The Rolling Stones: Best of the Moss Years

The Rolling Stones formed in 1962, and over the better part of the next two decades produced an astonishing array of indisputably classic music — scores of great songs that remain instantly familiar.

After that, they continued to make and release music. Some of this got onto the radio, or received positive attention from critics. But really, none of it left the sort of lasting mark on the culture that the best material from the Stones’ long heyday did. We can call this, for lack of a better term, the band’s unclassic phase — the “Moss Years.”

I’d say this began with Undercover, released in 1983, for two reasons. First: Its failure to reach the top of the U.S. album chart broke an eight-record streak of Number Ones, stretching from Sticky Fingers (in 1971) through Tattoo You, which was largely a set of outtakes (released in 1981). Second: Undercover was the first Stones album whose release I distinctly remember. It was in the early MTV era, I was a kid, and although the band members were younger then than I am now, I definitely thought, in a Beavis & Butthead way, that these were curious old dudes who still made rock music, for some reason.

By this definition, the Stones’ “Moss” phase has lasted 33 years so far — much longer than the span from their formation to the release of Tattoo You.

But given that this is a brilliant assemblage of musical talents, surely they must have come up with some worthwhile stuff in those decades. So a little while back, I listened all the way through the band’s unclassic catalog, picking my favorites (regardless of their status as singles or deep cuts), and imagining a CD-length best-of mix. And then, upon realizing that nobody wants a best-of CD anymore, I converted the results into a Spotify playlist.

Next: I forgot about it.

But recently I started to encounter the excitable reviews of Blue & Lonesome, which I find pretty uninspiring. (Maybe I’m just more of a Mississippi blues than a Chicago blues type, but either way, the whole “wow they’re really getting back to their roots” thing always leaves me cold.)

This caused me to revisit my “Best of the Most Years” playlist, revise it slightly, and share it with you now. Cursory notes follow, but it’s better to ignore those just listen.

1. “Undercover (of the Night),” Undercover (1983). At the time, this seemed like a gimmicky attempt to meld the Stones sound with what was then contemporary. Now it sounds like a successful attempt.

2. “Continental Drift,” Steel Wheels (1989). Driven by an Eastern drone and adventurous production, this doesn’t really seem like a Stones song at all. It’s very original, and terrific.

3. “Moon Is Up,” Voodoo Lounge (1994). A mellow and melancholy number that benefits from restraint. Perfectly genuine.

4. “One Hit (To The Body),” Dirty Work (1986). A single, and a minor hit in the mid 1980s, this holds up as a respectable rock exercise.

5. “You Don’t Have To Mean It,” Bridges To Babylon (1997). A borderline-silly reggae number with Keith straining somewhat on lead vocals, this is redeemed by a sweet and catchy horn section.

6. “New Faces,” Voodoo Lounge (1994). Delicate, expertly crafted, and menacing.

7. “Not Fade Away,” Stripped (1995). This live-in-the-studio acoustic cover is charming in its reluctance to be anything more than a fannish tribute.

8. “Too Much Blood,” Undercover (1983). Despite the warmed-over disco overtones and 1970s-style dystopian lyrics, Ridiculous Talkin’ Mick totally sells this.

9. “Sad Sad Sad,” Steel Wheels (1989). A hard-driver to satisfy “classic Stones” fans, very much in the band’s caterwauling safety zone.

10. “She Saw Me Coming” A Bigger Bang (2005). A slinky honky-tonker.

11. “Saint of Me,” Bridges To Babylon (1997). Carefully constructed and deliberate, but with a real groove, this could play over the end credits of any Prestige TV drama today.

12. “Let Me Down Slow” A Bigger Bang (2005). Wistful country rock.

13. “All The Way Down” Undercover (1983). Mid-tempo rocker with a good 1970s feel.

14. “Oh No, Not You Again.” A Bigger Bang (2005). A really fun basher, this is perfect cover material for your favorite rock-it-out bar band.

15. “Little Rain,” Blue & Lonesome (2016). The most spare, deep-blue, and believable entry on the new covers set.

16. “Thru and Thru,” Voodoo Lounge (1994). A quiet but effective Keith vocal is abruptly invaded, about a third of the way through, by gunshot drums, then a crescendo that makes the whole thing even more satisfyingly melodramatic. This was prominently featured on a Sopranos episode, and that makes sense.

If this were an actual CD, I’d include one unlisted bonus track: “Might As Well Get Juiced,” from Bridges To Babylon (1997). It’s enjoyable solely for its weirdness: one of those “let’s do something modern” Stones experiments that flies off the rails almost immediately, but is still worth hearing. Once.

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