Trying To Get To You

Friday, October 08, 2010

Preview Of Upcoming Springsteen Community Conference

On October 13 at 4pm, E Street Radio will be broadcasting the latest Springsteen Community Conference that I co-hosted with my good friend John Franck. Titled, "The Ties That Bind: Springsteen and the Next Generation," it's a great exploration of Springsteen's influence on a new generation of musicians.

Our guests for this include Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine), Pete Yorn and drummer Jay Weinberg. It's a killer show, with some great, informative and often hilarious anecdotes, much like the one below. If you're a Bruce fan, you won't want to miss this!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Vampire Weekend Flatten Springsteen

I first heard Vampire Weekend in the summer of 2007 when they were blog buzzing. A friend sent me a link to their Myspace page and said something smarmy about them, asking me where everyone's balls went. I didn't think much of what I heard-this was obviously "smart people" music made by overeducated kids who had probably majored in semiotics, or something in that realm. But whatever, they kind of blew up. I've listened to their albums and while I can listen to them and experience a bit of pleasure, broadly speaking, they do nothing for me.

There's a YouTube video of them doing Springsteen's "I'm Goin' Down" a couple of weeks ago in Vancouver that's been making the rounds. It took me a couple of tries to get all the way through it-it's so horribly cutesy and neutered that it occurs as pointless. I can't help but wonder why they even played it, as they bring nothing to it; not humor, not longing, not sadness and not fun. Yes, there's an interesting novelty about a hot indie band playing a song off of Born In The U.S.A., something that would have been unthinkable ten to twenty years ago, but all Vampire Weekend does is flatten the song into a non-entity. Listening to it, it's no wonder they've been dubbed the world's Whitest Band.

"I'm Goin' Down" is sometimes considered one of the slightest songs on Born In The U.S.A., but it's really not slight at all. It's a Springsteen song that sounds happy but is really sad, following in the grand Springsteen tradition of uptempo songs with much darker lyrical undertones. What it's really about is how love fades or becomes obscured over time. Or said in a better way, how familiarity breeds contempt.

Bruce spoke of this in his introduction to the song on the Born In The U.S.A. tour in 1984-1985. It's a funny little rap, and by putting the song in its rightful context, he takes something that could be seen as slight and elevates it to the level of something truly special, something that eludes Vampire Weekend utterly and completely.

Download: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - "I'm Goin Down" (Los Angeles, CA  10/26/84)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

John Legend Finds His Anger

John Legend with the Roots on September 7, 2010
I've never been much of a John Legend fan. To my ears, he's too damned polite; decent Sunday brunch music perhaps, but entirely middle of the road. Safe. Nice. Harmless. He's clearly in the tradition of upwardly mobile 70's soul - Donnie Hathaway, Roberta Flack, the softer pieces of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, and while he may be working in the soul tradition, if you asked me whether the dude has any soul, my answer would have been no.

So I went to last night's John Legend/Roots show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg more excited to see the Roots, well actually, Questlove, than hear anything off of their upcoming album. Wake Up. And indeed, the show was mainly a polite affair, only confirming many of my feelings about Legend.

But for the last song of the main set, they went into a version of Bill Withers' "I Can't Write Left-Handed,"from Withers' classic Live At Carnegie Hall, and a transformation took place. The song, written from the point of view of a wounded Vietnam Vet, was one of the best anti-war songs of its era, and in recreating it in an era of war all the time around the world, both Legend and the Roots got way beyond the polite. 

Legend sunk his teeth into the song; in taking on singing for someone else, he gave himself the freedom to not be nice, to give voice to rage, sorrow, and resentment. He moaned, yelled, shouted and caressed his own aggression. He pounded his piano, responding to the anguish in his vocals with thunderous and jazzy little runs. It was revelatory.

The Roots, who had played within themselves all night, like a great basketball player told that they can only do lay-ups and not dunk, finally let loose, and began to tear it up, especially guitarist "Captain" Kirk Douglas who played with both speed and suppleness, elevating the tension with each pass through the chorus. Questlove, who had the visage of a funeral director for most of the night, finally began to beam with a grin as he and Legend looked at each other and kept taking it higher. Each time I thought the song might be concluded, they attacked once more, and when they finally finished, the crowd erupted in both release and appreciation. They came to do an encore, but it was really superfluous - nothing else was necessary.

I came away with a new opinion of John Legend. I still feel no need to put his albums on, but I'm far more interested to hear what he does next - perhaps what's been missing in his music up until now is anger, an anger that would curb his tendency for syrup, and would make his realm of romance far more powerful and earned. And for the question, is John Legend soulful, I have a new answer. His music by and large may not be soulful, but down deep, the man has soul.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The 60 Rolling Stones Songs Of All Time (#20-#11)

20. "Wild Horses" (1971, from Sticky Fingers)

Recorded in Muscle Shoals in December of 1969 while on the triumphant U.S. tour that cemented their "greatest rock and roll band in the world" status, "Wild Horses" is a classic Jagger-Richards collaboration, with Keith providing the chorus and riff and Mick providing the verses. It's a perfect pop song, managing to drain the cliche out of a cliche and providing sentiment without ever curdling into the maudlin. The Stones may not be often thought of as making beautiful music, but they've made a lot of it, and this might be their most beautiful song of all.

19. “Torn And Frayed” (1972, from Exile On Main Street)

One of their druggiest songs during one their druggiest periods, “Torn And Frayed” is built on three simple chords and the littered reverie of Keith, Anita, Gram Parsons and a boatload of hangers on, leeches, and people looking for a little taste of Glimmer, which as Keith later said, is more addictive than smack. Keith’s background vocals sound like they’re coming from a man’s who’s drowning, which in a way, he was, even though he was at his creative peak.

18, “Dead Flowers” (1971, from Sticky Fingers)

By Peter Ramos

It’s hard to tell how seriously Mick or the Stones took their country-fied song “Dead Flowers” when they recorded it.  British musicians playing the blues was one thing, but country? Of course we know now that Keith was hanging around, trading secrets and habits with Gram Parsons.  As well, the song acquired vocal gravitas, and official country legitimacy, when Townes Van Zandt covered it.  Still, whenever I hear Mick starting to sing in that low, slightly exaggerated Southern twang, I can’t help but think, “He’s kidding, no?”  Later, Mick would officially push the act over the top when the band recorded “Far Away Eyes,” too defensively, perhaps, against the criticism that he—a Brit who went to the London School Of Economics for Christ-sakes!—had no business singing God-fearin’ American country.

I grew up in the suburbs in the 80s. I went to private schools and then a liberal arts college, and though this didn’t completely determine the kinds of music I liked, it seems in some ways no surprise that I listened to classic rock, pop, new wave, punk, and, on rarer occasions, soul and R&B. Hair-band heavy metal couldn’t be taken seriously or even ironically. And country—including the original “classic” kind—was out of the question. And so I must confess, though I’m sure I’m not alone, that hearing “Dead Flowers” for the first time (during the summer of 1990 and right before what should have been my senior year at college) was my first taste of country music.  By this I mean, as I’ve already implied, not that I hadn’t heard country music before, but that I hadn’t yet taken it seriously. However outrageous and artificial Mick’s vocalizing might be, it was the Stones, and not Billy Ray Cyrus (very popular at that time), after all.  Thinking back now, I realize I had already heard “Wild Horses”—in fact it was on a Greatest Hits album I’d owned since middle school—but somehow that song never struck me as being Country in the strict sense, never announced the musical genre it borrowed from in such a loud, self-proclaiming, italicized way.  “Wild Horses” has a country feel; “Dead Flowers,” from the first bar to the last, is Country!  I also suspect that because I’d heard the former so often growing up, on popular radio stations, at mixers and parties, it had become for me naturalized into the genre of “standard classic rock”—not that there’s anything standard about that extraordinary, lovely song. Or maybe, along similar lines, because I’d heard so little real county music growing up—outside of the kind from people like John Denver—I never noticed the influence.

If it matters what and where I was when I first heard “Dead Flowers,” or what state of mind I was in, then I’ll simply state I was with some friends in a field in the middle of summer, very drunk and feeling sorry for myself because of a recent break-up I’d had with my girlfriend of two years. She was not my first girlfriend but my first “true love.” I put the phrase in quotes now to signify that that is how I felt then. So. Your typical suburban college student on summer break, working a shitty job with lots of free time and just enough money to pitch in for and help drink a couple of cases of National Bohemian: sentimental, maudlin, and very drunk.  

This, too, was not a first. In high school, I would also have been drunk, maudlin, sentimental, possibly heartsick, and listening to music—say The Smiths—with this important difference: when I was 16, I really believed my feelings were truly unique to me and that by some miracle Morrissey understood my personal sadness and alienation and articulated it back to me. In college, one comes to understand, more and more, just how typical one’s intense feelings really are. Not that this makes those feelings any less poignant, but it is a relief to finally get beyond the maddening solitary agony of high school narcissism. (Editor’s note: As far as I’m concerned, no one has ever articulated the regrettably long-lasting appeal of Morrissey better than in the sentences above.)

And this last point brings me back to the song itself and to the actual genius of Mick’s performance in it. He knows, as we do, the role drunken heartbreak plays in the economy of country music—it’s a standard, a convention. There’s a tear in my beer. Rather than sing HIS version of country music, his personal take on it, he gives us country music as it is. He uses the standards themselves.  Like any art form, jazz or blues, for example, the standards or conventions of the form, far from inhibiting an artist’s style, personality, uniqueness or originality, are the very media through which his/her personality expresses itself; there is no other way. The Stones are from England, as everyone knows. It’s 1970, not 1955.  If they’re going to play country, they’re going to play it according to its terms, its rules and traditions, and they’re going to do that with the kind of unassailable confidence, that sexy arrogance they’ve had ever since they realized how silly it was perform psychedelic British rock in the wake of Sergeant Pepper’s. Once they’d gotten “2000 Light Years From Home” out of their system, they were ready to become the Stones we’ve come to love ever since.  They would do country, but on country’s terms. Consider the alternatives: if they’d tried, out of a lack of confidence, to insist they were actually playing British “roots music,” some kind of cornball “skiffle” version of country; or imagine if they insisted on there being a connection between country music and Ancient Anglo-Saxon mythology-in the way Led Zeppelin, at their goofiest, sought to establish themselves and their credibility in the genre by drawing parallels between Delta Blues and "The Lord of the Rings." No, that would not do. (Editor’s note: That one sentence sums up Zeppelin’s greatest flaw.)

And yet, Mick is also kidding, after all. Or at least half-kidding. He is capable or being serious when it comes to country. “Wild Horses,” as I’ve implied, is a serious song, a love song, in which the speaker/singer—Mick, obviously—professes his unwavering affection for and dedication to his beloved.  But “Dead Flowers,” lyrically at least, has no such heights of passion. Here the speaker/singer addresses an X-lover. Love has turned to hate: send me hate mail, and I’ll bury you.  But even this passion doesn’t really amount to much; far from being a story of two lovers intent on killing each another, it’s more like, you’re a bratty Southern debutante who looks down on me and my rough neck friends; you also keep sending me these literal reminders that you hate me, but they only show how much you can’t forget me. I, on the other hand, find you annoying, yet neither can I move past you, since I’m a junky and a fuck-up. In fact, I’ll show up at your funeral with flowers but only to finally achieve the ultimate though petty revenge of outliving you.  Again, the banality of this lyrical drama only serves to locate the song more precisely in the very tradition with which the song seeks to align itself.  Traditional country music had already created the story of the lamenting, lovesick-blues singer, endlessly and in so many ways—“If my drinking don’t kill me, her memory will”—it had become itself one more convention of the genre. 

And it’s the genre itself, far from restricting the Stones, that allows them to shine through it.  Consider the song: the loose and lazy backbeat behind that acoustic guitar’s opening open chords, narcotizing and comfortable, the rhythm guitar and honky-tonk piano, and then, a little splash, just the first hints, of that brilliantly whining slide guitar.  In the chorus we hear, just behind Jagger’s low twang but harmonizing with it, unmistakably, Keith’s voice—wonderfully flawed, cracked, but high and lonesome as a bluegrass tenor’s.  And then, best of all, after the second chorus, when the song has completely established itself—Mick Taylor’s solo, a seamless combination of country and blues licks, elegant and tasteful, lowdown and dirty, all at once.  It hits me now that a fine lead guitar solo can make a bad song good (Peter Buck’s on R.E.M.’s silly and otherwise forgettable “Stand") and a good song sublime (Robby Krieger’s on The Doors’ “Moonlight Drive”). And Taylor was new, just finding his way, musically, into the group. This was the first Stones record on which he plays, officially, and on every song. Most amazing of all, he was just out of his teens, “just a lad, nearly 22,” as Hank Williams, himself, sang.

Is it their best song? Maybe not.  But it’s damn good, and more importantly, it opened a door for me into other kinds of music, other traditions within music that deserve attention for their authority, influence and long-lasting beauty.

17, “All Down The Line” (1972, from Exile On Main Street)

To promote their 1975 U.S. tour, the Stones played "Brown Sugar" on a flat-bed truck down Park Avenue in New York. It was Charlie's idea, lifted from New York jazz bands of the 30's who would promote their gigs that way. "Brown Sugar" may have been the "right" choice, but "All Down The Line" would have been the more appropriate one.

When the Stones were at their best, they embodied strut and swagger combined with a devastating uptown elegance, almost as though they were a 1970's version of the Count Basie band - swinging hard with an irresistible and sensual gleam. They'd ravage your town and take your woman - and do it with impeccable style.  Nowhere was that more present than on "All Down The Line."

Towering and majestic, lowdown and dirty, this is the music of men at the peak of their powers; musical, sexual, and every which way. "Hear the women sighing," Mick sings, and you know it's true. But even at this peak, this being the Stones, there are no unqualified celebrations. "I need a sanctified girl with a sanctified mind to help me out now," sings Mick, lonely at the top, and way too smart not to notice that all is not well with the Exiles. But judging from the devastating groove, you'd never know that there's a problem. That would come later.

16. “Saint Of Me” (1998, from Bridges To Babylon)

It’s January, 1998 and I’m with my friend John at Madison Square Garden to see what turns out to be a pretty great Stones show. By now, I’ve seen enough Stones tours behind mediocre albums (Steel Wheels, Voodoo Lounge) to know that when Mick introduces a song by saying, “Here’s a new one…,” I’ve got five minutes or so of downtime. On this night however, I hear some interesting drum loops, a cool riff and as Mick starts singing, it dawns on me that this is not the usual paint-by-numbers late-period Stones song, a la “You Got Me Rocking” or other such dribble. I don’t catch all of the lyrics, but “you’ll never make a saint of me” in the chorus comes off loud and clear. The song rocks, the band slashes its way through it, and when it ends, the applause in the Garden is louder than usual for a new song. John and I look at each other, nod, and say simultaneously, “Good song.”

So I go back to the song, and it immediately becomes clear that this is not just a good song - it's a great Rolling Stones song, with every element of the arrangement working magnificently. Actually, it's really a great Mick Jagger song, as Keith is nowhere to be found on it. The guitars are courtesy of Ron Wood and Waddy Wachtel; the bass is from Me'Shelle N'Ddgeocello; the keyboards are from Mick and Billy Preston and the background vocals are by Bernard Fowler and Blondie Chaplin. Keith may have disparaged the Dust Brothers production on Bridges (he recorded most of his contributions with Don Was), but on this track he's just dead wrong; their modern touches work perfectly, giving Mick some vindication in his continued pursuit in keeping the Stones at least a little au currant. 

And unlike many Rolling Stones songs post Exile, the lyrics don't sound like they were written in a cab on the way to the studio. The religious imagery alludes to "Sympathy For The Devil," but since by now it's clear that Mick ain't Lucifer, it's essential that he establish that he's not going to grow old gracefully either, which the semi-mean spirited bastard does rather well. Their last great song.

15. "Sweet Virginia" (1972, from Exile On Main Street)

Beyond the sex and violence, the Stones are also a party, and "Sweet Virginia" is the party. When you're out with friends, at someone's home or out at a bar, there's a look that passes over people's faces when "Sweet Virginia" comes on: it's a wry smile, recalling bad things done and bad things yet to be done.

14. "Waiting On A Friend" (1981, from Tattoo You)

Few partnerships/friendships have been more questioned, dissected and speculated about than the one between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It's easy to understand why; they're such an aesthetically pleasing partnership - in look, sound and in the contrast of their personalities. 

The standard rap has become that Keith is the true artist in the band, the one dedicated to the music first, and that Mick is the far more calculated one, the cold-eyed businessman. Keith is the rebel and Mick is the bourgeois social climber with a knighthood, for Chrissakes! And while there's truth to that, the whole truth is far more ambivalent and complicated. 

Some of the riffs that are most identified as "Keith Richards riffs," like the one in "Brown Sugar," are Mick's. And no one can be more cold than Keith Richards, who after Mick Taylor's resignation from the band, dismissed him with a one sentence telegram. Mick has written some of the band's greatest music by himself, and kept the band together when Keith was too smacked out to hold up his end of the bargain. The real truth is they need and love each other - more than either would care to admit.

They fight like schoolboys - or an old married couple, and they know where to hit where it hurts. But they're clearly bound together, and women aside, they're obviously the most important person in the others life, a fact that they seem to often resent. And I would assert that it's that resentment, more than anything else, that is responsible for so much mediocre Rolling Stones music in the past thirty five years.

But "Waiting On A Friend," whether about Mick and Keith or not, captures the spirit of the relationship the way we would like to imagine it. It's a gentle and loving, and Nicky Hopkins twinkling piano and Sonny Rollins sax say everything that Keith and Mick Taylor's guitar may have left out. Originally recorded in Jamaica for 1973's Goat's Head Soup, this was one of the songs that Tattoo You associate producer Chris Kimsey recommended that the band rework for the album (it needed lyrics and vocals), and the idea was a stroke of genius on Kimsey's part, as it turned out to be not just one of their best songs, but also one of their most perfectly arranged ones. 

13. "Happy" (1972, from Exile On Main Street)

And then there is Keith.

I am not a man who has many heroes. But he's one of them. I love him for the elegance and earthiness of his playing; a style, that while simple to play, no one has ever come close to replicating even half as well. I love how much he loves music; how his face lights up when he talks about Muddy Waters or the effect that hearing rock n' roll for the first time had on him. I love his no bullshit, reality based, anti-pretention, be-your-own-man attitude. I love that the man, deep down, is a romantic of the first order, a believer in chivalry, something of a gallant knight. He's funny as hell and a raconteur of the first order. And he's a man of honor.

It has me forgive his shortcomings: his stubborn and seemingly reflexive dismissal of new sounds; his addictions that no doubt have had an adverse effect on the band; his occasional coldness; and, most importantly, the fact that somewhere down the line, his ability to discern the truly great from the serviceable in his own music went to shit.

"I need love to keep me happy" goes the chorus of his best, most famous, and most beloved song, and it's a truism that sums up the man in some fashion; so simple and yet so affecting. I like living in a world with Keith Richards in it.

12. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (1969, from Let It Bleed)

I've heard this song a million fucking times and every time it comes on, I'm in awe of it. The arrangement is so astounding as to be almost unbelievable; that chorale opening, the acoustic guitar that cuts like a knife in the first verse, the maracas, Al Kooper's organ, Jimmy Miller's drums (Charlie couldn't get the groove on it), and that outro. It's a perfect song. 

11. "Jumping Jack Flash" (1968, from Through The Past, Darkly [Big Hits Vol. 2])

The song that launched them into the band we know and love today, getting them off of psychedelic imitations of the Beatles and taking them of their baroque period. The riff works just as well forty-two years later, if not better, and if you can take it out of its "I've heard this song on classic rock radio thousands of times" context, you'll hear, once again, how amazing it is. 

When rock magazine's do their lists of the "Greatest Singers Of All Time," Jagger isn't usually mentioned at the top, which is a shame, because he's an original. Even when he was trying to imitate soul singers, he wasn't really trying to imitate soul singers because he was too smart not to know that he wasn't going to sound a black American soul singer. But he's done his own thing - conjuring, threatening, seducing, sashaying. You'll never get all of him the way you'd get all of, say, Redding, Lennon or Springsteen, but at his best, Jagger gives you enough, teasing you and leaving you wanting more.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Arcade Fire Beyond Niche

I'm sorry I didn't see the Arcade Fire's shows at Madison Square Garden on August 4th and 5th. From what I've read, the shows were anywhere in the range from very good to great, and while I'm generally positive but far from super-enthusiastic about The Suburbs, live is apparently how you need to get this band.

I'm not going to review the album. Rob Harvilla from the Village Voice has written a review that neatly and smartly encapsulates many of my views about both the band and the album, which for me is another in a series of epochal "good but not nearly great" albums in the tradition of Ok Computer, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Is This It?, Up The Bracket, the entire Spoon catalog, and more - music whose praise has me listen and listen and listen, only to end up scratching my head at what all the fuss is about. I'd love to ascribe it to my contrary nature, but I yearn for consensus about the great far more than I yearn to make everyone else wrong.

And while it'd be nice if the herd of independent thinkers had a more consistent ability to discern the truly great from the good, the success of the Arcade Fire is heartening in that it shows that there is a demand, even amongst the too cool for schoolers, for music to be something more than one's private, nichefied pleasure. Just imagine if the Arcade Fire's songwriting chops matched their ambition. Now that would be something, because Springsteen comparisons or no Springsteen comparisons, Born In The U.S.A. this ain't, rhythmically, humor wise, in insight or any which way. But there's always the next album, and I guess I gotta see 'em live.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The 60 Greatest Rolling Stones Songs Of All Time (#30-#21)

Well, it only took me three months to start the second half of the countdown, but good things come to those who wait, right?

30. “Start Me Up” (1981, from Tattoo You)

It’s the late fall of 1981. I’m 11 years old, in 6th grade, and I’m visiting my big sister at Syracuse University, where she’s attending law school. My father has allowed me to take the bus on my own to see her, so I’m feeling pretty manly. Big stuff. We’re out getting food at some place that feels “college-y” to me, and I’m feeling really, really cool. “Start Me Up” comes on, and I’m quietly singing along to it all the way through. It’s been a big hit all through that fall of 1981, and I’ve got the Tattoo You cassette, which I like, but don’t love. (It would take me about 25 years to become a big fan of side two.)

The song comes to its coda when Jagger, as the song begins the fade out sings, “You make a dead man come.” I sing along to the line. My sister, who is almost 15 years older and super-protective of me, gets an urgently worried look on her face, and asks semi-frantically, “Do you know what that line means???” “Yeah,” I explain somewhat impudently, very sure of myself. “It means that the girl is so pretty that the dead guy comes out of his coffin.” My sister explodes in laughter, relieved that at least for a little while longer, her baby brother is still very innocent.

29. “Stop Breaking Down” (1972, from Exile On Main Street)

I’m 19 years old, and I read something in Rolling Stone where Steven Tyler is saying that he’s kept time to “All Down The Line” while fucking. Being that I’m not particularly experienced or confident in the area of sex and know that Steven Tyler is, I remember little nugget, and use it the next chance I get. It kind of works, as I’ve got a solid beat to concentrate on and keeping time has never been an issue for me. But something isn’t quite right. I share the Steven Tyler story with the woman I’m with, and she laughs. Fortunately, she knows Exile well and says that “All Down The Line” is way too fast. She suggests that I keep time to “Stop Breaking Down” instead, and implores me to make sure to include some of the syncopation within. Smart woman. Great woman.

A year or so later, I’m with a friend in his dorm room, and we’re heavy into some really great acid. We’re drinking beer after beer and listening to Exile. “Stop Breaking Down” comes on, and we get completely into the fiber of the song, in that special way that only people who have used hallucinogenics will completely understand. I turn to my friend and say, “Jesus. This is really violent.” His eyes bulge, and he responds “Oh My God, you’re right!” like I have just revealed the secret of the Universe. If the Secret was going to be anywhere, I guess it could be in “Stop Breaking Down.” Good times.

28. “Moonlight Mile” (1971, from Sticky Fingers)

It’s the sound of the sun coming up after coming down very, very long night; the fear hovering, a “head full of snow,” and all of it impossibly weary and impossibly romantic. The band’s most beautiful arrangement, thanks to mainly to Mick Taylor, who built the song off a short riff by Keith, elongated and elaborated upon it, and then had the brilliant idea to give it to Paul Buckmaster (“Tiny Dancer”) to add strings. Of course, he got no credit (royalties) for it.

Jagger may never have claimed to be speaking for anyone other than himself, but “Moonlight Mile” captures post-60’s alienation and exhaustion about as well as anyone – and makes it shimmer. One of the greatest ballads by anyone at anytime.

27. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (1971, from Sticky Fingers)

Keith takes his fetish for open G tuning and creates one of his most memorable riffs; a slashing dagger of a sound that’s part violence and part sex – the Midnight Rambler coming off a Gibson.

I’ve always been ambivalent about the jam that fills out the last four or so minutes of the song. It’s a fine jam, but it’s impossible to be anything other than a letdown after what’s come before. Mick Taylor may have been the best lead player the Stones ever had; lyrical, melodic and technically brilliant, but unfortunately, he wasn’t necessary, just like the jam on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”

26. “Salt Of The Earth” (1968, from Beggars Banquet)

Keith sings sincerely for the Proletariat, because it might have sounded ridiculous coming out of Mick’s mouth, given that he wrote it completely cynically. The Stones were never really a working class band; at the outset, they chose their poverty rather than having it imposed upon them. But they sound completely convincing, mainly because Mick undercuts the sentiment within by acknowledging his own alienation from the masses he courted so successfully. And whoever made the call to include the Los Angeles Watts Street Gospel Choir on it deserves a Nobel Prize.

25. “You’ve Got The Silver” (1969, unreleased alternate take)

The version from Let It Bleed with Keith on lead vocals is great. The alternate, unreleased version with Mick Jagger on lead vocals is otherworldly. It speaks for itself.

24. "Midnight Rambler" (1970, from Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, recorded 1969)

Violence as sex, sex as violence - all of it so compelling that you don't know whether it's a fantasy or a nightmare. A "Blues Opera" is what Keith calls it, and I guess that's sort of true, although there's plenty of striptease in there too.

Listening to the version from Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, recorded at Madison Square Garden in November of 1969, I can't help but wonder: What the hell were a band making music this violent doing throwing a free concert? Jerry Garcia said that the Stones were that bit of red and black that one has in their sex life, and when he said that, he must have been thinking about "Midnight Rambler" - this is about as far from peace and love as it gets.

23. “Love In Vain” (1969, from Let It Bleed)

I had a sometimes weird and sometimes wonderful on/off relationship with a woman in my mid-20’s. She was thoroughly inappropriate for me and we had disastrously bad sex (once), but she was beautiful and I loved her anyway, somewhat unrequitedly. She got me into drinking scotch and I kept her cat, two things for which I will forever be grateful to her for. We’re now great friends, so it all turned out.

We didn’t agree on much musically speaking. She was a punk and indie rocker – but punk for her wasn’t the Sex Pistols or the Ramones; she had never even heard Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols. For her, punk rock meant a lot crappy, soulless, pretentious and sexless indie bands on K Records that I tried to like – I was smitten enough by her that I was willing to give an open ear to anything she was into – but found utterly dreadful. The one thing we agreed on was the Stones (and Al Green – she hated Springsteen - so much for taste).

We would get drunk on Johnnie Walker Red, put on Let It Bleed, and we’d start singing “Love In Vain,” not particularly well. The lyrics would always hit hard and I would feel that pit in my stomach; I knew this was a relationship that wasn’t going to happen, that she wasn’t even appropriate for me – and I wanted her anyway, and couldn’t have her. Love in vain indeed, but in the end, all for the best.

22. "Casino Boogie" (1972, from Exile On Main Street)

My first copy of Exile was on a 60 minute cassette that I recorded off of someone else. Exile is 66 minutes long, so I had to cut a couple of songs and “Shake Your Hips” and “Casino Boogie” were the casualties. (And there was something to be said for going right from “Rip This Joint” into “Tumbling Dice.”) At the time, the two songs seemed insignificant to me. Even a couple of years later, when I got a full copy of the album, the magnificence of “Casino Boogie” was something that I was not yet equipped to grasp. It took probably several hundred listens for me to finally get the majesty of the thing. But when I did…

To the uninitiated, “Casino Boogie” feels more like a groove than a song. But what a groove! Part New Orleans, part juke joint, part Chicago blues and part bordello, it’s a groove that screams wonderfully decadent times and nasty habits, all of which seem like so much fun, it makes me wonder if in the end, the casualties left in the wake of the Glimmer Twins thought it was all worth it.

21. “Sympathy For The Devil” (1968, from Beggars Banquet)

"Sympathy For The Devil," one of the greatest songs ever about humanity and evil, is terrifying in its perfection. Everything about it is brilliant - the conga intro, primitive and timeless; the way the Nicky Hopkins' piano drops in perfectly; the slow build of it and the perfect dynamics; Keith’s solo, one of the greatest in rock history; and of course, the “woo-woo’s." It’s guttural and earthy yet completely cosmopolitan and sophisticated - Bohemia moved to Africa.

It’s a band triumph - they worked for this one, refining the arrangement over and over again until they got it right, but the biggest triumph belongs to Mick, as both lyricist and vocalist, who captures the terrifying and thrilling frenzy of that Spring of '68, as revolution and murder weren't just in the air, they were the air.

Recorded during the period of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, Jagger takes us on a trip through history to assert that the devil isn’t some presence out there, but something that lurking within all of us, a message missed by many who took the song literally, thinking the song is a paean to Lucifer. The Stones were always smarter than their detractors. But even that speaks to Jagger’s genius; with smooth, cool and controlled fury, he could really make you believe he was the Devil. Or at least back then he could.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Springsteen Community Conference: Bruce & Politics

At long last is the posting of the Springsteen Community Conference on Sirius/XM's E Street Radio from this past April. The subject was "Bruce and Politics" and I moderated a great panel featuring writer Dave Marsh, John Franck, Jovan Mrvos, Stan Goldstein and Lisa Ianucci. We covered a broad range of subjects and I'm really pleased with how it turned out. Enjoy.

Download: Springsteen Community Conference: Bruce and Politics (zip file)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The 60 Greatest Rolling Stones Songs Of All Time (#40-#31)

Round three, with a disclaimer to start:

I would LOVE to post streaming links to the original versions of these songs, or mp3's. But that just ain't possible right now, so if you're checking out some of these songs for the first time, make sure to find the original versions on the albums I've noted they're from.

And with that said, we continue.

40. “Mercy Mercy” (1965, from O
ut Of Our Heads)

In their earliest incarnation as an R&B cover band, the Stones didn’t always improve on the original they were covering. Usually, they toughened up the sound, making it faster and leaner.
With Don Covay's "Mercy Mercy," they not only toughened the song up, they took it away from him. The original is pretty standard R&B fare; a pleading, lilting number begging the singer's love interest to stay. It's a good soul song, but far from special.

The Stones made it special. Keith's intro line supplies an ominousness that is nowhere to be found on the original, and Bill and Charlie outrock and outgroove Covay's rhythm section. But Jagger is the star here; you can hear the first hints of him finding his own style as a vocalist; leonine, with a naughty edge - the Midnight Rambler, junior version. "Mercy Mercy" is the sound of the band growing beyond their source material.

39. "Jigsaw Puzzle" (1968, from Beggars Banquet)

If you grew up on late 70's/early 80's AOR radio as I did, it was easy to miss the true greatness of the Stones. Perhaps there were about 15-20 songs in rotation on Classic Rock radio, mainly from Hot Rocks, along with a handful of late 70's and early 80's hits. I'm embarrassed to say that there was a time I thought the band was overrated.

But that's because radio never played songs like "Jigsaw Puzzle," one of those criminally lesser known treasures from the band's creative peak, 1968-1972. It's got everything - a sinewy and sensual Charlie groove; a propulsive and nasty bass line from Bill; a driving acoustic guitar track from Keith; ferocious slide playing from Brian that is both a peak and a last gasp; and vocals from Mick that are so slyly and smartly phrased it's as though he brings discipline to decadence. Which, of course, is exactly what Mick Jagger does.

38. "Winter" (1973, from Goat's Head Soup)

By 1973, the Stones were exhausted, and they sounded like it. Following the masterpiece Exile On Main Street with the lackluster Goat's Head Soup, you could hear the bill come in on the years of continual work, play and abuse. But on this track, unlike many of the other songs on Goat's, Jagger didn't pretend that he was anything but exhausted, and that's what “Winter” great.

37. "No Expectations" (1968, from Beggars Banquet)

I fell in love for the first time when I was 20. She was older than me, sexy as hell, and far more experienced than me. (I wasn’t a virgin, but I might as well have been.) On our first date, we ended up going back to her place, and we put on my cassette of Beggars Banquet on one side and Let It Bleed on the other and made out continuously, long enough to listen to both albums twice, all the way through. It was magical. For me, at least.

The second time “No Expectations” played, I got distracted, and started thinking about Brian Jones, while this woman’s tongue was in my mouth. “I wonder what it would have been like if Brian had stayed in the band,” I asked myself. “If he had stayed, there would have been no Mick Taylor,” I countered, “and then there’s no Sticky Fingers, no Exile.” As I was having this ridiculous conversation with myself, one of Jones’ great slide licks from the song emerged, and I got my head back to the task at hand, moving slowly but surely from the world of innocence to the world of experience.

36. “It’s All Over Now” (single release 1964, from Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) released 1966)

Another good R&B song that they Stones completely stole into something sublime. The original was done by the Valentinos, an R&B outfit featuring Bobby Womack, who would go onto greater glory. The power chord that Keith nails in the chorus is one of the great moments in the history of rhythm guitar. Their first number one hit in England.

35. “Hand Of Fate” (1976, from Black And Blue)

Black and Blue isn’t a bad album, but it presages later albums like Dirty Work, Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge in how inconsequential it feels.
But there's nothing inconsequential about "Hand Of Fate," with has just enough impending doom to make it very, very interesting.

34. “Live With Me” (1969, from Let It Bleed)

“I got nasty habits,” Mick declares as I’m closing up the bar where I’ve been DJ’ing all night. I’m there hanging out and indulging myself with the drop-dead-fucking-gorgeous bartender, who doles out lines with every drink she pours us. Johnnie Black on the rocks for me, Southern Comfort straight for her. The sun is coming up, and I have to be at work in about three hours.

Despite the stimuli, I’ve begun to fade, but "Live With Me" immediately gives me a jolt, and I revive, with a big shit-eating grin plastered on my face. I’ve gotten this DJ gig by bonding with the bartender over the Stones, so while it plays, we both light up and sing to each other. I think about how silky the bass is, and I kvell over Keith’s sublime harmony vocals. I also think about what I can do to get this amazing woman into bed, but I don’t make a move on her. I get that I’m so not Mick – he would have gone home with her - but when I kiss her hand and say goodnight (at 8am), I do it gallantly, and I know that Keith would approve.

33. “Miss You” (1978, from Some Girls)

In retrospect, it’s both difficult and easy to understand what all the hubbub was about disco. Difficult, because it’s only a four on the floor beat. Easy, because with its black and gay influence, and its explosive popularity, it was a significant threat to rock’s unquestioned popular dominance. Bruce Springsteen once described the anti-disco backlash as “veiled racism,” and he was right, except that he could have added homophobia as well.

The Stones one contribution to the disco era is also one of their great singles, their comeback after their desultory mid-70’s period, and a statement that they still mattered. It’s also New York in the 70’s; black, white, and Puerto Rican, on roller skates and flatbed trucks, hustling through Central Park, perhaps not getting what it wants, but definitely getting what it needs.

32. “Sway” (1971, from Sticky Fingers)

Mick counts off and the band sort of falls into it, reminding me of what the engineer Andy Johns once said about the Stones, something to the effect of hearing them rehearse hour after hour and them being awful. Then suddenly, it all comes together and they’re the Rolling Stones. “Sway” is murky and ramshackle – and devastating. Jagger’s vocals are white hot and committed – there’s none of the lazy phrasing he would take on later. Charlie’s fills hit harder than almost anything he’s ever played, and Mick Taylor plays a closing solo that the band should be paying him royalties on.

31. “Under My Thumb” (1966, from Aftermath)

The opposite of love isn’t hate – it’s indifference. And even then, the Stones knew that the only way to really gain control is by being indifferent to the object of one's desire. Paradoxical, but when aren't the Stones paradoxical? Power is a central theme of love in the Stones' music, and no one has ever explored power in relationships like they have. Of course, the way Jagger comes off, it seems as though he's the always the one in control, but given how in control he needs to be, you might have to wonder if he's hiding something

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The 60 Greatest Rolling Stones Songs Of All Time (#50-#41)

And round two begins...

50. “Not Fade Away” (1964, from
England's Newest Hitmakers)

Jovan Mrvos writes:

It’s April 1964 and the location is Chicago, Illinois. I’m 15 years old and a sophomore at a large all boys high school. I’m working at a fancy grocery store on the North side. Life is hell. My parents are all up inside of me. I’m stone cold girl crazy going to school with 5000 other Neanderthals. I’m drinking Budweiser and Canadian Club but looking for reefer whenever I can. I’m confused and starting to get early stages of being dazed.

Top Forty radio rules the fetid air waves and WLS is the king with their Silver Dollar Survey and at number 26 (up from 33) after four weeks are England’s newest hit makers, (ha!) with their rambunctious version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” And it has got me hooked lined and sinkered. I was just a tad bit too young for the original (more my older brother’s thing) but was set up perfectly for this.

Part of my (pre-New York Dolls) “personality crisis” was that I never quite fit in anywhere in my world at the time. My ‘hood was rock solid working class borderline “greaser” culture-racist at heart and intolerant at soul but I loved the gritty bottom of blues based music that was starting to leak out of the UK. Sure, I loved The Beatles harmonies, but it was their Chuck Berry shit that made me nuts and when the Stones popped, I had my identity. I was no mod; I was a rocker…not some amped up Teddy Boy but a long haired misfit just trying to get laid or loved, whichever came first.

Back to “Treasure Island” (the grocery store that I was working in and stealing from). When the store would close at night- we would have to mop the floors and re-stock and would change the station from wall-to-wall MUZAK to 89AM and run goods out the back door to pick up on the way home. It was there that I first heard the sounds that simply would change me forever…”I’m gonna tell ya how it’s gonna be…you’re gonna give your love to me…I’m gonna love you night and day… well love is real and not fade away…” Crazy ass harmonica and that gone daddy gone Bo Diddley beat…Game Over.

Thus began a lifelong relationship with the Stones, one that like any other has had its ups and downs, but has sustained for 40+ years. And, as a side bar, came to full fruition when in 1989 I was The Stones A&R person at Columbia for their Steel Wheels LP and did about a dozen dates with them on the tour. Highlight (among many) was being up at Quad Studios with Michael Brauer remixing the first single ("Mixed Emotions") when Mick came up with a leggy Italian by the name of Carla Bruni but, that, my friends, is a story for another day.

“Your love for me has got to be real
For you to know just how I feel
Love is real and not fade away
Well love is real and not fade away”

49. “Bitch” (1971, from Sticky Fingers)

I’ve always relished how unsentimental the Stones can be about love, and on this track, they depict love as both an agent of disorientation and the ultimate distraction. A bitch, indeed. The riff is like a ’65 black GTO with the pedal floored, driving at 100 mph at night down a dark two-lane road, and between the guitars and the horns, it’s a perfect three minute ride. Only Mick Jagger could write and sing a bad metal/S&M lyric like, “When you call my name/I salivate like a Pavlov dog” and make it sound just right.

48. “Before They Make Me Run” (1978, from Some Girls)

Keith Richards isn’t the coolest man in rock n’ roll; he isn’t even the coolest member of the Rolling Stones. (That honor goes to Charlie Watts.) But to many, he is rock’s greatest outlaw, and this is his greatest anthem. If Frank Sinatra had been a rock and roller, he would have sung this song. Think of it as Keith’s “My Way.”

47. “19th Nervous Breakdown” (single release, 1966)

Right from the start, The Rolling Stones projected a bohemian decadence that made them very attractive to the children of the upper class and won them entry into that world. Jagger soaked it all in, and in “19th Nervous Breakdown,” he depicted the world of the idle rich; the Edie Sedgewicks of the world - beautiful, spoiled and doomed, and he lacerated them. He must have known that his put downs would only make him more attractive to them.

46. “It’s Only Rock And Roll” (1974, from It’s Only Rock And Roll)

Chuck Berry is the Louis Armstrong of rock n’ roll, and the Rolling Stones are his greatest progeny. In the midst of their mid-70’s nadir, one of the relatively few highlights was this updated and mutated version of Berry’s “Little Queenie.” Of particular note is the ridiculous video, with the band in sailor suits, overwhelmed by of all things, bubbles.

45. “The Last Time” (single release 1965, from Big Hits (High Tide And Green Grass) released 1966)

This one is thanks to early manager Andrew Loog-Oldham, who, knowing that there were a limited amount of great R&B songs that the band could cover, locked up reluctant songwriters Mick and Keith in a room until they came with something that they could “take to the boys without being embarrassed.” It’s got one of Keith’s great early riffs, which as writer Dave Marsh later noted, seemed to compensate for the band’s lack of a horn section. The song also helped to establish the Jagger persona – tough and callow – and he sounded far more convincing singing this then more than a few of their beloved R&B numbers. And while they didn’t know it at the time, “The Last Time” served as one of the first nails in Brian Jones’ coffin: Once Jagger/Richards had their writing, the terminally insecure former leader of the band was forever on the outside looking in, getting the Mick and Keith freeze out.

44. “Stray Cat Blues” (1968, from Beggars Banquet)

“Would you let your daughter date a Rolling Stone,” asked a tabloid in the mid-60’s, as Andrew Oldham positioned the band in the media to be the anti-Beatles. Perhaps at first it was only imaging, but the band soon learned to live into it, and with tracks like this one, where Mick proposes a threesome with a 15-year old girl and her friend, it’s easy to understand why they were both revered and reviled as objects of both fantasy and worrisome reality. Perhaps Mick can be dismissed as joking on this, but everything here probably happened in reality, and the snarling guitars and the sinewy bass mean nothing but some very nasty business.

43. “Street Fighting Man” (1968, from Beggars Banquet)

Recorded in the Spring of 1968, when the world seemed to be unraveling (Paris student riots, Prague Spring, the murders of MLK and RFK), the band took all the events in, heard the youthful call for revolution, and viewed it far more skeptically than any of their peers – which had them be wiser than any of them. “Think the time is right for Paris revolution/But where I live the game to play is compromise solution,” sang Mick Jagger, former student at the London School of Economics, his cynicism serving him very, very well.

42. “Shattered” (1978, from Some Girls)
New York City in the late 70’s was a gritty and grimy mess, and Some Girls was the perfect match for that version it – dirty, tough and pornographically sexual. For a certain kind of person, New York City in that era was the greatest adult playground in the world – the same kind of person who didn’t just love the Stones, but lived them, too.

41. “Little T&A” (1981, from Tattoo You)

“Tits and ass with soul,” sings a very much in love Keith Richards, and it’s a line that has always served as a dividing line for me. If you’re offended by it, we probably shouldn’t meet for lunch. If you love it, we might want to talk about getting married.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The 60 Greatest Rolling Stones Songs Of All Time (#60-#51)

Paul Westerberg may have a lyric that says he never goes far without a little Big Star, but I don't go anywhere without having the Rolling Stones nearby. More than any artist - and yes, that includes Bruce, Aretha and Al - I've lived the full range of my life to the Stones - I've listened and conjured with them; fallen in love to them; discussed, advocated and argued for and about them; danced, fucked and partied my ass off to them; and, most importantly, formed many, if not most of the seminal relationships in my life through them. Bruce and Aretha may reach into a deeper, more solitary and spiritual dimension of my soul, but the Stones hit pretty deep, and Bruce and Aretha haven't been there when I've been hanging out with a beautiful woman at 3am. For that kind of peak life experience, there is nothing like the music of the Rolling Stones.

The timing of this list is fortuitous, given the media blitz surrounding the re-release of the Greatest Album Of All Time, Exile On Main Street, but it's not deliberate. I've been working on this list for a while, and there are some guest contributions coming in the next segments.

I have little patience for those who hold opinions that are dismissive of the Rolling Stones. Actually, I have plenty of patience - it's just that I'm not very interested in them. If you don't like the Stones, I'm probably not going to be very interested in anything else you do like. As Robert Christgau has written,

Only rock and roll? The Stones are the proof of the form. When the guitars and the drums and the voice come together in those elementary patters that no one else has ever quite managed to simulate, the most undeniable excitement is a virtually automatic result. To insist that this excitement doesn't reach you is not to articulate an aesthetic judgment but to assert a rather uninteresting crotchet of taste. It is to boast that you don't like rock and roll itself.
And with that, here we go...

60. “Emotional Rescue” (1980, from Emotional Rescue)

“I’ll be your savior, steadfast and true,” sings Mick in a falsetto borrowed from Al Green and a handful of other soul singers. And while it’s hard to imagine that bastard Mick coming to anyone’s rescue, emotional or otherwise, the bridge is so beautiful that you’re desperate to believe every word out of his mouth. Of course, he has to let you know that he’s totally full of shit at the end of it, with that absurdly sung “I’ll be your knight in shining armor” line. Bitch, please. You probably sang that buttoning up your pants as you were walking out the door.

59. “She Said Yeah” (1965, from December's Children (And Everybody's))

Yeah, the Clash may have sang “no more Elvis, Beatles, or Rolling Stones,” but they loved the Stones, especially Keith. And with this buzz saw piece of proto-punk from ’66, you can hear how important the Stones, in both sound and attitude, were to the formation of punk rock. And given that the version they covered was by American R&B artist Larry Williams, you can see the link between R&B and punk, a link that unfortunately, not enough people see or recognize.

58. “Beast Of Burden” (1978, from Some Girls)

What makes “Beast Of Burden” so great is how wonderfully every single member of the band plays on it. There’s another member of the “Keith Richards Opening Riff Hall Of Fame”; Charlie’s laid back swing, with subtle patterns on the hi-hat that reveal his love of jazz, specifically Count Basie drummer Jo Jones; the deceptively simple throb of Bill Wyman’s bass; the guitar weave of Keith and Ronnie Wood and finally, Jagger’s vocals, in which he unveils his full arsenal – from aggressive growl to the sensually effeminate falsetto. And the lyrics are unusually tender - and believable.

57. “Heart Of Stone” (single release 1964, from Big Hits (High Tide & Green Grass) released 1966)

From Smokey Robinson, Leiber and Stoller and other great R&B songwriters, Jagger learned early on of the value of putting subtle twists in his lyrics, which, for an ironist like him, was less a clever writing device than an expressive necessity. The song seems like another early piece of “Jagger-as-Cad,” but when he finds that girl who doesn’t fall for his bullshit, he of course is smitten. An early piece of Rolling Stones irony. There would be much more.

56. “Cocksucker Blues” (Unreleased, 1972)

Weary of battles galore at the turn of the 70’s – with the British government, who wanted 90% of their money, with manager Allen Klein (who won the rights to their pre-1971 recordings) and with policemen everywhere – Jagger sings it like he’s being bent over and taking it; getting fucked for sure, but making sure his antagonists get no satisfaction.

55. “Memo From Turner” (1970, credited to Mich Jagger solo, written by Jagger-Richards)

The sound of mixing drugs – hallucinogenics, heroin, and lots and lots of cocaine – with amoral sexuality (or is it the other way around?), thereby making emotionaly and psychological breakdowns inevitable. Recorded for Jagger’s role in the film Performance, it’s said that Mick and co-star Anita Pallenberg (Keith’s girlfriend) fucked on set while Keith stewed in his Rolls outside, which led to communication breakdowns that probably still haven‘t resolved between the twins of Glimmer. Putting in on forty years later, you can still smell the coke.

54. “Undercover Of The Night” (1983, from Undercover)

Saw the video for this when I was 13 and thought it was absurd – Jagger in a white suit, wearing a pencil mustache - and I was right. But the song has had a longer shelf life then could have been imagined back then. The groove remains monstrous and the riffs sound like they were scraped from a crucible – boiled to the essence, rock hard and true. And the song itself has enough fear and loathing to make it one of their best – a little sexy and a little scary.

53. “Let’s Spend The Night Together” (1967, from Between The Buttons)

Let’s get this straight: The Stones were at their best taking from R&B and making it something of their own. They weren’t as great ripping off white rock artists (white country artists being another matter entirely). So this little Beach Boys-esque ditty is from a period where the Stones didn’t really rock all that hard, but Jagger makes it triumph with a searing vocal coming out of the bridge into the final verse that presages the many triumphs of 1968-1972 to come.

52. “Time Waits For No One” (1974, from It's Only Rock And Roll)

It’s Only Rock And Roll is far from a great album, but “Time Waits For No One” serves as a gorgeous last gasp for the Mick Taylor version of the Stones, the version that created much of the band’s greatest work. Jagger’s vocal is unusually uncertain; he must have known how much time he was wasting in the midst of a lousy marriage, a partner temporarily lost to heroin and a band going through the motions. But it’s Taylor who shines brightest; his solo winds and ascends, as if the Yellow Brick Road went high into the air instead of further down the road. Knowing how it all turned out, for both Taylor and the Stones, you can’t help but be a little sad.

51. “Luxury” (1974, from It's Only Rock And Roll)

One of my favorite lines from a record review is Robert Christgau’s review of The Harder They Come: “The Rolling Stones would have killed to make this album.” Indeed. And here, the Stones make their best reggae ever, filled with humor and a little wistfulness.