It’s widely acknowledged that The Rolling Stones hit their peak between 1968 and 1972 – right now I’m covering those albums, and a few later highlights, as my Top Rated Albums list feels incomplete without them. I’ll come back and cover their 1965-1967 albums later; there are a few that I’ve only recently become acquainted with. I’m also considering filling up the gaps up to 1981, although the albums I’ve skipped generally have a poor reputation.
While the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards team is obviously the nucleus of The Rolling Stones, the band also benefited from the production of Jimmy Miller, and the skills of lead guitarist Mick Taylor, who replaced Brian Jones around the time that 1969’s Let It Bleed was recorded. To some extent The Rolling Stones’ have become caricatures of themselves, but like most celebrated bands, they earned their reputation, and their run of albums between 1968 and 1972 is magnificent.
Rolling Stones Studio Albums: 1965-1981
The Rolling Stones No. 2
Out of Our Heads
December’s Children (And Everybody’s)
Between the Buttons
Their Satanic Majesties Request
Let It Bleed
Exile on Main St.
Goats Head Soup
It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll
Black and Blue
The Rolling Stones Album Reviews
After dabbling with pop and psychedelia on albums like Between The Buttons and His Satanic Majesty’s Request, The Rolling Stones returned to their blues roots with Beggar’s Banquet. Keith Richards later stated “I’d grown sick to death of the whole Maharishi guru shit and the beads and bells.” Founding member Brian Jones was drifting out of the band at this point, and he only contributes to some of the tracks, leaving the focus squarely on Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Producer Jimmy Miller also came on board for Beggar’s Banquet, and he was an integral part of The Rolling Stones’ golden run from 1968 to 1972.
Song for song, you could easily argue that Beggar’s Banquet is inconsistent – of the ten songs, I count four lightweight country and blues pastiches, which struggle to stand up to the meaty tracks like ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ and ‘Street Fighting Man’. But each of these tracks is kept short, and each has its own charm – ‘Parachute Woman’ benefits from its repetitive riff and atmosphere, while ‘Factory Girl’ is low key and charming – and they add to Beggar’s Banquet rather than detract from it.
The six remaining tracks are generally brilliant; ‘Sympathy For the Devil’ burbles along smoothly while Jagger ambiguously delivers some of his best lyrics. Keith Richards delivers the opening lines to ‘Salt of the Earth’ before he’s eclipsed by Jagger, while ‘Stray Cat Blues’ and ‘Street Fighting Man’ rock with intensity and verve. ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’ works on the back of some great slide guitar work and Jagger’s story-telling.
The Rolling Stones would make even better albums over the next few years, but Beggar’s Banquet ushers in the start of one of the most golden runs in the history of popular music.
Let It Bleed
On Let It Bleed The Rolling Stones changed lineups for the first time since gaining a recording contract; departing multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones and incoming guitarist Mick Taylor each play on a couple of tracks. Mick Jagger’s lyrics on Let It Bleed show glimpses of genius in their self-deprecating humour. “I’ve got nasty habits,” he sneers in ‘Live With Me’, “I take tea at three.” “I hope we’re not too messianic,” Jagger apologises in ‘Monkey Man’, “or a trifle too satanic.” The transition from the teen-aged assertiveness of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ to the adult uncertainty of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ is also noteworthy. ‘Gimme Shelter’ was creepy and ‘Midnight Rambler’ was edgy, forming the soundtrack for the tragic Altamont stabbings. While there are plenty of excellent songs on Let It Bleed, it’s not as consistent as the two albums that follow.
The claustrophobic ‘Gimme Shelter’ starts off Let It Bleed on an ominous note; the group lock into a tight groove, while Mary Clayton’s backing vocals are eerie. ‘Love In Vain’ is a lovely Robert Johnson ballad, although it’s credited to Jagger and Richards, while ‘Monkey Man’ and ‘Live With Me’ are fantastic rockers that are overlooked in The Stones’ vast catalogue. The epic ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ has an air of profundity that’s rare in pop music, while Keith Richards’ vocal spotlight ‘You Got The Silver’ has a convincing degree of sincerity. The rest of Let It Bleed isn’t as strong; ‘Midnight Rambler’ and the title track don’t justify their lengths, while ‘Country Honk’ is merely throwaway. Apparently this countrified version was how the awesome single ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ was first conceived, but Let It Bleed would be stronger with the invigorating rock version.
It’s my least favourite of The Rolling Stones’ 1968 to 1972 albums, but Let It Bleed still has some of their best tracks.
At the turn of the 1970s, The Rolling Stones were at the peak of their powers, and delivered Sticky Fingers, an album steeped in sex, drugs, and rock and roll. With new lead guitarist Mick Taylor firmly ensconced in the band, The Rolling Stones were able to tackle epic blues rockers like ‘Can You Hear Me Knocking’. While The Stones’ attempts at country on Beggars Banquet felt like pastiches, perhaps as a result of the friendship between Keith Richards and alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons, on Sticky Fingers ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Dead Flowers’ are substantial and among the many highlights.
Sticky Fingers hits most of The Rolling Stones’ stylistic range without over-reaching. There are straightforward rockers like the debauchery of ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Bitch’, and a lengthy, enthralling blues jam on ‘Can You Hear Me Knocking’, while the slightly slower ‘Sway’ is a favourite from among the group’s album tracks. ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Dead Flowers’ are pretty, while ‘Sister Morphine’ boils with tension and ‘Moonlight Mile’ is a beautiful closer.
Confident and sleazy, Sticky Fingers is the epitome of classic rock, and it’s a career highlight for a legendary band.
Exile On Main Street
The Rolling Stones left Britain for tax purposes in 1971 and Exile On Main Street was recorded at Keith Richards’ home on the French Riviera, where he charged each member of the group 250 pounds a week for rent while recording. The recording sessions were predictably chaotic, with Richards’ heroin addiction, but the double album that resulted is spectacular. While The Rolling Stones always integrated pre-rock influences into their sixties records, the tapestry here is richer than ever. As well as their blues fascination and dabbles in country, they also splash on huge dollops of gospel, as an expanded line up with Bobby Keys on saxophone, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and J. Price on horns blast their way through eighteen tracks. While Exile On Main Street has an air of decadence about it, even more it is a celebration of music.
Not every one of these eighteen songs are brilliant; ‘Shake Your Hips’ is a re-run of Sticky Fingers‘ ‘You Gotta Move’, ‘I Just Want To See His Face’ is a turgid gospel piece, while there at least another half dozen throwaways scattered throughout the record. Even though some of the songs are not particularly strong, however, I wouldn’t want to change a note of this album. The vibe is just so compelling; the messy mix, with the vocals at low volume, is intoxicating, while even the ballads rock.
‘Rocks Off’ provides a suitable start; confused, sleazy and rousing. ‘Tumbling Dice’ is closest to a hit with a funky rhythm and a catchy harmonised chorus. ‘Torn And Frayed’ is a terrific piece of country-rock, while ‘Loving Cup’ and ‘Let It Loose’ are intense ballads. Robert Johnson’s ‘Stop Breaking Down’, the gospel of ‘Shine A Light’ and ‘Soul Survivor’ end things on a high note.
Exile On Main Street has so much swagger and mystique about it, encapsulating much of the appeal of rock and roll, where the vibe is effortless and intoxicating. Every time I listen to Exile On Main Street I feel like I’m having a classic rock experience.
Goat’s Head Soup
Goat’s Head Soup is widely regarded as a return to the pack by The Rolling Stones, after a few years of outstanding releases. It feels less like a unified album than the records that came immediately before it, and more like a collection of whatever songs Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had lying around. Due to tax and legal issues, the band were unable to record in the UK, and Goat’s Head Soup was recorded in short bursts in Jamaica and The Netherlands. The Jamaican influence is most noticeable in the opening ‘Dancing With Mr D’, with its tales of voodoo and funky percussion.
Mostly it’s the gentle material that leaves the biggest impression on Goat’s Head Soup – the acoustic anguish of ‘Angie’ was the first single, while ‘Winter’ and ‘Coming Down Again’ are also pretty and delicate. ‘Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)’ is punctuated by horns, while ‘Star Star’ is notably profane and sleazy even for The Rolling Stones.
Goat’s Head Soup marks the end of an era for The Rolling Stones – it was their last album with producer Jimmy Miller, while guitarist Mick Taylor would soon leave the band as well. While it’s a large step down from Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St., it’s still stronger than most of the material The Rolling Stones have released since 1973.
Understandably the Rolling Stones felt that they were one of the dinosaur groups criticised by the punk movement; Mick Jagger stated that some of the group’s albums from the mid 1970s were so bad they should have carried consumer warnings. The band responded with Some Girls; a more energetic effort with new wave and disco influences.
It’s lauded as a post Exile high; and while the band’s ability to update their sound in the face of new trends is laudable, Some Girls is frustratingly inconsistent. The singles are terrific – ‘Miss You’ has a great disco bass line from Bill Wyman, while ‘Beast of Burden’ has a great slinky feel. There’s also a terrific cover of The Temptations’ ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away From Me)’. But the rockers ‘When The Whip Comes Down’, ‘Lies’ and ‘Respectable’ are indistinguishable from each other, and ‘Shattered’ feels messy. There’s also a throwaway country piece in ‘Faraway Eyes’, while the title track is bluesy filler, and only memorable for Jagger’s smutty lyrics.
Some Girls is an overrated Rolling Stones’ album – a couple of great singles with little to support them.
Tattoo You is a collection of outtakes from The Rolling Stones’ sessions from between 1972 sessions for Goat’s Head Soup and 1980’s Undercover. The band raided their vaults because Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ relationship was difficult at the time, although a lot of the songs were instrumentals which Jagger needed to add lyrics and vocals to. Improbably, Tattoo You is arguably stronger than any of the parent albums that it’s drawn from. It benefits from its diversity, since it covers ground from almost ten years of sessions, from the R&B of ‘Worried About You’, from the Black and Blue sessions to the sunny pop of ‘Waiting For A Friend’ from 1972, and the riff rock of ‘Hang Fire’.
The album begins with the infectious riff rock of ‘Start Me Up’, which kicks off the opening side of rockers. Richards gets a vocal showcase on ‘Little T&A’, while ‘Hang Fire’ is urgent and raucous. On the mellow side, there’s the sunny ‘Waiting On A Friend’, which has always reminded me of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Coyote’ – ‘Coyote’ was released in 1976, but ‘Waiting on a Friend’ was first recorded in 1972. Wayne Perkins plays guitar on ‘Worried About You’, while Jagger employs his falsetto.
Tattoo You, an album of outtakes, is my favourite of the post 1972 Rolling Stones records that I’m familiar with.
Ten Favourite Rolling Stones’ songs
Sympathy For The Devil
Torn and Frayed
Salt of the Earth
You Can’t Always Get What You Want