There's a contest going on over at No Depression (the greatest music magazine EVER this side of Rolling Stone) that they're calling the "Exile On Main Street vs. The White Album Smackdown." As the title suggests, they want readers to weigh in on which is the better of two of the greatest albums of all time: The Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" or The Beatles "White Album." Now, I'm both a Beatles fan and a Rolling Stones fan, so this is just the kind of music-nerd contest that I love. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I'm probably a bigger Stones fan than a Beatles fan, but not by much. I could easily imagine several variations on a contest between albums from each band in which I might side with the Beatles, though my guess is that I would side with the Stones more than half of the time. I also want to note that I don't think "Exile on Main Street" is the Stones' "best" album (that would probably go to Beggar's Banquet, Some Girls, or Sticky Fingers), nor do I think "The White Album" is The Beatles best album (I'd pick Rubber Soul)-- but they're both iconic albums from iconic bands, and the comparison between the two is a worthy undertaking, if only because they're also so very different in so very many ways.
I suppose there are several ways that one could go about making the case for one album over the other. A song-by-song comparison would likely come out a wash, I'm afraid, as there are both moments of brilliance and real duds on both albums. And I'm not sure that measuring their "significance," in terms of impact on American culture or the history of rock n' roll, really helps all that much, either. The thing is, I think which album one picks basically comes down to which band one likes better. So, I'm going to give my case for the Stones over the Beatles, with just cursory references to these particular albums.
Here's what I love about the Beatles: their invention and subsequent mastery of "pop." One of the reasons that Rubber Soul is my favorite Beatles album is that it captures that brilliant, almost mathematical, perfection of the pop "hook" and the pop-song "formula" (verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, chorus). Songs like "Drive My Car" and "I'm Looking Through You" from Rubber Soul are about as contagious as it gets. "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" from The White Album is the same. What's really amazing about those songs is that they demonstrate what Pythagoreans of old intuited about the world and the human spirit two millenia ago, namely, that eveything yearns for and is made sensible by the ordered ratios and rational order of mathematics. And music is, fundamentally, mathematics. The irresistable sonic pleasure of those ratios and that order is what makes pop music "popular." It's what leans us toward an anticipation of the resolving chord, such that we know where the song is going even when we've never heard it before. It is something that The Beatles crafted with the precision of scientists. So, although I can and do appreciate The Beatles experimental, groundbreaking, and "revolutionary" stuff, their brilliance is to be found in those simple, true, catchy formulas that each time sound simultaneously so familiar and so fresh.
What I love about the Stones, on the other hand, is precisely the opposite. The Stones' music is also great "pop," but it's messy, sloppy, lazy even. It's still formulaic in the way that all rock n' roll is, but the Stones execute that formula like they're always a little high or a little hungover (which, of course, they were). There's something about their sound that is always a tad under-practiced and un-polished, with a close-is-good-enough attitude that falls just behind the beat. And, probably most importantly, I can hear distinctly in the Stones' music all of the ingredients that combined to make the mish-mash genre that we call rock n' roll today: country, blues, jazz, gospel, folk. All those ingredients are identifiable in the lyrics, too. Where The Beatles seem to sharpen my attention to the mathematical elements of music, The Rolling Stones relax, even loosen, all my sensibilities. Nothing in the world grooves like Keith Richards' guitar lick on "Beast of Burden." That song is not on Exile, but it is the epitome of the Stones' sound and the Stones' feel. Jagger asks: Am I hard enough? Am I rough enough? Am I rich enough? In love enough? Of course, the answer is "yes, yes, yes, yes" for the Stones, just as it is for The Beatles. The difference, I think, is that everything about the Stones' music suggests that they need to ask. The Beatles don't. What I love about the Stones, unlike The Beatles, is that they always sound like the wrong side of the tracks: the speakeasy, the dive bar, the juke joint, the jailhouse. They still, and always, got to scrape that sh*t right off their shoes. That's what rock n' roll is, in my book. If it ain't got something messy to scrape off, then... well, it's just too pretty.
Maybe it's not fair to decide this contest of albums primarily on the basis of my prejudice in favor of the Stones, but it's hard to imagine how else to compare these albums except by using whatever criteria one uses to compare the bands. Even still, I think the first track on Exile, "Rocks Off," is a great example of all those things that the Stones do that The Beatles don't, or maybe can't. It's noisy and messy. Jagger slurs the lyrics and Richards slurs the licks. You can hear the bluesy boogie-woogie piano, the jazzy-gospel horns, the 1-4 chord progression of country and folk, the driving heartbeat of a straightforward rhythm section. The story is simultaneously profane and profound. And, in a way, they say exactly what distinguishes them from The Beatles right there in the song: The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.
Game, set, match: Stones.