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Why Exile On Main St. is the Rolling Stones’ Best Album

Many fans argue over which is the best Rolling Stones record. Well, it’s Exile on Main St.

Granted the production is murky and dark with many vocal tracks buried low in the mix, and there are arguably better songs on other Stones’ albums, but Exilehas a certain je ne sais quoi to it.

Exile is the final of the Stones’ four acknowledged greatest albums (Beggar’s BanquetLet it Bleed and Sticky Fingers being the other three).

Released on May 12 back in 1972 (and mostly recorded in 1971), the epic double album was primarily recorded at a villa called Nellcôte in the south of France using the legendary Rolling Stones Mobile Recording Studio (Exilewas finished at Sunset Studios in LA), and the location, along Mediterranean coast, probably helped create the loose, carefree vibe exuded in the 18 songs that comprise the record – that along with lots and lots of drugs – heroin and cocaine to be more specific.

The unmistakable, but hard to describe vibe on Exile kicks off instantly – two seconds into the leadoff track “Rocks Off” – when a voice (sounds like Keith Richards) happily goes “Oh yeaaaaaah” and from there Exile on Main St. takes off on a roller coaster of rock, country, blues and gospel – all the elements that made the Stones one of the best bands in the world.

What also helps create that vibe or tone are Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ vocal harmonies on most of the songs, and often during the verses, which was unusual for the band up until then, when most harmonies would come only in the chorus. And it’s those harmonies – Jagger belting it out in his shouty vocal style and Keith’s nasal, high-pitched whine – that carry the songs into that “we don’t give a fuck, we’re having all kinds of fun” space. “Rock Off”, “Torn & Frayed” and “Loving Cup” are standout examples of the Jagger/Richards harmonizing, and those three are among the best songs on the album.

No doubt the Stones were enjoying themselves during the recording: Gambling in French Casinos, touring around Saint Tropez on yachts while ingesting a steady amount of drugs brought by dealers to Nellcote. Richards’ dealer would hand deliver high-grade heroin to Nellcôte and, at that time, Richards was peaking as a songwriter. But his smack habit began to take over more and more following the Exile tour, and the recording of it’s follow up, Goat’s Head Soup, which led to Jagger taking more control of the band, but that’s another story.

Another standout track that defines the album is “Tumbling Dice”, an ode to gambling that showcases the easy-going swagger the Stones were feeling as they were indeed tumbling dice, not caring where they land. They were merely making music while enjoying the rock and roll lifestyle.

Richards and buddy Gram Parsons at Nellcôte

Stones Were Peaking During Exile

And if Richards was at his peak, so was the band.

Exile on Main St marked the last truly great album from the Rolling Stones, and it’s certainly a culmination of them coming together and leaving nothing on the table.

If you take a bell curve of the Stones body of work, the peak came with Exile and things were never quite as good after that.

Even Jimmy Miller, who produced the four best Stones records, was dabbling in drugs and, while he knew recording in the Nellcôte basement made for a bad sound, nobody cared and neither did he, probably in part due to his heroin indulgence.

But that muddy sound and “who cares” attitude is part of what makes Exile so great – it’s inherent rawness, clearly seen on “Sweet Virginia” where the chorus sounds like a bunch of drunk partiers belting it out and not caring in the least how it sounded. That’s part of the album’s je ne sais quoi as well.

Some of the Stones’ most underrated songs are lurking on Exile including “Ventilator Blues” a grinding blues track featuring some heavy guitar and growling Jagger vocals.

Certainly Exile isn’t as polished and clean sounding as its predecessor Sticky Fingers– an amazing album itself – but the whole process of recording and living like they were on holiday in France, away from Olympic Studios in London, produced an album for the Stones that stands alone – in the best way possible – from any other records they made.

It’s the vibe. The soul. The feel that comes across the record.

Some will argue against it, but Exile On Main St. is the best album by the Rolling Stones.

Check out more of Cam Maxwell’s Rock ‘N Roll Insight.

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