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True 5-Star Albums: Rolling Stones' 'Sticky Fingers'

“Sticky Fingers” still stands head and shoulders (or pants and zipper) over most of The Rolling Stones’ catalog.

By Dave Thompson

The wait was over. Two years had elapsed since The Rolling Stones’ last album and, though they did puncture the hiatus with a live set, the ever-stellar “Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out;” still it was a long time. Time spent setting up their own eponymous record label, time spent engaging Andy Warhol to design the artwork for the label’s first release — a cover that... well, today, we’d call it “interactive,” or some such technobabble nonsense. At the time, it was imply cool ­— a real-life zipper on a pair of jeans that could be raised or lowered depending on your mood. Retailers were already worrying about it, long before they actually saw the thing ­­— it was going to create havoc in the bins.


And all this before a note of music had been released.

That changed in April 1971, with the release of “Brown Sugar,” the band’s first new single since “Honky Tonk Women” in July 1969, and a fitting successor to that most immortal of rockers.

Riding the kind of riff that Keith Richards alone could conjure from thin air, with a lyric that was as open to interpretation as any of the band’s finest innuendos, “Brown Sugar” was an instant American chart-topper (and a U.K. No. 2), and flipped to reveal another hardcore rocker, the seething “Bitch.” Indeed, if there was any doubt whatsoever that the Stones were rocking back to basics more brutally than ever, import copies of the U.K. pressing brought a third song, a live version of Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock,” and no truer statement had ever been made.

After all that — how could Sticky Fingers do anything beyond excite? The grand ballads “Moonlight Mile,” “Wild Horses” and “Sister Morphine” (the latter cowritten with Marianne Faithfull) were the Stones in excelsis; one mournful, one yearning and one utterly terrifying. The mock country “Dead Flowers” remains their best ever excursion into that territory; “Sway,” “You Gotta Move” and “I Got The Blues” were solid reminders of the band’s decade-old roots, and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” looked forward (although we could not have known it) to the jam-heavy heat of “Goats Head Soup,” the band’s next great album, two years later.

Indeed, “Sticky Fingers” still stands head and shoulders (or pants and zipper) over most of The Rolling Stones’ catalog: one of the six or seven best albums that they have ever made — and that’s a point worth dwelling on. Precious few bands, even with careers as long as The Stones’, could ever lay claim to more than three or four truly classic, truly five-star albums. The Stones made six, at least. That’s how good they were, and that’s how great “Sticky Fingers” is.

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