Almanac Music: The Rolling Stones’ Best 50 Songs

 

Photo: Colin Abbott.

 

[Note: the story of this photo, taken in February 1973 by Almanac writer and photographer Col Abbott is told HERE]

 

 

This list is compiled by Smokie Dawson:

 

 

The Rolling Stones formed in 1962, and next month will embark on another tour of the United States. Still with three founding members (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts), their longevity is nothing short of extraordinary. But the Stones have always been unique – a musical and social force of nature. Although their most productive period (1968’s Beggar’s Banquet through to 1972’s Exile On Main St) is now almost half a century behind them, the Stones won a Grammy Award as recently as 2018 for Blue & Lonesome, their critically acclaimed album of blues covers.

 

By any measure, their back-catalogue is without parallel (and this from a Beatles fan). The myths and legends surrounding the Stones are a phenomenon. From the tragic downfall of Brian Jones, the brief but brilliant input from Mick Taylor, the excess and drug-taking, to the sheer survival story of Keith Richards, to describe the Stones’ journey as “epic” would be to do them a dis-service.

 

So, in anticipation of their 60th anniversary, I thought it might be a fun exercise to rank my 50 favourite Rolling Stones tracks, in order from 50 to 1. Note: I have included only originals, which means that classics such as “Little Red Rooster”, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”, and “It’s All Over Now” (a personal favourite) are precluded from this list.

 

 

  1. Heart Of Stone (1964)

A slow ballad from the mid-60’s in which tough-guy Mick claims that his heart of stone will never be broken. Slightly misogynistic lyrics which, to be honest, are not infrequent in the Stones’ mid-60’s work. There is also an early hint of a country twang to the guitars, which would be explored more in depth later in the decade.

 

  1. Midnight Rambler (1969)

Such is the depth of the Stones’ catalogue that this classic only scrapes in at #49. As bluesy as anything the Stones have ever done, Jagger’s harmonica is compelling and Keith Richards’ slide guitar is irresistible. Loosely based on the story of the Boston Strangler, it is a 7-minute epic which remains a staple of their live shows.

 

  1. All Down The Line (1972)

The days of recording a sprawling opus of an album such as Exile On Main St, in a drug-fuelled debauched haze, are long gone. Fortunately we can muse about such goings-on while listening to the gems we are left with. Such as this, a belting rock song dominated by guitars and with Jagger in superb form. The horn section adds to the good time singalong feel.

 

  1. Out Of Time (1966)

Almost verging on operatic but containing traces of their soul influences, this largely forgotten track from Aftermath is still ‘hummable’ in the extreme. As with “Under My Thumb”, Jones’ marimba is distinctive. The track was a huge hit for Chris Farlowe, and recently used to great effect in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.

 

  1. Sweet Virginia (1972)

Mick’s harmonica drags the listener right in to a wonderfully rollicking acoustic track with a loose collective belting out a memorable chorus.

 

  1. Moonlight Mile (1971)

An alluring epic, largely under-appreciated with Mick musing about the loneliness of life on the road. The strings add a glorious touch, and Mick Taylor is in top form, as always. If you don’t know this song, I urge you to become acquainted with it.   

 

  1. Worried About You (1981)

Jagger starts in a falsetto which hits all the right notes, and then almost growls in anger later in this song about uncertainty. Keith lends perfect backing vocals.

 

  1. Respectable (1978)

Probably the most rock ‘n’ roll of all the tracks on Some Girls, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood have a wonderful interplay driven along by Charlie Watts’ pulsating snare.  

 

  1. Loving Cup (1972)

Possibly Nicky Hopkins’ greatest contribution to a Stones track, his keyboards lift this track to otherwise unattainable heights. Another fiery gospel-country infused sing-along from Exile that remains undeniable and compelling.

 

  1. Get Off Of My Cloud (1965)

The follow-up single to “Satisfaction”, this track was also a smash hit. My favourite part of this song is the swirling guitar riff which repeats throughout the entire track, almost like a police siren. In full flight, Keith Richards and Brian Jones were a peerless twin guitar combination. An early example of Jagger commenting on broader issues which their success was bringing into focus.

 

  1. Torn And Frayed (1972)

Side 2 of Exile has a decidedly country feel, and while the guitars and Jagger’s stylised vocals enhance that country feel on this track, there is also a gospel flavour to it. I like to think the lyrics are about the power of music, and that no matter the singer’s appearance (“his coat is torn and frayed”) the song will make it all ok (“as long as the guitar plays/let it steal your heart away”).

 

  1. Brown Sugar (1971)

I have never been a huge fan of this track, but there is no denying its power, the brilliant opening riff, Bobby Keys’ sax, nor the ambiguous lyrics. Actually, come to think of it, I may have to reassess that long-held opinion!

 

  1. As Tears Go By (1964)

One of the earliest of their original compositions, this track is certainly not the greatest ballad, but it has a strange whimsical, baroque feel which makes it more interesting than it otherwise should be.

 

  1. Waiting On A Friend (1981)

The final track on Tattoo You sees a soulful Jagger in a reflective mood, contemplating the nature of friendship. The guitars are smooth and understated, and it is all topped off by the legendary jazzman Sonny Rollins chiming in with a sensational sax solo. Of course, the accompanying video, shot in New York, is one of the Stones’ most well-known film clips.

 

  1. Bitch (1971)

A full-on rock song, with a brilliant final line in the chorus “My heart is beating louder than a big bass drum” that leads into banging guitar and horns. That earworm of a brass riff is a killer!

 

  1. It’s Only Rock n Roll (But I Like It) (1974)

Simply a great guitar-based rock song, with pointed lyrics questioning their critics.

 

  1. Let It Bleed (1969)

There is a superb unruliness to this track which is irresistible, highlighted by Keith’s loose backing vocals in the chorus. Still as catchy as the day it was released.

 

  1. Dead Flowers (1971)

The dark lyrics, referencing drug-taking and sex amongst other topics, belie the superb interplay between the guitars of Taylor and Richards, Jagger’s vocals, and the honky-tonk piano.

 

  1. Rocks Off (1972)

The opening track to the epic that is Exile, “Rocks Off” offers a grab-bag of hints as to what is to follow. Loose, ramshackle, electrically-charged, awash with horns, a great riff and changes of key; it is the perfect pre-curser to all which follows.

 

  1. Mother’s Little Helper (1966)

“What a drag it is getting old!” is surely one of the greatest opening lines in popular music. And the track is pretty cool as well. Mick Jagger is in top form, sharply observant in ruminating on the issue of housewives and prescription “little yellow” pills, in what many mused was a pushback to contemporary handwringing over youth drug-taking. The Indian-flavoured guitars also pack a punch.

 

  1. Memory Motel (1976)

Despite those kitschy sounding 70’s keyboards, this beautiful track retains a genuine sadness that comes through in Mick and Keith’s passionate vocals. Black and Blue has a disjointed feel, reflecting the band’s state of flux following the departure of Mick Taylor, but there a few gems on the album. And how can one not sing along to the sweet, sweet chorus on this track?  

 

  1. Happy (1972)

The best track on which Keith has sung lead (closely followed by “Before They Make Me Run”). The opener to side 3 of Exile, as the title suggests it is a ramshackle track of sheer joy, with excellent horns.

 

  1. Far Away Eyes (1978)

Is this a reverential nod to the genre, or one giant piss-take? I tend to think it is a bit of both, with sly lyrics that have more than a little to say about America. The chorus is as catchy as any Stones tune.

 

  1. Honky Tonk Women (1969)

How about that riff? How about that distinctive cowbell? And how about that timeless lyric “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind”? All brilliant stuff in a pounding song that has not aged one bit.

 

  1. Shine A Light (1972)

Surely this is the Stones’ greatest gospel track. One of the many highlights on Exile On Main St, it begins delicately and builds ever so slowly to a remarkable crescendo. Billy Preston’s keyboards are prominent, and the backing singers incredible. Jagger at his imperious best.

 

  1. Fool To Cry (1976)

Mick Jagger has never been the greatest singer, but he is as versatile as anyone who has ever grabbed a microphone. His falsetto in this ballad is simply superb; the lyrics initially speak of a daughter helping her father through sadness “Daddy, you’re a fool to cry”. The atmospheric electric keyboards are very much of the mid-70’s period.

 

  1. I’m Free (1965)

Because The Stones have produced so many great songs, this is one that is often overlooked when considering their work. Slightly folky in feel, with jangling guitars, and lyrics straight from the hippy era “I’m free to do what I want any old time’, this track still plays like the anthem it always has been.

 

  1. Till The Next Goodbye (1974)

This track contains some of my favourite Stones lyrics. Starting with “Honey is there any place that you would like to eat/ I know a coffee shop down on Fifty second Street”, the pictures painted of an illicit affair are vivid. There are plenty of others: “And I’m thinking to myself she surely looks a treat”, “You give me a cure-all from New Orleans”. There is a sadness to this gorgeous and under-rated track from “It’s Only Rock n Roll”. The acoustic guitar surely is “a treat”.

 

  1. Let’s Spend The Night Together (1967)

Even some 54 years after its release, the suggestive lyrics are something to behold. (As recently as 2006, the Stones were prohibited from performing the song in China!) Musically, it’s a straight-ahead rocker with superb backing vocals.

 

  1. Angie (1973)

For a rock band with a blues heritage, the Rolling Stones have always been surprisingly comfortable doing ballads and this is probably the most delicate ballad of them all. A gorgeously gentle song.

 

  1. 19th Nervous Breakdown (1966)

Don’t you just love Mick’s sarcastic lyrics, so ahead of their time in 1966? The duelling guitars of Jones and Richards are a delight.

 

  1. Ruby Tuesday (1967)

Touchingly tender, I have always read this as Jagger saying farewell to a lover, and recently had my suspicions confirmed when reading about the origins of the track. The piano and recorder are beautiful touches, and as with most great Stones songs the melody is unforgettable.

 

  1. Miss You (1978)

An infectious beat straight from the disco era, with an equally infectious and smooth melody to go along with it. Bill Wyman’s bass line is superb, as is the sax solo. One of their most popular tracks.

 

  1. Tumbling Dice (1972)

Shouting along to this is almost unavoidable. Just a great, loose, singalong track with a sensational chorus. The band, and friends, are in superb from. Another belter from Exile.

 

  1. Under My Thumb (1966)

The lyrics have not really stood the test of time – a misogynist rant about putting a woman in her place, which is cringeworthy. But musically, the track has an endearing quality. The hook is still beautifully alluring, especially Jones’ distinctive marimba

 

  1. Shattered (1978)

The Some Girls album wears its New York influences boldly, and “Shattered” is the track which most dramatically showcases them. Jagger’s vocal is part-sung part-spoken part-yelled, but it keeps the listener interested until the end. The lazy “Sha-doo-be” backing vocals are perfectly complimentary.

 

  1. Wild Horses (1971)

Ostensibly a love song, the “wild horses” line was written by Keith, wishing he did not have to leave his son to go on tour. It is still beautifully tender, especially the wistful final line “We’ll ride them some day”.

 

  1. Street Fighting Man (1968)

Interesting, intriguing acoustic guitar sounds grab you by the scruff of the neck to begin with, and then along comes Jagger’s almost angry vocals. Brian Jones’ sitar is again prominent. I love the line “But what can I poor boy do/ But to sing for a rock n roll band” (as does Springsteen, for what it’s worth). Heavily influenced by contemporary global political turmoil, it created controversy in Vietnam-era America upon its release.

 

  1. The Last Time (1965)

A song that is of the 60’s, the superb melody stands the test of time, and Brian Jones’ guitar hook is simply unforgettable. This was the first Jagger/Richards composition to be released as a single in the UK. The B side, “Play with Fire”, is also a cracking tune.

 

  1. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (1971)

A song in two parts: the original track with the vocals, and an extended jam tacked on to it. When Mick Taylor replaced the late Brian Jones, he sure left his mark on the Stones. The Taylor-led improvised jam at the back end of this track is a prime example of what he contributed to the band. And that sax solo by the late Bobby Keys? It still gets me going.

 

  1. Tell Me (You’re Coming Back) (1964)

Their first ever composition released as an A-side in the USA, “Tell Me” was an early glimpse at just how great a song-writing combo Jagger and Richards would prove to be. A poppy love song with marked changes of tempo and almost baroque feel, it was vastly different from the blues and Motown covers for which the Rolling Stones were renowned at the time.

 

  1. Paint It Black (1966)

The vibrant and pulsating beat are completely at odds with the dark and sombre nature of the lyrics which reference a love who has passed away. The chanting background vocals are infectious, and Brian Jones’ sitar gives the track something of a Middle Eastern feel, which was most unusual for pop music in 1966. Overall, it’s another foot-stomper.     

 

  1. She’s A Rainbow (1967)

One the psychedelic era’s most beautiful songs, this track is built around a simple piano melody accompanied by “ooh-la-la” backing vocals. I have never been quite sure what to make of the lyrics, but they are certainly uplifting, nonetheless.

 

  1. Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1968)

Another compelling opening riff from Keith, leading into lyrics of a biblical nature, and an oh so catchy chorus and all-round bluesy feel. This track marked the beginning of their most productive and memorable four-year period and was light years away from Her Satanic Majesty’s Request. And how about that brilliant opening line: “I was born in a crossfire hurricane”? Unforgettable!

 

  1. Time Waits For No-one (1974)

Mick Taylor was once described by Keith Richards as a “virtuoso”, and on this aural tour-de-force he proves it. Allegedly, one of the reasons he quit the Stones is that he was promised a writing credit for this and various other tracks, but they were never received. The ballad sees Jagger in a sombre mood, reflecting on life and mortality in general. But for me the song belongs to Taylor, and his outro guitar solo is a masterpiece.

 

  1. Sympathy For The Devil (1968)

I was fortunate enough to the Stones at Wembley Stadium in 1990 at the tail-end of their ‘Steel Wheels’ tour. This song was the highlight of the show, Jagger appearing atop a scaffold high above the stage, dressed as the devil. Often accused of copying the Beatles’, the Stones had plenty of original ideas of their own; the lyrics again reference social issues – in particular, historical atrocities. The groove here is superb, and the “woo-woo” backing vocals unforgettable.

 

  1. Beast Of Burden (1978)

This is the Stones’ sexiest, most sultry track, and it is my favourite from Some Girls, perfectly suited to slow dancing. Smooth guitars, with Richards and Wood trading licks, are a highlight. Jagger referred to it as a soulful, imploring, “begging” song, but Richards once said it was about him asking Mick for forgiveness.

 

  1. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (1965)

Ah, that opening riff! Fat, loud and wonderful, it is one of the greatest in music history, and certainly the most recognizable. This belter, telling of a mounting restlessness and frustration, never fails to get the feet stomping. Hey, hey, hey!!

 

  1. You Can’t Always Get What You Want (1969)

A song so beautifully constructed it is a work of art. Commencing with the London Bach Choir leading into Richards’ soft acoustic guitar, the track builds to a crescendo including a wonderful mix of keyboards. Notable also is the mournful French horn. Jagger’s masterful lyrics of disillusionment, regret and resignation are a sombre farewell to the 60’s.

 

  1. Gimme Shelter (1969)

This song has just about everything. A mesmerizing but subtle opening riff from Keith which gives no hint of what is to follow: an imperious soul-infused performance by Mick Jagger, and a sensational backing vocal from Merry Clayton, who warns the listener “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!” (Clayton tragically suffered a miscarriage shortly after the recording). It is simply musical perfection, with Watts’ and Wyman’s driving groove relentlessly ushering us to what may or may not be an impending disaster of “fire” and “floods”. Half a century after its release it remains one of the greatest achievements in rock music.

 

 

[Note: the story of the photo, taken in February 1973 by Almanac writer and photographer Col Abbott is told HERE]

About Darren Dawson

Always North.

Comments

  1. Smokie- great list although it must’ve been an enormous task. Well done on compiling this. Gimme Shelter an excellent number one- I’ll be curious to see if others forward an alternate. Not just the Stones’ best but among popular culture’s finest moments. Side 2 of Exile is probably my favourite side along with side 2 of Abbey Road. The Stones in country mode is among their best versions or styles. Two minor quibbles: I reckon Keith’s best lead vocal is You’ve Got The Silver from Let It Bleed. Indeed, on my list it’d probably rank in the teens. And I’d bump Moonlight Mile up the list. It’s sublime.

    I’ve just popped on Exile to accompany me through my morning’s work. Thanks.

  2. Colin Ritchie says

    Cracking effort Smokie!
    My top 4 that come to mind are:
    1: ‘Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)’,
    2: ’Take it or leave it’, ’
    3:The Singer not the Song’, and
    4: ‘Wild Horses’

    I saw the Stones at Kooyong in 1973, fantastic. Nearly saw them at JazzFest New Orleans in 2019 but they pulled out when Mick was crook.
    Love the Stones but I must admit I prefer their earlier stuff. Some classic covers on those early albums.

  3. A commendable effort Smokie – I’ve attempted similar with prolific artists such as Bowie and it’s a near impossible task. The takeout for me is always ‘how the f— did they come up with so many great songs and how low is the bar these days?’.

    My additionals would be from their (imo greatly underrated) Voodoo Lounge album: “Love Is Strong” and one of my top few Stones songs of all time “Out of Tears”.

    And whilst it doesn’t qualify, I love Jagger’s “Say you Will” from Primative Cool.

  4. Rick Kane says

    Standing up to applaud Smoke. You have nailed it. A very hard task and subjective as hell but your list manages the balance of eras and incredible selection of songs this band produced. Quibbles? yeah, a couple. Tumbling Dice would be higher, Wild Horses definitely. Brian Jones and Gram Parson, two artists that died way too early are critical guides for the Stones sound and sensibility. And doesn’t their influence show. More commentary to come!

    Great list!

  5. Well, Darren, you’ve gone and done it now. Sophie’s Choice cranked up to eleven. What in the name of God were you thinking man? Ranking Stones songs?!
    Dang it all, Darren. Torn and Frayed at 40? Get Off My Cloud at 41? The drum intro alone makes it single digits. Loving Cup at 42? “I would love to spill the beans with you all night.” That’s Shakespeare. Moonlight Mile (“The Japanese thing.” As Keith called it.) is top ten, mystical, lonely, lovely. Sweet Virginia is the best country song of the seventies… by an English rock band. At 46??? You Dawsons.
    It wasn’t until I saw Midnight Rambler at 49 I realised you were trolling the widow’s peak set and trying to ignite a fusillade of heart attacks among Harms’ nostalgic vinyl-sniffers. Midnight Rambler on Ya Yas is the high water mark of rock n roll.
    And where is Winter? And what of Monkey Man? And whither Sway? You cannot drink beer at midday on a Saturday while staring across a rented backyard at a beautiful girl in 1980 without playing Sway. I suggest you Let It Loose, Darren. I suggest you let it all hang down. Is Stray Cat Blues there? I’m too scared to go back and look.
    Time Waits For No One, neither does good taste. Live With Me, Starf**ker.
    Darren, you’ve set yourself an impossible task and failed. But then, we had No Expectations.

  6. Kevin Densley says

    What a task you’ve set yourself here, Smokie! – but you have certainly had a thoughtful and interesting crack at it.

    Everyone who knows the Stones’ music well would have their own top fifty and own order of favourites, of course – it’s purely opinion, but yours is an informed one.

    Personally, to give some examples of my perspective, I’d put ‘Out of Time’ much higher than 47, ‘It’s Only Rock n Roll (But I Like It) considerably closer to the the top than 35 and actually include ‘Emotional Rescue’ in the top 50 (mainly for possessing some brilliantly funky Wyman bass playing) – but that’s just me.

  7. Many thanks for your all your comments.

    This became a bigger task than I envisaged.

  8. Anson, I knew I was in strife and it was going to be a Do Do Do Do heartbreaker when you referred to me as “Darren”. Only my wife (when she is angry) and my mother still call me that!

  9. I met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis
    She tried to take me upstairs for a ride.

    Compare with

    She loves you, yeah, yeah.
    She loves you yeah yeah yeah.

    Great burden for you to impose on yourself. Carried fearlessly.

    Thanks

  10. Daryl Schramm says

    I love your work but this is too heavy for me Darren. Covid has a bit to answer for!

  11. Smoke you are a great man. This is monumental. I loved the early stuff so my list would lean towards that.

    One of my brothers, who is a musician, reckons that music is “it”. The big “it”. If that’s so then this debate is endless.

    Fabulous effort. Like running a marathon.

    JTH – you’re bit harsh on the Beatles who also came up with:

    She told me she worked
    In the morning and started to laugh
    I told her I didn’t
    And crawled off to sleep in the bath
    And when I awoke I was alone
    This bird had flown
    So I lit a fire
    Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

  12. Smokie, a couple of years ago I wrote Keef’s obit for The Age, just on spec, you know, on the off chance he might predecease me. A good piece of writing I think. And as usual with anyone I count out it bucked him up no end. I suppose it sits there waiting. Or maybe not. JTH do you want an obit of a man who refuses to die?

  13. Malby Dangles says

    Great list, but for me
    More Tattoo You (Slave, Hang Fire, Tops, Heaven)
    She was Hot, Undercover, One Hit to the Body
    More Keef – Thief in the Night, How Can I Stop, Slipping Away
    If you included side project songs you’d have to put in You Don’t Move Me, Take it So Hard, Make No Mistake….maybe even dodgy Bill Wyman would sneak in and get a guernsey with Je Suis Un Rock Star

  14. Luke Reynolds says

    Superb effort to compile this Smokie, can’t imagine how long it took.

    Can’t argue with any of this. Gimme Shelter is a masterpiece.

    Did anything from after 1981 get close to being included? Bit of a mixed bag I know. I really loved the 2005 album “A Bigger Bang”, and 1997’s “Bridges to Babylon”, both records I listened to with my Stones loving Mum. She saw them at Kooyong in 1973, unfortunately I’ve never seen them live.

    Fond memories of listening to the LP’s in our house as a kid. Sticky Fingers, Exile and Goats Head Soup especiallly.

  15. AJC: yes please. (Some concern for the mozz and the hubris, but willing to risk it).

    Dips: Your point is well-made and noted here. Choice of lyrics made in a spirit of hyperbole in trying to make a point. I am also a Beatles appreciator.

    Smoke, this is the sort of list we can go over again and again. I took to ‘Out of Time’ via the movie Coming Home. Which has one of the great soundtracks – as d numerous Vietnam movies, because of the moment in music (and counterculture) time. It then became a staple of Union College life at UQ.

    While thinking of Stones in movies, for me the use of You Can’t Always Get What You Want in The Big Chill is perfect. It’s not on the album of the soundtrack – which is a pity. But that album is one of the best collections. Good Morning Vietnam very good album too.

  16. I’ll send it. But what are the Moz and the hubris? (I’m afflicted with the latter. Quite rightly, too.) Scorsese always soundtracked the Stones. I think it’s Monkey Man in Goodfellas. Perfect.

  17. Just concerned if we publish an obit prematurely the gods might not approve. Can easily turn it into a profile.

  18. JTH- the funeral procession scene in The Big Chill is a perfect one with the expert use of You Can’t Always Get What You Want with the scenic Carolina countryside. Sadness and beauty together, like the song. I love the image of having arrived at the cemetery the car doors all open in unison. And then the camera pulls up and away from the mourners gathered graveside. We don’t need to see or hear anything else.

    Like you having learnt that the song wasn’t on the soundtrack I bought a best of the Stones CD called Hot Rocks just to get the song around 1988. It’s fitting that You Can’t Always Get What You Want is the last song on the final Stones album of the sixties too in Let It Bleed.

    I’ve just made myself a Stones playlist on Spotify with the four Stones’ albums from Beggars Banquet through Exile. Can’t believe I’ve not done this sooner.

    Great thread.

  19. Roger Lowrey says

    I can’t add anything original to the above so I won’t, suffice to say “well done Smokie aka Darren!”

    RDL

  20. No pressure but I’d love to read AJC’s Charlie obituary.

  21. Richard Griffiths says

    Totally agree with Gimme Shelter at No 1. A three chord masterpiece!

  22. John Butler says

    Smokie, I’ve only just had the time to peruse this.

    What an act of insanity! :)

    But thanks for trying.

    And with Charlie’s passing, another reason for revisiting the source material. If ever one was needed.

    Cheers

  23. Love your passion,Smokie I readily admit my knowledge on music is on a par with,Toby Greene’s level of common sense

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