Second Albums: Avoiding the Sophomore Jinx
This post has no accompanying playlist. You are encouraged to make your own or explore the many great albums discussed below.
The evolution of a band or solo artist can take several paths, each marked by the natural consequences of talent, chemistry, experience, luck, and the development curve of the songwriters and players. The album is a tidy marker by which to study that evolution. An artist may pull off a great song at any point during a career, but compiling a collection of great songs at one time is challenging even just once in a career.
I’ve chosen here to focus on the second album, creating a list of notable entries of the modern pop/rock genre. It is an intriguing point at which to check in on an artist’s achievement and one I find more illuminating than the first or at any point after. There are many lists focusing on great debuts, but it's what happens immediately after that intrigues me and is overlooked, so that's where this posting dives in.
Rather than limiting my review to just one era or style of music I went through my collection and picked out what I thought were really good or outstanding second efforts. As a result this naturally is limited by my own awareness and tastes (probably just as well since this list otherwise would probably be over a thousand albums).
Before exploring the intriguing revelations of second albums, it’s important first to note the larger music trends regarding the album and artist development in pop and rock music. In the 1950s and 60s in the early days of rock and roll the single dominated both in attention and sales. Albums were reserved for fans wanting to hear more of their favourite acts and sometimes as a way to collect a bunch of singles in one package. Early albums were often filled out with cover songs such that much of the material wasn’t even original to the artist (that’s without getting into the artists that didn’t write their music at all). Output from artists was also copious as they and their labels sought to fulfill the growing demand from eager audiences. Bands would routinely put out at least one or more albums per year (e.g. The Beatles released 12 albums in 8 years, including 6 in the first 3 years). Further, in a lightly competitive environment, labels could foster their acts through multiple albums before having to decide whether the investment was going to pan out. So several poor selling albums to start a career would not doom an artist’s career so long as there was still a positive outlook on their prospects.
In the late 1960s there was a shift in focus from the single to the album and this was reflected in the growing transition in radio stations from Top 40 to Album Oriented Rock (AOR). Rock music was now serious art and the album provided the means to tell a story, explore broader musical variations, and enhance the experience with theatrical elements such as opera and fictional characters. This was the golden age of album making, as artists now took a year or two in between to develop the songs and the quality from start to finish was much stronger. As a consumer, buying an album wasn’t just about getting more music for your money, it was necessary to hear the full musical expression of your favourite band. Heck, artists started not releasing singles, so the album was the only way to get their music at all. Still, artists could take several albums to develop their career and build an audience.
By the 1980s and into the 1990s things changed again. A highly competitive music industry was putting out enormous volume of music each year and competition for the consumer’s dollar was getting fierce. The album now wasn’t just good for a label to get more money on a ‘per unit’ basis for an artist, it was necessary to recoup the investment in their recording. The high volume of music also made it hard to get attention on radio, so singles returned as an important way to introduce an artist and draw in the audience to the album – often an album would release 3-5 songs as singles. Bands toured more and recorded less, trying to get as much sales out of an album as possible. Albums started coming out every couple of years and then every three or four years from artists and tours stretched from weeks to months to years. Labels now didn’t have to wait as long to decide whether an act was a worthwhile investment. If a return wasn’t being made, an artist could be dropped and replaced with another.
In the late 1990s and growing through the new century has been the advent of the internet and the near destruction of the album as a viable sales mechanism for music. Digitization of music allowed songs to be shared widely and in mass volumes on the internet and forced the eventual unbundling of music, allowing consumers to buy songs individually whether released as a single or not. This laid bare the reality of what had happened to the album in the modern era – it wasn’t wanted.
Let’s explore this a little, because the internet didn’t solely cause the death of the album, in many respects the labels and artists did this themselves. First, the transition from vinyl to cd resulted in albums stretching from 8-10 songs to 13-15 songs. In most cases bands simply don’t have enough quality material to fill all those slots. Second, the move from vinyl to cd resulted in a doubling of the price of an album over a short time, causing additional hesitation from buyers. Third, perhaps harkening back to the era of concept albums and the great creations of artists like The Beatles, Pink Floyd or Prog Rock bands like Yes or Jethro Tull, artists continued to fill albums with boring, indulgent songs that I’m sure were meant to provide some cohesive link or moment of reflection or exposition of narrative within the album, but too often were tedious and annoying. Finally, CD players allowed something that vinyl and cassettes couldn’t do: shuffle, skip, or program. Suddenly, songs could be skipped, albums could be listened to in random order, and if you had a multiple CD unit, several albums could be jumbled together.
The hobby of making mixed cassettes had always been there among the more dedicated music fans, but what CD players and eventually digital players like iTunes or Windows Media Player allowed was the organization and creation of music libraries and playlists that took this concept to much broader extents. Suddenly, who wanted to listen to those indulgent tracks on an album? Why not create a playlist of just your favourite songs, or randomly play your music library to hear all your artists rather than just one at a time? The speed and totality with which this dynamic took over suggested the percentage of the audience that had cherished and focused on the album was small. Add to that the ability to avoid paying full freight for an album and just buying the one, two, or three songs you wanted made the album an archaic concept.
Online sales brought about the unbundling of music. Once the obligation to buy all the songs was removed, sales went back to a focus on the songs and an abandonment of the album purchase. Where once artists toured to promote album sales, now they release albums to drive attendees to their shows and to buy merchandise, where the money is now made. In this era labels, now starving for reliable cash flow, only sign acts when they’re ready to deliver success and drop them as soon as they fall out of favour. An artist can no longer develop over several albums unless they fund it themselves. Success must be immediate.
Therefore, this list follows these trends. There are very few great albums, second or otherwise, in the 1950s to the mid-1960s, followed by many in the next few decades and then very few in the new millennium. The trends of each era also influence the nature of the second album. In the early stages a great second album was a fluke, while in the late stages they’re only reserved for those that got established on their first or at least managed a breakthrough song or die-hard audience.
In the periods in which the album reigned supreme, there is variety and the intriguing insights hinted at the start of this analysis comes to bear. Second albums can be grouped into the following types:
The Sophomore Jinx – this is one of the reasons I was compelled to focus on the second album and it is these that you will not find on this list. The theory goes that acts often spend years building a set of songs that they play and refine until getting signed and then are able to record and release these songs. They then have to repeat this process in a matter of months rather than years and the challenge of putting an equally good set of songs together in that time gets the better of them. Quite often the added stress of doing this while also touring more thanks to label support further tests them as the environment for writing is very different. Finally, if the artist was successful with the first album, the bar is set high and it is often very difficult to reach it again. This Jinx doesn’t necessarily mean the artist is done – though perhaps in current times it might – but it does mean the second album will not be notable in their career. They might regroup and go on to great things (more likely in the middle eras), or maybe that second effort was just one of several albums needed to find their stride (early eras).
The Builder – many artists are unquestionably talented and the songs are in them, they’re just in the natural process of evolving. This is a dynamic that applies regardless of whether it’s a solo artist or a band. A solo artist is grappling with the need to continue the creative process and improve, while the band is dealing with the same pressure in addition to multiple personalities in the mix, some of which may change between albums (the people, not the personalities, at least one would hope). The Builder’s second album is likely to be solid to good, anywhere from slightly weaker to generally better than their initial release, and it’s likely their best work is in front of them.
The Breakout – hey, the first album just didn’t get it done, was ignored, or was just too raw in the artist’s evolution to be of note. Perhaps their sound is ahead of its time and the first album was a hard sell? But there was learning, and label support, and perhaps for the first time ever the capacity to focus just on writing and recording and not on part-time jobs, finding a place to sleep, or getting that next meal. Maybe the audience has caught up to your sound? Voila, the talent and greatness comes out and the magic happens, that first one just needed to be gotten out of the way or the people needed time to come to it.
The Last Gasp – yup, sometimes maybe two is all ya got. Either the band breaks up, the songwriter/singer loses the spark, or drugs, sex, and the toll that touring takes on people puts a premature end to what had looked promising. Whatever the reason, the second album was either the last release or the last good to great music made by the artist.
The Natural – the first one was good, the second one was good, the third one was good – this is just a good act. Is there anything about the second album to distinguish it from the rest of the career? Not really. Quality talent and song writing is why this artist made it and is evident in the second release as much as any other.
Many albums were passed over for this list not because they were a Jinx album, they just weren’t good enough to qualify for the types listed above. There are albums that were not well recognized when released but went on to be better appreciated over time, and there were many that were ok but not great even though the artists went on to have solid or even great careers. These would perhaps be the “lesser builders,” so for this exercise only the more notable efforts have been catalogued.
I also accept that you could classify first and third albums into these same categories. However I think the lists would be very different since ‘breakout’ albums would be far more common and would include a vast list of acts in which it was also their ‘last gasp.’ Likewise third albums would skew more to the ‘naturals’ since most are established by then, though as noted in this list many would also see ‘breakouts’ on the third. By focusing on second albums a balance is achieved between the moderately successful acts and the larger, more successful artists.
The list has also been compiled in chronological order to reveal the eras and to allow a study of how the breakdown of types played out over time. Which era produced more naturals, builders, or last gasps? I also find it fascinating, given the ability to take into account each artist’s career, to see how their talent revealed itself and whether it was natural from the start or needed to build.
Finally, I can’t help but present what I consider to be the best of this list. Regardless of the era or type of second album, which of these albums represent simply some of the greatest recorded moments in rock history and the ones that had personal meaning for me? Well, here you are:
- Bruce Springsteen – The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle
- My Bloody Valentine - Loveless
- The Cult - Love
- Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
- Dexys Midnight Runners – Too Rye Aye
- Nirvana - Nevermind
- Psychedelic Furs – Talk Talk Talk
- New Order – Power, Corruption, and Lies
- Dandy Warhols – …The Dandy Warhols Come Down
- Tears for Fears – Songs from the Big Chair
- Sinead O’Connor – I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
- Morphine – Cure for Pain
- Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
- CSNY – Déjà vu
- Neil Young – Everybody Knows this is Nowhere
- Travis – The Man Who
- Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Show Your Bones
- Radiohead – The Bends
- Santana – Abraxas
- Interpol – Antics
- The Strokes – Room on Fire
- Led Zeppelin – II
- Joy Division – Closer
- Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It in People
- Metric – Live It Out
- Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head
- Adam and the Ants – Kings of the Wild Frontier
- Proclaimers – Sunshine on Leith
Second albums list in chronological order:
Legend: Artist - 2nd Album Title (2 song titles of note from the album) - Year released - 2nd album classification - Comments.
Beach Boys - Surfin’ USA (Surfin’ USA; Shut Down) - 1963 - Breakout – built on the limited success of the 1st album, Surfin’ Safari and established surf music as a national craze. Could probably also classify this as ‘natural.’
Bob Dylan - The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright; A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall) - 1963 - Breakout – The 1st album was like many others of the era, mostly cover songs. This album revealed Dylan as the song writing force he became known for and features several of his now classic compositions.
The Beatles - With the Beatles (All My Loving; Roll Over Beethoven) - 1963 - Builder – ok, I was committed to leaving this off, but after looking at it again it just has to be here. I don’t like that 6 of the 14 songs are covers, but when you take into account the ground breaking sound of The Beatles and the sensation they were creating, then this is a legitimate Builder. Of course, the band would do much better musically on their later albums, but these early albums were their peak of Beatlemania.
Simon & Garfunkel - Sound of Silence (The Sound of Silence; I Am A Rock) - 1966 - Builder – With an artist like this, this album could easily be a ‘natural.’ S&G hadn’t quite broken out yet and Sound of Silence had already been released from their 1st album, so this is more an evolution of their sound and build of their audience, leading to their breakout with the 3rd album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.
Moody Blues - Days of Future Passed (Nights in White Satin; Tuesday Afternoon) - 1967 - Breakout – an experimental record it ended up producing two of their biggest songs and establishing them as one of the first prog rock acts.
Cream - Disraeli Gears (Sunshine of Your Love; Strange Brew) - 1967 - Natural – as a supergroup (comprised of already established musicians) it’s hard to think of any Cream albums as ‘builders’ or ‘breakouts.’ This album delivered more and has a greater legacy than their first, but as a short-lived act that only produced four albums, their entire catalogue is fairly equal.
The Doors - Strange Days (Love Me Two Times; People Are Strange) - 1967 - Natural – after the breakout of the 1st album with "Light My Fire" and the strength of their six albums recorded over five years before Morrison’s death, this album simply reveals the quality of their music.
Jefferson Airplane - Surrealistic Pillow (Somebody to Love; White Rabbit) - 1967 - Breakout – the 1st album with Grace Slick on board and one of the most significant contributions of an incredible year of music releases. The band would ride this album for the rest of their career.
Creedence Clearwater Revival - Bayou Country (Born on the Bayou; Proud Mary) - 1968 - Builder – after a 1st album with as many covers as originals and a mild reception, this album built their audience and gained the respect of critics, and of course "Proud Mary" would become a signature song of theirs. The 3rd album, Green River, would cement their place as a top rock act.
Van Morrison - Astral Weeks (Sweet Thing; Cyprus Avenue) - 1968 - Natural – Already known from the band ‘Them,’ and having enjoyed a breakout single ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ from his 1st album, Morrison surprised and enchanted audiences with a change in music with this sublime album. Next would come Moondance showing he was going to be a significant presence for many years to come.
Velvet Underground - White Light/White Heat (White Light/White Heat; Here She Comes Now) - 1968 - Natural – a tough one to classify, it could also be a builder in that it was lesser than their other albums but was still great, offering one of their best-known songs in White Light/White Heat. Given the legacy of this band, let’s call all their work of a ‘natural’ quality.
Joni Mitchell - Clouds (Chelsea Morning; Both Sides, Now) - 1969 - Breakout – could also be a ‘builder’ or ‘natural.’ Her next two albums, Ladies of the Canyon and Blue would be more significant, but this album established her, won a Grammy, and provided one of her best songs in "Both Sides, Now."
Neil Young - Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Cinnamon Girl; Cowgirl in the Sand) - 1969 - Natural – Following the success of Buffalo Springfield and his first solo album and released concurrent to the legendary offerings of CSNY, it would be foolish to label this album as a ‘breakout’ or ‘builder’ for Young. He was a natural through and through at this point.
Led Zeppelin - II (Whole Lotta Love; Ramble On) - 1969 - Natural – For a band that barely had a single album that wasn’t a huge success, this can only be a ‘natural.’
The Band - The Band (The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down; Up On Cripple Creek) - 1969 - Natural – also a tough call, in terms of attention and success this is more of a ‘breakout.’ However over time their debut Songs from the Big Pink has been recognized as a classic, so let’s put it in the ‘natural’ category.
Santana - Abraxas (Black Magic Women/Oye Como Va; Samba Pa Ti) - 1970 - Natural – so many of the bands of this era put out many quality albums right out of the gate, all were ‘builders’/’breakouts’ as well as ‘naturals.’ I would say this album stands a little taller than the rest for this band.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (CSNY) - Déjà vu (Helpless; Our House) - 1970 - Natural – a supergroup, how could anything they put out be anything but ‘natural.’ This did deliver more of what audiences expected in terms of quality than their 1st effort.
Grin - 1+1 (White Lies; Moon Tears) - 1972 - Natural – this Nils Lofgren led band released four quality albums, though this is the best. They were never a big success so it’s hard to label it a ‘breakout,’
Paul Simon - Paul Simon (Mother and Child Reunion; Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard) - 1972 - Breakout – OK, so he was already a big success with Simon & Garfunkel, but his first solo album had been during an interim with S&G in 1965, so this album was his breakout as a solo artist and made it clear his success would continue even without his famous partner.
Doobie Brothers - Toulouse Street (Listen to the Music; Jesus Is Just Alright) - 1972 - Breakout – there was no looking back after this for this band that would enjoy huge success throughout the decade.
Lou Reed - Transformer (Perfect Day; Walk on the Wild Side) - 1972 - Breakout – after the success of Velvet Underground and a first solo effort with muted success, this established Reed as a recognized artist in his own right. This album has some of his best known and most appreciated songs.
Billy Joel - Piano Man (Piano Man; Worst Comes to Worst) - 1973 - Breakout – his first success, it would take a couple more albums to cement his status as a leading artist of his times. Still, the title track remains his signature song.
Bruce Springsteen - The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (The E Street Shuffle; 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)) - 1973 - Natural – while the next album, Born to Run, would be his breakout, the quality of the first two albums, released in the same year, is outstanding. This is the last of his Jersey swing sound, and the second side is one of the greatest album sides ever recorded (an unbroken trio of "Incident on 57th St"/"Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)"/"New York City Serenade"), hinting at the grandiose ballads and compositions that would follow on the next record.
Eric Clapton - 461 Ocean Blvd (I Shot the Sheriff; Willie and the Hand Jive) - 1974 - Natural – it’s tempting to label this as a ‘breakout’ since his first solo album didn’t generate much attention. But after his work with The Yardbirds, John Mayall, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek & the Dominos it’s hard to think of Clapton as having to breakout. However this release did establish his solo career and mark the end of his band career.
Bad Company - Straight Shooter (Good Lovin’ Gone Bad; Feel Like Makin’ Love) - 1975 - Natural – given the career success of this band including their 1st album, this has to be a ‘natural.’ I wasn’t a fan and would be more likely to label this as a ‘last gasp,’ which I’m sure would offend their many fans.
Patti Smith - Radio Ethiopia (Ask the Angels; Radio Ethiopia) - 1976 - Natural – perhaps as much of a ‘builder’ her albums before and after this were better and drew more attention. While this was panned by critics, "Ask the Angels" is one of her best songs and Radio Ethiopia was a bold experiment.
Meat Loaf - Bat Out of Hell (Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad; Paradise by the Dashboard Light) - 1977 - Breakout – when an artist is almost solely known for one album, how can it be anything other than a breakout? I didn’t even know he’d had an album before this (6 years prior!).
Iggy Pop - Lust for Life (Lust for Life; The Passenger) - 1977 - Natural – after the relative success of The Stooges and a four-year hiatus, Pop revived his career with three albums in one year assisted by the contributions of David Bowie. So perhaps a ‘builder’ and combined with his first solo album The Idiot earlier in the year it’s also a ‘breakout.’
The Stranglers - No More Heroes (Something Better Change; No More Heroes) - 1977 - Builder – a band that established itself over many albums and never had a breakout.
Cheap Trick - On Color (I Want You to Want Me; Southern Girls) - 1977 - Breakout – released the same year as their debut, this put them on the charts and remains their best known effort.
Buzzcocks - Love Bites (Ever Fallen In Love (with Someone You Shouldn’t’ve); Nostalgia) - 1978 - Builder – like other punk bands, they built a career over several albums and never had a breakout. "Ever Fallen in Love" was their best known song. Tempting to call this a ‘natural’ given the consistent quality of their early releases, but the later career negates that achievement (though there's a lot of good music there, still).
Japan - Obscure Alternatives (Obscure Alternatives; Suburban Berlin) - 1978 - Builder – Wedged between the better quality and better known Adolescent Sex and Quiet Life albums, this helped establish this band and their unique, evolving sound.
Blondie - Plastic Letters ((I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear; Denis) - 1978 - Builder – Given the enormous success of the next album, Parallel Lines, this is the quintessential ‘builder’ album that leads to the breakout of a natural band.
Elvis Costello - This Year’s Model (Pump It Up; (I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea) - 1978 - Natural – no one album distinguishes itself as a breakout and there is barely a misstep in his first ten or eleven albums.
The Cars - Candy-O (Let’s Go; It’s All I Can Do) - 1979 - Natural – could also be considered a ‘builder’ but their first album stands tall and all of their releases were solid. Heartbeat City in 1984 would be the commercial breakthrough.
Squeeze - Cool for Cats (Cool for Cats; Up the Junction) - 1979 - Natural – it’s tough to classify these bands that never broke wide yet released one consistent album after another that in turn led to a sizeable and loyal audience.
The Police - Regatta de Blanc (Message in a Bottle; Walking on the Moon) - 1979 - Natural – no question here, this is a band that put out five quality albums before going their separate ways.
Gary Numan - Replicas (Down In the Park; Are Friends Electric?) - 1979 - Builder – while not significant from a chart perspective, the critical success and fanbase this album built up led to the commercial breakthrough of the follow-up, The Pleasure Principle and the success of the "Cars" single. In retrospect this album stands taller in terms of quality and was a greater contributor to the establishment of synth music as a more widely accepted music.
Nina Hagen Band - Unbehagen (African Reggae; Herrmann hiess er) - 1979 - Builder – never a commercial success and more broadly known as a solo artist, this release from her initial band established their/her sound and provided her best song in "African Reggae."
Rough Trade - Avoid Freud (High School Confidential; Fashion Victim) - 1980 - Breakout – they only broke in Canada and it was "High School Confidential" that would do it. Their subsequent albums would have more chart success, but this one put them out there.
Joy Division - Closer (Isolation; Heart and Soul) - 1980 - Last Gasp – when an album is released after the singer has died and the band reforms under a different name, it can only be a ‘last gasp.’ Many consider this better than the first album, but not in my opinion. However this was a band that didn’t release a bad song and influenced a generation, so what does it matter?
Pat Benatar - Crimes of Passion (Hit Me with Your Best Shot; Treat Me Right) - 1980 - Breakout – though she had a hit "Heartbreaker" from the 1st album, this established her as the leading lady of the charts in the early 80s. I wasn’t a fan but this album is more listenable than her others.
Teenage Head - Frantic City (Something on My Mind; Let’s Shake) - 1980 - Last Gasp – maybe I’m being unfair labelling this as a last gasp given they did five more albums after this, but really who focuses on any of their music other than the first two albums? Those are classics that they weren’t able to equal thereafter and toured on for another 20 years.
Adam & The Ants - Kings of the Wild Frontier (Dog Eat Dog; Antmusic) - 1980 - Breakout – more so in the UK than North America, this second of three albums with ‘The Ants’ before going solo established Adam Ant and helped define his sound – not the least by defining it through the song "Antmusic."
The Specials - More Specials (Hey, Little Rich Girl; International Jet Set) - 1980 - Last Gasp – though there was another album in 1984 with a successful single, "Free Nelson Mandela," this would be the last effort from the original lineup and last offering of the classic ska sound the band helped launch to popularity in the UK.
The Cure - Seventeen Seconds (Play for Today; A Forest) - 1980 - Builder – this is a band that followed the natural builder path, evolving their sound and building an audience before achieving chart success. All along they put out solid albums with several great songs on each.
Echo & The Bunnymen - Heaven Up Here (A Promise; Over the Wall) - 1981 - Builder – Ocean Rain (4th album) is probably the breakout, so those before it are builders yet were consistently good and built up a great list of songs.
U2 - October (Gloria; With a Shout) - 1981 - Builder – I struggled with whether to add this album to the list. A great album capturing the evolution of the band’s sound during the time, yet it’s probably the least recognized and most overlooked album of their early career – dwarfed by the initial album Boy, and the growing success of those that followed. War, Unforgettable Fire, and Joshua Tree were pretty strong follow-ups, wouldn’t you say?
UB40 - Present Arms (One in Ten; Don’t Let It Pass You By) - 1981 - Builder – despite UK success over the first three albums, it would be the 4th album Labour of Love that was the true breakout. With many more solid efforts after it would be tempting to classify this as a ‘natural’ also, but the quality of this album falls short of that.
Pretenders - Pretenders II (Message of Love; Talk of the Town) - 1981 - Builder – this falls short of ‘natural’ only because it was a slightly lesser effort than the rest of their discography. After an incredible first offering they would achieve international chart success with their third album, Learning to Crawl.
Psychedelic Furs - Talk Talk Talk (Pretty In Pink; Dumb Waiters) - 1981 - Builder – "Pretty In Pink" wouldn’t be the success it is until years later after the soundtrack of the same name, even though the version on this album is far superior. The first four albums were all fantastic, though the last two, Forever Now and Mirror Moves, achieved greater attention and success.
X - Wild Gift (White Girl; The Once Over Twice) - 1981 - Builder – never achieving broad success this is an immensely respected and cherished punk band with a lasting legacy, and this album is noted as a standout.
Depeche Mode - A Broken Frame (Leave In Silence; See You) - 1982 - Builder – the band built their audience through singles as much as albums, gradually leading to international acclaim and success. This may not be their most distinguished release, but stands on its own as a solid offering of their evolving sound.
Visage - Anvil (The Damned Don’t Cry; Night Train) - 1982 - Last Gasp – they made their name on "Fade to Grey" off the first album and "Damned Don’t Cry" is their most sublime song, and there would only be one more album after with nothing of note on it.
The Spoons - Arias & Symphonies (Nova Heart; Arias & Symphonies) - 1982 - Breakout – from nobodies to one of Canada’s most successful acts of the 80s this would be their most distinguished and critically appraised release.
Phil Collins - Hello, I Must Be Going (I Don’t Care Anymore; Thru These Walls) - 1982 - Natural – I don’t like Phil Collins but have to admit his first two solo albums were solid. The 1st was better with "In the Air Tonight" and "I Missed Again," and the hit of this album was a cover of "You Can’t Hurry Love," but this wasn’t a ‘breakout’ or ‘builder’ given his stature from Genesis.
Dead Kennedys - Plastic Surgery Disasters (Moon Over Marin; Halloween) - 1982 - Last Gasp – no singles or charting albums after this, the band’s best work and legacy would be complete with this album.
Duran Duran - Rio (Hungry Like the Wolf; Rio) - 1982 - Breakout – tough call on this one, certainly the first self-titled album was well known and the 3rd album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger, was huge, but with the iconic videos for "Hungry Like the Wolf" and "Rio' this was the album that brought them from the fringes to the mainstream.
Spandau Ballet - Diamond (Chant No. 1; Instinction) - 1982 - Builder – probably a better album than the follow-up True, the massive success of the follow-up renders this as a ‘builder.’ "Chant No. 1" is the sound I wish they’d stuck with.
Dexys Midnight Runners - Too-Rye-Aye (Come On Eileen; Plan B) - 1982 - Breakout – the international success of "Come on Eileen," one of the lesser songs on the album, makes this a breakout. They also couldn’t equal it thereafter even though the 3rd album was solid, so this is also a bit of a ‘last gasp.’ There was also an interesting musical change from horns to the fiddle between the 1st and 2nd albums, so there’s a ‘builder’ quality to it as well. This is still one of my all-time faves that I listen to regularly, possibly more than any other album.
Blue Peter - Falling (Don’t Walk Past; Red Filters) - 1983 - Last Gasp – they burned brightly but briefly. This was their last release after two EPs and a first LP.
Culture Club - Colour By Numbers (Karma Chameleon; Miss Me Blind) - 1983 - Breakout – the first album, their best, had a few hits including the significant chart success of "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," but it was exceeded commercially with this one and the single "Karma Chameleon." The 3rd album was successful but couldn’t equal this and they flamed out fast, leaving Boy George to grapple with addiction problems. This was a band that, like many on this list, hit high musically with their first work and then got crappy, yet achieved greater commercial success as a result.
David Wilcox - My Eyes Keep Me in Trouble (My Eyes Keep Me In Trouble; Downtown Came Uptown) - 1983 - Builder – he issued several well received albums that had local success and built a solid career for small venue touring.
New Order - Power, Corruption, and Lies (Age of Consent; Your Silent Face) - 1983 - Builder – already known for Joy Division it took a few albums to establish themselves again as New Order and gain a name and audience for their new sound. It wouldn’t happen until the album after this, Low Life. However this is a significant contribution and has a legacy in building up the evolution of electronic music. ‘Blue Monday’ was the accompanying single but wasn’t on the album.
The Fixx - Reach the Beach (One Thing Leads to Another; Saved by Zero) - 1983 - Breakout – after some minor success with ‘Stand or Fall’ from the 1st album, it would be this album that made The Fixx more widely known, oddly more so in Canada and the US than in their native England. "One Thing Leads to Another" went #1 in Canada and #4 in the US, yet only got to #86 in the UK charts.
Billy Idol - Rebell Yell (Rebell Yell; Eyes Without A Face) - 1983 - Breakout – despite success from his first album with "White Wedding" and "Hot in the City" the success of this album would dwarf those levels. Wikipedia oddly doesn’t include the Canadian chart results for Idol’s discography, but I distinctly recall it being on the local charts for over one year and all the songs charting highly (Wikipedia does note it went 5x platinum in Canada).
Eurythmics - Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This); Love Is A Stranger) - 1983 - Breakout – in every sense, the 1st album was ignored and this one launched them into being one of the biggest bands of the 80s.
China Crisis - Working with Fire and Steel (Wishful Thinking; Working with Fire and Steel) - 1983 - Builder – never a commercial success, they had a brief run of Indie/alt success over a few albums, starting with this one.
Don Henley - Building the Perfect Beast (Boys of Summer; All She Wants to Do Is Dance) - 1984 - Natural – already having status from The Eagles, and then having a #1 single from his first solo album with "Dirty Laundry," and following this album with the successful The End of the Innocence album means this has to be a ‘natural.’
Stevie Ray Vaughan - Couldn’t Stand the Weather (Cold Shot; Couldn’t Stand the Weather) - 1984 - Natural – after Texas Flood this follow-up continued to establish Vaughan as one of the best guitarists of his time and ushered the blues into mainstream music for this generation.
Talk Talk - It’s My Life (Such A Shame; It’s My Life) - 1984 - Breakout – If their success wasn’t limited to the follow-up to this album, The Last Colour of Spring, I’d classify this as a ‘builder.’ However the enduring success of the title track suggests this was more a ‘breakout.’ Oddly though, in the UK this was their worst charting album, so this wouldn’t apply from that perspective.
Blancmange - Mange Tout (Blind Vision; Don’t Tell Me) - 1984 - Last Gasp – though there would be some minor success on the album after, this would be the last of their notable achievement. They gained initial attention with the single "Living on the Ceiling" from their 1st album.
Jane Siberry - No Borders Here (Mimi On the Beach; Symmetry (The Way Things Have to Be)) - 1984 - Breakout – It’s likely not many know she had an album prior to taking on the Canadian charts with her quirky, new wave hits from this album.
Kissing the Pink - What Noise? (Radio On; Greenham) - 1984 - Builder – I’m not sure what to classify this. It’s one of my favourite albums from the 80s and "Radio On" got some airplay on alt radio, but their 1st album had their highest charting single in the UK and the 3rd had a song that reached #1 on US Dance Charts. They were never very well known but regardless, this was a fantastic album.
The Cult - Love (She Sells Sanctuary; Rain) - 1985 - Breakout – the 1st album was solid but not great, and the 3rd shifted to a more mainstream, heavy rock format that did well. But in between they released Love, one of the best albums of the decade and a definitive example of an alt-rock format that I would attribute to helping groom audiences for arrival of grunge a few years later.
The Smiths - Meat Is Murder (That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore; The Headmaster Ritual) - 1985 - Natural – Most of their notable songs were singles, and while some found their way onto albums most did not and only became easily available in an album format on compilations like Hatful of Hollow, The World Won’t Listen, and Louder than Bombs. So the breakthroughs came from songs like "How Soon Is Now" that came out along with this album (in North America it was added to this album). Regardless, all their albums were great.
Sade - Promise (The Sweetest Taboo; Is It A Crime) - 1985 - Natural – one of a string of strong albums and hit singles from this unique songstress and her band that started right from 1st, Diamond Life.
The Pogues - Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash (The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn; Dirty Old Town) - 1985 - Builder – the success of the follow-up, If I Should Fall from Grace with God, was primed with the release of this album.
Tears for Fears - Songs from the Big Chair (Shout; Everybody Wants to Rule the World) - 1985 - Natural – while this album was commercially more successful than their debut, The Hurting, the 1st was known well enough due to songs like ‘Change,’ ‘Pale Shelter,’ and ‘Mad World,’ and has a legacy to qualify as their breakout. A great and varied 3rd album, Sowing the Seeds of Love, indicates this was a solid band over that span, even though they fizzled after the 3rd.
Paul Young - The Secret of Association (Everytime You Go Away; I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down) - 1985 - Last Gasp – after two hugely successful albums, No Parlez and this one, Young wasn’t able to maintain his audience.
10,000 Maniacs - The Wishing Chair (Scorpio Rising; My Mother the War) - 1985 - Builder – Perhaps as much a ‘breakout’ since this gained them attention on US college stations, it certainly paved the way for the success gained on the next two albums and then Natalie Merchant’s solo career thereafter. "Scorpio Rising" is their best song and had an edge they unfortunately lost as they broadened their audience.
54-40 - 54-40 (Baby Ran; I Go Blind) - 1986 - Breakout – The success of the singles on this album brought them from obscurity and set the stage for the four successful albums that followed in Canada.
Art of Noise - In Visible Silence (Legs; Peter Gunn) - 1986 - Last Gasp – although there would be two more successful singles after this album, they wouldn’t again put a decent release together other than their greatest hits package – mostly formed of their first two albums.
Sting - …Nothing Like the Sun (We’ll Be Together; Englishman in New York) - 1987 - Natural – after The Police and success with his first solo effort, Sting was unquestionably an enduring artist and leading song writer of his generation.
Pet Shop Boys - Actually (It’s A Sin; What Have I Done to Deserve This?) - 1987 - Natural – following the success of their debut, the band continued to build a significant audience and a surprisingly enduring career across several albums.
The Sisters of Mercy - Floodland (Lucretia (My Reflection); This Corrosion) - 1987 - Breakout – although they’d only release one more album after this, the equally successful Vision Thing, this album established them among alt/goth audiences.
Suzanne Vega - Solitude Standing (Luka; Tom’s Diner) - 1987 - Breakout – this album may be known as much for the DNA remix of the song "Tom’s Diner" that came a few years later as it is for the single, "Luka," this nevertheless established Vega as a known folk singer, writer and performer.
Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Bring the Noise; She Watch Channel Zero) - 1988 - Breakout – this not only made Public Enemy a successful act, it brought rap into a broader view and launched a whole new genre of music.
The Proclaimers - Sunshine on Leith (I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles); I’m On My Way) - 1988 - Breakout – out of respect for this band’s likely loyal and enduring fan base, I won’t label this their ‘last gasp’ since they released many more albums. This album brought the Scottish Reid twins to an international audience.
Fine Young Cannibals - The Raw & The Cooked (She Drives Me Crazy; Good Thing) - 1988 - Last Gasp – they only released two albums, both of which were very successful, though this exceeded the first (which I think is better musically).
Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Session (Sweet Jane; 200 More Miles) - 1988 - Breakout – this sublime recording at the Trinity Church in Toronto brought the hushed sounds of this band to popularity in Canada and the appreciation of Lou Reed for their fantastic cover of his song, "Sweet Jane."
Fishbone - Truth and Soul (Freddie’s Dead; Map and Pa) - 1988 - Breakout – never a hugely successful band, this album did get them indie attention for their unique ska/funk/rock sound.
Pixies - Doolittle (Monkey Gone to Heaven; Here Comes Your Man) - 1989 - Breakout – while Surfer Rosa, their debut, is a great album and all four of their releases during their prime were excellent, undoubtedly it was this album that elevated The Pixies to their exalted status among indie audiences.
808 State - Ninety (Pacific 202; Magical Dream) - 1989 - Builder – this was the first of theirs to chart in the UK, but the follow-up, Ex:El, would gain them their broader fan base for their electronic sound.
Beastie Boys - Paul’s Boutique (Hey Ladies) - 1989 - Builder – the success of Licensed to Ill launched this band and this follow-up would not live up to that level. This is saved from being a ‘Sophomore Jinx’ by the enduring respect and legacy it was achieved over time.
Pop Will Eat Itself - This Is the Day...This Is the Hour...This Is This! (Wise Up! Sucker; Def. Con. One) - 1989 - Breakout – featuring their breakout single, “Wise Up! Sucker” this established this band, who had a solid run for the next five years before fizzling out.
Sinead O’Connor - I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Nothing Compares 2 U; I Am Stretched on Your Grave) - 1990 - Last Gasp – the 1st album had enough success to qualify as the breakout, and despite some attention to subsequent albums none achieved the respect and success of this massive success, led by the Prince-penned single "Nothing Compares 2 U."
Jane’s Addiction - Ritual de lo Habitual (Stop; Been Caught Stealing) - 1990 - Last Gasp – although the follow-up Strays would have success 13 years later, it was… 13 years later. This album culminated the triumphant conquering of indie audiences that Jane’s Addiction achieved over their first two albums and cemented their legacy.
The Ocean Blue - Cerulean (Cerulean; Mercury) - 1991 - Builder – since they never broke through and would drop from the scene after one more album, it doesn’t seem right to label this as a ‘breakout’ or a ‘natural.’ Still, this was a band that put out quality albums and this was their most widely received.
Mudhoney - Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (Good Enough; Let It Slide) - 1991 - Builder – respected and ardently followed by fans of the Sub Pop label and grunge, this was neither a ‘breakout’ or a ‘natural’ band. "Good Enough" along with their prior single "Touch Me I’m Sick" are two of the greatest grunge-era songs.
Sons of Freedom - Gump (You’re No Good; Call Me) - 1991 - Last Gasp – likely both their ‘breakout’ and ‘last gasp’ they had a solid 1st album and a 3rd that didn’t register before ending their career. This was a stellar contribution to Canada’s rock library.
My Bloody Valentine - Loveless (When You Sleep; Soon) - 1991 - Last Gasp – another band that released another solid album many years later, in fact 22 years later, this along with several standout EPs marked both their breakout and culmination of their dominance of the shoegazing sound. This was one of the best albums of the decade.
Lenny Kravitz - Mama Said (Always On the Run; It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over) - 1991 - Natural – the attention of the 1st album and title track, Let Love Rule, restricts this from being the breakout, although it was a much more successful album than the 1st. But it was equaled by the 3rd and several more after that, so he must be recognized as a natural.
Nirvana - Nevermind (Smells Like Teen Spirit; Come As You Are) - 1991 - Breakout – the limited success of the follow-up, the last before Cobain’s death, almost renders this as a ‘last gasp,’ but let’s recognize the historical significance of this album that made Nirvana one of the most famous bands in the world.
The Tragically Hip - Road Apples (Twist My Arm; Fiddler’s Green) - 1991 - Natural – the enduring legacy of the singles off their first album suggest that was the breakout, but at the time The Hip didn’t start their ownership of the Canadian psyche until this 2nd album and the success of "Little Bones." Given their next six albums dominated Canada’s charts and hearts, this band deserves the ‘natural’ classification.
Primus - Sailing the Seas of Cheese (Tommy the Cat; Jerry was a Race Car Driver) - 1991 - Builder – it’s tempting to label this the breakout, since I grew to love this band through this album – "Tommy the Cat" is still a favourite. But really the band grabbed larger attention with the album following this, Pork Soda.
Sarah McLachlan - Solace (Into the Fire; The Path of Thorns (Terms)) - 1991 - Breakout – the first album, Touch, did well but it was this album, with multiple charting singles, that made Sarah McLachlan known and set her up for the larger success that was to come over the next four albums.
Ned’s Atomic Dustbin - Are You Normal? (Not Sleeping Around; Intact) - 1992 - Last Gasp – after a stupendous first album it would have been hard to match it with the second. The quality and success of this album saves it from Jinx designation. Despite a couple additional singles after the 3rd album this would be the last that got the band steady attention and could be held up as a solid example of their unique sound.
Charlatans (UK) - Between 10th and 11th (Weirdo; Tremelo Song) - 1992 - Natural – after breaking out with their 1st album, Some Friendly, and with the greater commercial success of their 3rd album, Up to Our Hips, this makes this band a natural. This is a great album, but with North American audiences moving on to new things from the Madchester sound this band was only able to maintain momentum in the UK.
Rocket from the Crypt - Circa: Now! (Hippy Dippy Do; Ditch Digger) - 1992 - Builder – this was the album I came to know this band, so it’s a breakout from my perspective, but it took them several more albums to gain a larger audience and entrench themselves among enduring Indie bands.
Ride - Going Blank Again (Leave Them All Behind; Twisterella) - 1992 - Breakout – the 1st album is better and has their best song, "Vapour Trail," but this did better and made them better known, so it was truly their breakout. The next album maintained some attention but they did fall largely from view thereafter, so this also borders on it being a ‘last gasp.’
k.d. Lang - Ingenue (Constant Craving; Miss Chatelaine) - 1992 - Natural –it feels like including this album is a bit of a cheat aided by Wikipedia, which lists her earlier country albums as being with her band The Reclines (it seemed to me she’d always been the main act). Therefore this becomes her 2nd solo album after Shadowland. However she had already won a Grammy and Junos and was widely respected, so the outsized success of this album just proved an already established point that she was a consummate talent.
Lush - Spooky (Nothing Natural; For Love) - 1992 - Breakout – after a mini-album and a compilation of EPs that made this band’s earlier singles popular on alt/indie radio and on the festival circuit (Glastonbury, Lollapalooza), they were primed for larger success with this album (it could be argued this was their first proper album). The 3rd album didn’t do as well though they rebounded on their 4th before breaking up, so this just avoids being a ‘last gasp.’
Cypress Hill - Black Sunday (Insane in the Brain; I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That) - 1993 - Breakout – the 1st album did well but not nearly like this one. They dropped from my view after this but have released many more charting albums, so they are also naturals.
Morphine - Cure for Pain (Buena; A Head with Wings) - 1993 - Breakout – one of the best albums of the decade, I would say they weren’t able to match this one thereafter, but did have a few more successful albums before the untimely death of Mark Sandman of a heart attack in 1999.
Cranes - Forever (Adrift; Jewel) - 1993 - Last Gasp – after two standout albums they dropped in popularity despite issuing seven more albums over the next fifteen years. I’ll have to check those out and see what they’re about.
The Breeders - Last Splash (Cannonball; Divine Hammer) - 1993 - Breakout – bordering on a ‘last gasp’ this side project of The Pixies’ Kim Deal caught fire with this album among indie audiences, led by the brilliant song, "Cannonball." Two more albums nine and fifteen years following this one avoids them having disappeared completely.
PJ Harvey - Rid of Me (50ft Queenie; Man-Size) - 1993 - Natural – while this album charted a little better than the 1st and 3rd in the UK, the 3rd was more of a breakout internationally. However the consistent quality and success of all of her nine albums makes her a natural.
Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream (Cherub Rock; Today) - 1993 - Natural – it would be fair to label this a ‘breakout’ but the first album did well among indie audiences and the enormous success of the 3rd album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and all those after, makes this band a natural. This ranks in my mind as their best and one of the top albums of the decade. The intro of "Cherub Rock" is one of the best openings of an album ever.
Pearl Jam - Vs. (Go; Daughter) - 1993 - Natural – it was tough to follow-up the massive success of their debut, Ten, but this was a very solid album that showed they weren’t going away – nor would they over another eight albums thereafter. Ironically this charted better than Ten but likely only by riding on the success of that initial album.
Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Cut Your Hair; Gold Soundz) - 1994 - Breakout – hard to call this one as their first two albums built up a loyal indie following, though neither gained them any commercial success. This was also a bit of a ‘last gasp’ though they did have some singles and some level of success after. This album seemed to be their pinnacle.
Pure - Generation Six-Pack (Denial; Anna is a Speed Freak) - 1994 - Last Gasp – unable to sustain an audience the band broke up in 2000 after their 1998 3rd album. This 2nd effort was a little less than their great debut, Pureafunalia, but did offer these two great singles.
Hole - Live Through This (Miss World; Doll Parts) - 1994 - Breakout – after a lowkey release concurrent to Nirvana’s Nevermind, by the time this came out the attention on Courtney Love and her husband helped launched this into a much higher standing. It didn’t hurt that it’s a great album.
Cranberries - No Need to Argue (Zombie; Ode to My Family) - 1994 - Natural – their first three albums were all chart toppers with multiple successful singles before dropping off the radar in the new millennium. So this middle album is equal parts ‘builder,’ ‘breakout’ and ‘natural.’
Stone Temple Pilots - Purple (Vasoline; Interstate Love Song) - 1994 - Breakout – if the 1st album, Core, had done just a little better it would have been the breakout. However with this album and the follow-up, Tiny Music…Songs from the Vatican, this band was one of the pre-eminent rock bands of the 90s. This would be their only #1 album.
Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral (Closer; March of the Pigs) - 1994 - Natural – similar to Pearl Jam this 2nd album charted better but there’s no way I can be convinced it was as big as the debut, Pretty Hate Machine. It definitely rode the coattails of the 1st, though came almost five years later. Sure, there was a period where you couldn’t get away from "Closer" on alt-radio stations, but it wasn’t as complete an album (none of the band’s career would be). This is close to being a ‘last gasp’ but the follow-up, Fragile, did very well and Reznor continues to enjoy a loyal following.
Sloan - Twice Removed (Coax Me; People of the Sky) - 1994 - Natural – though this album would be much more successful than their debut, Smeared, they built enough of an audience and attention with the 1st, and continued it through three more albums after this, to be a ‘natural.’
Oasis - (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (Wonderwall; Champagne Supernova) - 1995 - Natural – every album of theirs went #1 in the UK – ‘nuf said. I think this was their best and biggest.
Bjork - Post (Army of Me; Hyperballad) - 1995 - Natural – a bit of a cheat on this one. Bjork released a self-titled solo album in 1977 at the tender age of twelve featuring cover songs and some written for her. After a successful career with The Sugarcubes she went solo – and even she named her first album after The Sugarcubes, Debut. The first album did well and with this album put her into a level of success far exceeding that which her band had achieved. She sustains a strong career to this day though not as big as her 90s albums.
Ron Sexsmith - Ron Sexsmith (Secret Heart; There’s a Rhythm) - 1995 - Breakout – Sexsmith himself might laugh at the idea of one of his albums being a breakout, given his reputation as a critically acclaimed and highly respected musician by his peers, but never being able to achieve commercial success. However given the enduring appreciation of his songs, and especially those off this sophomore release, this was certainly his coming out.
Radiohead - The Bends (High and Dry; Fake Plastic Trees) - 1995 - Natural – after the breakout success of "Creep" from their 1st album, this album established Radiohead as a force to be reckoned with, featuring many of their best songs. It was the start of a prolific.
Rage Against the Machine - Evil Empire (Bulls on Parade; People of the Sun) - 1996- Last Gasp – die hard fans would object to calling this their last gasp, especially given the follow-up, Battle of Los Angeles, went to #1 in the US. But after the momentous impact of their debut and lesser, but still strong showing, of this album it seemed the rage of their success had dissipated. Certainly musically this was the case.
Cake - Fashion Nugget (The Distance; Friend Is A Four Letter Word) - 1996 - Breakout – in terms of the level of success and awareness this band would achieve, this is the breakout album. Their follow-ups did about the same and they would never be a huge success, but certainly had their base of support. This has the great cover of "I Will Survive."
Sheryl Crow - Sheryl Crow (If It Makes You Happy; Everyday Is A Winding Road) - 1996 - Natural – she had significant success with her 1st, Tuesday Night Music Club, and followed it up strong with this solid release. After a few more albums she had a triumphant greatest hits package and the recognition of being one of the leading solo female acts of her time.
Dandy Warhols - …The Dandy Warhols Come Down (Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth; Every Day Should Be A Holiday) - 1997 - Breakout – the first album was great but lacked the kind of songs this one had to grab people’s attention. This further paved the way for the greater level of success on their 3rd, Thirteen Tales of Urban Bohemia, and their biggest single, "Bohemian Like You." However I’m more partial to this album and these two standout tracks.
Portishead - Portishead (All Mine; Over) - 1997 - Last Gasp – when it takes eleven years to release your follow-up it kinda takes the winds out the sails of the career. Even though the 3rd charted just as well as the first two, this band’s distinct sound was defined by their first two releases.
Foo Fighters - The Colour and the Shape (My Hero; Everlong) - 1997 - Natural – the first few albums didn’t dominate the charts but there was no question this was a major rock act right from their first album. Perhaps there was some trepidation in accepting Dave Grohl after Nirvana, especially as a lead singer and guitarist rather than as the drummer, but the consistency of the songs won over legions even if it didn’t have the edge of Nirvana.
Ben Folds Five - Whatever and Ever Amen (Battle of Who Could Care Less; Brick) - 1997 - Breakout – I love this album and it held a unique place among its peers since there weren’t many piano-led acts at the time. The sarcasm of the lyrics and well-constructed songs gained them a foothold, but would never make them a chart-topper. There would be one more solid album with the ‘Five’ before Folds went solo.
Garbage - Version 2.0 (Push It; I Think I’m Paranoid) - 1998 - Natural – with the attention a band with Butch Vig would attract, a good looking and sounding front woman, and irresistibly catchy alt-songs this band took off from the start. Bolstered by a hit soundtrack single, "#1 Crush," between the 1st and 2nd albums, this one made them a mainstream success and featured some of their best known songs.
Placebo - Without You I’m Nothing (Pure Morning; You Don’t Care About Us) - 1998 - Breakout – their albums sell better than their songs and they remain bigger outside of North America, so this album fits as their breakout given it brought them to the level they’ve maintained for the past twenty years. "Pure Morning" was a bona fide alt hit during a bleak time for that genre.
Fatboy Slim - You’ve Come a long Way, Baby (Rockafeller Skank; Right Here, Right Now) - 1998 - Breakout – this was both the breakout and the ‘last gasp’ as Norman Cook hasn’t come close to repeating the success of this album. However he remains a popular DJ and producer so this wasn’t the last we heard of him.
Marcy Playground - Shapeshifter (By Bye; All the Lights Went Out) - 1999 - Last Gasp – I think this is a great album and love this band’s sound, so while none of their three follow-ups to the self-titled debut and hit single "Sex and Candy" achieved similar success, it was a solid follow-up and worthy of recognition. However it did result in a six-year hiatus, so it really did stop any momentum this band might have achieved.
Travis - The Man Who (Why Does It Always Rain on Me?; Turn) - 1999 - Breakout – from the moment "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" hit the radio it was clear this band was going to breakout. This was a great album and was followed by a couple of similarly strong efforts, but they could never quite achieve the status of a peer of, say, Coldplay.
Thievery Corporation - The Mirror Conspiracy (Lebanese Blonde; Shadows of Ourselves) - 2000 - Breakout – the nature of this band’s sound is such that they’d never be hugely popular, but I can assure you that you’ve heard this album. Whether it’s in a restaurant or bar or maybe in a movie, many of the songs have provided the perfect backdrops to life’s chillest moments.
Crystal Method - Tweekend (Name of the Game; Murder (You Know It’s Hard)) - 2001 - Breakout – all of their albums have been equally successful though this was the one I first learned of them. It was the era of breakout electronic dance bands along with Prodigy, Daft Punk, Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers. "Name of the Game" had the attention-grabbing video of breakdancing ‘Nosey,’ the guy with a nose for a face.
Daft Punk - Discovery (One More Time; Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger) - 2001 - Natural – right from the start this band has dominated dance charts and this album was no exception, featuring the hit "One More Time." A little too much auto-tune and disco for my liking on this one.
Coldplay - A Rush of Blood to the Head - (The Scientist; Clocks) - 2002 - Natural – personally I think this band came out of the chute with two incredible albums, followed by two good albums, and then has put out absolute crap since. However, they have gotten bigger and bigger regardless, so what do I know? This is probably their consummate album, bridging their more acoustic beginnings to the bigger, stadium sounds they would fall hostage to in the ensuing output, which here are only hinted at to good effect.
The Doves - The Last Broadcast (There Goes the Fear; Pounding) - 2002 - Breakout – while the first album was good and had a solid single in "Catch the Sun," this album, led by "There Goes the Fear," led them to greater and more sustained success.
Broken Social Scene - You Forgot It in People (Stars and Sons; Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl) - 2002 - Breakout – although it didn’t have chart success while the two albums following it did, I think it’s fair to say this band/collective wouldn’t be known or have the devoted following and successful label if it wasn’t for this album. Ranking as one of the best releases in Canadian history it is one of the more distinguished releases of the new millennium. They haven’t come close to matching it since.
Dido - Life for Rent (White Flag; Don’t Leave Home) - 2003 - Last Gasp – After two hugely successful albums she took five years to follow them up and while the albums have done ok, there haven’t been any singles that grabbed the attention like the ones on this release.
The Dears - No Cities Left (Lost in the Plot; Warm and Sunny Days) - 2003 - Breakout – a fantastic record with one of the best songs to come out of Canada with "Lost in the Plot." They’ve had some success thereafter building on the attention gained from this one.
The Strokes - Room on Fire (12:51; Reptilia) - 2003 - Natural – after the raves and attention their first album gained it was impressive they could follow it with such a great album. Their releases have slowly lost the public’s attention over the years despite all being good, but they were still going strong when this came out.
Kings of Leon - Aha Shake Heartbreak (The Bucket; Taper Jean Girl) - 2004 - Builder – this band did what not many have done in the past twenty years, an old-fashioned build-up over several albums (this list hasn’t had a builder since the early 90s, and even those are because the bands never really broke out). They established a growing Indie audience with their first few albums before breaking big with the 4th release(!), Only by the Night.
Interpol - Antics (Evil; Slow Hands) - 2004 - Breakout – the first album gained attention and primed alt-indie audiences for this breakout. While their subsequent releases have charted well, it’s a misleading stat in this modern era of streaming and downloads when just a low number of sales or streams can move you up the charts. They haven’t maintained the support this album garnered them.
Feist - Let It Die (Gatekeeper; Mushaboom) - 2004 - Builder – this was the breakout album for her in Canada, but its follow-up The Reminder got her an international audience, thanks largely to help from an Apple iPod commercial and Sesame St. appearance for the single "1-2-3-4." This is the superior album though that endures.
Zero 7 - When It Falls (Home; Somersault) - 2004 - Breakout – the first album probably qualifies as the breakout but this one topped it in terms of success and gaining them an audience broader than the UK and Europe.
Gorillaz - Demon Days (Feel Good Inc.; DARE) - 2005 - Natural – each of the first three releases did well and established this Damon Albarn project as an enigmatic and leading dance act of the times.
Metric - Live It Out (Empty; Monster Hospital) - 2005 - Builder – this one is a bit tricky since the band recorded the album, Grow Up and Blow Away first, but decided not to release until after their first two albums were out. Therefore Live It Out is officially the 2nd, and paired with the initial album are a fantastic introduction to the band and launch of their successful career. The shift to a more electronic and bigger sound has gained them a broader audience but made their music much less engaging. Their early releases are what made this band exciting.
Heartless Bastards - All This Time (Into the Open; Brazen) - 2006 - Builder – why this band has never done better is a mystery to me. I love them and devour all their albums as some of the best rock’n’roll issued in the past ten years. There’s nothing about this album to distinguish it from the others though there was a significant lineup change right after it. The follow-up would have their most successful song, "Out at Sea," and get them on charts for the first time.
Amy Winehouse - Back to Black (Rehab; You Know I’m No Good) - 2006 - Last Gasp – given the gigantic success of this album, most wouldn’t know she had a decently successful release prior. But the fact remains she never held it together to put out another album before her death, so this remains, other than a couple of following singles, her swan song.
TV On the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain (Hours; Province) - 2006 - Breakout – this album did well enough that the following releases gave the band some sustained chart attention and a solid following.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones (Gold Lion; Phenomena) - 2006 - Natural – this album far exceeded the success of the initial release, but this band has put out one quality album after another. This and its follow-up, It’s Blitz, are two of the best albums of the past ten years.
Arcade Fire - Neon Bible (Keep the Car Running; No Cars Go) - 2007 - Natural – as we move into the modern era of streaming, downloads and vastly reduced physical sales the evaluation of album releases becomes more subjective. The stats show the 1st album did well (and was a sensation of sorts, as I recall), but this one launched the band to the top of the charts despite selling less. However they won the Grammy for Best Album with the follow-up, 2010’s The Suburbs, and surprised most since they were largely unknown. What’s indisputable is this is a great band that releases one great album after another.
Mark Ronson - Version (Stop Me; Valerie) - 2007 - Breakout – featuring one of the last Winehouse sung songs to be released (a cover of the Zutons "Valerie") and catchy, retro-style reworkings of songs by The Smiths, Coldplay, Radiohead, and The Charlatans this album was a great listen. The next album didn’t do as well but Ronson rebounded with the song "Uptown Funk" in 2014 with Bruno Mars.
Lily Allen - It’s Not Me, It’s You (Everyone’s at It; Back to the Start) - 2009 - Last Gasp – the 1st album rightly deserves recognition as the breakout even though North American audiences will know her better for this release and her 3rd one, Sheezus, not released until 2014 (she had two babies in between). Another artist who started with a fantastic groove but has gained a larger audience by turning to less engaging, more electronic music that is a pale comparison to the early work. It may be too early to declare her to have had her 'last gasp,' but if she continues in the direction of Sheezus I don't see her future material being worth observing. This album was good but not great, and a notable step down from her debut.
The Horrors - Primary Colours (Who Can Say; Scarlet Fields) - 2009 - Breakout – I’ll label this a ‘breakout’ since it definitely did better than the 1st album but also marked a noticeable change in sound. After a dark, edgy, goth/punk first album this one was old-fashioned new wave with a modern sound, including hints of shoegaze. The follow-up continued in this vein and are fantastic albums.
Silversun Pickups - Swoon (Panic Switch; The Royal We) - 2009 - Last Gasp – OK, this is exactly a result of the modern era and the skewed view of how a band is faring. Their 1st album was really good and built a solid Indie following, this 2nd was OK and broadened their audience but wasn’t as solid musically. It charted much higher. The two albums following have charted equally well but the band hasn’t had any attention and languishes on the festival circuit, well down the bill. Compare the weak, dull singles of their later releases to the energy-filled, rockin’ tunes of the first two albums and you can’t even tell it’s the same band. They’re chasing success instead of doing their own thing and I would say their prime is gone unless they can release something that demands attention again. (And another thing, they have an amazing drummer, where is he in the new songs? Or the guitar-shredding capabilities of their singer?)
Vampire Weekend - Contra (White Sky; Giving Up the Gun) - 2010 - Natural – they’ve released three solid and successful albums, though seem to have lost the tidy melodies and energy of their earlier songs. Only releasing three albums over the last nine years and recently having lost a key member of the band it will be interesting to see where they go from here.
Tame Impala - Lonerism (Elephant; Feels Like We Only Go Backwards) - 2012 - Breakout – their native Australia may have known them better after their 1st, but it was this album and the song "Elephant" that brought them wider attention and acclaim. I notice their 3rd album follows the trend of many other artists of recent years that make their name with guitar-laden, fuzzy songs and then follow it with smoother, electronic focused material. It’s a shame if this is the route they feel is needed to gain a bigger audience (though they’re probably right).