Wrangling with the history of any five-decade long institution is an inherently thorny business, but the Rolling Stones’ story is particularly challenging. Of the roughly five distinct periods that comprise the epic history of what is perhaps the greatest ever rock and roll band, the current one — in which the Stones as moneyed rock royalty occasionally reunite to milk a seemingly endless cash cow through intermittent reissues and greatest hits albums, just okay new releases, and extortionately priced stadium tours, is by far the longest. It has been 32 years since the band’s last great (or great-ish) release Tattoo You, 35 since its last inarguable bonafide masterpiece, 1978’s Some Girls. How strange this must understandably seem to a certain demographic. For rock music fans under the age of 30, this is the only version of the band they have ever known.
By comparison, the group’s high water mark lasted only four years, between 1968 and 1972, and comprised four studio records that represent perhaps the greatest distillation of rock, blues, country, and soul ever achieved. Untroubled and even enhanced by the passage of time, those four albums — the militant and populist moral quagmire of Beggars Banquet, the epochal, frightening, funny, and depraved Let It Bleed, the druggy, harrowing, staring-death-in-the-eyes stupor of Sticky Fingers, and the simply perfect Exile On Main Street — are by themselves a veritable Mt. Rushmore of the rock and roll genre. Anyone who wants to know anything about what came before and after would be well-advised to start here — where Robert Johnson casts a lurid eye at Liz Phair while shaking hands with Pussy Galore.
Most music fans are by now acquainted with the high and lowlights of the Stones’ insane journey — the early rise to prominence as hard-core interpreters of the American blues and the “anti-Beatles,” the full flowering of the Jagger-Richards song machine, which was ultimately to yield countless classics, the flirtation with psychedelia, the early death of the unanimously unliked band founder and original guitarist Brian Jones, the hiring of Mick Taylor as replacement resulting in vaulting heights nearly unimaginable, the stunning apocalypse of Altamont, Taylor’s eventual, regrettable departure, replaced by Ronnie Wood of the Faces. And on and on. Certain turns of phrase evoke whole, mythic tales that made the Stones early leaders in the clubhouse of rock debauchery: cocksucker blues, junkie nurses, poor Marianne Faithfull, and the apocryphal chocolate bar. To give any sort of comprehensive overview here would be nigh well impossible — fifty years to tell in a few short lines, to bastardize a lyric from Merle Haggard. (For interested parties the band’s history has been assiduously and expertly covered in a series of publications ranging from Stanley Booth’s brilliant memoir The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones to Bill Janovitz’ terrific 33 1/3 consideration of Exile On Main Street.)
Over the years, many once-seemingly unimpeachable classic rock warhorses have experienced at least some amount of downward critical revision. Most people still probably wouldn’t argue that Who’s Next or Dark Side Of The Moon are not seminal records in the history of rock and roll, but elements of those albums which once seemingly marked them as groundbreaking or thoroughly novel can feel a little dated or silly. The point is not to denigrate these albums or artists, but rather to recognize that with the best Stones records, this kind of reevaluation has never been needed. No one really argues that Beggars Banquet isn’t as great now as the day it was released, or even more impactful. Besides being brilliant songwriters, the vintage Stones largely insulated themselves from the rigors of time by studiously avoiding the trends — or at least niftily navigating the line between commercially viable and traditionally minded (Their one early misstep in this regard being the too eager to follow-the-leader ersatz-Beatlisms of Their Satanic Majesties Request).
In their later iteration, the most puzzling and perhaps troubling question about the Rolling Stones is: Why they have stayed together? It can feel awfully mercenary, if only because they often seem so much happier and productive acting apart. Keith’s priceless 1987 documentary film tribute to Chuck Berry Hail, Hail Rock And Roll features some of his best and most expert playing in years, in the presence of his unquestioned idol. Similarly, his work in the late-’80s with his non-Stones band the X-Pensive Winos yielded some of his most immediate and energetic work in years. Mick has always engaged in a lot of silly shit but in some ways was never more persuasive in recent years then when killing it with his 2012 version of “The Last Time” on SNL backed by the Arcade Fire.
Maybe the less cynical explanation for the group’s persistence lays in the same traditionalism that vouchsafed their greatest records with timeliness. A band that came of age worshiping Willie Dixon, opening for Muddy Waters and eventually working alongside the likes of Sonny Rollins and Chuck Berry might well see growing old with their music as a part of their destiny. While there is no doubt that money is incentivizing, they certainly have enough of it. Maybe they don’t quit because they worship a different tradition then rock-as-youth-movement, and rather imagine themselves playing their own kind of blues until finally they all finally drop — if we can stipulate that Keith is actually mortal. In this regard, the band’s one true remaining contemporary is Bob Dylan, who, following a difficult passage through his late 30s and 40s, has sounded more energized and creative as an old man than at anytime since the early 1970s. That hasn’t yet proven true of the Stones, but who’s to say it’s impossible? It seems like they don’t think it’s impossible, and that, more than anything else, is the reason you probably have a new Stones record and tour coming at you in the next year or so.
In any event, here is a through-the-past-darkly look at the Stones’ catalog to date. It should be noted that we have elected to rank only the U.S. studio releases, which in some cases are different than what was released overseas. We have also included one live album — Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out — because it iterated something extraordinary about the band’s remarkable prowess. Ranking these records is a bit like ranking scripture. Certain things stand out, but probably the entire thing is best taken as a whole. Also, it means we are probably going to hell. Pleased to meet you …
Start the Countdown here.