Top 50 Rolling Stones songs

The Stones are 50. Maybe it’s a birthday none of us really wanted, but it’s here — and we probably should join the party.

I pretty much have been a Stones Freak since I saw the wonderful ‘Start Me Up’ video — made for about $350 and better than any other video they made — in 1981. When the follow-up, ‘Hang Fire,’ came about, it was over. I have every Stones album. I even have Mick Jagger’s solo albums, and make no apology for enjoying bits of Keith Richards’ far more rewarding solo recordings.

As with most things, much of the best of their lifeline lies outside the most-heard hits. So here’s the 50 I think you should know about.

“Start Me Up.” This accident song — revived from old recordings for the Stones’ last good album, 1981′s “Tattoo You” — began as a reggae song then turned into this economic lead-off single that reached #2 in the charts. The guitar sound is wonderful. Ron Wood’s solo fills the gaps of the last verse — rather than breaking away into its own segregated chunk of song. The best part? Mick’s elongated ‘seen’ at the XXX mark may be his last inspired vocal.

“Tumbling Dice.” Everyone says the Stones’ lone double-disc album “Exile on Main Street” is their best, and one of the best rock albums ever made. (I think it could have been more effective whittled down to one disc, maybe 12 songs, though none of us would agree which 12 would make the cut). It actually wasn’t that big of a hit at the time, and it’s biggest single “Tumbling Dice” hardly registered compared to singles before/after (1971′s “Brown Sugar” and 1973′s “Angie” both reached #1). But “Dice” is better than any of them, and one of those Stones songs that no one else could make. The rolling riff at the end is one of Keith’s finest, and Mick mix/matching quick rhymes with the backup singers in the verses is like pre-rap.

“Beast of Burden.” Some fans like to say the Mick Taylor years (1969 to 1974) were the peak of Stones’ prowess. He was technically a far better guitarist than Keith or Ron Wood, but the rhythm-guitar-here, lead-guitar-there separation is the territory of inferior bands. The peak of, as Keith calls it, the “ancient weaving” guitar styles, where you can’t tell who’s lead or rhythm is this 1978 single. Everyone plays inspired. Mick is on fire (when he goes falsetto for “ain’t I tough enough?” is funny), Charlie’s subtle high hat deserves a focused listen, but best is the closing guitar noodles of Keith and Ron. On their tour that year, this song stretched to over six minutes. The noodling rising every night, making you wonder why the song really ever needed to end.

“Shattered.” This is probably the most original song ever recorded. It has been heard so much we don’t realize how unique and wonderful it is. Mostly based on a chugging two-note verse. Other than Keith’s rare use of effects on guitar, the rest of it feels unEQed and uneffected. Like everything was plugged straight into the board and recorded straight. Mick’s love letter to New York is filled with joys (“people dress in garbage bags, some kind of fashion”) and his delivery — even when his voice distorts the mic with “crime rate is going up up up up up.” The second-most crucial delivery in the song, other than Mick, is Charlie’s finest moments as a drummer. Please listen again, just to Charlie, and note his sparing fills, high-hats, delayed tom-tom fills in the last 60 seconds. This is easily my favorite Stones song. I can’t hear it enough.

“Moonlight Mile.” The Stones’ most loved albums came out in a row: “Beggars Banquet” (1968), “Let It Bleed” (1970), “Sticky Fingers” (1971) and “Exile on Main Street” (1972). Of those, many like “Sticky” best — famed for “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” — but it’s always been my least favorite. It closes with one of Jagger’s finest, most underrated compositions (Keith doesn’t even appear on it), the sedate “Moonlight Mile,” with subtle acoustic play by Jagger and orchestration to wrap things (and the album) up.

“Sweet Virginia.” If they didn’t sing “shit” in the chorus, this could’ve/should’ve been a single. A sing-along country song that began “Exile’s” perfect side two, with all sort of voices pouring in the chorus. It sounds like everyone’s crowded around a mic in the center of Keith’s basement in the south of France, and even the sax solo seems right.

About Robert Reid

Robert Reid is a travel writer (Lonely Planet, New York Times, ESPN), travel expert (Today Show, CNN's Headline News), travel videographer (76-Second Travel Show) and travel artist (don't ask).
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