The Rolling Stones have gone through many phases on their way to becoming one of the biggest bands in rock history. From the start they were seen as an edgier alternative to the Beatles, focusing on American blues music. But they soon expanded their musical horizons, embracing everything from R&B to pop to psychedelia.

The band released much of its landmark work in a milestone run that spanned the late ‘60s through the mid-’70s, and which included such vaunted releases as Beggars Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile on Main St. (1972).

With so much incredible material, it’s not easy to pin down which decade offered fans the best version of the Rolling Stones. Still, we challenged five writers to sort through it all and determine if the Rolling Stones were better in the '60s or '70s.

In their formative years, the Stones were mainly influenced by American blues and R&B artists. By the '70s, they'd started infusing other genres and styles. Which version of the band do you prefer?

Michael Gallucci: Their greatest run started in 1968 with Beggars Banquet and ran through 1972's Exile on Main St., with four classic albums split evenly between the two decades. But seeing that Exile is their all-time greatest LP, I'm going to give a slight edge to the '70s.

Nick DeRiso: They played way more blues before they really accepted its dangerous truths and made them their own into the '70s. That’s when the Rolling Stones finally became truly great. Conversely, as they moved away from that music’s heart of darkness, there were times (some would say many times) when the Stones became decidedly average. The blues was, in no small way, their salvation.

Ryan Reed: This doesn't fall neatly along the decade lines, but my favorite Stones stretch is Beggars Banquet through Exile on Main St. For my fix, I often reach for their harder-hitting material from the late, late '60s and early '70s. It's not a purely sonic preference: I'm a big psych-rock fan, and I think Brian Jones' '60s experiments elevated the band's music that decade. (Imagine "Paint It, Black" without the sitar!) Mick Jagger and Keith Richards just didn't fully cement their own style until later on.

Dave Lifton: It's pretty much a consensus that the Rolling Stones' classic period straddled the decades, 1968-72. Even their own set lists suggest they know this is the case. Still, the blues has been at the heart of virtually everything the Rolling Stones have ever done, and even their most successful forays into other genres haven't strayed too far from it. And yet some of their worst records are their early blues and soul covers, which only shows how much life experience you need to be true bluesmen. Then again, some of that very same "life experience" also resulted in a lack of inspiration for a good chunk of the '70s.

Corey Irwin: Give me the later, more adventurous Stones. As the band matured, the subject matter became more engaging, the musical style more varied and the overall material improved. It was their willingness to bring new musical styles into their sound that took them from being a good band to one of rock’s all-time greats.

Brian Jones died in 1969, less than a month after being fired from the band. Would the Stones have followed the same trajectory into the ‘70s had Jones been able to get sober and continue with the group?

Gallucci: I think, for the most part, yes, because his overriding influence was waning as the other members got more footing over the years. The Stones' evolution is pretty easy to trace from, say, "Satisfaction" to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and then to "Brown Sugar." And from there "Tumbling Dice" and "Miss You" aren't that big of a stretch. Jones played on only two of those songs, and, frankly, is barely a presence on "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

DeRiso: Sure. But, in truth, his passing was just part of what toughened up the band as the new decade loomed. The promise of the '60s died, and the Rolling Stones found themselves in the nexus of that at Altamont. At the same time, this broader sense of dreams deferred played out in microcosm as they struggled to overcome the death of Jones, and extricated themselves from an absolutely terrible management deal. They were changed forever.

Reed: Jones was the sleeper genius on so many early Rolling Stones tunes, but it's clear from the band's evolution that their chemistry wasn't built for the long haul. It's hard to imagine Jones' role after the psychedelic era fully faded — sure, he could have returned completely to the guitar, retiring his mellotrons and marimbas, but would he have felt creatively satisfied? The Stones could have continued to lean into a harder sound with Jones. But I think that relationship would have dissolved, tragedy or no.

Lifton: Yes and no. Those records with Mick Taylor would have sounded very different because Taylor was such a great lead player, and it's hard to speculate how receptive Jones would have been to Keith Richards' burgeoning interest in country. But Jones was also the one who brought in more exotic instruments and textures, so they would have continued to find ways to experiment within their blues framework, and the Ron Wood part of their '70s output still would have had excursions into funk, reggae and disco.

Irwin: I can’t imagine a scenario where the ‘70s Stones and Jones could have coexisted. His tenure with the band had run its course, regardless of his sobriety. Even though he unquestionably influenced the group’s early work, his authority within the band’s hierarchy had steadily declined. Jagger and Richards were the clear leaders, shouldering the majority of the songwriting. Had tragedy not struck, I like to imagine Jones would have gone on to a long and successful career outside of the Stones. He certainly had the talent to do so. But the band knew where they were going as the decade turned, and I imagine they would have gotten there with or without him.

You can only listen to one album from each decade. Which are you choosing? Explain your decision.

Gallucci: Beggars Banquet from the '60s; Exile on Main St. in the '70s. The band had shed most of its early blues roots by 1967's Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request - both of which got caught up in psychedelic flavors of the era. Beggars Banquet took what they learned from those experiments and applied it to the music that made them want to start a band in the first place. That kicked off one of the all-time greatest runs in rock history, culminating in Exile on Main St., a double LP of late-night, sleep-deprived rock 'n' roll that still ranks as one of the best albums ever made.

DeRiso: It feels like cheating, since they came out sequentially, but Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. The first solidified their gutsy move away from found-object experiments and trend chasing. As for the second, I love the flinty confidence they’d gained to that point. That opens up Sticky Fingers to everything from cocksure rockers to paint-peeling soul shouts, from somnambulant ruminations to simmering blues. And on the album-closing “Moonlight Mile,” almost all of the above.

Reed: For the '60s, it's Let It Bleed. It isn't a perfect album — does anybody count the fiddle-adorned "Country Honk" among their favorite tracks? — but it's awfully close. "Gimme Shelter" could be the definitive Rolling Stones song — the sound of amplified apocalypse. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" is a glorious miniature symphony. And underrated cuts abound. For the '70s, it has to be Sticky Fingers. The greasiness of those riffs in "Brown Sugar" and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," the lonesome ache of "Wild Horses" — it doesn't get much more memorable, this decade or otherwise.

Lifton: Can I go with hits compilations from both? No? In that case I have to go with the usual choices of Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main St. Their songwriting was never as consistent as during that period, in terms of how they were seeing the world, their confidence as musicians and willingness to go outside their comfort zone. On other days, my '60s choice could be Let It Bleed, but I'm writing this on a rainy morning and "No Expectations" fits the mood, so Beggars gets the nod.

Irwin: For the '60s, I'm taking Let It Bleed. My reasons: “Gimme Shelter and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” my two favorite songs from the Stones’ entire catalog. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the hits. From the '70s, I choose Exile on Main St. From first note to last, its the most complete release in the Stones' history; the rare double LP that's actually worth its length.

The Stones released many of their biggest hits during these time periods. Pick their most underrated song from each decade and explain your choices.

Gallucci: "Out of Time" was released on the U.K. version of 1966's Aftermath, their first real successful album-length statement. It's a great pop song and should have been a single, but it doesn't even show up on the Stones' many multi-disc compilations. It's easy to name almost any song from Exile as underrated, since all you really hear about are the two singles, "Tumbling Dice" and "Happy," and occasionally LP opener "Rocks Off." But I'm going to pick a song from the album before that one, Sticky Fingers: "Sway." The entire album is great, but this Side One cut helps set the mood for everything to come: bluesy, soulful and mournful. Plus, Mick Taylor has a couple of great solos, maybe his all-time best.

DeRiso: From the ‘60s, “Live With Me” off Let It Bleed. The Stones’ first released song with Mick Taylor was “Honky Tonk Women,” but this was their first session together. His playing is already a wonder of nasty wit and sharp economy. A new era begins right here. From the ‘70s, I’m sticking with the earlier-mentioned “Moonlight Mile.” I will never, ever tire of this song’s many musical nooks and crannies. Then there's the utterly unselfconscious vocal: It’s a crowning achievement for Jagger, who now more than ever is content simply to bark and bray.

Reed: My '60s pick is "Midnight Rambler," arguably the centerpiece of their best album that decade. Maybe you can trace it back to my love of prog-rock: This is the Stones at their least linear, utilizing unexpected grooves and tempo changes across the song's seven minutes. My '70s pick is "Bitch," a Sticky Fingers rocker with a snarling Richards riff and some tasty tenor saxophone.

Lifton: For the '60s, I'm going with "She Smiled Sweetly." It's clear that they were influenced by Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" and they come really close to it. It lacks the misogyny of a lot of their early lyrics, and there's a vulnerability in Mick Jagger's vocals that he doesn't often show. I loved how Wes Anderson used it in The Royal Tenenbaums - similar to the way he unearthed "I Am Waiting" in Rushmore. And it's hard to say that even a deep cut on Sticky Fingers or Exile is underrated, so I'm choosing "Memory Motel." A lot of my favorite Stones songs are the ones where there's a bit of longing, and the intertwining of Jagger's and Richards' vocals here is rather moving.

Irwin: From the ‘60s, I’m going with “Salt of the Earth,” the ode to the common man found on Beggars Banquet. There’s a soulful earnestness to the track, and Richards’ vocals at the opening offer a raw vulnerability to its tone. From the ‘70s, I choose “Shine a Light” from Exile on Main St. Billy Preston’s organ playing heightens this energetic gospel track, and the interplay between his work and Mick Taylor’s guitar offers one of my favorite Stones’ instrumental moments.

Which era made the Rolling Stones “The Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World”?

Gallucci: The '70s. They planted that seed in the '60s, but once they made the turn with 1971's Sticky Fingers - following the equally excellent Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed - was there any doubt? They were unstoppable.

DeRiso: The ‘70s, for good and for ill. They were part of a rabble of great bands in the ‘60s, but as a once-hope filled era drew to an awful close – both in general and, after Altamont, specifically – the Stones began to separate themselves. They would define the turbulent decade to come, again and again and again, from its early outbursts of violent emotions and drug-induced melancholy, to its descent into destructive appetite and malaise, and then into inevitable narcissism.

Reed: As my answer to the first question shows, I have a tough time picking between these two decades. But I have to go with the '60s here: I'd argue their legend was already cemented by 1965, the year of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." They had more time to bolster an already impressive resume in the '70s. But if they'd stopped after 1969's Let It Bleed, just a few months before the Beatles' final LP, they'd still be considered a top-tier rock band.

Lifton: They never were. The Who could always blow them off the stage. But funny how the Stones didn't start calling themselves that until they started to go downhill.

Irwin: Apologies for using a lame analogy, but here we go: Imagine the Stones’ career like a cake. All the ingredients were there in the ‘60s and got mixed together well. Sure, the occasional person might argue that the batter tastes better than the cake, and Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed offer two excellent reasons to do so. Still, the finished product - when the Stones were at their absolute best on Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street - came out of the oven in the ‘70s.

 

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