Saturday, May 15, 2021

Good Times, Bad Times

No one really needs another ranking of the Rolling Stones' studio albums, but I'm between projects, so what the hell. I feel fairly confident about my Top Five and Bottom Five; ordering the rest was the real fun. I've followed the UK releases in the 1960's, and have left their singles/b-sides and live albums for another list. Unnecessary caveat: this is subjective.

Ahead of my rankings, the short and curlies:

* They never again quite recaptured the blend of decadence, grandeur, nastiness, and smirky fun of Sticky Fingers, from "Brown Sugar" and "Bitch" to "Sway" and "Moonlight Mile," where it sounds as if the songs are playing the band, not the other way around. Endlessly renewing. Their high-water mark.

* That Exile is, of course, a very close second indicates how absurdly high the gifted Stones were riding in the early '70s. Only the economy of Sticky Fingers over the sprawl and occasional lags in song sequencing of Exile keep it at number two. "Loving Cup" is their greatest single-that-never-was.

* Pure rock and roll? To my ears they's never captured or played it better than on Some Girls, where their humor, winking sexism, and louche style are matched by raw guitar work and their loosest ensemble playing. Their final summit, and the last time, with a few surprising exceptions, that the band sounded effortless and unselfconscious.

* That said, I struggled placing Let It Bleed at Number 4. On balance, I probably listen to Some Girls a bit more than Let It Bleed, which suffers only, and unfairly, in comparison to the nearly-perfect duo that followed it. As it turns out, the band needed another guitarist to help out Keith and to balance the ship in the coming stormy waters, but with "Gimme Shelter" as the opener and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" closing it, this album captures its era sublimely.

* Their toughest R&B album, Out Of Our Heads is underrated, in my book. The covers ("She Said 'Yeah'," "Mercy, Mercy," "That's How Strong My Love Is") kick ass, and "Gotta Get Away" and "I'm Free" point to the confident and distinctive songwriting just around the bend.

* As great as Beggars Banquet is ("Parachute Woman"!), when I zoom wide, it sounds and feels like a full dress rehearsal for the band's next few years of rock and roll ascension. Still, its rejuvenating take on Americana, before that was a word, makes it a Top 10-er.

* I've never fully warmed to the Stones' 1966-67 output—the non-album 45s excepted—which doesn't put me in kind company with a lot of my friends and those whose taste and knowledge I respect. I appreciate Aftermath's unprecedented boldness, but I always felt that the record was too long, the sound of a band surprised by their own genius but unsure how to edit. The truth is, I don't listen to Between the Buttons or Satanic Majesties all that much, but that's where the pleasure principle pulses for me. I think I've always been a bit skeptical that they rarely wrote music after '67 that sounded like this again, which gives those two albums a slightly theoretical vibe to my ears. But: "Connection," "She Smiled Sweetly, "Complicated," "Miss Amanda Jones," "Citadel," "2000 Man," and "2000 Light Years from Home" are genius.

* I'm uncomfortable with ranking Tattoo You so high, if only because I feel that it's more of a compilation album, some of the material dating back nearly a decade, cobbled together with songs from the fertile 1977/'78 studio sessions in preparation for the band's '81 tour. But the album's cohesiveness and quality again indicates how absurdly gifted they were as songwriters and musicians throughout the '70s. Oh, and "Slave" kicks ass.

* As I made this listEmotional Rescue gathered itself at the fifteenth spot without calling much attention to itself. A somewhat odd Stones album, it's greater than "Son Of Some Girls" but also decisively marks the end of the band's terrific late-70's run in the studio. Thus, the gap between this album and the next, the underwhelming Undercover, feels, culturally, much wider than three years. Emotional Rescue stands as the band's last blast of loose, grinning 70s decadence, and as such scores its end-of-decade era as evocatively as Let It Bleed scores its (substitute coke and disco for weed and country-blues). Yet the album looks forward curiously to the '80s, where the Stones, it turns out, would be a very different-sounding band.

* The mid-70s run of Goats Head Soup, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, and Black and Blue bunches together nicely, poised as the albums are between the sublime originality, nerve, and freshness of the late 60s/early 70s work and the (mostly) workmanlike albums that followed. And the first side of It's Only Rock 'n' Roll is pretty much perfect. Sometimes lost in the post-Sticky Fingers/Exile hangover are tunes like "Coming Down Again," "Time Waits For No One," "Memory Motel," songs that any like band would've given up a lifetime of cocaine for. They perfected the Stone Ballad in this era, for what it's worth.

* Man, the '80s sucked
. Though "Almost Hear You Cry" (Steel Wheels) is one of their great ballads, and the opening 30 seconds or so of "One Hit (To the Body" (Dirty Work) are so killer I almost forgive the drum sound. I used to think that "Undercover of the Night" (Undercover) was a Stones classic, but it feels more derivative and dated as the decades pass.

* The 90s, on the other hand, were a little more interesting. The band was still divided between Jagger's commercial anxieties and need for relevance and Keith's stubborn purism, and the sound of the albums reflect that. But Voodoo Lounge would've been a good record if a third of it had remained in the can, and Bridges to Babylon is a fascinating, of-its-era attempt at sonically mending the yawning gap between the Glimmer Twins ("Anybody Seen My Baby?", meet "You Don't Have To Mean It"). "Thru and Thru" (Voodoo Lounge) is one of the best things they'd cut in years. David Chase got it.

* I'm not surprised at how good Blue and Lonesome is, only that it took so long for the guys to pull it together and cut. The album features some of Jagger's least affected singing in years, and his harmonica playing is fantastic, adding characterful touches. Their version of "Little Rain" ranks among their greatest covers—coming in the 21st Century, that's saying something. And like Voodoo Lounge, A Bigger Bang if trimmed of its excess would've made a bigger bang—though likely not commercially or culturally (sorry, Mick). Anyway, crank "Rough Justice" or "Oh No No You Again" after "Get Off My Cloud" or "Lies" and let me know if you moved or not.

1. Sticky Fingers (1971) 

2. Exile on Main St. (1972) 

3. Some Girls (1978) 

4. Let It Bleed (1969) 

5. Out of Our Heads (1965) 

6. Beggars Banquet (1968) 

7. Aftermath (1966) 

8. Tattoo You (1981) 

9. Between the Buttons (1967) 

10. Goats Head Soup (1973) 

11. It's Only Rock 'n Roll (1974) 

12. Black and Blue (1976) 

13. The Rolling Stones No. 2 (1965) 

14. The Rolling Stones (1964) 

15. Emotional Rescue (1980) 

16. Blue & Lonesome (2016) 

17. Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967) 

18. Voodoo Lounge (1994) 

19. A Bigger Bang (2005) 

20. Bridges to Babylon (1997) 

21. Undercover (1983) 

22. Steel Wheels (1989) 

23. Dirty Work (1986)

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