Turkey Shoot Invitational: 2012

In 1984 and then again every year inclusive from 1988-2005 Robert Christgau published a "Turkey Shoot" edition of his Consumer Guide, almost always in the edition of the Village Voice that came out Thanksgiving week. The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally the day the Christmas shopping season begins. And it is approximately when most music magazines start to trot out their year-end best-of lists. Amid all that seasonal "ho-ho-ho" it's only fitting that real critics should chime in with downcast "hum." After Christgau decided in 1990 to only pursue A-list records (with an occasional high B+), the Turkey Shoot became a form of penance as well as a balancing corrective. However, when he moved the Consumer Guide to MSN the timing no longer worked out -- and an intensive period of picking out the year's most noteworthy crap was never any fun.

Back in my record-buying days, I could have done without the Turkey Shoot: whatever its critical value, it was no help in finding anything good, which was my main interest in reading the Consumer Guide. However, from time to time I've heard various people lament its demise, so this year I thought maybe we should run an experiment and see if we could get a committee to put one together. Hence, the 2012 Turkey Shoot Invitational. The invitations were shotgunned out: I posted requests on my blog and in the comments to Christgau's Expert Witness blog, and I followed up with email to 25 more or less professional writers in the hopes they might jump in. (Some did. Most didn't.) I promised I'd post the results on Thanksgiving Day, and here they are.

I was looking for one or two paragraph-sized reviews from each contributor, allowing the possibility of up to four. I was hoping to wind up with about twenty reviews, all of records graded B or below. I wound up with sixteen by deadline, then Dan Weiss sent three more in -- two so short I considered not using them, but too spot on to ignore. (The short ones didn't get album covers, which wouldn't have fit nicely anyway.) Had I planned better I could have slipped in a few more like that. (Joe Levy wrote in to pan One Direction's Take Me Home and Gary Clark, Jr.'s Blak and Blu, but didn't offer to write them up. I have pans in my Rhapsody Streamnotes file, which I could have adapted had the idea occurred to me sooner.)

For me what made Turkey shooting possible was Rhapsody. So far I've managed to listen to 13 of these 19 records. None came in the mail, and only Kendrick Lamar has enough of a rep that I might have considered buying a copy (not that I did). I still don't go way out of my way to seek out unpleasing music, but I do check out things that get a lot of favorable press, if only to get a sense of where the world is going. (Sometimes I find it is running away from me, as I can't fathom the interest many critics have in some bands -- Dirty Projectors, for one, or even more so the Walkmen.) On the other hand, even with Rhapsody I don't go after records by artists I'm pretty sure have nothing to offer: I haven't heard this year's offerings by Ryan Bingham, Matt and Kim, or Passion Pit (to pick three I've missed) but I have heard prior works. Similarly, I suspect that this year's Lady Antebellum is as awful as last year's, but I don't know anyone who bothered to listen to it.

That leads up to a point: we have some standards about what qualifies as a turkey here. All of the records here got at least ten reviews in publications monitored by metacritic.com; almost all got enough favorable reviews to score high in my own metacritic file. (The exception, I think, was Flo Rida, which qualified based on its charts; Jason Aldean was also a bit marginal, but I wanted to broaden the genre mix -- something which didn't really happen.) On the other hand, I rejected proposals that went after various records that Christgau, Tatum, and/or myself had reviewed favorably -- don't have a list handy, but Bob Dylan's Tempest was one (all three of us had it at B+, not exactly high praise but not a turkey either.

The most controversial record that made it through the process was undoubtedly Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City -- which Jason Gubbels and Dan Weiss like quite a lot, and which Jason Gross panned gently with a B -- the highest grade we would accept, and the only record below to fair that well. I didn't (and still don't) have much of an opinion on it, although the review strikes me as fair and I'm glad to have it. But part of the nature of the Turkey Shoot is that you hardly ever get one where you agree with every reviewer. I wanted to provide a sanity check on this by putting together a table at the end (see the archive file) where every reviewer gets a chance to rate every record. This section hasn't been a huge success -- a lot of reviewers have yet to send in their ratings (this was all very tight schedule), and many who did managed to miss most of the candidates). Still, the chart is available (and I'm open to adding to it over time), and it does help a bit.

Alabama Shakes: Boys and Girls (ATO)
With expectations set by boosters Patterson Hood and Ann Powers, as well as a grooveful if slight 4-song EP, no one can be faulted for wondering whether Brittany Howard is a juke-joint Poly Styrene. The racial/sexual makeup of the band may not be so extraordinary in Muscle Shoals -- what do you think an Aretha Franklin session looked like? -- but it still does and should draw attention elsewhere. Unfortunately, Boys and Girls isn't I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You; it's not even This Girl's in Love With You. It turns out Howard's a big AC/DC fan, which is fine and good unless that means screaming trite, impersonal lyrics over music that rarely rises above plodding monotony. Note to Brittany: Please listen to "Respect" and "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo," both full of shouting for sure, then get back to us.

Jason Aldean: Night Train (Broken Bow)
They call this Contemporary Country, a label even blander than the music, but his male competitors usually give you more voice, not to mention swagger. Aldean, on the other hand, occupies the middle range, not far from nowhere. He doesn't write either, so occasionally he manages to buy a decent song -- the humbly stubborn "The Only Way I Know" or the plaintive "I Don't Do Lonely Well" -- but he doesn't have enough sense to stay clear of the trite, or save himself from the indulgence of stripper-and-cocaine slumming melodrama like "Black Tears," nor keep him from trying to wind up even the ballads with a gratuitous rave up.

Ryan Bingham: Tomorrowland (Axster Bingham)
My brother discovered Tom Waits after he performed the haunting soldier's lament "The Day After Tomorrow" on The Daily Show, but before too long he cynically deconstructed Waits' basic shtick and turned it into a twisted parlor game in which we would mimic his gravelly bellow and challenge each other to improvise outrageous lyrics in character, such as: "I woke up in the gutter with a can of dog food/With a mind to sell a kidney." This Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter takes Waits' worthy con so seriously its damn near uproarious, offering up such howlers on 2010's Junky Star as "I could make some friends down at the court house/Get bailed out and go on welfare," or "There's just no time for talkin' prejudice of different colored fellows/No time for cruel harassment of the strippers in stilettos," all delivered in a whiskey-parched growl suspiciously unlike the warm baritone he employs in interviews. This one kicks his lethargic backing band to the curb to start fresh on his own micro-indie, but rather than inaugurating a return to "authenticity" no one in his audience questioned, he instead beefs up the sound, with a meatier backing band augmented by dense Middle Eastern-inspired string arrangements that heighten the ridiculous of the words as they crush his meager melodies to a fine powder. All of which comes together perfectly on the most unintentionally laughable knock-knock joke of all time: "Guess who is knocking on the door?/Guess who is knocking on the door?/Guess who is knocking on the door?/It's ME motherfucker, I'M KNOCKING ON THE DOOR!" Me myself, I'd rather the punchline have been a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses -- at least no one in NARAS would be deluded enough to take any performance of theirs worthy of an Oscar.

Django Django: Django Django (Because)
"Default," the first single by these Scottish neo-psychedelic art school kids, was a burst of pretentiousness with nonsense lyrics and an overly artsy music video. It's also one of my favorite songs of the year. In fact, I gave this album a lot more spins than it deserved based on the single alone. I eventually determined that, while "Default" sounds like Animal Collective if they played at CBGB's, the rest of Django Django sounds like Animal Collective if they had no identity. Still, with one song as good as "Peacebone," the band has already reached Noah Lennox's level of greatness.

Father John Misty: Fear Fun (Sub Pop)
Sure, drumming for the Fleet Foxes is a prestige gig, but an ambitious and thoughtful fella can't live in Robin Pecknold's considerable shadow forever. So just like Lana del Rey, that other paragon of artistic integrity, Joshua Tillman gives himself a ridiculous new name and thinks hard about Southern California -- Hollywood, to be precise, or "Babylon," to be vague. Sounds like a sure-fire winner, right? Unfortunately he sets these meditations atop the blandest country-rock anybody in L.A.'s coughed up since Firefall strode the land, and sings them like a Royal Canadian Mountie on a wintry soundstage: all swooping and yodeling and hearty over-articulation. Not as horrible as the Fleet Foxes -- gotta give him that -- but comparisons with Lana have to be earned, preferably by coming up with something as lively and evocative as Lana's "Off to the Races," or at the very least a pair of duck lips. Don't hold your breath for either.

Flo Rida: Wild Ones (Atlantic)
PFFFLLT. "No, that didn't work at all." "I'll try again." FLLLLPPT. "Put your lips even closer together -- that's what Flo says." FFFFFFFFFWWWT. "Yeah, but Flo also says he'll be president one day." "He is a hopeless optimist. Even his song about how the Norway massacre ruined his day is uptempo." TWWWFLT. "But if there's one thing Flo should understand, it's blowjobs. He's had an unprecendented two number ones about them." "Could he be going over our heads? He says it takes a genius to understand him." PLLLLWFL. "I doubt we're underthinking this. Take every word he says literally." FLLLLTTTW. "You mean he has a real whistle down there? Well, now what?" "Does that Avicii guy have a blowjob song?"
C [BL]

Grimes: Visions (4AD)
Name the most sugary-sweet pop music you know. Here's betting the 50 minutes of immature, girlie electronica on this one tops it. Let's start with the classic: The Archies' "Sugar, Sugar." Next to this wordless, nearly bass and drumless vagueuosity "Sugar, Sugar" is "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"; focused, direct, car radio catchy. Or Toni Basil's "Mickey," another all-studio, female friendly confection. But with a point and even a semblance of a plot. Here we've got nothing but spidery background vocals over timid synth beats that copy themselves, with titles, like "Vowels = Space and Time" and "Symphonia IX," that convey exactly nothing. Which, giving Claire Boucher slight credit, does match their emotional thrust and heft, though "Death By Flutes" would be more accurate. Compared to this, "Mickey" is "God Save the Queen." And without belaboring the point, the real world wisdom of Rebecca Black's "Friday" is "A Day in the Life" by comparison. Extra-large cotton candy is one thing, but with a dusting of powdered sugar and an aspartame cream dipping sauce?
C [GM]

Grizzly Bear: Shields (Warp)
The only thing worse than an insufferable texture band's décor-and-window-dressing albums (Yellow House's album cover is exactly what it sounds like) is when admirers go "Wait, wait, we were just kidding, this new one actually has songs and rock and roll!" And this makes Hail to the Thief look like Ramones. Sure, "Half-Gate" builds to a climax, what charting indie doesn't these days? We can only assume that "drums" are why "Yet Again" was chosen as the second single, because it sure wasn't a hook. And the "rock and roll" on the lead track doesn't even make it to the 3:10 mark. The track is longer than 3:10.

Kendrick Lamar: Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (Top Dawg)
By now, rap's mixtape-to-major disappointments are old news, much like rock's many indie-to-major disappointments. But what makes this this well-connected Compton street chronicler's almost-chart-topper notable is the parade of pundits hailing this supposed reverse trend like it's The Blueprint or Nation of Millions. Sure, Section.80 was enjoyable, plus he's complex, thoughtful and his extensive ghetto tales avoid exploitation. But while the 12-minute cut is "ambitious" and "original," it's nowhere as rich as anything on A Prince Among Thieves. As for the music, the only thing that'll make you hit the repeat button is the booze-based follow-up single, which is the best place to get to know him here. If you need to boost a really engaging 2012 record from an up-and-comer who's actually been around, try Oh No's Ohnomite or Rye Rye's Boom Boom or Danny!'s Payback.
B [JGr]

Lambchop: Mr. M (Merge/City Slang)
Kurt Wagner makes eavesdropper-rock, for voyeurs who prefer their orchestrations phoned in from the downtown installation, and lyrics pilfered from the goings-on at table six. Why does that weird guy in the hat keep looking in our direction, they want to know. The listener's guess is as good as theirs.
C [DW]

Mark Lanegan Band: Blues Funeral (4AD)
An original Grunge guy of the hair-and-flannel variety (Cobain pal, Screaming Trees frontman, Singles soundtrack, Cobain pal) Mark's had a tough time positioning himself in the cultural landscape over the last twenty years -- suicidal depressive, inept blues revivalist, scowling chain-smoker, full-throated neo-metal frontman, bartender to the Holy Ghost, auxiliary Belle-and-Sebastianite, purported longtime drug-abuser: lots of shifts, no one paying attention to any of it. And short of shooting himself in the face or getting his real estate license, it's hard to think of anything he could do at this point to brighten his prospects. Ever up to the minute, Mark here fires up his hard drive and the lets the electronics do the heavy lifting, providing a buzzy, droning, and all but unlistenable bed for his "gritty," "ethereal" voice, long his only material asset. "Muddy water/Celestial flood/I can feel you in my iron lung," he groans. Spooky. He's a much bigger deal in Europe, we're assured. Of course he is.

Matt and Kim: Lightning (Fader)
Kim's the "drummer" and Matt's the hyper-enunciatory dork, although both exude the cheery political savvy of former class presidents, and even if you think an artist's gotta eat, shilling out their big 2009 hit "Daylight" to ads for Bacardi, the ending credits of "Entourage," and video game "NBA Live 10" bespeaks a weakness for liquidity and marketing all too common within the Brooklyn bubble they call artistic home. Thing is, this has been a rather forgiving year for hyper-enuniciatory dorks, with both Owl City's Adam Young and Fun.'s Nate Ruess acquitting themselves more handily than anybody expected on guest tracks for pop superiors Carly Rae Jepsen and Pink, respectively. Note the deciding factor in those two examples, however -- alpha females. Kim offers little more than a winning smile. Inspirational Verse, sung in breathless joy: "I know that things aren't perfect!/socks with holes, no one noticed!/sneakers off, laces still tied!/sometimes truth sounds just like lies!"

Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA)
As daring formally as Frank Ocean or the first half of House of Balloons, it would be churlish to dismiss Miguel Jontel Pimentel's ecumenical funk pop amalgam outright -- though emaciated by traditional pop standards, the sparse arrangements cultivate atmosphere and presence, incorporating elements from "Time of the Season" to "Strawberry Letter 23," and the jittery bass lines ride a nervous tension absent in most mainstream R&B since D'Angelo went off the deep end. Yet Pimentel's persona isn't quite a copacetic match for his heady aesthetic, at least in part because unlike D'Angelo, it's hard to imagine him taking agoraphobia to the point of shutting himself up in a room to smoke weed, scarf down Ho-Ho's, and watch re-runs of The X-Files. Pimentel is far too earnest, more bright-eyed puppy dog than lone wolf, given to clumsily abstract metaphors ("tasty thoughts?" "helium hues?"), awkward syntax ("These fists will always protect you"), and puerile versifying ("Reluctant eyes have witnessed/The horrors I can be"). And when a paean to spring romance hooked by the mildly amusing come on "Do you like drugs?/Yeah?/Me too," later becomes the completely nauseating "Do you like hugs?," I'm convinced that should the R&B game fall through, Pimentel might have a potentially fruitful alternate career ahead of him as a life coach to the stars. Wonder how far the hugs for drugs philosophy would get with D'Angelo.

Mumford and Sons: Babel (Glassnote)
Consciously or not, U2-style evangelism is all over the Mumfords' bland but biblically titled second album: blatantly in the pompous vowel-stretching climaxes of "Whispers in the Dark" and "Lover of the Light," but really wherever keening harmonies reach for heaven the way arms stretch to the sky, as the opening title track puts it. Several songs feature yelping woooos, and tests of despair and temptation are triumphed over at every turn. All this amid thoughts of Hell, clouded minds and heavy hearts, fickle flesh keeping heart and soul in place, and love that loves with urgency, not haste: bromides no deeper than Matchbox Twenty, as smug as Dave Matthews. Pope-rock will never die!
C [CE]

Of Monsters and Men: My Head Is an Animal (Universal Republic)
The Arcade Fire's rapid permeation of the mainstream consciousness was always going to provoke the shameless commodification of their sleeveheart bombast, which these Universal-stamped Icelandic folkies have ostensibly put away their Cranberries records long enough to capably affect. Track after programmatic track, subdued romanticism spills into by-rote triumphalism, hallmarked by a church-echo four-on-the-floor over which coed vocalists strike a studied balance between starry eye and moony mind. Spiritually and sonically, it's a hair short of plagiarism, but Of Monsters and Men mean a different business -- unlike said neon bible-thumpers, everything is embalmed in impassivity and cliché, and never comes the threat (so well-embodied by Win Butler's unmistakably authentic quavering keen) of internalized emotions so swollen that explosion is the only reasonable solution. Which is because nothing seems to be actually bugging these guys -- unlike their forbears, they scarcely bother to mention, much less detail, any oppressive forces, micro or macro. So the semi-sentimental principals grant their drummer the full responsibility of momentum and urgency as they whoa and la and "hey!" about dragonflies and waterfalls and snow and spring and love, prostrate and tearful in the back pew.

Passion Pit: Gossamer (Columbia)
In which Columbia gets the MGMT record they would've preferred to Congratulations, with a couple plastic soul ballads for that 2012 touch. Happy?

Purity Ring: Shrines (4AD)
Great at first, you think. A handy summum of current production tricks (love those rattlesnake hats, Luger, wobble those microtones and chipmunk snatches that the Field used to drop on house 4/4) No Age'd conveniently into pop songs by a pretty, well-enunciated voice and about body image to boot. But these biology freaks forgot the connective tissue; even the two hookiest here, "Fineshrine" and "Ungirthed" float about the void rather meaninglessly without the flesh they so desire to bind them. And the aesthetic goes on and on and on, even for just 38 minutes. One reason Pitchfork coined the term "grower" is because they're used to praising records in reverse -- endorse the sound now, worry about what it accomplished later. This grows, yeah. Grows annoying.

SpaceGhostPurrp: Mysterious Phonk: Chronicles of SpaceGhostPurrp (4AD)
Miami and proud, this doomy hip-hop rapper/producer is pure South Beach -- raunchy, minimal, bass-heavy, synth-tweaked. And more hype than heft, as witness SpaceGhost's threats in October (i.e., four short months after the release of this debut) to retire from "this shady ass rap game" unless fans insist he keep bangin'. Not that he'd disappear completely, what with plenty of production gigs lined up in which to deploy his "odd" samples from porn flicks and Mortal Kombat. But whatever his skills with a beat (and skepticism is encouraged), there's really only one reason anybody is talking about these cleaned-up mixtape tracks, and that's SpaceGhost's distinction as the first hip-hop artist signed to long-running indie label 4AD. And he's a more perfect fit than stunned observers let on. Just like Shabazz Palaces barely messed with SubPop's cheerful boho aesthetic, SpaceGhost neatly encompasses sonic and thematic obsessions common to labelmates old and new, although he's more Clan of Xymox than Bauhaus. Goth-rap, then, in love with both moonlight and humming synthesizers brought to the forefront, although the keyboards can't obscure or bury such timeless observations as "never trust a ho," "you can't trust a bitch," or "open up your mouth, bitch/ and swallow this." That last directive comes from album centerpiece "Suck a Dick 2012." Never would have thought a 4AD album might be criticized on the grounds of lyrics not being opaque enough.
C [JGu]

Bobby Womack: The Bravest Man in the Universe (XL)
I can dig musical contradictions. Deep soul singer meets shallow Brit beats? Sure! Hot old goat tangles with ice-cold contemporary chanteuse? Bring it! Nasty reprobate updates treasured African American sacred-political tropes for not-very-sacred-or-political personal application? Plenty have done it well! But the persona Womack develops over the ultimately dull duration here -- wise old man dispensing spiritual wisdom -- is just too much to take. The deal breaker is Womack's supercessionist repurposing of an interview done with his mentor Sam Cooke, deployed here to explain why he's a greater singer than Cooke ever got to be. And this from a guy who admitted to regularly raping Cooke's teenage daughter -- his own stepdaughter in the 1960s. Co-producer Damon Albarn says the multi-talented Womack is "just like Zelig," but perhaps he should have said "just like Woody Allen." Womack wants us to know that "forgiveness" is the heart of the matter. That right there is some wack California Dreamin'. Docked a notch for offering potential cover to Don Henley and John Phillips. And Roman Polanski.


Thanks to all the contributors, listed below, plus a few others who at least wrote in, made suggestions, and/or at least cheered us on. Also to Robert Christgau, who pointed the way, then got out while the getting was good. Chuck Eddy's piece was based on a much longer review he wrote for Spin.

  • Chuck Eddy [CE]: Former editor at Village Voice and Billboard, writes regularly for Rhapsody, Rolling Stone, and Spin, and occasionally for emusic, MTVHive, and Complex.
  • Jason Gross [JGr]: Editor/perpetrator of Perfect Sound Forever; has written for the Village Voice, Billboard, Time Out New York, The Wire, PopMatters, Blurt.
  • Jason Gubbels [JGu]: Writes the blog Cerebral Decanting, and has written for SPIN.
  • Tom Hull [TH]: Has written in the Village Voice and Seattle Weekly, but these days just rants about politics and rates music On the Web.
  • Brad Luen [BL]:
  • Ryan Maffei [RM]: Writes the blog 5 Records and has contributed to One Week//One Band.
  • Jeffrey Melnick [JM]: Has written often about the history of American popular culture, most recently in his book 9/11 Culture: America Under Construction.
  • Greg Morton [GM]:
  • Cam Patterson [CP]: Lists his occupation as "snatching life from the jaws of death," he does not write professionally about music, never has, and probably shouldn't.
  • Matt Rice [MR]: Writes the Matt on Music column for the Eastern Echo, and just began writing for LX-GOODS.com.
  • Nathan Smith [NS]:
  • Michael Tatum [MT]: The author of the monthly (more or less) blog A Downloader's Diary.
  • Dan Weiss [DW]: Freelance writer whose work has appeared in Spin, Salon and the Village Voice. He writes the blog Ask a Guy Who Likes Fat Chicks and plays in the band Dan Ex Machina.

Second Opinions, and Then Some

We asked the contributors to provide ratings for the reviewed albums, and to nominate other worthy candidates that we didn't manage to bag. Not everyone complied, and no one managed to suffer through all of the records. One reason for doing this is to note differences of opinion, which are inevitable even among relatively like-minded critics.

I asked for numerical ratings from 1-10 to make it easy to average them. I proposed a scale that puts B == 5, C == 3, D == 1; a 6 or 7 is a B+, 8 an A-. I gave my B+(*) records a 5.

Alabama Shakes: Boys and Girls6566334.8
Jason Aldean: Night Train634.5
Ryan Bingham: Tomorrowland33.0
Django Django: Django Django534.0
Father John Misty: Fear Fun
Flo Rida: Wild Ones33.0
Grimes: Visions55385.2
Grizzly Bear: Shields4333.3
Kendrick Lamar: Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City585886.8
Lambchop: Mr. M5333.7
Mark Lanegan Band: Blues Funeral55.0
Matt and Kim: Lightning22.0
Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream48597476.3
Mumford and Sons: Babel3433.3
Of Monsters and Men: My Head Is an Animal
Passion Pit: Gossamer85334.8
Purity Ring: Shrines3544.0
SpaceGhostPurrp: Mysterious Phonk423.0
Bobby Womack: The Bravest Man in the Universe6645.3

Other nominated turkeys:

Ceremony: Zoo55.0
Gary Clark Jr.: Blak and Blu44.0
Converge: All We Love We Leave Behind22.0
Debo Band: Debo Band55.0
Fun.: Some Nights45634.5
Pallbearer: Sorrow and Extinction55.0
Kellie Pickler: 100 Proof5665.7
One Direction: Take Me Home333.0
Pig Destroyer: Book Burner22.0
Redd Kross: Researching the Blues55.0
Swans: The Seer3343.3
THEESatisfaction: awE naturalE57576.0
Torche: Harmonicraft364.5
Usher: Looking 4 Myself57555.5
The Walkmen: Heaven4233.0
Jessie Ware: Devotion55845.5


Some reference links: