10 career-altering third albums from bands in the 1980s

These third albums were a bunch of excellence.

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COPPERHEAD ROAD by Steve Earle (1988)

I mentioned that Steve Earle was one of a trio of young country artists who helped galvanize the creaky genre in 1986. Veterans like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings had been carrying the outlaw brand of country for a long time by that point, and Earle emerged as one of their most logical successors. On his first two albums, he revealed himself to be an outstanding songwriter. On Copperhead Road, he proved those songs could score wide mainstream success.

Copperhead Road actually did not do as well on the country charts as his smash debut Guitar Town. But it climbed higher on the mainstream charts and it proved to be successful all across the English-speaking world. The title track and “Back to the Wall” were both top 20 hits – not on the Country chart but on the Mainstream Rock chart. Just as Run-D.M.C. had done with hip hop, Metallica had done with metal, and Bad Brains had done with hardcore punk, Steve Earle demonstrated how country music could absorb rock influences without losing its country pedigree.

The opening sounds of the album – the bagpipe-simulating synth that kicks off the title track – establish both Earle’s love of British Isles music and the fact that there would be crossover sounds galore. That song alone, which presents an epic nightmare history of the evolution from moonshine to marijuana in the backwoods of the country, moves from bluegrass-tinged mandolin to crashing hard rock guitar as it progresses. And Earle never lets up.

He is not afraid of politics -whether he is trouncing the NRA in “The Devil’s Right Hand,” or lambasting the way America abandoned its Viet Nam vets on “Johnny Come Lately,” (with an assist from the Pogues.) This is pertinent music. And it ends on one of the loveliest of all spiritual ballads – “Nothing But a Child.” Earle was very good before Copperhead Road. From that point forward, though he was dealing with and ultimately conquering some serious substance abuse issues, few were better.