50 Years of the Rolling Stones – A Listener’s Guide to the Stones!

To mark the 50th Anniversary of The Rolling Stones, the band is set to release a new greatest hits package in November. The new 50th Anniversary Rolling Stones Greatest Hits package will be released with the rather unfortunate title of Grrr! The package promises to be the most comprehensive look at the band’s long and storied musical career featuring three (or four, if you’re going for the deluxe edition) discs. A greatest hits compilation is always nice, but as true Rolling Stones fans know, the only way to truly experience the majesty of the band’s unparalleled musical legacy may not be through a compilation, no matter how well compiled, but through their original albums.

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To guide you on your way to 50 years of Rolling Stones bliss, what we offer here is not so much a list of the Stones’ eight greatest albums, but rather a carefully sequenced guide designed to introduce the band to potential new fans through a listening experience that will ultimately be far more comprehensive and more satisfying than any compilation could ever be. The list is ordered neither chronologically nor qualitatively, but in such a way as to introduce new listeners to the many sides of the band in as accessible a manner as possible. OK, enough with the gibberish, let’s get to it! We kick off our list with our recommendation for the album That said, onto the album that should be any Rolling Stones newbie’s first purchase!

1. The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers Album: Released in 1971, right in the middle of what is almost universally considered to be the band’s greatest period, Sticky Fingers is as perfect an introduction to the band as you could hope t find. Boasting the terrifically clear and organic production of the time, the album has a warm, inviting sound, even on the harder numbers. It’s also the perfect showcase of a number of different sides of the Stones, almost all of them at or near their prime. We have the kind of riff-rockers that the band are most known for in Bitch and Brown Sugar, but the albums also includes gorgeous country ballads (Wild Horses), straight-up blues (You Gotta Move), country rock (Dead Flowers) and a number of more experimental songs that defy classification and expectations (Moonlight Mile, Sister Morphine). It’s not quite the best album the band produced but it’s near the top of the pile and nothing else from their peak period is anywhere near this accessible.

2. The Rolling Stones – The London Years Album: The Singles Collection: Breaking the golden rule in the introduction of no compilations, it’s impossible to talk about the Stones’ 1960s career without talking about their singles, which are best represented by this mammoth triple CD collection. Like The Beatles and just about every major British group or artist of the period, the Stones released their singles as separate entities to their albums but, unlike the Beatles, their singles were of a far higher quality than their albums, all the way until the release of Beggars Banquet in 1968. Admittedly, some of their singles did find their way onto the American versions of their albums but navigating the mess of the US vs UK editions of their pre-Beggars Banquet albums is sure to turn off any Stones neophyte, so the only real way to be introduced to their sixties canon is through this rather pricey but still indispensable compilation. Chronologically collecting all the singles and b-sides from 1962 to 1971, mostly in mono as they were originally issued, The London Years is the place to go to for all the band’s biggest and best known hits (Satisfaction, Jumping Jack Flash, Paint It Black) and for a boatload of lesser known gems as well. At least until someone finally gets around to correcting and streamlining the Stones’ 60s album-discography, this is simply a compilation that we’re going to have to live with.

3. The Rolling Stones Some Girls Album: Jumping forward in time a bit, this is the début album of the incarnation of the Stones that mostly subsists to this very day. Ronnie Wood, the band’s third “second” guitarist has been with the band for three times as long as both of his predecessors – Mick Taylor and Brian Jones – combined, but this is the only truly essential Wood-era Stones album. It’s also one of the band’s best loved, most well known and biggest selling albums ever and, according to popular opinion anyway, revitalized the band after a disappointing half-decade. While the band’s latter-day albums are better than their reputations sometimes suggest, Some Girls is a perfect encapsulation of the Stones’ sound from the last three decades, but with largely superior songs that capture a variety of genres including disco (Miss You), punk-rock (Respectable), funkified soul (Just My Imagination), country (Far Away Eyes) and a very strange but enthralling mix of proto-rap, punk and disco (Shattered).

4. The Rolling Stones Beggar’s Banquet Album: The beginning of the Rolling Stones’ golden period (1968-1971), Beggars Banquet saw the group returning to their roots after years of Beatles-emulating ’60s pop and a sporadically brilliant but largely messy take on Pink Floyd-like psychedelia. Those years exploring the musical world far out of their comfort zone paid off in spades though, as Jagger and Richards approached their return to the more familiar territory of rock and roll and American roots music with a songwriting acumen that left everything they did before in the dust. It’s arguable whether Beggars Banquet lives up to the three albums that succeeded it but with rock and roll classics like Sympathy for the Devil, Street Fighting Man and Stray Cat Blues sitting next to some staggeringly authentic stabs at “pure” American roots music and a Dylan-esque rambling epic (Jigsaw Puzzle), it’s an epoch-defining masterpiece that once again redefined the limits of great rootsy rock and roll.

5. The Rolling Stones Let It Bleed Album: Effectively Beggars Banquet Part II, Let It Bleed is one of those rare instances where the sequel is better than the original. Again a mix of riff-tastic rock and roll and American roots music, Let It Bleed is even sequenced like its predecessor. This time around though, the songwriting is more consistently brilliant, the musicianship more tight and the emotions more hard hitting. The countrified take on the album’s accompanying single, Honky Tonk Woman, here called Country Honk, is the only relative weak spot in what is, song for song, the Stones’ best album. From Gimme Shelter to Midnight Rambler to You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Let It Bleed is not only a high point in the career of the Stones themselves, but remains a timeless testament to the power of rock and roll.

6. The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street Album: If Let It Bleed is the band’s best album purely as a collection of songs then Exile on Main Street is the Rolling Stones’ single greatest achievement when taken as a whole. In many ways, Exile is a summation of American – particularly black American – music up to that point but all filtered through that inimitable Stones style. It’s also by far the least accessible of the four “golden age” Stones albums, but its lack of accessibility is a direct reflection of what makes it such a singular work of art. It’s sprawling, it’s inconsistent and its mix of fairly simple musical styles and deeply layered arrangements makes for an album that you have to get used to. When you do though, it’s like nothing on earth. Exile is also an album that is best taken as a whole as even the weaker tracks have something to offer to the overall ebb and flow of the overall work, even if it is tempting to skip to classic tracks likes Tumbling Dice or All Down the Line.

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7. The Rolling Stones Goats Head Soup Album: The band’s quintessential “Sucking in the ’70s” album is something of a let down after their four masterpieces but Goats Head Soup is still a fairly magnificent album that captures the Stones in a very strange place. It’s an album that is bursting with terrific musical ideas and spectacular playing but it has a laid-back, almost lethargic feel, that captures a band that is both brimming with confidence in their own skills but also burned out on their own success. It has a few less-than-hot numbers but the best stuff (100 Years Ago, Winter, Angie) is still great and you really can’t beat the overall atmosphere that permeates every last inch of this fascinating piece of work.

8. The Rolling Stones Tattoo You Album: The last truly great Stones album (released way back in 1981) isn’t even a real album. Tattoo You is a collection of old outtakes, many of which come from the band’s heyday, redone and reconfigured into a surprisingly satisfying and cohesive piece of work. The first side is pretty great with the classic Start Me Up being matched by some overlooked gems like Slave and Hang Fire, but the real reason to get this album is for its groovy, soul-influenced second side. Moving from the falsetto-driven and quite unclassifiable Worried About You to the rhythmic, sensual soul of Tops and No Use in Crying to the heartbreaking beauty of Waiting on A Friend via the weirdly experimental Heaven, the second side of Tattoo You ranks right up there with the Stones at their very best. It’s just a pity that they would never come close to matching it again.

These eight indispensable albums (or at least seven indispensable albums and one unfortunately indispensable 3-disc compilation) are only the beginning but they should work as a perfect and thorough introduction to the band and a good framework on which to start a more comprehensive Rolling Stones collection. Indeed, aside for some unfortunate ’80s albums, there’s really no reason not to get the vast majority of the band’s studio discography. While you’re at it though, don’t forget to pick up some live albums/ DVDs – almost any would do, especially as it is as a touring band, rather than a studio band, that the Rolling Stones primarily exist these days.

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