Whether Exile On Main Street is the best rock ’n’ roll album of all time is open to debate, but its status as the greatest rock ’n’ roll rock ’n’ roll album ever made should forever go unchallenged. Famously recorded by The Rolling Stones and whoever else was hanging out in the basement of Keith Richards’ 16-room mansion in southern France over the course of a sweltering summer in 1971, Exile was created amid a never-ending drug-and-booze-addled house party that somehow enhanced rather than diminished the band’s creative process. Even more incredibly, the most focused and lucid Stone at the time was none other than Richards, who piloted the sessions and made his obsession with gritty American roots music the record’s dominant aesthetic. When Richards slipped into a muse-crushing heroin haze soon afterward, Mick Jagger’s indefatigable sense of professionalism and craven adherence to the latest pop trends clicked in. Just one year after Exile was released, the Stones were playing string-drenched ballads and dressing like a glam band.
The Stones, for the most part, haven’t looked back since, except when they decide to once again repackage and remaster their most celebrated album for a new generation. If Exile’s latest scrubbing motivates people to check out a defining record in rock history, this deluxe reissue will more than justify its existence. For those who have already purchased Exile several times, the main draw to the new version will be the bonus disc of 10 outtakes, including several songs that started out as rudimentary jams and were later extensively refurbished with new vocals and melodies by Jagger and producer Don Was in 2009. “Plundered My Soul” and the snaky “So Divine (Aladdin Story)” rank among the highlights, but even at their best, the reworked outtakes sound more like decent-ish, back-to-basics Voodoo Lounge-era Stones than byproducts of the Richards-directed original.
Perhaps the issue with the outtakes is that Exile—even at 18 songs, clocking in at nearly 70 minutes—doesn’t really fit the “sprawling double-album” tag that gets slapped on similarly wide-ranging, musically diverse albums like The Beatles’ “White Album” and Wilco’s Being There. Everything that made it on the album—and much of what didn’t—belongs exactly where it is. (Yes, even the blazing but unfortunately named blues jam “Turd On The Run.”) Hearing the outtakes only confirms what’s long been true: Exile is a lean, mean, all-too-rare “perfect” double record. It’s no small wonder that it ended up sounding so right when there was so much sleazy wrongness happening behind the scenes.
Grade: A (original album), B- (bonus disc)