This past Monday, the AOL Radio Blog posted a list of the Top 10 Rolling Stones Songs, and not surprisingly, it was yet another assemblage of the painfully obvious. The thing is, the tracks were chosen by “AOL radio listeners” (whoever they may be), which got me thinking about how limited the Stones’ best known songs are. I don’t mean that they’re limited in quality: big hits like “Paint It Black”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Gimmie Shelter”, and “Sympathy for the Devil” are without a doubt among the band’s very best. I mean there just aren’t that many of them. This is both curious and problematic since the Stones are often ranked right behind The Beatles as the most popular Rock & Roll group. But while you can switch on a radio at any time of the day and hear Beatles “obscurities” like “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” or “Martha My Dear”, the same could not be said about Stones deep cuts like “Jigsaw Puzzle” or “Citadel”. Consequently, the non-Stones fanatic is probably only familiar with the same twenty or thirty songs that keep getting churned out over the airwaves.
To do my part in remedying this tragic situation, I’ve put together a list of twenty stunning Stones tracks that need to be heard by every woman, man, child, squirrel, and paper cup on the planet and elsewhere. I only had three loose criteria for this list: none of the songs could have appeared on a major compilation like the Big Hits, Rolled Gold, Hot Rocks, or 40 Licks albums (although I did make one exception, which I’ll explain below); no covers (which was a little painful, because stuff like “She Said Yeah”, “Down the Road Apiece”, and “I Don’t Know Why” demand to be heard as much as any original on this list); and they all have to do their part in proving how eclectic, innovative, or ass-shakingly exhilarating the World Greatest Rock & Roll Band was and is.
1. “Ride On Baby” (from the album Flowers) 1966
“Ride On Baby” was recorded during sessions for an aborted album called Could You Walk on Water?, which was scrapped after Decca records refused to release anything with such a “sacrilegious” title. When the band decided to junk some of the Walk on Water tracks while reworking it as Aftermath, “Ride On Baby” was one of the casualties. That The Rolling Stones could ditch a track this infectious with an arrangement this sumptuous (harpsichord, marimbas, African drums, piano, Japanese koto, and electric guitars all mesh perfectly) is a testament to what an abundance of superior material they had worked up in the mid-‘60s. In England, the song was handed off to blue-eyed soul singer Chris Farlowe, but the Stones version eventually surfaced in the U.S. on the Flowers compilation in the summer of ‘67.
2. “I Am Waiting” (from the album Aftermath) 1966
Perhaps the best example of the Rolling Stones’ mid-‘60s foray into fey, baroque-pop, “I Am Waiting” remains utterly Stonesy in its dark subject matter and tough performance. The singer is waiting for death, and
though the lyrics have an almost nursery rhyme simplicity, they are chilling in their resignation. The arrangement is equally affecting: the airy, eerie verses driven by skeletal dulcimer and moaning talking drum; the bridge exploding into anguished, electric bursts of guitars and drums. If this is what death is like, I can’t wait for it!
3. “Back Street Girl” (from the album Between the Buttons) 1967
Mick Jagger was often critical of Between the Buttons, the Stones’ first album to really forgo American R&B and explore the band’s Englishness by way of modish ravers, pastoral folk, and Ray Davies-inspired knees-ups. “Back Street Girl”, however, is more continental, drawing from French chanson with its gently plucked acoustic guitars, waltz-time signature, and romantic accordion. The romance ends with the arrangement, though. Jagger’s lyrics tell a rather cruel tale of an elitist john gently warning his favorite street-walker to not bother his family or acknowledge that she knows him when she isn’t on the clock. This bitter-sweet blend of lovely folk-rock and harsh chauvinism defined the Stones in ‘66 and early ’67, and this is the finest example of that formula. Mick Jagger certainly agrees, as he has often cited this as one of two songs on Between the Buttons that do not displease him…
4. “Connection” (from the album Between the Buttons) 1967
…The other is “Connection”, which has the distinction of being the first song Keith Richards wrote without any input from his puffy-lipped partner. “Connection” is a real oddball, seemingly inspired by the jaunty rhythms of American Country & Western, yet featuring such off-kilter elements as tortured, fuzzed-out guitars and a piano figure that pulses along like a heart monitor. As a result, “Connection” sounds alien even as its fabulously shambling harmonies and hippity-hop drum pattern are completely inviting. As an ironic counterpoint to the jolly sounds of “Connection”, the lyrics fortell Richards’s coming troubles with drugs and the fuzz. It’s a welcome change of pace from Jagger’s ever tiresome misogyny.
5. “Citadel” (from the album Their Satanic Majesties Request) 1967
The Rolling Stones got a lot of jive for making Their Satanic Majesties Request. Critics griped that they were merely aping The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. While The Stones surely wouldn’t have conjured up Satanic Majesties had the massive success of Pepper not forced them to come up with some sort of crazed psychedelic opus in order to compete, it sounds nothing like The Beatles’ record. In fact, I find Satanic Majesties to be far more alluring, far more exotic, deeper, and darker than Pepper. Take “Citadel”. While The Beatles were having fun in the sky with Lucy, The Stones were whipping up scary images of a dystopic future society in which capitalism and technology have gone mad (hmmm, sounds pretty accurate to me). Overdriven guitars create a demonic wall of sound; drums pound mercilessly; mellotrons snake in and out of the din. Staggering.
6. “2000 Man” (from the album Their Satanic Majesties Request) 1967
“2000 Man” is the only track on Their Satanic Majesties Request that doesn’t bother with wacky sound effects or creepy dissonance to convey its air of black-magic, yet it’s also one of the most complex pieces on the record. A mini-suite that tumbles deliriously from British folk to crashing Rock & Roll, “2000 Man” highlights Jagger’s maturation as a lyricist and Charlie Watts’s rarely revealed ability to stray from a straight back beat. What the hell is he doing during the opening section of the song, and how the hell does it manage to lock in perfectly with Keith’s fluid acoustic guitar melody?
7. “Child of the Moon” (B-side of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”) 1968
Even though “Child of the Moon” was included on the More Hot Rocks (Big Hits and Fazed Cookies) package, I’m giving it a place on this list because it was only on that album as a rarity. That being said, had “Child of the Moon” been pushed as the A-side, rather than “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, it may very well have been a big hit rather than a mere fazed cookie. As was the case on Satanic Majesties, the psychedelic Beatles set the pace—the track clearly owes a melodic and rhythmic debt to “Rain”. However, Keith’s innovative use of open-guitar tuning and Mick’s languid cajoling of the lyrics are all Stones. “Child of the Moon” was tried out during the Satanic sessions, and bears plenty of the band’s psych-era accoutrements (the hippie-ish lyrics, the mellotron, the lysergic fuzz bass), but it’s still more stripped down and gritty than the Stones had been in over a year. A beautiful, transitional track.
8. “Jigsaw Puzzle” (from the album Beggars Banquet) 1968
Mick Jagger is a man of many guises. He’s a soul shouter who longs to be Otis Redding, a blues crooner who worships Jimmy Reed, and a Rock & Roller who studied Chuck Berry like he was working on a doctorate in duck walking. Less famously, Jagger was also a hopeless Bob Dylan fanatic, and you can hear him slipping into Zimmy’s unmistakable whine on stuff like “Sister Morphine”, “She Smiled Sweetly”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, and this epic number from Beggars Banquet. “Jigsaw Puzzle” not only borrows its presentation from Dylan—which extends beyond Bob’s vocal style to include the stinging slide guitars, ramshackle acoustic guitars, and barrelhouse pianos that were all over Blonde on Blonde— but it appropriates his distinctive brand of obscure social commentary. “Jigsaw Puzzle” is populated with a cast of funky outsiders worthy of “Desolation Row”: the methylated spirit-sucking tramp, the flummoxed Queen, the irate pensioners, the hypocritical gangster, and the paranoiac Rock & Roll band that obviously represents the Stones, themselves.
9. “Salt of the Earth” (from the album Beggars Banquet) 1968
As asinine as it would be to take the decadent Rolling Stones seriously as voices of the common folk, it’s hard not to get caught up in this glass-raising tribute to the faceless crowd in its “swirling mass of gray and black and white.” Richards gets the track started with his dry acoustic guitar and drier voice. Then Jagger takes the baton and leads in the rest of the band. By the time a hired choir of testifiers step in, “Salt of the Earth” has burst out of its shell completely. As it reaches its frenzied, soul-igniting climax, one can almost believe that the Rolling Stones actually give a damn about the have-nots.
10. “Downtown Suzie” (from the album Metamorphosis) 1968
Jagger and Richards were so caught up in the turmoil of the drug trials that kept them occupied throughout 1967 that they actually broke their songwriting monopoly to allow Bill Wyman to slip one of his compositions onto Their Satanic Majesties Request. “In Another Land” was as evocative a nightmare as any other on the record, but Wyman was sadly mistaken to think it might lead to slots on future records. This is unfortunate, as he’d written a real corker for Beggars Banquet. “Downtown Suzie” teeters between lazy, bluesy verses and rousing sing-a-long choruses sublimely. Smartly, Jagger stepped in to sing this one, yet the band still did not deem it worthy of release during its own time. This is particularly sad, since it is superior to a few songs on Beggars Banquet, which is saying a lot considering that it is arguably the band’s masterpiece. Fortunately, “Downtown Suzie” made its way onto the Metamorphosis outtakes compilation in 1975.
11. “Live With Me” (from the album Let It Bleed) 1969
There are scads of classic guitar riffs in the Rolling Stones discography, but “Live With Me” is one of the few that is really propelled by the bass. That gnarly opening lick is served up by Keith Richards, who contributed most of the Stones’ truly memorable bass lines. Along with its gut-busting bass line, “Live With Me” throbs with a classic Watts backbeat, a whooping performance from Jagger, some greasy sax-work by Bobby Keyes, and sleaze-tastic lyrics that read like the X-rated works of P.G. Wodehouse. The result: The Rolling Stones have defined their sound for the coming decade.
12. “You Got the Silver” (from the album Let It Bleed) 1969
Keith Richards had previously contributed very prominent harmonies on his “Connection” and dueted with Mick Jagger on “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” and “Salt of the Earth”, but “You Got the Silver” was his first genuine solo spot. In contrast to Jagger’s mannered singing, Keith’s vocals are utterly without pretense. His pipes are ravaged from years of booze, ciggies, and all other manner of toxins, and the emotion they convey is just as raw. “You Got the Silver” is a supple, rich country-blues that bears the already forming scars of Richards’s very troubled relationship with Anita Pallenberg. His yelps of pain at the climax of the track will raise the little hairs on your neck.
13. “Monkey Man” (from the album Let It Bleed) 1969
After years of impersonating the devil and flailing around on stage like a chimp, Mick Jagger was wise enough to realize that it was starting to get a little… well… unseemly. That didn’t stop him, of course, and he’d continue playing the clown for another forty years (and counting), but on “Monkey Man” he at least acknowledged the absurdity of his persona. Jagger’s lyrics are self-consciously hilarious (“I’m a flea-bit, peanut monkey. All my friends are junkies… that’s not really true”), the groove is the rubberiest the band ever whipped up, and the Superfly intro is ultra-cool.
14. “Moonlight Mile” (from the album Sticky Fingers) 1971
The Stones may have been the biggest band in the world at the outset of the ‘70s, but it was a truly dark time for the guys. Brian Jones had only died a few years earlier. Keith and Mick’s girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, were both dealing with crippling drug problems. Altamont. Sticky Fingers is a reflection of that darkness. “Brown Sugar” was as nihilistic as a huge hit song has ever been, shamelessly spouting off on subjects so horrendously racist and sexist that it was clear that Jagger was now simply being offensive for the sake of being offensive. Hard drugs are at the forefront of “Dead Flowers” and the unrelentingly grim “Sister Morphine” (co-written by Faithfull). “Sway” is their first song in which Satan is an enemy rather than an ally. Love and sex are laid waste in “Bitch”. “Wild Horses” and “I Got the Blues” are two of the most achingly despairing songs in the Stones’ repertoire. Then at the end of all this spite and anguish comes “Moonlight Mile”, a gorgeous, meditative track that struggles to find some thread of hope in all the misery. This is a landmark track for all members of the band save Keith, who was unusually absent from the recording. Watts’s drumming had never been so dramatically dynamic; Jagger’s singing never so nuanced and sensitive. Taylor’s mesh of acoustic and electric guitars give the track deep texture. Add Paul Buckmaster’s transcendent string arrangement on top of it all, and you have the Stones’ finest ballad.
15. “Rocks Off” (from the album Exile on Main Street) 1972
With a double-album’s worth of great songs to choose from—only one of which found it’s way into greatest-hits rotation—I could have put together this list just using songs from Exile on Main Street that aren’t “Tumbling Dice”. Instead I limited my selections to three. First up is “Rock’s Off”, a song that may stand as the ultimate statement of the Rolling Stones pure-Rock & Roll sound in the ‘70s. All of the archetypal elements are alert and present: the raunchy Chuck Berry riffs, the beefy horns, the sloppy sing-a-long choruses. But the lyrics tackle a very un-Stones-like subject: impotence. For once Jagger is not conquering women like some sort of dough-brained Rock & Roll Viking. Ol’ Lucifer can’t get it up, and the results are as hilarious as they are galvanizing.
16. “Loving Cup” (from the album Exile on Main Street) 1972
The Stones mastery of country-soul was so thorough that it’s hard to imagine that they weren’t born and raised in the Georgia woods. “Loving Cup” is the best example of this, with its rollicking piano and chiming acoustic guitars and Mick putting on his best faux drawl to serve up the song’s message of romantic camaraderie. Charlie Watts’s drums stutter and trip over it all like an elated drunkard and everyone rants and raves through the ecstatic fade. “Loving Cup” is like an aural party, and it’s particularly nice to hear Mick singing the praises of love for change.
17. “Let It Loose” (from the album Exile on Main Street) 1972
In stark contrast to the joviality of “Loving Cup” is the melancholy, mysterious “Let It Loose’. Here the despair and paranoia of Sticky Fingers sinks back in, resulting in the most emotionally charged song on Exile. Like “Salt of the Earth”, “You Got the Silver” and “Moonlight Mile”, “Let It Loose” practically begins in silence before building to an unhinged pitch. Soulful backing singers wail away over the band’s unfettered soaring and smashing. No one did that kind of dynamic build like the Stones.
18. “Winter” (from the album Goats Head Soup) 1973
Goats Head Soup has some good songs but it’s nearly sunk by muddy production. The one song that actually benefits from the murk is “Winter”, a languid, lovely song that sounds as though the band is struggling to play it while standing in the middle of a blizzard. A lot of the ingredients that made “Moonlight Mile” a classic are here, including Paul Buckmaster’s strings, the Eastern guitar figures, and the drum fills that sound like waves crashing on rocks. But whereas Mick seemed unsure of a way out of the bleakness on “Moonlight Mile”, he sounds most assured that love will get him through on “Winter”. The song is resplendent in evocative imagery: dimmed Christmas lights, coats wrapped around shivering shoulders, and a relentless frost. Stirring stuff.
19. “Time Waits For No One” (from the album It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll) 1974
It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll was Mick Taylor’s final album with the Stones, and one of the main reasons for his departure was Jagger and Richards’ refusal to credit him for the songs he co-wrote. Considering that they included “Moonlight Mile”, “Winter”, and “Time Waits for No One”, the guy had a real legitimate gripe, because he’d helped write a good deal of the band’s best recent material. The song that most bears his touch is “Time Waits for No One”, a jazzy, strange piece that showcases Taylor’s nimble guitar work like no other. It’s also a lyrical triumph for Jagger, who turned 30 the year the record was released. No longer was he joking about his persona as he did on “Monkey Man” and “Rocks Off”. This is a grim realization that he’d past Rock & Roll middle age and the reaper now had his number. Charlie Watts’s rim shots tick-tock like some great, looming grandfather clock.
20. “Wanna Hold You” (from the album Undercover) 1983
The Rolling Stones started going down hill in the mid ‘70s. Their albums were offering less variety, the lyrics were getting less inventive, and Jagger’s posing was growing embarrassing. Most significantly, the humanity was drying up. Aside from Some Girls and Tattoo You (which was actually an outtakes compilation), none of the band’s albums would ever be consistently great again. Yet every single one of them has at least one track worth hearing, and most have several. Not surprisingly, the best songs the Stones produced in the ‘80s and ‘90s were sung by Keith Richards, who couldn’t sing an inauthentic note if he tried. Amidst all of the sleaze and violence of the band’s 1983 offering, Undercover, is an uplifting love song that would have sounded utterly unconvincing had it come out of Mick’s mouth. The elements of “Wanna Hold You” don’t sound as if they should add up: the pop hooks, the discofied beat, the cheery lyrics, and Keith’s sandblasted voice. But it’s a wonderful track, probably because the guy really was head-over-Cuban-heels for wife-to-be Patti Hansen. The way the multi-tracked vocals overlap on the refrain is exhilarating.
21. “Thru and Thru” (from the album Voodoo Lounge) 1994
Voodoo Lounge is an unfortunate album because if the group had cherry picked the best nine or ten songs they’d recorded, it would have been their first excellent record since Tattoo You. Instead it’s overlong and bloated with throwaways that need to be sifted aside in order to reach this slow-burning treasure at the end of the album. “Thru and Thru” sounds absolutely nothing like anything the Stones recorded before, and that alone makes it worthy of mention. But it’s also intense, highly dramatic, spooky, and beautiful, Keith moaning the despairing lyrics like he’s haunting a house. “Thru and Thru” caused a minor stir in the early ‘00s when it was used to great effect in an episode of “The Sopranos”, but it also works perfectly well without the mafioso visuals. As far as I’m concerned it’s the greatest thing the band recorded since Exile on Main Street, and like every other song on this list, it demands to be heard.