Pierre Robert

Pierre Robert

Pierre Robert

From 1968-1972, The Rolling Stones released four albums. These albums are not only considered the best work of their career but some of the best albums in rock history. With the release of Exile On Main St., the final album (a double album, no less) helped close out that truly epic tetralogy in the grandest of fashion that only the Stones could accomplish.

While we all know the origin story of the band fleeing to Keith Richards’ rented villa in the South of France as a result of Britain’s tax laws on high earners, the album’s lush mix of blues, soul, country and rock provides for a sound that’s anything but European.

A rarity in the realm of double album lore, its 18 tracks of all killer, no filler. Here’s a breakdown of each track.

  • 1. 'Rocks Off'

    The first of 18 tracks on ‘Exile,’ “Rock Off” is an incredibly dark and filthy song to set the tone for a truly epic double album. To put it bluntly: The song is about a drug addict (like with a heroin problem) who’s having problems performing sexually because of said drug problems. Despite the grizzly subject matter, the song’s organized chaos – from the overlapping vocals in the chorus to the distorted bridge – adds up to a type of magic that, really, only the Rolling Stones could create.

  • 2. 'Rip this Joint'

    A rockabilly jam that featured Jagger spitting lyrics at breakneck speed, “Rip This Joint” is a wild tale about drugs and traveling across the southern United States as a foreigner. The songs features shoutouts to various cities from Tampa to Santa Fe as well as name dropping “The Butter Queen,” the nickname for famous groupie Barbara Cope. If you don’t know why Cope was called “The Butter Queen,” Google it yourself, but you might want to use the “Incognito” tab and probably don’t do it while you’re in the office.

  • 3. 'Shake Your Hips'

    “Shake Your Hips” was originally recorded and released by Slim Harpo in 1966. It serves as an example of the band’s love and respect for the blues. The minimalist production provides an interesting variance only three tracks into ‘Exile,’ perhaps the Stones’ greatest masterpiece.

  • 4. 'Casino Boogie'

    Can’t make sense of the lyrics and the meaning of “Casino Boogie”? That was sort of by design. Mick Jagger explained in an April 2010 interview with Uncut Magazine, “That song was done in cut-ups. It’s in the style of William Burroughs, and so-on. ‘Million Dollar Sad’ doesn’t mean anything. We did it in LA in the studio. We just wrote phrases on bits of paper and cut them up. The Burroughs style. And then you throw them into a hat, pick them out and assemble them into verses. We did it for one number, but it worked. We probably did it ‘cos we couldn’t think of anything to write.” (Fun fact: The Stones have never performed “Casino Boogie” live before, according to Setlist.fm.)

  • 5. 'Tumbling Dice'

    The lead/most commercially successful single from ‘Exile,’ “Tumbling Dice” is easily the coolest song that relies on gambling and love as metaphors. Mick Taylor is on bass here, with Mick Jagger picking up rhythm duties. (Keef, of course, is on lead.) Charlie Watts’s drumming is minimalist perfection. The track is put over the top thanks to the sublime backing vocals of Clydie King, Venetta Fields and Sherlie Matthews.

  • 6. 'Sweet Virginia'

    The Stones have more than a little love affair with country music (and various references to drugs.) “Sweet Virginia” sees both of those interests collide along with Mick Jagger’s harmonica and the late Bobby Keys’ brilliant saxophone. Get used to seeing more of these elements later in the list.

  • 7. 'Torn and Frayed'

    “Torn and Frayed” paints the picture of a journeyman guitarist traveling from town to town but it easily could be a metaphor for how any band could feel during a long, grueling tour. The tune leans into the Stones’ country influences, which is appropriate considering Gram Parsons famously visited the Villa Nellcôte mansion while the band recorded ‘Exile’ in its basement.

  • 8. 'Sweet Black Angel'

    The Rolling Stones are far from being known as a “political” band, but “Sweet Black Angel” is one of the few times the band made a political statement in their songs. The ‘Exile’ track served as a tribute to renowned civil rights activist Angela Davis who, at the time the song was written, was incarcerated on erroneous kidnapping and murder charges of which she’d later be found not guilty.

  • 9. 'Loving Cup'

    The Rolling Stones will forever be that “bad boy” alternative to The Beatles, but even bad boys can be really sweet and romantic as evident from “Loving Cup.” Many of us would openly swoon if someone said they’d “love to spill the beans with you till dawn.” Also, this track wouldn’t be the same without Nicky Hopkins on piano, who is both the heart and backbone of the song.

  • 10. 'Happy'

    The most successful song from the Stones where Keith Richards sang lead vocals, “Happy” happened, according to Keef, “because I was for one time early for a [recording] session.” It’s a good thing Richards was early that one time: “Happy” has become a significant part of the Stones’ setlist and has been played live by the band over 500 times, per Setlist.fm. On top of his vocals and guitar work, Richards pulled triple duty by playing bass, too.

  • 11. 'Turd on the Run'

    An up-tempo blues track about love lost, the star of “Turd on the Run” is Mick Jagger’s harmonica playing. He truly doesn’t get enough credit for his harmonica work.

  • 12. 'Ventilator Blues'

    Guitarist Mick Taylor has only two songwriting credits from his tenure with the Rolling Stones: “Ventilator Blues and “Criss Cross”, a “lost” track released as a single when the Stone’s reissued Goats Head Soup in 2020. The track also serves as a reminder of how important the band’s frequent contributors were to their sound. Can you imagine this track without Nicky Hopkins’ piano? Absolutely not.

  • 13. 'I Just Want to See His Face'

    To borrow from slang, the entire Exile album is a “vibe.” There’s this looseness that just sort of floats throughout the entire double album, and “I Just Want to See His Face” is a prime example of that vibe.

  • 14. 'Let It Loose'

    Another track the Stones have never played live, “Let It Loose” melds blues and gospel in one…well…loose package. Mick Jagger would say of the track in an April 2010 interview with Uncut Magazine, “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.”

  • 15. 'All Down the Line'

    For pretty much any other band, “All Down the Line” would be a single, but it was instead released as a b-side to “Happy.” This could be due to the Stones’ messy legal battle with ABKCO’s Allen Klein who alleged the band wrote “All Down the Line” and four other ‘Exile’ tunes while still under contract with ABKCO. Legal issues aside, it’s an instant party of a track thanks to the trumpet and trombone work of Jim Price.

  • 16. 'Stop Breaking Down'

    “Stop Breaking Down” is one of two covers found on ‘Exile on Main St.’ The Stones’ take on this Robert Johnson classic serves as a great reminder of the band’s blues roots. Mick Jagger is, once again, dynamite on harmonica and Mick Taylor’s slide work is “chef’s kiss,” as the kids say.

  • 17. 'Shine a Light'

    “Shine a Light” is as heartbreaking as it is grand. The song serves as a tribute to late guitarist Brian Jones, and while released on ‘Exile’ in 1972, Mick Jagger had started writing the song back in 1968 when Jones was still in the band, but his drug use was becoming an increasing problem. From top to bottom, the lyrics are gripping and touching and resonate with anyone who has lost a loved one at a young age, especially from substance issues.

  • 18. 'Soul Survivor'

    Bringing Exile to a rollicking end is “Soul Survivor,” a jaunty 3:48 jam that’s framed around loose sailing metaphors describing an up-and-down relationship. (“When the waters is rough/The sailing is tough/I’ll get drowned in your love/You’ve got a cutthroat crew, yeah/I’m going to sink under you, oh/I got the bell bottom blues/It’s going to be the death of me.”)

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