It’s hard to quantify a band like The Rolling Stones. Having formed amid the flurry of R&B bands during the blues boom of the sixties, the group had the potential to be swallowed up by the major label whales just like countless other pop music plankton. However, they refused to be swept up into someone else’s path to success and, after a short while of covering other people’s songs — as was the fashion of the day — the group began writing their own music and set sail for stardom.
Founded by Brian Jones alongside Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, the group has also welcomed members Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood. Across a near-six decade long career, The Rolling Stones have perfected their sounds, their performance and their persona to turn themselves into national treasures, at the very least. However, that doesn’t mean everything they have ever released was gold.
The group have released 26 studio albums and while there are certainly some dull moments or songs that have no place in the Stones canon, by and large, their discography is quality and quantity combined. Below, we’ve done a little digging through those albums and are bringing you their 20 greatest songs of all time.
It captures the band through their most pivotal stages. Firstly capturing the intensity and effervescent energy of their early days as Brian Jones led Keith Richards and Mick Jagger into songwriting. Shortly afterwards, Richards and Jagger, or the Glimmer Twins as they became affectionately known, assumed the role of principal songwriters and presided over their wild success.
Largely seen as one of the most successful rock ‘n’ roll band of all time, The Rolling Stones continue to make audiences weak at the needs whenever they can. They may all be approaching their eighties but the band seem as potent as they ever were.
More often than not, bands as large and ubiquitous as The Rolling Stones can be tarred with a brush of ambivalence. Not giving the Stones your attention means you may have missed out on some absolutely corking songs. As proof, here are 20 of their greatest.
The Rolling Stones’ 20 best songs:
20. ‘Start Me Up’
What better place to start than perhaps one of the most unique and easily recognised riffs of all time. The Rolling Stones have always made their name on providing searing rock rhythm and, on ‘Start Me Up’, we hear the iconic lead line from the off. Richards once revealed the song is actually one of his biggest disappointments: “I was convinced that was a reggae song. Everybody else was convinced of that. ‘It’s reggae, man’.
“We did 45 takes like that,” recalls Richards, “But then on a break, I just played that guitar riff, not even really thinking much about it.” The guitarist continued, “Five years later, Mick discovered that one rock take in the middle of the tape and realized how good it was.
“The fact that I missed ‘Start Me Up’ for five years is one of my disappointments. It just went straight over my head. But you can’t catch everything.”
Goats Head Soup received its welcomed reissue last year and much of the reason for people’s excitement was the album’s lead single ‘Angie’ once again being given the reins to the record. Though the album is considered a bit of a misstep for the group, this song has remained unscathed.
A tender ballad, the track has had countless real-life women attached to it, like Richards’ daughter Angela, Angie Bowie and even Angie Dickinson. But the truth is, “It was not about any particular person,” said Richards in his memoir, Life. “It was a name like, ‘Ohhh, Diana.’ I didn’t know Angela was going to be called Angela when I wrote ‘Angie.'”
18. ‘Brown Sugar’
It’s becoming more and more difficult to appreciate this song without feeling what is more commonly known as ‘the ick’. The feeling one gets when you know that the past doesn’t align with the present anymore. ‘Brown Sugar’ is certainly one of those songs.
The song may not have made it passed the band’s own censorship today, finding most of its thematic content from the pits of rape and slavery, but in 1969, with The Rolling Stones at the height of their fame, ‘Brown Sugar’ was destined to be a hit and it didn’t disappoint. Recorded just a few months after Brian Jones’ death, it goes down as one of the most impressive riffs ever recorded.
17. ‘Mother’s Little Helper’
One of the Stones’ most beloved songs sees founder Brian Jones once again dominate the track with one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest riffs of all time. Keith Richards may have been coined ‘The Human Riff’, but Jones had his hand in a fair share and this one on a 12-string slide.
The song saw Jones also pick up the tambura, an Indian instrument that can be thanked for the tunes continuous drone. It acts as the perfect musical backdrop for the song written about the adoption of prescription drugs in households.
16. ‘Ruby Tuesday’
Another song from 1966, released the following year, is the band’s classic ‘Ruby Tuesday’. It was a number one in the US and number three in the UK and confirmed The Rolling Stones’ presence in the pop music scene.
Released as the B-Side to ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’, the song has become a bone of contention within the fans. Bill Wyman and Keith Richards have both stated it was their composition which Jones contributed to but Marianne Faithfull believed it was Jones’ entirely.
However you look at it, it’s a corker and it deserves its place in the pantheon of greatest Stones songs of all time.
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.”
14. ‘Street Fighting Man’
If there was one guitarist ready to kick out against the establishment in 1968 it was Keith Richards and on Beggars Banquet he was a regular Karate Kid. ‘Street Fighting Man’ sees Richards at his most gnarly, embodying the gruff and ready to rock protagonists in the tune.
The Rolling Stones were at the peak of their powers and songs like this, churned with the intensity of direct danger and filled with the blood, sweat and years of its bandmates, were what separated the Stones from the rest of the pop groups who were circling the clubs at the time.
13. ‘Tumbling Dice’
One of the darker moments in a glittering career was the murky power of Exile on Main Street and the drug-fuelled haze that it was spawned from. The album is rightly seen as one of the Stones’ best and it is brimming with quality.
The crowning moment of the record came on ‘Tumbling Dice’ where Jagger and Richards, along with the rest of the band, confidently swipe the crown and escape the coronation with the mucky footprints of rock stars following them along the way.
It goes down as one of the fan favourites from the myriad of music we have to choose form. A cult-classic that will always show your true colours as an aficionado.
12. ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’
The beginning of The Rolling Stones’ dominance over rock and roll could easily be traced back to this racy and raring number from 1966, ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’. It was the song that saw The Rolling Stones begin their rampage and be firmly anointed as the dukes of danger.
Originally released as the B-side to number one ‘Ruby Tuesday’, the track was the Stones shedding the weight of the Delta Blues and going out on their own. They dropped the covers and instead covered everything they did in dangerous sexuality.
That danger would see the band have to censor themselves as they tried to play both sides of the game, providing flirtatious pop music but getting it played in the right channels. It also saw them very briefly in trouble with Ed Sullivan, but that’s a story for another day.
11. ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin”
Appearing on Sticky Fingers as the song to follow the beautiful ballad ‘Wild Horses’ — more to come on that one — ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin” always had some big shoes to fill. But the group turn this track into a behemoth thanks to Keith Richards’ unique way of performing.
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.
10. ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’
Following flirtations with psychedelia and being led down the acid-path by a certain band, The Rolling Stones came back to rock with a thunderous punch to the gut in the imperious riff on ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. Famously written about Richards’ gardener it is the archetypal Stones song. “We’d been up all night [he and Jagger]; the sky was just beginning to go grey. It was pissing down raining, if I remember rightly.
“Mick and I were sitting there, and suddenly Mick starts up,” continues Richards. “He hears these great footsteps, these great rubber boots – slosh, slosh, slosh – going by the window. He said. ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s Jack. That’s jumpin’ Jack.’
“We had my guitar in open tuning, and I started to fool around with that. [singing] ‘Jumpin’ Jack…’ and Mick says, ‘Flash’. He’d just woken up. And suddenly we had this wonderful alliterative phrase. So he woke up and we knocked it together.”
Meaty and soaked in sauce, the Stones hang on Richards’ iconic riff on this 1968 single. Richards said of the riff, “It just floats there, baby”.
9. ‘Honky Tonk Women’
A song seemingly endlessly covered, with all the swagger and sway of a straight-shooting dancefloor cowboy, ‘Honky Tonk Women’ is a guaranteed gem for all types of Stones fans.
About the track, Richards said: “‘Honky Tonk Women’ started in Brazil. Mick and I, Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg who was pregnant with my son at the time. Which didn’t stop us going off to the Mato Grasso and living on this ranch. It’s all cowboys. It’s all horses and spurs. And Mick and I were sitting on the porch of this ranch house and I started to play, basically fooling around with an old Hank Williams idea. ‘Cause we really thought we were like real cowboys. Honky tonk women.”
He continued: “We were sitting in the middle of nowhere with all these horses, in a place where if you flush the john all these black frogs would fly out. It was great. The chicks loved it. Anyway, it started out a real country honk put on, a hokey thing. And then a couple of months later we were writing songs and recording. And somehow by some metamorphosis it suddenly went into this little swampy, black thing, a blues thing.”
8. ‘Beast of Burden’
Sometimes The Rolling Stones can surprise you. Often when we’re expecting a chunky riff of hard rock proportions, Richards and the band change things up. Much like on ‘Beast of Burden’ which not only acts as one of the band’s best songs but one of Richards’ most personal too — it’s a rare sight for Stones fans.
“Those who say it’s about one woman, in particular, they’ve got it all wrong,” claimed Richards. “We were trying to write for a slightly broader audience than just Anita Pallenberg or Marianne Faithfull. Although that’s not to say they didn’t have some influence in there somewhere. I mean, what’s close by is close by! I’ve always felt it’s one of my best soul songs. It was another strict collaboration between Mick and me.”
Hazy and halcyon in equal measure the track goes a long way to cover the sincere emotion at the heart of the song’s creator.
7. ‘She’s A Rainbow’
One of the moments of pure brilliance on a below-par album sees ‘She’s A Rainbow’ take a spot on our list as a kaleidoscopic joy. It may be on the cheesier side of the Stones output, but it acts as a shining moment of psychedelic pop on the band’s Their Satanic Majesties Request. With it, the band proved once more that they weren’t strapped to any kind of genre or style.
The song also featured Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on strings during his session days before joining the band. It’s a lush refrain from the band’s chaotic catalogue and is easily marked out as one of the most pretty and beautiful songs the Glimmer Twins ever composed.
One of the songs to find more favour with generations revisiting the Stones’ work, rather than a tried and tested favourite, ‘She’s A Rainbow’ sees the band use a delicacy often left untouched in their other releases.
All in all, it’s hard not to recognise this track as one of the band purest and most tender moments.
6. ‘Wild Horses’
Taken from their 1971 record Sticky Fingers, ‘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.”
5. ‘You Can’t Alway Get What You Want’
There are few moments in the canon of The Rolling Stones or, indeed, many rock acts that will call for such a hymnal and anthemic moment. The Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ is one of those moments, whenever it is played live, that demands not only complete attention and adoration but participation.
Despite releasing the number in 1968, it wasn’t until their Exile On Main Street tour in ’72 that it became a mainstay and The Stones have barely played a show without it over the last 48 years. The song always provided a moment of respite for the audience when it was played in the early days. A moment to take a step back from the madness and soak in the historic event that they were witnessing before their own eyes.
The material is also one of The Stones tracks which Mick Jagger is most proud of, as he explained: “It’s a good song, even if I say so myself. It’s got a very sing-along chorus, and people can identify with it: No one gets what they always want. It’s got a very good melody. It’s got very good orchestral touches that Jack Nitzsche helped with. So it’s got all the ingredients.”
4. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’
Another Glimmer Twin masterclass the track from 1968’s Beggars Banquet is a powerful and effervescent number that builds from deep down in your belly into something uncontrollable.
As they weave through Lucifer’s narrative without ever mentioning his name (perhaps a little worried about being censored) Jagger takes us through the with a vocal that comes from the pits of Hell. It’s the kind of showing which can convert a non-Stones fan into getting a tongue tattoo.
In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger said: “I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s, I think, but I could be wrong.”
The singer added: “Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can’t see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song.” It acts as one of the band’s finest ever compositions — potent, pointed and always provocative — and always pleases us when the needle drops.
3. ‘Paint It Black’
“Cynical, nasty, sceptical, rude. We seemed to be ahead in this respect at the time. There was trouble in America; all these young American kids, they were being drafted to Vietnam.” Keith Richards describes perfectly, among many of their songs at the time, the attitude of ‘Paint it Black’.
The Rolling Stones gathered much of their fame through connection. Not by networking with bigwigs but by connecting to their audience like no other band could. The Beatles were championed as intellectual juggernauts but it made them unattainable. The Stones, however, they were just like you and me.
‘Paint It Black’ is one song that confirmed this connection. Not only is it a textured piece of sonic artistry, also playing around with the Eastern influences that were swirling around the youthful generation, but it is a bold and provocative statement. The song went a long way to define the Stones when it was initially released and still does to this day.
2. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’
If we were judging songs purely on the volume by which they were covered then The Rolling Stones’ classic ‘Satisfaction’ would top this bill without a second glance. The song has become an anthemic moment for any party and is capable of drawing a smile from every member of that party to boot.
Since its 1965 release, the song’s infectious cords and lyrics have taken over everyone who hears it. While Mick Jagger would write the lyrics for the now iconic rock and roll record in the relative comfort of a hotel in Florida four days before the band recorded it. Yet Keith Richards can boast the legendary feat of writing the riffs for the music in his sleep.
The story goes that Richards recorded a rough version of the riff on a cassette player while in the middle of a groggy sleep. When he woke up in the morning the guitarist had no idea he had even written the song, he said when he listened to the recording in the morning there was the iconic riff followed by Richards dropping a pick and “then me snoring for the next forty minutes”.
The song saw The Rolling Stones at the top of the rock pile and while the track’s popularity means it is always likely to be chastised, it’s hard to ignore its infectious qualities.
1. ‘Gimme Shelter’
There is perhaps no greater song in the Rolling Stones canon than ‘Gimme Shelter’. Largely, because it encapsulates everything we know and love about The Rolling Stones.
Featuring on Let It Bleed, the song will always be remembered as the death rattle of the sixties. A decade that was so free and peace-loving, a decade which championed creativity and thinking outside the box, was coming to an end. This track captured that sadness and the danger that had been hiding behind the thick smoke of cheap hash and patchouli.
‘Gimme Shleter’, wholly impossible without Merry Clayton’s perfect vocal performance, was also a deeply political song. “Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War,” Jagger said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Violence on the screens, pillage, and burning. And Vietnam was not ‘war’ as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War.
“It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it … That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.”
If there was one band we could guarantee to be around when the apocalypse finally does arrive at our doors, it would be The Rolling Stones. And we hope they’re playing this song too.