Here we have a list of artists that includes hard rock, new wave, R&B, bar rock, punk (sorry, no polka) and one of the biggest rock musicians of all time. The common factor that we’re looking at this time is that all of them became massively successful and well-known with the release of their third album. As a broad topic, there’s probably not much else to say about it, so let’s get right to the list…
# 9 – Huey Lewis & the News
Hugh Anthony Cregg III, better known to the world as the lead singer of Huey Lewis & the News, would later refer to his band’s self-titled 1980 debut album as “the one nobody bought.” If that was an exaggeration, it was only a slight one, since the record didn’t even make the US Top 200. Two years later, second effort Picture This at least went gold, thanks largely to the band’s first hit single “Do You Believe in Love” But all of these were just warm-up exercises for Sports, the band’s third album released in the fall of 1983. Humorous videos and a down-to-earth, everyday-guy image (which made a nice contrast to all the crazy-haired British new wavers of the time) helped the album go to number one in the US, score five hit singles and eventually sell seventeen million copies in North America.
# 8 – Janet Jackson
Nobody’s going to argue that Janet Jackson’s last name didn’t help her. However, unless you can name one hit by Tito or Marlon, we can all agree that family connections will only take you so far. For a while, it looked like even that couldn’t do much for Janet: her 1982 debut solo album only got as high as #63, after which the follow-up Dream Street (1984) was even more of a commercial dead end, peaking at #187. But all the difference in the world happened when the writer-producer team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (both former members of the Time) helped her to find a trendy but distinct sound for her 1986 album Control, which went to number one, produced five Top 10 singles and by itself made Janet the all-time second-most successful solo Jackson (guess who’s first).
# 7 – No Doubt
There was more than a little bit of doubt that Anaheim, California ska band No Doubt would ever make it after their first two releases, No Doubt (1992) and The Beacon Street Sessions (1995) both failed to chart (supposedly their record deal was even in jeopardy). The band’s third release – also in 1995 – was a subtle-but-noticeable move away from their ska roots, but despite the title, Tragic Kingdom was a much-needed dose of Eighties-style fun and abandon for the angst-and-anguish-ridden mid-Nineties rock climate. After the single “Just a Girl” conquered MTV and the radio airwaves, “Don’t Speak” went to number one in seven counties and Tragic Kingdom eventually sold sixteen million copies worldwide.
# 6 – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Gainesville, Florida rocker Tom Petty and his band the Heartbreakers released their self-titled debut album in 1976, followed by You’re Gonna Get It! two years later. Both records went gold, but it was only after signing to a major label (MCA) that the Heartbreakers truly broke commercially: their 1978 release Damn the Torpedoes blessed them with a number two position on the Billboard album chart, their first Top 10 single (“Don’t Do Me Like That”) and eventual sales of three million copies, making it the all-time highest-selling Heartbreakers album (although Petty as a solo act would eventually eclipse it with his 1990 album Full Moon Fever, selling more than twice that).
# 5 – Def Leppard
By 1983, the young Sheffield, England band Def Leppard had already made enough of a roar among hard rock fans for their first two albums, On Through the Night (1980) and High and Dry (1981) to both go platinum in the US. However, with their third album Pyromania (and more than a little help from MTV exposure) the Leps went to number two on the US album chart, scored two Top 20 singles (considered unthinkable for the sort of band they were considered to be) and ultimately sold ten million copies (additionally, with that record Def Leppard helped seed the emerging “pop” side of heavy metal which would eventually both sell a lot of records and divide the genre).
# 4 – Blondie
When the 1976 debut album by Blondie failed to chart, it seemed as though the band (whose lead singer was already thirty years old) might not ever make any waves beyond the New York punk scene. They did a bit better with the follow-up, Plastic Letters (at least the British were ahead of the curve, as the album went Top 10 in the UK). But third album Parallel Lines not only went Top 10 and platinum in the US, but after nine Blondie singles all failed to chart, “Heart of Glass” went to number one, making it the first song by a new wave artist to do so (yes, the track is technically disco), as well as being the inaugural run of Blondie’s four trips to the top of the US singles chart.
# 3 – Bon Jovi
In 1984 the debut single by Sayreville, New Jersey rockers Bon Jovi (“Runaway”) managed to just make the US Top 40, and over the next two years touring and word-of-mouth kept the sales of their first two albums, Bon Jovi (1984) and 7800 Fahrenheit, (1985) respectable (while lead singer Jon Bon Jovi made press for his relationship with actress Diane Lane). However, it wasn’t until their third effort Slippery When Wet (1986) that the band’s mix of heavy metal attitude, working class sensibility and a teen-idol frontman fully resonated with record buyers, with the album selling twenty-eight million copies worldwide and securing Bon Jovi’s place as one of America’s most commercially successful rock bands (Strange but true: The week that Slippery When Wet first hit number one in the US, Bon Jovi was playing an arena tour… as the opening act for .38 Special).
# 2 – Green Day
These lists are always subjective, but when the topic is artists who broke big with their third album, it’s safe to say that a when band goes from first- and second albums that don’t chart at all to a third which goes Top 5 in at least seven countries (including the US) and eventually sells ten million copies… yeah, that probably qualifies. With their third release Dookie (1995) Northern California trio Green Day not only accomplished all that but also spearheaded “the year that punk broke,” opening the door for acts like Blink-182, Good Charlotte, Sum 41 and Fall Out Boy into the mainstream (of course, there’s also the endless debate over whether or not a band that sells that many records can still be “punk,” but right now we can’t spare two weeks to partake in that particular argument, so for the moment we’ll just move on… )
# 1 – Bruce Springsteen
By the mid-Seventies, Bruce Springsteen and his backing group the E Street Band had already gained a reputation as one of the best live acts in rock. Still, neither of his first two albums – you know, those ones with the marathon titles: Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (both 1973) – were able to get any higher than number sixty on the Billboard chart. But with his third release Born to Run in 1975 the world suddenly took notice: the record went Top 10, and Springsteen became the first (and so far only) rock act ever to simultaneously make the cover of both Time and Newsweek.
The Born to Run phenomena wasn’t just about commercial success: the title track became an anthem for a generation who now realized that they weren’t just the also-rans of their Sixties counterparts. Nearly a decade later, Springsteen would achieve even more impressive record sales and household name status with his other “born” album, Born in the U.S.A. (1984). But as far as most people are concerned, Born to Run will always be the album that made Bruce Springsteen Bruce Springsteen.
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