Because the 'difficult second album' is a thing of the past...

The idea of the ‘difficult second album’ has been laid to rest – nowadays it seems it’s album three that’s proving to be the banana skin for our highest-profile rock bands.

In 2008 neither Razorlight nor Keane – previously big-hitters – enjoyed the same success with their third albums as they’d experienced with preceding long-players. Elbow might’ve taken the Mercury with their fourth album, ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, but ask fans about their third, ‘Leaders Of The Free World’, and they tend to clam up.

And the condition’s been noticeable for some time – Starsailor’s third, ‘On The Outside’, flopped on a critical front, severely damaging their reputation ahead of this year’s ‘All The Plans’. Third records from heavyweights such as The Verve, Travis and Coldplay have failed to capture the imagination in the manner of their immediate predecessors, too. Sure, they did well… but they weren’t exactly career-defining releases.

So what hope for Franz Ferdinand and The Rakes? Both groups release their third albums in the first quarter of 2009, with much riding on each. Clash crosses its fingers for them, looking to these ten definitive third albums as evidence that, YES, album three can be The One.

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10. Yes – ‘The Yes Album’ (1971)

I know what you’re thinking. What the eff? Well, while Yes have endured their substantial share of criticism from rather narrow-minded writers with a prog aversion, they did blast the genre firmly into the mainstream with this album. ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’, peers Pink Floyd’s highest-ever watermark, wouldn’t be released for another two years; King Crimson’s ‘In The Court Of…’ preceded Yes’ breakthrough, granted, but was arguably never topped. ‘The Yes Album’, a platinum seller, set up both ‘Fragile’ (which featured the iconic artwork of Roger Dean for the first time) and ‘Close To The Edge’, which further enhanced Yes’ credentials and transformed them into stadium-fillers. Stick that in your pipe, Bobby Fripp.

Yes – ‘Starship Trooper’ (from ‘The Yes Album’)

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9. Primal Scream – ‘Screamadelica’ (1991)

The album that made Primal Scream the festival-headlining sorts they remain today, the Mercury Prize-winning ‘Screamadelica’ marked a distinct departure of style for the Glasgow-spawned outfit. Introduced to acid house by Creation head Alan McGee, Bobby Gillespie and company began experimenting with ecstasy and, soon enough, their music took on a whole new vibe, stepping away from earlier indie roots. Working with Andrew Weatherall and The Orb, the band produced one of the 1990s’ definitive albums – a regular on every top-100-albums list and one that still sounds remarkably fresh today.

Primal Scream – ‘Movin’ On Up’ (from ‘Screamadelica’)

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8. Portishead – ‘Third’ (2008)

Simply the strongest comeback release of last year, eclipsing with ease The Verve’s patchy (at best) ‘Forth’, Portishead’s long-awaited follow-up to their self-titled album of 1997 was majestic. It tapped into the band’s past, dredging the dread that characterised both preceding full-lengths, but also exhibited the trio’s desire to push into the future. The album’s lead single, ‘Machine Gun’, sounded completely unprecedented, incessantly unsettling percussion meeting stripped-back electro in a computer chip abattoir. Or, at least, that nightclub in the first Terminator movie. A nerve-jangling, deeply affecting album that proves that not only can absence make the heart grow fonder, but that it can also lead to some fantastic art.

Portishead – ‘Machine Gun’ (from ‘Third)

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7. At The Drive-In – ‘Relationship Of Command’ (2000)

The album that both made and broke Texan hardcore five-piece At The Drive-In, ‘Relationship Of Command’ is ripe with a fiery friction that would ultimately crack the band apart. While members would soon go their own ways – two forming The Mars Volta, three starting over as Sparta – this album remains the greatest achievement of any associated musician. Lyrically the most beguiling riddle to have ever been made into a long-play record, Cedric Bixler not one for straight-up sing-alongs, the album fizzes with frenetic instrumental interplay, and spawned a true rock club classic in the shape of lead single ‘One Armed Scissor’. For the briefest amount of time, the unlikeliest band to play ‘The Late Show with David Letterman’ was the most important, most vital, simply most thrilling one in the world.

At The Drive-In – ‘One Armed Scissor’ live on ‘The Late Show’ (from ‘RoC’)

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6. The Clash – ‘London Calling’ (1979)

Marking the point where The Clash began to let reggae and ska influences seep into their snotty punk squalls, ‘London Calling’ has gone on to become one of the most celebrated albums of all time, and a regular fixture on greatest-ever countdowns. Concerned as much with its makers’ own coming to terms with reaching adulthood proper as the socio-political agenda of the period home and abroad, ‘London Calling’ made punk-rock truly accessible in a way the Sex Pistols never achieved, and gave the genre the shot of intelligence it so vitally needed. With songs often recorded in just one or two takes, the album has a raw feel that only enhances its value as a record of utmost importance, and Joe Strummer really comes into his own as an iconic frontman. Stone-cold classic, straight fact.

The Clash – ‘London Calling’ (live) (from ‘London Calling’)

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5. Public Enemy – ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ (1990)

The seminal hip-hop group’s highest-selling album, which received a 10/10 review in NME, saw them exceed the heights achieved on their (also pretty essential) ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions…’ LP. Highlighting the everyday frustrations of the black community in America via righteous freedom of speech, the album was protest set to the illest innovative beats around, courtesy of The Bomb Squad. Tackling what was, at the time, seen as a white-supremacist society, the Chuck D-led group plunged their messages in deep via ‘Welcome To The Terrordome’, ‘911 Is A Joke’ and the ever-inspiring ‘Fight The Power’. Rap music would never be the same again, as politics came to play in a very prominent manner – an approach that’s rightly never been out of fashion since.

Public Enemy – ‘Fight The Power’ (from ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’)

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4. Blur – ‘Parklife’ (1994)

Blur’s third album might not be the band’s most critically acclaimed release – that honour must go to their self-titled – but it did elevate its makers to bona-fide star status, and established itself as the quintessential Britpop LP via a series of successes in the single chart. Frontman Damon Albarn claimed at the time that ‘Parklife’ was something of a concept album, but cheering crowds cared little for thematic cohesiveness – they were out for a good time and numbers like ‘Girls & Boys’ and the title track guaranteed them that. ‘Parklife’ debuted at number one on the albums chart and remained on the chart for a staggering 90 weeks. While it’s not all sunshine and smiles – ‘This Is A Low’, anyone? – tracks from this record are certain to be the most-requested at Blur’s huge Hyde Park comeback shows this summer.

Blur – ‘Girls & Boys’ (from ‘Parklife’)

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3. Neil Young – ‘After The Gold Rush’ (1970)

While not revered at the time of its release, ‘After The Gold Rush’ has become a much-respected classic of the Neil Young catalogue, if not his most acclaimed album of all. Hugely prolific at the time, with his previous two solo albums released in 1968 and ’69 respectively while ‘Harvest’ was only two years away, Young recorded much of this seminal release in a battered old basement, leaning on the talents of 18-year-old pianist Nils Lofgren as well as Crazy Horse collaborator Ralph Molina. A classic was probably not forecast, but a classic ‘After The Gold Rush’ proved to be. Better than ‘Harvest’? We’re not getting into that argument…

Neil Young – ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ (live) (from ‘After The Gold Rush’)

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2. Radiohead – ‘OK Computer’ (1997)

One of the greatest albums ever recorded. A worldwide success. Influential like few records before or after it. A creative tour-de-force that its makers have struggled to match ever since (although they’ve come close with ‘In Rainbows’, for sure). While thousands – millions – of words have been written about ‘OK Computer’, its beauty is that no combination of them does it absolute justice. Simply the purest type of amazing, and the recipient of 10/10 reviews from Pitchfork, NME, Q, Allmusic and more.

Radiohead – ‘Karma Police’ (from ‘OK Computer’)

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1. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead’ – ‘Source Tags & Codes’ (2002)

Surprised? Only if you’ve never heard …Trail Of Dead’s third album. It’s hard to think of a more complete, more rewarding rock album released this side of the millennium – the way this record flows, its overall cadence and pitch, is perfect; every segue is a delight. The visceral is balanced by the understated, and in a way that no prolonged sequencing discussion could have fashioned; this is a band hitting their perfect stride entirely naturally. Their soon-to-be-released sixth album ‘The Century Of Self’ exudes a similar energy, but …Trail Of Dead (pictured) haven’t yet come close to matching the splendour of this truly classic third LP, and have undoubtedly been frustrated by this relative failure, however essential in the overall scheme of things. No matter: whatever the future holds for the band, they will always have this. And this is spectacular.

…Trail Of Dead – ‘Another Morning Stoner’ (from ‘Source Tags & Codes’)


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