It’s a familiar experience. There’s that one mind-blowingly great album you just can’t get enough of, an album of epic proportion. Then one day you learn that this beloved artist will be releasing a new album. A sense of dread-tinged anticipation overcomes you. Any potential trace of hopefulness that it just might live up to your expectations is overshadowed by the bleak probability of impending disappointment. It’s not that all follow ups to great albums are necessarily bad, it’s just that there’s a certain discomfort in knowing that we’re going to have to move on and adapt. That’s the way music works; sometimes for the better, and sometimes not. We’ve put together a list of ten earthshaking rock albums that were impossible to follow up, often resulting in a derailment, a reinvention, or a fade-away.
The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)
Holding the number two spot in Rolling Stone ’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list, Pet Sounds represents the commercial culmination of Brian Wilson’s experimental proclivities. But due to the subsequent strain between Wilson’s increasingly avant-garde tastes and Mike Love’s more conservative pop sensibilities, The Beach Boys were never able to recapture the magic of Pet Sounds, securing its place as perhaps the most notoriously impossible album to follow up.
Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
OK Computer is widely regarded as Radiohead’s ultimate masterpiece, and as one of the greatest albums of the ’90s. Disconcerted by their mainstream commercial success, it was perhaps only natural that Thom Yorke and company would strike out in an entirely new direction with their follow up album, the electronics-laden Kid A.
The Kinks – Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (1970)
After a celebrated breakthrough of early pop singles, The Kinks ventured merrily into conceptual album territory in the late ’60s with The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Their ensuing masterpiece, Lola Versus Powerman, however, set a high bar for the band to live up to, resulting in a failed soundtrack album, the less commercially successful Muswell Hillbillies, and a lull that lasted for the better part of the decade.
Talking Heads – Remain in Light (1980)
The layered complexity and scale of the Brian Eno-produced Remain in Light represent what may well be the greatest musical achievement of the band’s career, drawing on avant-garde musical arrangements and African polyrhythms. So, although their ensuing album Speaking in Tongues included a top 10 single with “Burning Down the House,” most fans have found their follow up effort to fall flat beside the unrivaled genius of Remain in Light.
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)
Legendary shoegaze pioneers My Bloody Valentine hit their peak with the gorgeously crafted dreamscapes of Loveless. Perhaps part of what makes this album so universally adored is the fact that it was utterly impossible to follow up. The band’s reclusive leader Kevin Shields went almost completely silent for over a decade until the band reunited for some live performances in 2008. Many try to emulate the sound of Loveless, but none surpass its brilliance.
Gang of Four – Entertainment! (1979)
The harmonious marriage of post-punk and post structuralism achieved its heyday with the debut album from Gang of Four. Though the band released several other energetic, Marxist-inflected albums and singles, none could match the momentum and influence of Entertainment!
Tom Waits – Rain Dogs (1985)
Tom Waits’ marriage to Kathleen Brennan proved to have a decisive impact on his music, resulting in some of his most iconic albums of the 1980s. Leaving behind the jazz, blues, and folk-infused sound of his earlier work, Waits released a trilogy of albums — Swordfishtrombone, Rain Dogs, and Frank’s Wild Years — that would come to characterize a more eclectic style, incorporating unconventional instruments and narrative themes. Although Frank’s Wild Years, the soundtrack to a play written by Waits and Brennan, was stylistically close, it failed to recapture the monumental acclaim that Rain Dogs accrued over the years, eventually leading Waits to switch to a darker, percussive sound with Bone Machine five years later.
David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Bowie’s famous stint masquerading on tour as his spacey alter ego quickly grew old for the glam rocker as it became more and more difficult to keep his concept album persona separate from his artistic identity. So Bowie sought to reinvent the character with his follow-up album Aladdin Sane, which he described as “Ziggy goes to America.” While undeniably a classic, Aladdin Sane lacked the narrative cohesion and impact that made Ziggy such a difficult album to top.
R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992)
R.E.M. won tremendous critical acclaim for Out of Time and the subsequent Automatic for the People, the latter album being widely regarded as their best effort. But with such masterfully written tracks like the penultimate “Nightswimming,” R.E.M. had perhaps built up too much expectation. So, when their noisier follow-up album Monster was released, many fans were puzzled over the departure from the slower alt-rock sound that the band had previously embraced.
Beck – Sea Change (2002)
The aptly named eighth studio album from Beck is considered by many to be his magnum opus, arguably overtaking even his previous triumph with Odelay. It marked a radical shift borne out by a collaboration with Nigel Godrich (who also worked with Beck on Mutations). Beck was reportedly inspired to make the album after ending a relationship with his girlfriend, moving towards a desolate and emotionally complex sound that focused on bleak acoustic melodies and string arrangements rather than sampling. Although his follow up, Guero, was itself a tremendous success, it required that he abandon the bleakness of Sea Change and revisit the lush sounds established on Odelay. Beck is known for experimenting with genres between albums, but there’s just no way that the simplicity and cohesion he artfully accomplished with Sea Change could have been recaptured.