Playlists were supposed to render the greatest-hits album obsolete, but it seems no one’s told the Rolling Stones. On Friday, the veteran rockers released their 4,832nd compilation, Honk, which comes a mere seven years and one new album after their previous compilation, GRRR!. Honk is essentially a tracklist update disguised as a new best-of collection, supplementing the group’s biggest hits from their post-ABKCO years with the tacked-on bonus tracks from their most recent best-of collections, and a smattering of blues covers from 2016’s Blue & Lonesome.
The new compilation distinguishes itself slightly by giving the band’s oft-derided post-’80s catalog more than a passing glance, but the very title of Honk serves to further entrench the popular perception of the Stones as brash, harmonica-slobbering blues-rock purists. It’s the conceit that their entire brand has been built on since day one. The press-fabricated rivalry between the Stones and the Beatles was largely waged on aesthetic terms: the bad-boy rockers versus the sophisticated pop band. But over the years, it’s come to represent the ideological poles that every rock’n’roll artist since has had to navigate—the perennial push/pull between primitivism and experimentation.
The truth is, the Stones could be every bit as musically adventurous as the Beatles. But their experiments remained just that—brief trial runs that never fundamentally altered their DNA. Anytime they’ve strayed from their base to explore more au courant sounds, they’ve always been sure to hedge their bets by counterbalancing their albums with songs that reassure us how much they still love rockin’. Even their most atypical genre exercises rarely break free from traditional verse/chorus/verse schematics. The Stones are essentially like those foodies who are eager to Instagram the most exotic dish at their neighborhood’s new poke bar, only to hit up the McDonald’s drive-thru on the way home.
There’s been just a handful of magical moments where they’ve transcended themselves completely. The tracks collected below would’ve been considered extreme outliers in the Stones catalog at the time of their release, and in some cases, met with outright derision by old-school fans. Now, there’s a real case to be made that they’ve aged far better than canon fodder like “Brown Sugar.” Any tune with Mick Jagger singing on it will inherently sound like the Stones, but these songs represent the band’s boldest leaps beyond their usual muddy waters.
“I’d Much Rather Be With the Boys” (1964)
Appears on: The rarities collection Metamorphosis
The closest the Stones ever got to sounding like: the Ronettes
While pretty much every Stones original carries the Jagger-Richards imprimatur, this 1964 outtake is credited to Richards and the band’s first manager, Andrew Loog-Oldham. Though it’s sung from the perspective of a guy who prefers to hang out with his pals over his date, “I’d Much Rather Be With the Boys” sounds tailor-made for an innocent girl group, complete with a Spector-sized backbeat and high-pitched harmonies that waft through the song like a gentle breeze. Feeling it was a touch too off-brand for a band with a nasty reputation to uphold, the Stones handed the song off to fellow Brit beat combo the Toggery Five (whose version changed the chorus to “I’d rather be out with the boys,” reportedly to defuse the original’s homoerotic undertones). A half-century later, the song finally found its rightful home when Ronnie Spector covered it (as “I’d Much Rather Be With the Girls”) for her 2016 album English Heart.
“We Love You” (1967)
Appears on: Singles Collection: The London Years
The closest the Stones ever got to sounding like: psychedelic Beatles
The Stones’ relationship with psychedelia was, to put it mildly, complicated. Though their 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request has held up better than its second-rate-Sgt.-Pepperreputation suggests, the Stones never made for the most convincing hippies; check out Mick’s thoroughly unenthused “I can’t believe my mom dressed me as a wizard for Halloween” look on the album’s front cover. Their brief flower-power flirtation did yield a few eternalclassics, the most underrated of which is this non-album single from the summer of ’67. Recorded while Mick and Keith were embroiled in an infamous drug-arrest scandal, “We Love You” is psychedelia dripping with cynicism. They clang jail-cell doors and turn hippy-dippy platitudes into sneering taunts directed at the police and prosecutors. With the song’s needling piano line, buzzing mellotrons, thundering drums, and ecstatic harmonies (courtesy of an uncredited John Lennon and Paul McCartney) all sucked into a cyclonic swirl, “We Love You” is essentially the Stones’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” (Also check “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” B-side “Child of the Moon,” aka the Stones’ “Rain.”)
“I Just Want to See His Face” (1972)
Appears on: Exile on Main St.
The closest the Stones ever got to sounding like: gospel as remixed by Lee “Scratch” Perry
The Stones’ 1972 double-album messterpiece was born in a heroin-induced haze of glamor and squalor, as the Stones hid out from the taxman in the dank basement of Keith’s French Riviera mansion, letting the tape roll into the wee hours. Amid Exile’s burnt-spoon blend of blues, country, soul, and rockabilly, the uncanny “I Just Want to See His Face” raises you from the moldy cellar like a fleeting out-of-body experience. It’s ostensibly a church hymn, but one whose murky, mercurial production and warbling electric-piano tones make it sound like it was surreptitiously recorded at Sunday service through a pocket dial.
Album: Goats Head Soup
The closest the Stones ever got to sounding like: Astral Weeks
Arriving after one of the most hallowed four–album runs in rock history, Goats Head Soup revealed the first chink in the Stones’ armor, showing early signs of the aesthetic power struggle between trendspotting and traditionalism that’s played out on pretty much every Stones record since. But the divine “Winter” exists in a universe all its own. Though seemingly cut from the same cloth as strung-out ballads like “Moonlight Mile” and “Wild Horses,” it possesses a celestial aura and stream-of-consciousness drift that elevates it to an astral plane the Stones would never strive toward again.
“Time Waits for No One” (1974)
Appears on: It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll
The closest the Stones ever got to sounding like: It’s tempting to say Santana, but the iconic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” already pulled off that trick more blatantly, so let’s go with “tropicália Steely Dan.”
Though he was a member of the Stones for less than 10 percent of their existence, guitarist Mick Taylor was a crucial contributor to the band’s early-’70s canon, with soulful solos that brought a greater degree of melodic sophistication and emotional depth to even their raunchiest rockers. This Brazilian-spiced standout from the otherwise workmanlike It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll, Taylor’s final album as a Stone, serves as a fitting epitaph for his brief but fruitful tenure in the band. The Stones could always jam with the best of ‘em, but Taylor’s graceful extended fretboard workout pushes them to uncharted realms of psych-jazz improvisation.
Appears on: Some Girls
The closest the Stones ever got to sounding like: Neu! 75
“Shattered” is probably the most well-known Stones song included here, making regular appearances on past compilations and set lists. But that doesn’t make it any less of a bizarre anomaly in their canon. The song was famously part of the Stones’ response to punk, but in contrast to fellow Some Girls aggressors like “Lies” and “Respectable,” it doesn’t rock in a typically trashy garage-band fashion. Rather, the dry, vacuum-sealed production and relentless motorik minimalism of “Shattered” stake the middle ground between CBGB and the Autobahn, while the band’s stoner-doo-wop backing vocals goad Jagger into the most hysterical performance of his career. (For more quality Stones-on-punk snarl, check out Emotional Rescue’s “Where the Boys Go,” in which Mick goes full Pete Shelley.)
“Dance (Pt. 1)” (1980)
Appears on: Emotional Rescue
The closest the Stones ever got to sounding like: peak hour at the Paradise Garage
If the Stones’ 1978 club crossover hit “Miss You” was the sound of Mick cooly slinking into the discotheque at sunset, the more intoxicated “Dance Pt. 1” finds him still on the floor several hours later, soaked in sweat, grinding his teeth, and jabbering nonsense into random strangers’ ears.
Appears on: Tattoo You
The closest the Stones ever got to sounding like: chillwave
While Tattoo You marked the Stones’ exile from beat street, the album’s ballad-heavy second side still gave Jagger plenty of opportunities to flex his smooth falsetto for a slow dance. Amid the canon of mellow Stones songs, none are as strange and sublime as “Heaven.” Atop a featherweight snare-rim rhythm, Jagger’s eerily airy voice blurs into a vapor trail of guitar lines and wind-chimed mysticism, yielding a song that’s as alluring and ambiguous as a desert mirage.
“Too Much Blood” (1983)
Appears on: Undercover
The closest the Stones ever got to sounding like: an Arthur Russell 12-inch
Intimations of violence were always baked into the Stones’ mostpowerful songs, but as their music got slicker and more streamlined, their attempts at provocation became more flagrant—and, in some cases, more laughable. “Too Much Blood” has the distinction of boasting both Jagger’s most cringe-worthy vocal turn (in the form of a spoken-word freestyle about cannibalistic serial killers and Texas Chainsaw Massacre hot takes) and one of the Stones’ most hypnotic grooves—a strobe-lit, proto-house pulse that cranked up the cowbell-clanking freakiness even more in Arthur Baker’s companion dub remix.
“Almost Hear You Sigh” (1989)
Appears on: Steel Wheels
The closest the Stones ever got to sounding like: yacht rock
Even the most committed Stones fan has to concede that the band’s catalog stopped feeling vital from the mid-1980s onward, as they settled into their role as elder statesmen of the stadium circuit and released increasingly sporadic albums. To the group’s credit, they resisted the slide into syrupy dentist-office pop that knee-capped many of their fellow ’60s-rock survivors during the ’80s. However, this sleek mid-tempo ballad from the better-than-you-might-remember Steel Wheels suggests an adult-contemporary Stones might not have been such a bad thing. With its glassy piano strokes, new-agey acoustic picking, and shoulder-rubbing “ooh ooh oohs,” “Almost Hear You Sigh” is just begging for a cover by Bon Hornsby.