The Rolling Stones turned 50 this week. In celebration the band announced a photo exhibition celebrating their career which runs from July 13 through August 27 at The Somerset House Galleries in London. After the exhibition is completed the photos will be released by publishers Thames & Hudson in book form.
The band is arguably the most prolific in rock ‘n roll history. With nearly 30 studio albums, a dozen live albums, 30 compilation albums, and more than 100 singles, nobody can touch the Stones. Band founders Mick Jagger (vocals) and Keith Richards (guitar) remain two of the most iconic legends in music history. Drummer Charlie Watts has also been with the band almost since its inception.
Over the years, the Rolling Stones’ music has been ubiquitous on rock radio stations. Attempting to rank their greatest songs is unfathomable and potentially criminal to rock aficionados. Yet in honor of Jagger, Richards, Watts, guitarist Ronnie Wood, and retired bassist Bill Wyman, I have chosen my 20 Best Rolling Stones songs. While the Stones released numerous hits from the 80s on, these selections come from what many consider to be the band’s defining era, the 60s and 70s.
1. Gimme Shelter (1969) — This is the opening track from the bands “Let it Bleed” album. A moody and visceral song that manages to encompass the social angst of the era. There is a soulful yet edgy darkness to this track makes it one of Jagger and Richards’ most brilliant works. Yet what truly takes the song to the next level is the haunting voice of background singer Merry Clayton, which was actually the suggestion of producer Jimmy Miller.
2. Sympathy For The Devil (1968) — From the “Beggar’s Banquet” album, what started as a simple folk-style song turned into something far more. Jagger takes the local point of view of Lucifer contrasting the darkness inside every man versus our perception of what is truly evil. One of many songs that caused controversy for the band, it was later covered by Guns N’ Roses.
3. Wild Horses (1971) — This track hails from the bands seminal “Sticky Fingers” record. Jagger’s poignant ode to then lover Marianne Faithful, this is arguably the band’s most beautiful song. A very emotive ballad that crosses multiple genres.
4. Angie (1973) — A sweet ballad with an undertone of darkness, the song became the first single off the band’s “Goats Head Soup”. The song and album were recorded in Jamaica, and represents the last Stone’s record for longtime producer Jimmy Miller. The lyrical content is often miss-accredited to various relationships in Jagger’s life; however Richards, who was the primary writer, revealed that “Angie” was his euphemism for heroin. A habit he had been trying to kick prior to recording the album.
5. You Can’t Always Get What You Want (1969) — Another track from “Let it Bleed”. This song has some beautiful piano that seems to drip with ache. Drummer Charlie Watts could not quite get the groove on the track so producer Jimmy Miller filled in. An ode to the excess of the 60s. Fellow Brits, Def Leppard covered justly years later.
6. Dead Flowers (1971) – Another track from the “Sticky Fingers” album. This song finds the band dipping its collective toe into country territory, though Jagger’s vocals and intonation keep it from falling in.
7. Tumbling Dice (1972) – A boogie and blues love song about gambling from the “Exile on Main St.” record. Women were a far second for the song’s protagonist. Linda Ronstadt would re-record it six years later with great success. Once again, the backing female vocals add a perfect texture to the track.
8. Under My Thumb (1966) This little gem fell of the “Aftermath” record. The song locks into a sweet little groove that pulls the listener in. This song is the unwelcome notoriety of being the track the band was performing at the time of the Altamont incident, wherein a drug-addled fan pulled a gun and was subsequently fatally stabbed by a Hell’s Angel.
9. Let’s Spend the Night Together (1967) — This song appeared on the U.S. version of the band’s “Between the Buttons” album and immediately ran into controversy for its suggestive lyrical content about casual sex. Ed Sullivan refused to allow the band to perform it on their show unless they altered the lyrics.
9. Street Fighting Man (1968) — Released at a time when both France and America were rife with social turmoil, this marks perhaps the Rolling Stones most political song. “What can a poor boy do but sing in a rock and roll band?”
10. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (1971) — Again we return to “Sticky Fingers”. This track is one of those accidental delights. Richards found the riff and Watts found the groove, and they were off, but it is the impromptu jam at the end that makes this seven minute song such a classic.
11. Ruby Tuesday (1967) — This track also appeared only on the U.S. version of the band’s “Between the Buttons” album and became the unwitting benefactor of the controversy surrounding “Let’s Spend the Night Together”. “Ruby Tuesday” was the b-side of the single and stations opted to play it rather than risk losing listeners and advertisers.
12. It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It) (1974) — From the album of the same name, the band took a look at fan expectations on this anthemic rocker. The album title and chorus have become embedded in pop culture.
13. The Last Time (1965) — From the album “Out of Our Heads” the Stones penned a gem with this track. Despite songwriting credit going to Jagger and Richards, Mick has stated that the inspiration came from a Staples Singers gospel track from 1955 called “This May Be the Last Time”.
14. Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1968) — One of the bands most easily recognizable hits, the track was actually a leftover from the “Beggar’s Banquet” recordings. It was later released on a greatest hits compilation. This is a classic Stones feel good, up-tempo rocker.
15. As Tears Go By (1965) — The first hit written by Jagger and Richards as a tandem. Despite being released as a single after “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud” it was written first and recorded by then, 17-year-old Marianne Faithful. The song first appeared on the band’s “December’s Children (And Everybody’s)” album.
16. Honky Tonk Women (1969) — Like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” this was recorded as single and only appeared on greatest hits albums. However there are several variations of the song. A country-tinged version appears on the “Let It Bleed” album as “Country Honk”. This is perhaps the first “cowbell” song.
17. It’s All Over Now (1964) — The only non-Stones penned track on this list. The guys covered a Bobby Womack track recorded by The Valentinos. The song landed on the band’s “12 x 5” album. In his 2010 biography “Life” Richards noted that John Lennon criticized his guitar solo on this song and Richards agreed that it was not one of his best, though Bruce Springsteen and many other guitar fans rank it as one of the most inspired guitar breaks ever recorded, and one that is still hard to mimic.
18. Brown Sugar (1971) – The song appeared on the band’s “Sticky Fingers” album. It was the album’s lead off track, and represents the heart of the band’s rock and blues grove style. Jagger once told Rolling Stone he could not even write lyrics like these anymore because he’d censor himself. At the time the lyrical content was highly controversial and adds appeal to the raw nature of the track.
19. Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) (1973) — Another track from the band’s “Goats Head Soup” album. The song is another angsty sonic treatise on the tragic loss of human life in the mean streets of urban cities. Some nice funk on this one, and Billy Preston throws down on the clavinet.
20. Paint It, Black (1966) – One of the most covered songs in the band’s catalog, this psychedelic-tinged track appeared on “Aftermath”. The band initially began working on it as something of a joke, and ultimately it took on a dark life of its own. The comma in the song title was added by the record label.
As blasphemous as it may seem, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” did not make the list. Did it make your list? Sound off below and let us know which songs you would add to your own Top 20 list.