Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Rolling Stones Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

The Rolling Stones (England’s Newest Hit Makers) (1964, London)

B   

The Stones’ debut primarily suffers from the same problem that affects Please Please Me, the full-length debut of their longtime rivals, the Beatles: there are just way too many covers here. It’s not an altogether bad problem, since the Stones have a bit hipper taste in covers [whereas the Beatles sporadically cut covers of songs like “A Taste of Honey,” “Till There Was You,” or “Mr. Moonlight,” the Stones largely stick to R&B (Rufus Thomas’ “Walkin’ the Dog,” Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness”) or pure blues (Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”)] and they do them well – very well, in fact. But there are only three originals here, and if you’re not much of a blues buff and prefer, say, “Brown Sugar” to “Little Red Rooster,” you’re likely to be bored by a lot of the covers here, well-played though they are. But there are some memorable moments here; the band’s cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” opens the disc on a very positive note, and the originals – while undeniably amateur and inferior compared to the songs the band would pen on later discs – are pretty fun, especially the pleading “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)” (the band’s first American Top 40 hit) and “Little by Little,” the latter of which features Gene Pitney and Phil Spector among its cast of players.

12 x 5 (1964, London)

A –  

Like its predecessor, there is an overabundance of covers here. While not all of them work (the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” in particular is really ill-suited for the band, while Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q” is simply too predictable a choice to be terribly interesting), the best covers here are superior to anything from the debut, especially the cover of the Valentinos’ “It’s All Over Now” (penned by future solo star Bobby Womack) and Irma Thomas’ “Time Is on My Side,” both of which would reach the Top 40 and the latter of which would become the band’s first Top Ten hit in America. The cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” is also a major highlight here. None of the original tunes included here were hits, but cuts like “Grown Up Wrong,” “Good Times, Bad Times,” “Congratulations,” and “Empty Heart” do still demonstrate a slight growth in the band’s songwriting.

The Rolling Stones, Now! (1965, London)

A –  

An ever-so-slightly overrated album, this disc – in spite of containing twice as many covers as originals – is, as most critics accurately point out, the band’s most consistent album yet from start to finish, and the choice of covers here is much better-suited for the band than those from the prior albums. (There’s nothing here that falls as flat as, say, 12 x 5’s “Under the Boardwalk,” and songs like Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” Otis Redding’s “Pain in My Heart,” and Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” actually sound quite dynamic in the hands of the band.) But – and this is what most album reviewers fail to point out – it’s equally true that no individual moment here was nearly as big a hit in the U.S. or is quite as much of a knockout or obvious single as “Time Is on My Side” from the previous album, and the band’s American fans are consequently not likely to recognize anything here – as a Stones song, anyway – except maybe “Little Red Rooster,” a personal favorite of the band’s which they still frequently break out in concert, or the band original “Heart of Stone,” the latter of which did reach the Top 40. “Off the Hook” and “Surprise, Surprise” are decent originals as well, but it’s telling just how much Mick and Keith struggled in their early years to write songs – and particularly hit songs – that they recorded only twelve originals over the course of their first three full-lengths, only two of which were deemed worthy enough for release as singles in the U.S.. Contrast this to the Beatles, whose third album was the iconic and all-original A Hard Day’s Night, and you can see why some people might have been skeptical at first that the Stones would ever truly be considered challengers to the Fab Four for title of the biggest rock band of the ‘60s.

Out of Our Heads (1965, London)

A

For the first time ever on a Stones album, there are just as many originals as covers – on the American edition of the record, at least – and, more importantly, the originals are great – really great. Mick and Keith turn in their first pair of undeniably classic singles in the bluesy licks of “The Last Time” and, much more significantly, the unforgettable snarling guitar licks and insistent rock stomp of the now-legendary “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the band’s first ever American chart-topper. “Play with Fire” and “The Spider and the Fly” are also noteworthy originals, while the band continues to make fine choices in cover material with cuts like Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me,” and Don Covay’s “Mercy, Mercy.” It’s possible to argue that this is a slightly spottier album overall than The Rolling Stones, Now!, as most music critics do, but even if you go along with that, it’s more than compensated for by the massive step forward in the quality of the original material. [Note: be advised that the British version of this album has a significantly different tracklist and does not include either “Satisfaction” or “The Last Time,” so you’ll almost certainly want to be sure to purchase the American edition.]

December’s Children (and Everybody’s) (1965, London)

A

Like Out of Our Heads, this American-only odds-and-ends release (like many of the earliest Beatles albums released by the American arm of Capitol, assembled largely from cuts that had been deleted or replaced on the American versions of the band’s British releases) is equal-parts comprised of originals and covers. The covers of Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On,” Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” and especially Larry Williams’ “She Said Yeah” are all quite good, but, for the second disc in a row, the covers are thoroughly upstaged by the high quality of the originals, which include “I’m Free,” “The Singer Not the Song,” the lovely melancholy ballad “As Tears Go By” (a well-deserved Top Ten hit for the band and the first of four American Top 40 hits for Marianne Faithfull as well), and, best of all, the driving rock and call-and-response chorus of the Number One hit “Get Off of My Cloud.” 

Aftermath (1966, London)

A +

You could certainly make a valid argument that not every track on this disc, the band’s first entirely self-penned album, works, but then, you could make just as strong a case that this is the first outing from the band to not feel at least partially like a hastily-slapped-together product, if only because of the refreshing and complete lack of cover tunes here. [After all, what most made Motown albums of the pre-What’s Going On era so generally spotty was the excess of covers – of Top 40 hits and pop standards alike – used to accompany the singles and pad out the running times.] This disc just sounds like it was designed to be an album, and the band carries itself with more confidence than ever before. The American version is the one to get: though it deletes four tracks used on the British version, including the Top 40 hit “Mother’s Little Helper” (not actually much of a loss) and the underrated “Out of Time,” it replaces them with the hypnotic sitar stomp of the infectious Number One hit “Paint It Black.” The disc also contains such essential items as the Top 40 hit “Lady Jane” and the marimba-laden sway of “Under My Thumb,” one of the most beloved non-singles in the band’s entire catalog, as well as such criminally overlooked gems as “I Am Waiting” and “Stupid Girl.”

Between the Buttons (1967, London)

A +

Every bit as good as its predecessor, this disc, like Aftermath before it, is much stronger in its American incarnation, which replaces two album cuts with the lovely recorder-driven balladry of the Number One hit “Ruby Tuesday” and that song’s flip side, the notorious-but-just-as-iconic “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” the center of one of the most controversial but memorable Ed Sullivan Show performances of all-time. Mick and Keith continue to up their game as songwriters and turn in an even better set of album cuts to accompany the singles than normal, and even the band’s more casual fans still should ultimately get around to hearing such overlooked gems as “Yesterday’s Papers,” “My Obsession,” “She Smiled Sweetly,” “All Sold Out,” and the wildly catchy Keith-sung “Connection,” which ought to have been issued as a single in its own right and the chorus of which might be the most addictive hook on the whole album.

Flowers (1967, London)

A +

This American-only compilation is a bit of a head-scratcher, if only because it’s neither a proper hits package, nor is it exactly a true rarities or odds-and-ends package, either. The Aftermath single “Lady Jane” shows up again here, as do both sides of the Between the Buttons single “Ruby Tuesday” b/w “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” But beyond those three cuts, this disc is comprised of a combination of previously-released non-LP singles, such as the incredibly underrated “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” (a Top Ten hit that you strangely seldom hear on the radio these days), cuts that were left off of the American releases of Aftermath and Between the Buttons, such as “Backstreet Girl” or “Out of Time,” or previously unreleased studio cuts such as “Sittin’ on a Fence” and “Ride on , Baby.” Strangely, though, in spite of this album’s hodgepodge nature, the disc – much like the similarly odds-and-ends-oriented disc Bookends from Simon & Garfunkel – actually holds together quite well as an album and makes just as good a listen as either of the two preceding full-lengths. The only real flaw here of note is the inclusion of a previously-unreleased cover of the Motown classic “My Girl,” which isn’t exactly bad but just sounds all wrong being performed by anyone other than the Temptations.

Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967, London)

B –

The band’s answer to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (as well as their first entirely self-produced album, longtime producer Andrew Loog Oldham having jumped ship by this point), this is the band’s most ambitious album piece yet. But while some things here work – namely the lenticular 3-D artwork included on the original pressings of the album, which is quite fascinating to look at, and the swirling sounds of the delightful single “She’s a Rainbow” – the disc is noticeably much spottier than normal and concentrates too much on psychedelia for the mere sake of psychedelia, whereas Sgt. Pepper used psychedelic sounds as decoration on top of what was already a largely solid batch of songs, and never is that feeling more palpable than on “Sing This All Together (See What Happens),” which isn’t much of a song to begin with but goes on for well over eight minutes. The album is certainly weirder than Sgt. Pepper and makes for an awfully fascinating listen, but the songwriting itself is well below the high standards set by the band on their last three albums, though a few songs do manage to redeem the disc, most notably “She’s a Rainbow,” “Citadel,” and “2000 Man,” the last of which would later get covered by Kiss on their Dynasty album.

Beggars Banquet (1968, London)

A +

Not simply a fine recovery from the misguided Their Satanic Majesties Request but a downright masterpiece, this album – the first of many helmed by former Traffic producer Jimmy Miller – jettisons the psychedelia of its predecessor to return to more straightforward rock, both electric (the wildly underrated “Stray Cat Blues”) and acoustic (“Jigsaw Puzzle”), albeit with some added twists, such as the hint of country that crops up on delightful album cuts like “Factory Girl,” “Dear Doctor,” and “No Expectations.” The band also turns in its best album-closer yet in the anthem-like “Salt of the Earth.” But the best moments of all are the cuts that open each side; the disc begins with the now-legendary sinister rock samba of “Sympathy for the Devil” (“Pleased to meet you! Hope you guess my name!”), while the album’s back half kicks off with the cavernous kick of the angry “Street Fighting Man” to startling effect. Technically, nothing here could really be called much of a hit single (the album’s lone American single was “Street Fighting Man,” which could get no further than #48), Beggars Banquet becoming the band’s first disc of new material to fail to yield a Top 40 hit, but this is a must-own for any Stones fan.