Over the fifty years of their existence, the Rolling Stones have only released 22 studio albums in the UK, but within this catalogue can be found some of the most influential, game-changing and iconic recordings of the rock ‘n’ roll era. From the moment they exploded from the sweaty, smoke-filled clubs of London’s visceral early sixties’ rhythm’n’blues scene, the Stones defined a hitherto unprecedented rebel sensibility that’s since become accepted as an essential ingredient of all subsequent rock. But it wasn’t exclusively cavalier swagger, belligerent attitude, fearless ingestion of sundry intoxicants and an uncanny ability to tie superfluous scarves to their legs that earned the band their enviable reputation as ‘the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world’.
While The Beatles, under the enabling tutelage of George Martin, embraced strings, woodwind, piano-based melodies, Tin Pan Alley populism, music hall Englishness and European classical elements to create their blueprint for mainstream pop, the Stones remained true to their r’n’b roots by looking across the Atlantic for the raw materials of the music that we now recognise as rock.
Roughneck electric Chicago blues, booty-loosening soul syncopation, edgy urban funk and the righteous sedition of a burgeoning civil rights movement collided with the dustbowl-born, bourbon-soaked grit and painfully raw, blue collar emotions of country music as the Stones unified previously mutually exclusive genres against the political backdrop of a steadily dissolving racial divide.
Uncontaminated by the limiting baggage of segregational convention, the band swept across America voraciously accumulating new sounds and new styles at every truck-stop and juke joint that they encountered on the road. Back in the studio they combined these elements to create a succession of career-defining albums - Beggars Banquet (’68), Let It Bleed (’69), Sticky Fingers (’71), Exile On Main St. (’72) – that introduced mainstream America to Americana, the folk music that had existed under their very noses since time immemorial, and they loved them for it. They still do.
But there’s far more to the Rolling Stones than this core quartet of releases, both before and since. Their sixties hits never lose their potency, they’re still one of the greatest live bands ever to grace a stage and, beyond this lot there are enough bootlegs to keep you entranced until doomsday.
Some of their superior live recordings are being accorded official release via the band’s website but there are countless others (along with TV appearances, radio sessions and studio out-takes) that are readily available by nefarious means and well worth a listen. That withdrawn, contract-fulfilling Decca single Schoolboy Blues (AKA Cocksucker Blues) with Andrew’s Blues on the flip? You’ve gotta hear that.
But in the meantime, there’s this. Enjoy.
26) Emotional Rescue (1980)
Not so much ‘avoid’ as ‘buy last’, Emotional Rescue marks the Stones’ ill-advised immersion in the world of disco. Though it has to be noted a good five years after the rest of the planet. As Jagger goes all high-pitched, self-grabbing and Gibbsy, it’s all the self-respecting Rolling Stones aficionado can do not to weep.
Dance (Pt. 1) is right up there on the rotten front as well, which is a shame as it marks Ronnie Wood’s only writing credit alongside Jagger and Richards. Some might say it sounds an awful lot like Led Zeppelin’s Trampled Underfoot… That said, Keith’s All About You is something of a classic and deserves better company.
25) Dirty Work (1986)
Hobbled by a debilitating mid-80s production, Dirty Work finds the Stones in turmoil, Richards livid at Jagger for releasing She’s The Boss, his first solo album, and the pair barely speaking. Charlie meanwhile was in the grip of unlikely mid-life addictions to heroin and booze. Listening to the album now it’s unsurprisingly poor.
Obviously it’s the Stones so it’s not without charm, but you have to look extremely hard for any. Its single, a weary cover of Bob & Earl’s Harlem Shuffle, is dispiritingly similar to Jagger’s Dancing In The Street Live Aid Bowie duet. On the plus side? As it’s not for charity, you don’t have to pretend to like it.
24) Steel Wheels (1989)
Endeavouring to set animosity aside, Jagger and Richards set to work on a post-Dirty Work comeback that pretty much set a template for all that was to follow. An album where the Stones largely rock out in familiar, even caricature style, there’s a fragile Keith lead vocals to add country-tinged piratical whimsy to the mix and, production-wise, it’s hard not to notice that everything appears anchored to, and built around, Charlie’s snare.
And, of course, there’s an accompanying tour, not least it seems, to test just how high a ticket price the contemporary market can take. Continental Drift, their last great sonic experiment (featuring, with no little historic significance, the Brian Jones-favoured Master Musicians Of Jajouka) passed almost unnoticed, while the album’s three accompanying singles all failed to make the UK top thirty.
23) Bridges To Babylon (1997)
It’s all very well being The Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Band In The World but what do you do for your next trick? On 1997’s Bridges To Babylon the Stones elected to conjure up more of the same… but different.
They experimented with sampling and Jagger - always with his eye on the contemporary - brought in The Dust Brothers to add some production magic. Meanwhile, Keith – always with his eye on Jagger – brought in Dylan/Band/Clapton traditionalist Rob Fraboni to produce his tracks, an unprecedented three of which made the final cut. Danny Saber and Don Was also garnered production credits, and no less than eight bass players endeavoured to lock down the band’s bottom end.
Cooks? Broth? There’s probably some kind of kitchen-based analogy crying out to be be deployed here, but in all honesty there’s a lot to love about Bridges To Babylon. Having said that, Keith and reggae? Never the easiest of bedfellows.
22) Voodoo Lounge (1994)
The Stones suffered a difficult 1980s. Who didn’t? But the band emerged from their mid-life crisis and mid-career divorce from departing bassist Bill Wyman in 1993, refreshed and ready to go back to work. Mick and Keith had both got their extra-marital solo flirtations out of their systems, Darryl Jones was in place to take care of the bottom end, and Voodoo Lounge captures a band revitalized.
Producer Don Was squeezed contemporary sparks from Love Is Strong, as he reset the crown jewels of the band’s sound into a sophisticated nineties setting more becoming a band of their vintage. Even when their pedal’s to the metal, as on You Got Me Rocking, the band come off sounding dignified and distinguished.
21) Black And Blue (1976)
With Mick Taylor calling it a day at the conclusion of It’s Only Rock ’N Roll, the Stones were scoping about for a replacement, and auditions for the vacant position can be heard on Black And Blue.
Based purely on their contributions, you could see why Muscle Shoals sideman Wayne Perkins or Canned Heat’s Harvey Mandel were considered – the former for the killer chops ’n’ syrupy soul of Hand Of Fate and Fool To Cry, the latter for Hot Stuff’s punchy funk, both for their sterling work on album highlight Memory Motel, but Ronnie Wood got the job for a couple of lukewarm portions of cod reggae and a by-numbers Crazy Mama. He must have nailed a better interview. Or hairstyle.
20) Between The Buttons (1967)
Recorded on the hoof in Hollywood and London during the latter half of 1966, Between The Buttons gave clear indication that Brian Jones was fast becoming a marginalised creative force in the band that he once called his own. Other than a vibraphone clanging awkwardly across album opener Yesterday’s Papers’ misogynistic lyrics, Between The Buttons was stripped of almost all exotic instrumentation.
The full-tilt a-ronk-a-ronk of Miss Amanda Jones and barreling Berry-isms of Keith’s Connection sparked with a freshness and lack of contrivance that mirrored the permissiveness of their time. Although frequently overlooked by the received wisdom of accepted critical opinion, Between The Buttons was the first album to capture the classic post-Jones Rolling Stones’ sound as ultimately perfected on Sticky Fingers.
19) Goats Head Soup (1973)
Always determined to assimilate contemporary elements into their trademark sound, Goats Head Soup finds the Stones (who’d just come off the road with support act Stevie Wonder) newly in thrall of urban funk. Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) with its driving Billy Preston clavinet and strident Jim Price horn arrangement is the class act here, Dancing With Mr. D menaces nicely but, at heart, Goats Head Soup is an album of ballads.
The best, Angie, is arguably the Stones’ finest, so more than worthy of inclusion, but unremarkable space fillers like Winter and Coming Down Again will have you running into the arms of the wonderful, if hackneyed, Star, Star.
18) Undercover (1983)
While Undercover may not have been the final occasion The Rolling Stones aimed for relevance it marked the last time the global zeitgeist was prepared to suspend its disbelief and allow them the luxury of appearing so. Lead single Undercover Of The Night’s Julien Temple-directed promo was even deemed too controversial for MTV.
Following Tattoo You’s archival water-tread, Undercover was the Stones’ first album of all-new material since Emotional Rescue’s disco hiccup, and re-emerging in a post-Smash Hits landscape, where synth-pop was king, rap on the rise and youth at a premium, rock’s elder statesmen had a lot to prove. A contemporary, Chris Kimsey co-production brought the Stones’ sound bang up to date and as before they endeavoured to cover all bases: funk (Undercover Of The Night), rock (She Was Hot), reggae (Feel On Baby), Jagger even rapped (Too Much Blood).
Ultimately though, Undercover, while a commercial success, was to be the Stones’ last truly ambitious album. With pop already starting to split along generic lines, it was no longer possible for one band to be all things to all men.
17) It’s Only Rock ’N Roll (1974)
The ongoing funking of the Rolling Stones continues on It’s Only Rock ’N Roll with the extended groove of Fingerprint File but, while an eminently satisfying collection of tracks, the album as a whole continues the rudderless drift of Goats Head Soup.
Luxury finds the band, at Keith’s behest no doubt, turning their attention toward reggae, Time Waits For No One utilizes a gentle Latin lilt and If You Can’t Rock Me… rocks, but the title track, credited to Jagger/Richard but actually co-written by Jagger and Ronnie Wood during sessions for the future Stone’s solo album, is the song that ultimately defines the album, and with its sentiment, the band’s entire oeuvre.
16) Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
Though certainly not a classic, Their Satanic Majesties Request is far from the ill-conceived psychedelic folly that received critical wisdom might have you believe. Recorded hot on the heels of unremarkable time-marker Between The Buttons, it was the inevitable product of barely-restrained experimentation (both musical and chemical) and the unavoidable fallout of both.
Drug busts, court cases, jail terms and general partying saw the band rarely in the studio as a unit, and solo indulgences by those that did make it had a tendency to rob the material of its intrinsic Stones-ness. That said 2000 Light Years From Home, Citadel and She’s A Rainbow (complete with John Paul Jones string arrangement) stand as bona fide psych classics.
15) Out Of Our Heads (1965)
As non-album hits and tabloid rancor continued to ramp up the Stones’ domestic reputation as the anti-Beatles their third covers-heavy long player reflected mod-propelled changing times by shifting its attention from blues to soul.
Don Covay’s Mercy Mercy, Marvin Gaye’s Hitch Hike and Sam Cooke’s Good Times find the Stones mastering a fresh discipline. With each successive tour of the States (the Promised Land so compellingly mythologized in the songs of their musical idols), these insatiable students of Americana soaked up fresh inspiration, broadened their palette of influences and ultimately tore down generic boundaries to define rock’s future.
Progressive yes, but they still find room for a sprightly romp through Chuck Berry’s Talkin’ Bout You.
14) The Rolling Stones No. 2 (1965)
This feet-finding exercise ostensibly captured the Stones living their dream (recording at Chess Studios in Chicago and RCA in Hollywood between dates on their debut US tour). Yet their first taste of America was not quite as sweet as they may have hoped. A chance encounter with Muddy Waters was counterbalanced by a derisive on-air roasting from TV host Dean Martin.
Mocked as neanderthals by a conservative establishment they poured their passion into career-defining takes of Norman Meade’s Time Is On My Side and Don Raye’s Down The Road Apiece while the nascent Jagger/Richard songwriting partnership gained confidence with the assured if derivative What A Shame, Grown Up Wrong and Off The Hook.
13) Shine A Light (2008)
The audio soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s exceptional cinematic document of a pair of 2008 gigs at New York City’s comparatively intimate Beacon Theater captures the stately Stones at the latter-day zenith of their live powers. It’s the best recorded example of what Keith Richards likes to call ‘the ancient art of weaving’, the intuitive, almost telepathic interplay between Rock’N’Roll Himself and Honest Ron.
A beautifully paced career-encompassing set-list finds all of the central protagonists on rare form: Mick Jagger’s unmistakably mannered vocal delivery, Charlie’s trademark swinging precision, admirable support from veteran sidemen Bobby Keys (sax) and Chuck Leavell (keyboards), but it’s the magic sparking between Keith and Ron that truly dazzles.
12) Tattoo You (1981)
Who would have thought it? Sent into the vaults to conjure up an album for the band to tour behind in 1981, producer Chris Kimsey returns with pure gold.
Tops and Waiting On A Friend date back to 1972’s Goats Head Soup sessions and feature Mick Taylor, while the career-reinvigorating star of the show, Start Me Up found its unlikely genesis in the single rock take of a Black And Blue-era reggae cast-off by the name of Never Stop.
Long forgotten songs, instrumentals jams and choice snippets are recalibrated with contemporary vocal performances, but little production sheen and the end result gives the impression of a band returning to both their roots and their very best form.
11) A Bigger Bang (2005)
Despite flitting from genre to genre, soaking up inspiration like a sponge, and producing authentic, often exemplary, instances of blues, country, funk, rock ‘n’ roll, soul and r‘n’b along the way, somewhere along the line the Stones stumbled upon an instantly identifiable and utterly inimitable Rolling Stones sound.
While it’s devilishly hard to describe, it’s also instantly recognisable, and it’s never been nailed to better effect or quite so precisely as it is on Rough Justice, the opening track of the Stones’ latest studio offering of 2005. Oh No Not You Again is, as unlikely as it might seem, similarly insuppressibly excellent, and proves beyond doubt that no one does the Rolling Stones quite like the Rolling Stones.
10) Aftermath (1965)
Marking an enormous artistic leap, Aftermath (recorded entirely in Los Angeles) was the first Stones album to exclusively consist of Jagger/Richard compositions. Still firmly based in r’n’b, it’s Brian Jones’s visionary instrumentation that’s truly driving the band forward at this juncture.
Following the lead of George Harrison, Jones closely mimicked a sitar on Mother’s Little Helper by a applying a slide to his electric 12-string, before ultimately upgrading to the real thing for non-album single Paint It Black.
Brian similarly enhanced Lady Jane by bringing an other-worldly, Elizabethan shimmer to proceedings with an Appalachian dulcimer and made the humdrum misogyny of Under My Thumb extraordinary by transposing its signature guitar riff onto African marimbas.
9) Brussels Affair (Live 1973) (2011)
Official recognition and release has been a long-time coming, but most Stones fans in the know have owned ‘official’ bootleg Brussels Affair (AKA Bedspring Symphony) in some form or other since highlights of the show were originally broadcast in the mid-seventies.
Recorded in 1973 with Mick Taylor at the very peak of his form it’s, quite simply, the best Stones live performance available. Ironically, it could have been even better. The unofficial version, taken from a BBC radio edit, substitutes superior versions of Rip This Joint, Jumping Jack Flash and Street Fighting Man, from a different show.
The Official Brussels Affair is available to download from The Rolling Stones official online archive.
8) The Rolling Stones (1964)
Often overlooked, invariably under appreciated, the Stones’ eponymous debut album – inexplicably unavailable with its original UK track-listing on CD, though iTunes can still oblige with an accurate download – captures the band in their original incarnation as evangelical purveyors of authentic rhythm and blues.
Tell Me, an engaging Brill Building pop facsimile, bodes well as an early sighting of a soon-to-be gilt-edged Jagger/Richards compositional credit, but three-quarters of the album’s dozen songs are r’n’b covers. The lazy shuffle of Jimmy Reed’s Honest I Do, Brian Jones’s slide stings on Slim Harpo’s I’m A King Bee, Keith’s delinquent swagger through Chuck Berry’s Carol: formative foundations upon which the Stones were to build the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.
7) Some Girls (1978)
The Stones were never more titanic and ubiquitous than they were in the mid-seventies, but their game had wavered slightly since delivering Exile On Main St. Ron Wood had stepped in for Mick Taylor, but their albums had been patchy; until 78’s Some Girls. Despite Jagger’s optimistic aspirations, the Stones were never going to attempt to take on the punks at their own game, but disco? They could do that.
Miss You owned that summer. Its Bill Wyman-via-Billy Preston bass-lope, when allied to Charlie’ Watts’ four-to-the-floor backbeat, was irresistible. Elsewhere, a strong supporting cast of Respectable, When The Whip Comes Down, Far Away Eyes and Beast Of Burden similarly deliver.
6) Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! (1970)
No other live album captures the raw, visceral excitement of a rock show quite as succinctly as Ya-Yas. Its no-frills vérité approach suits the Stones’ style perfectly. Here were a band recently up-graded into American arenas, but with the girlish screams of provincial Odeons still echoing in their ears and the sweaty intimacy of the Crawdaddy Club fresh in their memory.
Jagger’s on rare crowd-pleasing form and Richards (finally freed up from carrying a half-cocked Brian Jones) is on fire, sparring confidently with prodigious rookie, Mick Taylor. Introduced as ‘the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world’ for the very first time they don’t disappoint. Robert Johnson’s Love In Vain flies, Midnight Rambler astounds and a brace of Berry’s delight… Charlie good tonight, ain’t he?
5) Singles Collection: The London Years (1989)
While the Stones’ 1960s albums invariably delivered, building on the band’s higher profile singles output in a way that contemporary long players from The Who and Small Faces didn’t, the band’s greatest Decca-era work was captured on 7” vinyl. Contemporary hits albums (High Tide And Green Grass, Through The Past Darkly, Flowers) are fondly remembered, but in the CD era, all the very best stuff can be found on this one-stop 3-disc set.
An uncharacteristically polite, debut canter through Chuck Berry’s Come On; a savage breakthrough assault on Lennon and McCartney's I Wanna Me Your Man; the world-conquering, slack-jawed riffs and petulant, anti-establishment sentiments of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Get Off Of My Cloud and 19th Nervous Breakdown… All here and all, still, brilliant.
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4) Beggar’s Banquet (1968)
Though Brian Jones’ contributions - tambura here, mellotron there - occasionally haunt proceedings, his narcotic- and paranoia-debilitated state essentially left the band one man down during the Beggars sessions. And yet, with assistance from first-time Stones producer Jimmy Miller, Keith Richards stepped up to the plate to deliver one of their best albums.
Beggars followed Satanic Majesties’ unfocussed psych with a confident redefinition of all rock could be. From the tribal anti-gospel insistence of Sympathy For The Devil, through the Zeitgeist-defining sedition of Street Fighting Man, to the libertine salaciousness of Stray Cat Blues, Beggars hardened the Stones’ bad boy image into a vision of amoral excess that rock ‘n’ roll’s been trying to live up/down to ever since.
3) Let It Bleed (1969)
Arriving in the final month of the sixties, Let It Bleed served to cement the Stones’ reputation as deliciously diabolic harbingers of counter-cultural doom. Looking back, it seems almost unbelievably prescient that the album’s ominous opening track, Gimme Shelter, should have been released the very day before Altamont.
‘A storm is threatening’ indeed: Merry Clayton’s extraordinary backing vocals are worth the price of admission alone. Elsewhere extensive brooding psychodrama, Midnight Rambler ramps up the darkness, Live With Me confirms suspicions that the Stones are modern-day Hellfire Club libertines before You Can’t Always Get What You Want closes proceedings on an epic, if bittersweet, fin de siecle choral crescendo.
2) Exile On Main St. (1972)
Exile enjoys an unassailable position in accepted Stones lore as their crowning achievement, yet while it captures a crack unit at the peak of their form, they’ve produced better work in terms of core material. Exile’s legend has grown more around the chaotic circumstances of its birth, its accompanying U.S. tour and contemporary photographic portfolio, than the power of its constituent songs.
That said there are a fair few bona fide classics here: Tumbling Dice represents rock as she should be rolled, Rocks Off slips up a gear with every crash of Charlie’s cymbal and All Down The Line’s driving groove defines the compelling corvine swagger of Keith ’72. Rip This Joint? Forget about it. Exile’s incorrigible.
1) Sticky Fingers (1971)
Housed in an iconic Andy Warhol-designed sleeve that, during the vinyl age, viciously assaulted all of your other records with its unashamedly impractical metal zipper, Sticky Fingers exemplifies all the Stones’ best qualities over the course of ten essential selections.
From the strident opening riff of evergreen party-starting staple Brown Sugar (arguably the Stones’ ultimate defining moment), through the Gram Parsons-inspired, country rock paradigm Wild Horses, to the coked-out dreamscape of Moonlight Mile, Mick Taylor’s studio debut never lets up.
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’s one-take extended coda, with its Santana-styled congas, propels Bobby Keys’ sax improvisation and Taylor’s inspired fluidity to dizzy heights. Bitch’s brassy arrogance, Sister Morphine’s opiate oblivion: the Stones were never better than this.