To celebrate the Stones' 60th year (and counting), EW ranks the rock & roll pioneers’ most career-defining songs.
By Derek Scancarelli May 12, 2022 at 01:10 PM EDT
On July 12, 1962, a band then known as the Rollin' Stones took the stage for the first time ever at the Marquee Jazz Club in London, England. In Keith Richards' 2010 memoir, Life, the guitarist recalled borrowing money from Mick Jagger's father to rent equipment for the debut gig, where the young men played covers of blues classics and had something to prove. The band eventually formalized its name by adding a proper "g" to the moniker inspired by a Muddy Waters song, cementing the Rolling Stones as one of the most universally recognized names in music.
Sixty years later, the band returns to the road this summer, weaving across Europe in celebration of the unprecedented milestone. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood will be playing for the first time since the loss of their beloved drummer Charlie Watts, who died in August 2021.
To celebrate the band's longevity and insatiable desire to bring live music to the masses, we've ranked the top 10 Rolling Stones songs of all time. Read on to see if you agree.
10. "Angie" (1973)
This acoustic ballad appeared on the band's 1973 album Goats Head Soup. The featured piano and string arrangements take a step away from the Stones' usual hustle and bustle, positioning Mick Jagger as a soulful ex-lover seeking closure through song. Jagger's performance conjures the sentiment of love lost, but not without a tiring fight: "Angie, you're beautiful, yeah, but ain't it time we said goodbye?"
In Keith Richards' autobiography, the guitarist/songwriter said he wrote "Angie" while recovering at a rehabilitation center. While fans have speculated that the name of the song had a connection to his daughter, Angela, Richards says the song is unrelated — and that the name "Angie" was actually just a temporary lyric that ended up sticking.
9. "Beast of Burden" (1978)
"Beast of Burden" meshed the sound of Richards and Ronnie Wood in a way that was distinguishingly evolved from the Stones of the late '60s. Off the 1978 record Some Girls, the band was barreling towards the 1980s, when popular music took a dramatic turn in songwriting, both technically and philosophically.
Predating the hard turn of disco era dance tracks like "Emotional Rescue" and "She's So Cold," the chops of "Beast of Burden" featured the core of what made the Rolling Stones great, but boasted a modern energy, as if to say, "We aren't being left behind." Despite Richards' ongoing battle with drugs, the band still had fire in them.
8. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (1969)
It's undeniable that some of life's greatest lessons are most easily distilled through music. And there isn't a more appropriate song for managing expectations and dealing with disappointment than "You Can't Always Get What You Want," off the Stones' 1969 record, Let It Bleed.
The instruments' arrangement — including the addition of piano, french horn, and the London Bach Choir — grows the track with the confidence, consolation, and comfort that made the song universally beloved. To this day, Jagger is drowned out by stadium crowds singing back the chorus. With a cool breeze and an electric crowd, it makes for a cathartic experience.
7. "Brown Sugar" (1971)
A song often deemed controversial for its references to slavery, heroin, race, and sex,Sticky Fingers'1971 number one hit "Brown Sugar" features the two elements intrinsic to the Stones most lasting tunes: Jagger's notoriously taboo lyrics and Richards' sharp, commanding guitar riffs.
It's been debated as to who inspired the song: Marsha Hunt, an actress-model with whom Jagger had his first child, or backup singer Claudia Lennear, who was dating the Stones frontman at the time the song was recorded. After its lyrics came under fire in 2021, the Stones removed Brown Sugar from their setlist, but Lennear told Spinthat she disagrees with the decision."When do we learn to understand history without getting upset? Right now we're not really in that space," she said. "I'm sensitive, but when it comes to poetic license, I let go. It's just a great riff. It's a great hook. Keith Richards plays those first two notes, everyone is on their feet, everybody's clapping, dancing, singing. When I hear it, my first thought is: 'Long live the Rolling Stones.'"
A stark contrast to the calm country vibes of "Wild Horses," "Brown Sugar" asserts itself with the same ferocity as the 1960s Stones, but with a recklessness indicative of the drugs and chaos the band would dabble in for the remainder of the decade. Jagger has explained that the vagueness of the raunchy subject matter made for a hodgepodge of inappropriate material that was conducive to a great rock & roll song. In 2022, it's still a lot to sift through.
6. "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (1965)
Widely considered the most popular Rolling Stones song, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction '' has been streamed over 600 million times on Spotify and YouTube. A staple at family barbecues, dive bars, and sports arenas, the song transcends genre, time, and geography.
Off the band's 1965 album Out of Our Heads, the track was the Stones' first number one record in America. Ironically enough, Jagger is said to have written the lyrics while in Florida, expressing his frustration and disappointment in the U.S., a country he perceived to be overindulgent and commercialized. It appears the American youth agreed. Richards has claimed that the singalong's legendary riff came to him overnight in a haze, but luckily he caught it on tape.
5. "Sympathy for the Devil" (1968)
"Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste!" It's a line belted out by fans of all ages, often behind the microphone at a karaoke bar, after throwing back a cocktail or two. When Jagger wooed the audience at the 1968 BBC Rock and Roll Circus special, he sauntered around the stage in a way that still inspires fans to sway their hips as if they're sex symbols. The deliberately layered percussion adds a level of funk that is often too underappreciated. But the Beggars Banquet track does not forego the wailing guitar that constitutes the Stones' ethos.
The song's lyrics also leave no topic off limits, touching on all that made the band wonder and wretch, with a tongue-in-cheek approach. Religion, war, police brutality, lust, and violence all get a nod, but fundamentally, the unifying theme is that of good and evil. It's documented that Jagger drew inspiration from the writings of Ukrainian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, whose dark satire commented on the ideology of Christianity.
4. "Wild Horses" (1971)
Recorded at Alabama's Muscle Shoals studio at the close of the '60s, "Wild Horses" is made of the magic only found in the most vulnerable moments of a raucous rockstar's subdued reflection.
Released on the band's 1971 record Sticky Fingers, the track began as an ode from Keith Richards to his newborn son, whom he missed while on the road. But the song's message was reworked by Jagger to suit the tale of a faltering relationship. It has since been reinterpreted by fans worldwide with nods to commitment and devotion, fleeting youth — and most commonly — the emotional weight of love and loss.
3. "Paint It, Black" (1966)
The 1966 U.S. release of the Rolling Stones' Aftermath starts off with a pounding rhythm and beautiful — yet decidedly menacing and anxiety-inducing — guitar picking that confused music fans as much as it enticed them. In "Paint It, Black," the audible strumming of guitar strings becomes an instrument all unto itself, combined with the sounds of sitar, it added to the delirium that Richards has described as borderline comedic.
A perfect complement to the dark and mystical lyrics delivered by Jagger's aggressive melodic incursion, the song defined the strangest yet strongest sound of what the Rolling Stones have to offer. And while it's said that the song is written from the perspective of someone struggling with depression after loss, the song has seemingly transcended the emo story line with a lasting foothold in the psychedelic.
2. "Jumping Jack Flash" (1968)
Of all the greatest songs in music, few open with a line as defining as Jagger's drawling assertion: "I was born in a crossfire hurricane." Complete with the iconic licks synonymous with the Stones' fusion of blues and rock, historians find the 1968 single to be the entry point to the band's best era. Jagger has described the song as a metaphor for the band's return to form after an era of psychedelic experimentation.
The song's namesake — a reference to Richards' actual gardener named Jack — has transcended its literal inspiration into rock & roll folklore. Wouldn't it be nice to think that somewhere, on an alternate timeline, Jumpin' Jack Flash is hanging out with the Pinball Wizard on a Yellow Submarine? The 2012 HBO documentary Crossfire Hurricane, named after the opening lyric, is a stunning look into the madness surrounding the Stones' first 20 years.
1. "Gimme Shelter" (1969)
It takes just the opening notes of "Gimme Shelter" to be transported to another time in American history. Off the 1969 album Let It Bleed, the soothing-yet-haunting harmonies and crescendoing riffs build tension to later relinquish it.
The song's lyrics are a grueling realist acknowledgement of a world filled with suffering: war, rape, and murder, they're just a shot away. Featuring the soulful vocals of gospel singer Merry Clayton, the song's legacy reflects that of a disillusioned Vietnam-era America — however, Richards has explained that his initial source of inspiration was watching pedestrians seeking refuge from a downpour of rain. Furthermore, the band explained that the lyrical foundation came from the troubles of a jealous heart.
Decades removed from its creation and with its new enduring assigned meaning, Richards has described the track as "apocalyptic." In 1970, an eponymous documentary, Gimme Shelter, was created by cinéma vérité greats, the Maysles Brothers. The film recounted the shockingly tragic and deadly 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in California.
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- By Derek Scancarelli