Why Exile on Main Street is the Stones’ best

I like the Rolling Stones. I always have. Notice how I didn’t say “love.” I certainly acknowledge their place in history, but I’m almost never listening to them if I’m choosing the music.

With one notable exception.

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I love their 1972 album Exile on Main Street. I’m not really alone. It’s widely agreed upon that Exile is one of the top three albums by the Stones, if not the very best. There are arguments to be made for Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers, but I just don’t find them compelling. This is probably because Exile was the first album by the group that A. served as more than a collection of singles and B. finally broke free from the oppressive shadow of the Beatles.

I’m not saying that the Beatles were necessarily a better band. That, of course, is a judgment call, and I would never make an absolute statement like that without inviting some sort of debate. After all, we’re talking about the Rolling Stones. It’s not as if I’m saying that the Beatles are better than Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, which would be an indisputably true statement. I’m merely saying that the Beatles did the majority of the heavy-lifting, innovation-wise, while the Stones tended to follow in their wake.

For example, the classic psychedelic-influenced Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in June 1967 and the Rolling Stones non-classic Their Satanic Majesties Request (also heavily psychedelic-influenced) was released in December of the same year. Not coincidentally, Jagger and company stopped the psychedelic shit immediately after the failure of Majesties, and didn’t play anything from it for quite a while.  

I’m not faulting the Stones for this. It was probably pretty easy to be influenced by the Beatles in mid-60’s England. After all, one could write an entire book just about the ground-breaking recording techniques the Beatles used (actually, someone did. Longtime engineer Geoff Emmerick wrote Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Beatles. It’s terrific.) I’m merely saying that the Stones, like it or not, were a singles band.

That’s why Exile on Main Street is even more impressive. We finally get to witness a record that is both a collection of great songs, but manages to sustain the same frayed, exhausted, nervous energy throughout the duration of the piece. This is a proper album, one that represents a true slice of this bands career at this given time. The Rolling Stones had great songs since Day 1. but Exile finds them sounding more like the Rolling Stones than ever before. It’s probably the Rolling-Stoniest Album by the group.

It’s kind of funny that the band almost fell apart while making it. In a nutshell, Jagger didn’t like heroin all that much, while Richards LOVED it. Things were tense, but rock music is filled with great records that came out of horrifying circumstances. Just look at Rumours. 

 Perhaps the best thing Exile on Main Street has going for it is the album’s lack of mega-hit songs. Sure there are FM radio mainstays like “Tumbling Dice,” but there’s nary a “Satisfaction” (or even a “Miss You”) to be found. Its refreshing, because it’s almost like hearing a brand new band. Even though I know Exile is a favorite among musicians and music critics, it still seems like an unexplored territory. The unforgettable piano intro of “Loving Cup” and the jaunty acoustic shuffle of “Sweet Black Angel” still have the unspoiled feeling that comes with remote and picturesque scenery. “Shine a Light,” “Happy,” “Rip This Joint,” etc. This album came out 45 years ago this week, and it still feels as raw and authentic as ever. Welcome to the Rolling Stones, in their pure form.

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