The 50 Best Rolling Stones Songs

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Last week The Rolling Stones celebrated the 50th anniversary of their very first gig, and to pay homage to rock’s most enduring band of outlaws, this week’s mPlayer focuses on all things Stones. Our resident Mick and Keith fanatics, assistant editor Bonnie Stiernberg and multimedia editor Max Blau, count down the 50 Best Rolling Stones Songs, and 26 artists weigh in on the group’s legacy. Writer Matthew Wake examines Mick Taylor—the Stone who rolled away—and his place in the band’s history. In addition to an interview with the band from 1982 and plenty more Stones content, this week’s sampler includes tracks from The Postelles, Baroness, Icky Blossoms and more—so get yer ya-yas out and help us toast to a half-century of one of our favorite bands.

If you want to get technical about it, The Rolling Stones have been around for much longer than 50 years. Sure, it was July 12, 1962 when they played their first gig and they wouldn’t invade the States for a few more years, but the American blues and soul music they drew inspiration from had already been around for decades at that point.

The Rolling Stones are more than Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood and their rotating cast of bandmates. The Stones are Robert Johnson, they’re Chuck Berry, they’re Muddy Waters. They’re something intangible—a renegade spirit that turns up in nearly a century of music. And just as that outlaw aesthetic has been around for far longer than the band itself, The Rolling Stones will be around for much longer than 50 years.

They’ve changed their tune over the years, hopping from blues and pop to psychedelia, country, rock, even trying their hand at disco. They borrowed heavily from the greats that came before them and pooled all their influences into a perfect storm of grit and musicality. No matter what your musical tastes are, you can likely find a Stones track you’ll enjoy, and that versatility is part of what makes the Stones so enduring.

The following list required lots of listening to the Stones over the past couple of months, a great way to prepare for our special Rolling Stones issue of Paste magazine. But while we’re celebrating half a century of The Rolling Stones today, it’s important to remember that the band isn’t a just number. The Rolling Stones are a way of life—one that’ll still be around long after we’re all dead and gone.

Here are the 50 Best Rolling Stones songs:

50. She’s A Rainbow

This 1967 track off of Their Satanic Majesties Request returned to prominence recently when Kristen Wiig danced to it with Mick Jagger and her castmates during her emotional SNL farewell sketch, and there’s nothing Satanic-sounding about this pretty, baroque-inspired tune.—Bonnie Stiernberg

49. As Tears Go By

“As Tears Go By” is arguably the track that started it all; the song is the very first Jagger-Richards original. Legend has it that manager Andrew Loog Oldham locked the Glimmer Twins in a kitchen and instructed them not to come out until they had something “with brick walls all around it, high windows and no sex.” The result is a pop ballad that stands out against the band’s racier material—and it’s a damn good one that proved to Mick and Keef that the whole songwriting thing was something they could handle. “It was a shock, this fresh world of writing our own material, this discovery that I had a gift I had no idea existed,” Richards writes in his autobiography. “It was Blake-like, a revelation, an epiphany.”—BS

48. Ventilator Blues

This Exile On Main St track is perhaps the best example of the important roles in the group played by those who aren’t named Jagger or Richards. It’s the only co-writing credit guitarist Mick Taylor would receive during his stint with the band (he came up with the deliciously bluesy slide riff that opens the track), and as Charlie Watts recalls in the Stones in Exile documentary, it was saxophonist Bobby Keys who came up with rhythm: “He stood next to me clapping,” he says. “I just followed his time.”—BS

47. Time is On My Side

When the Stones covered this Norman Meade track in 1964, they managed to expertly capture that glorious youthful presumption that there’s no need to hurry—that girl of your dreams will come to her senses eventually, and you’ve got your whole life to make it with her. It’s fitting for this period of the Stones’ career as well. Even at the tender age of 21, Jagger sounds like he’s planning on celebrating his band’s 50th anniversary years down the road.—BS

46. Bitch

Jagger and Richards teamed up on this Sticky Fingers take in 1971, creating an electric opening track for the album’s second side that nearly stands up to the album opener “Brown Sugar”—sans the racy lyricism.—Max Blau

45. Happy

Recorded in less than four hours, “Happy” remains one of Keith Richards’ signature moments. It’s one of Exile on Main St.’s most direct songs, and one of the most-performed live tracks in their catalog.—MB

44. It’s All Over Now

The Stones recorded their version of this Bobby Womack song at Chicago’s Chess Studios just nine days after hearing it for the first time. Apparently that was all the time needed to create an enduring cover; “It’s All Over Now” became the band’s first-ever No. 1 hit, topping the UK charts in July of 1964.—BS

43. Good Times, Bad Times

Anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of The Rolling Stones no doubt has an appreciation for Mick Jagger’s harmonica prowess, but it’s Brian Jones who expertly handles the harp parts on this bluesy 12 × 5 track.—BS

42. Some Girls

It’s one of the Stones’ more controversial tracks, drawing the ire of feminists and civil rights groups alike for lines like “black girls just wanna get fucked all night” and “Chinese girls are so gentle, they’re really such a tease, you never know quite what they’re cookin’ inside those silky sleeves.” However, the band has long maintained that “Some Girls” is actually satire, poking fun at the stereotypical ways men view women. Whether or not you buy that, it’s hard to deny the song’s grade-A musicality, spearheaded by legendary bluesman Sugar Blue’s harmonica parts.—BS

41. I’m Free

Originally the B-side to “Get Off Of My Cloud,” “I’m Free” has been a late bloomer in the Stones’ catalog, garnering attention beyond its initial inclusion on Out of Our Heads. It’s a straightforward song speaking to youthful independence, and it’s stood the test of time over the past half-century.—MB

40. Under My Thumb

While the song never was released as a single off their 1966 record Aftermath, “Under My Thumb” gained traction among Stones fans as the years went on. In addition to quality of the song itself, it’s had its fair share of controversy. The song’s themes portray men in a dominant light, and it also happened to be the fateful song being played when tragedy struck at Altamont.—MB

39. Monkey Man

Near the tail end of Let It Bleed, “Monkey Man” remains a criminally underrated number within the Stones’ great recording stretch spanning 1968-1972. From the pianist Nicky Hopkins’ subtle intro to Richards’ classic guitar leads, the band shows its talents even with their deeper cuts in their catalog.—MB

38. It’s Only Rock ’N Roll (But I Like It)

Written as a cheeky response to critics who overanalyzed the band’s work, “It’s Only Rock ’N Roll (But I Like It)” can be looked at as The Rolling Stones’ mission statement. As the wise Daniel Desario would declare on Freaks and Geeks decades later, “Rock ’n’ roll don’t come from your brain. It comes from your crotch.” Sometimes all you need are some horns, some David Bowie backup vocals and a bombastic frontman who’s willing to spill his guts all over the stage—it’s not rocket science. But we like it.—BS

37. Salt of the Earth

Keith Richards takes over lead vocals on this track that pays tribute to the proletariat. It’s a simple ode to working folks and “the common foot solider,” and it still resonates today; Joan Baez recently covered it at an Occupy Wall St. protest to signify her solidarity with the 99 percent.—BS

36. Mother’s Little Helper

Along with its Aftermath counterpart “Paint It, Black,” “Mother’s Little Helper” featured experimental progressions by the band, who had for the first time penned all their own songs. Brian Jones incorporated sitar into the track’s composition, while Mick Jagger discusses the downsides of drug use, mainly barbiturates, in this 1966 single.—MB

35. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking

In nearly all of their great songs, The Rolling Stones capture listeners through their memorable riffs, hooks, fills and choruses. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” started off in this regard, until halfway through where the band departs into one of their most dexterous instrumental displays. The song carries on for over seven minutes, slowly building up into a triumphant guitar-and-sax-led frenzy before end on an abrupt high note.—MB

34. Let’s Spend the Night Together

It’s tame by today’s standards, but in 1967, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” was risque enough to get the Stones banned from the Ed Sullivan Show after an obviously irked Mick Jagger delivered the substitute “let’s spend some time together” line he’d agreed to sing on the show with an exaggerated eye roll. Scandalous!—BS

33. Let It Bleed

Ian Stewart’s piano and Keith Richards’ slide guitar perfectly complement each other to drive home a simple but universal message: We all need someone we can lean on, and the Stones reassure us that they’ve got our backs. Fans know where to turn when they’re dreaming of a steel guitar engagement.—BS

32. Sway

While Richards receives a co-songwriting credit for “Sway,” it’s been said that this song, along with “Moonlight Mile,” were products of the two Micks (Jagger and Taylor) working closely together. Jagger played rhythm guitar, while Taylor took the impressive solos on his shoulder. As the former sings in the song’s chorus, “It’s just that demon life has got me in its sway,” you can’t help but wonder if he’s referring to Richards’ whereabouts.—MB

31. Let it Loose

This may be the most overlooked Stones song. Track 13 on Exile hits right as the album starts to lose some of the energy from the brilliant first side. After starting as a slow piano-drive ballad—performed by none other than Dr. John—it snowballs into this triumphant gospel-drenched, horn-backed affair. It conveys more emotion than any of the band’s many other heartbreak songs.—MB

30. Love in Vain

Fabled bluesman Robert Johnson’s influence on The Rolling Stones is immense, and on this Let It Bleed track, they take his 1937 original and add some country flair. Ry Cooder’s mandolin is the driving force behind this gem.—BS

29. Factory Girl

“Factory Girl” shows off the British rockers’ folksier side, ditching the electric guitar and bass for acoustic guitar, conga drums, fiddle, mandolin samplers and tabla. Like on their country efforts (see “Dead Flowers”), The Rolling Stones did an impressive job stepping outside their usual rockers to create this folk number. It’s simple, stripped-down and gets the job done.—MB

28. Sweet Virginia

“Dead Flowers” gets more recognition as the Stones’ finest country song, but this Exile track is another stellar example of the honky-tonk-inspired magic they’re capable of. The titular Virginia is presumably a woman, but close your eyes when you listen to this one and you’ll swear that Mick and company hail from the Southern state of the same name.—BS

27. Angie

It’s hard to decide what’s more heartbreaking: Mick Jagger’s somber lament or Nicky Hopkins’ evocative accompaniment on piano. The two go hand-in-hand throughout “Angie”—the band’s standout on their 1973 record Goat’s Head Soup. Angie’s identity remains unclear—guesses have ranged from David Bowie’s first wife, Angela, all the way to a drug euphemism. But the song remains one the band’s best songs post-1972.—MB

26. Paint It, Black

The Rolling Stones originally tried a funky, funnier take. After reworking the track into a more somber version, Jagger added lyrics about a girl’s funeral—adding to its darker musical themes. But “Paint It, Black”— one of their most popular and covered songs—remains brilliant for its experimentation, including Brian Jones’ most prominent use of the sitar, Bill Wyman’s bass overdubs and Keith Richard’s guitar work.—MB

25. Miss You

In competing with punk’s rise during the late ‘70s, The Rolling Stones had been put on notice. They returned with Some Girls—a New York-centric album featuring Ronnie Wood’s Stones debut. Between disco-inspired elements and Jagger’s nonchalant song-speak, this album revitalized the band’s career—with “Miss You” at the center of the sea change.—MB

24. 19th Nervous Breakdown

Part of what makes “19th Nervous Breakdown,” an ode to a spoiled ex-girlfriend with a delicate temperament, so genius is the fact that it sounds exactly like what it’s describing. The quick tempo threatens to fly off the rails at any moment, and the guitar fill after “look around” conjures up visuals of anxious young ladies craning their necks to peer over their shoulders. Finally, it all comes unhinged at the end with Bill Wyman’s classic dive-bombing bass line.—BS

23. She Said Yeah

It’s kind of hard to understand how “Let’s Spend the Night Together” was deemed too naughty for TV when the Stones performed this equally suggestive Larry Williams cover on the air two years earlier in 1965. The band speeds up the pace (the song clocks in under two minutes) and swaps out the original’s saxophone parts for some much more rock ’n’ roll-sounding distorted guitars while Mick coos, “She said yeah, yeah, yeah yeah, c’mon daddy, I wanna make love to you too”—and the result sounds positively sinister.—BS

22. Midnight Rambler

“Midnight Rambler” was one of many examples of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ collaborative partnership as co-songwriters. The former took on vocals and the song’s signature harmonica riffs, while the latter played all the guitars on the recording. Together, along with the help of Wyman, Jones and Watts, they assembled this six-and-a-half minute rollicking number.—MB

21. Play with Fire

Penned by the entire group and credited to their collective “Nanker Phelge” pseudonym, “Play with Fire” actually only features two Stones—Jagger on vocals and tambourine and Richards on acoustic guitar. The sparse instrumentation gives the lyrics room to breathe as Jagger eerily warns a spoiled brat of a lover not to cross him.—BS

20. Honky Tonk Women

“Honky Tonk Women” was about as Western as the Stones ever ventured, yet it struck a perfect balance, combining classic country influences into their conventional blues rock. Between the song’s signature cowbell (played by producer Jimmy Miller) and Mick Taylor’s reworking of a traditional ’30s era song along the lines of Hank Williams and Jimmie Taylor, the British group never sounded more American.—MB

19. The Last Time

The Verve had to pay big when their hit “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was found to be a little too similar to this classic Stones track in 1997, but it’s easy to see why they’d be tempted to lift its catchy hook.—BS

18. Shine A Light

On “Shine A Light,” Jagger, Richards and the rest of The Rolling Stones are firing on all cylinders, taking the sprawling Exile on Main St. to its final climax. The album is undoubtedly a gospel-tinged affair—just look at number five on this list for another example—but it’s Exile’s 17th track that illuminates the album in all its sprawling glory.—MB

17. Wild Horses

Featuring the likes of Gram Parsons and Jim Dickinson, “Wild Horses” has become one of the most frequently covered songs in rock ’n’ roll history. Many believe that Jagger wrote the lyrics about Marianne Faithfull, but he’s refuted that on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, it’s one of the band’s more intimate and poignant songs throughout their five decades together.—MB

16. Jumpin’ Jack Flash

One of the Stones’ most recognizable hits, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” takes the blues that acted as such a strong early influence for them and turns it on its head. Sure, the song’s protagonist “was raised by a toothless, bearded hag” and “schooled with a strap right across [his] back,” but the track dismisses his prior suffering in favor of a simple, much sunnier outlook: “It’s all right now, in fact it’s a gas.”—BS

15. Loving Cup

“Loving Cup” is yet another example of the unique magic contained within Exile on Main St. It was a disorganized mess of a recording process, one with full-time members missing some sessions altogether and other non-members jumping in spontaneously. It somehow not only worked out, but also swelled to become the ultimate diamond in the rough. “Loving Cup” is one of those tracks to arise from the depths of Southern France.—MB

14. Rocks Off

Exile On Main St.‘s opening track perfectly sets the tone for the rest of what would become forever lauded as the band’s magnum opus. It sounds like a party—driving horns, some killer licks and Jagger’s sneering vocals all tossed together to perfection—but, penned at the height of Keith Richards’ heroin addiction, it hints at something darker. Lyrics like “I can’t even feel the pain no more” and “I want to shout but I can’t hardly speak” are revealing, while “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me” fits right in with the rest of our favorite smartasses’ devil-may-care catalog.—BS

13. Moonlight Mile

As Sticky Fingers comes to a close with “Moonlight Mile,” this lushly arranged ballad lasts for roughly six minutes. Most Stones fans wouldn’t mind it continuing forever. Created after Mick Jagger and Mick Taylor hashed out the song during an all-night session, Jagger takes the lead on acoustic guitar on record, while adding strings to top it off. After Sticky Fingers’ particularly controversial and riff-heavy focus, this song offers a chance to reflect on the tyranny of distance and madness on the road.—MB

12. Start Me Up

You won’t find much of The Rolling Stones’ post-Some Girls output on this list, but this 1981 Tattoo You track ranks among their all-time greats. Keith Richards’ iconic opening riff alone is enough to warrant its inclusion, and Mick’s howls of “you make a grown man cry” (not to mention some of the more suggestive lyrics) will get anyone revved up.—BS

11. Ruby Tuesday

It’s a song so enduring it’s got a national restaurant chain named after it. But Keith Richards’ ode to a free-spirited flame who’s impossible to pin down is far tastier than anything you’ll find on the menu.—BS

10. Brown Sugar

“Brown Sugar” continued Jagger’s newfound penchant for writing controversial lyrics, touching on issues of interracial sex, slavery and heroin use. Just as importantly, the band originally recorded the song in Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in December 1969. The combination of instantaneous musical elements along with at-times jawdropping lyrics gave the Sticky Fingers opener an added punch.—MB

9. Dead Flowers

Rock ’n’ roll has been the band’s bread and butter. Their attempts at country weren’t initially received very well. Looking back, however, it seems like people often misjudged the band when it tried something new. “Dead Flowers” sees the group brilliantly succeeding with a stab at making country music. With this song, the Stones’ glowing twang shines amidst their ominous heroin-laced lyrics.—MB

8. Street Fighting Man

The Rolling Stones have rarely gotten political over the course of their 50-year career. This 1968 Beggars Banquet track is as overtly revolutionary as they get, calling people to action at the height of the Vietnam era the only way they know how—by singing in a rock and roll band.—BS

7. Get Off Of My Cloud

How do you follow up a monster hit like “Satisfaction”? Simple: get everyone off your back (er, cloud) with twin guitars, defiant lyrics, a screaming call-and-response chorus and a killer Charlie Watts intro. It was penned way back in 1965, but “Get Off Of My Cloud” is a teen anthem for the ages.—BS

6. Beast of Burden

It may be about the difficulties of carrying someone’s emotional baggage, but everything about “Beast of Burden” manages to sound nice and easy. Personally, it’ll always remind me of when I became a regular (OK, some would say “problem”) coffee drinker; I was in high school visiting my aunt and uncle, and its gentle guitar lines were rolling out of their speakers as I nursed that first, delicious cup of the day. “Yep,” I remember thinking to myself. “This is the way to wake up every morning.” I was hooked—to the caffeine, yes, but mainly to this timeless track and the way it made me feel.—BS

5. Tumbling Dice

In the basement of the chateau Villa Nellcote in Southern France, The Rolling Stones recorded much of their epic masterpiece Exile on Main St. During this period, they produced numerous sessions for what would become the album’s fifth track, “Tumbling Dice.” The song, written about a gambler unable to remain honest to the women in his life, features a choir-backed Jagger belting out “You got to roll me” with immense conviction, trying to convince someone to take a bet on him despite all his fallen glory. Many of Exile on Main St.’s transcendent moments can be found on this one track. Like the song’s narrator, its greatness lies in its fallacies. The unpolished production (some have claimed that the final version is in fact the wrong mix) makes the song all the better, letting the brightest moments shine even brighter.—MB

4. Sympathy for the Devil

The Rolling Stones developed their reputation as rock ’n’ roll bad boys in part because of this song. Sure, they had written controversial lyrics before “Sympathy,” but this track changed the course of the band’s image. Jagger, who personifies the devil in the song, recounts his role in a string of infamous historical events such as Jesus’ crucifixion and Kennedy’s assassination. The song opens an album that stopped all mention of the band as Beatles imitators. Jagger is at his best as a lyricist here, with lines like “I rode a tank / held a general’s rank / When the Blitzkrieg raged / And the bodies stank.” The band was just beginning to hit its stride.—MB

3. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

If you were to round up a team of the world’s finest scientists, mathematicians and pollsters to determine the most instantly recognizable guitar riff of all time and came back with anything other than the pure bliss of Keith Richards’ fuzzed-out “Satisfaction” intro, we’d tell you to throw out all your data and go back to the drawing board. Beyond Richards’ iconic riff (which he claims came to him in a dream), there’s Mick Jagger—part bluesman, part Marilyn Monroe—in top form, pouting out verses about being sexually frustrated and fed up with commercialism.—BS

2. Gimme Shelter

It’s hard to fathom that “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” appear on the same album; the former is as eerie and foreboding as the latter is encouraging and comforting. But with “Gimme Shelter,” the Stones—those Satanic majesties—go full-tilt to the dark side, reflecting all the apocalyptic anxiety of the Vietnam era without ever directly referencing the conflict that defined their generation. Merry Clayton’s wailing vocal solo is positively chilling, but in the end, there’s a glimmer of hope that reminds us that maybe this song and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” aren’t so different after all: “Love, sister, is just a kiss away.”—BS

1. You Can’t Always Get What You Want

The Rolling Stones wrap up Let It Bleed with a chance at redemption, arguably the greatest album closer of all time. Jagger offers one of his finest moments as a frontman with the support of the London Bach Choir and producer-turned-drummer Jimmy Miller. Throughout the song, the group grapples with finding happiness, convincing listeners with the details, meaning and lessons along the way. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is a song that preaches truisms in the most convincing of ways. It instills hope when there’s despair, faith when there’s doubt. Jagger doesn’t give us a clear and concise meaning or lesson, yet he makes us believe in his optimism. In doing so, The Rolling Stones let us get what we need in a compelling, sweeping seven-minute statement.—MB