If you have seen Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the rest of the Rolling Stones hanging around a lot lately, it’s because they are celebrating the release of a remastered anniversary edition of their classic 1972 album Exile on Main St. (which hits store shelves today). The newly remastered version features a second disc of songs, all 10 of which have been previously unreleased and were from the same sessions that yielded Exile on Main St.
Here’s the thing about Exile on Main St.: While it’s an excellent album and contains some of the band’s signature hits (“Tumbling Dice,” “Loving Cup,” “Shine a Light”) and some excellent deep cuts (“Rip This Joint,” “Casino Boogie”), it’s profoundly overrated — especially in the context of the rest of the Stones’ catalog. It’s way too long and bloated in places, and the stuff at the back end seems a little perfunctory (especially “Let It Loose” and their treatment of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” which doesn’t work well at all). Out of 18 tracks on the original, only 10 are truly great, making it only about 56 percent of a good thing. That makes Exile on Main St. only about the sixth best album in the Stones’ long career. Here are the five that are superior and should be celebrated ahead of Exile.
Sticky Fingers (1971)
The album just prior to Exile was actually the Stones’ peak. Though some of the albums before it are somewhat monolithic, Sticky Fingers has everything that made the Stones a total international juggernaut in the ’60s and why they are still a well-respected group. It has some classic blues, a newly-developed sense of scuzz and some of the strongest melodies of the band’s career. Literally every song on Sticky Fingers is a classic, and both “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” are on the list of some of the finest rock songs ever. Plus, the whole thing closes with “Moonlight Mile,” perhaps the best ballad Mick and Keith ever wrote. Bonus points for having truly amazing cover art, featuring an actual working zipper designed by Andy Warhol. And have you seen the awesomely grotesque Spanish cover?
Beggars Banquet (1968)
Speaking of great album covers: The sleeve to 1968’s Beggars Banquet was actually rejected in favor of a much more staid version. But the iconic bathroom graffiti lives on in reissues as one of the best pieces of album art in rock history. Inside, Beggars is an embarrassment of riches, from the groovy, evil “Sympathy for the Devil” to the underrated blues romp “Parachute Woman” to the savage “Street Fighting Man.”
Some Girls (1978)
Already thought of as a dinosaur in ’78 and staring down the advent of punk and the rise of disco, the Stones went back to basics. The group brought on guitarist Ronnie Wood as a full time member and Jagger vastly improved his six-string skills, which lead to the fierce three-axe attack of Some Girls. That would turn some bands into the Allman Brothers, but the Stones were nothing but the stones, laying out groovy rockers like “Beast of Burden” and rugged attacks like “When the Whip Comes Down.” Their cover of “Just My Imagination” turns the tune into a bad trip gone right, and Keith’s “Before They Make Me Run” is simultaneously playful and dark (probably because it’s about getting arrested for heroin possession).
Let It Bleed (1969)
The follow-up to Beggars Banquet is just as strong as its predecessor, with the huge hits “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” bookending the proceedings. Those songs tend to eclipse the rest of the album, but there’s all manner of greatness wedged in between, from the weary blues of “You Got the Silver” to the punchy “Monkey Man.”
Between the Buttons (1967)
The Beatles Revolver, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde were all released within a few months of each other in 1966, but Between the Buttons might top them all. It has some gorgeous melodies, a handful of psychedelic experiments and at least one classic burner (“Let’s Spend the Night Together”). Though the Stones are best known for sweaty stuff like “Satisfaction” and “Bitch,” Between the Buttons shows off their ability to construct killer ballads, like “Ruby Tuesday” and “She Smiles Sweetly.”
What are your favorite Rolling Stones albums? Let us know in the comments!