Pound for pound, minute for minute, track for track, I think Exile on Main Street is my favorite album of all time. From the opening riff of Rocks Off to the final wails of Soul Survivor it's just packed with energy and terrific songs.
Of course it lacks the polish of a Sgt. Pepper's or the unmitigated excitement that you get when you listen to a 'new' band's debut album ( eg - Arctic Monkeys, etc).
As a kid, I was blown away by Sgt. Pepper's with 'how did they do that?' amazement.
With the Arctic Monkey's debut for instance, the sheer 'how good are these kids? and what will they do next?' excitement was immeasurable.
But this. This is a record by a mature band, recorded in relatively low fidelity that straight out rocks. The happiness with which it appears the band was playing is contagious. This is a monster band playing at the absolute height of their powers, and you can almost sense the fact that the entire extended band was living together and recording this at the oddest of hours. There are a ton of moments left in this album that would have been recut by other bands in persuit absolute perfection. And that's why it works. This record wasn't about the persuing the most immaculate production (ala, say Dark Side of the Moon). The stones were never really about that. This record seems to have been about capturing the essence of these songs with the knowledge that with each incremental take there would be an erosion of energy. Repetition would drain the performances of spontaneity. You leave some of the rough bits in for the greater good - the not quite quantifiable energy and aura.
Back in the day, my roommates and I would sit around listening to CDs and generally being too lazy to get up and switch songs or discs too often. I've never really thought about it too much, but I guess this was either before remote controls were standard, or more likely, because ours was broken. Anyway, this was the CD that beyond all others allowed us to be as lazy as possible. You put this one on, and you were good for at least two hours. That's tough to find in a CD that's not some sort of 20 year retrospective greatest hits nonsense.
It's an original, and there's really nothing else like it that I can immediately think of. This record (to me at least) lives somewhere in between a studio and a live recording. You know it's not a concert recording, but you can imagine everyone in the band playing / clapping etc along together. There's not much studio trickery and everything is infinitely reproducible. To me, this will always be the Stones at their finest.