Though she has never really left our consciousness in the two years since Fearless first came out, it still seems like it has been a while since Taylor Swift released an album. But all that waiting is finally over, as Speak Now is out now. The album is a big step for Swift for a number of reasons, as not only does it represent something of a thematic departure for her (in the sense that each song is about a particular person, and they make up a narrative of the last year of her life) but it also means she is at a turning point, as it's her third album.
For any artist who intends on sticking around for the long term, the third album may be the most important. It's always too easy to dismiss a hit debut as a fluke, and a second album tends to be rushed or caught up in the process of actually making a second album (the first album is usually a summation of years of thought and considering; second albums tend to take about six months). The third album is the first chance that the artist really gets to stretch his or her wings as well as solidify exactly what the sound is supposed to be. It's the gateway to the rest of a career, and it can be make or break.
By all accounts, Speak Now is a make, and it takes its place alongside these other important third albums.
Radiohead, OK Computer
Up until the release of OK Computer, Radiohead were simply an interesting guitar band who had one fluke hit ("Creep") and a second album that was considered (at the time, at least) to be surprisingly good and refreshing. But the entire script changed on OK Computer, as the band began its slow movement away from traditional rock sounds and into the outer reaches of electronic music. Kid A was probably the purer form of what Radiohead really wanted to accomplish, but OK Computer is everything that Radiohead is, was and always will be.
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin III
Another powerful album that represented a huge transition, Led Zeppelin III began the greatest band of the 1970s' move from pounding stadium blues riffs into more experimental bits and brief snatches of folk and psychedelia. But they hadn't given up on making a big racket, as the album opens with the gargantuan "Immigrant Song," which may be the three minutes that best describes Led Zep's sound.
Kanye West, Graduation
West has stuck to his guns from jump street, but his first two albums only hinted at the wide-angle weirdness that would appear on Graduation. From the haunting mood music of "Good Morning" through the pimptastic "Good Life" and the dreamy "Homecoming," Graduation provides the first hints of the darkest corners of West's complicated psychology and everybody-is-on-the-guest-list approach to sounds.
The White Stripes, White Blood Cells
The White Stripes were a name passed around among indie enthusiasts near the turn of the millennium, and while their rugged guitar-and-drum sound was developing a following and becoming more elaborate on their first two albums, White Blood Cells made Jack and Meg White into stars.
Everybody pretty much knew that U2 were going to be huge, but it took until War for them to really find their wings. War opened up the production (especially on the Edge's guitar sound) and let Bono's voice reach higher than it ever had. Plus, War contained some of the band's biggest hits, including "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day."
Jay-Z, Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life
Jigga was already a legend in the hip-hop world by the time Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life came out, but his third album began his transition into becoming a pop superstar. Of course, not every song on the album is the "Annie"-sampling "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" (it also includes plenty of hardcore street tales), but his willingness to cross over (and in such an inventive way) gave Vol. 2 the energy that carried Jay to international superstar status.
Nirvana, In Utero
It's a shame that Nirvana's third album was also their last, as the ideas hinted at on In Utero are fascinating. It seems likely that frontman Kurt Cobain was going to head even deeper down the Steve Albini-assisted noise rock rabbit hole, though In Utero also made audiences re-consider the breakout smash Nevermind (as Cobain often complained about the production on that album).
Metallica, Master of Puppets
Though both Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning are stunning displays of surging volume and technical virtuosity, Master of Puppets outed the men of Metallica as pretty good songwriters. The title track is the centerpiece, but the album manages to hit the sweet spot between pop and brutality in ways that few heavy bands have managed.
What's your favorite third album? Let us know in the comments!