A sophomore slump is when a second effort isn’t as good as the first. If you really think about it, we’ve probably all experienced it. For example, my second year of University was definitely worse than my first. In common culture, it has worked its way into the music industry – describing the come down in quality of the second album following a roaring success of a debut one. But is it fair? Using my taste in music, my albums and my opinion I’m going to explore whether I prefer second or first albums.
I went through my iTunes library (which, in the interest of fairness is also Emma’s, we merged a while back) and highlighted every band which fit certain criteria. Firstly, they have to have released a second album, secondly, I had to own both albums and finally, I had to know both albums well enough. For kicks, and to prove something Emma suggested to me, we threw in third albums as well.
Overall, it left 55 bands, 36 of which had third albums, totalling 146 albums. This is obviously nowhere near enough material to base a scientific argument on but it’s the best I can do. I was surprised by how low it was. I have over 1000 albums in my library, which means that a lot of bands haven’t released a second album, I haven’t bought their debut or second or I don’t know certain albums well enough. It’s a mix of all three in truth, but I can tell you I removed five artists from my survey because I didn’t know their second album well enough, and discounted one for not knowing his third.
My methodology was quite simple. I had three columns for first, second and third choice. I put the number of the album (so 1 if first, 2 if second, 3 if third) I liked the best in the first, and so on. Some decisions (like choosing between Of Monster and Men’s albums) were too hard; so they got a 0 in both columns that were too close to call.
Before I talk about the findings, I’ll explain our preconceived ideas before the experiment. Surprisingly, or not, it’s a topic Emma and I have discussed many times. We have usually come to the same conclusion: first and second albums tend to be quite equal in quality, but third albums massively decrease. An example for you: Kaiser Chiefs. Employment and Yours Truly, Angry Mob are fantastic, Off With Their Heads less so.
The results surprised me to some degree. I prefer second albums; Emma likes either the first or the second. Both of us, as expected, have fewer third albums as our favourites. In terms of our least favourite albums, for both of us it’s fairly convincingly the third album (and for those who question whether that sentence is necessary, it’s because we could have put a lot of third albums as our second choice. We didn’t).
But, in truth, the results mean nothing. For a start, the statement “the second album isn’t as good as the first” is meaningless anyway. You can’t measure the quality of an album except with your own opinion. But there are some reasons why the statement rings true, and at the same time, is completely false.
Second albums tend to be a continuation of the first. They tend to be similar, designed to attract the same crowd and release new music that fans can enjoy (and, consequently, thirds are a break away from the norm). There’s a drive to release second albums as quickly as possible. Acts refine their first album by playing it again and again on the road, but then have to release their second quickly, therefore losing the ability to sample the songs live first. Those kind of albums tend to be a lot worse than debuts, although Biffy’s The Vertigo of Bliss bucked the trend. Arguably, Biffy are a massive exception anyway, they didn’t release their second quickly down to pressure to, they did it because they wanted to.
The bands, like Bastille, Chvrches and Muse, who take time over their second album and refuse to bow down to pressure for a quick release, tend to release better second albums. They are still similar to their first, yes, but they are of a higher quality.
Those two paragraphs paint a clear picture. Music is designed to resonate from the heart, not engineered to consume quickly.
And so, sophomore slump? Maybe music does suffer from it, but it depends completely on the circumstances. And a pre-conceived idea that the second will be worse than the first purely because it is the second is surely dangerous?