If we're judging Rod Stewart on his recent output, the British singer would be labelled the epitome of easy-listening mediocrity. But when you take a step back and look at the entirety of his remarkable career, which includes memorable stints with the Faces and Jeff Beck Group, Rod the Mod deserves credit as one of the best rock 'n' roll singers in history.
Stewart is currently making the rounds promoting his autobiography, along with his new David Foster-produced recording, Merry Christmas, Baby, which arrives today. The book will likely have its moments, and based on his recent track record - seven consecutive albums of Stewart's songbook and soul standards have made it to the Top 5 on the U.S. sales charts - you can expect Merry Christmas, Baby to sell plenty of copies.
A successful Christmas recording won't erase memories of his very distant past, which is a good thing. Because when he was on back in the day, with help from his longtime collaborator, Ronnie Wood, few were better. Here's a 10pack of Stewart's best from his absolute peak period of the late '60s and early '70s.
1 Maggie May (1971). Maggie May eventually shot to the top of charts in numerous countries, even though it was initially released as a B-side in 1971. That type of success is often unexpected, and Stewart's best single certainly qualifies in that regard. Maggie May wasn't a smash by accident, mind you; a singalong powerhouse with a memorable chorus, it's an all-time classic that refuses to lose a step, despite being in regular rotation on rock radio for decades.
2 Every Picture Tells a Story (1971). Stewart's raspy delivery caps a heroic performance by all involved, on what some have called Stewart's finest song to date. Co-written with Ronnie Wood, his Faces bandmate and long-time ally, the song is a six-minute rambler that covers all the rock 'n' roll bases. The tune, about a travelling rogue, opens the album of the same name in fine fashion, and provides a pub-crawling counterpoint to Maggie May, a coming-of-age tale with a more easygoing tone.
3 Stay With Me (1971). A Top 20 hit in the U.S., at a time when Stewart was becoming increasingly popular, Stay With Me remains the rip-roaring calling card of the Faces, a perilously loose group that enjoyed its sex and drugs and much as it did its rock 'n' roll. A Nod Is as Good as a Wink... to a Blind Horse is far and away the group's most successful album, and Stay With Me (yet another considerable Wood-Stewart composition) remains the biggest hit of the group's short-lived career.
4 Mandolin Wind (1971). Find me a house party that won't light up at the sound of this low-key charmer, and I'll show you a gathering in need of a serious attitude adjustment. One of Stewart's most understated songs, Mandolin Wind has a nice buoyancy to it, thanks to the presence of an always-there mandolin, which shines. Stewart is not to be outdone, and in just 5: 33 he crafts a song of timeless melody and all-world appeal.
5 Shapes of Things (1968). As a result of this combination of sonics - Mickey Waller's thundering drums, Ronnie Wood's acrobatic bass, Jeff Beck's trailblazing guitar and Stewart's searing singing - the foundation of heavy metal was paved in stone. The opening cut on Truth, the debut from The Jeff Beck Group, is a remake of the Yardbirds hit, on which Beck played. And while there's some debate over which version is better, the tie usually goes to the Stewart-sung version.
6 Gasoline Alley (1970). Stewart had yet to come into his own as a full-time songwriter in 1970, but the title track to his second release was one certified gem of an original, another Wood-Stewart co-write that fused Stewart's original musical style - barroom country-folk - with a voice that already sounded wizened. The album is full of strong material written by the likes of Elton John, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, but Wood and Stewart showed they could keep pace with the big boys.
7 Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright) (1976). The transition from Rod the Mod to Hot Rod was complete with this classic mid-'70s come-on, a silky, sultry tune that featured every accent of the era, including a sax solo. But there's gold in here, buried deep under producer Tom Dowd's layered quilt: Stewart's songwriting. He wrote Tonight's the Night alone, to suggest that he still had something to say, even after he had moved to America.
8 The First Cut Is the Deepest (1976). Though he had proven himself as songwriter with A Night on the Town's sex jam (see above), his skills as an interpreter were still razor-sharp, as evidenced on his legendary Cat Stevens cover. Sheryl Crow had a substantial hit with a 2003 version of the same song, but folk-rock fans won't deny Stewart his time in the sun. It's an impassioned rendition, one of the few times in his career he held back vocally. The result isn't rocket science, but it works remarkably well.
9Y ou Wear it Well (1972).There's more than a few similarities to Maggie May, especially in the drum drops, but fans forgave Stewart for any accidental or implied indiscretion; a superstar at this point, he was still taking chances. Never a Dull Moment is an acclaimed album with more than a few surprises - he covered both Sam Cooke and Jimi Hendrix on the record - but it would be his last full-fledged victory, from a rock 'n' roll perspective.
10 Handbags and Gladrags (1969). Another cover by Stewart, another genuine classic. Originally written and recorded by Manfred Mann singer Mike D'Abo, Stewart's version remains the definitive article; he nails it. The song found new life as the theme song for the British version of The Office, ironic - or perhaps not - given its anti-establishment subtext. Stewart still sings it in concert today, though with considerably less sophistication than he did way back when.
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