More ruminations here from my resurrecting stuff via Spotify that I hadn't listened to for a while, to help get me through my elliptical machine sessions at the health club:
The canonical view of the Rolling Stones' career, for those in my approximate taste sector, goes something like this. In the 1960s, they were the best and most important white rock or pop musicians, with the exception of the Beatles and Dylan, plus in retrospect perhaps the Velvet Underground. But they were mainly just a great singles band (plus other outstanding tracks - e.g., Sitting on a Fence, What to Do, She Smiled Sweetly, and Ride On Baby, to name four that come right to mind), whose albums generally fell short of showing them consistently at their best. Then came the mistake of Satanic Majesties, after which they pulled themselves together by starting their mature period with Beggars Banquet, followed by the 3 classics - Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street - after which they got bored and mostly dull for a few albums (albeit, still with a few great tracks). Then they woke up one last time for Some Girls, the fading echoes of which somewhat enlivened the next two albums (Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You). But after that, while perhaps there's a good track here or there, their recordings are generally best forgotten.
Canonical or not, this basically matches my view of their career, except that I would make one big revision that I know is not canonical. Of the "3 classics," I find Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers overrated and at times boring, although of course they have a number of essential tracks. But Exile on Main Street truly is their pinnacle.
I would put Some Girls second and Between the Buttons, released in January 1967 as their version of Revolver, third. Each of my favorite 3 Stones albums has a distinctive internal creative dynamic. Exile on Main Street is basically a Richards album with Jagger just along for the ride. Some Girls is basically a Jagger album with Richards just along for the ride. And Between the Buttons gets a lot of its punch from Brian Jones' playing a different odd instrument to flavor the sound on almost every track. (It thus makes their much later work sound incredibly monochromatic and boring.)
Anyway, so what makes Exile on Main Street so much better (in my view at least) than Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers? Again, the latter two have a number of incredible tracks. But there's a whole lot of not that interesting macho posturing going on, along with rock-blues stuff that sounds a bit generic although I realize of course that this is partly from its being imitated so much afterwards (but then again, they were imitating earlier black artists when they did it). Take Honky Tonk Women and Brown Sugar, even leaving to one side their racial and sexual political incorrectness, which were deliberate, pursuant to their outlaw image in a more retrograde era than ours today. Although these tracks are extremely catchy, dynamic, and fun, they can't be at or near the artistic and expressive pinnacle of popular music from the rock era, unless that pinnacle was considerably lower than some of us would like to believe.
But Exile on Main Street is not just rich, full, and beautiful in its sound (despite its famously murky mix) - it makes fantastic use of all the great extra musicians and singers they had on hand - but soulful, wistful, elegiac, and hurt. (Just one great example among many is Torn and Frayed.) Macho preening isn't its thing; instead it's about staring into an abyss of one's own creation. A suitable mood, perhaps, for the United States these days.