You know how it goes: a band or a musician puts out a stellar first album, receives heaps of praise and success, and then goes back to the recording studio and turns out a second album. What a bummer, it’s not as good. But is this trend a real thing, or just a myth fueled by how disappointed we, as listeners and critics, can be when artists’ albums don’t live up to our expectations? What follows is in no way a definitive list, but it does show that plenty of great artists were able to avoid the sophomore slump — and, in some cases, turned out the best album of their careers.
Back to Black, Amy Winehouse
Three years after her debut album, Frank, Winehouse defined her look and sound with the Mark Ronson-produced Back to Black, which singlehandedly made the late singer an icon and left an indelible mark on modern soul music.
Chapter Two, Roberta Flack
Roberta Flack’s second album is an underrated masterpiece, featuring gorgeous arrangements of songs written by the likes of Bob Dylan, Jimmy Webb, and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
“Creep,” “Red Light Special,” “Diggin’ On You,” “Waterfalls.” You can’t deny that CrazySexyCool is more than just a stellar sophomore album — it’s also TLC’s best.
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement
With their second album, Pavement dropped their lo-fi roots in favor of bigger sounds, turning out classics like “Cut Your Hair,” “Gold Soundz,” and “Range Life.”
De La Soul Is Dead, De La Soul
After the monumental success of 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul’s second album was primed to be a disappointment. Instead, De La Soul Is Dead found the hip-hop trio eschewing the press’ — and their fans’ — perceptions about their artistic merit, and the result is a provocative and impressive rap album.
The Pixies’ second album is arguably their best, including seminal tracks like “Debaser,” “Wave of Mutilation,” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven.”
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan
Not only does it feature one of the more recognizable album covers of all time, but The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan gave us some of his most popular — and often covered — folk songs.
If You’re Feeling Sinister, Belle & Sebastian
Belle & Sebastian’s second album is among the best records to come out of their early Scottish mopey period.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has become, in the 15 years since its release, seemingly the only Neutral Milk Hotel album — a masterpiece that makes it easy to forget about their debut, On Avery Island.
Kaleidoscope Dream, Miguel
If R. Kelly’s cyclical fall from grace has left you without an R&B crooner with a silky, smooth voice, look no further than Miguel, whose Kaleidoscope Dream is one of the sexiest and impressive albums in recent years.
The Knot, Wye Oak
A gorgeous folk-rock record (with obvious ’80s alt-rock influences) that perfectly highlights the muscled, impressive vocals of Jenn Wasner.
Like a Virgin, Madonna
Madonna’s follow-up to her self-titled debut was a career-defining album, featuring a title song that catapulted her to household-name status.
Live Through This, Hole
Hole’s definitive album is their second one, released just days after Kurt Cobain’s death, which features some of their most brutally memorable tracks, including “Violet” and “Miss World.”
Loveless, My Bloody Valentine
While not a great commercial success, the second album from My Bloody Valentine has endured as a landmark shoegaze record, one that influenced countless other musicians for decades. So daunting was the pressure to follow up Loveless that it took Kevin Shields and co. over two decades to do it.
The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest
A lyrical and production feat, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory infused elements of jazz into a hip hop album, establishing a connection between African-American culture from both ends of the 20th century.
Is there a more impressive argument against the notion that a band’s second album can’t live up to its first? Nevermind was a game-changer for all of the reasons you already know about.
Paul’s Boutique, Beastie Boys
While it initially did not see the same commercial success as their debut, License to Ill, Paul’s Boutique proved to be a massive hit for the Beastie Boys and is now considered their breakthrough album.
Power, Corruption & Lies, New Order
It helps that the guys in New Order had been together since their Joy Division days, but their second album — the follow-up to their debut, Movement — includes the classic opening track “Age of Consent” and is noteworthy for marking the band’s foray into a more electronic sound.
Rid of Me, PJ Harvey
Angry, ruthless, gut-churning: PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me is a powerful and affecting record, and one of her very best.
Tapestry, Carole King
Carole King’s most popular and bestselling album was her second solo effort, featuring her own recordings of the record-breaking songs she wrote for other artists, as well as a few original compositions.
This Year’s Model, Elvis Costello
A little bit more refined than My Aim Is True, Costello’s second album (and first with The Attractions) features more well-known hits than his debut (“Pump it Up” and “Radio, Radio”), with a touch more reggae influence thrown in for good measure.
No album has left its mark in the last few years quite like Adele’s 21, which features the standouts “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You.”
When the Pawn…, Fiona Apple
Maligned at the time for its run-on sentence of a title, Fiona Apple’s second album is still her very best, showing off her versatility, her incredible songwriting, and her powerful voice.
You Forgot It in People, Broken Social Scene
Broken Social Scene was a Canadian supergroup before its individual members got famous. You Forgot It in People was not just the band’s first commercial success; it also offers an impressive collection of songs featuring Feist, Metric’s Emily Haines, and Amy Millian on vocals.
Ys, Joanna Newsom
Between her twee debut The Milk-Eyed Mender and her ambitious triple-album Have One on Me lies Joanna Newsom’s Ys, five sprawling songs that form a complete bridge between her other two albums.