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Just how good is the sound on Virgin's remastered Rolling Stones' albums? More importantly, how does that readjusted sound affect the way the music comes across? Here's an album-by-album overview:

"Sticky Fingers" (Virgin 39504) 1971. A spectacular effort on all fronts. Even though the playing is rendered with exceptional clarity, the music loses none of its edge or grit, from the boozy stomp of "Brown Sugar" to the dissipated melancholy of "Moonlight Mile." Moreover, the sharpened sound throws enough light on the inner dynamics of the band's chemistry to make this seem a greater album than even "Exile on Main St." Rating: ****

"Exile on Main St." (Virgin 39505) 1972. Where previous masterings made this sprawling set seem like one big, bluesy blur, this one cleans up the mud and cuts to the heart of the album -- the axis between Keith Richards' guitar work and Charlie Watts' drumming. But it also makes it clear that the size of these arrangements lets a few songs, like "Loving Cup," get away from the band. Rating: ****

"Goat's Head Soup" (Virgin 39498) 1973. Not a great album, and hardly because of the sound, either. "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)" does benefit from there being less mud in the mix, and "Angie" remains as affecting as ever. But it would take more than a good remastering to put real menace into "Dancing with Mr. D." Rating: **

"It's Only Rock 'n Roll" (Virgin 39500) 1975. This, supposedly, is where the Stones' ironic period begins, and it's easy enough to hear elements of that in both "Dance Little Sister" and the title tune. But at the same time, there's still plenty of audible soul in the rhythm work beneath "Time Waits for No One" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." Rating: ** 1/2

"Black and Blue" (Virgin 39499) 1976. It's obvious from the first, clipped guitar chord of "Hot Stuff" just how crisp and lively the sound is here. What takes a few listens to grasp is how subtly that added clarity refocuses the listener's attention from the front line to the rhythm section -- a shift that brings a new appreciation of the reggaefied groove bubbling beneath many of these songs. Probably the most illuminating remix of the bunch. Rating: ***

"Some Girls" (Virgin 39505) 1978. What made this album exciting the first time around was the way its vigorous physicality reminded listeners that at their best the Stones have always been more visceral than intellectual. That gut-level groove is still there, too, particularly in "Miss You" and "When the Whip Comes Down." Rating: *** 1/2

"Emotional Rescue" (Virgin 39502) 1980. Guitar freaks will be floored by the textural detail provided by "Start Me Up" -- it's as if you could reach out and touch Richards' guitar -- and it's marvelous to hear the full majesty of Sonny Rollins' tenor work in "Slave." But overall, there's only so much great sound can add to weak material. Rating: ** 1/2

"Tattoo You" (Virgin 39501) 1981. There's a difference between being soul fans and being a soul band, and this, unfortunately, is where the Stones found out. Yet as ill-conceived as the songs often are, the playing is solid throughout (particularly Bill Wyman's bass lines) and there's enough unexpected detail in tracks like "Send It to Me" to make replaying the album more fun than expected. Rating: **

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