Currently, the Rolling Stones are on their 60th anniversary tour; this is no small feat. While there are many ‘legacy’ acts who still tour regularly, few have done so with the continuing endurance of the Rolling Stones. Where many fail to barely fill a 5,000 seat arena, the Stones are regularly selling out 70,000 seat stadiums.
While name recognition alone gets them so far, there is little doubt that the real key to the Stones’ endurance is their musical legacy, one of rock and roll’s richest and most influential. Here I’ve compiled what I feel are their 60 most essential tunes, ranging from timeless rock anthems with slashing guitar riffs to their tender, introspective deep cuts that showcase the full depth of their artistry. It wasn’t an easy list to narrow down; many have given deeper and better insights to their recorded body, and I no doubt left off many tracks some feel are just as if not more essential.
That said, revisiting the Stones’ body of work was a hugely rewarding experience, and while some will quibble over rankings and selections, there is no doubt the 60 tracks here each have something special in their favor that exemplify why the Stones continue to inspire and astound.
60. Out Of Control (Bridges to Babylon, 1997)
The most recent song on this list, “Out Of Control” is a taut, sinister cut that captures the mood implied by the title perfectly. On each verse, Jagger’s voice becomes more strained and desperate as he builds towards the explosive, almost cathartic chorus, backed by a sinewy musical backdrop that recalls “Gimme Shelter”’s apocalyptic slow burn. Live, it’s become a modern-day classic, a showcase for Mick’s raving mad gesticulations and Richards’ aggressive licks.
59. Love Is Strong (Voodoo Lounge, 1994)
One of the band’s most perfect studio cuts, “Love is Strong” is post-Wyman Stones at their ballsiest. Charlie sets up an irresistibly sexy groove that Keith embellishes upon with his licks, and Jagger’s vocals are seductive and menacing, traits that became less frequent post-Some Girls. In an era marred by inconsistency, “Love is Strong” was proof that the Stones could still hit a home run; “Love is Strong” could come from any era of the band.
57. 100 Years Ago (Goat’s Head Soup, 1973)
Among the more ambitious tracks in their catalog, this Goat’s Head Soup highlight is also one of the band’s darkest tracks; the lyrics are all about lost love and memories, and the frantic climax with Jagger’s desperate howlings of “Goodbye” and “I warned ya” do not hint at happy ending. It’s not their most accessible track, but the band’s efforts on the cut are rewarding.
56. Respectable (Some Girls, 1978)
Punk, country and Chuck Berry come together for this swingin’, snarling piece of nastiness that pokes fun at the notion that the Stones had sold out and were no longer dangerous or irreverent. They kick that idea’s ass in just about three minutes; Mick’s final “get out of my life, don’t take my wife, don’t come back” is delivered with a defiance that never reared again after Some Girls. Musically, Charlie and Bill’s elastic groove is somehow the perfect counterpoint to the chaotic guitars of Keith and Ronnie. “Respectable,” and really Some Girls as a whole, is also a farewell to the very image the Stones were fighting to reclaim, and it provides a grand sendoff to their last truly legendary era.
55. Live With Me (Let It Bleed, 1969)
Keith’s pornographic bass riff packs the same melodic wallop of any of his famous traditional guitar intros, and Jagger has rarely been more convincingly lascivious as on this Let It Bleed highlight. It also features a barnstorming debut by Bobby Keys, whose sax solo adds perfectly the sordid mayhem.
54. Almost Hear You Sigh (Steel Wheels, 1989)
1989’s Steel Wheels is often thought as the band’s comeback album, but qualitatively it was honestly as average as any of their post-Tattoo You efforts. There were some exceptions, including this haunting track. Boasting a sexy groove similar to “Beast Of Burden,” it’s one of the many great unsung Stones ballads and features one of the finest vocal of Jagger’s career. Keith also shines here, delivering a gorgeous acoustic solo that fits the song’s forlorn atmosphere perfectly.
53. Slipping Away (Steel Wheels, 1989)
The other Steel Wheels standout, Keith’s closing ballad is a fitting swan song to the Bill Wyman era; the bassist shines here with some subtle but effective work that punctuates the melancholy soul of the song perfectly. Live, Keith managed to turn this into one of his most effective showcases, always pouring his ragged heart and weathered soul into both the vocals and guitar work; it’s one of his best examples of his ability to capture depth and feeling in a song.
52. Love In Vain (Let It Bleed, 1969)
Robert Johnson is one of the band’s most prominent influences, and their tribute to him on Let It Bleed is loaded with pathos and reverence. While some argue the song grew into something greater live thanks to Mick Taylor, there’s something just exactly perfect about the stark, almost spectral quality of the studio take. “Love in Vain” is ultimately an empty, longing song, and they nailed the vibe in a way that doesn’t quite resonate among a 50,000 seat arena with screaming fans.
51. Bitch (Sticky Fingers, 1971)
A microcosm of everything that made the Stones great during this time: a swinging Watts / Wyman groove, a great Keith Riff, Taylor soloing up a storm and Jagger belting his balls off as he delivers a raunchy set of lyrics. Not much else to say about this one, “Bitch” is simply a classic.
50. Angie (Goat’s Head Soup, 1973)
Some fans love “Angie,” others find it the first real wrong turn in their career up to that point. Personally, I find it to be a perfectly worthy Stones cut. Keith’s acoustic playing is simply sublime, and Jagger establishes himself as convincingly sensitive balladeer in a way he hadn’t previously. A lot of other Stones ballads had an underlying aggression to it, but “Angie” is tender from start to finish. It wasn’t what many were ready for at the time, but “Angie” has endured as a unique classic for the band.
49. Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) (Goat’s Head Soup, 1973)
The topics of racism, drug addiction and police brutality have never sounded funkier than on this great 1973 single. Billy Preston’s clavinet sets the mood perfectly, and Mick Taylor’s quick solo further complements the bleak, dreary atmosphere. Props must also go to the intense horn arrangement, which overwhelm the song and contribute to its ‘end of the world’ vibe the same way Merry Clayton’s vocals gave “Gimme Shelter” its vicious edge.
48. One Hit (To The Body) (Dirty Work, 1986)
The undisputed highlight of the band’s worst album, “One Hit (To the Body)” frames a turbulent romance as a metaphor for the fractured relationship between Mick and Keith that nearly derailed the Stones forever in the mid-1980s’. The slashing, slicing acoustic sonically represents the fraying bond between the band’s two creative forces, and Jimmy Page’s punchy came on the solo is dripping with desperation and anger. Jagger practically screams the lyrics, snarling with anger while also adding a hint of resignation. It’s one of the most fully realized cuts from the band’s most inconsistent decade, and one of their most underappreciated works.
47. Out Of Time (Aftermath, 1966)
There are two versions of “Out Of Time,” but there is no mistake as to which one is better. The biting, sardonic Aftermath version is a glorious put-down, its marimba led rhythm the perfect backing for Jagger’s condescending, Dylan-esque vocals. It blows away the version that was later released on 1975’s Metamorphosis, a corny Jagger solo cut with female backing vocalists.
46. Shine A Light (Exile On Main Street, 1972)
Now associated with Martin Scorsese’s subpar documentation of the Stones’ Bigger Bang tour, “Shine a Light” is one of the Stones’ loveliest benedictions, a hedonist’s prayer amidst the depraved celebrations of Villa Nelcotte. Hearing the man who sang “Sympathy for the Devil” now croon “may the good Lord shine a light on you” may seem incongruous, but at this stage Jagger had mastered adapting his vocal stylings to a variety of different guises, a skill that would serve him well as the Stones continued to expand their sonic palette throughout the 1970s’.
45. It’s All Over Now (12 X 5, 1964)
The best of their early soul and R&B covers by a long shot, the Stones took the Bobby Womack classic and injected it with an early glimpse of the raw, cocksure attitude that would become their signature. Mick is just beginning to develop the boorish delivery that would be his trademark, and Keith and Brian’s guitar work is fantastic. It swings and swerves with a confidence that would develop further over the next year.
44. Worried About You (Tattoo You, 1981)
The ballad side of Tattoo You kicks off with this stunner, another plea from Mick to Keith’s well being disguised as a romance in turmoil. Jagger’s falsetto soars to heights it never reached before or since, showcasing a rarely heard vulnerability missing from preceding Stones ballads. It remains a live highlight, where its gospel coda and searing Ronnie Wood solo take it to even greater heights.
43. Let It Loose (Exile On Main Street, 1972)
For many, the unsung gem among the many classics on Exile On Main Street. It’s also a precursor to songs like “Fool to Cry” and “Worried About You,” wrapped in tenderness while still maintaining the band’s grit. Mick sounds wounded but confident, admitting that his womanizing ways often lead to heartache. The closing vocal coda is stunning, with Jagger delivering one of his absolute top vocal performances as the band crescendos around him.
42. Memory Motel (Black And Blue, 1976)
The best of the few tunes where Mick and Keith share lead vocals, “Memory Motel” is the perfect Stones ballad: it’s sad, but it’s got attitude. It romanticizes a woman who is unattainable, talking about her in ribald detail while also speaking of drunken nights and road weariness. It’s awash in melancholy keyboards and jagged, chaotic guitars. The Stones are masters of embracing sentimentality without wallowing in it, and “Memory Motel” is the perfect example of that.
41. Torn And Frayed (Exile On Main Street, 1972)
A great country tinged road ballad and one of the many underrated classics on Exile. “Torn and Frayed” can function as the band’s autobiography, speaking of backstage debauchery, ongoing inner turmoil, and ultimately a celebration of music and performance. It’s also one of their most convincing attempts at country music, bested only by “Dead Flowers” (more on that one later).
40. Let It Bleed (Let It Bleed, 1969)
Jaunty and raunchy, the title track to their 1969 masterpiece is a lurid yet endearing romp about the importance of companionship, both platonic and sexual. “Let it out, rider, you can come all over me” is perhaps the line Jagger has sung with the most conviction in his entire career.
39. Thru And Thru (Voodoo Lounge, 1994)
The best song on the bloated Voodoo Lounge, the closing ballad is Keith in his element, wearing his heart on his sleeve as he plays the ‘weathered troubadour’ role to great effect. Few of their tracks employ dynamics better, making the finale explosion of drums and horns sound like daybreak after a dark night for the soul. David Chase recognized the track’s greatness, using it to stellar effect in the season 2 finale of The Sopranos.
38. Heaven (Tattoo You, 1981)
This trance like, mysterious cut may be the band’s most unique song; there is certainly no other track immediately reminiscent of it before or since in their catalog. Jagger’s falsetto drifts over the song like a ghost, and the guitars further enhance the spectral atmosphere. The lyrics are sparse, allowing for the song’s musical atmosphere to fully envelope the listener. It’s maybe their most haunting song.
37. Shattered (Some Girls, 1978)
One of those perfect Stones studio cuts, “Shattered” struts along on a stuttering Watts / Wyman rhythm as Mick pays reverence to the seedy decadence of 1970s’ New York City as only he can. “Love and hope and sexy dreams are still surviving on the streets” could be the unofficial motto of both the city and the band, as both represent debauchery and perseverance in equal measures throughout their existence. A mess live, “Shattered” is perfectly constructed on Some Girls to give their gnarliest record a fitting finale.
35. When The Whip Comes Down (Some Girls, 1978)
By 1977, the Stones were already perceived as ‘long in the tooth’ by the burgeoning punk scene that was laying to waste to what were perceived as ‘dinosaur acts.’ The Stones, however, were up for a challenge, answered with Some Girls; it was a resonating response that brought them back to the top of the charts as well as reestablished them as rock’s premiere elder statesmen. They may not have had the youthful abandonment or anti-establishment edge of the Sex Pistols, but their maturity and intelligence ultimately proved to be far greater assets in the long run. “When The Whip Comes Down,” like “Shattered,” is a celebration of metro-area depravity, played with wit, flare and a caustic mix of professionalism and raw power. It’s the Stones at their aggressive best.
35. Winter (Goat’s Head Soup, 1973)
Goat’s Head Soup is a record that polarizes many Stones fans; some see it as the final entry in their greatest run of records, while others view. it as the beginning of the end for them artistically. Few if any, however, argue that “Winter” is one of their finest deep cuts. Cut from the same cloth as “Sway,” “Moonlight Mile,” and “Let It Loose,” it’s a yearning ballad highlighted by an incredible Mick Taylor solo. Goat’s Head Soup may or not be a misunderstood classic, but “Winter” alone is an argument in favor of a positive appraisal.
34. Rip This Joint (Exile On Main Street, 1972)
The Stones at their leanest, meanest, and at the time fastest: the second track on their magnum opus was the most blisteringly paced Stones song until 1997’s “Flip the Switch.” “Rip This Joint” does in just under three minutes what most songs, the Stones or otherwise, fail to do with longer run times: get in, get out, and in between take the limited time for all its worth. We get raging guitars, a Charlie Watts clinic, Mick raging out the lyrics and a Bobby Keys sax solo all in rapid succession, and it’s all just awesome. A small triumph in a catalog full of them.
33. Monkey Man (Let It Bleed, 1969)
Bill Wyman’s suspended bass line on the intro creates a sense of tension like few other Stones songs have, and combined with Nicky Hopkins’ chilling piano trills, makes for one of the darkest journeys in the band’s catalog. It’s a tale of addiction and its pitfalls, something the band would soon became all to accustomed to; it also contains some of their best and most hilariously detailed lyrics (“I’m a cold Italian pizza who could use a lemon squeeze-a”). Martin Scorsese recognized the song’s power, using it to great effect in Goodfellas as Henry Hill begins to get high on his own supply.
32. Miss You (Some Girls, 1978)
Along with “Angie,” “Miss You” seems to be the most maligned of the band’s major hits by elitis Stones fans. This could be because it’s overplayed in concerts, where the band often stretches it out to ten minutes or longer for no real reason. The original studio cut, however, is terrific; Charlie Watts is right at home with the ‘four on the floor’ disco groove, and Bill Wyman’s bass line is perfectly slinky. Unlike a lot of their peers, the Stones didn’t go disco, but merely adapted the groove to fit their own sound. It was a return to form and showed that the creative juices that flowed in 1968-72 could still be tapped into,
31. Emotional Rescue (Emotional Rescue, 1980)
Their other big disco hit; for whatever reason, it didn’t have the staying power of “Miss You.” It could be because of Mick’s falsetto, which sounds almost parodic in its execution, overdoing it to the hilt and sounding ridiculous. And yet, for this writer, that goofiness, along with that irresistible pulsating groove by Watts, makes it the slightly better of the two. Jagger’s vocals, while not his most earnest, are endlessly entertaining, especially when he switches to his lower register for the spoken finale.
30. She’s So Cold (Emotional Rescue, 1980)
Bill Wyman doesn’t seem to get the love most other classic rock bassists of his era seem to get, but he deserves it; his lines weren’t the most complex, but they sure as hell fit each song he ever played on perfectly. His elastic lines on this punchy 1980 rocker are some of his very best, complimented by the crisp leads of Richards and Woods cowpoke-y guitars. Watts keeps the song restrained at a steady cruising speed when he could easily rush it, making it one of their most tasteful and distinctive rock numbers.
29. Undercover (Of The Night) (Undercover, 1983)
One of the few post-Tattoo You tracks that as good as anything they’ve ever done, the quasi-title track to 1983’s mostly subpar “Undercover” tackles the subject of political unrest in South America in the early 1980s’. The lyrics are clunky, but the music is irresistible. Funky, sexy and dangerous, “Undercover” could be argued as the last true Stones classic to encompass the core elements of the Stones at their best; given that it’s the highest ranking post-1981 track on this list, it’s tough to refute.
28. Get Off Of My Cloud (December’s Children, 1965)
1965 was a watershed year for the Rolling Stones, the year they graduated from a middling blues cover band to first rate songwriters and hitmakers who could give the Fab Four a run for their money. “Satisfaction” sounded the alarm, and “Get Off of My Cloud” cemented their staying power with its mix of existential dissatisfaction in the lyrics and an aggressive power pop beat driven by one of the very best back beats Charlie Watts ever laid down.
27. Mother’s Little Helper (Aftermath, 1966)
No one would ever accuse the Stones of being feminists, but this 1966 single is memorable for its surprising sympathy to the rise of prescription drug abuse, specifically in suburban housewives grinded to the core by abusive spouses. The Stones themselves had not yet become the signpost for addiction, so there is no irony in the band’s concern, and the track holds up still as one of their most mature. It’s also the precursor for “Paint It Black,” with Brian Jones’ inspired melodic Eastern lead guitar line.
26. Let’s Spend The Night Together (Between The Buttons, 1967)
It seems tame now, even compared to their own later efforts, but this song caused huge controversy when it was released; it led to Ed Sullivan censoring them and an eye rolling Jagger changing the lyrics to “let’s spend some together.” In any case, it’s the Stones at their ribald best, with Jagger formally stepping into the role of boorish yet charismatic rock playboy that would follow him for the remainder of his career. It also has possibly the best non-Keith riff introduction of any Stones song, a rollicking piano intro that leaps out of the gates thanks to Ian Stuart.
25. You Got The Silver (Let It Bleed, 1969)
Keith wears his heart on his sleeve for his formal debut as solo lead vocalist (he shared duties with Jagger on 1967’s “Connection), and strikes, well, gold. A plaintive acoustic ballad, Keith goes all in and delivers an earnest, endearing ballad that may be the only Stones song appropriate for a wedding dance.
24. No Expectations (Beggars Banquet, 1968)
He’d officially remain with the band for another year, but “No Expectations” serves largely as a farewell to Brian Jones; Jones started out as the creative juggernaut in the band, but took a back seat once the Glimmer Twins found their niche and established the signature Stones sound. “No Expectations” deals with departure and disappointment; the band was disillusioned with Jones’ increasing drug addiction and loss of control, and Jones was ready to depart the band he once spearheaded. Elegiac and somber, it’s the Stones at their most emotionally naked.
23. 19th Nervous Breakdown (single, 1966)
Keith’s ‘bull in a china shop’ barrage of chords that start off this classic 1966 single perfectly sets up the song’s humorously frantic tone. Coupled with Mick’s condescending ‘told ya so’ lyrics delivered at a rapid fire pace, it’s one of the best marriages of the Glimmer Twins’ strengths in terms of getting the feel for a song just exactly perfect.
22. Sway (Sticky Fingers, 1971)
Raw and majestic, “Sway” is most notable for being one of Mick Taylor’s finest moments as a Stone, if not the finest. The rest of the song is comfortably great, with Jagger’s impassioned vocal and Paul Buckmaster’s subtle strings, but Taylor’s outro solo is sublime, truly a masterclass in feel and tone, and a prime example of why his years with the band were never equaled. The Stones were never able to marry their primal approach with such melodic sensitivity after he left.
21. The Last Time (Out Of Our Heads, 1965)
“The Last Time” may be the first true example of the Stones sound: a jangly, instantly memorable opening riff you could sing along to, Jagger’s gritty vocals delivering a stinging put down of a woman doing wrong, and a swinging back beat courtesy of Watts and Wyman. It hasn’t had the staying power of many of their other earlier hits, but it’s every bit as potent as “Satisfaction” and “Paint It Black.”
20. Dead Flowers (Sticky Fingers, 1971)
The best of the band’s country song, “Dead Flowers” is similar to the previous year’s “Let It Bleed” in its portrayal of casual drug use and empty sex to ease the pain of everyday life. The lyrics harken back to earlier cuts such as “Play With Fire,” “Under My Thumb,” and other put downs of snobbish women dissatisfied with the band’s ribaldry, but there’s a sweetness hidden beneath the debauched veneer of “Dead Flowers” that make it the most endearing of any of those tracks.
19. Tumbling Dice (Exile On Main Street, 1972)
The signature Stones swing and swagger has rarely been on better display than on Exile’s lone hit single and one of the Stones’ most enduring classics. Originally conceived as the outtake “Good Time Women,” the song took flight when Jagger and Richards slowed down the original groove to a slinky crawl and turned the half baked lyrics into a richly conceived tale of a ‘lone crap shooter playing the field every night.’ Mick Taylor played bass on the song instead of Wyman, giving it the distinct feel of his melodic lead lines as opposed to Wyman’s usual jazz influences. As great as Wyman is, this is one song that never worked quite as well live because that groove was never 100 % replicated.
18. Rocks Off (Exile On Main Street, 1972)
“Rocks Off” could’ve been subtitled as “A Day in the Life at Villa Nelcotte.” It’s all about waking up at unknown hours, living life in a drug induced haze as the Stones fought to stave off the anxieties of living in tax exile through sex, drugs and rock and roll. Its jittery opening riff is one of Keith’s best and immediately sets up the song’s nervous energy, and Mick’s rarely had a more exciting vocal delivery than when he bellows “the sunshine bores the daylights out of me!” like he’s had a divine revelation. Also of note: the best horn arrangement on any Stones songs.
17. Waiting On A Friend (Tattoo You, 1981)
Having come from the Goat’s Head Soup era, “Waiting On A Friend” provides a sort of callback / coda to the band’s peak years. By the time it came to piece together Tattoo You, Mick and Keith’s relationship was just beginning to fray, giving the sweet “Waiting On A Friend” a sense of nostalgia and poignancy that elevates it among their most affecting ballads. It feels like the close of a particular chapter in the band’s career, one last glimpse of sunshine before the storm clouds of the 1980s’, often referred to as World War III by Jagger and Richards.
16. Moonlight Mile (Sticky Fingers, 1971)
With Richards off elsewhere, Jagger and Mick Taylor completed this road weary ballad at the appropriately wee hours of the morning, a perfect time to perfect its bleary eyed majesty. Like “Sway,” Paul Buckmaster’s string arrangement compliments the atmosphere perfectly, and the lyrics are the first time we realize life as a Stone isn’t all it’s cracked up to me: there’s isolation and loneliness once the curtain is drawn, and all Mick wants to do is lay down by his lady’s side…whoever that may be on a given night at the time.
15. Midnight Rambler (Let It Bleed, 1969)
Best remembered as The Stones’ most exciting live tune and the closest they ever came to a proper rock opera, there’s still something special about the spartan, quietly sinister studio take. Keith’s lurching, menacing riff is him at his most feral and vicious. For a song that’s about a serial murderer and rapist, you could not ask for a more appropriately demented, vicious sound. To this day, he still crunches it out with the same vigor. Mick, too, has always used the song to demonstrate the three core components of his showmanship: his snarling, jackal-like vocals, spastic yet compelling dance moves, and his superlative blues harmonica skills, which were never put to better use.
14. Start Me Up (Tattoo You, 1981)
The riff that launched a thousand sporting events, and roughly a similar amount of Stones concerts. Originally conceived years earlier as a reggae song, “Start Me Up” will go down as the last truly deathless Stones anthem, and it’s all thanks to Keith’s three chord call to arms slamming against Charlie Watts’ insistent, pulsating groove. They never sounded as vital again, and not even that ridiculous video can diminish its stature.
13. Ruby Tuesday (Between The Buttons, 1967)
The pinnacle of their baroque experimentations (“Play With Fire,” “Lady Jane,” “Out Of Time”), “Ruby Tuesday” is a snapshot of 1960s’ free spiritedness while remaining timeless thanks to its classical touches. It may well have the most beautiful standalone melody of any Stones song, one of Brian Jones’ last significant contributions to the band.
12. Wild Horses (Sticky Fingers, 1971)
One of their most covered songs, the original studio take of “Wild Horses” is one of the band’s finest. The guitars fall down like rain on a window pane and Jagger’s drawl is loaded with pathos as he bids Marianne Faithful and their doomed romance a fond farewell into the sunset. For a band whose guitar work is largely known for its caustic aggression, the acoustic work is subdued and sublime, and Keith’s brief, emotive solo is as good as any of his slashing intro riffs.
11. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (Sticky Fingers, 1971)
Keith crunches out the serrated riff on this one like like he’s twisting someone’s head in a vise. While many remember the song more fondly for the Bobby Keys / Mick Taylor led jam in the second half of the song, the first half may be the best two and a half minutes of the band’s career: they never sounded punchier or tighter as the unit, and the only real disappointment is that it leaves you wanting more. That said, the Taylor / Keys jam is a fantastic and unique moment in their catalog, building up to an orgasmic crescendo that peaks just at the right moment.
10. Street Fighting Man (Beggars Banquet, 1968)
Coming in the wake of the Chicago riots and the war at Vietnam hitting a boiling point, “Street Fighting Man” was the right song for a very wrong time, and as a result it became one of their most eternally relevant. Keith’s lightning strike of a riff leaps out like the ‘shot heard around the world,’ and when Jagger sings “I’ll shout and scream and kill the king,” he sounds like he’s storming the castle and taking no prisoners. Whether it’s Chicago in 1968 or Ukraine in 2022, “Street Fighting Man” is still the right song for the wrong time.
9. Honky Tonk Women (single, 1969)
With all due respect to Blue Oyster Cult, no rock song has ever made better use of the cowbell, as it clangs seductively against Charlie Watts’ insistent backbeat. Also, there are few more iconic Stones images then Keith center stage, belting out the signature open G chords of “Honky Tonk Women” with just one hand, cigarette firmly between his lips. Mick sings with unbridled sexual enthusiasm about two locale specific one night stands in Memphis and New York City, and the chorus is the band’s most celebratory.
8. Beast Of Burden (Some Girls, 1978)
The band’s toughest ballad gets much of its muscle from Keith’s riff, which sounds at once defiant, tender, and melancholy. Mick’s vocal delivery is full of cocksure attitude; it’s Keith’s playing that gives “Beast of Burden” its weather beaten heart and exposes the narrator’s vulnerability that Mick is trying to conceal with his bravado. Also, the song features possibly Charlie’s finest drumming, showcasing his mastery of both technique and feel.
7. You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Let It Bleed, 1969)
The Stones’ answer to “Hey Jude” is a not so veiled kiss-off to the idealism of the swingin’ sixties; Chelsea, once the epicenter of the ‘flower power’ scene, had seen its flame gone out in a wave of drug use, political tension, and general disillusionment. Such wonton desires were slowly being replaced with a resigned sense of responsibility. This newfound maturity in their writing was another step in the Stones ascending to their artistic peak, establishing themselves as songwriters whose wit and intelligence extended beyond tales of sexual depravity and elusive women.
6. Brown Sugar (Sticky Fingers, 1971)
Debuted amidst the chaos of Altamont, “Brown Sugar” is maybe the nastiest and in recent years most controversial Stones song of them all. They were never ones to shy away from taboo subjects, and at the time the song’s tale of BDSM, interracial sex and the slave trade seemed par for the course for the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. The controversy over its lyrics didn’t deter the single to become the band’s sixth number one hit in the United States and one of its most enduring concert anthems…at least until their 2021 tour, when the song was finally put to rest amidst renewed criticism of its subject matter in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Even if it never gets performed live again, “Brown Sugar” has a secure legacy as the ultimate Stones party track; with its spiky riff and rumbling groove, “Brown Sugar” remains a raunchy good time.
5. Sympathy For The Devil (Beggars Banquet, 1968)
Originally conceived as a Dylan-esque folk ballad, the band instead made the wide decision to give this epic track a samba beat and the best guitar solo Keith Richards ever laid down, and the rest is history. A stinging indictment of mankind’s willingness to assign supernatural forces to stave off blame for their own atrocities, “Sympathy” is another track that will endure as long as there is turmoil in the world, whether or not the devil made us do it.
4. Paint It Black (Aftermath, 1966)
By 1966, the Stones had stepped out of the shadow of the Beatles and come into their own as performers and songwriters. “Paint It Black” kickstarted that evolution with its Moorish rhythms, revolutionary use of sitar and Charlie Watts’ brutish drum work. No one was doing songs this dark or ominous in 1966, and the song was later adapted as the unofficial anthem for the Vietnam era. The song was also a protogenic portent for the future punk and emo scenes, making it one of their most influential recordings.
3. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
The band’s signature track literally came out of a dream: Keith played around with a melody, fell asleep and woke up with the riff fully formed. The fuzzy, buzzing intro is the sound of rock and roll: rebellious, dangerous, sexy and grooving. A call to action. “Satisfaction” is the Stones’ and possibly rock and roll’s equivalent of the National Anthem. It’s their most enduring classic, and it’s all thanks to the man rightfully called the Human Riff.
2. Jumping Jack Flash
For many, “Jumping Jack Flash” heralded the start of the band’s peak years of 1968-72; it’s hard to argue against it. Now experimenting with unorthodox tunings and recording techniques, Keith Richards created a sound on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” that was primal, urgent and completely inimitable. It’s a furious blend of the band’s blues roots, the burgeoning psychedelic scene, and their own slashing, swinging signature sound. The lyrics speak of survival, determination, and good times ahead, which could be seen as a summation of the Stones’ entire career. 54 years later, it’s still a gas, gas, gas when Keith smacks out those power chords.
- Gimme Shelter
“Gimme Shelter” is my favorite song of all time. Period. By anyone. I relented in the face of objectivity, but no Stones song, or any for that matter, will have as lasting an impact on me. Keith’s opening riff is the aural equivalent of being circled by sharks or slowly choked out by a large snake: it’s sinister, repetitive and takes its time before going right for the throat when you least expect it. It sets up the song’s apocalyptic fury perfectly, sweeping you right up like the storm in the opening line. Every subsequent moment of “Gimme Shelter” is a response to Keith’s dynamic intro, bringing out the best in each band member as they do their best to match the swagger and intensity he immediately brings to the table. Of course, it’s not just the Stones that make “Gimme Shelter” special; Merry Clayton’s strident mid-song solo and jousting with Mick on the finale add an undeniable sensuality and power that the song would lack otherwise. It is Clayton who completes the song, making it the Stones’ most fully realized, enduring and towering achievement.