15 Musical Turkeys

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

on 11.21.11 in Lists

The only thing music fans seem to enjoy more than watching artists succeed is watching them fall flat on their faces. It’s reassuring to know that our heroes are fallible, no matter the public embarrassment that accompanies the artist faceplant. But what’s more interesting is the way history can change public perceptions of records; the way time can transform past failures into artistic successes. With that in mind, we present this list of 15 Turkeys, albums that were viewed as disappointments on their release, but have gone on to become major — or minor — classics.

Their Satanic Majesties Request

The Rolling Stones

When Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band became a universally-acclaimed pop sensation in 1967's Summer of Love, the Beatles' friendly rivals responded with a dark and dystopian — but no less ambitious — album that left Stones' fans shaking their collective heads. Recorded chaotically after the band's February drug bust, Satanic Majesties is one of rock's great bait-and-switches, with an uncharacteristic two-part drum circle ("Sing This All Together") softening heads for a kind of visionary rock paranoia that wouldn't be matched until David Bowie's Diamond Dogs. — Richard Gehr



Released at the height of grunge, Weezer's 1994 debut catapulted this unsuspecting L.A. power-pop band into the rock mainstream, and shy leader Rivers Cuomo subsequently freaked. He enrolled at Harvard, wrote tortured love songs and recorded a deliberately raw 1996 quasi-concept album named after the central character in Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. Encino security firm Pinkerton's Inc. slapped the band with a restraining order a day before the disc's release; critics, the public and Cuomo alike trashed it. But during the wounded band's extended hiatus, web-empowered fans turned this flop into a sleeper smash. And although Weezer eventually rebounded, virtually no one likes its subsequent albums as much as they now love Pinkerton. — Barry Walters

After Capitol Records plucked Karen Dalton out of Greenwich Village's coffeehouse scene, it asserted, "All [she] has to do to create her own legend is to sing." But Capitol also wanted Dalton to write original material and accept comparisons to Billie Holiday. Dalton refused, then disappeared. Still, Bob Dylan never forgot about her. More than 10 years after Dalton died, Dylan fondly wrote about where he first saw her performing at a cafe, long before she'd croon in this stellar sophomore effort, "Are you leaving for the country?" — Christina Lee


Lou Reed

After years of meager commercial success, the former Velvet Underground leader finally hit the big time with 1972's glam milestone Transformer. But he was at pains to prove that he was a serious artist, not merely the puppet of producers David Bowie and Mick Ronson. So he teamed with Alice Cooper collaborator Bob Ezrin, Traffic's Steve Winwood, Cream's Jack Bruce, and other pros for this pitch-black 1973 rock opera about a relationship plagued by depression, drug addiction, sex addiction and spousal abuse. Radio recoiled, Transformer fans balked, and Rolling Stone, like most publications at the time hated it. In 2003, the same publication hailed it the 344th greatest album of all time. — Barry Walters

Party Mix/Mesopotamia

The B-52's

No early '80s party was complete without the wigged quintet's yellow and red albums. In 1981, the Athens, Georgia, group teamed with Talking Heads leader David Byrne for a follow-up, but like Godzilla and Mothra the two New Wave titans clashed over Byrne's radical revision of their junk-shop rock, and the aborted sessions were instead issued as a six-song EP featuring studio cats and Byrne himself playing all sorts of additional instruments. Mesopotamia began a streak where every B's release was deemed a commercial and artistic failure until "Love Shack" made the band bigger than ever. Thirty years later, this album's narcotic "Deep Sleep" remains a club evergreen, revered by discerning DJs and dancers. — Barry Walters

Paul's Boutique

Beastie Boys

Quintessential New Yorkers Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D hid their smarts and masqueraded as douchebags so well that they fell out with nearly everyone involved with their instant smash 1986 debut, Licensed to Ill. So they fled to L.A., hooked up with fledgling production duo the Dust Brothers, and crafted an intricate and relentlessly witty love letter to their old home. Featuring over 100 samples — right before lawyers would make such a feat economically impossible — 1989's Paul's Boutique befuddled mainstream fans expecting its multiplatinum predecessor's frat-rap. It's now rightly considered a hip-hop masterpiece. — Barry Walters

Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age

Public Enemy

Three years after Apocalypse 91, a John Connor co-sign in T2, a pissed-off state of Arizona and the Best Remix Ever (Pete Rock's masterful rework of "Shut 'Em Down"), PE found out what happens when you take too long to capitalize on momentum. Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age gained an early reputation for stylistically lagging behind the more up-to-date New York narratives from cerebral-gangster icons like Nas, Wu-Tang and Biggie. But its biggest flaw isn't the music, or anything else of its own making. In fact, "Give It Up" and "So Whatcha Gone Do Now?" sound more like a group stretching out than falling off. The album was just a victim of bad timing and now-irrelevant expectations, a solid veteran presence in a year overstocked with legendary come-ups. — Nate Patrin

Almost Blue

Elvis Costello & The Attractions

After a run of five brilliant studio albums capped by 1981's Trust, a reverent collection of country music covers was about the last thing anyone wanted from Elvis Costello. While Almost Blue's track listing includes classics by Hank Williams, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline and Gram Parsons, the album was widely viewed at the time as, at best a vanity project or, at worst, a middle-finger salute to his fans and critics. These days, every self-respecting alt-country band has at least three of these songs in their repertoire. — Dan Epstein

Around The World In A Day


So why is a disc that went double-platinum and boasts two hit singles — including "Raspberry Beret" — considered a turkey? Because it followed the sprawling triumph of 1999 and the iconic album/blockbuster film Purple Rain. And because between snippets of Prince's classic porridge of funk-rock-pop were muddled psychedelic moments of tortured narcissism. Fans of weird Prince need to check out "Temptation," which climaxes with his melodramatic confession of sex addiction (God answers in a big low voice) before closing the conversation, and the record, with, "I have to go now. I don't know when I'll return. Goodbye." — Britt Robson



That Belly were ever successful in the first place was a shock. Their breakout debut, the aptly-named Star, was loaded with artful, obtuse songs, some of which consisted only of rudely-elbowing guitars and Tanya Donnelly's wide-eyed, little-girl-possessed vocals. It also, though, had "Feed the Tree," a confident, melodic number that rushed the band into regular alt-radio rotation. So is it any surprise that, when it came time to record the follow-up, Belly would tend toward the kind of sugary guitar-pop that made that song so successful? Fans were indifferent and terrific follow-up single "Now They'll Sleep" stiffed, but to return to King now is to hear a record brimming with strange, magical hooks ladled with syrupy guitars and obstinate rhythms. Donnelly would go on to a respectable solo career, but Belly's sophomore effort remains a still-overlooked classic. — J. Edward Keyes

Human After All

Daft Punk

With Discovery, Daft Punk became cult heroes with their iconic robot outfits and a record that still stands as one of the best expressions of forward-looking pop enthusiasm. Human After All, meanwhile... Here's a bad omen: When it leaked, some fans thought it was just a bunch of hastily assembled fake loops put together as an anti-piracy decoy. This new, borderline-industrial, frequently abrasive and grindingly repetitive sound alienated fans and critics alike, and it took some careful integration into their mashup-heavy all-hits Alive 2007 set to bring out some of the more accessible qualities of tracks like "Steam Machine" and "The Prime Time of Your Life." — Nate Patrin

Smiley Smile/Wild Honey

Beach Boys

Has any musician's self-assessment been so withering as Carl Wilson's endlessly quoted description of Smiley Smile the Beach Boys' low-key, oft-daffy replacement for Brian Wilson's scrapped studio masterwork Smile as "a bunt instead of a grand slam"? It's hard to think of one, but even with the long-haunted bigger project finally seeing daylight (re-recorded in 2004 and officially exhumed in 2011), Smiley Smile projects its own cracked sensibility; guys trying to keep things together even as they can never return to their fun-in-the-sun old selves. — Michaelangelo Matos

The Hissing Of Summer Lawns

Joni Mitchell

"I was so pleased when Prince said Hissing was his favorite," Joni Mitchell told Bill Flanagan in 1985, shortly after the Minneapolis pop polymath name-checked her critically-reviled 1975 album in a Rolling Stone interview. "You know, that album was called all sorts of awful names; of all my children, that was the one that really got beat up on the playground. So for him to say that in the same rag that kind of started the war against it was a treat for me." The jazzier tunes and players, as well as Mitchell's increasingly distant lyrics ("One thing that I did was I changed 'I' to 'you,'" she told Flanagan), cost her some fans but as Mitchell's latter-day fans, weaned on Hissing, have given her the last laugh. — Michaelangelo Matos



M.I.A. earned plenty of backlash for her first two albums, often from fans of the kinds of music she utilized for them. But while Maya is hardly an unmitigated triumph — "Meds and Feds" is as lame a "rock" song as you can find, and "XXXO" is unconvincingly sweetened electro-pop — there were bigger image problems. Among them: an overblown video for "Born Free" (featuring redheaded children in prison camp) and Lynn Hirschberg's New York Times portrayal of M.I.A. as a phony revolutionary (as if she was supposed to be writing policy, not music). The pop-star momentum M.I.A. had been building for five years ground to a halt as everyone got sick of hearing about her, largely without giving the album a fair listen. — Michaelangelo Matos

Northern Lights, Southern Cross


After their first two albums, each new Band release disappointed more than the last artistically. Then came this, in 1975. Though songs were longer, grooves were stronger. The textures, polished by Garth Hudson's synth, were sublime; the arrangements breathed loose and airy; for once, Robertson wrote knowingly about Canada. If "Acadian Driftwood" seems initially like the best song, "It Makes No Difference," "Jupiter Hollow" and "Ophelia" might ultimately outclass it. Alas, by then fewer were listening: what was billed as their Big Comeback instead became the Band's "Feel Like Going Home." — John Morthland