There’s the underwhelming first album, the “difficult” second album, and then there’s the triumphant third effort. By the time a band has readied themselves to return to the studio for a third effort, they’ve learned from their mistakes and can release the treasures that have remained in their chests.
This list offers a selection of “third attempts” that demonstrates an improvement to what went before it.
A Hard Days Night (1964): Not even The Beatles got it right on their first go, and only the most perverse of fans would call “Please Please Me” as anything more than an interesting excursion into nostalgia. With The Beatles was a much more confident-sounding work, but they were relying too heavily on covers and wished to show the extent of their writing abilities. And this leads us to A Hard Days Night, an album that comprised thirteen Lennon – McCartney numbers, flitting from the soft country touches of “I’ll Cry Instead” to the rock and roll frenzy of “Anytime At All.” As it happens, the album was almost entirely written by John Lennon, although armed with anthems “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Things We Said Today” – not forgetting the genuinely gorgeous balladry of “And I Love Her” – Paul McCartney proved that quality was a more than a fair match for quantity.
Master of Puppets (1986): From the barrelling title track to the yearning displayed by “Disposable Heroes,” Metallica was more than ready to claim the crown as heavy metal kings. Indeed, there’s a confidence to this album that’s been lacking in the albums that preceded and came after it, although that might be because bassist Cliff Burton was tragically killed during the album’s promotional tour. They’ve never been able to replace him (although Robert Trujillo is an accomplished musician), so for many fans, Metallica ended when Burton died. As codicils go, “Orion” is definitely a strong one, showcasing notes, chords and sounds once thought impossible of a bass guitar.
Sheer Heart Attack (1974): A towering live band, Queen nevertheless struggled to bring what they had onstage into the studio. They compensated by peeling back the layers and overdubs that were heard on the first two albums, for something swifter and arguably more punk-like. Sheer Heart Attack is the band’s best effort and arguably stands as their manual, one they stuck close to for the rest of their career. It’s certainly an eclectic work, bouncing from metal (“Brighton Rock”) to ballad (“Dear Friends”) by way of a jaunty country stomper or two: “Bring Back That Leroy Brown.” Even bassist John Deacon felt confident enough to contribute to the proceedings, and the jangly “Misfire” was the first of many compositions he wrote for Queen.
All Mod Cons (1978): Yes, the title was a groaner, but it was in keeping with the Englishness The Jam were striving to project on their third album. In the middle stood Paul Weller – later christened the “Godfather of Britpop” – who was determined to use his American influences to write something that was brusque and British. Among the highlights are “To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have a Nice Time)”, “A’ Bomb in Wardour Street”, and “David Watts”, sung by the band’s bassist, Bruce Foxton. For Weller, the album marked something of an achievement: “I’d found my feet. After This Is the Modern World, I thought, ‘Am I going to let this slide or fight against it?’ My back was against the wall. It was a matter of self-pride.”
The Number of The Beast (1982): It’s never easy to fire a lead singer, but Iron Maiden felt able to carry on without Paul Di’Anno behind the microphone. He was swiftly binned in favor of Bruce Dickinson, who imbued Steve Harris’ melody with added drama. Dickinson’s falsetto was helium-like in sound and scope, causing some to sneer that it reminded them of an “air raid.” The band was scarcely bothered: The Number of The Beast raced to the top of the UK charts, where it drew in listeners previously agnostic to the wonders of metal. The album boasts a guest appearance from Vincent Price, making it one of two songs he recorded a narration for in 1982. No prizes for guessing the latter.
Nursery Cryme (1971): Genesis was stumped by the departure of guitarist and songwriter Anthony Philips. Keyboardist Tony Banks felt like it packing it in when Philips did; bassist Mike Rutherford was similarly unconvinced that the band could survive without him. Ultimately, Genesis found a more permanent replacement in Steve Hackett, who had a similar passion for the pastoral/metallic as Philips did. As it happens, “The Musical Box” and “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” feature a guitar tapping technique that was later adopted by Brian May and Eddie Van Halen, although Hackett insists he was the first to come up with it. Nursery Cryme is also notable for introducing Phil Collins to the world – whatever became of him?
The Who Sell Out (1967): Although My Generation had shown promise, guitarist Pete Townshend could scarcely write enough tunes for its follow-up, A Quick One, leading bandmates Roger Daltrey and Keith Moon to write a series of awful compositions to compensate. But it did boast one ten-minute operetta that paved the way for the band’s third album, one ripping with energy and ambition. It was intended to be listened to as a collection of jingles and commercials, all sliced together under one package, but the album’s undisputed high point comes in the form of “I Can See For Miles,” a turbo-charged rocker that demonstrated the band’s commitment to the studio and the live stage.
Songs For The Deaf (2002): Queens of the Stone Age were formed from the ashes of Kyuss, which might explain why Josh Homme sounded so reticent on their first album. He seemed more comfortable in his skin by Rated R (“Feel Good Hit of the Summer” is an enjoyable pop number), but it was only when Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl joined the band for their third effort that the quartet sounded like a band who could capture the heights of Led Zeppelin (fittingly, Homme and Grohl formed Them Crooked Vultures in 2009 with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones). “No One Knows” remains the most popular song from the album, but there’s no shortage of hooks or yelps, not least on “God Is in the Radio.”
War (1983): U2 played two numbers at Live Aid before they were forced to close out their set. Their opening number was “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, a drum-heavy number anchored by Adam Clayton’s graveling bass and lifted by Bono’s heroic vocals. It was indicative of the quality of their third album, a record that knocked Michael Jackson’s Thriller from the top of the UK charts. It was a deserved winner, illustrated with a series of haunting ballads that captured their native Dublin in striking fashion. Anthems “New Year’s Day” and “Two Hearts Beat As One” were the most infectious, but “Drowning Man” showed that the Irish band could be powerful by being minimal in their efforts. Having missed out on the first two albums, The Edge finally stepped up to record a lead vocal on “Seconds”, which, oddly enough, was the second track on the album.
London Calling (1979): While nobody could declare the first Clash album, nor the second, to be disappointing, neither project allowed the band to exhibit every element in their arsenal. The format of the double album liberated them to showcase their varied influences, and the finished result isn’t just the best record The Clash unveiled to the public, it’s also the best album to make this list. Joe Strummer tackles the title track, before duetting with guitarist Mick Jones on “Clampdown,” a searing overview of class relations.
Bassist Paul Simonon sings “Guns of Brixton”, a reggae-coated track that featured his bass high in the mix (Simonon is also the musician on the front cover). The album also boasts “The Card Cheat,” commemorating Phil Spector’s production technique on vinyl through a series of blistering piano strokes.
Image: The Jam, All Mod Cons
PS — While we’re on the topic of Rock History, you might enjoy our YouTube series of daily one-minute nuggets of memorable moments…
Hey man, you forgot Forever Changes!
You’re the second person to point that out.
Great selections. I would add The Yes Album, but I’m sure one could come up with many others as well. Steve Hackett doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves (in my circles, at least) for his contributions to Genesis and guitar playing in general. And I agree, while I appreciated the next few Metallica albums (and they certainly achieved greater commercial acclaim), Master of Puppets was THE definitive album of theirs. Cliff ‘em all!
Great choices. I’d add Born to Run and Damn the Torpedoes.
Good calls both.
U r flippin’ good @ wut u dew, dude.
Very kind of you.
Great idea, and all good picks…But ya can’t list them all!
….I would add:
Zenyatta Mondatta by the Police
Argybargy by Squeeze
…and Toys in the Attic by Aerosmith is a perfect match with your criteria!
Good picks, but chalk me up to be “the most perverse of fans.” Please Please Me and WTB are great albums that were groundbreaking at the time. But who can argue that Hard Day’s Night is a masterpiece!
I quite like PPM. The “perverse” comment was meant in good fun. But there’s no denying that HDN is their first out and out masterpiece.