When you have a career as long as The Rolling Stones, there will naturally be an ebb and flow. The band’s reign has spanned nearly six decades and will soon see them be emblazoned across statues and monuments thanks to their ginormous contribution to music as a whole. But trying to find one album that utterly defines the work of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor, and Charlie Watts is astronomically difficult. However, with a gun to your head, I’d bet that more than most would pick the band’s 1971 album Sticky Fingers as the moment the band crystallised into legends.
It’s hard not to see the record as a pivotal moment for the group. A brand new decade had seen the creative push for revolution subside, and a new generation of rock fans suddenly demand more. The Stones had already been in the business for nearly a decade by this point, and yet they were still finding their feet. It says a lot for the band’s quality that they could essentially tread water for so long. Of course, there were moments along the way that suggested The Rolling Stones would always outlive their goody-two-shoes counterparts, The Beatles — Beggars Banquet being a hot contender for the aforementioned accolade after all — but it was son this album that they truly rose to the top as the creme de la creme. As such, we’re taking a look back at the album and ranking the songs from worst to best.
Why? Well, it’s just a bit of fun, isn’t it? But it also helps to ascertain just how monumental the LP was for the band. The new decade meant a fresh start, and the sounds of the previous one were suddenly kicked to the curb. Artists like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin had already proved that they could go harder than the Stones; their unique playing style dwarfed the vibrancy of their previous work in a matter of months. But what many people didn’t expect from the band and The Glimmer Twins, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, especially, was their uncanny ability to take things up a level by turning down the volume. In many ways, Stick Fingers is the album that saw the Stones grow up.
It was also the album that saw the Stones go global. Following a pretty sincere run of successes, if you discount the tragedy at Altamont, the band were nearing the peak of their powers. Using the world around them — touring, drug-taking, bed-shaking and general anarchic living — the group transitioned from their usual Brit-rock sound into something far more Americanised. The band had spent much of their early years creating music that mirrored the delta blues musicians of old, but now they were intent on carving their own path to rock legendary, and that path ran through America.
One perfect demonstration of the band elevating themselves beyond any of their previous work is employing the iconic Andy Warhol to create the album sleeve, showing that they intended to be revered in the same way the pop artist was and would be. Sticky Fingers was a statement of the band’s intent for longevity and world domination. It’s fair to say that, on both counts, they succeeded.
Below, we’re ranking The Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers from worst to best.
Songs from The Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers ranked from worst to best:
10. ‘Brown Sugar’
Maybe it’s just me but listening to The Rolling Stones song ‘Brown Sugar’ is now about as comfortable as listening to Bill Cosby make a candid joke about sleeping aids — it’s just not acceptable anymore. So while I’m sure there will be countless arguments heading my way of “it was a different time” or “things have changed now”, the reality is that the song was always about sexualising the slave trade.
It wasn’t really acceptable fifty years ago and certainly isn’t now. Add to that the myriad of dad-rock dancing that the song can induce, and you have yourself a song to make your skin crawl. Plus, there’s far better on this record.
9. ‘I Got The Blues’
Using a slower progression, the band manage to convey the sadness they felt every time they went on tour. The song is steeped in longing for a normal life and reflects the fast-paced world they had created around them.
The coupling of organ and guitar happens on a good few occasions on this LP, but perhaps the finest example is on ‘I Got The Blues’, which, when emboldened by the horns, only adds to the feeling of alienation.
8. ‘You Gotta Move’
Bringing in Mick Taylor for this album was always likely to bear fruits. The guitar hero, often overlooked as one of the best, balanced the band better than they could have hoped. This is his song to shine.
The heavy distortion, something Hendrix had tried to employ in all his work, brings a little more life to the production that could otherwise be entirely forgetful. It’s a piece of classic rock from some of rock’s classics.
7. ‘Dead Flowers’
As a showing of their determination to make America their homeland, the band paid tribute to perhaps the most sincere genre of Americana there is — country. ‘Dead Flowers’ sees the band flirt with the very dirt upon which the land was founded with this.
There’s a classic honky-tonk progression upheld throughout the piece, but perhaps the most obvious moment is Jagger’s country twang vocal that somehow feels authentic, despite being born in Dartford.
A juggernaut riff that, as the opener for side two of Sticky Fingers, more than matched the heavyweight rock of ‘Brown Sugar’—’Bitch’ is Richards at his chugging two-tonne best. Nobody could chug a riff like Keef. We imagine nobody can chug a beer like Keith too, but that’s a different story for a different day.
According to the band’s mobile engineer, Andy Johns, it was Richards who envigorated the song, “He put on his clear Perspex guitar and kicked up the tempo,” Johns said. “The song went from a laconic mess to being all about the groove. Just instantly. As soon as Keith started playing, he transformed the song into what it was meant to be.”
5. ‘Sister Morphine’
Though the song was originally released as a B-side to Marianne Faithfull’s single, The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sister Morphine’ comes from a place of sincere education. Released on Sticky Fingers, the song is truly disturbing at parts and captures the twisted nature of addiction and narcotic dependency.
Jagger is at his most ghoulish too. The singer uncharacteristically wails across the song about cocaine, drugs, doctors and everything in between. The slide guitar from Ry Cooder is tremendous, but this track hangs on Jagger.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards may have conjured up the second song from the album on their own, but it was arguably Mick Taylor’s performance on slide guitar that stole the show. It’s an overwhelming moment that typifies Taylor’s unique style and wholly undervalued talent.
There’s still enough moment of stormy rock ‘n’ roll, the kind The Rolling Stones unfurled like Poseidon in Greek mythology. The band quickly ascended to a similar role with their God-like releases, and songs like ‘Sway’ go to only confirm their rise to the top.
3. ‘Moonlight Mile’
There’s something beautifully poetic about the final song on Sticky Fingers. It was an album that confirmed The Rolling Stones would be touring for the next 50 years but finished with a track that sees Jagger begging his bandmates, the audience and anyone else for a bit of rest.
The ballad is perfectly charged with longing and sadness but still holds the euphoric moments of realisation that every great song should have. Often overlooked as one of the key moments of the band’s career, it showed Jagger’s sincere commitment to his art. The drug references and chaotic touring life are still present in this song, but they had now been given a realist edge that confirmed the band as true artists.
2. ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’
Following ‘Wild Horses’ on Sticky Fingers was always going to be a difficult task, with the ballad being such a departure from The Rolling Stones’ signature sound. It’s also one of Richards’ favourite riffs from the band: “On that song, my fingers just landed in the right place, and I discovered a few things about that [five-string, open G] tuning that I’d never been aware of. I think I realised that even as I was cutting the track.”
The luck continued as the iconic final jam sessions were never meant to be recorded. “And then that jam at the end – we didn’t even know they were still taping. We thought we’d finished,” Keef continues, “‘Oh, they kept it going. Okay, fade it out there – no wait, a little bit more, a bit more…’ Basically, we realised we had two bits of music: there’s the song, and there’s the jam.”
Luckily, Richards is there to help and delivers a spellbinding opening riff for ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ that will go down in the annals of rock.
1. ‘Wild Horses’
‘Wild Horses’ may be the furthest song sonically from traditional Rolling Stone fodder, but it still packs a punch beyond its seemingly stripped-back arrangement.
Instead, the lyrics of Jagger, which capture the long-lost life of a rock star, cut through the atmosphere and provide one of the band’s most vulnerable moments. It has been a song heavily covered by other artists, and that is entirely down to the connection Jagger lays out for all to feel.
In the 1993 Rolling Stones compilation album Jump Back, Jagger states of ‘Wild Horses’: “I remember we sat around originally doing this with Gram Parsons, and I think his version came out slightly before ours. Everyone always says this was written about Marianne, but I don’t think it was; that was all well over by then. But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally.”
Richards later said of the song, “If there is a classic way of Mick and me working together, this is it. I had the riff and chorus line; Mick got stuck into the verses. Just like ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Wild Horses’ was about the usual thing of not wanting to be on the road, being a million miles from where you want to be.”