494. The Rolling Stones, 'Exile on Main Street'
Rolling Stones Records, 1972
A dirty whirl of blues and boogie, the Rolling Stones' 1972 double LP "was the first grunge record," guitarist Keith Richards crowed proudly in a 2002 interview. But inside the deliberately dense squall – Richards' and Mick Taylor's dogfight riffing, the lusty jump of the Bill Wyman-Charlie Watts rhythm engine, Mick Jagger's caged-animal bark and burned-soul croon – is the Stones' greatest album and Jagger and Richards' definitive songwriting statement of outlaw pride and dedication to grit. In the existential shuffle "Tumbling Dice," the exhausted country beauty "Torn and Frayed" and the whiskey-soaked uplift of "Shine a Light," you literally hear the Stones in exile: working at Richards' villa in the South of France, and on the run from media censure, British drug police (Jagger and Richards already knew the view from behind bars) and the country's onerous tax code. Exile is rife with allusions to their outsider status: The album's cover is a collage of freakish American characters, and on "Sweet Black Angel" they toast imprisoned activist Angela Davis – one set of renegades to another. The music rattles like battle but also swings with clear purpose on songs like "Rocks Off" and "All Down the Line." As Richards explained, "The Stones don't have a home anymore – hence the Exile – but they can still keep it together. Whatever people throw at us, we can still duck, improvise, overcome." Great example: Richards recorded his jubilant romp "Happy" with just producer Jimmy Miller on drums and saxman Bobby Keys – while waiting for the other Stones to turn up for work. Exile on Main Street is the Stones at their fighting best, armed with the blues, playing to win.