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The 50 Best Rolling Stones Songs

July 18, 2012  |  10:04am
The 50 Best Rolling Stones Songs

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 the Paste Magazine mPlayer. But while we’re celebrating half a century of The Rolling Stones today, it’s important to remember that the band isn’t just a 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

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