The term “sum of their parts” precedes The Rolling Stones, but it only applies to them to an extent. Anything recorded before 1980 shows that the band needed each other to thrive, but most recorded after shows that the band were better off on their own than they were in a band.
This is not to say that the solo records are brilliant – they weren’t The Beatles, lest we forget – but that the standard of songwriting on The Rolling Stones’ output was so bad that anything done on their solo output shone in comparison.
This is why we have decided to whittle it down to ten palatable options for your pleasure. From the sophisticated pop of She’s The Boss to the guttural power of Talk Is Cheap, the collection exudes a diverse selection of output from the many men who have played on The Rolling Stones’ work.
Although there was one clear winner, the other positions were trickier to fill up because the selection is so interesting and committed to its resolve, rules and resolution. And on that tidy note, get ready to dance like Jagger.
The 10 best Rolling Stones solo albums:
10. She’s The Boss (1985) – Mick Jagger
Mick Jagger’s first album was also his way of presenting himself outside of the confines that were shackling themselves on the frontman, recognising the band as a stagnating force that was slowly slipping in status and influence. Guitarist Keith Richards felt that the title She’s The Boss said everything about the singer’s attitude towards the other members of the band, which can be read in his punchy autobiography.
The title track is the album’s funkiest moment, but there’s plenty to unpeel on the record, such as the feisty ‘Running Out of Luck’, or the shimmering ‘Hard Woman’. It’s not all drum machines and hair-dos, as the achingly beautiful ‘Just Another Night’ suggests that life isn’t too rosy for the rockstar.
9. Monkey Grip (1974) – Bill Wyman
This isn’t the place to comment about Bill Wyman‘s choice of partner, because it’s all about the art. Wyman’s back catalogue is impressively diverse, showcasing an ability that was wasted on The Rolling Stones’ penchant for 12-bar blues, as the band consciously made no effort to evolve in the way The Beatles did. Monkey Grip is Wyman’s best offering, although some of the tunes (particularly ‘Pussy’) haven’t aged the best over the years. But he sings well, especially on the bouncy ‘I Want To Get Me A Gun’, showing that the bassist could have sung more songs with The Stones if the band were willing to let him do so.
Highlights of the album include the pounding ‘Crazy Woman’, the angular ‘Monkey Grip Glue’, and the bass-heavy flavours of ‘White Lightnin’, but it’s best to listen to the whole thing in one go, particularly because it’s so rich with texture and flavour. Wyman was the band’s most underappreciated talent, and tellingly the band has only gotten worse since his departure in 1993. Who would have guessed?
8. Not For Beginners (2001) – Ronnie Wood
If you think this album could be mistaken for a Rod Stewart album, well you’re on the right target. Ronnie Wood worked closely with Stewart on Gasoline Alley and Ooh La La, particularly on the acoustic tracks, which explains why Wood walked away from those sessions with some of those pastoral melodies in his ear. His singing voice isn’t tremendous, but he does hold tremendous integrity, especially on ‘Wayside’, which features the guitarist going from guttural whisper to soaring vocal performance.
The former Faces frontman sings Byrds standard ‘Rock ‘n Roll Star’, which is one of the more lyrical vignettes on the album. Elsewhere, the tremolo guitar etches into the proceedings, particularly on ‘King of Kings’, an obscure Bob Dylan that has added resonances when you realise that the guitarist was in the process of creative change in his life.
7. Wandering Spirit (1993) – Mick Jagger
According to guitarist Jimmy Rip, there is a better version of Wandering Spirit, Jagger’s only release of the 1990s. “He and I,” Rip explained, “And Charlie Watts, who lives not far away, the three of us, recorded an entire version of Wandering Spirit. Which for me, is the best version of Wandering Spirit. Doug Wimbish came and played on a few tracks. I played bass on a lot of it and guitar. But that version of the record is blindingly great. The problem with it was that it sounded so much like a Rolling Stones record! It really sounds just like a Stones record.”
The finished result is a pleasant-sounding effort from the singer, who decided that his solo work should sound totally different to the albums in The Rolling Stones catalogue. Highlights? I’m going to side with ‘Sweet Thing’, which is every bit as impressive as the chamber pop lushness of Van Morrison’s work, as well as the biting ‘Put Me in the Trash’, which Rip had a hand in co-writing. Red Hot Chili Peppers mainstay Flea plays on ‘Out of Focus’, and does so with admirable flair too.
6. A Stone’s Throw (1999) – Mick Taylor
Mick Taylor was the greatest guitarist The Rolling Stones ever boasted and remains the only virtuoso guitar player to have worked within the ranks. He was rooted in blues music, which can be heard on A Stone’s Throw, recorded 28 years after he had quit The Rolling Stones and long after working with guitarists Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler. This album suffers from hackneyed production, but there’s nothing forced about the guitar solos, which are designed with great effort and finely tuned with the end target in sight.
His work on ‘Never Fall In Love Again’ is pleasantly reminiscent of his work on Sticky Fingers, arguably the band’s peak album, a and there are other efforts that showcase his penchant for blues music, from the lo-fi ‘Lost in the Desert’ to the propulsive ‘Blind Willie McTell’. Taylor isn’t the greatest singer in the world, but when the hooks are this fiery, who really cares?
5. Goddess In The Doorway (2001) – Mick Jagger
The Rolling Stones were losing steam in the 1990s, having barely come up with any inventive hooks in some time. A cruel writer might say that their best work was ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, but I’m far too gentlemanly to make such a loaded comment. Much better was Jagger’s 2001 effort Goddess In The Doorway, which was produced in the style of the era, showing that the singer was more than capable of competing with the songwriters of the next generation.
‘Visions of Paradise’ proved the most enduring hit, and rightly so, produced with tremendous imagination, and sung as if it’s the last time the singer is going to record a vocal. It’s one of his more lustful, but that’s not to say ‘Goddess In The Doorway’ lacks a sexual bite, while the lyrical ‘Brand New Set of Rules’ shows that the songwriter was more than happy doing his own thing outside of the band.
4. Mick Taylor (1979) – Mick Taylor
Taylor’s first effort was also his best and shows a bite that was lacking from The Stones’ work from the era. The more they ventured into the waters of pop, the wider the gap grew between The Rolling Stones and their fans. Taylor had long abandoned that ship, to set off on his own course, and the guitarist was all the better off for it. Blues instrumental ‘Leather Jacket’ was pegged as a Stones track and featured on many of their bootlegs, but it’s not the only standout on the album. Take the yearning of ‘Alabama’, lyrics written by Wings collaborator Colin Allen, a gospel flavoured ballad that’s as far-reaching as many of the soul songs of the era.
“I consider myself, first and foremost, a blues-based guitar player,” Taylor conceded in a later interview. “But I like playing instrumental music. It’s, unfortunately, being labelled as jazz-fusion. I mostly play blues covers, my own original songs, and other people’s songs that I like.” Blues soaks into the album, and some of the results, such as the fondly remembered ‘Spanish / A Minor’ are riveting in their resolve.
3. Main Offender (1992) – Keith Richards
It’s ironic that the Stone most reluctant to abandon the mothership is also the very same musician who recorded two of the very best solo records. Guitarist Keith Richards felt that the best way to be impactful was to be truthful, and Main Offender is full of truth, some of it uncomfortable, but virtually all of it immensely listenable. Typical of Richards, the truth comes with a collection of barrelling hooks, particularly the incredibly exciting ‘999’, bolstered by a furious backbeat that matches the intensity of the vocals in question.
It’s not all fun and games, as the piercing ‘Hate It When You Leave’ shows the songwriter in mid-reflection, understanding that his time on this earth is limited. His vocals on ‘Bodytalks’ show that he is a much better singer than either he or his critics judge him as, ‘Runnin’ Too Deep’ demonstrates a tightly coiled emotional basis that only grows more ravenous with every passing lick and chord.
2. Primitive Cool (1985) – Mick Jagger
Primitive Cool is Jagger’s best solo album, and it might just be one of the best albums from 1985. The album is wet with the trappings of the year, so the guitars are frothy, the drums are heavy, and the singer shouts out as if hitting the back of the Philadelphia stadiums. It sounds like it was written specifically for Live Aid, and you can smell the hair gel, much as you can picture the pirouetting strut Jagger underwent during the recording of the tune in question. ‘Let’s Work’ was co-written by Eurythmics Dave Stewart, who by the 1980s had become of the go-to producers of the decade.
The title track is brilliant, boasting an invention nowhere to be heard on The Stones’ genuinely awful Dirty Work, and ‘Party Doll’ demonstrates the singer’s eagerness to become a solo singer in his own right. ‘Shoot Off Your Mouth’ sees the singer in a playful mood, and the sense of bonhomie centres the album.
1. Talk Is Cheap (1988) – Keith Richards
Sometimes the popular opinion is the right one: Talk Is Cheap is the best of the solo albums, and it ranks with much of the best work The Rolling Stones put to tape. It came from a point of desperation for Richards, whose relationship with Jagger was souring. But out of the sadness came a new orbit for the guitarist. “Well, it would have seemed that it would have been, because it was so unlike me,” Richards recalled. “I had been so strictly Stones, Stones, Stones. I’ve got a great band here. But circumstances gave me the opportunity for me to work again, and actually find another incredible band. It’s like I’m double-blessed.”
‘You Don’t Move Me’ is the single best recording on this list, but there are other classics heard on the album, from the sprawling ‘Locked Away’, to the longing and understanding of ‘Locked Away’. The guitarist sings from the gut as well as the head, and the end result is a tightly performed record that still holds up decades later.