The theory of the "sophomore slump" is that an artist has their whole lives to create their first album but then suffers creatively when they have only a short time to create their second. Andrew W.K., The Stone Roses, Television, Interpol, and Best Coast are all examples of artists who have fallen into this trap, but it's not as widespread as music historians may lead you to believe. There is a large number of bands whose second albums either made up for the false start of their debuts or rode their debut's success to even greater artistic heights.
1. Radiohead - The Bends (1995)
I've always felt that Radiohead's 1993 debut Pablo Honey would have made an excellent six-song EP, but that there are simply too many duds to make it an essential LP. The true story of Radiohead's genius begins with their 1995 follow-up The Bends, which expands on their debut's toothless grunge-pop sound and turns it into majestically psychedelic soundscapes, with infinitely more inventive songwriting to along with it.
2. My Bloody Valentine - Loveless (1991)
My Bloody Valentine had been releasing singles and EPs for 5 years before they released their proper debut LP Isn't Anything in 1988, and while that album is an avant-rock classic in its own right, their second album Loveless is somehow even more innovative and breathtaking. The eclecticism of the guitar noise on their debut is streamlined on Loveless into a single massive ocean of swirling guitars and beautiful ambient melodies.
3. Nirvana - Nevermind (1991)
Nirvana is one of the rare examples of an indie band signing to a major label and reaching their artistic peak at the same time. Their 1989 debut Bleach does have its supporters who insist it's their best album (Wayne Coyne is one of them), but the leap in Kurt Cobain's songwriting prowess between Bleach and Nevermind is undeniable.
4. Slint - Spiderland (1991)
Even indie producer extraordinaire Steve Albini couldn't save Slint's debut album Tweez from being anything more than 30 minutes of sorely underwritten noise pieces, but their 1991 follow up Spiderland is one of the most intense, terrifying, and unforgettable album experiences of the 90s, shifting from off-kilter post-punk verses to cathartic metal choruses on a dime. This is an album that should only be listened to at night.
5. Joanna Newsom - Ys (2006)
Most of the songs on Joanna Newsom's stunning 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender feature simply Newsom's voice and her harp, with no other instruments. On her mythically-scoped follow up Ys, however, she teamed up with Beach Boy's collaborator Van Dyke Parks to provide orchestral accompaniment, and it works beyond perfectly. With only 5 songs in 56 minutes, Ys may seem massive and impenetrable, but Newsom's songwriting proves to be incredibly rewarding.
6. Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique (1989)
Comparing License to Ill to Paul's Boutique is like comparing CSI to The Wire; it's on a completely different level altogether, and I'm sure the Beastie Boys would be the first to agree. Although Paul's Boutique's poor sales in comparison to their debut initially made it seem like a classic sophomore slump, in retrospect it is undoubtedly the superior album, with its mind-melting sampling and less juvenile (but still hilarious) lyrics.
7. Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a prime example of an album that is so monumental and revered that everything else in the band's catalog is nearly forgotten. This is a shame, because On Avery Island, NMH's fuzzy 1996 debut, is sonically and lyrically unlike any other album of its era, but what it lacked was In the Aeroplane Over the Sea's deep emotional resonance, and that seems to have made all the difference.
8. Belle & Sebastian - If You're Feeling Sinister (1996)
Belle & Sebastian released two albums in 1996: their fantastic debut Tigermilk, which had an incredibly limited initial release of 1,000 copies, and then If You're Feeling Sinister, just five months later. Due to their extreme proximity to one another, they're very similar albums, each adopting a lo-fi chamber pop sound, but it's the second LP that has achieved classic status. Bandleader Stuart Murdoch has even said that If You're Feeling Sinister contains the best songs he's ever written.