What Sophomore Jinx?

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

on 12.23.11 in Lists

The sophomore jinx. It’s a trope as old as rock criticism itself: Band rockets out of nowhere and gains a quick, huge, passionate following. They go from playing basements to big stages in Barcelona in 36 minutes, get name-checked by aging rockers aching to look cool and dropped into television shows looking to expand their demographic. Then, a year later, they released their Difficult Second Record and drop off the map completely. The jinx has felled musical forces once deemed unstoppable — from the Stone Roses to Nas — and set onetime chart-toppers on the short path to reality television. So to celebrate the artists who avoided that sandtrap is no empty gesture, and in 2011, there were an astonishing number of them. So the real question is: What are they gonna do on their third record?




The Debut: All you need to know about Adele's debut is there in the title: 19. A snapshot of a tentative young woman teetering on the verge of adulthood, its breakout single served as a kind of summary statement for the album in full: "Should I give up, or should I just keep chasing pavements?" The Follow-Up: Clearly, Adele chose the latter. And talk about your good decisions 21 was about as far from a sophomore jinx as you can possibly get, spawning the year's most ubiquitous single and moving so many units you'd suspect every copy included the woman's phone number. All the better to reach two key segments of her audience: the people who want to thank her for writing such honest, painfully relatable songs about her ex, and the people who want to help her get over him. The Projection: Honestly, Adele is at the stage of her career where she could follow this with a note-for-note cover of Tago Mago and be fine. J. Edward Keyes

Lykke Li

Wounded Rhymes

Lykke Li

The Debut: When we first met Lykke Li, she was "shy, shy, shy." On 2008's Youth Novels the Swedish singer with the kewpie doll voice played it sweet and coy and just a little bit odd, but songs like "I'm Good, I'm Gone" hinted at a fiercer side beneath the softness. The Follow-Up: So long, shrinking violet! The first single from album No. 2 contains the Victoria's Secret commercial-ready line "I'm your prostitute, you're gonna get some." If Wounded Rhymes sounds bigger and bolder, then Li's quieter moments of vulnerability are even more special: "Unrequited" is the heartbreaker of the year. The Projection: Divas Live, 2013. Maris Kreizman

Bon Iver

The Debut: Wisconsin native Justin Vernon holes himself up in a cabin for a few months; emerges with a sad and gorgeous falsetto-fronted breakup album, For Emma, Forever Ago. The Follow-up: After the success of For Emma, Vernon spent time in the studio with Kanye West, found an entirely new audience and recorded a self-titled follow-up with a bigger sound and lots of saxophone. The Projection: Well, he's nominated for four GrammysLet's see if he can pull an Arcade Fire. Laura Leebove

The Antlers

The Debut: A 20-something from New York holes himself up in his apartment for a few months; returns with a sad and gorgeous falsetto-fronted concept album, Hospice, about a tumultuous relationship through the lens of a hospice worker and patient. The Follow-up: The slowly-growing buzz around Hospice landed them on tour with the National, including a gig at Radio City Music Hall. The follow-up, Burst Apart, is darker, with less focus on lyrics and more on electronics and production work. The Projection: If they continue in the same direction, their next record might be mostly electronic, with even sparser vocals. Laura Leebove

Fleet Foxes

The Debut: Released in 2008 by a band of 20-something dudes from Seattle, Fleet Foxes seemed like it could have been a long-lost '70s folk-revival gem unearthed by some diligent crate-digger. Spine-tingling harmonies, tumbling guitarwork and earthy imagery (snowfall, mountain, mockingbird, etc.) abounded. The Follow-Up: Helplessness Blues was recorded in the same cavern o' reverb as its predecessor, but in a very different headspace. Robin Pecknold dialed up both the eclectic mysticism and the unguarded introspection of his lyrics, and the band followed suit with arrangements that teetered between barefaced simplicity and dense, moody tangles. The Projection: Perhaps it's the not-insignificant amount of millennial angst filtering into many of the newer songs, but it's not hard to imagine the band next entering a brief fallow period as Pecknold lights out for the territories and/or founds something like an animal rescue shelter as a means to regain perspective on his life after years of sudden, intense indie-press interest and long tours. Sooner or later, though, we predict another in a long series of increasingly musically and emotionally complex records. Also, that Pecknold will, at some point do a duet with either Emmylou Harris or Gillian Welch (or both, if it so please the modern Americana gods) seems basically given. Rachael Maddux

The War On Drugs

The Debut: On their first record, Wagonwheel Blues, Philly rockers The War On Drugs located a heavy-lidded, trance-inducing sweet spot between FM-rock choogle and endless-horizon art-rock churn, like a Tom Petty record submerged in amniotic fluid. Their secret weapon was or appeared to be the curtain-haired, smirking stoner Kurt Vile, who broke away for a solo career of easy-breathing slacker gems and leaving The War On Drugs to fight alone. The Follow-Up: After Vile morphed into a four-track hero on the strength of his solo material and signed to Matador, thus ensuring a lifetime of indie-rock royalty comfort, it seemed like The War On Drugs would forever be Kurt Vile's old band. But Slave Ambient turned this wisdom right on its head expanding on their debut's sound world in every direction and ending up with one of 2011's most comforting, ice-blue expanses, the War On Drugs came fully into their own. If Vile was chasing his Neil Young ghosts, WOD were content to keep blending their Brian Eno into their Bruce Springsteen to see what came out in the wash. The Projection: Can a Watch The Throne-style collaborative reunion album be far behind? Jayson Greene

Washed Out

The Debut: The deafening buzz surrounding Ernest Greene's bedroom symphonies was based on nothing but a halogen-lit EP 2009's Life of Leisure, featuring six terminally chill tracks that sounded like they were left out in the sun too long. The Follow-Up: While his melodies remained as misty as ever, Greene took his time developing Washed Out's debut album (Within and Without) with a proper producer and pricier equipment than the usual thrift store fare. The result is an immersive listen that enhances Green's vapor trail visions without losing sight of what made them so spellbound in the first place. The Projection: Judging by recent shows and radio sessions with a full band, we wouldn't be surprised if Greene goes full-on yacht-rock with his next record, leaving Instagrammed grooves behind for more straightforward songs. Andrew Parks

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

The Debut: Noisy cuddlecore for erect librarians, the debut from The Pains of Being Pure At Heart was loaded with sly nods to the C86 sound and barely-there double entendres. It also had something far more important than either: hooks. Vocalist Kip Berman giddily whispered his come-ons like an eighth-grader passing along a dirty joke in the back of math class while the band swaddled each syllable in gallons of sticky-sweet guitar. The Follow-Up: If the first one was all winks and inference, Belong finds the group embracing directness as overtly as they embrace Siamese Dream. Teaming up with superproducers Flood and Alan Moulder, the Pains boldly beefed up their sound, writing 1,000-watt anthems that stand up straight and announce their intentions outright. "You try so hard to keep it together," Berman sighs in "The Body," following with "And you look so hard in fishnets and leather." But it's not all bluntness; the songs on Belong are loaded with thousands of tiny moving pieces that only reveal themselves after multiple listens a curlicue of guitar looping in the shadows, odd, unidentifiable bits of percussion. It's a grown-up rock record from 2007's most adorable adolescents. The Projection: Given the arc of many of the bands they emulate, we see an electropop record looming on the horizon. J. Edward Keyes

Dum Dum Girls

The Debut: Released as a host of similarly themed Girls in the Garage-style acts were also making a big noise in the blogosphere, I Will Be established the Dum Dum Girls as the most adroit songwriters among their peers even if it still failed to brand them with a distinct identity. The Follow-Up: The Girls found their heart, and discovered it was broken. On Only in Dreams, frontwoman Dee Dee bravely explored loss and separation both the romantic and mortal kind and the result was a record with as much pathos as guitar power. Producers Richard Gottherer and Sune Rose Wagner relieved her potent voice of several layers of reverb, revealing her to be one of indie rock's strongest and most confident vocalists. Listen to "Caught in One" only in passing, and you'd swear it was Neko Case. The Projection: On their next outing, the Girls sonic palette will expand to match their newfound emotional depth. We wouldn't be too surprised to hear hints of country or classic rock starting to scale their wall of sound. J. Edward Keyes


Take Care


The Debut: Thank Me Later, 2010's biggest breakout hip-hop album and easily one of its most divisive. Was it really okay that this kid a half-white, half-Jewish Canadian former child star , rapped in that pinched, nasal voice? That he insisted on singing all the damn time? Could hip-hop's rugged faithful withstand the softness of a lyric like "Do I ever come up over double-pump lattes and low-fat muffins/ Do I?" The jury was out, come year-end; Drake had broken through, and changed the hip-hop conversation completely, in one fell swoop, but there were some nagging problems: For one, he wasn't that great at, well, rapping. Would he continue dropping hashtag-rap punchlines that landed with a clang? Would hip-hop's machismo police even let him through the door the next time around? The Follow-Up: Here's the funny thing about hip-hop's machismo police: They actually have no influence, at all. When Rick Ross was exposed as a former corrections officer, and not even remotely the coke kingpin of his records, hip-hop logic dictated that he be thrown out on his ample ass. Instead, he became gangsta rap's all-consuming center of gravity. Ditto for Drake: For all the locker-slamming and hazing he endured, he proved on Take Care that he was here to stay: tightening his writing considerably to the point where nearly all his lines were quotable in one way or another, expanding on the pillowy-soft sound world of his debut and bringing in unexpected influences (Stevie Wonder drops in for a harmonica solo, and Drake said in interviews that he was influenced by the surgical sonic precision of James Blake), he nearly doubled his first-week sales and cemented his place as the new model, for better or worse, of what a rapper can look and sound like. The Projection: There Can Be Only One: sooner or later, the bristling tension between hip-hop's former King of Feelings, Kanye West, and its ascendant prince, will come to a head. For an artist as manically collaborative as West, he has conspicuously not appeared much alongside Drake except for on superstar-parade hit "Forever." In 2012, expect these two to square off in one way or another. It will inevitably be silly and deeply entertaining. Jayson Greene

Neon Indian

Era Extraña

Neon Indian

The Debut: Say it. Say it: Chillwave. Alan Palomo, with his 2009 debut Psychic Chasms, basically thumb-printed an entire aesthetic, one that was already a joke by the year's end: wobbly VHS tapes, infomercial themes, video-game effects, lazy shimmer. Et cetera. So how do you follow up an album that trademarked a punchline? The Follow-Up: The answer is, you stick to your guns, dammit, but freshen everything up a bit. Era Extrana hugs tight to Palomo's beloved sun-bleared atmospherics, but tightens the songwriting bolts and screws at every level to prove he's not just a one-trick pony, and his music isn't a cheap gas-huff of sickly nostalgia fumes. There are more hooks, bigger choruses, and even more intricate layers of detail a gift that sometimes got lost in all the haze. Start printing the CHILLWAVE 4EVER t-shirts now. The Projection: Unless the very fabric of reality rips itself in half, this guy will compose a Sofia Coppola soundtrack. Jayson Greene

Smith Westerns

The Debut: Smith Westerns were mere babies at the time of their 2009 debut, the perfect glam punk soundtrack for partying in your parents' basement teenage dreams at their loudest and messiest and most exhilarating. The Follow-Up: OK, they're still kids not one band member had reached the legal drinking age by Dye It Blonde's 2011 release. But thanks to time spent in a proper studio, Smith Western's sound less reverb, clearer song structures, lots of hooks has grown up big time. The Projection: The guys will find their parents' old Talking Heads records and go on a new-wave kick. Maris Kreizman