When it comes to all time samplers, it’s hard to get more legendary than The Rolling Stones‘ compilation album Hot Rocks 1964-1971. Featuring some of the band’s biggest singles, along with at the time lesser known material that would go on to define the group, the album solidified The Rolling Stones as the biggest rock band in the world right before they were about to reach their apex.
Despite it being one of the cornerstones of their legacy, Hot Rocks likely doesn’t hold all that much endearment to The Stones themselves. They had no say or control over what material was included or when it was released. That’s because the album’s creation was helmed by their former manager, one that they had acrimoniously fallen out with only a few months before. To talk about Hot Rocks, first, we have to talk about Allen Klein.
While looking to renegotiate their contract with Decca Records in 1965, The Rolling Stones came upon an American businessman named Allen Klein. Klein was able to get the band large windfalls of money in a short amount of time and eventually bought out original manager Andrew Loog Oldham to become the sole figure in charge of the Stones’ finances. His ruthless nature and brusque demeanour were assets when it came to negotiations, but soon the band began to grow distrustful of Klein.
Part of the problem was that no one knew exactly how much Klein was profiting off the band. The Stones had seen a dramatic uptick in revenue with Klein, but had become suspicious about how much he owned of their product (he ran the band’s publishing company as well). Another issue was that Klein had recently taken on The Beatles as clients and did little to hide his desire for power and control over the music industry as a whole.
Eventually, The Stones separated from Klein, but not without a messy legal battle. The band were unable to gain their publishing for songs written before 1971, and Klein had free reign to issue compilations featuring the material. The fact that there’s a fair amount of sordid history behind Hot Rocks might make it unsavoury for die-hard fans, but the album itself remains one of the most fascinating time capsules of rock and roll ever made.
Illustrating the band’s progression from blues-loving pop stars to psychedelic experimentation and eventual ascension as the world’s greatest rock band, Hot Rocks is a mini-history of the band in 21 songs. All of those songs are essential to the story of The Rolling Stones, but which ones are the best? That’s what we’re going to find out as we rank all of the songs that appeared on the album.
Every song on Hot Rocks ranked in order of greatness:
21. ‘Heart of Stone’
The Stones would perfect ballads later in their career, and even Hot Rocks has a couple of slow songs that are more interesting than this plodding piece of pop.
Had the band written this song a few years later, noticeable influences from country might have invaded ‘Heart of Stone’ to make it more interesting. Without a particularly memorable element to the song, ‘Heart of Stone’ sinks to the bottom of this list.
20. ‘As Tears Go By’
Something about the early Stones ballads just feels disingenuous. This is the dirtiest, rowdiest, most dangerous band in the world, and yet here they are chucking out songs that could have been sung by Lulu?
The Stones’ interest in baroque ballads would get more refined and more fully realised later in the compilation, and it’s hard to think of anyone reaching for ‘As Tears Go By’ as one of their favourite Stones songs. But maybe I’m wrong.
19. ‘Time Is On My Side’
A little bluesier and more energetic than the band’s other slow songs, ‘Time Is On My Side’ still doesn’t do much to differentiate The Rolling Stones among the hordes of pop acts at the time.
This was still during their suit-wearing, group-bowing, Beatles-aping period, before they realised how potently they needed to play into the bad boy counter-programming that made them so much fun. Still, ‘Time Is On My Side’ is undeniably lovely, even if it’s production is more than a little dated.
18. ‘Midnight Rambler (live)’
It’s quite remarkable the leap in quality that Hot Rocks takes after the bottom three songs. Everything from this point out is a full on classic that perfectly represents why the Stones are the premier rock and roll band of all time. If Klein had managed to get his hands on the studio version of ‘Midnight Rambler’, than this would have definitely been higher on the list.
For whatever reason, this version of the song from Madison Square Garden that was originally found on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! just doesn’t quite have the captivating pull to justify its extended runtime. ‘Midnight Rambler’ is a great live staple, but this version comes up just short of really taking flight.
17. ‘Play With Fire’
If you ever need a reminder that the Stones are actually primarily posh London boys, just look at ‘Play With Fire’. What elevates the song beyond some eye-rolling rich-shaming is how the band are in on the joke.
From Jagger’s carefully annunciated phrasing to the uptight harpsichord that makes you feel like you’ve been dropped into a royal chamber, ‘Play With Fire’ is about as far away from the blues as The Rolling Stones ever got. But it’s actually quite refreshing to hear them dive into a whole other world.
16. ’19th Nervous Breakdown’
’19th Nervous Breakdown’ plays as a sort of companion piece to ‘Play With Fire’ – two songs that take shots at the people who were “spoiled with a thousand toys” but still “cried all night”.
‘Breakdown’ is the uptempo version, and it finds the band in fighting form, especially in the interplay between Jagger and Richards. Their connection as singers and songwriters gets one of its first great showcases in the chorus to ‘Breakdown’, and the Stones play into the garage rock movement with giddy infectious energy.
15. ‘Under My Thumb’
For a song that could easily be taken to task for some questionable sexual politics going on in the lyrics, ‘Under My Thumb’ has actually aged remarkably well. It’s all tongue in cheek, after all: The Stones playing into their reputation as dangerous and salacious sinners.
They’ve perfected hooks by this point and are able to successfully integrate non-rock instrumentation like marimbas better than they had in the past. ‘Under My Thumb’ simply remains one of the catchiest tracks from the band’s early years.
14. ‘Mother’s Little Helper’
Of all the Stones’ early material, the raw intensity and gritty guitar work of ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ is the song that I find myself coming back to the most.
More nasty and jagged than most of their pre-1968 work, ‘Helper’ has a legitimately disconcerting dual guitar lead that fades in with a kind of menacing power that would ignite some of the satanic panic around the Stones before Their Satanic Majesties Request and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ years before either came around. While the arrangement is fascinating, below it is a wonderfully dark pop song ready to get lodged in your skull.
13. ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’
Is it sacrilege to have one of the biggest and most popular Rolling Stones songs sitting comfortably in the middle of this list? For all its inarguable qualities, there’s just nothing surprising about ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ anymore: the children’s choir, the double time coda, the Al Kooper organ.
It’s all classic stuff, but it just doesn’t seem to have the same pull as it might have had on its first, or fifth, or one hundredth listen. It’s a God-tier Stones song that starts to lose its shine after numerous replays.
12. ‘Ruby Tuesday’
The peak of the Stones’ dalliances with baroque pop, ‘Ruby Tuesday’ has a remarkable ability to elevate beyond some of the more twee aspects of its arrangement.
The strings, the recorder, and the harpsichord all could have made the track another uptight slog, but instead the melody carries the song through its wonderfully bittersweet kiss off. ‘Ruby Tuesday’ is the Stones at their softest, but also most lovely.
11. ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’
A criminally underrated track from the band’s early phase, ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ is a wickedly horny and subtly subversive piece of pop that exists in its own world.
The song’s bridge, featuring slapped police truncheons and an ever escalating vocal performance from Jagger, is one of the most transcendent moments of the Stones’ first decade. Pairing pop and rock in their catchiest package yet, ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together Now’ only gets better ever time you revisit it.
10. ‘Honky Tonk Women’
The thing that always surprises me about ‘Honky Tonk Women’ is how stripped down it is. For a track that has a full horn section, pianos, percussion, and duelling lead guitar lines, most of the song is just Keith Richards’ riff, Charlie Watts’ drums, and Mick Jagger’s lead vocal.
It combines into an all time earworm, featuring the first appearance of new guitarist Mick Taylor as well. As a lyric writer, Jagger never got funnier than when he spits out “she blew my nose / and then she blew my mind”. That’s just poetry.
9. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’
Not unlike ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, it’s hard to be surprised by anything in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ anymore. But if you haven’t appreciated it in a while, go back in to listen to Nicky Hopkins’ strident piano lines and Keith Richards’ impossibly funky bass playing.
These are the two elements that do the heavy lifting throughout ‘Sympathy’, and they remain the secret weapons as to why the song has become one of the band’s signature tracks.
8. ‘Brown Sugar’
Probably not for no reason, the Stones haven’t played ‘Brown Sugar’ in a while. The height of the band’s boundary-pushing lyric writing is also the height of their propulsive rock and roll rebirth. After a decade of trying to find their unique style, ‘Brown Sugar’ is more emblematic of the Stones sound than just about any song in their catalogue.
The truth is that the song is still damn catchy, and Bobby Keys’ sax solo is the perfect accompaniment to the sleaziest of all Stones singles.
7. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’
The riff to end all riffs, the lead fuzz guitar line in ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ remains a monumental achievement in the history of rock and roll. Jagger does his best to match it with some biting anti-corporate lyrics that put the Stones at the front of the counterculture just as it was beginning to spread across the US and UK.
As powerful and insightful as it was nearly 60 years ago, ‘Satisfaction’ still has a singular power unlike anything else the band ever made.
6. ‘Wild Horses’
The secret weapon that The Rolling Stones were unafraid to deploy at the right time was beauty – light, ornate loveliness that made them more than just a scruffy blues-based rock band. Country music, baroque pop, and even classical elements would get woven in from time to time, and Jagger was unafraid to let his heart be on his sleeve.
‘Wild Horses’ is the height of the band’s balladry, and it is Hot Rock’s emotional finale that transcends the more unsavoury background behind the album’s creation.
5. ‘Get Off of My Cloud’
The Rolling Stones’ early career encompassed a number of different genres. There’s the blues covers they favoured, the vocal pop that represented the first songs of the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership, and the strange contemporary trends that the band felt a need to follow.
‘Get Off of My Cloud’, in contrast, sounds like The Rolling Stones were on their own planet, making souped-up rock and roll complete with catchy hooks that elevated them to heights no one else could reach. If anyone needs to know exactly when The Stones proved to be a major threat to The Beatles’ stranglehold over pop culture, this would be it.
4. ‘Street Fighting Man’
The Stones were a completely different band by the time they entered the studio to begin work on 1968’s Beggars Banquet. Brian Jones was on his way out, and Keith Richards began utilising open tunings to give the group a signature sound.
The world was also changing around them, no longer reflecting the utopian peace and love that the prior year was emblematic of. ‘Street Fighting Man’ represents danger, violence, and carnage, elements that became indelible to the Stones’ image from this point forward. In terms of potent kinetic energy, it’s hard to be more exciting than ‘Street Fighting Man’.
3. ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’
A reintroduction was in order. After Their Satanic Majesties Request made the Stones a parody of trend-chasing coattail riders, the band needed a song to remind the rest of the world that they were both on the cutting edge and completely timeless.
All it took was a hook, a riff, and a little bit of feistiness to pull the Stones out of the malaise and into lean, mean, rock and roll godliness. ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’ is the rarest of things for a track that’s over five decades old: a song that is as fresh and listenable today as it was when it was first released.
2. ‘Paint It Black’
For how obviously he was on the outside during the band’s ascent, Brian Jones proved to be an invaluable asset to The Rolling Stones, especially as they began transitioning into the world of psychedelia. His sitar work on ‘Paint It Black’ never fell victim to the cheesiness that most of the raga rock from the ’60s curdled into.
Instead, ‘Paint It Black’ is dark, mysterious, foreboding, and incessantly catchy. The Stones fell on their faces a couple of times when trying to sound contemporary in the mid to late ’60s, but ‘Paint It Black’ was a time where the rest of the world had to catch up with what The Rolling Stones were doing.
1. ‘Gimme Shelter’
The apex of the entire Rolling Stones catalogue, ‘Gimme Shelter’ is nothing short of a masterclass in dynamics, songwriting, and musical performance. Everyone is at the peak of their powers, from Jagger’s harried vocal to Richards’ eerie guitar work to the driving force of Watts and Wyman. Even more astounding is Merry Clayton’s vocal performance, one of the greatest ever put to tape.
Her voice crack during the height of the intense “rape/murder” section is one of the most hair-raising moments in recorded music history. Everything about ‘Gimme Shelter’ is impeccable, and it represented The Rolling Stones as completely untouchable rock gods.