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(Credit: Bent Rej)

10 best Rolling Stones albums ranked in order of greatness

“It’s only rock and roll, but I like it” — The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones have a lot of albums. They don’t have a set number of albums because of the way record companies spliced and rearranged tracklistings in the early ’60s. It means their canon is a mire of preferences. They have albums that no one particularly likes or cares about; they have entire Chicago blues albums and entire covers albums. Those albums aren’t necessarily the same entity.

But the Stones also have some of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time, setting the template for sonic experimentation and then a subsequent return to roots rock Valhalla. Wash, rinse, repeat with another killer LP. That’s how the Stones worked in the 1960s, and the ’70s, and the ’80s. For three decades, the band simply couldn’t be stopped, tamed, or bettered.

So today, we take their ten greatest albums and rank them in a definitive list. In order to keep from slipping into confusion, the pre-Satanic Majesties albums have been excluded due to their lack of continuity in American and English tracklistings. I quite enjoy Between the Buttons, even if the band don’t, but don’t blame me, blame EMI.

Here are the ten best, most definitive, most enjoyable Rolling Stones albums of their 60-plus year career, ranked in order of greatness.

The Rolling Stones 10 best album, ranked:

10. Steel Wheels

Perhaps a bit of a left-field pick, Steel Wheels is a farewell to the Stones’ golden era: it’s the last album to feature Bill Wyman, and it represents the last embers of the band’s major creative drive before nosediving into the safer and less relevant fare of the 1990s and 2000s. 

Steel Wheels plays into the idea that there are hidden gems on every Stones release, which are some of the best. The insistent thump of ‘Rock and a Hard Place’, the heartbreaking strut of ‘Slipping Away’ that is Keef’s last intelligible vocal performance to date, and the classic style hard rock of ‘Sad Sad Sad’ and ‘Mixed Emotions’. Steel Wheels is ripe for rediscovery if you think you’ve heard every good Stones album already.

9. Their Satanic Majesties Request

Upon its release in 1967, Their Satanic Majesties Request was an abject failure. Too far-flung into the hippie-dippie psychedelia of the era and too insistent on battling The Beatles in their quest for zonked-out supremacy, the Stones wound up making an unfocused and at times utterly unlistenable album that crawls up its own ass and stays there for 45 minutes.

Strangely, that’s the appeal of Their Satanic Majesties Request 55 years later. It’s the closest that the Stones ever made to a time capsule, a representation of a precise moment in the summer of love where LSD and Day-Glo were inescapable. A re-examination finds a number of solid songs, including ‘She’s a Rainbow’, ‘2000 Man’, and ‘2000 Light Years From Home’, and even the less listenable material still holds a morbid fascination. Simply put: it’s a must-listen for any real Stones fan.

8. Emotional Rescue

“The Stones Go Disco.” That’s not a particularly fair assessment of Emotional Rescue, especially since the band already experimented with the genre on the group’s previous LP, Some Girls. But if one album represented the band taking their R&B and Blues roots in a decidedly more Saturday Night Fever friendly direction, that would be Emotional Rescue.

After having listened to the classic albums countless times, I often find myself gravitating towards the less-appreciated works of the band’s discography, especially if they’re significant swings and misses like Satanic Majesties and Emotional Rescue. But if all disco sounded like ‘Dance (pt 1)’ and ‘Emotional Rescue’, then there’s a chance it would have survived longer. There’s also blues (‘Down in the Hole’), ballads (‘All About You’), and classic Stones romps (‘Summer Romance’, ‘She’s So Cold’) for those not interested in the more era-specific songs.

7. Goats Head Soup

Another one for the “nice try, lads” pile, Goats Head Soup, is the first misstep that the Stones had in their classic run. The entire band, plus producer Jimmy Miller, were running on fumes at this point, and the songs are decidedly less inspired than the explosion of creativity that was shown on Exile the year before.

Still, there are plenty of classic Stones songs, like the weepy ballad ‘Angie’ and the hard-driving funk of ‘Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)’, while tracks like ‘Silver Train’ and ‘Winter’ are just waiting to be rediscovered by the faithful Stones fandom. Bonus points to ‘Star Star’ and its more lewd title for being a killer closing track.

6. Tattoo You

It’s almost unfair that odds and ends glorified compilation album can kick this much ass, but the Stones caught a second wind after the success of Some Girls and went on a tear that lasted three solid albums in a row. Tattoo You is mostly recycled material from the band’s past, specifically a number of outtakes from the Emotional Rescue sessions, and yet it hangs together like it was recorded in a single burst.

Album opener ‘Start Me Up’ is an all-time Stones classic, and ‘Waiting on a Friend’ is another killer ballad for the group. But it’s lesser-known tracks like the political ‘Hang Fire’, the horny-as-hell ‘Little T&A’, the R&B-infused ‘Worried About You’, and the bluesy ‘Black Limousine’ that leave the biggest impression upon the second, or fifth, or 50th listen.

5. Some Girls

The Stones were in a slide by 1978. Punk rock and disco had made them cultural dinosaurs, and Richards’ heroin bust in Toronto put his future in the band into question. After two fairly pedestrian albums in It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll and Black and Blue, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Some Girls would be the final nail in the coffin.

Instead, reinvigorated by the full-fledged addition of Ronnie Wood and embracing the genres that threatened to make them passe, the Stones came back hungrier than ever on Some Girls. Punk inspired jaunts like ‘Respectable’ and ‘Lies’ rub elbows with the explicit disco of ‘Miss You’ and the tongue-in-cheek country of ‘Far Away Eyes’. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Some Girls found the Stones at their most adaptable and least killable.

4. Let It Bleed

Like any hapless music writer, I will be spending the next four slots extolling the virtues of The Rolling Stones classic four-album run from 1968 to 1972. With Mick Taylor holding down lead guitar and Jimmy Miller behind the mixing desk, the Stones couldn’t lose no matter what they decided to do, whether it was country or blues or samba or rock and roll.

In this humble writer’s opinion, Let It Bleed is the least cohesive and impactful of the four, even though I know for a fact my dad is going to kill me (his favourite Stones track: ‘Monkey Man’). It only further illustrates the power of the remaining three albums when an LP that has ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Midnight Rambler’, ‘You Got the Silver’, and ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ comes up slightly short. Not by much, though.

3. Beggars Banquet

I was absolutely sure that Beggars Banquet would be my number two pick on this list when I began going through the Stones discography. It’s historically been my favourite Stones album, ripe with rootsy rock and thorny lasciviousness, that found the Stones at their most dangerous. But something compelled me to drop it a slot this time around, and I’m not sure why.

Perhaps I was put off by the explicit cradle-robbing of ‘Stray Cat Blues’ (not really, to be honest, because I still believe it to be tongue-in-cheek, as is the Stones’ style) or the less impactful status of ‘Prodigal Son’. But Beggars Banquet is still an incredible album from start to finish, with ‘Street Fighting Man’, ‘No Expectations’, ‘Dear Doctor’, and ‘Salt of the Earth’ soundtracking the band’s first true classic record in wonderfully tuneful fashion.

2. Sticky Fingers

I was never all that high on Sticky Fingers during my initial Stones phase. It was a little too bluesy and twangy for my taste, and it didn’t have the immediate appeal of Beggar’s Banquet. And yet, after going through all the band’s albums, Sticky Fingers was the one that I enjoyed the most. It’s the one, therefore, that has perhaps the most potency when looking back.

Everyone knows the power of the unnerving ‘Brown Sugar’ and the stomping ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin”, but it was the lesser-known tracks that really made the album incredible. ‘Sway’, ‘Bitch’, ‘Sister Morphine’ and ‘Moonlight Mile’ are criminally underrated in the Stones catalogue, and Sticky Fingers suddenly became the obvious choice for the group’s best single album. 

1. Exile on Main Street

The crowning jewels in the dirt-stained jester’s crown of The Rolling Stones’ entire career, Exile on Main Streetalso happens to be the greatest rock and roll album of all time. Imagine if a band created 45 minutes of the hardest hitting, smoothest, scuzziest, most exciting rock music ever. Then imagine they do it again.

Or, if you’d like another comparison, imagine if The White Album had a cohesive sound without any ‘Wild Honey Pie’ or ‘Revolution 9’ on it. That’s Exile, in all its blissful glory. ‘Happy’, ‘Tumbling Dice’, ‘Sweet Virginia’, ‘Loving Cup’, ‘Rocks Off’, ‘Shine a Light’, ‘Let It Loose’, ‘All Down the Line’, ‘Sweet Black Angel’, ‘Torn and Frayed’, and those are just off the top of my head. 

Exile is the only 60-plus minute album with not a single bum note or ounce of fat on it. It reigns supreme over rock and roll. It hasn’t dulled or gotten any less fun in the almost-50 years since its original release. 

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