Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Rolling Stones Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

Let It Bleed (1969, London)

A +

Every bit as good as Beggars Banquet, and possibly even better, this disc – like its predecessor – technically doesn’t contain any Top 40 hits, but it does contain two of the band’s most beloved classics, kicking off with the iconic – and demonic – blues-rock of the haunting “Gimme Shelter” (definitely a contender for the greatest album-opener to be found on any disc, Stones or otherwise, not in the least because of the atmospheric guitar work from Keith that kicks off the track and a show-stealing performance from guest vocalist Merry Clayton, who truly holds her own against Jagger) and closing with the seven-and-a-half-minute epic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which memorably features the legendary Al Kooper on French horn. While it’s true that nothing in between those two songs quite equals their majesty, it’s a largely rock-solid set of songs – even if “Country Honk,” a countrified re-recording of their non-LP single “Honky Tonk Women,” is a little unnecessary – and cuts like the title cut, “Midnight Rambler,” “Live with Me,” the Keith-sung “You Got the Silver,” and the fabulous cover of Robert Johnson’s blues classic “Love in Vain” are still very, very good indeed. This album is also noteworthy for being the band’s last disc to feature original member Brian Jones, who tragically died earlier in the year, and the first to feature new lead guitarist Mick Taylor.

Sticky Fingers (1971, Rolling Stones)

A +

The band’s red-hot streak continues with this, their first album of the Seventies and their first to be released – with the distribution assistance of Atlantic Records – on their own vanity label, the Andy Warhol-designed logo of which has become iconic in its own right, as has this disc’s original cover artwork, which famously sported a working zipper. The disc kicks off with one of the most iconic songs – if not the single-greatest – in the Stones’ catalog, the gritty, sleazy party rock of “Brown Sugar,” which is performed with such utterly raw and spirited abandon and so brilliantly captures the spirit of rock and roll that it makes the song’s jaw-droppingly outrageous lyrics – which have no doubt provoked many listeners to say, “Wait, did Mick really just go there?” – seem more amusing and strangely fitting than offensive, which is no easy feat. The only other song here that more casual fans of the band might recognize is the stunningly beautiful country-styled ballad “Wild Horses,” which had already been given away to and recorded by the Flying Burrito Brothers and would later be covered by countless dozens of artists, from Willie Nelson to the Sundays, but the surrounding album cuts here are fabulous, be it “Sway,” which features some stunning slide guitar work from Mick Taylor, the heated, brass-laden rocker “Bitch,” the soulful “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” the countrified “Dead Flowers,” or the epic ballad “Moonlight Mile,” one of the greatest closing cuts to be found on any Stones album. The 2015 deluxe reissue of the album adds a second disc of alternate versions and live performances, highlighted by a very rare alternate studio version of “Brown Sugar” (that was used by accident on the very earliest pressings of the hits compilation Hot Rocks 1964-1971) that features Eric Clapton sitting in on guitar.

Exile on Main Street (1972, Rolling Stones)

A +

This can admittedly be a very hard disc to warm up to at first, and you really can’t fault any listener who hears this album – a double-disc, at that – for the first time and wonders why in the world most professional music reviewers praise this album to the high heavens (I myself prefer any of the three previous discs to this one), because everything about the disc – from the performances right down to the sound quality – just seems really, really sloppy. (Even Jagger himself has gone on record as questioning how an album as badly mixed as this one could be considered the band’s best.) But the very thing that makes the disc so alienating at first is what ultimately keeps you coming back – it’s so utterly raw that it’s endlessly fascinating and even rather charming, even when it’s painfully difficult to make out what Mick is even singing, and the disc actually captures the spirit of rock and roll better than just about any other platter out there, and for that reason, it’s not hard to see why this has been called the quintessential rock and roll album. Though the two hits here – the hip-shaking, slow, sultry blues-rock of the Top Ten hit “Tumbling Dice,” which features one of Mick’s most memorably unintelligible vocal performances, and the slide-guitar-powered, Keith-sung “Happy” – are relatively minor ones in the Stones oeuvre, the double-disc benefits from the presence of many a strong album cut, particularly the impassioned “Loving Cup,” the straightforward rock of “All Down the Line,” the album-opening “Rocks Off,” the country shuffle of “Sweet Virginia,” and the heavily gospel-flavored “Let It Loose” and “Shine a Light.” It’s hard not to wish there were a single as strong as “Brown Sugar” included here, but as an album piece, this is as ambitious and intriguing an artistic statement as the Stones have ever made.  

Goats Head Soup (1973, Rolling Stones)

B +

While both the album title and the cover artwork are arguably the group’s all-time worst, the disc itself is arguably one of the band’s most criminally underrated. More akin to Sticky Fingers than Exile on Main Street, this album lacks the raw and ragged tone of its predecessor – you can actually make out what Mick’s singing here! – and, the very profane lyrics to album-closer “Star Star” aside, the disc seems like a more self-conscious play by the band to make something a bit more polished and suitable for radio play in terms of production and mixing than the rough-around-the-edges Exile was. (The band succeeded in that regard – the pair of singles here outperformed the pair that was released from Exile.)  Perversely, but predictably, the album wasn’t nearly as warmly-received by critics, but the set of songs itself is actually not bad at all. The album boasts two Top 40 hits, for starters: the achingly beautiful ballad – and Number One hit – “Angie,” with the legendary Nicky Hopkins on piano, and the soulful “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker),” featuring Billy Preston on clavinet. But there are quite a few overlooked gems among the non-singles, especially “Silver Train,” “Winter,” “100 Years Ago,” and the haunting funk of “Dancing with Mr. D.” It’s true that this album is no match for any of the preceding four, but if this had been released as the follow-up to Their Satanic Majesties Request rather than Exile on Main Street, it probably would have been seen as a return to form rather than a disappointment, so don’t overlook this one.

It’s Only Rock ’n Roll (1974, Rolling Stones)

B +

No better than Goats Head Soup, but no worse, either, this album, like its predecessor, tends to be a rather underrated album. Call it “too safe” if you must – most critics do – but the disc – the production of which is credited to “The Glimmer Twins,” actually a pseudonym for Mick and Keith, this being the band’s first album since Majesties Request to not be helmed by Jimmy Miller – is actually arguably a more fun listen than its immediate predecessor and makes the better disc of the two to play to get a party going, not in the least due to the presence of such playful upbeat cuts as “Dance Little Sister,” “If You Can’t Rock Me,” the album-closing R&B jam “Fingerprint File,” and a surprisingly good cover of the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” that somehow always gets left off of best-of packages in spite of being a Top 40 hit for the Stones. But best of all, the album also boasts one of the band’s signature anthems in the T. Rex-recalling glam strut of the Top Ten hit “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll (But I Like It),” which features guest spots from David Bowie, who makes the perfect foil for Jagger on a cut of this nature, and Faces members Ron Wood (who would soon join the Stones on a permanent basis) and Kenney Jones. This album also has the distinction of being the last disc Mick Taylor made with the group.

Metamorphosis (1975, Abkco)

C +   

Perhaps the band’s least well-known album, this is actually an archival package consisting of both outtakes from the band’s ‘60s albums and demos recorded by the band for songs that they ultimately gave away to other artists. It’s poorly packaged and doesn’t give you nearly as much info about the cuts as you might hope for, but the music itself is interesting, even if much of this didn’t necessarily warrant (or was ever even intended for) a proper release, either. The album’s demos-oriented first side isn’t technically a Stones affair and largely consists of Jagger being backed by session players, but it’s intriguing all the same, especially the early version of “Heart of Stone” featuring Jimmy Page on guitar, the lavishly-orchestrated demo of “Out of Time” that was given to Chris Farlowe, the cover of Tampa Red’s “Don’t Lie to Me,” and the band originals “Try a Little Harder,” “We’re Wastin’ Time” and “I’d Much Rather Be with the Boys.” The album’s second side is much stronger, containing a great cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Don’t Know Why” that was recorded during the Let It Bleed sessions – on the very night, in fact, that they learned of Brian Jones’ death – and fascinating outtakes from Between the Buttons (“If You Let Me”), Beggars Banquet (“Family”), and Let It Bleed (the fun “Jiving Sister Fanny” and “Downtown Suzie.”) Nothing here is exactly essential listening – though “I Don’t Know Why” and “Jiving Sister Fanny” both arguably should have seen the light of day earlier – and the disc is secondary to the band’s proper studio albums (although, truth be told, this is arguably still a better album than Undercover and is at least as memorable as Black & Blue), but it’s a fun one to search out when you’re done collecting all the others. 

Black & Blue (1976, Rolling Stones)

C +

Easily the band’s weakest album yet, the Stones are just phoning it in here. Part of that is to be expected – the band had yet to reach a decision on Mick Taylor’s replacement before starting the album, and they used the sessions as a means of auditioning players, which means that there are several featured lead guitarists here, including Wayne Perkins and Canned Heat’s Harvey Mandel. But there are also just eight tunes here, one of which is a cover of reggae star Eric Donaldson’s “Cherry Oh Baby” and another three of which – the disco excursion “Hot Stuff,” the jazzy “Melody,” and “Hey Negrita” – don’t sound like proper songs per se so much as they just sound like studio jams that were caught on tape. Even the lone Top 40 single here, the electric-piano ballad “Fool to Cry,” is really forgettable by the band’s usually high standards and pales wildly next to a ballad like “Angie” or “Wild Horses.” But it’s not a complete mess, and the disc boasts two phenomenal album cuts in the straightforward mid-tempo rock of “Hand of Fate,” which really should have been chosen as one of the two singles from the disc, and, even better, the astounding epic ballad “Memory Motel,” one of the band’s all-time most underrated songs.

Some Girls (1978, Rolling Stones)

A +

Without a doubt, Some Girls is the band’s best disc since Exile on Main Street and is a return to top form. The disc kicks off with the disco-tinged Number One hit “Miss You,” which might have been alarming to some fans, but unlike “Hot Stuff” from the previous album, the band isn’t just riding atop a groove here, and there’s an actual fully-fleshed-out song underpinning it all, and the song ends up being one of the few truly successful disco excursions attempted by any rock artist during the late ‘70s. From there, the band moves into more familiar rock territory, but one that’s this time influenced by the then-recent rise of punk music, the band revving up its attitude and energy to levels not seen in years on cuts like “Respectable” (sadly not a cover of the wildly-underrated Isley Brothers song but just as good), “Lies,” “When the Whip Comes Down,” and the spiky, feisty album-closing Top 40 hit “Shattered.” The band also briefly hearkens back to its albums of the late ‘60s with the country-styled “Far Away Eyes” and turns in its best ballad in years with the slow-burning soul of the Top Ten hit “Beast of Burden.” In fact, the only cut that doesn’t really work is the cover of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me).” This is a must-own.

Emotional Rescue (1980, Rolling Stones)

B +

Musically, this really isn’t much of a departure from Some Girls – like that disc, this first Stones album of the Eighties is equally informed by disco and punk – but the material seems second-rate in comparison, and even the biggest hit here – the minimalist, hypnotic disco beats of the Top Three-charting title cut – pales wildly next to “Miss You.” (The deep funk of the album opener “Dance (Pt. 1)” is pretty hard to resist dancing to, though.) But it’s not a bad disc – merely a mildly spotty one – and is pretty much on par with such early ‘70s outings as Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll, although it’s a bit of a hipper listen, if only because of the punk influence that crops up on such winning cuts like “Where the Boys Go,” “Let Me Go,” and the wildly underrated Top 40 hit “She’s So Cold.”