Rod Stewart has taken his punches over the years. First in the late '70s for his disco hit 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' and most recently for his series of albums featuring a bunch of old songs your grandma and grandpa used to get busy to back in the day. But before all that, he was one of rock's greatest singers.

Need proof? The two-disc 'Rarities' has two dozen songs to back it up. While many of these tracks have surfaced over the years in other forms, the outtakes, alternate versions, non-album singles, B-sides and live radio cuts gathered here come from Stewart's most fertile period, between 1969 and 1974, when he recorded for Mercury Records.

Granted, 'Rarities' isn't essential, and it's obviously made for fans who've worn out multiple copies of 'Every Picture Tells a Story' over the years rather than someone who thinks Stewart's cover of 'This Old Heart of Mine' is just as good as, if not better than, the Isley Brothers' original. And some of the songs were DOA in the '70s (the limp 'Pinball Wizard,' for one). But who doesn't need a little more 'Maggie May' in their life?

A live version of Stewart's first No. 1 hit -- recorded with the Faces' Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones for BBC radio -- is a highlight. So is a shortened and tighter version of 'It's All Over Now,' the Bobby Womack classic made famous by the Rolling Stones, that appeared on Stewart's second solo album, 1970's 'Gasoline Alley.'

The best songs here weren't too shabby in the first place: covers of Bob Dylan's 'Girl From the North Country,' 'Oh! No Not My Baby' (written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin) and Jimi Hendrix's 'Angel.' The 'Rarities' takes of these songs reveal an artist growing into both his voice and influences; 'Maggie May,' for example, features lyrics that never made it to the released version. There's even a sign of things to come with a '70s-era take on Cole Porter's standard 'Every Time We Say Goodbye.'

Most fans agree that Stewart was at his best during this early stage of his career, when albums like 'Every Picture Tells a Story' and 'Never a Dull Moment' made him a star. 'Rarities' offers an alternative look at this period through mostly familiar songs. In spite of a few clunkers -- nothing can salvage his gender-swapping cover of '(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Man' -- these uncovered relics are almost as good as the ones you already know.


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