Rolling Stones, 1966-7
Here's a good place to start: if it really has to be Stones or Beatles, I'm with the Beatles (but at this far remove, it's clearly a false dichotomy). The Rolling Stones strike me as great, but almost accidentally brilliant. Although… I have been one to argue that Sympathy for the Devil may the greatest song from the first decade-or-so of rock.
Breaking this down to a personal level, it's made picking a Stones album a rather tricky prospect. Precious few of their albums are without significant fault, meaning I often peruse their compilation offerings, but have thus far failed to find one that suited all my demands. Then I stumbled upon Flowers, without realizing what it was.
In reality, it's less a compilation and more one of those 'American market stop-gap' releases from back in the day. It collects songs from just two of their (better) previous albums—Aftermath and Between the Buttons—with a few contemporaneous non-album singles. Therein lies its appeal, and why it's still in print when records like it were generally done away with (when the domestic and International catalogues were properly merged). For one, given its narrow scope, it plays like an actual album. The music all sounds of a whole—but it has a hit-to-miss ratio way beyond the average Stones LP.
I'd say there's plenty more to recommend Flowers. Personally, I like that it's before the Stones brand of decadent bravado became overwhelming. Hints of their image, in its nascent form are here: how brash and perfectly Mick Jagger is it that the best ballad on the album is a song about scolding your mistress, telling her to stay out of 'real' life. On top of that, this little ditty immediately follows a yearning and sincere cover of My Girl. At first I found such an r-n-b chestnut kind of corny, but playing it as a one-two punch with Backstreet Girl is like a funeral for the old-fashioned, and at the same time, a clarion call for a new generation; their summer of love yet to come.
Which is why I love this set: it so clearly shows the band in transition. They used to do more covers, but Flowers is mostly originals. They're starting to experiment in the studio: Please Go Home could have played as a straight-up Bo Diddley rocker, but they warp it into a psychedelic stomper the Spacemen 3 would have been proud of. Thematically they're still finding their niche—not quite settled into a groove. The inherent tension of their metamorphosis, in-process, is compelling listening.
Serendipity led me to Flowers, but now, it's easily one of my all-time favorite Stones records.