album has gone on to greater acclaim in current years, landing itself a spot on Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top Ten Albums of All Time list. Despite a number of legendary songs – ‘London Calling’ and ‘Train In Vain’ to name a couple – the album cover featuring bass player Paul Simonon smashing his guitar is epic enough to put this album on the list.
Radiohead – OK Computer – Radiohead are a lot of things – a band that can do no wrong, a band that makes the rules rather than follows them, a band free from the limitations of the music industry – but this was the album that really started it all. Though Kid A is Radiohead’s first full venture into their post-guitar musical abyss, OK Computer was the album where they successfully combined the atmospheric and digital sounds of their later albums with the pop sensibilities of their earlier releases. It yielded hits such as ‘Karma Police,’ ‘Paranoid Android,’ and ‘No Surprises,’ yet it was an album full of dense and abstract sonic content that would shape the musical landscape for decades to come. The genius in the album though, is that for all it’s abstract nature – in both Thom Yorke’s lyrical content and the band’s music – it was still highly palatable and enthralling to listen to. Indie bands to this day are still trying to find the balance that Radiohead captured on OK Computer, yet for the most part, they are failing miserably. That’s probably a good indication as to why Radiohead will go down as one of the greatest bands of this era.
Dredg – Catch Without Arms – Sitting next to four other choices that would all feel comfortable on a “Best of All Time” list, it’s probably a bit obvious that Dredg’s Catch Without Arms is a very personal choice. A band who has always impressed me with their unique style, compositions, and song structures, their third album found the band finally settling comfortably into their highly distinctive style. Gavin Hayes’ soaring vocals, coupled with their arpeggiated guitar riffs and distinctive rhythm section, gave the album an unmistakable sound that would ultimately define Dredg’s unique style. The addition of Gavin Hayes’ lap steel guitar on tracks like ‘Bug Eyes,’ and Dino Campanella’s piano on ‘Sang Real,’ added an additional layer to their sound and helped Catch Without Arms establish Dredg as a band capable of standing free of genre pigeon-holing.
Metallica – Master Of Puppets – Arguably the greatest heavy metal album ever released (maybe Black Sabbath’s Paranoid?), Master of Puppets found Metallica delivering their personal brand of metal during their finest hour. Long before the slow demise of Metallica into the days of Load, ReLoad, and St. Anger, the album found the band delivering unrelenting guitar riffs and punishing drum beats all led by James Hetfield’s dark vocal lines. The last album for bassist Cliff Burton, his intricate and unique basslines on Master of Puppets would secure his legacy as an irreplaceable part of the band’s sound. If nothing else, the album’s perfect blend of technical prowess and raw energy has become a must have for all listeners of metal, as well as any kid who’s ever picked up a guitar with hopes of becoming a lead guitarist.
Alexisonfire – Crisis – It may not be my favourite of their albums, but it is without a doubt a fantastic record. Crisis is more polished than their previous albums, but what it lacks in grit, it makes up for in ambition. Songs like ‘We Are The Sound’ and ‘Mailbox Arson’ offer blazing chaos, while ‘Rough Hands’ slows things down with a piano-driven melody. ‘This Could be Anywhere in the World’ and ‘Boiled Frogs’ provide anthemic sing alongs, while ‘To a Friend’ and ‘We Are The End’ harken back to the style that they refined on Watch Out!. I could not be more excited to see them play the final show of their careers in December – it’s going to be wild.
Muse – Absolution – Despite whatever feelings you may have about their most recent album, there is absolutely no arguing with the power of Absolution. This is the album that saw Muse get freaky – ‘Apocalypse Please’ can only be described as a dystopic harbinger of war, and I have no idea how to even begin describing ‘Butterflies & Hurricanes,’ except for saying that it is soul-crushingly good. Then there are the standard rockers, ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and ‘The Small Print,’ that show that Muse is more than just ambience. Finally, there are the tracks that establish the groovy sound that would go on to define Muse in their future endeavours – ‘Hysteria’ and ‘Time Is Running Out.’ It’s unfortunate that Muse would go on to cling to the sounds of those tracks moreso than, say, that of ‘Butterflies & Hurricanes,’ but those are still undeniably awesome songs.
Elliott Smith – Either/Or – Elliott Smith never made a bad album. Whoever told you otherwise was lying, and should absolutely be punched in the left nut (or if it was a girl, the right nut). With that said, Either/Or may – may – be his best work. The vocals on ‘Speed Trials’ and ‘Cupid’s Trick’ are heart-wrenching enough to make this album a real triumph on their own, but they aren’t even close to the best songs on the album. The guitar work on ‘Angeles’ is incredible, the melody of ‘Ballad of Big Nothing’ is catchy as hell, and ‘No Name No. 5’ might be the saddest song ever written. And then there are ‘Between the Bars’ and ‘Say Yes.’ I won’t even talk about them. You know them. You love them.
Foo Fighters – There’s Nothing Left To Lose – I once asked a friend how they would define pop rock. He answered, “whatever the new Foo Fighters album sounds like.” That would sound like a damning statement to some, but really it was a compliment. It’s not that Dave and Friends sound like whatever the next big thing is, it’s that they write unstoppably powerful pop melodies that thrust them to the forefront of rock music, regardless of whatever is trending at the time. And yet they avoid being one-trick ponies. They are not only pop rock behemoths, they are punk, metal, jazz, and more, all rolled into one package. There’s Nothing Left To Lose is an excellent example of this – it’s best known for the ludicrously poppy single, ‘Learn to Fly,’ but it is peppered with a wide range of colours and tones. ‘Stacked Actors’ is one of their heaviest songs to date, ‘Ain’t it the Life’ is a soft-rock classic that was (thankfully) never discovered by soft-rock radio stations, and ‘Aurora’ is a multi-layered beast of awesomeness. Hell, even ‘Generator’ is pretty good.
Thursday – War All The Time – This spot was originally reserved for Brand New’s The Devil and God are Raging Inside of Me, which is one of my favourite albums of all time. But alas, Brennan got to it first (cheers for that). So, cursing his name to the sky, I turned to Thrice’s The Artist in the Ambulance. It’s a fine album, and certainly deserving of being in this spot, but it seemed too easy. Thrice is always an option for these Top 5s, just sitting there, begging to take the spotlight away from other bands who worked damn hard to get one of these coveted spots. And so, I present Thursday’s War All The Time. The guitar work is fantastic, Geoff’s vocals are brilliantly awful, and the melodies are soaring in ways that Thursday would never quite capture again. ‘Division St,’ ‘Signals Over the Air,’ and ‘War All The Time’ drive the album, but gems like ‘Between Rupture and Rapture’ and ‘For the Workforce, Drowning’ are equally powerful, rounding the album out and pushing it from “good” to “great.” Congrats on the spot boys, you earned it.