As they branded themselves in a deserved fit of future-pique, the Rolling Stones are the world’s greatest rock ‘n ‘roll band, with singles too numerous to name dominating our hearts and loins from 1962 on. Though that burst of dangerous, sexual charge that impregnated “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Jumpin ‘Jack Flash” and others has subsided some 50 years after the fact, the throbbing energy of London’s favorite bad boys will never completely diminish; those first 13 ABKCO titles from 1964 through 1970 are damn-near perfect, even in their flaws.
We know the hits; classic-rock radio has made sure of that. But beyond the big cuts – which are wonderfully collected on numerous compilations, including Hot Rocks, Big Hits and Flowers, among others – there are many more songs deserving of your undying fandom. Below are 13 favorites, in order of preference, running the gamut from their first recordings to their triumphant Madison Square Garden set collected on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out.
01. “Blue Turns to Grey,” December’s Children (And Everybody’s) (1965)
“So now that she has gone/ You won’t be sad for long,” opens “Blue Turns to Grey,” which is essentially the greatest song the Byrds never recorded. Roger McGuinn’s jangle is lifted whole-hog for this light-but-meaty melody, Mick, Keith and Brian coalescing into a melancholy rumination on how you shouldn’t try to beat the blues, you should simply join them.
02. “2000 Man,” Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
“2000 Man” is a spectacular song, and a beautiful illustration of the Stones ‘quickly abandoned period of lighter, Kinksian fare that dominated their 1967 sound on both Satanic Majesties and Between the Buttons. The song moves through several distinct phases: The staccato opening verse with Charlie Watts ‘awesomely off-tempo snare pop, a big, full-throttle chorus with Mick shouting “Oh daddy!” and a revving post-chorus/middle-eight wherein Keith Richards ‘guitar packs extra punch.
03. “Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind,” Metamorphosis (1975)
Recorded in 1964 but unreleased (by the Stones) until 1975, “Some Things” is the earliest Stones country song to my knowledge, and one of the few with genuine pedal steel. The production sound is also extremely odd – a hissy, thin sound, with Mick sounding particularly nasal. Arguably, this was their attempt at appropriating the Nashville sound of the early ’60s, and there they succeed. The song itself is wonderful, with corny/”provocative” non sequiturs for lyrics. Of further interest: Vashti Bunyan released a cover of this song as her first single.
04. “No Expectations,” Beggars Banquet (1968)
Adding anything from Beggars Banquet or Let It Bleed to this list of “unheard” songs is a dangerous proposition, but then, how silly would it be to make a playlist without anything from either? It may be bending the rules, but the solemn beauty of “No Expectations” makes it all the easier. Here, Mick sounds more wounded and vulnerable than he had before (and wouldn’t again until maybe “Angie”), and Brian Jones’s slide – one of the last things he did with the group – is wonderfully understated, funereal and tremendous.
05. “I Am Waiting,” Aftermath (1966)
The chorus owns this track, Mick bursting with ire/devotion/frustration, turning like a snake in the grass after the reserved, even tender, verses. “Stand up coming years/ And escalation fears/ Oh yes we will find out,” he declares in one high point, that last couplet particularly sneering – conveying very quickly a sense of what it’s like to be on his bad side.
06. “Midnight Rambler,” Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out (1970)
This is a fairly popular Stones tune – it has seen some radio airplay – but this Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out performance takes the song to a whole other level. In the same way bluesmen censor their songs to suit the audience, this live Madison Square Garden version demonstrates how violent “Midnight Rambler” is in a way that the version onLet It Bleed cannot. Opening with an almost-jaunty feel, things quickly succumb to violence and paranoia, the pace slowing to a painful crawl as Keith and Mick Taylor’s guitars clash, sweat and seduce in the ugliest way imaginable. This is the Stones at their purest, most boorish essence.
07. “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” Out of Our Heads (1965)
Though Mick’s vocal pales in comparison to Otis Redding‘s original, to paraphrase the Stones themselves, it’s the song, not the singer. And Mick’s performance does improve over the course of the track; you can feel him surrender to the spirit of things as his voice builds in passion and strength. Also notable is Charlie Watts’s drumming – smooth and just a bit flashy, especially in the middle-eight and outro.
08. “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?,” Between the Buttons (1967)
Between the Buttons is an odd record. All of the songs feel slightly off, and there is far less overall cohesion than on any of the other Stones records. This was a rough period for the band – they were felled by legal troubles, they had stopped playing live, and the Beatles were evolving much faster – but they still had their moments. “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” is a bit of a semi-colon, musically. It never really starts, never really stops, just keeps going, rambling from piece to piece without a clear sense of direction. There’s such a great groove to it, you’ll hardly care.
09. “Country Honk,” Let It Bleed (1969)
While “Honky Tonk Women” has become certified karaoke platinum, the country version of the song is far better – so good that even Mick’s fake Southern accent is more than tolerable. The cascading and clanging acoustics mesh wonderfully with the surprising fiddle solo, and the everyone-sings-at-once chorus is particularly inviting. From the book-ending car horns to the overall feel, this is close to perfect, and one of the Stones ‘most thoroughly American moments.
10. “Out of Time,” Flowers (1967)
Brian Jones rightly gets credited for both “Paint It, Black” (the sitar) and “Under My Thumb” (marimba), and he should get his due for the excellent “Out of Time,” as well. It’s basically an “Under My Thumb” retread – similar instrumentation, and even melodic echoes in the pre-chorus – but it’s a far lighter and less misogynist tune. The backing doo-wops are un-Stones, but the rest swings.
11. “What a Shame,” The Rolling Stones, Now! (1965)
One of the Stones ‘best early blues tunes, “What a Shame” may be a bit amateurish, but it’s super-competent as well. Mick does his thing, Keith bites hard into the solo, Brian plays well and Bill and Charlie hold down the rhythm section. The best bit though, is Ian Stewart’s boogie piano playing deep in the right channel. Stewart was originally a member of the band, but the Stones rudely booted him in 1963 (among the factors: he is not a handsome man). Amazingly, Stewart agreed to stick around and be their roadie, occasionally laying some keys down on some tracks. This is one of them.
12. “You Better Move On,” December’s Children (And Everybody’s) (1965)
’50s soul singer Arthur Alexander is the only person to be covered on record by the Stones, Beatles and Bob Dylan, and “You Better Move On” is his most famous song. “You Better” is a treat – a harrowing and heartbreaking ballad about losing your one true love to another man. “Who are you to tell her who to love/ That’s up to her and the Lord above/ You better move on,” he sings.
13. “Parachute Woman,” Beggars Banquet (1968)
More from that stripped-down prime Stones era, “Parachute Woman” is probably more familiar than most of the songs on this list, but it’s still worthy of inclusion. In some ways, “Parachute Woman” is a traditional blues tune, except everything feels just a bit skewed: the harmonica mimicking Mick’s voice is haunting, the vocals weirdly distant – as if sung from beyond the grave – to say nothing of those apocalyptic closing 30 seconds.