The Blind Spots #1: The Late-Period Rolling Stones Unlistenability Test

The Blind Spots #1: The Late-Period Rolling Stones Unlistenability Test
A live look at me midway through this asinine task.

This is my sixth newsletter, and I've decided to start my first recurring series of essays, a good sign that I'm settling into the Weekly Newsletter Lifestyle. It's called The Blind Spots, and it'll involve me doing deep dives into the discographies of artists with whom I have little knowledge or experience. Now I have something to fall back on during weeks that I can't think of anything else to write about, or weeks that one such artist releases new material, or weeks that I'm on deadline for another writing project. This week happens to meet all three requirements.

Last Friday, The Rolling Stones released Hackney Diamonds, which sounds like a more glamorous, '70s-set reboot of Peaky Blinders, but is actually the band's 24th or 26th studio album (depends on if you're counting UK or US releases) and their first full-length consisting of original material since 2005. Should I, or you for that matter, care about it? I'm not sure. At the time of writing this intro, I've not heard a note of it. I like a good deal of The Stones' '60s and '70s output—they've never been my absolute favorite band from those decades, but I would never call them overrated either. They're one of the most successful bands in history, and there are plenty of good reasons for that. The most unique of those reasons is longevity, an advantage they have on almost every one of their peers, and even many of their stylistic offspring.

My knowledge of The Stones ends, for the most part, with 1981's Tattoo You, the most common "unless you're really invested in this band, you should probably hop off the train now" point in their discography. It's far from my favorite Stones album, but oddly enough it's the only one I inherited from my parents on vinyl. It's most famous for the very "It's 1981, baby"-sounding single "Start Me Up," which I now solely associate with Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and other Microsoft upper brass pumping their fists and clapping on the 1 and the 3 at the Windows 95 launch event. For years, my hate for that song eclipsed all of Tattoo You's redeeming qualities, but after reading Andy Cush's fantastic Pitchfork Sunday Review of the album in 2019, I dove back in and was pleasantly surprised by what I found, especially on Side B.

As the last consensus highlight of The Stones' discography, Tattoo You has, over the years, become critics' go-to comparison point for the band's new albums. Steven Hyden noted in a similar, albeit much better-informed piece to this one last week that "their best since Tattoo You" has become a cliché in Rolling Stones reviews, one that's been handed out to every ensuing album, depending on the ear of the beholder. (Note: I hatched this idea the day before Uproxx published Hyden's piece and decided to stick with it because I'm approaching it from a very different angle than his.)

Pre-Tattoo You, I count nine Stones album that I've heard in full. Post-1981, that number is zero. I don't have the time or patience to commit to eight in-depth album listens/reviews for this column, so here's what I'm going to do instead: I'm going to rank the eight most recent Rolling Stones album by the length of time I can listen to them without feeling compelled to turn them off. This is, of course, a completely arbitrary and unfair rubric. If I included it in the exercise, Tattoo You would have a good shot at finishing dead last because its opening track is "Start Me Up." Perhaps that's the norm—the band does seem to frontload their newer albums with singles—and they've developed a reputation for stacking their more tasteful material at the end of albums. I'm not sure! I'm going in basically blind. Between all eight albums, I count four songs that I know by name—Steel Wheels' "Mixed Emotions," Voodoo Lounge's "Love Is Strong " and "Thru and Thru" (thanks to The Sopranos for the latter), and Bridges To Babylon's weird-as-fuck "Anybody Seen My Baby?"

If you love The Rolling Stones and think they are above such petty criticism, skip this next section. If you hate them and think I should be devoting newsletter space to more deserving, less revered acts, do the same. But if not, join me on this journey as I crank up the last two-thirds of The Stones' career and crank up my snark factor accordingly.

#8 - Hackney Diamonds (2023) - 0:35

Hoo boy. With the reviews this has been getting, I did not expect it to finish last, but here we are. Hackney Diamonds opener "Angry" grates on me from its overly reverbed-and-echoed first drum beat, and by the time Mick Jagger's voice rises from a possibly auto-tuned sneer in the verse to a definitely auto-tuned yelp in the pre-chorus, I couldn't take it any more. This has Andrew Watt, the 33-year-old producer/songwriter/guitarist who's become The Boomer's Millennial with his work on recent albums by Ozzy Osbourne, Elton John, Iggy Pop, and Eddie Vedder (born in '64: just barely a Boomer!), written all over it. The production that's so sleek yet strives so badly to be "live room" that it verges on uncanny valley territory, the peppy "Need You Tonight"-style riff, the too-neat topline melody writing that instantly gives away that this is one of Watt's three co-writes on the album—*Jeezy voice* it's all there. I feel bad hating on him so much, because he seemed like an enthusiastic, genuine guy when I interviewed him in 2019, but I also got the sense that he does not give a fuck about criticism and just wants to work with every living classic rock legend. The Rolling Stones: just another notch in Andrew Watt's bedpost.

#7 - Bridges To Babylon (1997) - 0:44

Who comes up with these drum sounds, man? Bridges To Babylon opener "Flip The Switch" sounds immediately flashier than its predecessor, which was also produced by "Andrew Watt of the '90s" Don Was (thanks Mr. Hyden, more on that later), and as much as I wanted to stick around for the aforementioned bugged-out, Biz Markie-sampling "Anybody Seen My Baby?", I just couldn't do it. There's just so much weird, unpleasant shit going on in these 44 seconds. The way there's clearly a cut between drum takes after the first fill—why would you do that? Why not just let legendary drummer Charlie Watts (RIP) do another five takes to get it right? The hard-panned guitar, the thoroughly out-of-place upright (?) bass, and worst of all, the baritone backing vocals with their "ohhhh yeah"s take me all the way out. This is not a serious band!!

#6 - Blue & Lonesome (2016) - 1:28

Right now, you're probably thinking, 'Is this guy even gonna make it through a full song?' Be patient, I'm still sifting through the dregs. For The Stones' second most recent album, they decided to go back to square one, and for them that means covering classic blues songs, just like they did on their first few records (which was the style at the time). I'll admit that this made go in with a bias, because with The Stones, The Beatles, and most other British Invasion bands, I really don't give two shits about them until they start writing their own songs. Now, doing this as the biggest band in the world in 2016 and throwing royalties at the estates of greats like Little Walter and Willie Dixon doesn't carry half the baggage that dressing Black American music up as pretty white British heartthrobs and selling it back to U.S. audiences for ten times the profit did in the mid-'60s, but racial issues aside, I've never enjoyed many of these covers. Blue & Lonesome opener, Buddy Johnson's "Just Your Fool," is no different. I hung out for 75% of it to see if it would go anywhere more interesting than Johnson's smooth original, and my answer is no. It's more swaggering and loose, but that just means it's a Rolling Stones Blues Cover.

#5 - Undercover (1983) - 5:33

This, the first album after Tattoo You, is the start of what I'd call The Stones' "groove period." They start playing around with funk, new wave, and African rhythms, and while that yields moments both intriguing and laugh-out-loud, it's not what I'd consider the band's strong suit. Opening track and lead single (turns out they do slot it like that a lot—five of these eight albums open with their lead single) "Undercover Of The Night" pulls out all the stops in a way that suggests a bold, double-underlined "BELLS & WHISTLES" on the idea board. There's slap bass, clave, probably-very-trendy-at-the-time delay on the drums, guitars, and vocals, and some of the silliest horndog lyrics you'll ever hear in a discography full of silly horndog lyrics. Jagger sings of "sex police" and "double talk" like he's Orwell writing a 1984 where political dissension is fine but fucking is illegal. I decided to stick around out of curiosity more than anything else, but unfortunately, I only made it a minute into the much more boring "She Was Hot."

#4 - A Bigger Bang (2005) - 7:52

The first Rolling Stones album whose rollout I can remember, A Bigger Bang was a big deal, launching the highest-grossing tour in history (to that point), an accompanying Scorsese concert film, and the band's first Super Bowl halftime show. Upon revisiting, I do remember lead single (and first track!) "Rough Justice," which, from the crunchy opening riff to the group vocals on the chorus, sounds exactly like a less racist, yet perhaps even more sexual update on "Brown Sugar." "Once upon a time I was your little rooster/But now I'm just one of your cocks" is a classic unsubtle Jaggerism. The problem here, and way more so on the next track, "Let Me Down Slow," is how predictable and '70s-reverent it all sounds. For all of The Stones' in the '80s and '90s, at least they took risks! Maybe my inner 14-year-old is still salty about Alan Light awarding this 4.5 stars in his Rolling Stone review, calling A Bigger Bang "just a straight-up, damn fine Rolling Stones album, with no qualifiers or apologies necessary for the first time in a few decades," but this is dreadfully boring stuff.

#3 - Steel Wheels (1989) - 9:08

After the batshit pyrotechnics of Undercover and, to a slightly lesser degree, Dirty Work, Steel Wheels seems like The Stones in slightly more tasteful groove mode. Instead of funk, they're mining soul on opening cuts "Sad Sad Sad" and "Mixed Emotions." Both are decent songs ("Mixed Emotions" has something of a "Suspicious Minds" melody/vibe going on), but the backing vocals and horns feel piled on and unnecessary to me. By the time the much sillier, less catchy third track "Terrifying" got going, I'd heard enough. Not as glaringly cheesy as Undercover but also...

#2 - Dirty Work (1986) - 9:35

... Not as fun as Dirty Work. Despite yet again hanging around for less than 10 minutes, I feel like I could go back and mine some gems here. I couldn't make it past third track and lead single "Harlem Shuffle," but from poking around contemporary and retrospective reviews, it seems like that song's always been the widely-mocked consensus nadir of the album. "One Hit (To The Body)" takes one look at the unwieldy deployment of newfangled effects on "Undercover Of The Night" and says, 'Let's try that again," delivering something more in-line with new wave that incorporates new technology without leaving the band with their trousers around their ankles. The synth/acoustic guitar combo in the background is cool, and there's not one, but two kick-ass Keith Richards solos. "Fight" is even more straightforward, almost closer to punk than new wave. I'll come back to this one, but never to "Harlem Shuffle."

#1 - Voodoo Lounge (1994) - 26:46

Now that's what I'm talking about! Voodoo Lounge absolutely fucks. This is the first time The Stones teamed with aforementioned producer Don Was, a guy 10 years Jagger and Richards' junior who'd found a ton of success working with their contemporaries like Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Bonnie Raitt, Roy Orbison, David Crosby, and many others in the late '80s and early '90s. Unlike Watt, he seemed to have a good, flexible feel for each artist's strengths. To wit: in a 1995 interview with now-disgraced Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner, Mick Jagger said, "There were a lot of things that we wrote for Voodoo Lounge that Don steered us away from: groove songs, African influences and things like that. And he steered us very clear of all that. And I think it was a mistake."

Au contrair, Mick! This is a mature album without neutering The Stones' carnal appeal. The one-two punch of "Love Is Strong" and "Keep Me Rocking" recall their heyday, but with a sleeker, more restrained sound and zero of the bells and whistles that plagued their preceding few albums. It's really the next two songs that hooked me though. "The Worst" and "New Faces" are, respectively, basically Richards and Jagger solo efforts, with the former in particularly quite stunning with its strings, harmonies, and pedal steel.

I enjoyed everything until eighth track "I Go Wild," which, especially amid a 15-song, 61-minute album, feels like it should have been left on the cutting room floor. I really do vibe with this incarnation of The Stones though—slightly quieter, more heartfelt, prettier. That's why I like Goat's Head Soup more than most, and that's why I barely made a dent in any of these other albums.

Plug 2

To repent for quoting a Wenner interview above, I'm going to big-up this new, extremely well-researched piece by Marisa Kabas on the unfair conditions faced by female Rolling Stone employees over the years. It indicts more than just Wenner, and is yet another reminder that the libertine fantasies of classic rock often did not view women as equals. The part about the maternity leave is especially awful.

Paul A. Thompson's Sunday Review of Jim Jones' Harlem: Diary of a Summer was also really great.

BOI (Best Of Inbox) #6

Ali Sethi & Nicolas Jaar - "Nazar Ze"

What an incredible collaboration. Ali Sethi is a Pakistani singer who scored a major global hit last year (read more on that in Vrinda Jagota's new interview with Sethi), and Jaar is the shape-shifting Chilean producer and sometimes-vocalist who, over the course of his solo work, dance side-project Against All Logic, and psych/electronic duo Darkside, has made some of the most thrilling electronic music of the last 15 years (here's the guide I wrote on his career, as well as my Darkside interview). "Nazar Ze" is the entrancing first taste of Intiha, the duo's collaborative album that's out on 11/17.

Alluvial - "Bog Dweller"

Alluvial is an Atlanta-based death metal band that I know exactly one thing about: their recent single "Bog Dweller" rips. This is some the tightest playing you'll hear all year—the way the drums in particular pivot from blastbeats to jerky fills to syncopated grooves is mind-boggling. This song is so serpentine that I'd almost call it progressive death metal, but it's got too many lizard-brain-pleasing sections of deceptive simplicity to come off even remotely highbrow. Alluvial's upcoming EP Death Is But A Door is out 1/12/24.

Dream, Ivory & Jay Som - "Milk"

If you've ever wondered what a Gen Z version of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" would sound like, look no further! The fraternal duo of Christian and Louie Baello, who record emo-tinted dream pop, crank up the big synths for their new single "Milk," which features a lovely verse and backing vocals from Melina Duterte of the fantastic indie rock band Jay Som (check out an interview I did with her a few years ago!).

Elitist - "Vacuous Magnificence"

Some real thinking man's death metal right here. Elitist are a Copenhagen band comprising 3/4ths of the incredible, incredibly named grindcore band Piss Vortex, and for their new venture, they're using their blistering bonafides in service of very different ends. Debut single "Vacuous Magnificence" is closer to Gorguts than Agoraphobic Nosebleed, an avant-metal swirler that does some head-spinning stuff with strutuce and time signatures without ever getting lost up its own ass. Elitist's debut album, A Mirage of Grandeur, is out 11/17.

Ghostly Kisses - "Golden Eyes"

If Jessie Ware never went full adult-contempo disco or if Madonna paired up with a UK garage producer instead of William Orbit on Ray Of Light, it might sound a bit like Ghostly Kisses' new single. "Golden Eyes" is a dancefloor banger that's somehow slinky, anthemic, and heartfelt all at once. The solo project of Quebec City's Margaux Sauvé, Ghostly Kisses promises that this is "the first single from a series of exciting new releases."

H31R Feat. Quelle Chris - "Down Down Bb"

H31R are a Brooklyn-based experimental hip hop/electronic duo comprising vocalist maassai and producer/composer JWords, and their new single pairs them up with the great Detroit rap veteran Quelle Chris. "Down Down Bb" is a muted, double-time meanderer that requires some nimble-as-hell flows from its MCs. It kind of gives me "Us Placers" vibes. H31R's second album, HeadSpace, is out 11/17.

Like a Doll - "Don't Throw Your Words"

On one hand, "Don't Throw Your Words" is a catchy, thoughtfully composed indie pop song; on the other, it sounds constantly in danger of falling apart. Like A Doll, the solo project of Brooklyn's Emma Stacher, pulls off that balancing act with aplomb, letting the tempo constantly shift underneath the song without ever completely derailing it. The project's self-titled debut is out on 11/10 (no link for that one yet).

Lil Tony - "Hot"

Lil Tony is a fresh talent out of Atlanta whose last single, "Canoozled" came this close to making a former issue of Inbox Infinity. Over a WTFrico and Four3va beat that sounds like a Zaytoven beat got so high that it's periodically nodding off, the 18-year-old rapper sounds like a man beyond his years with how straight-up annoyed he is with everything. Just listen to the exasperated three-second groan he lets out after rapping "I can't even lie, it got me hot." Sounding like a 54-year-old pissing and moaning about the pitfalls of friendship and romance at such a young age, Tony's got a bright future ahead of him.

Tanukichan - "NPC"

Tanukichan already put out a great album, GIZMO, earlier this year, and now they're back for more! The Oakland-based grunge/dream pop/shoegaze band give off an almost '90s Seattle vibe on their new standalone single "NPC," which as its title suggests is about the joys of blending into the scenery and not talking to anyone. Keep cranking out slappers like this and they'll have trouble staying a non-playable character though, am I right??

Worm - "Sea of Sorrow"

Worm may not technically be the coolest band in metal right now, especially since they've become engrossed in symphonic black metal and dungeon synth nerdery, but they are in my book! The Florida-based project of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Phantom Slaughter broke out with their funeral doom-y 2021 album Foreverglade, and then switched up the approach ever so slightly on last year's Bluenothing EP, including more acoustic and dark synth textures. They just keep sounding more crazed, badass, and unafraid of sounding uncool, and that continues on Starpath, their new split with proggy doom duo Dream Unending. Closing track "Sea of Sorrow" is one of my favorite things I've heard all year, an epic that squeezes in so many tasty textures that it has to be heard to be believed. Run, don't walk, towards this one.

All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

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Jamie Larson