As a working music critic, I have learned how to utilize (and monetize) the knowledge of artists, bands, albums, and songs that I have accumulated over the years as a fan. This is a requirement of the position, and it’s enabled me to fixate on matters that the average listener (who is forced by capitalism to spend most of their time earning money for themselves and their loved ones) can’t afford to think about even one-tenth as much. However, there is a lot of data stored in my brain that is worthless to me professionally. And yet I can’t force myself to forget any of it. That is because I am a hoarder, and like all hoarders I’m convinced my mind garbage will come in handy one day.
Fortunately for me, I have arrived at such a day.
There is a new Rolling Stones album out in the world. It’s called Hackney Diamonds, and it is garnering rave reviews. At least one of these reviews can be classified as borderline insane, but even the more measured responses have landed in the same general area of enthusiasm. Critics are saying Hackney Diamonds is their “most quintessentially Stonesy album in 40 years,” that “they haven’t sounded this brisk and focused in what feels like a half century,” and — inevitably — it’s “their best since Tattoo You.“ (That last one comes from AARP The Magazine, the definitive resource for takes on sleaze rock LPs made by octogenarians.)
I have mixed feelings about this. I agree with the consensus that Hackney Diamonds is a good late-period Stones record. About half of the album is composed of enjoyably solid songs (this includes the single and obvious standout “Sweet Sounds Of Heaven”) while the other half is made up of enjoyably stupid songs (this includes the other single and “convenient excuse to turn Sydney Sweeney into a video vixen” vehicle “Angry”). Another of the “enjoyably stupid” songs, “Live By The Sword,” is one of two tracks to feature the late Charlie Watts, and the only number since 1989’s Steel Wheels to also include original bassist Bill Wyman. (Though the real reason I can’t get “Live By The Sword” out of my head is that the melody is vaguely reminiscent of “The Diarrhea Song.”) The M.O. for primary producer Andrew Watt was to modernize the Stones while retaining their aforementioned “quintessentially Stonesy” quality, and he’s mostly succeeded. They sound muscular but not lumbering, catchy but not overly pandering to contemporary trends, and (most importantly) “admirably dignified” without appearing “terrifyingly old.”
They don’t approach their ’60s and ’70s prime, but by now only committed haters and delusional sycophants would hold Hackney Diamonds to that standard. Most people have instinctively applied the “late-period Stones” grading curve to this record, which is understood to mean anything released post-Tattoo You. This “late period” distinction makes sense in terms of their catalog (only eight out of their 26 U.S.-released studio albums have come out since 1981) even if it absolutely does not make sense as far as the calendar is concerned (their “late period” has lasted more than twice as long as the first part of their career). But no matter the technical accuracy of the classification, anyone who cares about this era of the Stones’ discography knows what “late period” is supposed to mean. What it means is that you’re looking for three things: Credibly insouciant vocals by Mick, some reasonably raucous guitar weaving from Keith and Ronnie, and the reliable backbeat of Charlie Watts (or, in lieu of Charlie, his capable replacement Steve Jordan). Hackney Diamonds delivers on all three counts. It is a good late-period Stones record.
Here’s what bothers me about the “Hackney Diamonds is their best since Tattoo You” talk: There are actually some pretty good records that get glossed over in this conversation! And if you dig into the press clippings of those pretty good records, you will find that critics at the time wrote about how revitalized the Stones were back then, too! So, while I like Hackney Diamonds, I don’t care for the backhanded dismissal of all those past (and apparently forgotten) Stones albums that the press once declared were also their best since Tattoo You.
But — as I alluded to earlier — I also see this as an opportunity. My knowledge of post-Tattoo You Rolling Stones albums has zero value in virtually every professional context … except for this one. Therefore, I would like to take advantage of the situation by walking through those seven other post-Tattoo You records in order to find out where exactly Hackney Diamonds falls in the Rolling Stones discography.
Hackney Diamonds vs. Undercover (1983)
Tattoo You was an international hit that spawned the iconic singles “Start Me Up” and “Waiting On A Friend.” It was also a collection of leftovers from the previous decade stitched together via the magic of Bob Clearmountain’s magical mixing ability. Therefore the next Stones album, Undercover, represented their first true music of the 1980s. It was also, crucially, the band’s first record to come out after Mick Jagger turned 40. More than anything else, this represents the truest definition of “late-period Stones” — there are the pre-“Mick is 40” albums, and the post-“Mick is 40” albums. Undercover marks the beginning of their middle age.
Critics generally hated Undercover upon release. Robert Christgau called it their worst studio album, unequivocally slamming it as a “murky, overblown, incoherent piece of shit.” As for me, I have a weird affection for Undercover. It is murky, and it is overblown, and it is incoherent. But I’m applying those adjectives as compliments, not as criticisms. Behind the scenes, Mick and Keith were locked in their usual cold war about whether to embrace trendy pop sounds (Mick) or shore up their blues rock bonafides (Keith), and Mick won that battle. (On Hackney Diamonds, Mick won again.) My defense of Undercover is that it’s their Sandinista! — it is weird and experimental and deliberately inconsistent, the song structures are often nonexistent, and the overall vibe is druggy and half-baked. This is typified by my favorite track “Too Much Blood,” in which Mick muses about whether to take his date to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or An Officer And A Gentlemen over a lazy disco-rock rhythm. If you come in wanting conventionally good Stones music, “Too Much Blood” will sound like a mess. But if you accept that this album is subverting the very idea of “good Stones music” it becomes, actually, pretty good.
My favorite tidbit about the making of Hackney Diamonds is that Andrew Watt wore a different vintage Rolling Stones T-shirt to the studio each day. Apparently, this was intended to put Mick and Keith in a “classic” frame of mind. I suspect this was actually irrelevant to both men since it’s the kind of gesture that only a mildly edgy tech CEO would find to be “disruptive.” But it does illustrate the critical difference between these records. Undercover is a Stones album unlike any other, and that’s why I like it. Hackney Diamonds is a Stones album intended to remind listeners of other Stones records that they liked in the past. That’s not an unworthy goal for a Rolling Stones album in 2023. But it’s less interesting than the approach they took in 1983.
Hackney Diamonds vs. Dirty Work (1986)
Critics also hated Dirty Work. An exception, incredibly, was Christgau, who gave Dirty Work a solid A, his highest grade for a Stones record since Some Girls. This is so perverse that I wish I agreed with it. Alas, I do not. If Hackney Diamonds sounds a little safe next to Undercover, it feels assured and tasteful compared with Dirty Work, a record that is dated in the worst possible ways. The “Big ’80s” drum sound provided by producer Steve Lillywhite makes Charlie Watts seem like a sonically appropriate replacement for the timekeeper in The Cult. And the synths applied to “Winning Ugly” sound borrowed from the two shitty Eric Clapton solo records that Phil Collins produced in the mid-’80s. On the plus side: The title track is nasty fun and “Sleep Tonight” establishes one of the safest truisms for late-period Stones albums: Always bet on the Keith ballads. This is also true of Hackney Diamonds: Keith’s stripped-back, minor-key showcase “Tell Me Straight” spotlights his impeccably ragged vocals, which somehow sound smoother now than they did when he was croaking “Before They Make Me Run” in 1978. (He stopped smoking cigarettes in 2019, and his depleted phlegm reserves are palpable).
Advantage: Hackney Diamonds
Hackney Diamonds vs. Steel Wheels (1989)
Only three years separate Steel Wheels from Dirty Work. But at the time — after so much public sniping between Mick and Keith — Steel Wheels was commonly viewed as a “reunion” record. And that PR narrative was dutifully parroted in Rolling Stone’s four-and-a-half-star review, which praised Steel Wheels as an upgrade from “bad to ordinary” records like Undercover and Dirty Work, a.k.a. “their best since Tattoo You.” (Rolling Stone also put Steel Wheels at No. 87 on their Best Albums of the 1980s list, ahead of Jackson Browne’s Lives In The Balance and behind Bruce Springsteen’s The River.)
Nobody holds Steel Wheels in that kind of esteem today. It is now viewed as another “bad to ordinary” Stones record from this time period, which I think is a little unfair. Steel Wheels was the first Stones album I was aware of when it was brand new. I was 11 at the time; now I’m the same age as Mick Jagger when Steel Wheels dropped. Beyond my personal nostalgia, I still appreciate “Mixed Emotions” as the best late-period Stones single, and Mick’s most direct commentary on his relationship with Keith. (Keith joked that it should have been called “Mick’s Emotions.”) And the Keith ballad, “Slipping Away,” is probably the strongest song on the record. But beyond that, Steel Wheels is pretty boring, and the album cover is atrocious, setting a trend for late-period Stones records that continues with the atrocious art for Hackney Diamonds.
In terms of a one-to-one comparison, the best of Steel Wheels is slightly better than the best of Hackney Diamonds, but the latter record overall is more fun. It also feels like a record that the Stones actually wanted to make, rather than an album they made as an excuse to tour, because it’s understood in 2023 that the Stones don’t need an album as an excuse to tour. Nobody asked for this record. The only reason that Hackney Diamonds exists is that these guys care about late-period Stones albums almost as much as I do.
Advantage: Hackney Diamonds
Hackney Diamonds vs. Voodoo Lounge (1994)
A weakness of late-period Stones albums is that they usually include at least three to five too many songs. At just over 62 minutes, Voodoo Lounge is only five minutes shorter than Exile On Main St., an officially designated double LP. And this time they couldn’t blame the overindulgence on heroin. In that respect, Hackney Diamonds — which clocks in at a just-right 12 songs spaced out over 48 minutes — must be counted as an improvement. However, I can’t say I’m actually bothered that “Suck On The Jugular” and “Brand New Car” pad out Voodoo Lounge, even though those songs suck. Bloated or not, Voodoo Lounge is my favorite post-Tattoo You record, both for nostalgic reasons (my first time seeing the Stones was on this tour) and artistic ones (“Thru and Thru” is the one late-period song I would put with all of the unimpeachable classics from the before times). It was them blatantly trying to not sound modern, and instead write songs that recreated every micro-era of their glory years. There’s a song that’s kind of like “Ruby Tuesday” (“New Faces”), a song that’s kind of like “Angie” (“Out Of Tears”), and a song that’s kind of an amalgam of every horn-dog rocker on Some Girls (“Sparks Will Fly”). And it works, because Mick and Keith were locked in as songwriters. Meanwhile, on Hackney Diamonds, Andrew Watt is credited as a co-writer on three songs — including one of the better tracks, “Get Close” — which is odd given that Mick and Keith were reluctant to extend the same courtesy to Mick Taylor in the early ’70s. By the rules of the Rolling Stones, Andrew Watt shouldn’t warrant formal credit until he writes music that’s better than “Time Waits For No One.” And he definitely did not do that for Hackney Diamonds.
Advantage: Voodoo Lounge
Hackney Diamonds vs. Bridges To Babylon (1997)
You know what I don’t love about Voodoo Lounge? The dumb album cover. You know what I don’t love about Bridges To Babylon? The even dumber album cover. The cover for Bridges To Babylon is even worse than the cover for Hackney Diamonds. But in many other respects, I prefer Bridges, the most underrated record in the late-period Stones canon. The one song everyone remembers is the hit “Anybody Seen My Baby,” and the one aspect that they recall is that the Stones awkwardly shoehorned in a Biz Markie sample, a move that forever ties the song to the post-Odelay vibe of 1997. (In contrast on Hackney Diamonds they stick mostly with age-appropriate cameos by Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder.) But the bulk of Bridges is made up of zippy rockers powered by Charlie’s swinging backbeat (“Low Down,” “Too Tight”) and an abundance of velvety Keith ballads (“Thief In The Night,” “How Can I Stop”).
In the review I wrote for my college newspaper, I’m pretty sure I said that Bridges To Babylon was their best since Some Girls. I was wrong, but not that wrong. But the more important question is: Why was I reviewing a new Rolling Stones album for a college newspaper in 1997? Was I already a 46-year-old man when I was 20?
Advantage: Bridges To Babylon
Hackney Diamonds vs. A Bigger Bang (2005)
This is the most recent late-period Stones album composed of original material before Hackney Diamonds. And guess what? Critics said it was their “best in years,” the”dirtiest, most homemade-sounding album since Some Girls,” and that “it certainly beats Tattoo You or anything else going back to Exile,“ except (of course) for Some Girls. Nobody remembers any of this, and they don’t remember A Bigger Bang. But speaking as someone who does remember this record, it … really is their dirtiest, most homemade-sounding album since Some Girls! And it has their best songwriting since Voodoo Lounge. “‘This Place Is Empty” is a fine Keith ballad in which he attempts to write a fine George Jones ballad. “Biggest Mistake” sounds like John Mayer in a good way. “Rain Fall Down” is an effective evocation of their disco-rock Emotional Rescue phase. The flaw, again, is that A Bigger Bang is 16 tracks long, which is too big of a bang. It’s like Hackney Diamonds with 20 extra pounds. But I like this fat bastard just the same.
Hackney Diamonds vs. Blue And Lonesome (2016)
A rough and rowdy collection of blues covers recorded in just three days, Blue And Lonesome is a record straight from Keith’s Id. As a creative endeavor, it pales next to Hackney Diamonds by default. But this is easily the best-sounding late-period Stones album. (My definition of “best sounding” in this context means “akin to the White Stripes.”) It’s also the record where the Stones come closest to “acting their age,” if that is something that a person might reasonably expect or want from this band. The songs are nearly as old as they are, and there is no attempt to hide this. But above all, Blue and Lonesome is the record that invites you to appreciate their chemistry as musicians, and revel in the alchemy that these ancient masters can still conjure when they simply gather in a room, plug in, and blast off. And that is a very special pleasure indeed. Particularly as it pertains to Charlie, the heartbeat of this album and every other Stones album that’s not Hackney Diamonds. For that reason alone, Blue And Lonesome is worth savoring as the last Stones album featuring these Stones.
Advantage: Blue And Lonesome
To review: Hackney Diamonds is equally good to the previous album of Stones originals. It’s not as good as their ’90s albums, but it is better than most of their ’80s albums. What this statement lacks in punchiness it makes up for in accuracy.