I’ve been listening to the new Black Eyed Peas record, Monkey Business, for the last few days. First of all, it’s not bad, but for anyone who’s followed the hip-hop group over the years knows they’ve done better. Much better. I’m not even talking about their 2003 commercial breakthrough, Elephunk, which was a critical disappointment as well. No, it was a few years earlier, when they released the masterpiece Bridging The Gap. That was when they did better than they’ve ever done since. But… it was almost too smart (guest spots from Esthero and De La Soul on the same album?). So… it didn’t sell. And, the band quite publicly regrouped and tried to strive for commercial success.
They added a female vocalist, Fergie, and turned their sound into one dance-party smash after another. I’m not one to rain on the dance-party parade, but it was also hollow. Imagine you have a steakhouse you love, but one day, they decide to serve cotton candy. That’s kind of what BEP did to its hip-hop with Elephunk. And, I believe, it’s a very common trend. While people like to look at commercial breakthroughs as a milestone for a musician’s success, I think if you look hard enough, you’ll find that behind every good pop smash, there’s likely a better critical hit with slightly less attention, right behind it.
To play with a phrase, it’s like the opposite of the dreaded “sophomore slump.” Instead, let’s call it the “freshman bump,” the album before the breakthrough, that helped poise the artist for commercial blockbuster. In the interest of keeping things simple, I’m gonna put a focus on a particular era in music (I don’t have that much free time), for various reasons. Plus, there is something to be said about the slow-burn build of music careers in the late-80s, early-90s. This is when the music industry was healthy, with Napster nowhere to be found. Bands got a chance to release a major-label album, or two, or three before the verdict came down.
And, yes, there were a lot bands that didn’t have to slowly build, they just kind of took off with the first proper release. Obviously there were always bands like this (from Led Zeppelin to Pearl Jam to Eminem). And, also, this can include artists that had hit singles outside the gate but no massive, long-term success until an album later (Coldplay would be an example of that, except that their 2002 breakthrough commercially is probably still their most beloved album, critically). So, instead, let’s look at a few examples of the “freshman bump:”
– Radiohead is a terrific start. It goes without saying that their 1997 album, OK Computer, was the one that cemented their status globally as a superstars. In fact, there’s a documentary film, Meeting People Is Easy, to chronicle it. But, arguably, it’s their 1995 album The Bends that was much better, earlier. But it didn’t sell as much or hit as wide, culturally.
– Oasis. They were already big in the U.K., but their international fame hit its peak because of 1995’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and its singles “Wonderwall” and “Champagne Supernova.” But, I would argue that it was the less successful debut release, 1994’s Definitely Maybe, that was a superior creative statement.
– Sarah McLachlan’s second LP, 1997’s Surfacing, was such a big success, it launched a music tour (Lilith Fair). But what about 1994’s Fumbling Toward Ecstacy? Edgier, smarter, and just plain better.
– There was no hip-hop collective that could touch the Wu-Tang Clan in 1997. With their double-album, Wu-Tang Forever, they were untouchable. But, their 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was the real deal, the brilliant sound of some of the best MCs and one of the best producers in hip-hop making their legendary opus.
– Nine Inch Nails owned the rock world in 1994, thanks to a hit album called The Downward Spiral. Successful at moments in the past with a couple of rock singles, this was truly when they became a household name (and a stage-stealer at Lollapalooza). And while I think this is a pretty tough call, I would say that 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine is a better collection of Trent Reznor’s songwriting.
– R.E.M. They achieved amazing levels of worldwide fame with their 1991 album, Out of Time, thanks to songs like “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People.” But, what about 1988’s Green, or its predecessor, Document? Easily better records with only slight singles charting.
– No one ever would have imagined that The Smashing Pumpkins would go from fuzzy, Chicago favorites to stadium-rockers. But that’s what they did with their hugely-popular 1995 double-album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. But, really, it’s pretty much science that their 1993 album, Siamese Dream, will always be the Pumpkins’ masterwork.
… and there could be many more. Maybe you think Beck’s Mellow Gold is actually better than the breakthrough, Odelay. Or, somehow you subscribe to thinking Nirvana’s Bleach was better than Nevermind. Regardless, this is not meant to be any kind of definitive list. It’s just my opinion. You probably disagree. Definitive? Maybe.