Rock's Big Questions

The best third albums of all time

The best third albums of all time

Editor's note: This is a new feature where Douglas Newman and Jim Beviglia, two of CultureMap's music writers, tackle rock's big questions in a spirited dialogue where no feelings are spared. We encourage you, fair reader, to join the fray by leaving your own arguments and rebuttals in the comments.

This week's question: What are the best third albums in rock music history?

Jim, nice job on coming up with this month's question. I assume you were spurred to ask it after reviewing Arcade Fire's triumphant third release, The Suburbs.

Critics often muse about debuts and the supposed "sophomore slumps" that follow, but rarely do you see discussions about third albums. I would venture to say that the third album is even more intriguing than the first or second, since it's usually recorded at a time when the band is settling into a comfort zone, often after having achieved some sense of success.

To me, it's the "make or break" record, the one that signals whether the band is coasting, playing it safe, or whether it has chosen to continue pushing the boundaries in the quest for greatness.

Back in high school I picked up a copy of Billy Bragg's "Talking With the Taxman About Poetry" — on vinyl no less. And printed on the cover, right under the illustration of a money eating monster was the following disclaimer: "The difficult third album."

And while its recording might have been a difficult process for Mr. Bragg, it clearly showed him expanding his horizons, introducing new instrumentation, fuller arrangements and more polished production. For Billy Bragg, his "difficult third album," although not flawless, found the Cockney songwriter on the path to worldwide critical acclaim and a long, productive career that's still going strong.

Who knows, had Bragg made an easy third album, his growing audience might have tired of his sound, thereby stalling his progress.

So, that brings me to my list of some great third albums. I tried to focus on records that were not only great, but that also were significant in relation to the band's or artist's overall career, a release that marked a turning point in their musical progression.

Have at it Jim! The key phrase in this debate is: No holds barred.

Electric Ladyland by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.  "Rainy Day, Dream Away"

The first two records by the guitar god were stone cold classics, but Electric Ladyland is Hendrix's defining moment. A sprawling double-LP, Ladyland is an eclectic collection of songs and instrumentals, featuring the extended jam "Voodoo Chile," the rollicking "Come On," a masterful take on Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," and the psychedelic epic "1983 ... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)."

This would be the Experience's last hurrah, but boy did one of rock's greatest bands go out on top!

Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band (1969)

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.  "Moonlight on Vermont

Calling "Trout Mask Replica" a challenging listening would be an understatement. But if you can get yourself through it, you'll find that Captain Beeheart's third record is an immensely rewarding experience and one that's never likely to get old.

Marrying Delta blues and dirty garage rock to free jazz and avant-garde experimentalism, "Trout Mask Replica" is an expression of Don Van Vliet's restless creativity at its most primitive and inspired. The Simpsons mastermind Matt Groening declared it to be the greatest album ever made, while critic Piero Scaruffi describes the work as "so innovative and complex as to be nearly indecipherable."

With plaudits such as this, how can you resist taking this head trip?

Pink Moon by Nick Drake (1972)

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.  "Things Behind the Sun"

Nick Drake only recorded three albums during his short life (tragically he died in 1974 at the age of 26), and while I'd recommended owning all three of them, "Pink Moon" is his greatest artistic achievement. Much sparser than his previous releases, the album was recorded at midnight in two separate two-hour sessions over two days in October 1971.

Featuring only Drake's vocals and guitar, as well as some piano overdubs on the title track, "Pink Moon" is a beautiful, but haunting — and at times harrowing — collection of songs that are clearly the work of a troubled soul.  

All Mod Cons by The Jam (1978)

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.  "To Be Someone"

By the time 1977 came to a close the Jam had two decent but underwhelming albums under its belt. An above-average mod-revival punk band that was heavily indebted to the early Who and Kinks sound, the Jam did not seem to be destined for greatness. Then they released All Mod Cons in 1978 and everything changed. Taking a cue from the Kinks' Ray Davies, lead singer Paul Weller constructed a record that unfolds with a clear narrative arc, featuring songs chock full of compelling characters and uniquely British imagery.

The songwriting towers above anything from the first two Jam LPs and the playing is both more confident and nuanced, while still retaining the band's punk snarl and its ability to deliver a tasty pop hook. Three more albums would follow before Weller abruptly disbanded the Jam at the height of their popularity in 1982.

Let It Be by The Replacements (1984)

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.  "Unsatisfied"

Much like the Jam, few people realized the potential boiling up inside the drunken, bratty quartet from Minneapolis until the band unleashed its third album. Said album, Let It Be is a ragged mess, but that's its charm and genius. And what cajones to title the album after a Beatles classic!

What's most memorable about the mid-western "Let It Be" is the full blossoming of Paul Westerberg's songwriting, as evidenced by the sublime "I Will Dare" and the intense "Unsatisfied." Throw in some off-color humor ("Gary's Got a Boner" and "Tommy Gets His Tonsels Out") and a silly Kiss cover ("Black Diamond") and you have one of the decade's most raucous albums, a perfect soundtrack to coming-of-age during the Reagan era.

The Queen is Dead by The Smiths (1986)

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.  "There is a Light That Never Goes Out"

Already a sensation in its native England, by the time the Smiths released its epic third album in 1986 the band was already starting to come apart at the seams. "The Queen is Dead" was the record they were destined to make before imploding as quickly as they rose to fame. It finds Morrissey at the height of his lyrical prowess and Johnny Marr delivering timeless guitar lines that will no doubt influence generations of budding axemen to come.

Ten songs in 36 minutes and not one wasted second, "The Queen is Dead" continues to delight with each listen.

Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space by Spiritualized (1997)

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.  "I Think I'm In Love"

A grand statement about love and loss, replete with gospel choir and orchestra, "Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space" might be one of the saddest records in history. It's also one of the more ambitious third albums you're likely to find.

Over an hour of densely orchestrated "hypnotic headphone symphonies" (as one reviewer dubbed it), "Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space" is best consumed in one listen, preferably in a dark room by yourself.

While never reaching widespread acclaim on this side of the pond, the vaunted British music rag, NME, chose Spiritualized's heady third album over Radiohead's OK Computer (which happened to be that's band's third offering as well) as the best of the year. And yes, it's really that good.

Look for Jim's response and his own list tomorrow.

Trout Mask Replica
Trout Mask Replica isn't an easy listen, but you won't be sorry you took on the challenge.
Jimi Hendrix Experience
The Jimi Hendrix Experience is an incredible way to go out.
The Replacements
The Replacements had the guts use the Beatles' "Let It Be" album name — and delivered under that pressure. This is one great third album.
Floating in Space
Floating in space makes for some surreal music too.