You guys have heard of Mick Jagger, right? Legendary singer, frontman, songwriter, and major creative force behind one of the biggest bands of all time, The Rolling Stones? I thought you might.
If you’ve been living under a particularly dense rock for the last 60-plus years, Jagger’s signature style helped lay the groundwork for the modern rock star. Skinny, snarling, and ferociously energetic, Jagger was at his best when his bluesy origins mingled with his true calling as an entertainer. That dichotomy between no-frills roots music and glitzy arena-sized stardom has defined Jagger and his place in pop culture for six decades and counting.
He managed to achieve heights known to few rock stars, but his actual voice is far from being a flawless technical marvel. Jagger doesn’t have the range or the melodicism to compete with top-tier rock greats like Paul McCartney and Freddie Mercury. Instead, he wrangles as much emotion out of what he’s been saddled with, producing the prototypical rock and roll vocal tone.
However, that’s not to say he doesn’t have a few tricks up his sleeve. Over the years, Jagger has added nasally falsetto, rich bass notes, screams, squeals, and even some light vibrato to his signature shouts, giving him a wide range of techniques to pull from when crafting his vocal lines. Over the course of more than 25 studio albums, Jagger has been able to adapt his voice to ballads, country songs, gospel numbers, and an unfathomable collection of the greatest rock tunes ever created.
To celebrate his unique contributions to music, we’ve gone back throughout the entire career of The Rolling Stones to pick out some of Jagger’s best performances ever put to vinyl. Since the early 1960s, Jagger’s voice has changed and morphed, not just with age but with the culture at large, to the extent that he’s now one of the most imitated and parodied voices in the history of music.
There’s a major sticking point holding this exercise back, and that is the fact that the Stones had different versions of LPs throughout the mid-1960s. If you were an American record buyer, your tracklisting for Between the Buttons was different than the one owned by a British record buyer. In the earliest days, albums like 12 X 5 and December’s Children (and Everybody’s) were only released in America.
For those discrepancies, we’ve tried to line up the equivalent albums from both sides of the Atlantic: The Rolling Stones and England’s Newest Hit Makers go together, for example. In the cases where there isn’t a clean one-to-one comparison, we’ve gone the extra mile and chosen tracks that are the best exclusives to those releases. Thankfully, once we hit Their Satanic Majesties Request in 1967, all tracklistings would remain consistent for the rest of the band’s career.
So, let’s start and the beginning and take a trip through each of Jagger’s best vocal performances from every Rolling Stones studio album.
The Rolling Stones / England’s Newest Hit Makers – ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’
Mick Jagger wasn’t the fully-formed tornado of a frontman that he would become later in his career in 1964. The Rolling Stones also weren’t the world-conquering rock and roll outfit that they would become. This is ground zero for Jagger and the Stones, wholly dependent on blues covers to keep them going.
Most of the production from the Stones’ early albums sounds tinny and thin, but Jagger’s voice pops on the Muddy Waters classic ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’. Filled with more confidence and personality than most of his vocals at the time, Jagger’s performance here would be the foundation on which he would build his legendary reputation.
12 X 5 – ‘It’s All Over Now’
By late 1964, The Rolling Stones were on a fast track to pop success. After establishing themselves as the antithesis of the relatively clean-cut Beatles, the Stones began to revel in the dirt and grime that would become their signature sound.
That being said, it’s tempting to give this spot to Jagger’s first truly impressive melodic vocal performance, ‘Time Is On My Side’. That song proved that Jagger could be more than just a blues shouter, but then again, blues shouting was always what he did best. That’s why ‘It’s All Over Now’ is his best performance on 12 X 5 – it’s signature Jagger, perhaps for the first time on record.
The Rolling Stones, No. 2 – ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’
As they combated screaming audiences and major stardom throughout the mid-1960s, The Rolling Stones began to adapt. They would become more flashy and theatrical on stage, led by the swaggering dance moves and outreach spearheaded by Jagger as the band’s frontman. The basic thump of their early blues days was now permanently in the past.
Solomon Burke’s ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’ is less of a song and more of an extended vamp used to get audiences riled up. It never comes across as well in the studio, considering how dependant the song is on live participation, but Jagger gives it his best go on The Rolling Stones, No. 2. It represents another piece of the puzzle for Jagger – the indefatigable frontman.
The Rolling Stones, Now! – ‘Heart of Stone’
The Rolling Stones, Now! is mostly a collection of previously released songs that the Stones’ American subsidiary, London Records, released in early 1965 to more thoroughly represent the band’s UK output. That means most of the songs included already had homes on previous Stones albums, with two notable exceptions.
The first was ‘Heart of Stone’, the pleading and occasionally plodding standalone single that represented the band’s second top 20 hit in the US. The other was their version of Howlin Wolf’s ‘Little Red Rooster’, a UK single from 1964. Jagger is more in his element on ‘Heart of Stone’, allowing him to mix wistful melodies and hard-edged shouts as the tune floats through its waltz shuffle.
Out of Our Heads – ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’
Out of Our Heads is the album where Mick Jagger kicks off his first major evolution into one of rock’s greatest singers. Tracks like ‘The Last Time’ and ‘I’m Free’ are as slippery and slick as Jagger ever got on record, while his more subdued bleat gets a great backing ballad on ‘Play With Fire’.
But let’s not kid ourselves – this spot is permanently reserved for ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’. All blustery confidence and shouting enthusiasm, ‘Satisfaction’ is still one of Jagger’s all-time best vocal performances. If ever there was a key line of demarcation between Mick Jagger the blues singer and Mick Jagger the rock singer, it’s on ‘Satisfaction’.
December’s Children (And Everyone’s) – ‘Get Off of My Cloud’
Jagger learned an important lesson from ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, and that was that energy and enthusiasm are invaluable resources when it comes to putting down vocals. If the audience can hear the excitement that Jagger brought to the band’s live shows, even if the stifling confines of the studio, then that would be their path to becoming the world’s biggest rock band.
In many ways, ‘Get Off of My Cloud’ is the perfect encapsulation of Jagger’s unique vocal qualities, right down to the raspy shouts and commanding presence. There’s something so palpably electric about the way Jagger spits out, “A voice says ‘Hi, hello, how are you’ / Well I guess I’m doing fine” before commanding the rest of the band to give him some call and response in the song’s seismic chorus.
Aftermath – ‘Lady Jane’
In America, fans who bought Aftermath got to hear one of Jagger’s greatest vocal performances of all time the second that needle hit the vinyl. ‘Paint It Black’ has Jagger working at both the bottom and top of his range, bellowing menacing bass vocals in the verses and raucous shouts in the chorus.
But if you were in the UK, ‘Paint It Black’ wasn’t on Aftermath. So let’s shine a light on ‘Lady Jane’, the intricate baroque piece representing a shift in the Stones’ musical identity. One of the few tracks that required Jagger to be in full control of his pitch and intonation, ‘Lady Jane’ proves that Jagger was now a true-blue singer instead of just an energetic shouter.
Between the Buttons – ‘She Smiled Sweetly’
Once again, we are confronted with the challenge of not including Jagger’s best vocal performance from an album because it’s not available on one country’s version of the LP. Look, ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ is the best vocal on Between the Buttons, but it’s certainly not the only great vocal on the album.
Take, for instance, the slow-burning intensity of ‘She Smiled Sweetly’. Most of the gentler tracks that Jagger previously sang on, including ‘Heart of Stone’ and ‘Lady Jane’ gave Jagger sections to let loose and shout along. Here, though, Jagger needs to stay low-key throughout the entire performance, and even without his signature belting notes, Jagger continued to show off his melodic chops.
Their Satanic Majesties Request – ‘She’s A Rainbow’
As the Stones embraced the psychedelic age, their palate had full expanded to include baroque pop, orchestral strings, frantic horns, and melodic pop music. Jagger is still his shouting self on ‘Sing This All Together’ and ‘Citadel’, but he’s mostly subdued and spacey on tracks like ‘2000 Man’ and ‘2000 Light Years From Home’.
The only time that psychedelic trend-chasing doesn’t get the better of the Stones on Their Satanic Majesties Request is on ‘She’s a Rainbow’. Transcending the Day-Glo silliness of the ’60s, ‘She’s a Rainbow’ included all of the styles and disparate elements that the Stones were able to master through the decade, all on top of an iconic lead vocal from Jagger.
Beggars Banquet – ‘Sympathy for the Devil’
Beggars Banquet was a righting of the ship after the often formless psychedelia of Their Satanic Majesties Request. In its place came country, folk, blues, and roots music, the likes of which the Stones hadn’t touched for years. Sounding far more comfortable with acoustic guitars and stinging rock and roll, the Stones began their golden period.
A full-scale send-off of the 1960s two years before the decade had actually ended, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ features Jagger at his most dangerous and most enthralling. Taking the first-person perspective of Lucifer, Jagger sways with intoxicating mojo, steadily increasing the intensity of his performance until you’re fully caught in his gravitational pull.
Let It Bleed – ‘Monkey Man’
The greatest vocal performance in the entire Rolling Stones discography is featured on Let It Bleed, but it doesn’t belong to Jagger. Instead, it belongs to session singer Merry Clayton, who conjures up what still might be the most powerful rock and roll vocal of all time on the apocalyptic ‘Gimme Shelter’.
Jagger holds his own, but it’s not his best vocal on the album. That would be on ‘Monkey Man’, where Jagger has to sell outrageous lines like “I’m a cold Italian pizza / I could use a lemon squeeze-a” without laughing out loud. When Jagger reaches the climactic “I’m a monkey man”, Jagger’s voice strains and squeals in ways that he would never reach again.
Sticky Fingers – ‘Moonlight Mile’
Sticky Fingers represents every kind of style for every kind of Stones fan. It certainly has the funniest lead vocal on record, thanks to the nasally southern honk that Jagger employs on ‘Dead Flowers’. Tracks like ‘Sway’, ‘Bitch’, and ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ also feature all-time great vocals from Jagger.
But it’s on the album’s closing ballad, ‘Moonlight Mile’, that Jagger truly gets to show off his chops. Ranging from gentle coos to glass-shattering falsettos to eventual full-on screams, ‘Moonlight Miles’ is Jagger’s tour-de-force from beginning to end and remains one of the Stones’ most underappreciated gems.
Exile on Main St. – ‘Let It Loose’
In terms of musical range, nothing in the Stones’ discography can touch Exile on Main St. From the very get-go, Jagger is in top form on ‘Rocks Off’ and only gets better from there. ‘Tumbling Dice’, ‘Loving Cup’, ‘All Down the Line’ and ‘Shine a Light’ are all top-tier vocals performances from Jagger.
But in terms of pure emotion, no song on Exile can match ‘Let It Loose’. In fact, you only need one moment to find Jagger to embrace the complete command he has over his voice: “In the bar you’re getting drunk”, and as the arrangement climaxes around him, Jagger lets out a wordless shout that hits you right in your soul.
Goats Head Soup – ‘Angie’
Goats Head Soup represented the end of an era for the Rolling Stones. The final album produced by Jimmy Miller, Goats Head Soup was also the final album to feature the effortless magic that had been coming out of the band since Beggars Banquet. Everything the band did going forward would be either referencing or deliberately subverting this period of iconic music.
If you’re going to go out in style, might as well do it on a heartbreaking ballad. ‘Angie’ is mick Jagger at his most melodic, effortlessly hitting the soaring highs and hushed lows that the song requires. Technical vocal prowess was never Jagger’s speciality, but damn if he doesn’t give a masterclass on ‘Angie’.
It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll – ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll’
After the monster run that the Stones went on in the early 1970s, an album like It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll was a return to earth. With slightly less inspired works, including ‘If You Can’t Rock Me’ and ‘Luxury’, the Stones appeared to be more or less on autopilot, simply letting their rock and roll charms carry them through albums.
There’s one major exception to this, and unsurprisingly, it comes on the album’s title track and lead single. Truth be told, apart from the howls of ‘Dance Little Sister’, ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll’ represents the one time on the album that Mick Jagger throws himself full force into a lead vocal performance.
Black and Blue – ‘Fool to Cry’
Black and Blue is the lost Rolling Stones album in their catalogue. Not the most derided or most reviled, but certainly their least cited and most obscure from their ’70s heydey. Keith Richards claims that the album was mostly an excuse to audition guitarists, and that attitude immediately cripples most of Black and Blue.
You can take or leave the pitchy swoops of ‘Fool to Cry’, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but at least Jagger is trying to find some kind of unique sonic space on the record through the ballad. It’s Jagger’s biggest vocal swing on the LP, and in the right mindset, ‘Fool to Cry’ can hit you just right.
Some Girls – ‘Shattered’
The Rolling Stones returned to top form by embracing two disparate ends of the late ’70s musical spectrum: punk and disco. Some Girls also wove in the classic Motown strains of ‘Just My Imagination’ and the hilariously corny southern accent that Jagger used for country songs on ‘Far Away Eyes’, making Some Girls the band’s last truly great LP.
While some may prefer the emotional tones of ‘Beast of Burden’ or the slinky sound of ‘Miss You’, Jagger is at his frenetic best while spitting out the lyrics of ‘Shattered’ at lightning speed. It’s Jagger’s most tongue-twisting performance to date, more than justifiably earning its place on this list.
Emotional Rescue – ‘She’s So Cold’
The turn to disco music on Some Girls was not universally loved, and the doubling down on that particular style for Emotional Rescue led to more than a little bit of consternation for the band’s faithful old-school fans. Jagger’s offer to be “your knight in shining armour” on the title track is enough for even the biggest Stones fan to wonder if the campiness had gone too far.
But there was a moment on Emotional Rescue that managed to consolidate the old and the new for the Stones: ‘She’s So Cold’. Combining the classic heat of rock with the more frenetic new wave styles at the time, Jagger manages to make his campy approach to vocals actually work.
Tattoo You – ‘Waiting on a Friend’
In terms of the difficulty level, ‘Waiting on a Friend’ is one of the most precarious songs in the Stones’ setlists. In it, you have to believe that Jagger means it when he says, “Don’t need a whore / I don’t need no booze… I need someone I can cry to”, and, metatextually, you have to believe that he’s singing it to Keith Richards without wanting to kill him
That’s a lot for one song to carry on its shoulders, but Jagger infuses ‘Waiting on a Friend’ with so much warmth and compassion that it’s impossible not to buy into it. Jagger can sing swaggering rockers in his sleep, but it’s on the ballads that he most consistently surprises.
Undercover – ‘She Was Hot’
The Stones were starting to show signs of wear and tear during the early 1980s. 20 years of rock and roll lifestyles, paired with constantly battling against new waves of genres and groups, had left the creative partnership between Jagger and Richards hanging by a thread.
Much like ‘She’s So Cold’ a few years earlier, ‘She Was Hot’ represented the Stones fusing the best of the old and new in one potent package. Jagger leaps from a low growl to a brazen screech over just a single chorus, showing that he could still pack in the goods as he passed his 40th birthday.
Dirty Work – ‘One Hit (To the Body)’
There’s really no use in arguing against it – Dirty Work is the Stones’ worst album. Jagger is stuck with screaming all over the album to try and bring energy to the lifeless affair, and there was never a moment that seemed more likely to break up the band than Dirty Work.
The leadoff’ track ‘One Hit (To the Body)’ isn’t actually that bad. It’s a bit darker than the Stones’ usual work, but it also has a strong central melody. Jagger’s voice is rawer and more ragged on Dirty Work, and that weathered yell gets its best support on ‘One Hit (To the Body)’.
Steel Wheels – ‘Rock and a Hard Place’
Like Dirty Work before it, Steel Wheels had to navigate a world where the Stones were no longer the contemporary hitmakers that they had managed to be over the course of their first 25 years together. Steel Wheels was more of a return to form, but it was also generic in a way that most Stones releases would be going forward.
‘Rock and A Hard Place’ finds Jagger right in his sweet spot, commanding drama out of bluesy minor-key rock. It might be a gimmick, but when Jagger sings “You better stop” and the entire band freezes behind him, you can still feel that theatrical frontman come to the fore of the Stones’ music.
Voodoo Lounge – ‘Out of Tears’
While Voodoo Lounge is by no means the worst Rolling stones album, it probably gets the gold medal as the most boring. Featuring an hour of generic rockers and weirdly horny lyrics, the first album to feature the Stones as a quartet is about as inessential as the band’s discography gets.
Once again, it’s the ballads that offer the most interesting avenues for Jagger’s voice. After half-heartedly shouting his way through half of Voodoo Lounge, Jagger actually sounds quite lovely and committed on ‘Out of Tears’ while the band backs him up with the most credible country arrangement since the late 1970s. On an album full of misses, ‘Out of Tears’ is the one song to hit its mark.
Bridges to Babylon – ‘Out of Control’
The STones opted to combat the boilerplate boringness of Voodoo Lounge by getting weird. That meant samples, vocal effects, quasi-rapping, and an embrace of styles that had no business appearing on a Rolling Stones album. Bridges to Babylon is a fascinating revisit, but that doesn’t exactly make it good.
I’ll step up for the shifting sounds of ‘Out of Control’, though. Jagger goes from a hushed whisper to an explosive shout, the vocal equivalent of going from zero to 60, in a matter of seconds. Jagger gives his all and gets rewarded with another solid Stones rocker.
A Bigger Bang – ‘Back of My Hand’
At a time when Charlie Watts was getting treated for cancer and Ronnie Wood was on the path to addiction recovery, somehow, the Stones decided that it was time to record a new album. A Bigger Bang is mostly just a Glimmer Twins production, but it’s got some peaks that come out of nowhere for a bunch of geriatric rock stars.
On top of the pile is ‘Back of My Hand’, a return to the basic blues of the band’s past. Jagger sounds tailor-made for a reset, considering how his voice has aged to better suit the blues classics that the Stones were playing in their early days. Hmmm, playing old blues songs: now there’s an idea!
Blue & Lonesome – ‘Everybody Knows About My Good Thing’
Blue & Lonesome is about as straightforward as an album concept gets: just trot out some classic blues tunes, play it live, and see what happens. Because of that, the album is actually the best thing that the Stones have done in roughly 20 years.
‘Everybody Knows About My Good Thing’ is where Jagger gets loosest. If you listen for long enough, you’ll even hear some salacious whoops and animal noises come across the mic. It just goes to show that after five decades of playing, Jagger still had some surprises to show off.