(March 13, 2021). Even if at first you DO succeed…try, try again!
An artist’s sophomore album can make or break a career. It sometimes follows a highly successful debut album and has the unenviable task of meeting or exceeding the expectations set by the first, or it can be the release that finally establishes an artist after an initial album fails to provide that spark.
The tone for that second LP is often set by the first single released from it. It’s the one that often lets us know that an artist’s first album was no fluke, or that we completely missed out the first time around.
It is with that in mind that djrobblog thought it would be fun to celebrate those first singles from second albums – those songs that, in most cases, let us know that an artist was no fly-by-night, no flash in the pan. It let us know that his or her (or their) 15 minutes of fame would be much longer than just 15 minutes.
What follows is a special multi-genre ranking of the 75 greatest, most iconic first singles from sophomore albums from the past six decades. I’ve combed through more than a hundred such songs and miraculously narrowed it down to the top 75.
This list ranks songs based on chart performance, critical acclaim, awards received, career impact, and endurance over time. Personal preference of the list’s creator may or may not have influenced some of the rankings.
The eligibility for being included was simple: the song had to be widely acknowledged as the first single released from an artist’s second album issued in the United States.
Millennial alert: with the advent of mixtapes, promo singles (between album cycles), featured credits and other music industry changes over time, fewer artists and albums from recent years are represented on this list, as it was often more difficult to discern which releases were indeed second albums or which songs were the first releases from them.
Regardless, newer acts aren’t totally excluded and, when possible, cases are explained where either the album’s or a song’s release sequence is in doubt.
Understandably, some people will possibly disagree with the rankings or the inclusion of some of these songs. I invite readers to discuss their views in either the comment section below or on any of the social media feeds where this article is posted.
So, without further delay, here is djrobblog’s countdown of the most iconic first singles from second albums, ranked from No. 75 to No. 1 (along with a Spotify playlist that follows). If you don’t have time to read them all now, come back and finish some later.
This rocker was the first single from Pat’s sophomore album, Crimes of Passion, which also yielded her first million-selling single with the follow-up “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” But “You Better Run,” which was a remake of the old Young Rascals tune, had its own claim to fame. It was the second music video ever played on MTV when it launched on August 1, 1981, after the Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star.” That fact alone is enough to warrant inclusion in this list of the greatest first releases from sophomore albums.
Few people had heard of NKOTB before they released their second album ‘Hangin’ Tough’ in 1988. “Please” was the lead-off single and the first of five consecutive releases from the album to reach the top 10, sending the album to No. 1 and well on its way to selling 14 million copies, becoming the boy band’s biggest.
Guitar god Eric Clapton belonged to several legendary rock bands before issuing his self-titled first solo album in 1970. He waited four years before releasing his second, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ in ‘74. It contained his first No. 1 Hot 100 hit, the pop remake of Bob Marley’s reggae classic, “I Shot the Sheriff.” It remains the only number one single in the storied career of one of the most celebrated musicians in rock and roll history.
Some sophomore albums get recognition for the collective group of songs they contain. Singer Deborah Cox’s second album is mostly known for the single that kicked off its campaign in 1998, the multifaceted “Nobody’s Supposed to be Here.” The R&B ballad set a record at the time of its release for spending more weeks at No. 1 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart than any other song with 14 weeks there. Perhaps as impressive was its enduring run near the top of the pop-oriented Hot 100, where it spent eight weeks at No. 2 - the third-longest up to that point. The tune’s longevity was buoyed by a memorable dance remix that was arguably more popular than the original track - especially at pop radio and in clubs, where much of Cox’s success had occurred up to that point in her long and underrated career.
Yes, Virginia, there was a time when legendary rapper Kanye West wasn’t in the news for just his politics and his personal life. There was a time when all we cared about was his music and what bangers he’d be releasing next. On the heels of his hugely successful debut album, ‘College Dropout,’ Kanye gave us the followup - ‘Late Registration’ - and its kickoff single, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.” The highly critically acclaimed song addressed the illegal diamond trade in its titular West African country, which had been enduring a civil war (financed by the illegal diamonds). West won the Best Rap Song Grammy award for “Diamonds,” but an even better praise came from Shirley Bassey, singer of the James Bond movie theme “Diamonds are Forever,” which Kanye’s tune heavily samples.
Songwriter Sting once said this of “Message In A Bottle,” the Police’s first single from their sophomore album, ‘Reggatta de Blanc’: “‘Message in a Bottle' is a good song that can move me. I like the idea that, while it's about loneliness and alienation, it's also about finding solace and other people going through the same thing. The guy's on a desert island and throws a bottle out to sea saying he's alone and all these millions of bottles come back saying, ‘So what? So am I!’ I like the fact that the whole deal is clinched by the third verse. It makes a journey.”
The song would reach No. 1 in the U.K. and Ireland while petering out at No. 74 here in the U.S. No worries though, the reggae-infused album went on to sell a million copies and is considered among the band’s greatest.
It’s tough to follow a debut album containing two No. 1 singles without setting some pretty high expectations. But RSO Records and Andy Gibb’s team - which included his big brother Barry - could do no wrong in 1978. “Shadow Dancing” was the title track and first single released from Andy’s second album and, like its predecessors, the song reached No. 1 on the Hot 100. It finished the year as 1978’s biggest hit.
Katy Perry made a splash with her debut album and its first single, “I Kissed A Girl,” which became her first No. 1 in 2008. Two year’s later she brought the full tidal wave with her second album, ‘Teenage Dream’ and its first release, “California Gurls.” No one could have predicted what followed. “Gurls” was the first of five consecutive No. 1 singles from the album, tying it with Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ as the only albums in history to generate that many chart-toppers on the Billboard Hot 100.
Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland and Co. proved they were no one-hit-wonders when they issued this first single from their second album in 1999. The song “Bills, Bills, Bills” borrowed the triple-word phrasing of their debut hit “No, No, No” from 18 months earlier and had greater success, reaching No. 1 on the Hot 100 and becoming their first of many chart toppers. Their second album was also the one associated with the group’s many personnel changes before they finally settled on the trio of Knowles, Rowland and Michelle Williams in 2000.
Technically speaking, this was only Paul McCartney’s second album as Linda wasn’t officially credited as a duet partner on his first post-Beatles release, ‘McCartney,’ in 1970. Still, this first single from ‘Ram’ gave Paul and his late wife their first post-Beatles No. 1 single when it leapt to the top of the charts in September of 1971.
Morris Day and Co. wouldn’t see mainstream pop success until their next project, ‘Ice Cream Castles,’ which came on the heels of “Purple Rain” and all things Minneapolis in 1984. But their sophomore album, ‘What Time Is It?,’ was kickstarted by this funk masterpiece containing one of the most complex drum grooves ever! Drummers young and old have been trying to learn it ever since (readers should check out some of the great YouTube clips of the various drum covers). “777-9311” reached No. 2 R&B in late 1982 and was a preview of greater things to come for both The Time and their boss, Prince!
Any doubts about Foreigner’s ability to follow-up their mightily successful self-titled debut album were squelched immediately with the release of “Hot Blooded,” the first single from their sophomore album, ‘Double Vision.’ The song, which lead singer Lou Gramm sang about a horny man’s unmistakably lust-filled intentions, became their first of several million-sellers and peaked at No. 3 in the summer of 1978. The album would generate an even bigger hit in the No. 2-peaking title track just a few months later.
British techno-pop maestro Howard Jones is known for his upbeat melodies and lyrical sensibilities, but none were as hopeful sounding as this first single from his second album in 1985. “Things Can Only Get Better” was a triumph in optimism and it became his first top-five pop hit in the summer of 1985.
Sade - the band - issued its second album ‘Promise’ in 1985 following the success of the first, ‘Diamond Life,’ earlier that year. It contained the smooth, mellow, mid-tempo groove “The Sweetest Taboo,” which featured the cool, laid-back vocal stylings of Sade the singer. The song hit the top five on both the soul and pop charts and helped propel the album to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, making Sade the first British female-led group to accomplish that feat.
The Chicago Transit Authority’s first self-titled album in 1969 was released without regard to the trademark owned by the transit company in the Windy City. So the band had to shorten their name to simply Chicago by the time they released their sophomore LP - a double-vinyl self-titled release (retroactively known as Chicago II) that propelled the band to the top ten for the first time.
The album was kicked off by the double-sided single “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World,” which were both part of a 13-minute, seven-song suite on Side 2 of the first vinyl disc. The top-10 success of “Smile” and the follow-up top-5 hit “25 or 6 to 4” led to renewed interest in the band’s first album and subsequently the release of several of its songs as singles (with several of them reaching the top ten). This then became one of the rare examples of how a sophomore LP was so successful that it retroactively created a hit in the first, which alone warrants an entry in this esteemed list.
How do you follow a groundbreaking debut album and No. 1 debut single? By releasing a follow-up LP with songs that are equally as compelling. The Pet Shop Boys out of England - Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe - released ‘Actually’ in 1987, and the album continued the duo’s success on both sides of the pond with top-10 smashes like “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” and the lead-off hit “It’s a Sin,” a song whose importance lies in the fact that it established the Boys as consistent hitmakers in both the pop and dance music worlds. In 35 years, the Pet Shop Boys have gone on to become one of the most successful acts of all time on Billboard’s Dance Club Play charts.
Songwriter Tom Johnston has said of the inspiration for “Listen to the Music”: “The chord structure of it made me think of something positive, so the lyrics...were based on this utopian idea that if the leaders of the world got together...and either smoked enough dope...or just listened to the music...the world would be a much better place.” Nearly half a century later, it might still be a good idea, except it could be aimed at just the leaders right here in the United States. “Listen to the Music” was the first single from the Doobies’ second album, ‘Toulouse Street,’ and was the tune that put the California rock group on the map.
The title track from Mariah Carey’s second album wasn’t originally intended to be the initial single release. Instead it was supposed to be “You’re So Cold,” the album’s sixth track. However, Columbia Records went with the song that would eventually become a No. 1 hit - Mariah’s fifth - making her the only artist in history to have her first five singles all top the Hot 100. It was a streak that would end with the followup, the ballad “Can’t Let Go,” which stopped at No. 2 a few months later. “Emotions” initially drew criticism as a knockoff of the song “Best of My Love” by the female ‘70s trio called the Emotions, but has since been regarded as a respectable tribute to that group. Mariah has since gone on to have fourteen more No. 1s, placing her total of 19 second only to the Beatles with 20.
Super producer Teddy Riley had a number of projects going in the 1990s, but none were as successful as his work with the group BLACKstreet, whose second album was kicked off by this No. 1 across-the-board smash in 1996. “No Diggity,” no doubt, was a No. 1 hit on both the Hot 100 and the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs lists at the end of the year, displacing the year’s biggest hit, “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix),” and fending off a heavy challenge from Celine Dion’s powerhouse ballad “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” on the former.
Few sophomore albums are as iconic as MJB’s 1994 opus ‘My Life.’ Kicking it off that fall was the understated first single, “Be Happy,” an introspective song that reflected Blige’s mindset and an undying quest to overcome the many adversities she was facing at the time. Mary’s message resonated with fans, who sent the song to the top ten on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart and top 30 on the Hot 100. ‘My Life’ went on to multi-platinum status, continuing a legendary career that has culminated with MJB’s (first) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination in 2021.
With his first solo album away from the legendary Eagles, Don Henley brought us “Dirty Laundry,” a No. 3 hit in the winter of 1983. None of the singles from his second album, ‘Building the Perfect Beast,’ matched that peak, but the first single from it, “The Boys of Summer,” came close by reaching No. 5 in early 1985 and - more importantly - helping its parent album go triple-platinum and setting him up for even bigger success with his next release. “The Boys of Summer,” a metaphorical tale about leaving one’s youth and entering middle age, has become Henley’s signature song.
The Cars brand of quirky, offbeat pop music was kicked into high gear with the release of their second album - the one with the famously painted pinup girl on the front grill - and this first track from it. “Let’s Go” was a Ric Ocasek masterpiece sung by Benjamin Orr. It peaked at No. 14 on the Hot 100 in the fall of 1979, becoming their first of many top-20 hits. The album ’Candy-O’ would eventually peak at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and be certified quadruple platinum.
Some sophomore albums on this list may seem like debut releases simply because the artists didn’t break through until their second times at bat. Such was the case for the indie pop band fun. who rode this arena-rock pop anthem to No. 1 in several countries after the song caught fire following its exposure on TV shows like “Glee” and in a popular TV commercial. “We Are Young” went on to become one of the most successful songs of the 2010s and took Song of the Year at the 2013 Grammys. Fun. has yet to release a followup to ‘Some Nights.’
There’s a whole story behind Lady Gaga’s ‘The Fame Monster’ and why it’s considered Lady Gaga’s sophomore album, despite it being initially marketed as a deluxe version of her debut LP ‘The Fame.’ In short, Lady Gaga felt the album’s eight new songs stood on their own as a different artistic statement from the songs on the original release. Her label eventually packaged the new songs as a stand-alone EP and it charted on its own merits, with the first single being this Gaga classic. “Ra-ra-ah-ah-ah, Roma Roma-ma, Gaga ooh la-la, want your bad romance.”
Soul chanteuse Anita Baker made small waves with her debut album ‘The Songstress,’ released on a small boutique label called Beverly Glen Records in 1983. Three years later she made huge splashes with her major label entry and sophomore album, ‘Rapture.’ Released on Elektra records, its lead single “Sweet Love” became a top-10 pop and soul smash and paved the way for greater things to come. Although it wasn’t Baker’s biggest chart hit (that would be “Giving You the Best That I Got” in 1988-89), “Sweet Love” has been her signature song ever since we first heard those sweet melodic notes 35 years ago.
Don’t forget to scroll through the whole list of 75, and leave comments below!
DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
You can also register for free to receive notifications of future articles by visiting the home page (see top for menu).