The Rolling Stones: Last Great, Last Good, First Bad Album
Fans and critics have probably declared the Rolling Stones both "creatively dead" and "miraculously reborn" dozens of times over the years. But when's the last time Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and company delivered a truly great record – and when did they first cross the line by releasing one that was flat-out bad? Six of our writers answer those and other questions about the Stones' recorded legacy below.
What's the last great Rolling Stones album?
Michael Gallucci: Tattoo You. Granted, much of the material dates back to sessions for mostly good albums in the '70s, but the way it all comes together is almost seamless. You'd never know some songs were recorded for Goats Head Soup while others were targeted for Emotional Rescue by listening to the album. In a way, Tattoo You is the Stones cleaning out their vaults before they truly committed to the '80s, which they did on the cluttered and misguided Undercover two years later.
Nick DeRiso: The gospels tell us 1981's Tattoo You is their last great album, but that project has always carried an asterisk for me – since it wasn't so much a new project as a compilation. (Two songs, including "Waiting on a Friend," traced all the way back to sessions from the early '70s.) So, for me, the last great album remains Some Girls, since that involved new songs produced in a room together, as a piece. They were coming off an often-unfocused dud (1976's Black and Blue), and the follow-up (1980's Emotional Rescue) felt a little too plasticine. That made the flinty raunch of what came in between all the more impressive.
Martin Kielty: Tattoo You – “Start Me Up,” come on – was a breath of fresh air after a series of ‘70s knock-offs that had really tarnished the band’s reputation. It followed the sad trilogy of Black and Blue, Some Girls and Emotional Rescue, and even their titles illustrate a tired, listless lifestyle that wasn’t generating anything terribly inspired. While much of that material was delivered with the band’s classic suave style, there appeared to be too much musical indecision (perhaps a power struggle between Jagger and Richards). And definitely too much disco. It’s fair to say Tattoo You is not quite first among equals in the “great” pantheon, but it was a timely reminder that they could still be the Stones when they remembered not to just pretend to be the Stones. And again, “Start Me Up," come on.
Rob Smith: Some Girls should probably get the nod, but I’m going to swallow hard and go with Tattoo You. No, it doesn’t stink of sex and drugs and all the other degenerate activity that made Exile on Main Street and Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers so revelatory. Yes, it’s an odds ‘n’ sods collection, with some stuff that went all the way back to ’72, but these are leftovers of a very high order. As a whole, it sounds better put together than Emotional Rescue, which preceded it, and a world away from both the unintentionally hilarious Undercover or the disinterested and weary Dirty Work, which followed it. Tattoo You has the benefit of beginning with “Start Me Up,” which they must play every time they go onstage, and closing with “Waiting on a Friend,” which they should have to play every time they go onstage. In between, there’s just a lot of solid, stupefyingly cool rock ‘n’ roll (“Little T&A,” “Slave,” “Hang Fire”), plus “Heaven,” which is – I don’t know what it is, but I have to play it every time I go near the record.
Matthew Wilkening: Tattoo You. My internet-deprived younger self didn't know about the record's Frankenstein origins when I first fell in love with it. I'm sure the seams are easily found if you're the type to dig for them, but learning the whole "this was hastily assembled from the vaults so they wouldn't be late for their Jovan-sponsored tour" backstory a few years later made the album's cohesion and overall quality all the more impressive. Splitting the rockers and ballads onto separate sides was another nice touch. It's also the last record before Jagger and Richards' battle over how far they should explore new trends sidetracked the band for much of the '80s.
Sean Kelly: Some Girls was a really bold move stylistically. "Miss You" embraces the growing dance music trend of the time, but also manages to stay within the Rolling Stones lane, so to speak. Musically, it was probably their most daring — influenced by not just dance music but punk and even country. There are some traces of Gram Parsons here, and I think it's a really cool and interesting collection of songs. The previous album, Black and Blue, found the Stones veering off into less-authentic places like reggae that just seemed to fall flat. The album that followed, Emotional Rescue, just feels much too safe and uninspired — a path that I feel they typically followed in the years since.
What's the last good Rolling Stones album?
Gallucci: Blue & Lonesome sounds looser and tougher than anything the band has done in 25 years. It also sounds like they're having fun – not exactly something you can say about most of the albums they made in the '80s and after. Maybe it has something to do with it being an "accidental" record, since the Stones had no intentions of making a blues album when they were supposed to be working on their next album of original material. Or maybe it has to do with them just getting back to their roots. Either way, without pressure or expectations hounding them, they sound like they mattered again on Blue & Lonesome.
DeRiso: I'm skipping Blue and Lonesome, because those aren't original songs. Instead, I'm going with A Bigger Bang, which likely gets overlooked because of its 2005 vintage. (On one hand, this ain't the '70s anymore; on the other, they ain't the White Stripes or the Mars Volta either.) It's a shame. This was the first Stones album that really felt like a Stones album – written and conceived together, and then played together – in decades. There's none of the gloss that marred modern-day projects like 1997's Bridges to Babylon and a surprising amount of the grit that made their best albums such a nervy delight.
Kielty: Blue & Lonesome brought back the majesty, the magic and the mischief that started it all. The band appeared to have reminded themselves why they’d got together in the first place – a love of the blues and all it means. The two new tracks on 2012’s GRRR!, “Doom and Gloom” and “One More Shot,” held the promise that they’d made their way somewhere close to home again. Blue & Lonesome showed they’d found the door, lit the stove and settled back in.
Smith: The last good one was the last one, Blue and Lonesome. A Bigger Bang was a snooze, but the Stones sound sharp and energized playing blues covers – perhaps the 11 years between albums left them well rested. Or maybe it was just the fact that they were playing the songs of their heroes, and sounding downright nasty doing it. The sound of the record is striking: The guitars are cranked, Mick’s harp is filthy and Charlie Watts’ snare hits can slap you around and make you like it. Oddly enough, the only real quibble is with the accumulation of the material – by the end of the album, it starts to get a bit monochromatic. Maybe a couple new Jagger/Richards songs inspired by these sessions would have added another streak of color, or a pair of choice R&B cuts might’ve brought out another shade of blue.
Wilkening: Blue and Lonesome. Jagger in particular sounds fantastic and vital throughout this quickly recorded collection of blues covers. And if you had asked before that one came out, their previous album, 2005's A Bigger Bang, cut down by about 20 minutes might have been the answer. (To be clear, Blue and Lonesome is much better.) The 2012 GRRR! singles – especially "Doom and Gloom" – are also pretty great. The Stones have been far from prolific in the studio this century, but they've been enjoyable.
Kelly: Bridges to Babylon would easily be my choice. I'm a fan of when bands take stylistic risks, and they really did that on this record. That's not to say it always pays off or works super well, but I credit the Stones here for both sonic and musical experimentation. There are elements of hip hop on Bridges to Babylon too, and that's always been intriguing to me. It's the reason I love U2's Pop. Are they the greatest U2 songs ever written? Not necessarily. But there were genuine artistic boundaries being pushed.
What was the first bad Rolling Stones album?
Gallucci: Black and Blue. After the flawless string that started with Beggars Banquet and ended with Exile on Main St., the Stones were sounding more and more fatigued. Goats Head Soup and It's Only Rock 'n' Roll managed to work up enough energy to keep them going for another couple years, though barely. Then the big crash comes on Black and Blue: lazy songs, careless performances and a general apathy toward the material, their career and the fans. The Stones were so big they thought they were untouchable. They weren't.
DeRiso: The Stones muddled along after their stunningly productive four-album run between 1968 and 1972, making mostly-just-okay records (save for the superlative Some Girls) until Dirty Work. Too slickly produced, too detached, uttering lacking danger, this technicolor 1986 project emerged from a period that was so contentious they couldn't even tour together. Worse, it pointed to every bad idea that would plague the Rolling Stones as they moved forward.
Kielty: Black and Blue has been referred to as the audition tapes of those who wanted to replace Mick Taylor, and I find it easy to subscribe to that. It’s a bewildered work that fails to hide its own self-doubt, and it would have benefited from being trashed then restarted once the band decided Ronnie Wood was their man.
Smith: I’m tempted to say It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, because it’s just a lazy puddle of lukewarm mediocrity with a couple empty cocaine vials floating on the top. The real answer, though, is Their Satanic Majesties Request, even though it had “She’s a Rainbow,” which is hippie-silly but somehow still affecting. The Stones just didn’t make as good music as the Beatles did whilst tripping on lysergic confections. Nobody’s perfect (except maybe Jefferson Airplane, who were really good at it). A second decent thing about the record, though: I don’t think Beggars Banquet would be the Beggars Banquet we know and love, had they not gone so far off the reservation with Satanic Majesties. That’s about the most serious (and necessary) course correction in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
Wilkening: There was an obvious and much-discussed decline after Exile on Main Street, and again after Tattoo You, but things didn't get to the "OK, guys, really ... why are we even bothering?" stage until 1986's Dirty Work. To their credit, it seems pretty clear the band realized it, too. Besides, even if it was them fantasizing about beating the crap out of each other, at least we got "One Hit to the Body."
Kelly: My favorite Stones record overall is Their Satanic Majesties Request, mainly because "She's a Rainbow" is an unbelievable song, but also because it firmly planted them in the psychedelic production style of the time period. For me, It's Only Rock N' Roll is the first completely bad Stones album. There are hits and misses on plenty of records, as with lots of bands, but this one just never grabbed me. The title track is my least favorite Stones song, as they preach about the goodness of rock and roll in a very corny way. It wasn't a good look for them.
Which Rolling Stones album JUST missed being good?
Gallucci: Take your pick: Steel Wheels? Voodoo Lounge? A Bigger Bang? Maybe even Undercover. All of them had glimmers of a spark or two that could have ignited an entire album. But they all just sorta missed for one reason or another. If I had to choose just one, I'd go with Steel Wheels. After such a dismal '80s, they ended it on relatively high note by sounding like a real band again.
DeRiso: Goats Head Soup seems to possess many of the ingredients required of a great Stones album: A darkly sexy Chuck Berry rip ("Star Star"); a surprisingly heartfelt ballad ("Angie"); a furious rocker ("100 Years Ago"); a ruminative, next-morning moment ("Coming Down Again"); and something violent, almost terrifying ("Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo"). But they'd slipped from the elegant decadence of Exile on Main St. into something that felt more calculated – starting with the unspooky "Dancing With Mr. D," one of their worst album-opening songs. Unfortunately, it was sign of (bad) things to come.
Kielty: Out of Our Heads contains the marvelous “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and it’s by no means a terrible record. Still, it’s another example of a lost opportunity, simply because of when it was made. This is the point at which the Jagger/Richards writing powerhouse began to come into its own, but it was still lurking in the shadows of cover versions and slightly lacking in that self-made Stones swagger. It’s still a worthwhile listen, but I keep thinking, “What if it had been made just five months later?” I keep concluding, “It could have been one of their best.”
Smith: I don’t know. Maybe one of the pre-Aftermath albums would fit the bill; even though I have them, I don’t listen to them much. Of the ‘70s stuff, I actually like Black and Blue, which usually gets crapped on. Maybe if Goat’s Head Soup had had a better second side, I’d think more highly of it. Or, fast-forwarding a bit, if Voodoo Lounge was maybe three or four tracks shorter, it would be a better record. I’ll go with Voodoo Lounge: Take out “Suck on the Jugular,” “Brand New Car,” and “Moon is Up,” then add “Jump on Top of Me,” the b-side of “You Got Me Rocking,” and you have a solid, stadium-ready Stones record, about as good as you could expect from them in 1993.
Wilkening: It's too bad the Stones' instincts weren't as sharp on 1980's Emotional Rescue as they were on the following year's Tattoo You. A good deal of Rescue is secretly pretty excellent. The title track and "She's So Cold" got all the attention but 'Dance, Pt. 1" and "Send it to Me" deserve more love. The problem is, the album is also saddled with songs that weren't nearly as good as others they recorded and shelved during those sessions – including "Hang Fire" and "No Use in Crying," which ended up on Tattoo You.
Kelly: 1983's Undercover is one that I really think could have had a similar impact as Majesties for me, had they pulled the thread that Mick was following towards new wave. It would've been interesting to see them explore that, but I felt the conflicting styles on this album ultimately made it fall pretty flat. There are quite a few more that just about miss the mark, but Undercover could have seen the Stones put their unique stamp on the time period. Instead, it wound up being lackluster.
Do you believe the Rolling Stones can make another great album? Why or why not?
Gallucci: Great? No. Good? Yes. Blue & Lonesome proved they can still make good records when they don't try so hard. But that record seems more like a happy accident than the way they do things these days. After all, it's been almost 40 years since they made a truly great and essential album. There's just too much moss under them at this point. But I'll settle for a good album.
DeRiso: The stripped-down, thrillingly rootsy Blue & Lonesome says it's possible. Certainly, they got the sound right. The question is whether they can reach those narrative heights again with their own songs. If they stay in that same bracingly real creative pocket, I'm leaning yes; if they return to the faux-modern, aging-lothario vibe of Bridges to Babylon, I'm leaning no.
Kielty: I do. In recent years, they seem to have found a balance between making stacks of cash on the road and remembering that they were also brilliant studio creatives, too. The promise – and sheer fun – of Blue & Lonesome suggests a rediscovery of their own talent. I think it was less, “We’re the Stones and we can get away with this” and more, “We’re the Stones and this is worth getting away with.” I’d love to know what would happen next, and I hope we find out.
Smith: Sure. I don’t think they have to – and they know it – but I think they’re certainly capable of doing it. Richards’ last solo record was solid and I think Jagger could probably rouse himself from a life of charting his investments and impregnating twentysomethings, if he wants to. If they’re going to do it, though, they’d better do it soon; if David Bowie’s death taught us anything, it’s to not take for granted one’s continued presence on this plane of existence.
Wilkening: Sure, why not? It's nearly impossibly to imagine it having anywhere near the resonance or lasting power of their previous work, just because the culture has splintered and rightfully moved on over the decades. But they clearly reconnected with something on Blue and Lonesome, and they seem to be taking their time getting this long-gestating record of new material right, so here's hoping!
Kelly: I think it's wholly possible for a band like the Stones to make a great record again, but I'm not sure it'll happen. I'm afraid they've lost a sense of excitement for the process of writing and producing records that set the stage for some of their best work. I think this is in part because of their age, and probably also due to a disillusionment with the recording industry. It happens often with legacy bands, and a lot of them end up just resting on their laurels and touring until they retire or die. It'd be nice to see the Stones explore some new territory, but I'm not convinced that it'll ever happen.
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