Masters of the Form: The Rolling Stones, 1971 - Sticky Fingers

Some artists are more than merely great. There are some artists that for a period of years, a period that is finite, consistently produced music that, it can be argued, far exceeded the work of their peers. For that brief period of time they were definitely Masters of the Form.

One tongue. One set of lips. One titanic album, and the Rolling Stones had changed the course of rock and roll forever. Again.

When the Rolling Stones released Sticky Fingers in 1971 they had already surpassed the expectations of most rock and roll bands. They had proven themselves to be masters of the form with the release of 1968's Beggar's Banquet and its 1969 follow up Let It Bleed, the first two in a series of what could quite possibly be the four best successive rock albums released by any band in history. The two superlative discs were musical dictionaries that defined the concept of rock and roll for generations of aspiring musicians. In 1971, the Stones published a new dictionary called Sticky Fingers which defined the concept of rock and roll super stardom. Beggar's Banquet was a lesson of simplicity, Let It Bleed was a lesson in authenticity and Sticky Fingers was a lesson in audacity.

The Stones never suffered from a shortage of bravado, and with Sticky Fingers, "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World" taught the world how big balls had to be when they lived on a slab of vinyl housed beneath a working zipper. They made it clear with the album's artwork that the biggest band in the world was the one that had the biggest set of stones. The Stones also introduced their new logo, the now iconic red lips and tongue and taught another lesson. The biggest band in rock and roll is the biggest brand in rock and roll, and with the release of Sticky Fingers, the Stones became more than a rock band. They became more than masters of the form. They became rock's answer to Coca-Cola, an instantly recognizable brand enjoyed by millions worldwide. With their previous two releases the group clearly illustrated what it meant to sound like "The Stones". With Sticky Fingers they illustrated what it meant to be "The Stones", and "The Stones", like Coca-Cola, were huge.

Sticky Fingers is big in every respect. It is an album recorded by rock stars at the peak of their powers and every track is filled with a palpable confidence. On Sticky Fingers, the Rolling Stones don't play roots music with the appreciation they did in 1968 and the authenticity they did in 1969. The Stones attack every track as though the components of rock music are ones they created and strut through the album like rock gods refusing to rest on the seventh day. And the creation itself? It is a collection of some of the biggest, raunchiest and fullest tracks ever recorded.

The album's bold agenda is showcased in the opening riff of its opening track. The riff that introduces "Brown Sugar", easily one of the best Keith Richards has ever composed, is so distinctive that guitarists have been trying to rewrite it for decades. The song that follows -- the sex of it, the questionable taste of it, the driving rhythm, the howling vocals, the percussive propulsion of the piano, the fullness of the saxophone -- is one of such electric vitality that it's beyond blues, pop or rock and roll. "Brown Sugar" isn't a rock song at all. It's a "Stones" song and it introduces an album full of them.

"Sway" is a musical anvil dropped from the roof that is perfectly content to take its time dropping. It's heavy, it's in no hurry and it causes immediate damage upon impact, like a girl who can break you "with a corner of her smile". "Sister Morphine" is a junkie set to music opening coyly, with one vocal and an acoustic guitar, asking nicely for a fix but the request gets louder as the slide guitar echoes through the second verse and louder still as the both the narrator and the slide guitar beg to score. "Moonlight Mile" is an exquisite ballad, combining falsetto vocals, strings and piano, a swan floating by the end of the album after the ugly ducklings have all passed. The best ballad though is "Wild Horses", a country masterpiece of agony punctuated by the pained perfection of Richards' background vocals, proof that the Stones were too big to write country songs because they were too busy writing prairies to ride upon.

"Can't You Hear Me Knocking" is a rabid beast, all snarling guitar and vocal claws that go for the jugular immediately and refuse to let go, playing with listeners like their prey through the extended jazz of the ending. It showcases the Stones at their toughest and Mick Jagger, who sings like a man possessed throughout the entire album, is particularly effective hear, screeching and yelping like he's in competition with Keith Richard's guitar lick to prove which is tougher. The competition continues during "Bitch", which could be the biggest song in an album full of them. "Bitch" is a rock and roll sprint, a raging collection of horns, guitar, bass, drums and vocals with so much energy moving so fast that it would be tiring to listen to if it wasn't so exhilarating. The song is a colossus, a perfect summation of the sheer audacity of the album itself, a perfect portrait of a band that moves from song to song "like a stud kicking the stall all night". In one year's time the studs would stop kicking, pack up their shiny new logo and go into Exile...


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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'Curb Your Enthusiasm' S9 Couldn't Find Its Rhythm

Larry David and J.B. Smoove in Curb Your Enthusiasm S9 (HBO)

Curb Your Enthusiasm's well-established characters are reacting to their former selves, rather than inhabiting or reinventing themselves. Thus, it loses the rhythms and inflections that once made the show so consistently, diabolically funny.

In an era of reboots and revivals, we've invented a new form of entertainment: speculation. It sometimes seems as if we enjoy begging for television shows to return more than watching them when they're on the air. And why wouldn't we? We can't be disappointed by our own imaginations. Only the realities of art and commerce get in the way.

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Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

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