The Rolling Stones

     The Rolling Stones: England's Newest Hitmakers (ABKCO, 1964)
     12 x 5 (ABKCO, 1964)
      The Rolling Stones, Now! (ABKCO, 1965)
      Out of Our Heads (ABKCO, 1965)
      December's Children (and Everybody's)
(ABKCO, 1965)
      Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass)
(ABKCO, 1966)
      Aftermath (ABKCO, 1966)
    Got Live if You Want It! (ABKCO, 1966)
      Between the Buttons (ABKCO, 1967)
      Flowers (ABKCO, 1967)
     Their Satanic Majesties Request (ABKCO, 1967)
      Beggars Banquet (ABKCO, 1968)
      Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits, Vol. 2)
(ABKCO, 1969)
      Let It Bleed (ABKCO, 1969)
     Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! (ABKCO, 1970)
      Sticky Fingers (ABKCO, 1971)
      Hot Rocks 1964–1971 (ABKCO, 1971)
      Exile on Main St. (ABKCO, 1972)
      More Hot Rocks (Big Hits and Fazed Cookies)
(ABKCO, 1972)
    Goats Head Soup (ABKCO, 1973)
    It's Only Rock & Roll (1974, Virgin)
   Metamorphosis (ABKCO, 1975)
     Made in the Shade (Rolling Stones, 1975)
    Black and Blue (Rolling Stones, 1976)
   Love You Live (Rolling Stones, 1977)
      Some Girls (Rolling Stones, 1978)
     Emotional Rescue (Rolling Stones, 1980)
     Sucking in the Seventies (Rolling Stones, 1981)
      Tattoo You (Rolling Stones, 1981)
   Still Life (Rolling Stones, 1982)
    Undercover (Virgin, 1983)
      Rewind: 1971–1984 (Virgin, 1984)
     Dirty Work (Virgin, 1986)
      The Singles Collection: The London Years (ABKCO, 1989)
    Steel Wheels (Virgin, 1989)
    Flashpoint (Virgin, 1991)
     Jump Back (Virgin, 1993)
    Voodoo Lounge (Virgin, 1994)
    Stripped (Virgin, 1995)
     Bridges to Babylon (Virgin, 1997)
   No Security (Virgin, 1998)
      Forty Licks (Virgin, 2002)
    Live Licks (Virgin, 2003)
    Rarities (Virgin, 2003)
     Singles: 1963-1965 (Virgin, 2003)
     Singles: 1965-1967 (Virgin, 2005)
     Singles: 1968-1971 (Virgin, 2006)
     A Bigger Bang (Virgin, 2005)
      Shine A Light: Original Soundtrack (Virgin, 2008)

In the Sixties, they shouted and screamed and killed the king and railed at all his servants; in the Seventies, they gave it away on Seventh Avenue; in the Eighties, they did their dirty work; and they're still around today, celebrating 50 years as the World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band. Mick Jagger was the decadent, slither-hipped rogue singer; Keith Richards was the sinister guitar despot outglowering all the demons that hovered around him. They were the Glimmer Twins, the beggars at the banquet, the vandals who took the handles. They had Charlie Watts as the greatest drummer in rock & roll history, Bill Wyman's jazz-bred bass, and a sweet blond angel named Brian Jones. Put on "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and feel the acoustic guitars suck you into a cross-fire hurricane. Thrill to the Keith-vs.-Brian guitar battle in the final minute of "It's All Over Now." Savor the self-parodic machismo of "Under My Thumb," where Mick flounces like a Siamese-cat-whipped gigolo over Bill's swishiest bass and Brian's cocktail-lounge marimba. Those torn and frayed harmonies. That Charlie Watts kick drum. It's all better than sex. Well, better than sex with Bill or Brian, that's for sure, and probably better than sex with Mick. Not sure about sex with Keith—anybody know?

The Stones started out as a British blues band, but what they played was unmistakably rock & roll, revving up everything fast and loud and mean about the blues—not just chasing good times, but insisting on them. As a slippery character, Mick Jagger wasn't too interested in faking soulful sincerity; he pranced and wiggled through his sexual guises, relishing his role as a white guy singing black, an English guy singing American, a young guy singing old, a jaded guy singing sincere, and most of all, a male guy singing female. You couldn't pin him down, and that's the way he liked it, pouting "Don't hang around/'Cause two's a crowd" with a sullen charisma you still can't take your ears off. As Chuck Berry once put it (in a song the Stones covered), "You Can't Catch Me." And the relentless forward motion of the Stones' music kept Mick one step ahead of anyone trying to hang a name on him.

Jagger and Richards had to learn songwriting on the job—it took them a few years to notice that there was such a thing as melody. But even from the beginning, they could slap together brooding originals like "Tell Me," "Grown Up Wrong," and "Empty Heart." The early Stones records are hodgepodges full of R&B covers going horribly wrong ("Under the Boardwalk," "Come On") or shockingly right ("It's All Over Now," "Around and Around"). The Rolling Stones, Now! is their first consistently great LP, with the mean "Heart of Stone," the funky "Off the Hook," and the Leiber-Stoller oldie "Down Home Girl," where Mick has a blast playing the wide-eyed city boy rendered helpless by his sweetie's Southern-gal sex drive. There's also a fantastic version of the Forties jump blues "Down the Road Apiece," where the old line "Come on before they lose their lease" becomes "You can lose your lead," and you realize that Mick, a spoiled rock & roll prince, has never had to sign a lease and has no idea what one is.

Out of Our Heads adds "Satisfaction," the 1965 breakthrough single that continues to inspire garage-rock imitators today. Poor Mick: flying around the world with no girlie action, only his cars and clothes and cigarettes and TVs to keep him company. He sounds bored enough to blow up the world; Keith sounds like he just lit the fuse. There's also "The Spider and the Fly," a groupie blues with Mick's positively filthy languor as he breathes the vowels of the line, "She said she liked the way I held the microphone." December's Children, a compendium of tracks from the completely different U.K. version of Out of Our Heads, leaps out with the 90-second blast of "She Said Yeah," plus live rips through "I'm Moving On" and "Route 66." It also has "The Singer Not the Song," a chiming Beatle-style ballad that's all narcissistic mod glamour, especially the way Mick and Keith harmonize on the killer couplet, "It's not the way you give in willingly/Others do it without thrilling me."

Aftermath was the first album of Jagger-Richards originals and the first album the Stones recorded as a coherent whole. It showcases the sauciest Mick, the broodiest Keith, the prettiest Brian, the funkiest Bill, and Charlie—now and forever, Charlie. It's blues-rock flower power, but all the flowers are painted black, with Brian's marimba and dulcimer adding color to these tough, lean, desperately lonely songs. If the Velvet Underground had ever made an album with the Stax house band, it might have sounded like this: the outrageously funny country honk "High and Dry," the gentle acoustic longing of "I Am Waiting," the 11-minute "Going Home." The U.S. version improves on the original by losing "Mother's Little Helper," always a song worth losing, and adding the sitar-crazed death chant "Paint It Black." Mick trips through the Swinging London scene with tirelessly bitchy ditties like "Under My Thumb," "Think," and "Doncha Bother Me," coming up with sharp lines even when he's just shaking the maracas of his mind to the beat to give his lips something to do.

Between the Buttons is lighter and thinner, heavy on piano and a Kinks-like touch of ye olde Englandisms; having belatedly discovered pop melody, Jagger and Richards were suddenly overdosing on the stuff. The songs that stand out are the ones that bite: "Connection," "My Obsession," "Yesterday's Papers," and the Blonde on Blonde rip "Who's Been Sleeping Here?" "Something Happened to Me Yesterday" is a remarkably moving and confused finale, chronicling either a first acid trip or a first experience with gay sex, depending on whether you think Mick is singing "trippy" or "drippy." David Bowie obviously guessed the latter, since he based most of his early career on this song, turning it into his debut hit "Space Oddity."

Flowers collects stray singles from this period, but it holds together as one of the Stones' best records, a concept album about the social scene that gathers around five rich young men with an appetite for sex, drugs, and gossip. There's the acoustic "Sittin' on a Fence," the sad accordion waltz "Backstreet Girl," and best of all, the dizzy harpsichord watusi "Ride On Baby," one of the great unknown Stones classics. Their Satanic Majesties Request was the Stones' big psychedelic statement, with the band looking silly in medieval wizard costumes on the cover. Despite its bad rep, though, it's an inspired mess, layering all the airy, effete melody of a Donovan or Kaleidoscope song on top of the powerhouse Stones rhythm section. There's a heap of sci-fi twaddle, but you still get a buzz from spooky space drones like "Citadel," "The Lantern," and "2,000 Light Years From Home." The band's brief but tasty psych period, well summed up by the 1969 singles collection Through the Past, Darkly, includes high-water marks of British pop such as "Child of the Moon" and "Dandelion." This Stones era ended much too soon—except that even better sounds were on the way.

Brian, never a day at the beach in the human-being department, was increasingly lost as a musical presence, but he has his final great moments on Beggars Banquet, the album on which the Stones stripped down for some kind of mutant acoustic blues. When Brian plays a ghostly slide guitar on "No Expectations," he sounds like he's playing at his own funeral. (He died in his swimming pool in 1969, soon after the Stones finally kicked him out.) Beggars Banquet has ironic roots moves like "Parachute Woman," "Jigsaw Puzzle," and a cover of Reverend Robert Wilkins' country-gospel "Prodigal Son," where Keith utters a friendly "Hey!" at the end, as though he fully expected the fatted calf all along. In "Stray Cat Blues," Mick lures the kittens to his scratching post with a lazy post-coital mumble, as if forming consonants is too much work to expect from a guy with such a demanding sexual schedule. And "Sympathy for the Devil" is one of their best singles, with a conga beat, one of Keith's rare straight-razor solos, a chorus of presumably restless natives from central casting chanting "hoo hoo," and Mick chewing right through the scenery in his guise as the Prince of Darkness.

On Let It Bleed, the Stones face up to the end of the Sixties, starting with the dread guitar rumble of "Gimme Shelter." It's all over now: The fast times of Swinging London have degenerated into death and despair, the banality of Mister Jimmy waiting in line for his fix at the drugstore. The Stones rock through the darkness with the bluesy punch of "Monkey Man," a great cover of Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain" (with Ry Cooder on mandolin), and "You Got the Silver," with Keith singing a ragged lead vocal as the ultimate romantic supplicant. "Let It Bleed" might be the Stones' sexiest song. Mick slips in a very unconvincing "she said" before the first verse, but he's the one offering us his body, shaking his hips to turn us on and drinking our health in scented jasmine tea, as blood and sweat and other bodily fluids spill all over the honky-tonk guitars. By the end of the song, Mick is dancing on the tables while Charlie tries to calm him down, and for a few minutes, the sex drive wins over the death drive.

Sticky Fingers, coming after the disastrously violent concert at Altamont, was a chance for the Stones to clean up their act. Needless to say, they declined. The songs are full of drugs, often as a metaphor for sexual loss ("Moonlight Mile"), but sometimes just as drugs ("Sister Morphine"). New guitarist Mick Taylor adds rich instrumental textures, despite the dull lite-jazz coda for "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." The incomprehensibly terrifying "Sway" destroys your notion of circular time, "Bitch" riffs on the nature of lust with unbelievably rabid guitars, and "Dead Flowers" is a country goof on decadence. "Brown Sugar" is the album's most famous song, a Chuck Berry rip connecting the 19th-Century slave trade to the birth of 20th-Century rock & roll, raising disturbing questions about American culture while refusing to answer any of them, just dissolving into a chant of "yeah yeah yeah, wooo!"

The Stones fled to France to cut the double album Exile on Main St. Recorded in the basement of Keith's French villa with electricity allegedly stolen from the French railway system, it's their most physically jolting album and, ultimately, their most emotionally inspiring. Mick's vocals are just another instrument in a glorious rush of high-velocity electric noise, his lyrics barely perceptible in all the guitar, sax, and harmonica; whatever he's saying, he just wants to plug in and flush out and fight and fuck and feed. Keith channels all his nasty habits and internal chaos into the guitars, from the convulsive opener, "Rocks Off," to the weary acoustic stomp of "Sweet Virginia." Charlie Watts' understated performance in "Shake Your Hips" demands some sort of Nobel Prize.

Exile was the Stones' biggest musical triumph, but all the decadence was catching up with them. The band lost focus, with Keith's attention diverted by the pressing concern of stuffing as many toxic chemicals into his veins as possible. Goats Head Soup is overbaked melodrama, enlivened only by "Angie" and the groupie anthem "Star Star," in which Mick finds himself traded in for Steve McQueen. It's Only Rock & Roll is formula, and the nearly song-free Black and Blue comes down to a pair of sincere ballads ("Fool to Cry," "Memory Motel") and the silly but shitkicking cowboy tale "Hand of Fate."

Some Girls brought the band back to life, taking on punk and disco as the Stones rediscovered their sense of musical aggression with new guitarist Ron Wood, who made up in spirit what he lacked in guitar chops. "Miss You" combines funk beats, sax, guitars, urban loneliness, Sugar Blue's harmonica, and some Puerto Rican girls just dying to meet you. While Mick bites the Big Apple and spits out the New York sleaze of "Shattered" and "When the Whip Comes Down," Keith sings himself a heart-tugging theme song, "Before They Make Me Run."

Their comeback in the can, the Stones kept it up for the next few years. Emotional Rescue was a high-spirited lark, racing through the hooks of "Let Me Go," "Where the Boys Go," and the fabulous "She's So Cold." Tattoo You had the necrophiliac hit "Start Me Up," the doo-doo-doo ditty "Hang Fire," and Keith's sincere pro-bitch statement, "Little T&A," with Sonny Rollins blowing sax on the big ballad "Waiting on a Friend." Undercover was a serious but failed attempt to adjust their political lyrics to hip-hop production. Mick started to act on his long-threatened solo career, and the Stones began to fall apart, this time apparently for good. Dirty Work sounded like the band's nasty kiss-off to one another, even though all the nastiness made the album feel alive, not to mention Stonesy. Too hard and bitter for mainstream acclaim, Dirty Work has a thriving cult, especially the title song, in which Jagger rails against Reagan with what sounds like authentic rage.

But the Stones didn't really break up, of course; they were just sitting on a fence. After three years, they reunited for Steel Wheels and assumed their present roles as elder statesmen, road warriors, voodoo loungers, and men of wealth and taste. Their post-reunion albums have been muffled by the soft retro production of Don Was—it takes a real studio whiz to make Charlie Watts sound like a click track. But Bridges to Babylon has prime moments, especially Mick's "Might as Well Get Juiced" and Keith's "Thief in the Night." A Bigger Bang was worth the wait, bristling with Mick's snakiest wit, Keith's shrewdest guitar runs, Charlie's loosest drum hooks. From "Rough Justice" to "This Place Is Empty," it's the work of hardened rock & roll dons who don't feel any need to prove a goddamn thing, except that they still don't give a fuck.

For more than 20 years, the 1971 double-album anthology Hot Rocks was the standard introduction to the Stones' music, the first one most of us ever heard, with a great doomy cover. Along with its predecessor, Big Hits, and its superb companion volume, More Hot Rocks, it's been superseded by The Singles Collection: The London Years. Hot Rocks does, however, have the ten-minute "Midnight Rambler," the highlight of the live Get Your Ya-Ya's Out!, from 1970, and a truly frightening listen. Forget Altamont—this is the real death of the Sixties, as Mick preaches about bad news on the way, bad news of death and destruction, bad news that everybody's got to know because everybody's got to go. But the crowd just cheers wildly, because they don't understand that the bad news is for them. The moment when a happy fan screams "Goddamn!" and Jagger answers, "Honey, it's not one of those," is scarier than "Sympathy for the Devil" ever was.

The double-disc anthology Forty Licks is the closest thing to a comprehensive career-spanning intro, featuring daring picks ("Fool To Cry," "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?") and four new songs (including Mick's "Don't Stop," a plea for emotional rescue, and Keith's piano ballad "Losing My Touch"), even if it's not as strong song-for-song as Hot Rocks or The Singles Collection. So far, there hasn't been a completely satisfying collection of the post–Hot Rocks hits, despite some worthy-at-the-time artifacts now forgotten, such as the 1975 Made in the Shade, the 1984 Rewind, the 1993 Jump Back, and let us now remember the brilliantly titled 1981 Sucking in the Seventies.

As for The Singles Collection—of course, a three-disc singles box might seem redundant from a band whose original albums are classics. But we're talking the Stones here, and as an introduction, it's only one disc longer than Hot Rocks or Forty Licks, and not only brings together all the Sixties hits, but also digs much deeper into the weird corners of the Stones work. (If you've never heard "Child of the Moon" or "Who's Driving Your Plane," you'll love them.) A desert-island-worthy relic of the 20th Century for sure, the collection takes a journey from the demand for "Satisfaction" to the realization that "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and then back again. Honey, it's not one of those.

Of the many Stones live albums, Ya-Ya's is the stone classic, documenting a 1969 Madison Square Garden show in all its blood and glory; the 2009 reissue adds five songs, plus the opening sets of Ike and Tina Turner . Mick's best line: "You don't want my trousers to fall down, now do you?" Love You Live has a buried treasure in the skank-sloppy cover of Bo Diddley's "Crackin' Up." Jamming With Edward is an aimless jam session never intended for release; the outtakes collection Metamorphosis includes the irresistible "I'd Much Rather Be With the Boys." Rarities mostly consists of previously released odds and ends; the Singles boxes are CD-single versions o/f the old 45s, with fancy packaging. Shine a Light catches the Stones on a historic roll, reveling in their own live mastery, digging deep into the weirder corners of their songbook. It has Jack White wailing "Loving Cup," Buddy Guy jamming on "Champagne and Reefer," and Christina Aguilera vamping "Live With Me," not to mention Keith's sublimely ravaged vocals in "Little T&A" and "Connection." But the unlikely highlight is "She Was Hot," a long-forgotten groupie ode from Undercover—the Stones rescue the melancholy melody and build it up into an ode to nostalgia, regret and loneliness, with Mick yelping for salvation and Charlie banging away.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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