Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Rolling Stones

  • 12 X 5 [Abkco, 1964]  
  • The Rolling Stones, Now! [Abkco, 1965]  
  • Out of Our Heads [Abkco, 1965]  
  • Aftermath [Abkco, 1966]  
  • Their Satanic Majesties Request [London, 1967] B+
  • Between the Buttons [Abkco, 1967]  
  • Flowers [Abkco, 1967]  
  • Beggars Banquet [Abkco, 1968] A
  • Let It Bleed [Abkco, 1969] A+
  • Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! [London, 1970] B
  • Sticky Fingers [Rolling Stones, 1971] A
  • Hot Rocks 1964-1971 [London, 1971] B-
  • Exile on Main Street [Rolling Stones, 1972] A+
  • More Hot Rocks (Big Hits and Fazed Cookies) [London, 1972] B+
  • Goats Head Soup [Rolling Stones, 1973] B
  • It's Only Rock 'n' Roll [Rolling Stones, 1974] B
  • Made in the Shade [Rolling Stones, 1975] C+
  • Metamorphosis [Abkco, 1975] B+
  • Black and Blue [Rolling Stones, 1976] A-
  • Love You Live [Rolling Stones, 1977] C+
  • Some Girls [Rolling Stones, 1978] A
  • Emotional Rescue [Rolling Stones, 1980] B+
  • Sucking in the Seventies [Rolling Stones, 1981] C+
  • Tattoo You [Rolling Stones, 1981] A-
  • "Still Life" (American Tour 1981) [Rolling Stones, 1982] B-
  • Undercover [Rolling Stones, 1984] C+
  • Rewind (1971-1984) [Rolling Stones, 1984] A-
  • Dirty Work [Rolling Stones, 1986] A
  • Steel Wheels [Rolling Stones, 1989] B-
  • Flashpoint [Rolling Stones, 1991] Neither
  • Voodoo Lounge [Capitol, 1994] **
  • Stripped [Virgin, 1995] A-
  • Bridges to Babylon [Virgin, 1997] *
  • No Security [Virgin, 1998] Dud
  • A Bigger Bang [Virgin, 2005] A-
  • Shine a Light [Virgin, 2008] Choice Cuts
  • Some Girls: Deluxe Edition [Universal Republic, 2011] A-
  • Brussels Affair (Live 1973) [Rolling Stones, 2015] **
  • On Air (Deluxe Edition) [Polydor/Abkco/Rolling Stones, 2017] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

12 X 5 [Abkco, 1964]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library; CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

The Rolling Stones, Now! [Abkco, 1965]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library; CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Out of Our Heads [Abkco, 1965]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library; CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Aftermath [Abkco, 1966]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library; CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Their Satanic Majesties Request [London, 1967]
Back in '67 men were men and rock groups were rock groups: the Beatles "long-awaited" Sgt. Pepper appeared only nine months after Revolver and was followed by Christmas's Magical Mystery Tour, and the Stones released three albums. I don't propose to determine whether Between the Buttons and Flowers are A's or A pluses, but this one's a challenge--probably the most controversial LP they ever made, it features two communal jams of a most un-Stoneslike looseness, a (mock-?) psychedelic jacket, and a very subdued Mick Jagger. Really, Mick doesn't sing here, not expressively, he simply projects lead vocals through a filter which is one metaphorical equivalent for the sense of distance that is the album's obsession. A lot of people consider Satanic Majesties a, how you say it, bummer, but I'm fond of it; without a doubt it contains several great songs ("Citadel," "2000 Man," "2000 Light Years from Home," and Bill Wyman's "In Another Land"). I must admit, however, that the jams are for aficionados only. B+

Between the Buttons [Abkco, 1967]
Accused of psychedelia, Beatlephobia, and murky mix syndrome, this underrated keeper is distinguished by complex rhymes, complex sexual stereotyping, and the non-blues, oh-so-rock-and-roll pianos of Ian Stewart, Jack Nitzsche, Nicky Hopkins, and Brian Jones. Like all Beatles and Stones albums till that time, it was released in different American and British versions. The surefire U.S.-only "Let's Spend the Night Together"/"Ruby Tuesday" single parlay is almost too much because its greatness is understood--"Back Street Girl," bumped to the Flowers compilation released later that year, more closely resembles such gemlike songs of experience as "Connection," "My Obsession," and "She Smiled Sweetly." Capper: Mick and Keith's zonked music-hall "Something Happened to Me Yesterday," the Stones' drollest odd-track-out ever. [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]  

Flowers [Abkco, 1967]
The Stones were cresting so high around 1967 that even this pieced-together hodgepodge has a distinctness of style and invention about it. Right, it re-recycles "Let's Spend the Night Together"/"Ruby Tuesday," which shouldn't have been on Between the Buttons to begin with. It disrespects the rightful owners of "My Girl," the Temptations, and the target of "Mother's Little Helper," yo mama. As for "Lady Jane," what's that about? Nevertheless, every track connects. That's more than can be said of Their Satanic Majesties Request, which is better than its rep even so. [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]  

Beggars Banquet [Abkco, 1968]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library; CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980] A

Let It Bleed [Abkco, 1969]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library; CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980] A+

Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! [London, 1970]
Yeah, I was at the Garden when this was being recorded, and I had a great time. But despite Mick Taylor's guitar on "Love in Vain" and the spruced-up "Live With Me," there's not a song here that isn't better somewhere else--including the two Chuck Berry covers and the one-act "Midnight Rambler." B

Sticky Fingers [Rolling Stones, 1971]
You'd think some compensation was in order a year and a half after the fact, but that old evil life's just got them in its sway. From titles like "Bitch" and "Sister Morphine" and (the one Altamont reference) "Dead Flowers" through "Brown Sugar"'s compulsively ironic and bacchanalian exploitation/expose to the almost Yeatsian "Moonlight Mile," this is unregenerate Stones. The token sincerity of "Wild Horses" drags me. But "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" and "I Got the Blues" are as soulful as "Good Times," and Fred McDowell's "You Gotta Move" stands alongside "Prodigal Son" and "Love in Vain." A

Hot Rocks 1964-1971 [London, 1971]
If you don't like the Stones, this might serve as a sampler--the only dubious cut is the live "Midnight Rambler." But if you don't like the Stones, why are you reading this book? Look, here's how it works. Except for Satanic Majesties, which isn't represented here, all of their '60s studio albums are musts. Couldn't even tell you where to start. Now!, maybe. Or Let It Bleed. Aftermath? Beggars Banquet? B-

Exile on Main Street [Rolling Stones, 1972]
More than anything else this fagged-out masterpiece is difficult--how else describe music that takes weeks to understand? Weary and complicated, barely afloat in its own drudgery, it rocks with extra power and concentration as a result. More indecipherable than ever, submerging Mick's voice under layers of studio murk, it piles all the old themes--sex as power, sex as love, sex as pleasure, distance, craziness, release--on top of an obsession with time more than appropriate in over-thirties committed to what was once considered a youth music. Honking around sweet Virginia country and hipping through Slim Harpo, singing their ambiguous praises of Angela Davis, Jesus Christ, and the Butter Queen, they're just war babies with the bell bottom blues. A+

More Hot Rocks (Big Hits and Fazed Cookies) [London, 1972]
The companion volume's for dabblers; this is for specialists. One of the two previously-unavailable-on-LP B sides, "We Love You," is the only time they ever trounced Sgt. Pepper good, and long about the middle of the early, previously-unavailable-in-U.S. r&b cuts they really get a sly groove going, upping the tempo and lagging the phrasing on "Come On" and "Fortune Teller" and "Poison Ivy" and "Bye Bye Johnnie." Sometimes specialists have more fun. B+

Goats Head Soup [Rolling Stones, 1973]
Except for the spavined "Dancing With Mr. D," and the oxymoronic "Can You Hear the Music," these are good songs. But the execution is slovenly. I don't mean sloppy, which can be exciting--I mean arrogant and enervated all at once. Mick's phrasing is always indolent, but usually it's calculated down to the last minibeat as well; here the words sometimes catch him yawning. Without trying to be "tight" the band usually grooves into a reckless, sweaty coherence; here they hope the licks will stand on their own. Only on "Starfucker," the most outrageous Chuck Berry throwaway of the band's career, does this record really take off. B

It's Only Rock 'n' Roll [Rolling Stones, 1974]
This is measurably stronger than Goats Head Soup, and I hear enough new hooks and arresting bass runs and audacious jokes to stretch over three ordinary albums--or do I mean two? I also hear lazy rhymes and a song about dancing with Father Time and two sides that begin at a peak and wind down from there and an LP title that means more than it intends--or do I mean less? B

Made in the Shade [Rolling Stones, 1975]
Six tracks from two of the greatest albums of the decade and four from two of the more dubious ones. Not the four best, either. C+

Metamorphosis [Abkco, 1975]
Flowers it ain't, but Jamming With Edward it ain't either. The second side holds up better than the first, the sound and musicianship are rough and thin throughout, and most of the arrangements were obviously given up in the middle (remember One Plus One?), sometimes because the songs were worth giving up on. But Bill Wyman's "Downtown Suzie" and Oldham-Richards's "I'd Much Rather Be With the Boys," to choose two previously unheard for all too obvious reasons, rank with all but the greatest Stones originals, and at its worst this still represents the world's greatest rock and roll band during the period when they were earning the title. B+

Black and Blue [Rolling Stones, 1976]
More blatantly imitative of black-music rhythms and styles than any Stones album since December's Children, and also less original (if more humorous) in the transformation, this nevertheless takes genuine risks and suggests a way out of their groove. Lots of good stuff, but the key is "Hot Stuff," pure Ohio-Players-go-to-Kingston and very fine shit, and the high point "Fool to Cry," their best track in four years. Diagnosis: not dead by a long shot. A-

Love You Live [Rolling Stones, 1977]
As a Stones loyalist, I am distressed to report that this documents the Stones' suspected deterioration as a live band, a deterioration epitomized by the accelerating affectation of Mick's vocals. Once his slurs teased, made jokes, held out double meanings; now his refusal to pronounce final dentals--the "good" and "should" of "Brown Sugar," for example--convey bored, arrogant laziness, as if he can't be bothered hoisting his tongue to the roof of his mouth. His "oo-oo-oo"s and "awri-i"s are self-parody without humor. This is clearly a professional entertainer doing a job that just doesn't get him off the way it once did, a job that gets harder every time out. C+

Some Girls [Rolling Stones, 1978]
The Stones' best album since Exile on Main Street is also their easiest since Let It Bleed or before. They haven't gone for a knockdown uptempo classic, a "Brown Sugar" or "Jumping Jack Flash"--just straight rock and roll unencumbered by horn sections or Billy Preston. Even Jagger takes a relatively direct approach, and if he retains any credibility for you after six years of dicking around, there should be no agonizing over whether you like this record, no waiting for tunes to kick in. Lyrically, there are some bad moments--especially on the title cut, which is too fucking indirect to suit me--but in general the abrasiveness seems personal, earned, unposed, and the vulnerability more genuine than ever. Also, the band is a real good one--especially the drummer. A

Emotional Rescue [Rolling Stones, 1980]
No one will ever mistake this for a great Stones album, but I bet it sounds more interesting than It's Only Rock 'n Roll should we take the time to compare and contrast in our respective retirement communities. The mid-'60s charm of such tossed-off tropes as "Where the Boys Go" and "She's So Cold" goes with music that's far more allusive and irregular and knowing: for better and worse its drive isn't so monolithic, and the bass comes front and center like Bill was James Jamerson. Looser than you'll ever be. B+

Sucking in the Seventies [Rolling Stones, 1981]
C'mon fellas, it's not that bad--you didn't really suck in the '70s. Made a number of, er, classic albums, in fact. Sucking them dry for this hodgepodge is what sucks. As I'm sure you know as your lackeys laugh all the way to your Bahamian tax shelters. C+

Tattoo You [Rolling Stones, 1981]
There's no denying it, unfortunately--this is a damn good record, a great band showing off its mastery, like Muddy Waters (just as a for instance) getting it up one more once. But where Some Girls had impact as a Rolling Stones record, a major statement by artists with something to state, the satisfactions here are stylistic--harmonies, fills, momentum. And the lead singer isn't getting any less mean-spirited as he pushes forty. A-

"Still Life" (American Tour 1981) [Rolling Stones, 1982]
They sound very professional, they also sound big and rough and raunchy, and with Charlie driving and Keith making dirty noises they transform "Let Me Go" from an emotional vacuum to a ready-made classic. But "Twenty Flight Rock" has been done better by Robert Gordon (also Eddie Cochran) and the two Motown covers are disgraceful, primarily because of Mick, who has progressed from aging self-parody to old roué--"Satisfaction" sounded more worldly-wise in 1965 (also fresher), and the same goes for every other remake here. B-

Undercover [Rolling Stones, 1984]
What do people hear in this murky, overblown, incoherent piece of shit? True, they still slip naturally into the kind of vernacular specificity other bands strive for; despite the wind-tunnel mix Keith still sounds like the incorrigible genius-by-accident he is, nothing stops Charlie, and Mick's Texas chainsaw monologue is a scream. Also, two of the songs have political themes, which I guess is supposed to fill me with gratitude. But I'm such a churl I'm only grateful for good songs, and these are as tired and witless and nasty as the rest. Their worst studio album. C+

Rewind (1971-1984) [Rolling Stones, 1984]
Disinclined though I am to increase their wealth or validate what is at bottom their corporate farewell to WEA distribution, I can't deny the songwriting on this compilation. By now the Jagger-Richards book is deeper than Johnny Mercer's, Willie Dixon's, like that--the first ever lyric sheet, at one level a token of their utter loss of principle, is pure pleasure (and convinces me "Tumbling Dice" is forever Linda's, too). Surrounded by three of their all-time best ("Miss You," "Brown Sugar," "Start Me Up"), even the political profit-taking of "Undercover (of the Night)" accrues artistic dignity. Song for song, a stronger album than anything they released in the period, and while for concept I'll take not just the eternal Exile but the casual Some Girls, it flows and maybe coheres. A-

Dirty Work [Rolling Stones, 1986]
Dreaming of solo glory, Mick doesn't have much time for his band these days--just plugged into his Stones mode and spewed whatever he had to spew, adding lyrics and a few key musical ideas to tracks Ron and Keith completed before the star sullied his consciousness with them. And I say let him express himself elsewhere. For once his lyrics are impulsive and confused, two-faced by habit rather than design, the straightest reports he can offer from the top he's so lonely at, about oppressing and being oppressed rather than geopolitical contradiction. In the three that lead side two, always playing dirty is getting to him, as is his misuse of the jerks and greaseballs and fuckers and dumb-asses who clean up after him, yet for all his privilege he's another nuclear subject who's got no say over whether he rots or pops even though he'd much prefer the former. Especially together with the hard advice of "Hold Back," these are songs of conscience well-known sons of bitches can get away with. Coproducer Steve Lillywhite combines high-detail arena-rock with back-to-basics commitment and limits the melismatic affectations that have turned so much of Mick's late work in on itself. Let him have his own life and career, I don't care. What I want is the Stones as an idea that belongs to history, that's mine as much as theirs. This is it. A

Steel Wheels [Rolling Stones, 1989]
All rancor and bad vibes, Dirty Work was the Stones; all impartiality and bad boys grown up, the reunion is an amazing simulation. Charlie's groove enlivens--and IDs--the mature sentiments while gibes at "conscience" and "reason" hint obliquely at self-awareness. But for Mick, self-awareness means above all accepting one's status as a pop star. Maybe he thinks "So get off the fence/It's creasing your butt" saves "Mixed Emotions" from its own conventionality. Probably he thinks giving Keith two vocals is democracy and roots. Certainly he thinks he needs the money. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. B-

Flashpoint [Rolling Stones, 1991] Neither

Voodoo Lounge [Capitol, 1994]
world's greatest roots-rock band ("Brand New Car," "New Faces") **

Stripped [Virgin, 1995]
Accepting--nay, embracing--the necessity of performing as a unit, they rehearsed. Ditto his responsibilities as a member of Great Britain's ruling class, Mick enunciated--except on the sole words not reproduced in the lyric booklet (that's right, lyric booklet), which go, approximately, "She was [n?]ifty, [sh?]ifty, she looked about 50." And macabre though it may seem, they all went out and cut not merely another unplugged recap, but a live album that reprises their classic material and groove in an honorably autumnal spirit--an album that might tell you something a decade from now. Muddy Waters would be proud. A-

Bridges to Babylon [Virgin, 1997]
still know how to construct, play, and--sometimes--sing a song ("You Don't Have To Mean It," "Flip the Switch") *

No Security [Virgin, 1998] Dud

A Bigger Bang [Virgin, 2005]
I'm obviously not to be trusted, since when I finally pulled out my vinyl on Dirty Work, which nobody else likes, I still loved its booming Steve Lillywhite Charlie, its studious chicken-scratch Keith, its bitterness and cynicism and spiritual desperation. On this one desperation is in remission. But despite its lack of an anthem to replace "Start Me Up," it certainly beats Tattoo You or anything else going back to Exile except Some Girls. Long the weak link, Mick--come on: Keith and Charlie are gods, Ron is for sound effects, and Darryl Jones is an improvement--once again proves capable of relating on what we humans pathetically call a human scale. Not that I credit his "vulnerability," but I'm touched that he cares enough to lie about it. Together with clear evidence of prolonged cooperation between or among the principals (meaning two-man songwriting and a living groove, respectively), the effort suffices to provide or simulate the mattering considered so crucial in veteran bands. It also helps that the opener really rocks. As for the anti-Bush song, duh. Next time they should vet their corporate sponsor instead. A-

Shine a Light [Virgin, 2008]
"Champagne & Reefer" Choice Cuts

Some Girls: Deluxe Edition [Universal Republic, 2011]
A major album, you knew that. But my grade is for the bonus disc, which--as I'd never have guessed after those drab Exile extras--has dibs on major as well. It outstrips not just It's Only Rock 'n Roll and Goats Head Soup but Tattoo You and probably Emotional Rescue (which several advisors insist I revisit). Where the regular album is musically quirky and lyrically either risky ("Some Girls," "Far Away Eyes") or generalized ("Respectable," "Beast of Burden," damn right "When the Whip Comes Down"), the bonus disc is musically classic-Stones and lyrically small-scale, including NYC specifics that warm my heart. Beginning with the Stu-does-Jerry-Lee bootleg fave "Claudine" and ending with the atypically near-political "Petrol Blues," its star player is a horny guy who just got divorced--a familiar character the classic Stones were made for. Mick's Hank Williams cover trumps Keith's Waylon Jennings cover. His Freddy Cannon cover trumps them both. A-

Brussels Affair (Live 1973) [Rolling Stones, 2015]
The rare arena-rock recording that does justice to the subgenre's power dwarfs their 1971 Marquee Club vault-pull while making a case for the excision of "Midnight Rambler" and "Brown Sugar" from their A list ("Happy," "Starfucker") **

On Air (Deluxe Edition) [Polydor/Abkco/Rolling Stones, 2017]
Exploiting the surprise sales spike of their 2016 Christmas album Blue & Lonesome, their 2017 Christmas album purportedly revisits the band's early-'60s blues beginnings, which in fact were no such thing. Chuck Berry, who wrote six of these songs, was not a blues artist, and neither was Bo Diddley, who gets three including the previously bootleg-only "Cops and Robbers" playlet (theirs is fine, Bo's better). Billed "R&B" as they started playing out in 1963, the Stones were catchier and quicker than blues, and on these 32 radio transcriptions they sound like the premier bar band of their time if not ever. Where Blue & Lonesome is a sodden thing--many old rockers have recorded sharper, spunkier, wiser music--this collection proves what world-beaters they were even before they got serious about songwriting. True, the unperfected "Satisfaction" some hedger stuck in sounds pretty good--how could it not? But "2120 Michigan Avenue," the instrumental they concocted to celebrate recording at Chess, is the closer because it oughta be. A-

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