It’s been said that The Beatles invented breaking up. Well, The Rolling Stones invented not breaking up.
Not breaking up remains their greatest achievement. Formed in 1962, The Stones have endured through 12 U.S. presidential administrations. They have outlasted nearly every band of their generation, and of several future generations. They have rocked on through numerous musical fads: The British Invasion, the psychedelic revolution, the singer-songwriter movement, prog rock, disco, punk, new wave, the new romantics, hip-hop, alt-rock, nu-metal, teen pop, trip-hop, the New York rock revival, nu-folk, chillwave, vaporware, brostep, bro country, and dozens of others. Through it all, The Stones have persisted.
Not even the death of drummer Charlie Watts in August has killed The Stones. This month, they are playing stadiums all across America. How did this happen? Well, for starters, they have a lot of great songs. In fact, I would argue they have at least 100 great songs.
Please allow me to introduce this list of my favorite Stones tracks. I’m a man of wealth and taste with a specific appetite for British blues rock.
100. “Sleep Tonight” (1986)
Here’s just a partial list of the things that would have broken up most bands but didn’t break up The Stones: Getting busted at Redlands, Keith stealing Anita Pallenberg from Brian Jones, making a lesser version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Mick sleeping with Anita during the making of Performance, Keith sleeping with Marianne Faithfull during the making of Performance, the death of Brian Jones, a record contract so terrible it made hiring Allen Klein as a manager seem reasonable, Altamont, Keith’s heroin addiction, the departure of Mick Taylor, the inflatable penis from the ’75 tour, Keith and Anita getting busted in Canada, Ron Wood’s freebase habit during the Tattoo You tour, the death of Ian Stewart, Mick’s jealousy over the massive success of Michael Jackson and Prince and how it made him want to go solo.
Let’s focus on the last two points, because those developments kind of did break up The Stones in the late ’80s. In 1985, Mick Jagger put out his debut solo album, She’s The Boss, which was so mediocre even Jann Wenner couldn’t give it five stars. But Mick as always put a lot of hard work into making his career outside of The Stones a success, right when the old band was starting to fall apart. Stewart, their long-time piano player who was relegated to sideman status by manager Andrew Oldham at the start of their career because he looked like a bus driver, had a heart attack on his 47th birthday while sitting in his doctor’s waiting room. Earlier that year, Jagger performed by himself at Live Aid while Richards and Wood backed a bloated-looking Bob Dylan for an infamously shambolic headline set.
Jagger was so busy plugging She’s The Boss that he arrived late to the sessions for their 18th studio album, Dirty Work. Watts and Bill Wyman also couldn’t be bothered — much of the album was recorded by Richards, Wood, and future Watts replacement Steve Jordan, who dubbed themselves The Biff Hitler Trio. Upon the album’s completion, they released a Top 10 single, a cover of “Harlem Shuffle,” and Jagger told Richards that he didn’t want to do a Stones tour. Keith responded by going to the press and calling Mick “a wimp,” an “aging victim of a Peter Pan complex,” and (gulp) a “back-stabbing c*nt.” And then he made a pretty good solo record of his own with Jordan called Talk Is Cheap.
Anyway, Dirty Work is probably my least favorite Stones record. (It’s not bad for a Biff Hitler Trio LP, however.) The best thing about Dirty Work is the cover, in which the guys wear blindingly bright colored suits and Keith man-spreads across a lime green couch, allowing only a sliver of space for Mick’s stick-like right leg. I also like the closing track, which might not be the greatest Keith ballad but is certainly the sloppiest. I like it because I can only assume that anyone who heard it in 1986 must have assumed that this was finally it. They sound exhausted. They sound defeated. Not even the mighty Biff Hitler Trio could hold a unit this dysfunctional together. It would be impossible.
But as we know now, there was at least 35 more years of Stones history after Dirty Work. Their presumptive ignoble conclusion now technically qualifies as a “mid-career” work.
99. “Too Much Blood” (1983)
We might as well get this out of the way immediately: I love The Beatles. I love The Stones. But if you’re forcing me to pick just one, I choose The Stones.
What people appreciate about The Beatles is their unbeatable consistency and quality control, which verges on perfection. If the rubric is batting average, The Beatles defeat The Stones soundly. But in terms of mileage, there’s no contest. The Stones beat everybody. When you travel as far and wide as The Stones have, the detours pile up high. And I put a lot of value on detours.
Put another way: What I appreciate about The Stones is that they made albums like Dirty Work. They have the sort of catalog in which you have to talk yourself into liking certain albums, or even whole eras. The Stones aren’t perfect. Far from it. But their failures are almost always interesting. I like that The Stones stuck around to do all the things The Beatles never did. They made disco songs, they made punk songs, they made bad ’80s Michelob rock, they made records in reaction to early ’90s grunge and late ’90s electronica, they made a blues covers record the same year that The Life Of Pablo was released. Over time, you stop hearing the albums you thought were failures as failures. Instead, you get off on the constant forward movement. That movement is the point. The Beatles are frozen in time. They have gathered moss. And you know what they say about Rolling Stones and moss.
Even the lowly Dirty Work has its defenders, most famously Robert Christgau, who likened it to landmarks like Some Girls and Aftermath. This is such an insane take that I really wished I agreed with it. Instead, I’m going to stump for the single most overlooked album in the Stones canon, the LP before Dirty Work, 1983’s Undercover. After hitting a commercial and artistic homerun with the straight-forward arena rock of 1981’s Tattoo You, they made a genuinely adventurous left turn into this melange of new wave, dub, and pop. Lyrically, Undercover is easily the most violent Stones record, and one of the funniest. This song, with its reference to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, is so strange that I wish they had pushed this creepy/goofy proto-American Psycho vibe farther on subsequent records.
98. “Undercover (Of The Night)” (1983)
Not to go overboard with my Undercover evangelism, but the title track does effectively rip-off Rio era Duran Duran while inventing Miami Vice one year early.
97. “Hot Stuff” (1976)
Black And Blue used to be in the Dirty Work/Undercover class of Stones albums, the one LP from the 1970s that you had to reflexively mount a positive case for any time it came up. When I wrote about it years ago, I referred to as a good “bad” album, a record that’s compelling because it shows the Stones at a severely compromised junction in their career. This was, after all, the record they made while trying out replacements for Mick Taylor and praying that Keith wouldn’t OD. It’s a series of auditions, not really a proper LP. Black And Blue ultimately is a good control group for understanding what makes Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main St. comparatively great. You understand how they function when you hear them at their most dysfunctional.
But at this point, the consensus among Stones fans — at least based on the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen — is that Black And Blue is just flat-out good. It’s delectably sleazy and grooves hard on the rock and funk numbers, and then the ballads drunkenly rip your heart out. On the lead-off track, they dabbled in disco for the first time, a digression that would prove wildly successful on the next two records.
96. “Dance Pt. 1” (1980)
We’ll be talking a lot about the dynamic between Mick and Keith, the defining “singer/guitarist” pairing in rock. Their friendship — or lack thereof — is the most enduring narrative in this band’s story. In one of his final interviews, John Lennon scoffed at his rivals still hanging together as they entered their 40s. “In the ’80s, they’ll be asking, ‘Why are those guys still together? Can’t they hack it on their own? Why do they have to be surrounded by a gang? Is the little leader scared somebody’s gonna knife him in the back?'” John was cruel, but he was, in a sense, correct. Mick and Keith started working together when they were 18, but they were aware of each other going to back to early adolescence. How many schoolyard friends are you still close with? It’s not normal. Now imagine you are still close to a schoolyard friend, in spite of having sex with their partner, writing about their penis size in a bestselling book, and generally waging a game of psychological warfare that spans two centuries. That’s extremely not normal.
It’s assumed that they stopped being friends at some point in the ’70s, and as the years between tours get longer and longer, it’s possible that they only see each on stage. But Mick and Keith nevertheless remain a gang. You have to believe it’s the differences that unite them, rather than drive them apart. Keith is the rockist, committed to keeping the band dirty and messy and chaotic. And Mick is the poptimist, an aggressive proponent of professionalism and a restless trend-hopper. In the late ’70s, Mick led them into disco, and Keith made sure to make it sound filthy. And that combination of pragmatism and grit, essentially, is The Stones.
95. “Citadel” (1967)
The misbegotten psych-rock experiment from 1967, Their Satanic Majesties Request, is the original Stones album that Stones fans talked themselves into loving. Even though Lennon slagged it specifically as an example of The Stones copying whatever The Beatles did three months later, another criticism that was mean and also absolutely correct. But while Sgt. Pepper is the better album, Satanic Majesties is better to play while on drugs, which is the definition of losing the war but winning the battle. This song predates “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” but the torn and frayed riff sounds like someone trying to play “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” after having too much fun listening to Their Satanic Majesties Request.
94. “We Love You” (1967)
Maybe John Lennon resented The Stones because when they were busted for drugs they were able to write a song about it. And all John could do with his love/hate partner Paul is sing backup on that particular Stones song.
93. “Moon Is Up” (1994)
In the mid-’90s, the surviving members of The Beatles actually did reunite briefly to record two songs based on leftover John Lennon demos. Around that time, The Stones put out Voodoo Lounge, the best LP of the post-Tattoo You era. They already seemed ancient in 1994, though Jagger reminded interviewers that people had been wishing for them to break up as far back as 1969. People thought they were ancient before they even entered their 30s.
On Voodoo Lounge, they were still writing pretty good songs that approximated their past far better than Ghost John plus Paul, George, and Ringo. Voodoo Lounge plays like a greatest hits album of greatest hits soundalikes from the ’60s and ’70s. Like this song, a Between The Buttons pastiche in which Charlie slays a killer groove on the top of a trash can.
92. “How Can I Stop” (1997)
The newest song on this list, from the 26-year-old Bridges To Babylon, the album in which the Dust Brothers inserted a Biz Markie sample over Mick Jagger pining for a woman presumably one-third of his age. I swear it’s a better record than that description suggests, but even if you don’t believe me, at least listen to the final track. Any time The Stones hire a jazz legend — in this case Wayne Shorter — to rip an epic sax solo over a wistful, album-closing ballad, take notice, no matter the year it came out.
91. “Mixed Emotions” (1989)
You know what gives me mixed emotions? Keith Richards’ 2010 memoir Life, which is both an incredible rock memoir — maybe the incredible rock memoir — and a horribly unfair hatchet job against Mick, who is depicted as a cold, calculating phony with a “tiny todger.” Keith has always relished throwing Mick under the bus in a way that I find less and less charming as the years roll on. In response to the book, the writer Bill Wyman (no relation to the Stone) wrote an incredible piece for Slate in which he wrote from Mick’s point of view and countered each of Keith’s claims while landing some punches of his own, starting with the obvious truth that Mick held the band together for years while Keith was having full-body blood transfusions and doing speedballs for breakfast.
As for the actual Mick’s public retorts to Keith’s insults, this Steel Wheels hit has always seemed like a veiled expression of hurt over being called a “back-stabbing c*nt” during the Dirty Work debacle. After all, as Keith himself later conceded, the title does sound a lot like Mick’s Emotions.
90. “Little Red Rooster” (1964)
Look, I love Keith. He’s the cool one. He’s the soulful one. He’s the one everybody wants to drink Jack Daniel’s with. He’s the one who carries guns and big-ass knives and wears big-ass pirate earrings. He’s the one who will live forever, unless he falls out of another palm tree. But I find myself turning into more of a Mick guy. Yes, Mick is cold and calculating. But he’s also hard and smart and tough, which are the qualities I value most in The Stones. Because they make you feel hard and smart and tough when you listen to them.
You can’t beat Mick. Just try. But do your research on all the people who tried and failed before you. In fact, he might be the cool one. As Keith himself admits in Life, Mick was the one who knew where to get all of the rare American blues records that even most white Americans didn’t know existed in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Keith wanted to impress Mick early on, not the other way around. And let’s be clear about this — those guys loving Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed absolutely added multiple zeros to the checks those guys cashed after The Stones made it big in America. And when that mission was accomplished, Mick was the one who could see it was time to move on. “You could say that we did blues to turn people on, but why they should be turned on by us is unbelievably stupid,” he told Rolling Stone in 1968. “I mean what’s the point in listening to us doing ‘I’m A King Bee’ when you can listen to Slim Harpo doing it?”
89. “Parachute Woman” (1968)
Or: Why listen to “Little Red Rooster” when you can hear Howlin’ Wolf do it? Because I love The Stones’ version, too, mostly because of Brian Jones’ slide guitar part. Brian stopped playing guitar all that much on Stones records after that — he preferred to play sitar or marimba or whatever other exotic instrument he could get his hands on. But what he really liked was getting absolutely blasted and hanging out with other celebrities. He was embittered about being locked out of the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership, but as a short blonde guy in a band of lanky brunettes, he seemed predestined to be alienated from the other Stones. It’s a shame, because he died so long ago now that most people don’t even remember him being in the band. And the records he supposedly played on he often didn’t actually play on. But you can hear Brian on one of the greatest Stones records, Beggars Banquet, including this sinister blues in which Jones’ jangly acoustic guitar sets the glowering tone.
88. “Live With Me” (1969)
Jones shed the band as well as his mortal coil by the time the second masterpiece of their magical ’68-’72 run, Let It Bleed, was released at the end of 1969. Most of the guitars on that record, along with much of the music, comes from Keith, whose output during this period rivals and likely bests anyone in rock history. This track also features the two most essential sideman of this era: Saxophonist Bobby Keys, Keith’s Texas brother from another mother, and Nicky Hopkins, the brilliant pianist who became one of the many people who tried and failed to keep up with the chemical intake of The Stones. And then there’s Jimmy Miller, the greatest Stones producer who is not a Glimmer Twin, the one who really brought that rhythm section alive and who exited the Stones’ orbit after Goats Head Soup as an addict. We’ll hear from all three of them again later.
87. “Memo From Turner” (1970)
I’ll count myself as one of those semi-casualties. On balance, The Stones have been a borderline terrible influence on me and my behavior over the past 30 years. I couldn’t count on 100 hands the number of bad decisions I’ve made while listening to their music. Are these mistakes on par with hiring the Hell’s Angels to work security for a free, tour-ending concert? Fortunately, no. My transgressions have mainly resulted in severe morning-after headaches. But brain damage is still damage.
Martin Scorsese also bears some responsibility here. He’s an accomplice, the one who made me a Stones fan by using some of their songs in his films. We’ll talk about “Gimme Shelter” later, but the cocaine sequence from Goodfellas was especially influential for me when it came to falling in love with this band. Keep in mind the the point of this scene is to show how cocaine is bad, but when “Memo From Turner” kicks in it makes blow seem awesome. Even the soberest among us will feel a buzz from Marty’s jump cuts set against Ry Cooder’s slide guitar licks. (While this is technically a solo Mick Jagger joint from his freaky film debut, Performance, it was later included on The Stones’ Singles Collection: The London Years, so I’m putting it here.)
86. “Let It Bleed” (1969)
Another corrupter, in that this is the first song in which I heard the word “come” used in a sexual way. A seminal moment, to be sure.
85. “Luxury” (1974)
From It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, an album that is overshadowed by Goats Head Soup from the “post-Exile comedown” era, though I think it’s a better record. It’s important to remember that The Stones in the early ’70s were more famous than popular. In the classic Richard Linklater film Dazed And Confused, which takes place four years after the release of Exile, all the stoned high school kids are obsessed with Aerosmith, the younger and hornier and harder-rocking Stones 2.0 of the era. (Their 1976 album Rocks is the missing link between Exile and Appetite For Destruction.) Those Texas teens just couldn’t connect with the faux-reggae of “Luxury,” in which Jagger slips into a comic Jamaican patois to lament how his rock-star dollar doesn’t go as far with his woman as it used to. Hardly a sweet emotion.
84. “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” (1973)
And then there’s this socially conscious boogie number, in which Jagger relates an “inspired by actual events” narrative, Law & Order style, about a young boy who was murdered in New York City by a plainclothes policeman. On Goats Head Soup, this track stands out as a funky rocker amid a sea of murky, junked-out ballads, and also as a rare song that’s not preoccupied with the decadent, strung-out lifestyle The Stones were pursuing at the time. It could even be described as anti-drug, or at least anti-the bad consequences of taking drugs.
83. “Lies” (1978)
While the reputation of The Stones’ ’70s work has been rehabbed in recent years, Some Girls is still regarded as their grand comeback. It forms a trilogy with Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Rust Never Sleeps and Pink Floyd’s Animals as the pissed-off response from the classic-rock community to the insurgence of punk in the late ’70s. While Young openly sympathized with Johnny Rotten and Roger Waters wrote scathing lyrics about cultural decay more nihilistic than any punk bard, The Stones rose to punk’s challenge by writing very simple and very dumb songs and playing them very fast. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a recipe for enduring songs except “Lies” is one of my all-time favorite showcases for Charlie, who sounds so elegant even when he’s channeling his inner Paul Cook.
82. “Stray Cat Blues” (1968)
The first cancelable track on this list, and definitely not the last. This one actually does sound like a proto-Aerosmith song, starting with Mick’s lascivious purr at the start over Keith’s feline riff. It’s also basically a re-write of Little Red Riding Hood, in which the Big Bad Wolf attempts to lead a teenaged innocent astray. As we all know, the wolf gets his in the end of that story, so maybe “Stray Cat Blues” isn’t quite as Tyler-ized as it might seem.
81. “Sweet Black Angel” (1972)
An island-accented tribute to activist Angela Davis from the “mellow” side two of Exile. Also a fine example of the Jagger/Richards style of harmonizing, which will be saluted at greater length as we proceed toward the top of this list.
80. “Long Long While” (1966)
More Scorsese. This one is used in the scene from Casino where Joe Pesci stabs that poor obnoxious dude in the neck with his pen about 11,000 times. You can hear him whimpering on the floor of the bar while Mick pleads, “I was wrong, but I admit, I admit you were right.”
79. “2000 Man” (1967)
Scorsese tends to favor Stones songs from the Mick Taylor period — the swaggering, larger-than-life, cocaine-fueled Stones. Wes Anderson, on the other hand, plugged into the quirky, melancholy, aristocratic, and vaguely psychedelic 1966-67 Stones in his first three films. Before utilizing “I Am Waiting” in Rushmore and “She Smiled Sweetly” in The Royal Tenenbaums, he used this song in his debut film, 1996’s Bottle Rocket, from the ’90s contrarian hipster’s favorite Stones LP, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Though I wonder if Anderson was also nodding to Bob Mapplethorpe’s bullying brother, Future Man, with this needle drop.
78. “Winter” (1973)
Speaking of Mick Taylor, he’s among the Stones who was done dirtiest by Mick and Keith during his brief but fruitful period in the band. While all parties acknowledge how his virtuoso playing elevated The Stones to their greatest musical heights, he was ultimately dismissed by his former bandmates for being an aloof and insecure kid who couldn’t hang. (Certainly not like his replacement, the eternally party-hearty Ron Wood.) In Keith’s estimation, Taylor didn’t understand the so-called “ancient art of weaving,” in which it’s never quite clear which guitarist is playing what. That’s what Keith has always wanted The Stones to be — just a thick, sweaty, surly mass of rolling sound. Mick was more or less a conventional lead player, which relegated Keith strictly to rhythm, instead of his preferred lead-rhythm.
And then there’s the matter of numerous Jagger/Richards compositions from this period that feature extensive (and uncredited) contributions from Taylor, including “Sway,” “Moonlight Mile,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and “Time Waits For No One.” There’s also this song, a Van Morrison-esque ballad from side two of Goats Head Soup highlighted by Taylor’s delicate, melodic licks.
77. “The Worst” (1994)
This one is all Keith, no doubt. He’s once again playing the sexy, charismatic cad who tells his baby to hit the road, which is precisely the sort of talk that will draw her closer. Only know he’s older, and his voice sounds like bourbon-soaked leather, and the pedal steel and fiddle accents hint at genuine pathos. For the first time, he might not rise from the gutter after all.
76. “She So Cold” (1980)
The burden of The Stones is that they spent their first decade signifying the most dangerous and electrifying aspects of misspent youth: Sex and/or drugs and/or rock ‘n’ roll. That’s the vibe people still seek from their records. The paradox is that they also happen to be the oldest-ass rock band on the planet. We know Mick Jagger is 79 years old, but he’s not allowed to look like he’s a grandfather in the same way Bob Dylan or Neil Young are. Bob has been making records about being close to death since the late ’90s, but Mick still minces about the stage with a 30-inch waist and a come-hither pout.
Mick’s facade of world champion-level confidence is crucial to maintaining this ruse. But he must feel some anxiety about getting older. It’s just that he smuggles that anxiousness into songs like “She’s So Cold,” which seems like another cancelable song about some nameless woman who has upset Mick by not putting out. But in reality I think this track is really about the worry that one day, maybe, he won’t be able to get what he wants. He tired re-wiring her, tired re-firing her, and he says her engine is permanently stalled, but come on, that’s just projection. She’s just not that into you, Mick.
Here’s more projection:
Who would believe you were a beauty indeed
When the days get shorter and the nights get long
Night fades when the rain comes
Nobody will know, when you’re old
Is there a worse fate for Mick Jagger than fading away and nobody knowing about him when he’s old? Of course not. He was fretting about it 41 years ago, back when he was a ripe old man of 38. It’s enough to keep a man’s waistline impossibly tiny.
75. “Under My Thumb” (1966)
If you think I’m rationalizing my enjoyment of a trashy song, allow me to marshal the support of the late, great feminist rock critic Ellen Willis, whose ideas I was sort of ripping off just now. A committed Stones fan, she once defended “Under My Thumb” by suggesting that the song could easily be sung from the point of a view of a woman pining for revenge against a lover who did her wrong. As a point of comparison, she brought up Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” an example of what she called a “smugger” and “cooler” form of sexism practiced by “upper-middle-class bohemians,” because “it’s hard to imagine a woman sadly warning her ex-lover that he’s too innocent for the big bad world out there.” Meanwhile, who hasn’t fantasized about reducing a spiteful ex to the level of a squirmin’ dog?
74. “Out Of Time” (1966)
Jagger made a similar point in a 1978 Rolling Stone interview in which he was grilled extensively over sexist lyrics from throughout the band’s career. (Valuable lesson here for younger generations: The art we find offensive now was usually considered offensive when it was first released. It’s not that “nobody talks about it.” You just didn’t happen to be alive or paying attention at the time.) Regarding songs like “Under My Thumb” and “Out Of Time” from the particularly caustic Aftermath period, Jagger dismissed them as “really silly” and “pretty immature” before launching a Willis-esque defense. “Any bright girl would understand that if I were gay I’d say the same things about guys. Or if I were a girl I might say the same things about guys or other girls. I don’t think any of the traits you mentioned are peculiar to girls. It’s just about people.”
73. “Dear Doctor” (1968)
It’s also about power — who has it, who wants it, and who feels angry when they don’t have it. You can hear these songs as diatribes against women, or as documents of male weakness. But what makes them sting is that Jagger is fearlessness about portraying himself as an unsympathetic and flat-out mean character in his own songs. You’re never quite sure if he’s justified in his rage; sometimes, he makes you wish for his comeuppance. In “Dear Doctor” from Beggars Banquet, he’s an anxious groom dreading his upcoming nuptials to a “four-legged sow.” Though in the end the joke’s on him, as the bride-to-be has run off with his cousin, as he relates in a mocking, high-pitched voice. “Dear Doctor” is one of the funniest Stones songs, but the nihilism at its root lingers like a poison pill.
72. “Little T&A” (1981)
“Dear Doctor” definitely feels like a Mick song — it’s fraught, complicated, a little distant, and simultaneously witty and a bit hateful (though in a thoughtful way). Whereas “Little T&A” is all Keith — he’s the one who loves women almost too much, if only for a night after the gig.
71. “Shine A Light” (1972)
My No. 71 favorite Stones song that was ripped off for one of my top five favorite Oasis tracks.
70. “It’s All Over Now” (1964)
Two points about the recent “Paul McCartney calls the Rolling Stones ‘a blues cover band'” news cycle:
1) I think Paul McCartney is a beautiful man and a genius, and because I think Paul McCartney is a beautiful man and a genius I wrote this off as a clickbait annoyance designed specifically to annoy me at the precise moment I was listening to a ton of Stones albums in preparation for making this list.
2) It is true The Stones covered a lot of blues songs early in their career! Just as The Beatles covered a lot of Motown and girl groups songs at the same juncture! This is one of The Stones’ greatest R&B covers, which just so happened to put a lot of money in songwriter Bobby Womack’s pocket. While Mick and Keith didn’t write it, “It’s All Over Now” does have a thoroughly Stones-y attitude, starting with the classic line about a “half-assed game” that would still be hard to get on the radio in 2021.
69. “Tell Me” (1964)
The first Stones hit that Mick and Keith wrote. Neither of them seemed to think much about it after the fact, with Mick describing it as a “very pop song” in a 1995 interview. But I think it holds up well and really sets the tone for future, better songs. You have Keith’s striking acoustic guitar riff at the start, followed by Charlie’s simple but dramatic drum fill. While Lennon and McCartney were writing songs promising romance to present or future girlfriends, Jagger and Richards immediately struck a more sullen posture, writing “Tell Me” from the perspective of a rejected person whose loneliness makes him increasingly desperate.
68. “Salt Of The Earth” (1968)
The most valuable parts of Life aren’t when Keith is describing in detail the positives and negatives of every type of downer available to British rock guitarists in the late 1960s. (Though it should be noted that Keith’s medical knowledge is pretty extraordinary.) It’s when he describes his creative process, whether it’s his discovery of open G guitar tuning, how he learned to overdub as many as eight different guitars on a track to compensate for the absence of the unreliable Brian Jones, or his songwriting methods with Mick. According to Keith, he generally comes up with the big-picture concepts — the titles, the chords, maybe a lyrical idea or two — and Mick fills in the rest. Keith came up with the phrase “Salt Of The Earth,” and the part about raising a glass to the hard-working people. And Mick filled in the rest with lines that make the populist sentiment of the title more ambiguous:
And when I search a faceless crowd
A swirling mass of gray and black and white
They don’t look real to me
In fact, they look so strange
67. “I’m Free” (1965)
Mick’s lyrics are the most underrated component of Stones songs. This is due partly to the man himself, who typically rolls his eyes when asked to explain his words, insisting that they’re all made up at the last minute. But Mick’s ability to boil down an unsentimental, cold-eyed worldview into snatches of snappy phrases is elemental to the attitude that defines this band. The great folk singer Todd Snider once collected a bevy of his favorite Jagger lyrics, including the chorus of this song, which is a perfect mid-’60s boho mission statement: “I’m free any old time to get what I want.”
66. “2000 Light Years From Home” (1967)
When Charlie Watts passed, I did that thing a million other music fans did and listed my favorite Charlie grooves. But even when you’re paying the man homage, you can never pay him enough homage, because there are just too many essential Charlie grooves to count! How could I leave off this song, in which the rest of The Stones are doing this psychedelic sci-fi nerd shit and Charlie is just laying it down and making it sound carnal?
65. “Slave” (1981)
I was even more pissed at myself for not immediately thinking of this Charlie groove. Because that’s all this song is. You could strip away all of the instruments and just have Charlie kick it for six minutes. It would still be at No. 65 on my list.
64. “Honky Tonk Women” (1969)
Yet another amazing Charlie groove, in which he somehow replicates the sound of two mechanical bulls fornicating. (Though Jimmy Miller must also get credit for clanking on that cowbell.) This is also start of Keith’s open G tuning era, in which they were transformed from (to quote Bob Dylan in “Murder Most Foul”) “them British bad boys The Rolling Stones” of ’60s fame into the definitive rock band of all time during the sainted ’68-’72 period. But let’s not bury the real lede here: “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind” is an all-time bit of Jagger-ian nonsense.
63. “100 Years Ago” (1973)
I realize I could put “another amazing Charlie groove!” in each of these blurbs so let’s just assume that every Charlie groove is amazing, and I will only note it if the groove is especially amazing. Featuring the all-star team of Nicky Hopkins on piano and Billy Preston on clavinet, “100 Years Ago” has a funky head and a wistful heart, with Mick (who was newly 30 at the time) ruminating on his quickly vanishing youth, a prescient topic given that his band was about to enter the post-Exile wilderness period.
Went out walkin’ through the wood the other day
Can’t you see the furrows in my forehead?
What tender days, we had no secrets hid away
Now it seems about a hundred years ago
Based on available statistics, The Stones have played this live a grand total of two times, both in 1973. Assuming that clavinet players aren’t that hard to find, I can only assume the lyrical content now hits a little too close to home.
62. “Faraway Eyes” (1978)
“We still think of country songs as a bit of a joke, I’m afraid,” Mick claimed in a 1968 interview. “We don’t really know anything about country music really, we’re just playing games.” Around the time that he said this Keith was hanging out constantly with Gram Parsons, staying up for five days at a time, playing Hank Williams and Merle Haggard songs and shooting speedballs. Keith has long theorized that Mick was jealous of his dalliances with Gram, so maybe that influenced Mick’s opinion of country. Then again, Mick always did have a sardonic take on this music, as evidenced with “Faraway Eyes,” the surreal, tongue-in-cheek ballad from side two of Some Girls in which he drawls about an elusive woman, God, and driving though Bakersfield.
61. “Sweet Virginia” (1972)
Parsons was also a fixture at Nellcôte, the French villa where the Stones recorded much of Exile, until he was so out of it even Keith thought he should be sent back home to America. While Gram didn’t have any formal involvement in the record, you can hear his influence on rootsy numbers like “Torn And Frayed” and this song, in which Mick drops the fake southern accent and invites you to come on, come on down, to the ultimate party on the ultimate hangout album of all time.
60. “Get Off Of My Cloud” (1965)
The answer record to “Satisfaction” making them global superstars. Like “Satisfaction,” it’s a “mainstream culture sucks” anthem, in which Mick once again is driving in his car, only now he finds a moment’s peace so he decides to take a nap. “In the morning,” he sings, “the parking tickets were just like flags stuck on my windscreen.” Though how anyone could sleep while Charlie bashes the song’s brains out is beyond me.
59. “Time Is On My Side” (1964)
In the 1980s, it become common for hard rock and metal bands to score pop hits by recording power ballads. But this practice was actually pioneered by The Stones two decades earlier. Their earliest hits, including this cover of an R&B ballad initially popularized by Irma Thomas, are all slow songs in which lovelorn losers pine for exes who do not love them back. While not written by Jagger/Richards, it slots in their lane of “resentment” ballads that would eventually become a staple in the ’60s.
58. “As Tears Go By” (1965)
According to legend, this was the first song Mick and Keith ever wrote. It supposedly was produced after their manager Andrew Oldham lacked them in a kitchen for several hours, though Mick’s disputes this. (He claims they weren’t literally held prisoner until they produced a corny strings-laden pop tune.) Any song in which a rock singer mediates on children as a metaphorical symbol of innocence will inevitably head into dodgy territory. (Here again we can hear shades of future power ballads like White Lion’s “When The Children Cry.”) But this somehow isn’t nearly as treacly as it should be, because Keith’s exemplary acoustic picking gives it just enough of an edge.
57. “Heart Of Stone” (1965)
One of the very best of the mid-’60s “resentment” ballads, in part because of how the backing vocals are arranged. Unlike The Beatles, The Stones aren’t known for their harmonies. But as they hit their stride, Keith learned to put his voice slightly behind Mick’s so it haunted him like a greek chorus of pain. They did this trick over and over again and it always worked.
56. “You Got The Silver” (1969)
After sharing co-lead vocals on the previous album’s “Salt Of The Earth,” Keith stepped up to the lead vocalist position on this track from Let It Bleed. In Life, he says he sang it simply “because we had to spread the workload.” But Keith’s vocal cameos on Stones albums would eventually come to feel like mid-set smoke breaks, a chance to pause the proceedings and relax and cough for a moment in the parking lot. He’s not as craggy here as he would sound later, though, after he ran the chemical equivalent of 10,000 spiked-shoed elephants over his larynx.
55. “She Smiled Sweetly” (1967)
If you read enough books about The Stones, you will discover that there are quite a few “Mick and Keith aren’t actually geniuses” truthers out there. These people will argue that [Underappreciated Sideman X] really deserves the credit for [Tremendous Rolling Stones Achievement Y]. One of the subjects of these conspiracy theories is Jack Nitzsche, a musician, arranger, and producer who worked with The Stones from the mid-’60s up through Emotional Rescue, while also contributing to records by Phil Spector and Neil Young, among many others. For The Stones, Nitzsche’s contributions were often uncredited and scarcely compensated, though — according to some Stones experts — he played a vital role in shaping the band’s jams into actual hit songs. Among the albums where you can hear Nitzsche the most is Between The Buttons, in which he plays piano on songs like this drone-y, vibe-y ballad.
54. “She’s A Rainbow” (1967)
My favorite “Underappreciated Sideman X” figure in Stones history is Nicky Hopkins, the finest session pianist in rock history, whose sublime classical-inspired playing can also be heard on records by The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, and scores of other classic-rock favorites. As the Stones entered their ’68-’72 golden era, he was practically a member of the band, and based on Julian Dawson’s biography And On Piano … Nicky Hopkins, there was some expectation on his part that he would officially join. But Hopkins was ultimately kept in the shadows, even when his playing took center stage. Dawson makes a case that Hopkins should have been credited as a co-writer on this track, one of the prettiest Stones songs of the ’60s, as his virtuoso piano is clearly the highlight.
53. “Start Me Up” (1981)
Like so many people who joined and then left The Stones’ camp, Hopkins was enriched by the professional association and devastated by the personal lifestyle. A former teetotaler, he fell into addiction, which compounded his already considerable health issues. The last Stones album he played on was Tattoo You, a patchwork of leftover songs from the ’70s that became one of their best-selling records. What sold the album was “Start Me Up,” their defining late (mid?) career hit that gave them the boost they needed as they entered middle age. The single was released on Aug 14, 1981, just two weeks after the debut of MTV, and it soon became one of the music channel’s early staples. I don’t know if it’s accurate to call the video for “Start Me Up” good exactly, but it’s certainly iconic. The music-video format was ideal for someone like Jagger, who unlike a lot of his boomer rock peers had enough self-awareness to recognize what was ridiculous about himself, and a willingness to exaggerate the ridiculousness for effect. That’s what he’s doing with all of that peacocking in the “Start Me Up” clip and it’s what he really did four years later with David Bowie in the screamingly campy “Dancing In The Streets” video.
52. “Bitch” (1971)
We’re now approaching the main course, when many of the songs are going to be coming from the same albums. One of them is Sticky Fingers, my favorite Stones LP, because it happens to also be the greatest. And by greatest, I means it’s the Stonesiest, a quality that I associate with riffs, grit, attitude, sex, and inebriation. All of these attributes come together on this song, in which Mick once again appears to lash out a woman when he’s really singing about his own inadequacy.
Sometimes I’m sexy, move like a stud
Like kicking the stall all night
Sometimes I’m so shy, got to be worked on
Don’t have no bark or bite, alright
But what most impresses me about “Bitch” is how difficult it is to sing, which Jerry Maguire learned when he tried to duet with Mick after signing Frank Cushman. That impossibly chugging rhythm section would make a normal man feel like he don’t have no bark or bite, alright, but Jagger proceeds instead to move like a stud.
51. “Torn And Frayed” (1972)
Did I just say Sticky Fingers is my favorite Stones album? Actually, Exile On Main St. is also my favorite Stones album. Sticky Fingers is the “all killer no filler” record, the best of this band scaled down to perfection. Exile meanwhile is the “hangout” record, the one in which the vibe and atmosphere amount to something greater than the sum of all the parts. I don’t actually want to be a heroin addict who is forced to hide out from British tax collectors in the south of France in 1971. I merely want the sensation of living that lifestyle. Also, in the case of this song, I would really appreciate some heart-rending pedal steel on the side, please.
Never say Mick can’t find a new way to sing his most familiar hit.
50. “19th Nervous Breakdown” (1965)
Here are more things that would’ve broken up most bands but didn’t break up The Stones: Mick’s performance in the 1992 film Freejack, Ron Wood’s lung cancer, Keith almost killing himself by falling out of a damn tree, Chuck Berry punching Keith in the face, the departure of Bill Wyman.
Let’s address that last one, since we haven’t delved into Bill yet. He’s part of one of rock’s most celebrated rhythm sections and yet he’s by far the least loved and glamorous Stone. In Life, Richards confirms the urban legend about Bill being hired only because he happened to own a P.A. Bill actually wrote his own memoir almost 20 years before Keith, but nobody remembers it, because it’s one of the only books about The Stones that manages to be boring. Oh, and there’s also the matter of him marrying an 18-year-old when he was 52.
But all of that aside, I think he’s an underrated bassist, because like Charlie, he was resolutely unflashy, forever holding his bass at an 84-degree angle with a blank expression. (Bill Wyman’s face is a literal Stone.) The only real “look at me!” flourishes of his career come at the end of this song, with those cool “dive-bomb” bass riffs.
49. “Shattered” (1978)
In which Mick Jagger declares, “I, like Keith, have also ingested hard narcotics.”
48. “Hand Of Fate” (1976)
In which Mick Jagger declares, “I, like Michael Corleone, will murder you with a gun if you cross me.”
47. “Play With Fire” (1965)
Contrary to their “let it all hang out” image, The Stones were known to be exacting in the studio to a punishing degree, playing songs over and over again until Keith was satisfied, even as some observers (including legendary recording engineer Glyn Johns) wished they had gone with an earlier, looser take. But “Play With Fire” is an exception to that, though it’s not really The Stones, just Mick and Keith plus Phil Spector on bass and Jack Nitzsche on harpsichord. An improvisation that arose from a late-night session in Los Angeles, “Play With Me” came out surprisingly well-crafted, and for me is the best of all the “resentment” ballads of the era. Jagger’s lyrics are particularly sharp and unsparing.
Your mother she’s an heiress
Owns a block in Saint John’s Wood
And your father’d be there with her
If he only could
But don’t play with me
‘Cause you’re playing with fire
46. “Let’s Spend The Night Together” (1967)
Johns’ recollections of working with The Stones in his 2014 memoir Sound Man are noticeably less sunny than his stories about working with The Beatles or The Who. Like seemingly everybody who’s not a Stones lifer, he left the organization with an axe to grind. But he does manage to squeeze out one funny tall tale about the making of this lascivious classic, in which Jagger sparks up a joint while recording the vocal right before some police officers wander in while investigating a burglary. The fast-thinking manager Andrew Oldham then asks if they can borrow the officers’ nightsticks. After they hand them over, Mick beats out a rhythm track for the bridge, which apparently is audible on the final track.
45. “If You Really Want To Be My Friend” (1974)
I could be called a contrarian for preferring It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll slightly over Goats Head Soup. But I am undoubtedly a contrarian for loving It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll and not putting the title track on this list. I like “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the song, but it’s probably the last Rolling Stones radio hit I’m interested in hearing at this point. Hopefully the true heads out there will agree with me that the real meat of this record lies with the ballads, including this song, the second finest example of a guitar being put through a Leslie speaker on a Stones song after “Let It Loose.”
44. “Time Waits For No One” (1974)
Another slow, somber epic from It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, and likely the song that convinced Mick Taylor that he had to get the hell out of the band. This is one of the most obvious examples of him being denied the songwriting credit he deserved. There’s no question Taylor is a crucial musical contributor, given the Santana-like arpeggios that send the track sprawling well over six minutes in a manner similar to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” from Sticky Fingers. Except “Time Waits For No One” doesn’t have any of the gutbucket Keith stuff at the start; it’s all a dreamy, majestic haze that’s very particular to this era, and would never be replicated again after Taylor exited.
43. “Ruby Tuesday” (1967)
Since we’re (back) on the subject of songwriting briefs, author Paul Trynka in his book Brian Jones: The Making of The Rolling Stones alleges that Jones deserved credit for co-writing this song with Richards, since he came out with the distinctive recorder lick that echoes throughout the track. For Trynka, “Ruby Tuesday” is one of the best instances of how Jones (contrary to how he’s been depicted in most Stones books, including Richards’ Life) wasn’t just a drug-addled buffoon who was unwilling or unable to contribute. According to the Brian Jones truthers, he was bullied or flat-out robbed into submission, which exacerbated his chemical intake. While I don’t completely buy this assertion — Trynka’s book finds Jones hanging out in hotels with groovy people more than at recording sessions — it’s undeniable that The Stones have failed to come up with a recorder lick as good as “Ruby Tuesday” since Jones left the band.
42. “Before They Make Me Run” (1978)
Richards himself wasn’t always the most reliable Stone in the ’70s, which opened the door to Mick Jagger working more with Mick Taylor, and then sneakily crediting his old pal Keith. (Whatever else is said about the Mick/Keith dynamic, never say they weren’t willing to steal for each other.) But on Some Girls, Keith rose from the dead like some kind of cowboy outlaw with the soul of a slasher killer. “Before They Make Me Run” was his version of “print the legend”-style myth-making, though the faint croak his voice was reduced to at this time — he would soon rebound with shocking vibrancy in the ’80s and beyond — is proof that this isn’t some pose.
41. “Tops” (1981)
All of those languid, soulfully debauched ballads on Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll culminate with side two of Tattoo You, some of the finest music of The Stones’ career, and their last truly top-shelf LP side. After rampaging through some pleasurably dunderheaded rock songs and funk jams on side one, The Stones mellow out for a series of slow jams on side two in which they ruminate on aging, friendship, and show business. In “Tops,” Jagger adopts the persona of a sleazy music industry lothario laying all the usual pickup lines on an unsuspecting neophyte. Once again, Jagger is fearless about affecting a repellent character in a Stones song, though since “Tops” is also an unapologetically older Stones track, he also lets you see the cracks in the eternally confident facade where corruption and decay linger.
40. “Mother’s Little Helper” (1966)
This has been described as a Kinks rip-off, which it sort of is, except Mick is so much meaner to the mother than Ray Davies would have been. Ray would have written it from her perspective; Mick meanwhile drags out that immortal, devastating taunt — “What a draaaaag it is gettin’ old” — with a cruelly mocking tone.
39. “I Am Waiting” (1966)
A deep cut rescued by Wes Anderson when he used it in Rushmore. It doesn’t appear that The Stones have ever even played it on tour, though that might have something to do with the difficulty of traveling with harpsichords and dulcimers.
38. “Not Fade Away” (1964)
In Todd Haynes’ excellent new documentary The Velvet Underground, the band’s drummer Moe Tucker describes hearing this song for the first time on her car radio, and having to pull over because the explosive propulsion pumping out of the speakers was so viscerally exciting. This is the sound of the original Stones in its purest form — a garage-rock thrash that barges in and out in just one minute and 47 seconds, and a perfect example of Keith’s ideal, that solid mass of sound in which no voice or instrument is predominant. Instead, it all hits your nervous system like a closed fist.
37. “Rip This Joint” (1972)
You want a closed fist? How about a swift kick in the ass instead? This is about as straight-ahead as rock ‘n’ roll gets, a Chuck Berry riff shot-through with the power and velocity of proto-punk, and accented with Little Richard-style piano rolls. In other words: Wham, Bham, Birmingham, Alabam’ don’t give a damn.
36. “Memory Motel” (1976)
Like that song about a mysterious hotel also released in 1976, this is about checking into a place anytime you like but never being able to leave. Only in this case, the place is really just your own awareness of how the past has a funny way of leveling you when you least expect it. “Memory Motel” is the rare Stones song that tells a coherent story from beginning to end; it reminds me a little of “Tangled Up In Blue” — Dylan is one of Mick’s chief lyrical influences — especially the part where Hannah talks about heading up to Boston to sing in a bar. I also love how Mick sings the verses and chorus and Keith pops up on the bridge, like they’re having a conversation. Knowing how these guys are, Keith probably had a time with Hannah, too.
35. “Till The Next Goodbye” (1974)
Another song in which Mick gets sentimental about a breakup. I have a theory that deep down he expected Keith to drop dead at any moment in the mid-’70s, and he processed this pain and worry — possibly subconsciously — by writing so many songs about the passage of time and the end of relationships. “Time Waits For No One,” “If You Really Want To Be My Friend,” “Winter” — all of them are like love songs to Keith, the most important companion of his life.
34. “Angie” (1973)
Here meanwhile is Keith being the instigator of a breakup, and enlisting Nicky Hopkins to play some of his most breathtaking piano lines. The sound of this song is heartfelt and earnest, but also a little numb, especially during Hopkins’ solo, in which the string arrangement by Nicky Harrison gives the track an icy, narcotized feel. If this isn’t strictly a farewell song to Mick, it does sound like Keith departing reality for an extended hiatus into heroin addiction.
33. “Happy” (1972)
The quintessential Keith song, the one where he tells his own origin story. “Always took candy from strangers / Didn’t wanna get me no trade,” he sings. “Never want to be like papa / Working for the boss ev’ry night and day.” As Chuck Berry’s most famous student, Keith on “Happy” apes Chuck the lyricist, spinning some low-key self-mythology in which he’s a real-life Johnny B. Goode. To be fair, that’s essentially what Keith Richards is.
32. “Thru And Thru” (1994)
Here’s the thing though about “Happy” (or “Before They Make Me Run” or “You Got The Silver” or “Little T&A”) — Mick could have sung those songs. Keith kills them, but they don’t require him to sing them. Mick however could not have sung “Thru And Thru.” This song absolutely requires Keith’s Nicotine-coated throat to do it justice, which is why it is my choice for the finest vocal performance of his career. (His overdubbed harmony vocal is the second best.) It has nothing to do with the lyrics, which (I think?) are about some kind of lover for hire. (Keith in this instance is offering up himself as the proverbial T&A.) The actual subject of “Thru And Thru” is Keith’s voice — the accumulated mileage, the audible cracks, the indefatigable perseverance. It’s Keith at his least affected — he’s not indulging any of that “living embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll” stuff, he just sounds like a guy who’s been compromised but is trying his best. A real person, all weary flesh and dirty blood, which in turn justifies that “living embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll” stuff. (This song is also about the season two finale of The Sopranos, in which David Chase uses this Stones song almost as brilliantly as Martin Scorsese has used any Stones track.)
31. “Midnight Rambler” Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out version (1969)
When you watch live Stones videos, there’s a magic moment that always happens with Keith turns his back on the audience to face Charlie, and they lock into this intense staredown that wills their instruments to form a single entity of chugging rhythm that immediately becomes hypnotic. I imagine this probably occurred on this version of “Midnight Rambler” recorded at Madison Square Garden on the famous 1969 tour. At 3:46, you hear Keith and Charlie mind-meld for about 20 seconds. Nothing flashy is happening — Charlie isn’t doing his best Neil Peart on the toms, and Keith doesn’t stray one iota from the recurring lick. And yet you can hear these dudes literally levitating off the MSG stage, while Mick does his serial-killer grunts down on the ground.
30. “Street Fighting Man” (1968)
Keith gets loads of credit for his lifestyle somehow not determining his deathstyle. But the mythos overshadows some of his greatest achievements as a musician and record-maker. Nobody ever likens him to Brian Wilson in terms of being a producer, but Keith absolutely was an innovator in this regard, only his version of the grandiose “Good Vibrations” is the impeccably noisy and eccentric “Street Fighting Man.” The basic track was made by Keith by playing an acoustic guitar into a tape recorder with no limiters, which distorted the riff to the point where it sounded like an electric. And then he had Charlie keep time on a 30-year-old toy drum set, which adds to the controlled chaos of the track. Brian Jones later overdubbed sitar and tamboura, resulting in an unsettling lo-fi murk that’s still impossible to penetrate decades later. Keith made a Guided By Voices record in 1968! The lyrical content of “Street Fighting Man” inspired countless broadsides in the moment, but it’s that glorious murk that resonates most profoundly in retrospect.
29. “Emotional Rescue” (1980)
28. “Heaven” (1981)
Is Emotional Rescue the end of The Stones’ “dangerous” period? That’s the premise of Brett Morgen’s 2012 documentary Crossfire Hurricane, which ends pointedly in 1981 during the mega-successful Tattoo You stadium tour. Over some B-roll of The Stones donning football jerseys as they play for 80,000 people a night, Mick suggests that they went from being the world’s most hated band, the villains of Altamont, to a universally adored institution. In the film, this is presented as an unqualified good, as if The Stones being dangerous was actually a flaw in the ’60s and ’70s. Fortunately, the danger hadn’t completely evaporated from their music yet; you can hear it on this song, one of the strangest tracks on Tattoo You — and one of the few to not originate as an outtake from the ’70s — in which Bill Wyman plays guitar and synthesizer and Mick sings in a creepy falsetto about how good his baby smells. As for Keith, the dark prince presumably couldn’t be bothered to play on a song called “Heaven.”
27. “Miss You” (1978)
Let’s raise a glass to Ron Wood, the most affable Stone, the one you would most want to hang out with now that Charlie is no longer with us. This will sound like a backhanded compliment, but it’s not: If The Stones did indeed become less dangerous in the ’80s and beyond, it’s because of him. Starting with Some Girls and that album’s signature chart-topping hit “Miss You,” Ronnie made them a more friendly and less combustible band. Less exciting than they were before, but also far less self-destructive, at least from a public image standpoint. (Ronnie of course has lived and died about 27 times since then.)
26. “Satisfaction” (1965)
Keith famously dreamt up the guitar riff, just as Paul McCartney dreamt up the melody to “Yesterday.” Because The Beatles dream about love, and The Stones dream about sex.
25. “Brown Sugar” (1971)
What are we are going to do with this song? The Stones aren’t playing it on their current tour, which means they might not ever play it again, for reasons that are extremely obvious. But if I may mount a defense of “Brown Sugar”: This is basically The Stones’ version of a Randy Newman song. It’s their “Sail Away.” Under no circumstances is it an endorsement of the activities described within, but it also doesn’t bother to telegraph to the listener any kind of obvious moral condemnation. You have to either get the irony, or you focus solely on the (incredible) guitar riff.
24. “Sister Morphine” (1971)
The greatest song about heroin not named “Heroin.” Shoutout to Marianne Faithfull, who managed to somehow wrangle co-writer credit from Mick and Keith, though not without a fight. As if fighting Marianne Faithfull is ever a tenable idea.
23. “Coming Down Again” (1973)
Keith disputes that this song is about heroin in Life, but concedes that he “wouldn’t have written it without heroin.” All I know is that this is the saddest tune in the band’s catalog. So many Stones ballads are either about being wronged by a lover or regrettably leaving a lover behind. There’s some of that in this song, particularly the lines that are presumed to be about Keith taking up with Anita Pallenberg after she left Brian Jones:
Slipped my tongue in someone else’s pie
Tasting better every time
She turned green and tried to make me cry
Being hungry it ain’t no crime
But there’s no bravado in these lyrics, no sense of victory over a despised rival. The unbearable sorrow of “Coming Down Again” is directed entirely inward. It’s about reaching a point of degradation so deep and irredeemable that you can’t live comfortably in your own skin. “Where are all my friends?” Keith asks. He’s alienated them all and he knows, which is why he needs to get high again. It’s a miracle that Keith survived the ’70s, but it’s inconceivable that he actually survived the making of this song.
22. “The Last Time” (1965)
Recorded at the same L.A. session that also produced “Play With Fire,” this prototypical early Stones rocker nicks prodigiously from The Staple Singers’ “This May Be The Last Time” for its chorus. But it’s that droning riff that’s really significant in Stones’ history — it’s their first iconic guitar part, though there’s some dispute over who wrote it. In Life Richards implies it’s his, while Brian Jones biographer Paul Trynka says it came from him. Nobody asked me to play jury on this but: The vaguely Arabic feel does seem to point to Brian. It doesn’t have that start-stop thing that “Satisfaction”/”Jumpin’ Jack Flash”/”Start Me Up” has. Therefore, I must rule on behalf of the dead Stone.
21. “Paint It Black” (1966)
There’s no disputing that Brian came up with the distinctive sitar part that makes this song. (Though, again, he wasn’t credited as a co-writer.) With all due respect to George Harrison, this is the best use of that particular instrument in a rock song. Somewhat surprisingly, this is also the most popular Stones song on Spotify, and it’s not particularly close. (It has about 200 million more streams than the second most popular track, “Satisfaction.”) It just goes to show that the world is filled with Full Metal Jacket stans.
20. “Let It Loose” (1972)
One of Mick’s top five vocals. If the criteria is raw emotional impact, it might be No. 1.
19. “All Down The Line” (1972)
It’s impossible for me to separate this song from “Let It Loose” in my mind, though that is due entirely to me first hearing Exile on cassette, and then on CD. On the vinyl, “Let It Loose” ends side three, and “All Down The Line” kicks off side four. But I must say I still prefer the CD/cassette progression, because these songs fit together so well. You have the emotional gospel ballad that reduces you to tears, and then you have the electrifying rocker that dries your eyes and gets your body moving. If anything, “Stop Breaking Down” should have started side four, as that feels like the start of a separate three-song progression that ultimately closes the album. As it is, you won’t find a more exciting 10 seconds in all of Stones-dom than Keith playing off of Charlie for 10 seconds at the start of this track.
18. “Worried About You” (1981)
More Mick falsetto, though this song is the Sunday morning counterpoint to the Saturday night sleaze of “Emotional Rescue.” But the real heart of “Worried About You” is Keith’s backing vocal. While Mick does his velvety kitten routine, Keith is almost shouting behind him, in that very high-lonesome Keith sort of way. It’s one of the most effective uses of Mick and Keith’s anti-harmonies — you feel Keith urging Mick to expose his soul. After the guitar solo (courtesy of Wayne Perkins, from a tryout during the Black And Blue sessions), Mick finally gets down to Keith’s level with some emotional, guttural emoting, really driving the song home. As the first track on my precious side two of Tattoo You, “Worried About You” sets the tone of middle-aged melancholy that dominates the back half of the record.
17. “Jigsaw Puzzle” (1968)
Beggars Banquet is the most terrifying “statement” rock album about the ’60s, capturing the violence and fear and paranoia that was edging out the hippie-hippie stuff years before Altamont. And this song, along with “Sympathy For The Devil,” really nails that mood, with Keith’s slide guitar part slashing against the relentless thump of Charlie’s drums. Lyrically, this is Mick really reaching for some Dylanesque imagery:
Oh, there’s twenty-thousand grandmas
Wave their hankies in the air
All burning up their pensions
And shouting, “It’s not fair!”
But it’s the fevered intensity of his vocal that really sells it. The band is playing so fast and hard that it feels like Mick might get trampled on the road to hell at any moment.
16. “Tumbling Dice” (1972)
It rocks but also rolls, without ever seeming to try that hard. The Stones are just hanging out at Nellcôte, it seems, but who in the world can hang with cats this cool? “You can be my partner in crime,” Mick sings. Really Mick? You want me? Who wouldn’t want to partner with this lot? It just sounds so damn inviting, starting with Keith’s sly opening lick, one of the most comforting sounds in the entire Stones catalog.
15. “Dead Flowers” (1971)
The Stones invent alt-country. Also, they give Townes Van Zandt one of his greatest songs, quite an achievement given all of those wonderful Townes Van Zandt songs “Dead Flowers” has to compete with.
14. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (1969)
At the end of the ’60s, the era’s most popular pop-rock acts, The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, produced big anthems that struck a tone of reconciliation, “Let It Be” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Having made a mint during the decade from counter-programming — if not for themselves, then certainly Allen Klein — The Stones responded with an epic about reconciling yourself to failure. I’m never quite sure if using the English choir is meant to be a sarcastic dig at someone like Paul McCartney, as there isn’t anything remotely sweet about “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in the manner of Macca’s ingratiating sing-alongs. Maybe the point is that accepting life’s shortcomings is an act that also deserves celebration, because learning to appreciate what you need over what you desire is an essential part of being alive.
13. “Monkey Man” (1969)
I’ll be seeing The Stones later this month at a stadium in Minneapolis. I last saw them in 1994 during the Voodoo Lounge tour. I assumed then that the band would be too old to continue once the tour was over; I’m going into this show thinking the same, though I would never put money on it. What’s sad to me is that I was supposed to see them in 2020, but then the pandemic robbed me of the chance to see Charlie with the band one last time. I’ve seen clips of them playing with Steve Jordan, who’s an excellent musician, and I’m sure I’ll have a wonderful time. But, Jesus Christ, have you heard what Charlie does in the final stretches of this song, after the majestic duet between Keith and Nicky Hopkins? Mick screams “I’m monnnnnnnnkeeahh” and Charlie plays what sounds like the funkiest, most swinging stripper beat in the history of smut. It never fails to make me feel like I just downed five shots of Jack simultaneously. Rock drumming simply doesn’t get any better than that.
12. “No Expectations” (1968)
The slide guitar part Brian Jones lays down here is one of his final moments on record, and in my opinion it’s also his greatest. He plays like a man who knows he’s already dead. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I must also shout out Nicky Hopkins’ piano lick, the only sunshine in an otherwise pitch-black space.
11. “Moonlight Mile” (1971)
The best album-closer in Stones history. Also a song that’s impossible to imagine without Mick Taylor, who (of course) didn’t get songwriting credit but nevertheless was the key to all of the gloriously languid ballads The Stones produced in the early ’70s.
10. “Beast Of Burden” (1978)
The Stones don’t get the “tunesmith” cred that’s always lavished on The Beatles. But you don’t stick around for 60 years without some pretty melodies. And this one ranks with their very best. Mick and Keith are both in top form here. The guitar lick is sweet with being too soft-rock, thanks to that reliable hitch that Keith gives it. And the vocal at the end — the part that starts with “You can put me out on the street” — is one of my very favorite Mick line readings.
9. “Waiting On A Friend” (1981)
Their most gorgeous song, and the peak of Tattoo You‘s side two. Mick’s falsetto is sublime, and the lyrics are shockingly amicable and mature. But, c’mon, the star of “Waiting On A Friend” is Sonny Rollins, the greatest ringer in Stones history, who delivers not one but two stunning sax solos.
8. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1968)
In which Keith Richards conceptualizes the next phase of The Rolling Stones, initiates the ’68-’72 golden era, and finally realizes the sound in his head. A song you can hear a million times and, unlike “Satisfaction,” never get sick of. The man himself has said that you can you take all of his riffs away so long as you leave this one, his favorite to play.
7. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (1971)
Well, everyone knows that cocaine is bad for you. What this song presupposes is … maybe it isn’t?
6. “Wild Horses” (1971)
I haven’t said anything yet about Gimme Shelter, the 1970 documentary by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin that deep-sixed The Stones’ reputation for the next decade. I feel like I would have to write another 12,000 words to do the film justice, but let’s just say it remains the most riveting and horrifying rock doc ever made. However, the scene I want to talk about has nothing to do with Meredith Hunter or the Hell’s Angels or that wolf-like dog that stalks the stage while the band plays at Altamont. I want to talk about the sweetest part of an otherwise disturbing film, the scene in which the band listens to a playback of “Wild Horses” at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio. Imagine you had just written and recorded “Wild Horses.” You would probably be pretty impressed with yourself. And that’s exactly what The Stones are. Keith in particular is ecstasy, silently mouthing the words and tapping his snakeskin-booted right foot. A feeling of holy shit we did this! hangs over the room. The reverie is only broken after Charlie realizes that the camera is trained on him for a bit too long.
5. “Sway” (1971)
Did I just list a three-song progression from side one of Sticky Fingers in reverse order? Yes. Yes I did. I must also shout out the great Mick Taylor one last time. The Stones didn’t play “Sway” live until 2005, and conspiracy theorists surmise that this is related to Taylor not getting his due as a songwriter. He’s indisputably responsible for all of the guitar heroics on this track. (Keith doesn’t even play on it.) For all of the credit that Keith deserves for being the architect of The Stones’ musical salad days, it’s also a fact that one of the most sublime expressions of The Stones’ aesthetic was executed by his guitar partner.
4. “Loving Cup” (1972)
We talk about The Stones like they’re a single entity but they’re not. The Brian Jones era is a different band from the Ron Wood era, which is a different band from the post-Bill Wyman years. And then there’s the Exile period, in which the core five are joined by Nicky Hopkins on piano, Bobby Keys on saxophone, and Jim Price on trumpet. This eight-piece lineup isn’t only the best version of The Stones, it might very well be the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band that ever existed. On “Loving Cup,” they create this punchy, bouncy, sunny ball of impossibly warm sound. They’re a gang of killers, but they’re the sweetest, most attractive band of murderers who ever stalked the earth. What a beautiful buzz, indeed.
3. “Sympathy For The Devil” (1968)
Bob Dylan once said that he could’ve written “Satisfaction” but The Stones couldn’t have written “Mr. Tamborine Man.” Well, Bob, great as he is, couldn’t have written “Sympathy For The Devil,” and he certainly couldn’t have inhabited the song like Mick Jagger. This is his finest moment as a lyricist and as a vocalist, in which he takes stock of all the evil in the world and dares to actually embody it against a ruthlessly rocking samba rhythm. (Keep in mind that the Robert Kennedy assassination, which Mick references, occurred just six months before the song was released as a single. No man was less afraid of going there again and again.) Forget Black Sabbath or Slayer — great as they are, they can’t touch “Sympathy For The Devil” for pure malevolence.
2. “Gimme Shelter” (1969)
Keith’s “Sympathy For The Devil.” When Satan hears Mick’s song, he nods in recognition. When he hears Keith’s song, he’s scared shitless. That opening guitar lick is the most foreboding sound in rock history. And then Merry Clayton materializes and delivers the single most demonic vocal on a Stones record. Seriously, Martin Scorsese hasn’t used this song enough.
1. “Rocks Off” (1972)
To be clear, “Gimme Shelter” is the best Stones song. But “Rocks Off” is my favorite. I just said the Exile-era lineup is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band ever, and this song proves it. It’s all grooves and swagger and kick-ass-itude. God, what a fun band they can be when they’re cooking! When I hear Mick say “oh yeeeeeah,” I know I’m about to have the time of my life. And I’m brought back instantly to what this band represented to me as a kid — a portal to a world that was scary and thrilling and illicit and way too grown-up for me. “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me”? Hell yeah. Pour me some of that and let’s do this.
Yes, I know it’s all a dream. In reality, The Stones hardly ever played together at Nellcôte. (Mick will tell you Exile was salvaged during the L.A. sessions.) The Stones were just there to avoid paying taxes, anyway. It wasn’t romantic. It was business. And it was senseless and destructive. At the French villa, there were loads of strung-out people lurking in the background (and also in the foreground). Lives were wrecked in the process. People died. Keith probably eradicated a good part of his talent with drugs. Mick responded by walling himself behind a veneer of persona and professionalism. These guys would literally screw each others’ women to avoid having an honest conversation about their feelings. They aren’t a gang. They were, and are, a corporation.
But that’s the miracle of “Rocks Off.” When I hear that “oh yeeeeeah,” none of that stuff matters. Charlie comes in with that relentless backbeat, and I can’t even feel the pain no more.
I suspect the same is true for The Stones. Why do they stay together? Because it keeps the dream going. And Mick can only get his rocks off when he’s dreaming.