When discussing the work of an artist in retrospect, the importance of their first or second album is often up for discussion. Was their first album the best? Did their second album stand the test of time? Did they make it past the sophomore slump? While these notions are certainly subjective and open to interpretation, we can surely enjoy the discussions that arise from these sort of questions.
We’ve chosen a group of musicians, some more familiar than others, that we think happened to have made it past the threshold of the sophomore slump. Often, an artist’s first album is something that brings them renown on the belief that they are a promising act — their premier artistic statement. When it comes time to release a second album, all eyes are watching to see if the artist can progress from their debut and blossom into a bona fide force to reckon with. After that, everything is up in the air.
For our third issue, we’re showcasing third albums from eight different artists. While we have our own opinions on whether they continued to make great tunes afterwards, we think that there’s something unique about each of these albums and would love a great discussion or argument about any of these records. So without further ado...
Producer: Tom Moulton
Album Art: Richard Bernstein
1977 is a year of significance for many reasons, one being the release of Grace Jones’ debut album, Portfolio. Starting with Portfolio and ending with Muse, she released a trilogy of disco albums with producer Tom Moulton. All three albums feature the illustrative portraiture of Richard Bernstein, known for his hundreds of portraits on the cover of Interview magazine.
To some, disco can be a strong word. Some love it and most say they hate it. 1979 happened to be the year when the initial backlash began and many young men and women started to don “Disco Sucks” t-shirts, much to the chagrin of Donna Summer… or Grace Jones for that matter. She began her career singing disco music at a time when disco was on its way out. In her defense, maybe nobody saw it coming. As you can guess, Muse did not do so well. It was generally ignored by the public and remains her lowest charting studio album to this day.
Despite the general apathy towards this album upon its release, there is more to this album than just another late-era disco one-off. Muse is to Warm Leatherette as Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) is to Pet Sounds (who thought they’d ever see a Grace Jones to Beach Boys comparison?) This is the album where Grace Jones began to find her own space and sound.
Clang of the yankee reaper
van dyke parks
LABEL: warner bros.
PRODUCER: Andrew Wickham, Trevor Lawrence
ALBUM ART: ed thrasher
You’ve probably heard of Van Dyke Parks from his work on the failed and fabled recording sessions of the Beach Boys’ Smile. Or you may know his commercial failure of a debut album, Song Cycle, one of the most expensive albums ever produced at the time. During the late 60s and early 70s, Van Dyke Parks was part of a crowd of weirdo iconoclast musicians like Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman who simply made music because they liked making music. While Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman ended up with a few huge successes, it wasn’t as if these folks were necessarily looking for worldwide fame.
Inspired by his travels to the West Indies, Parks recorded Discover America, a tribute to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago and Calypso music. This began a deep interest in Calypso music which continued on his next and third album, Clang of the Yankee Reaper. The album is a Calypso songbook of sorts, featuring reimagined songs by OG Calypso musicians such as Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener as well as traditional music of the Americas.
Never one to be light on dramatic language, Parks later referred to this album as “brain dead” and added, “That album was done at the nadir of my entire life. Psychologically I was in a terrible state, I was despairing. My best friend had just died – my roommate, he was my roommate. We scattered his ashes at sea, and they flew back into our faces... a terrible, terrible insult. I was grieving, I’d just been divorced, I’d just left Warner Brothers in disgust as I didn’t want to be a corporate lackey, didn’t approve of record business practices – you know, what can I say? ‘Lost my job, the truck blew up, my dog died.’” Despite these rather negative sentiments, the album is a great exploration and continuation of his interest in Calypso and should not be missed. Sometimes good things come out of the worst situations.
boom boom chi boom boom
tom tom club
LABEL: Sire/Reprise/Warner Bros. Records
PRODUCER: chris frantz, tina weymouth
ALBUM ART: chris frantz
During a hiatus from Talking Heads in 1980, husband-and-wife duo Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz formed Tom Tom Club. They recorded their debut in the Bahamas with the help of the Compass Point All-Stars and managed to score a couple of huge hit singles with “Wordy Rappinghood” and “Genius of Love”. They managed to create a sound of their own by taking the dancey elements of Talking Heads to the next level.
At the time of this album’s release, the sounds they were creating were already starting to sound dated. New Wave was on its way out as the sounds of the early 90s were on their way in. As Tom Tom Club packed more intricacies into their rhythms and basslines, the general public somehow became less and less interested. They were competing with The B-52’s “Love Shack”, Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” and the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” for a spot on the radio. While I can’t say that anything on this album can compete with the commercial viability of the aforementioned radio killers, there is something more earnest and certainly more subtle about this album. This solidified the fact that Chris and Tina were never shooting for the Billboard top 100, they were just making music that they loved. While Tom Tom Club enjoyed overnight success with their most popular singles, their idiosyncrasies are not always radio friendly and that is what makes them just great.
The most standout track on this album is undoubtedly the cover of Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale”. They take the somber vibe of the song and turn it into a lightweight dance track. This is arguably a terrible idea, but it somehow works in its awkwardness. Not to mention, the track features Lou Reed himself on guitar and backing vocals… something you wouldn’t know unless you read the liner notes.
LABEL: philadelphia international
PRODUCER: kenny gamble, leon huff
ALBUM ART: roger hane
It’s easy to reduce Billy Paul to his hit single, “Me and Mrs. Jones”, but there is much, much more. He spent the early part of his career singing jazz, working with folks like Charlie Parker, before moving into the realm of pop music. With his first solo album, Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club, he began building his own personal sound with producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. They saw something in him from the very beginning and were determined to get a hit song with his trademark velvety vocals. The trouble with making this happen was striking the right balance between his jazz style and popular soul music without losing his sound.
Going East seems to be the first earnest attempt at making Paul a hit artist, letting in more influences to build on his previous efforts. The first song, “East”, is a 6:46 epic so lush that you never want it to end. Rich orchestral arrangements and production carry Paul’s voice naturally while defining the new sound Gamble and Huff were looking for. In terms of landing a huge hit, it didn’t quite reach the cosmic levels they had hoped for. It did, however, create the template for what was to come. With its expansive palette and experimental songwriting, the perfect blend of jazz and soul had been reached.
LABEL: warner bros.
PRODUCER: bones howe
ALBUM ART: ed thrasher
One pattern I’ve started to recognize in third albums is an artist’s desire to shift their ideologies or aspirations. Some decide to pull back from the spotlight and some begin to strive for it. In this case, The Association really decided to swing for commercial success. Prior to Insight Out, the band had gone to great lengths to compose and perform the majority of their material. This would all change with the idea that it would better their chances at success to employ studio musicians and outside songwriters, including members of the infamous Wrecking Crew and producer Bones Howe—and for better or worse, the formula was officially changed. The good news is that despite all of these changes and a couple of syrupy singles, the band didn’t lose sight of themselves. Insight Out mixes everything likable about The Association with a dash of baroque pop, psychedelia, and even a subtle anti-war statement.
LABEL: WARNER BROS.
PRODUCER: steven stanley
ALBUM ART: william wegman
Following Mesopotamia, their conflicted collaboration with David Byrne, The B-52’s set sail for Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to record Whammy!. The first two B-52’s albums were ultimately documents of the raw energy they were able to bring to their live performances—upbeat, catchy songs with guitars, Farfisa and drums. They brought a lot out of very little and it worked quite well. With Mesopotamia, Byrne pushed them to record more overdubs, bring in more instruments and hire session musicians. This essentially took the formula and threw it out, for better or for worse.
While Mesopotamia began a departure from their signature sound, Whammy! exhibits a return to form with some caveats. They pared back some of the complex production, but updated their sound to add drum machines and synthesizers. In contrast to the seriousness of Mesopotamia, the party vibes came back in full effect, but not in a shallow way; there is still plenty weird about Whammy!. As Robert Christgau put it, “Though The B-52’s still pick up some great ideas at interplanetary garage sales, their celebration of the pop mess-around is getting earthier.”
One of the album’s standouts is “Don’t Worry”, a reimagining of “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)” by Yoko Ono. Legend has it that shortly before his death, John Lennon claimed he was a fan of the B-52’s and that “Rock Lobster” gave him the inspiration to start recording music with Yoko again. One can only assume the admiration was mutual.
My personal favorite track is “Song for a Future Generation”, the first to feature all five band members singing lead vocals. Each member takes turns introducing themselves as if they are recording their part in the future equivalent to a video dating VHS. With such strangely banal introductions as “Hey, I’m Fred the Cancerian from New Jersey. I like collecting records and exploring the cave of the unknown” and “Hello, I’m Cindy, I’m a Pisces and I like chihuahuas and Chinese noodles”, how could you turn them down?
heaven and the sea
LABEL: mercury records
PRODUCER: stephen hague
ALBUM ART: healthy & efficiency
If you aren’t aware of Pete Shelley’s solo career, you should be. Just a couple of years before the Buzzcocks formed, Shelley recorded Sky Yen, a continuous piece of instrumental experimental music performed on a purpose built oscillator. These early experiments seemed to set the tone for his three post-Buzzcocks solo albums, ditching the guitar for drum machines and synthesizers. A lot of what is appealing about the Buzzcocks translates to Shelley’s solo albums; catchy melodies and solipsistic lyrics. Think of what the Buzzcocks would sound like after making the aforementioned instrumental changes and let your imagination do the rest. Shelley’s first two LPs, XL-1 and Homosapien, produced by Martin Rushent, are full of beat-heavy dance tracks that wouldn’t be out of place at a club.
Working with producer Stephen Hague, known for his work with Public Image Ltd., Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, New Order, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, Shelley’s third and final album, Heaven and the Sea, takes a turn to a darker and more introspective sound. Where Homosapien was bright and energetic, Heaven and the Sea is dark and dramatically lush. For example, the track “Blue Eyes” wouldn’t sound out of place in a John Carpenter film. The songs aren’t too brooding to be danceable, though. One thing that remains throughout all of Pete Shelley’s solo albums is the urge to get on the dance floor, however awkward it may be.
the bee gees
PRODUCER: Robert Stigwood, Ossie Byrne
ALBUM ART: klaus voormann
What can we say about the Bee Gees? Their career came in two waves; first as a melodramatic pop group in the late 60s and early 70s, second as a popular disco group in the late 70s. A baffling transition to say the least. Born on the Isle of Man, raised in England, and ending up in Australia, the Gibb brothers were no strangers to change. They released their first two albums, The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs and Spicks and Specks, in Australia and New Zealand and managed to get some success with the single “Spicks and Specks”. With their newfound success, they decided to move to England to record Bee Gees’ 1st, which would be their first international release and third album overall, despite the name.
Before 1st, the Bee Gees’ records consisted of the Gibb brothers with the help of studio musicians. This album was an attempt to flesh their sound out and make a full band out of the group, but it didn’t quite work out the way they planned. They seemed destined to be more of an experimental studio band than your typical rock group, and for the better! This album is filled with lush orchestral arrangements and harmonies over rock-based songs, a sound unique to the Bee Gees.
In recollection of the recording process, Barry Gibb commented, “We drive the producer and technicians mad. We have nothing knocked out. We sit about and think up a subject, then write a song on the spot. We did the whole of the LP like this. It’s the really the only way we can work, spontaneously off the cuff.” This album is essentially the template for the experimental orchestral rock that the Bee Gees would become known for in their early career. After its release, the band became more self-sufficient, producing and mixing many of their own releases.