Nov 06, 2023, 06:27AM

Their Best Album Since When?

A quick history of the critical appreciation of The Rolling Stones.

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The arrival of a new Rolling Stones album is a very happy time for me. Not because of the music. Rather, it's an opportunity for rock critics across the nation and the English-speaking world to pull out the hoariest and most overused cliche of their profession. This trope has been around for a long time—nearly 40 years—and has never gone away. It returns with comforting inevitability in the days and weeks following the release of a new Stones studio album, and it is here again, greeting the arrival of Hackney Diamonds, the band's first album of original material since 2005.

Here's a quick history of the critical appreciation of the Rolling Stones. Younger people might want to know that the Stones had a late-1960s and early-1970s dominance that forever made their name synonymous with rock. Four albums—Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street—remain celebrated. Then came a dip in the mid-1970s; the band remained a serious outfit, and still had hit singles. But they were lagging. And then, in 1978, came Some Girls. It was bright and sassy, and had a remarkably diverse slate of killer songs ("Miss You," "Before They Make Me Run," "Shattered," the title song, etc.). The Stones had, by popular acclaim, revivified themselves.

After that, it got grim: The Stones went into a very long decline, one that has extended into its fifth decade. Stones records became jaded; Jagger's songs were pinched and sad, and Keith Richards seemed out to lunch, seemingly summoning his talents only for a decent de facto solo turn or two on most of the band's subsequent albums. For each new wan collection, the band would gin up some energy for a single; this would get a bit of radio or MTV play, and then be forgotten. With the exception of "Start Me Up,” and once in a while one of Richards' garrulous solo constructions, Stones songs from the 1980s and beyond are almost never played in concert.

The decline of the Stones created, in the rock critic corps, big conceptual problems. The issue was particularly fraught at Rolling Stone magazine. Jann Wenner, the publisher, panted after the band, and in particular its lead singer, year after year, decade after decade.

How could Rolling Stone declare that the Rolling Stones had put out a bad album? They hit on a solution: they’d announce that the band's last album hadn't been up to snuff—but then herald the new one as a step back up to true rockin' form. Recent albums were a little creaky. But this new one rocked like the good old days. It was "the band's best album since Some Girls."

It was kinda brilliant. Critics wanted to show they were hip and independent arbiters. They’d bravely sneer at the last album. That cleared the way to announce that the new one showed the band in top rocking form once again.

This approach was followed by just about everyone else who wrote about the Stones. Not every single one of these reviews said it was the band's best work since Some Girls. But a two-part mechanism was quickly established and almost never deviated from. First, the previous recent work would be dismissed or diminished; and then, the new album would be said to be the band's strongest work in some explicit or abstract period of time ("...since Some Girls," "...since Tattoo You…," "...in years," "...in a decade," "...in decades/ages/eons" etc.).

The Stones' last studio album of original material, 2005's A Bigger Bang, was tongue-bathed upon its release in Rolling Stone this way: “A Bigger Bang is just a straight-up, damn fine Rolling Stones album, with no qualifiers or apologies necessary for the first time in a few decades.” Note the assertion that previous recent albums needed to be apologized for, that praise for them had to be qualified. The benchmark here—"in a few decades"—would seem to take us back to a record called Dirty Work, from 1986. But no worries: A Bigger Bang saw the band back in the game.

Now let's turn now to the magazine's new review of Hackney Diamonds. It takes a dimmer view of A Bigger Bang, which suddenly was not so "straight-up" and "damn-fine."

"A Bigger Bang [...] was feisty but not especially memorable, and in the nearly two decades since, maybe even the Stones started to wonder if we needed another record by them. [...] Hackney Diamonds isn’t just another new Stones album, but a vibrant and cohesive record — the first Stones album in ages you’ll want to crank more than once before filing away."

The headline defined "in ages" this way: "They haven't sounded this on top of their game in about half a century." This benchmark—"half a century"—would take us back far past both Dirty Work and Some Girls to the Goats Head Soup era!

It's hard to find a review of Hackney Diamonds that doesn't follow this lead. First was a review in London's The Times: "I've heard Hackney Diamonds. It's the best Rolling Stones album since 1981," the headline read. (1981 was the release of Tattoo You.)

Variety begged to differ: "The Rolling Stones Serve Up Their Liveliest Work in 40 Years With Hackney Diamonds," asserted its headline writer, placing the new album on a par with 1983's Undercover. The writer, however, took issue with this parsimonious chronology of excellence: "To put the rather overheated hype around the new Rolling Stones album in superfan-quibbling terms, “Hackney Diamonds” is not their best work since “Some Girls,” released some 45 years ago—but it is their best since “Tattoo You,” which is just three years younger."

(For the record, the Tattoo You feint is problematic. The album sports two of the best—some would argue the two final decent—late-period Stones tracks, "Start Me Up" and "Waiting on a Friend." The only problem: As Stones fans know, both songs, and a good chunk of the rest of the album, were dredged out of the archives as a somewhat desperate Mick Jagger worked to keep the band's image respectable in the face of the decline of the songwriting talents of partner Richards as the 1970s waned. "Start Me Up" is an authentic Richards riff dating back to the Some Girls sessions; "Waiting on a Friend" was apparently written by Mick Taylor, the guitarist who left the band in 1975. In other words, rather in the way the Beatles' Abbey Road was recorded after but released before Let It Be, you could make the argument that Tattoo You is properly placed before Some Girls in the band's history.)

The New Musical Express, once a defiant punk operation, threw its chips in with Variety's critic: "The rock legends' first album of original material in almost two decades is an absolute barnstormer," it told readers. A Bigger Bang? "[L]ess-than-essential." Any bad songs? Sure—but: "Those low points are thankfully scarce, fewer and farther between than on anything this side of 1981 [i.e., Tattoo You]."

The "best album since Some Girls" construct isn’t new. My first monograph on the subject was back in the mid-1990s, upon the release of Voodoo Lounge. (And can we agree, at least, that Hackney Diamonds is certainly the band's worst album title since Voodoo Lounge?) Back in those pre-internet days, I spent some time in the library and my own files to collect every Rolling Stones review I could find. The construct was… everywhere.

In 1995, Rolling Stone wrote of Dirty Work: "The group’s twin-guitar firepower hasn’t sounded half as grungy or as lethal since Exile on Main Street.”

You'll recall that, some decades later, the magazine would contend that A Bigger Bang was the band's best record since Dirty Work, and that, more recently, that Hackney Diamonds was its best album since Goats Head Soup. It's hard to square this circle, but if I'm doing my math right, that would mean that the official Rolling Stone rankings of the band's work since 1972 would go: 1) Exile; 2) Hackney Diamonds; 3) Goats Head Soup; 4) Dirty Work; 5) A Bigger Bang.

The remarkable thing is that it was hard to find any reviews of Stones albums that didn't hail whatever new product the band had out as a rockin' return to form. James Wolcott in Vanity Fair wrote, “Dirty Work is the best statement the Stones have made since the trash-talking Some Girls of 1978.”

(In fact, Dirty Work is a tedious album. The hit from the album, "Harlem Shuffle," was a cover. The band almost never plays songs from it in concert.)

It all hit a crescendo in 1989, with the release of Steel Wheels.

“Radio has no ‘Mixed Emotions’ about the band’s best album since 1981’s Tattoo You,” gushed Billboard, giving both Wolcott and Dirty Work the back of the hand. Spin edged the line back farther: "Like Some Girls it’s a benchmark that looks as much toward the Stones’ future as their past, lacking the danger of Exile and Sticky Fingers but more solid and hungry than anything they’ve done this decade.”

Spin was in competition with Rolling Stone, and you could see the upstart's attitude. Bob Guccione Jr. and co. were sneering at RS favorites like Tattoo You or Some Girls and insisting that the band was matching its last album before the 1980s, 1979's Emotional Rescue. People magazine agreed—“Their best songs of the 80s”—and so did Playboy ("Steel Wheels is easily the most focused, committed and vital Stones release in a decade"). Finally, Rolling Stone itself grudgingly conceded Spin's point: “Certainly the best Rolling Stones album in at least a decade."

The triumph of Steel Wheels was short-lived. When Voodoo Lounge was released, the critics ditched Steel Wheels the minute they heard the band’s exciting new record. Rolling Stone took the issue on with seeming frankness: “Sure you’ve heard it before. ‘The Stones are back, they’re rockin’. And you’ve been burned—by Black and BlueEmotional Rescue, and the over-manicured pop and groove filler that marred even strong outings like Dirty Work and Steel Wheels. But Voodoo Lounge was an album that the Stones were pressed to make, one that would argue long and hard for their defiant longevity.”

In 1994, Entertainment Weekly was a fairly new publication, but growing in influence. EW ran a classic journalistic dust-up, publishing two sharply divergent pieces on the merits of Voodoo Lounge. One took the position that the new record was the band's best since 1981: “Steel Wheels was the most tired album they’d ever made… Voodoo Lounge is the Stones’ crispest work since that late-in-the-game home run, Tattoo You, some 13 years ago.” The second piece had none of it, and argued that it was their best record since 1978, or perhaps 1972: “Their lyrics come alive with troubled noir imagery, and their hooks are, by miles, the best from the band since Some Girls, or maybe even Exile on Main St.”

All the different dates and comparisons get confusing—and should you have to do math to figure out how good the current album by the Rolling Stones is? A correspondent on Facebook, when I posted about this, cut through the confusion and asked a legitimate question: Couldn't this just be the divergent opinions of different people?

The answer is yes. And that's what rock criticism, at its best, should be: Providing readers with divergent views to spark discussion and ideas. You can see this in the spectrum of previous creative triumphs by the Stones the new album is being compared to. That said, there’s one opinion from which all of these divergent writers are immovable: They all agree that, upon the release of any Stones album, that the last record was bad, and that the new one is good.

Anyway, the years and decades passed; the Stones, as headline writers without exception averred, rolled on; and nothing changed in how the nation's rock critics viewed whatever record the Stones had out. And now today, I've been poking around, and, aside from a slam in Pitchfork, you can't find anyone saying anything bad about Hackney Diamonds—or anything good about the band's more recent work.

Here's what The Wall Street Journal had to say: "While Voodoo Lounge (1994), Bridges to Babylon (1997) and A Bigger Bang all had a handful of decent songs, you could hear the strain and exertion in each, as if the band were trying to hammer a few fragments of a tune into something memorable. Now we have something different: To the surprise of many, the Stones announced a new album, ‘Hackney Diamonds’ (Polydor), in early September. And the triumph of the set, out Friday, is that it feels effortless."

The writer noted that Jagger has said he’d been considering including some songs containing "social commentary." "There’s nothing of the sort here, and the album is better for it," the Journal's reviewer wrote soberly. You wouldn't want the Rolling Stones dealing in social commentary!

The Washington Post: “Hackney Diamonds” might start in a defensive crouch—Mick Jagger, hands up, wailing: “Don’t get angry with me!”—but then the music pounces to life with an elasticity no Rolling Stones album has possessed since the big ba-boing of ‘Tattoo You’ circa A.D. 1981."

The Los Angeles Times review seemed like a simple rave, but then got this assertion in just under the wire: "The songs blend the same ingredients the Stones have been using since the beginning—blues, rock, soul, country, gospel—but they’re tighter and punchier than on any of the band’s previous late-era LPs. Catchier too…" Exactly back to what previous work the paper is comparing the new album to is a little fuzzy here. The demarcation of "late-era" Stones could be anything since Steel WheelsDirty Work—or Some Girls.

Bridges to Babylon came out in 1997. It took the band eight years to come up with a slate of songs for a follow-up; this was A Bigger Bang. It's been 18 years since then. To follow the same pattern, it might be 28 more years before the band can get another together. In any case, if it were to happen, I know what the reviews are going to say. 


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