The compact disc's days as sonic panacea are long over, though, and several other A-list acts (David Bowie, Elton John) have overseen as many as three CD-era catalog reissues. So the news that ABKCO has finally updated its Stones CDs isn't by itself reason for a buying spree, even though the new titles include some of the original albums' superior UK counterparts and the first domestic CD pressing of the collectible but uncompelling oddities set Metamorphosis. (The best numbers on that album appear on the crucial -- and also remastered -- London Years three-disc set.)
What makes most of ABKCO's 22 Stones reissues so vital is the sound quality. Especially on a Super Audio CD player (the new discs have been mastered as hybrids that will play on standard or SACD machines), the results are stunning, with new definition audible in the muscular guitar lines and a presence in Jagger's voice that follows through on three decades of threat.
Not that the recordings have been miraculously blotted free of distortion and hiss. "19th Nervous Breakdown" retains its familiar tape wobble during the fade. "Ruby Tuesday," which appears on 1967's Between the Buttons and Flowers as well as on the new, career-spanning Forty Licks, still sounds as though it were recorded inside a thermos. And the epochal "Satisfaction" remains the best argument ever devised in favor of AM radio. But under the crumpled rolling paper of the albums' original production, ABKCO's team (primarily restoration coordinator Steve Rosenthal and tape-archive researcher Teri Landi) has found plenty to subtly improve without rewriting history, buttressing Bill Wyman's seesaw bass line on "Satisfaction," for instance, and crystallizing Charlie Watts' cymbals throughout. Pointedly, however, no form of the word mix appears in the new credits; ABKCO's project isn't the revisionism of, say, this year's glossy Elvis hits disc.
The downside is packaging: The label says it wanted to faithfully reproduce the LPs, so the discs are housed in fragile cardboard and supplemented only by the original artwork and liner notes. But the material itself more than compensates for the lack of cosmetic bonuses (or extra tracks). Give or take the live albums and 1967's unapologetically zany flying-saucer ride Their Satanic Majesties Request -- enjoyable today as an endearingly fey acid artifact -- nearly all of ABKCO's stellar reissues are musts.
Using the new masters, Licks' first disc neatly condenses ABKCO's Hot Rocks, long the standard-bearer for double-length hits sets and still an outstanding Stones primer. But Licks' first half shuffles the Stones' chronology for the sake of opening with an unbeatable riff (the stinging opening chord of "Street Fighting Man"), then contradicts itself with two that are even better (those of "Gimme Shelter" and "Satisfaction"). After that triptych, the songs seem to fire at random, and several unassailable cuts are somehow diminished: After the choir and congas of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" ascend, the prospect of listening to the fourteen remaining songs seems suddenly exhausting; "Sympathy for the Devil" comically comes sandwiched between "Have You Seen Your Mother Baby?" and "Mother's Little Helper."
Sir Mick has always been more a lover than a fighter -- unless he's being sued for paternity -- and it's the spongier, middle-aged Jagger that dominates Licks' second disc. Assembling nuggets ("Undercover of the Night," "Emotional Rescue") from the Stones' lesser '70s and '80s albums in one place turns out to be a noble idea, but even those discs (Virgin did its own admirable work on the Stones' post-ABKCO catalog in 1994) play better than Licks' jumbled second half. Still, two of the four new songs (Jagger's falsetto throwaway "Keys to Your Love" and Richards' smoky afterglow "Losing My Touch") almost purge the rusty aftertaste of recent clunkers like "Anybody Seen My Baby?"
Among ABKCO's reissues, the live albums -- even 1970's widely admired (but probably inauthentic) Get Your Ya Ya's Out! -- make a surprisingly weak case for the Stones as the era's premier live act. Oddly, as the quality of the Stones' material has ebbed, the band has become more powerful onstage. By most accounts, shows on the Stones' recent tour -- some arena- or stadium-based, others sweated out in small theaters -- were among the most impressive in the band's history. (The last time the Stones played Kansas City was 1989.) Without the burden of a full new album to promote, Jagger, Richards, Watts and guitarist Ron Wood were free to thumb through the Stones' catalog, and audiences were rewarded with unexpected songs from every stage of the group's career, particularly the early '70s. With sheer presence, the band has spared itself a reputation as an oldies act. Yet it's the songs -- especially those on ABKCO's reissues but even the majority of Licks' second disc -- that stubbornly refuse to generate nostalgia. These recordings sound better than ever, but what you end up marveling at is their permanence.