Arguably some of The Rolling Stones’ finest work, Exile on Main Street, sees the band get back to doing what they do best; throwing out rock and roll licks for every passerby that happens to be nearby.
We thought as a tribute to the anniversary of the album’s release we’d look back at the record track by track and rank the songs on Exile on Main St. from worst to best. Get ready for an argument.
Exile on Main St. received mixed reviews when it first came out. The British invasion was well and truly over and the Stones had started to find it difficult to move on musically. So, while others tried to evolve and find creative divinity, The Rolling Stones took it back to basics and hit us with a double-barrel shot of purified rock and roll so strong it would even give old uncle Keef a rush.
The album is a classic record, it contains frequently performed concert staples and was a top-10-charting album in a dozen countries, reaching number one in six, including the UK, US, and Canada. The album spawned the hit songs ‘Happy’, a rare song that featured Keith Richards on vocals, country music ballad ‘Sweet Virginia’, as well as the world-wide top-ten hit ‘Tumbling Dice’.
The album was mostly recorded in a villa in Nellcóte, France, as The Rolling Stones escaped Britain as tax exiles. It was one of the most chaotic recording sessions in history and sees the band transfer their free-loving and wild brand of living on to record.
It’s largely what makes Exile on Main Street a bonafide classic. As house guests and musical meanderers made their way to the villa as pilgrimage it meant that the line-up of the band was as changeable as the French weather. It allowed the album to be imbued with a previously unheard looseness for the band that felt both dangerous and alluring.
It also provided the record with a feeling of eclecticism which breathes new life in the Rolling Stones’ paint by numbers rock and roll. Below we rank the 18 tracks on the album from worst to best.
Ranking The Rolling Stones‘ Exile on Main Street from worst to best:
18. ‘Casino Boogie’
‘Casino Boogie’ was a stand-out moment on the record not only for Nick Hopkins smashing through his piano but because of some risque lyrics.
As Jagger sings, “Dietrich movies/Close-up boogies/Kissing cunt in Cannes,” the church elders were being quickly assembled to give the rocker a good old telling off.
17. ‘Let It Loose’
Originally recorded at the Olympic Studios in 1969 the track is one of the Stones’ weirder numbers and that’s largely down to Keith Richards, according to Jagger.
Jagger was asked about the lyrical content, to which he replied: “I think Keith wrote that, actually. That’s a very weird, difficult song. I had a whole other set of lyrics to it, but they got lost by the wayside. I don’t think that song has any semblance of meaning. It’s one of those rambling songs. I didn’t really understand what it was about, after the event.”
16. ‘Stop Breaking Down’
The Rolling Stones doing what they do best, covering the tracks of the bluesman who inspired them. This time it’s a cover of Robert Johnson’s classic ‘Stop Breaking Down’.
It features Mick Taylor on slide guitar and makes for a very different cut of the song. It also got The Rolling Stones into a bit of legal bother but it wasn’t anything they weren’t already used to.
15. ‘I Just Want To See His Face
Despite being imbued with an undeniable groove, perhaps thank the uncredited Dr. John on piano for that, the track has always felt like a bit of an afterthought.
After some investigation, it’s easy to see that it was. Allegedly Mick Jagger even made up the lyrics to the song as they were recording the number.
14. ‘Ventilator Blues’
The only track on the album which gives Mick Taylor a co-credit, ‘Ventilator Blues’, is a choking masterpiece. Written about the one fan in the basement at Nellcóte, the song is stick with intent.
It saw the tensions between Taylor and the glimmer twins arise only a few years after he joined the band.
13. ‘Shake Your Hips’
When you’re Mick Jagger we can imagine it gets a bit boring hearing yourself on record, on the radio or on stage all the time. That’s why we imagine he put such a large affectation on his vocal for this track.
Written by Slim Harpo, the song is still packed full of musical chops fit for a feast.
12. ‘Soul Survivor’
Keith Richards jumps on to the bass on this track as Jagger sings, “You ain’t giving me no quarter/I’d rather drink seawater/l wish I’d never brought you/It’s gonna be the death of me.”
It’s yet another eclectic moment on the already sprawling double album.
11. ‘Loving Cup’
A track which survived from the 1969 sessions at Olympic Studios, the track was even performed at the band’s iconic free concert in London’s Hyde Park.
It was Mick Taylor’s first performance with the band after Brian Jones had been found dead just two days prior.
10. ‘Torn and Frayed’
The track was largely influenced by Keith Richards friend and the Nellcóte resident, Gram Parsons. Parsons had been hanging around with Keef since 1969 and had begun to have an influence on the guitarist.
One place this is easily seen is on ‘Torn and Frayed’ as the track focuses on Parsons’ peril.
9. ‘Turd on the Run’
We’re not entirely sure there’s much you need to know about the song ‘Turd on the Run’ than it features Mick Jagger on the harp. It always impressed Keith Richards, “He’s [Mick] not thinking when he’s playing harp. It comes from inside him. He always played like that, from the early days on.”
While we dream up Wings-related rumours in relation to the song, it’s nice to let Jagger soundtrack your poorly-lit dreams on his harp.
8. ‘All Down the Line’
It may seem like it’s all about Mick Taylor’s slide guitar on ‘All Down The Line’ but in fact, it’s Keith’s rocking rhythm which does all the heavy lifting.
Take it in below and get to know the real reason they call them the Rolling Stones as the gorup get down and dirty in this muddy gem.
7. ‘Sweet Virginia’
The most unusual song on the album largely because it has Keith Richards on vocals. While elocution lessons may be top of Richards’ wish list, he does ad a kind of sweet soulfulness that Jagger just does not possess.
Not your typical Stones song, ‘Sweet Virginia’ is a laid-back reprieve from the album’s furious rock and roll.
6. ‘Rip This Joint’
No holds barred Rolling Stones sees the band at the gnarling, aggressive best. It’s the band at their unapologetic peak.
The fact that it also contains the wonderful Bill Plummer on upright bass and Bobby Keys playing two kinds of the saxophone is just a bonus, when you add to that that this track became a staple on their 1972 tour and you have a real winner.
5. ‘Sweet Black Angel’
Angela Davis may have been in prison on murder and kidnapping charges but that didn’t mean she escaped the wistful eye of Mick Jagger. The singer penned this ode to Davis and released it as a b-side to ‘Tumbling Dice’.
Originally recorded live on the mobile studio at Jagger’s estate Stargroves, it soon became a fan favourite.
Davis was later found innocent during The Rolling Stones 1972 tour across America.
4. ‘Shine A Light’
This shows the diversity of the album and the versatility of the Stones—they can go from hard rock to slow yet spine-chilling.
If there was one track, to sum up this album, one of The Rolling Stones’ best albums, it would be ‘Shine A Light’. It shows off that the band are not only capable of putting all their musical influences into the same crucible and get a solid gold hit. But they were able to showcase their diversity in performance too.
The group weren’t chained to rock and roll in any one singular form. No, the group were as able to deliver sweet and soulful moments as they were dancehall riffs. It’s on ‘Shine A Light’ that this becomes all too apparent.
If you’re ever in need of a lift then turn to ‘Happy’. No, not that Pharrell monstrosity, this Keith Richards-sung gem.
The track was written after Richards woke up from sleeping to speak to his longtime companion Anita Pallenberg, who told him that she was pregnant. It’s with this renewed vigour that Richards turned out one of his best performances.
According to Richards: “We did that in an afternoon, in only four hours, cut and done. At noon it had never existed. At four o’clock it was on tape.”
2. ‘Tumbling Dice’
Just one of the reasons why the Stones are so incredibly legendary. This song, originally written as ‘Good Time Woman’ deserves all the love it has rightly received over the years.
Despite Jimmy Miller taking over from Charlie Watts for a period of the track, the song is a remnant of the Sticky Fingers sessions and is full of the same attitude. It’s a stone wall classic that makes the album even more important.
1. ‘Rocks Off’
If there was one opening song which told you all you needed to know about the upcoming album then it has to be ‘Rocks Off’ from The Rolling Stones. Within the first few bars, you not only know what the track is all about but you have a pretty good idea of what is coming next—and the riff needed some extra work.
Legend has it that Richards had fallen asleep while overdubbing a guitar part as the recording engineer then called it a night. That same engineer was then pulled from his bed at 5am so that Richards could add another guitar track.
This heftiness and extra weight made the riff unfathomable and completely unbeatable. It is quite possibly one of Richards’ best pieces.