The title of Rarities 1971-2003 is a little misleading, as is the cover photo of the Stones in prime late-'70s form: both suggest that this long-awaited trawl through the Rolling Stones vaults, released in conjunction with Starbucks' Hear Music label but available in all conventional retail outlets, will be heavy on '70s material. That's certainly not the case. There are just three '70s cuts here, actually -- four if you count the live "Mannish Boy," which appeared on the 1977 double live album Love You Live and the 1981 odds-n-sods collection Sucking in the Seventies, which was reissued earlier in 2005, the same year Rarities 1971-2003 came out. That's not the only track the two comps share, either: a live "Beast of Burden" from 1981 (originally released as a B-side to "Going to a Go-Go") and "If I Was a Dancer (Dance, Pt. 2)," a disco-rock workout that's a cult favorite, are on both collections. This isn't the only time that Rarities 1971-2003 carries recycled songs from albums, either, since the live versions of "Live with Me" and "I Just Want to Make Love to You" were taken from the No Security album while the live "Wild Horses" here is the one that was on Stripped. So, that's six songs out of 16 that are easily available on current Stones CDs, and that's not counting the live "Thru and Thru," which was lifted from Four Flicks DVD set, which could reasonably be counted as a rarity that's not so rare. That leaves nine songs on Rarities, one of which is a Stripped-era live take on "Tumbling Dice," and then there are three extended mixes -- a lengthy "Miss You" that rides out the same groove on the single/LP version, a 12" mix of "Mixed Emotions" that bears all the hallmarks of late-'80s remixes, right down to the insistent mechanical high hat, and the "New York" mix of "Harlem Shuffle," which isn't all that terribly different than the original, apart from a stilted synth breakdown that occurs halfway through the track -- which brings you down to a whopping five non-LP songs available here and nowhere else on a Rolling Stones album.
In other words, Rarities 1971-2003 isn't exactly the clearing-house of outtakes, rarities, and B-sides that fans have been waiting for. Not only are there plenty of heavily bootlegged outtakes such as "Blood Red Wine," "Claudine," and "Brown Sugar" with Eric Clapton on guitar missing, but there are plenty of B-sides from these three decades missing. Of course, it shouldn't be surprising that a Starbucks-sponsored release isn't comprehensive (and nobody in their right mind should think that the coffee chain would endorse a release of "Cocksucker Blues," either), but it's still disappointing that there aren't more genuine rarities, or at least little-heard tunes, on an album called Rarities. Not that the music here is bad, not by a long shot: most of the live cuts were cut after the Stones' mid-'90s rejuvenation and they're quite entertaining, and the disco-rock of both "If I Was a Dancer" and the long "Miss You" are excellent grooves. That makes Rarities entertaining, but the quality of the five genuine rarities is so good that you can't help but wish that there were more real rarities here. The wry "Fancy Man Blues" and the slow-burning "Wish I'd Never Met You" are two straight-up blues that have an off-hand, casual virtuosity that illustrates just how good this band is, while "Anyway You Look at It" is a spare, gentle, folky love song reminiscent of "Lady Jane." But the best songs are here are the two genuine '70s rarities -- the hazy, sexy, heartbroken "Through the Lonely Nights," an It's Only Rock 'N Roll outtake that really should have been on the album, and a fiery "Let It Rock" from 1971 (originally released as a B-side to "Brown Sugar"). There's no question that these rarities, especially the last two, are reason enough for any hardcore Stones fan to get this set, and the overall quality of the album is strong enough to make it an enjoyable listen, even if it's a bit of a missed opportunity since it could have been loaded up with genuine rarities that would make it a truly exciting release. So, hope that this Rarities 1971-2003 represents just the first dip into the vaults and not just a one-time deal (even though the liner notes, which quote Mick as saying there's not much in the vaults, suggest this may indeed be the only release of its kind on the horizon).