The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers (1971)

I don't have anything new and interesting to say about Sticky Fingers, indisputably one of the greatest rock albums of all time. For me, the discussion always comes down to which is better, Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street? (Let It Bleed checks in at #3.)

I tend to vacillate. I lean towards Exile, as previously noted, given its sprawling breadth. It's an imperfect album, much like the comparable White Album, where you can conceivably distill it down to a shorter masterpiece, or absorb it in its entirety, its flaws making its peaks that much higher. The more concise Sticky Fingers is arguably better song for song, though without the impressive majesty and mood of Exile.

Here are the arguments in favor of Sticky Fingers:
  • "Moonlight Mile" is among the finest deep tracks in the Stones catalog, an emotionally rich opus that sounds like it should serve as the backing track to the closing scene of every great film.
  • "Bitch" is a phenomenal pop single (without the lyrical baggage of "Brown Sugar").
  • "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," with its extended Santana-like coda, makes a strong case for the Stones as the great lost jam band.
  • "Sway," "Wild Horses," and particularly "Dead Flowers" proved the Brits could write better Americana than most American bands (Byrds/Dead aside).
  • There's really not a bum track in the bunch (I'm not a big fan of "I Got The Blues," but even if it's a relatively inconsequential blues ballad, the horns and harmonies elevate it so it's at the very least perfectly acceptable).
Here's where Exile might just beat it out:
  • "Tumbling Dice." Best Stones song, bar none.
  • "Rocks Off" is perhaps the ultimate opening track to a rock & roll album. Yeah, "Brown Sugar" has that riff, but "Rocks Off" gets my vote.
  • Keith gets his definitive lead vocal in "Happy." 
  • So many great songs that probably don't suffer the same classic rock radio overplay as a lot of Stones greats ("Torn and Frayed," "Loving Cup," "All Down The Line," "Shine A Light," etc.).
  • Despite a few dispensable tracks (i.e. "Casino Boogie"), there's a cohesiveness that permeates the whole work, where even songs that might not hold up as stand-alone tracks feel essential. I can't imagine throwing something like "I Just Want To See His Face" or "Let It Loose" on a Stones compilation, but in the context of the album are just striking. It's a concept album as much as Quadrophenia or The Wall, just without a lyrical concept.
So where do you come out? I'm still giving the slight edge to Exile, but Sticky is just about perfect.

"Moonlight Mile," live 2017. Takes a hell of a song to sound this great nearly 50 years after its initial release.
"Can't You Hear Me Knocking," live 2003:

Comments

  1. Humanfund here.
    For me it's hard to decide between the 3 albums before Exile. If you put a gun to my head it'd probably be Beggars, for it's rawness.
    Was trying to think of a comparably excellent 4 album run.
    Beatles, obviously, but beyond that?
    Elvis Costello's first four, maybe, or REM's.

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    1. I think a few have pulled off the quad-fecta. REM and Elvis, yes; also the Who (Sell Out, Tommy, Who's Next, Quadrophenia), Kinks (Something Else, Village Green, Arthur, Lola), arguably the Velvets and Talking Heads. Maybe Neil Young somewhere in the 70s.

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    2. Both of these albums are great, but for me Sticky Fingers is their best. Naming a favorite album of all time is a little silly because it can change all the time based on mood, but when asked, I say Sticky Fingers is my favorite record ever. Like you said, there isn't a bad song in the bunch. Even the lesser tracks- You Gotta Move and I Got The Blues- serve as nice tributes to their Blues and R&B heroes. And really, almost every other song is top shelf Stones. The band sounds great on this record. In particular, Mick Taylor really shines and takes center stage in a more profound way than he does on any of their other records that he played on, even Exile. The Beggars to Exile run is definitely one for the ages. I would throw in Stevie Wonder's five album run from Music of My Mind to Songs in the Key or Life for consideration as well as the Ramones first four (I actually really like their first five) and Dylan's amazing streak of records early in his career.

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    3. Taylor is definitely one of the key selling points of Sticky Fingers. But it's the live shows from the era where he was truly unleashed. Brussels Affair and Ladies And Gentlemen (not to mention multiple bootlegs) make a good case for them as the best live act of the early 70s, and Taylor was key to that. Wish he'd been given more prominence in the studio and stuck around a bit longer.

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