Acts That Answered the Impossible Challenge

posted in: by Sean Ross | 0

By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)

Killers When You Were YoungRadio law demands these days that afternoon hosts must do the “impossible challenge.” (Unless the morning show does it. But that’s only if some other team has claimed both prank phone calls and the “Second Date Update.”) So here’s mine.

Very few acts manage to do this on their third major release.

Hint: the Killers couldn’t do it.

Kings of Leon haven’t done it, at least on the pop side.

Spin Doctors, because of vocal issues, physically could not do it.

Regaining career momentum after a disappointing follow-up to a major hit album is often an impossible challenge. Rock acts in particular have found it hard to regain altitude. The trajectory is familiar. In a down period for rock, an act scores two or three hits from a debut or breakthrough album, reaches the point of saturation, and brings out the detractors. With this pressure, acts often fail to deliver on the anticipation for the second project, and there is no anticipation for the third.

Imagine-Dragons-Believer-artIt was easy to imagine a similar fate for Imagine Dragons. Their protégés, X-Ambassadors, had scored the hits that were so elusive on “Smoke + Mirrors,” the Dragons’ second album. And yet, “Believer” is a multi-week Alternative No. 1. More surprising, “Believer” is 17-14 at Mainstream CHR with the third greatest spin gain (+1248 spins on Wednesday) and the biggest for a song not involving Justin Bieber. In other words, “Believer” has converted non-believers … without the Beliebers. (And with Wednesday’s release of “The Man,” there’s now the possibility of a Killers comeback, just on a much different timetable.)

Decades ago, career trajectories were less proscribed, especially for rock acts. With a base at rock radio, you could have a pop hit, disappear for a few years, and then come back when you had something without losing your stardom. Consider Rod Stewart. “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright)” was the end of four years without a major hit. But after “Maggie May,” he was never not a major artist. The Eagles had retroactive radio hits with “Tequila Sunrise” and “Already Gone.” But until “Best of My Love,” those songs were relatively disappointing follow-ups to “Take It Easy.”

But in the ‘80s, it was more typical to see career momentum build, peak, and then slip away. There was the breakthrough moment of Off the Wall. There was the superstardom of Thriller. There was the tacit acceptance of Bad and the diminishing returns of Dangerous. Those projects were informed, then weighted down, by Michael Jackson’s own uneasy celebrity, but many similar career arcs were not.

The industry’s “whatever it takes” mentality of the late ‘80s could generally jam those disappointing follow-ups to major projects on to the radio. Lionel Richie or Whitney Houston could even generate more chart hits with the album that was just OK than with the album that everybody liked. But it was rare to have an “I Will Always Love You” rebound moment waiting. Usually, as with Lionel, there was just a slow slide to “not even a superstar anymore.”

George Michael PrayingFor those acts who squandered their career momentum immediately, rebounds were even harder. Often there were attempts at serious artistry involved, prompting a George Michael or Alanis Morissette to replace the hits that everybody liked with something more ponderous. Occasionally, a Green Day would recover from a “Geek Stink Breath” (the shot across the bow kickoff from their first follow-up project) with a “Time of Your Life.” But generally if you are conflicted about your stardom, somebody else is willing to claim it for you. Radio will not be waiting when you come around.

Sometimes the bounceback single follows a failed attempt to give radio exactly what it wants. Kenny Loggins’ burgeoning solo stardom was slowed by “Don’t Fight It,” which sure seemed like the uptempo smash that takes an artist to the next level, until it wasn’t. Then there was “Footloose.” Delivering radio a “Clocks”-soundalike with “Speed of Sound” didn’t work for Coldplay. But “Viva la Vida” did. (And even that was obscured by releasing “Violet Hill” first.)

Bouncebacks don’t always turn into comebacks. From “Love Is Like Oxygen” by the Sweet to “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” by Mike Posner, managing a left-field hit after several years of chart inactivity doesn’t always mean there’s another one in the wings. Even with major artists, results differ. Maroon 5 ran with the renewed excitement of “Moves Like Jagger.” Taylor Swift was losing momentum when “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” effectively launched a second career trajectory. But Justin Timberlake roared back with “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” then went back to his between-projects hiatus.

Here are some other career recovery hits over the years:

Rick James, “Give It to Me Baby” – After his breakthrough with “You And I” and “Mary Jane,” there were actually two Rick James albums. One was fine, but more of the same. One was a failed attempt at a change-up. The “Street Songs” album was the much-heralded return to form. And the next single was “Super Freak.”

Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” – It’s not that they weren’t busy or productive between 1980’s “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)” and 1982’s “Combat Rock.” “The Magnificent Seven” and “This Is Radio Clash” came out of that era. But the American single was “Hitsville U.K.,” the least radio-friendly Motown tribute ever. And even though “Should I Stay or Should I Go” sent a clear “we are back and ready to make great radio records” message, it actually took the next single, “Rock the Casbah,” to have a full-fledged radio hit. (“Should I Stay” came out twice in the U.S., and entered gold libraries over the years.)

Police, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” – The album kickoff single in between “Roxanne” and this one was “Message in a Bottle.” So there was no slacking off on the band’s part. And “Message” was a hit elsewhere in the world. But “Message” arrived at a time when new wave was suddenly flooding American radio — those stations inclined to play it had plenty to pick and choose from, and not all were inclined.

Billy Idol, “Mony Mony” – A rebound that was also a reissue. In 1981, the original version hid in plain sight, another example of the overabundance of new-wave riches that most U.S. pop stations ignored so they could play “Theme From ‘The Greatest American Hero.’” But when “To Be a Lover,” “Don’t Need a Gun,” and “Sweet Sixteen” sapped his career momentum, “Mony” was a proven hit that was just waiting to actually become an American hit.

Bryan Adams, “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” – By 1987, much of Top 40’s class of 1983-84 had delivered workmanlike follow-up projects that delivered chart hits but little joy, and none were more joyless than Adams’ “Heat of the Night” — which presaged Michael’s “Praying for Time” in its lofty ambitions and hit just as corporate rock was giving way to hair-band rock anyway.

LL Cool J, “Around the Way Girl,” “Hey Lover” – It wasn’t just rock acts who sometimes had a hard time figuring out who they were after a breakthrough hit, especially an uncharacteristic one. After the ballad change-up of “I Need Love,” LL Cool J’s next album kickoff single was the macho misfire of “I’m That Type of Guy.” “Around the Way Girl” found the right balance for his female constituency, and “Mama Said Knock You Out” completed the “don’t-call-it-a comeback.” Then it happened again: a 1993 album that lost momentum and the 1995 project (with “Hey Lover,” “Doin’ It,” and “Loungin’”) that reclaimed it.

No Doubt, “Hey Baby”; Nelly Furtado, “Promiscuous”; Avril Lavigne, “Girlfriend” – Like much of the New Rock Revolution’s class of 1995-96, No Doubt had a hard time finding its tone after “Tragic Kingdom.” When the next project landed, Alternative and Modern AC were on divergent courses, and singles like “Ex Girlfriend” and “Simple Kind of Life” didn’t land neatly in either. The surprise was how No Doubt handled the third album — not just eschewing any bid for Alternative Love Angel Music Babycredibility, but bypassing Alternative altogether. That paved the way for Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl” and “Hollaback Girl,” which in turn gave Furtado and Lavigne new pop energy for their third projects. In the early ‘00s, there was an ad for a dot.com aimed at new bands that showed a bewildered rock act in a room with a clueless middle-aged A&R executive who wanted them to make a record like “Mickey.” For those of us who liked that record, there’s some satisfaction in knowing that for both Stefani and Lavigne, making a record like “Mickey” actually turned out to be a career strategy.

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