A great deal of The Rolling Stones' legacy rests upon their studio albums. Indeed, most biographies, articles and documentaries tend to break up the group's career into chapters that correspond to their landmark records: Aftermath, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., Some Girls and so on.
Yet get a load of these revealing sales figures: while the mighty Exile has pierced multiplatinum status (roughly 3,000,000 copies sold) since its release in 1972, the greatest-hits compilation Hot Rocks 1964–1971, released the year prior, has sold four times that number. It is the No. 1 biggest-selling title in the Stones' sprawling discography. These figures appear to say something slightly different: Yes, there are a lot of writers and critics out there who love the group for their classic albums, but when it comes to the fans (those down in the trenches, so to speak), they think of the Stones in terms of their hit singles and radio favorites, from "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "Start Me Up" to "Brown Sugar" and "Jumping Jack Flash."
That said, Hot Rocks, as well as its sister release More Hot Rocks (Big Hits & Fazed Cookies), are far more than mere hits collections. Rather, they are immaculate productions whose programming offers valuable insight into the group's year-by-year evolution. You can actually hear, over the course of each of the albums' four sides, the Stones' wonderfully disheveled transformation from British Invasion upstarts to arena-rock gods.
The same can also be said of Singles Collection: The London Years, a true deep-dive listening experience that boasts myriad b-sides and U.K.-only releases that even hardcore fans in the States had rarely, if ever, heard before its release in 1989. Consequently, some of the very best tunes on Singles Collection were culled from the criminally overlooked Metamorphosis. Released in 1975, that rarities compilation contains a wealth of hidden gems, among them "Jiving Sister Fanny" and "I Don't Know Why," demos from the Let It Bleed sessions that are just as good and as anything that ultimately made it onto the record.
Last but not least, don't sleep on the Stones' myriad live albums, particularly their first two: Got LIVE If You Want It! and Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! The Rolling Stones in Concert. The former, released in 1966, is a real hoot. Garage-punk ragged, with several songs containing audience overdubs, it's a telling snapshot of the days when the Stones were shaggy teen idols as fawned-over as their rivals The Beatles. Ya-Ya's, on the other hand, dates from the group's demonic years (1968 to '73), and boils with a dark-matter energy that stood in stark contrast to the love beads and flower power that were then all the rage.
And now on to the World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band ...