The Essential Rolling Stones

With the new Rolling Stones documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, (dir. Brett Morgen) premiering this Thursday at 9pm on HBO, we put together some Stones Essentials.  Here are twenty must-have songs by the Rolling Stones.

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  • (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. Frustration – personal, professional and sexual – wrapped around one of the greatest guitar riffs in rock n roll history. You can go to just about any place in the world, pump this through the speakers and everyone will sing, tap or dance along.
  • Jumpin’ Jack Flash.   After dabbling in psychedelia, The Stones’ returned to straight ahead rock n roll with a vengeance. Loaded with blues metaphors (I was born in a cross-fire hurricane/And I howled at my ma in the driving rain) and featuring another monster Richards riff, the message was clear: The Stones were back in all of their ragged rock n roll glory.
  • Brown Sugar.   After a chaotic American tour and a sea of legal squabbles, the lead track of Sticky Fingers found the band both reinventing itself and staying true to their bad-boy roots at the same time. Keith’s transition to open-G tunings makes the riffs more definitive and Jagger’s lyrics – which suggest that the old slave masters were having their way with the female help – spun more than  a few heads. Since its release in 1971, it has remained a concert staple at Stones shows.
  • Start Me Up.  It’s hard to believe that this iconic rocker – which has opened up every Stones show for decades – almost never saw the light of day. The roots of the song dated back to 1975 and various attempts at the song had more a reggae slant to it. When the band wanted to release new material to coincide with their 1981 tour, producer Chris Kimsey found several takes that had more a rock edge to it. Kimsey suggested that the band keep this arrangement and a rock anthem was born.
  • Gimme Shelter.   Dark, ominous and edgy, this track perfectly sums up the darkness that would engulf the latter part of the 1960s. Jagger’s transformation into the premier frontman in rock is complete and on full display. Merry Clayton’s counter vocal and solo is sublime.
  • Sympathy for the Devil. The Stones had always represented the darker side of the British Invasion, but on this track, they fully embrace it. Working off a hypnotic samba groove, Mick never sounded more sinister and seductive. Richards performs double duties on bass and provides the searing guitar solos. ‘Please to meet you. Hope you guess my name’…
  • Tumblin Dice.   This exceptional track off Exile On Main Street shows the band putting its R&B roots through a new filter with exceptional results. Another song that has been an automatic on the Stones set list.
  • Honky Tonk Woman.   Originally written as a country song (which appeared on Let It Bleed under ‘Country Honk’), the song got a rock n roll makeover once Mick Taylor joined the band. After that ear catching cowbell opener, the guitars get down & dirty as Mick tells the tale of rough encounters with shady ladies. It was the
  • Paint it Black.   Brian Jones’ growing interest in Middle Eastern music drives the band’s hit 1966 single. Jones plays the signature riff on sitar while Charlie Watts provides the track’s heart-racing rhythm. Released a year before The Summer Of Love, ‘Paint It Black’ would foreshadow the darkness that would engulf the counterculture scene at decade’s end.
  • Let’s Spend the Night Together. This pop-rock ode to casual sex caused considerable controversy when it was released as a double A-side single in January 1967. When the band performed the song on The Ed Sullivan Show, Jagger was forced to change the lyrics to ‘let’s spend some time together’ to appease the censors. The controversy ended up working in the band’s favor: It became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
  • You Can’t Always Get What You Want.  This majestic track that closes out Let It Bleed beautifully sums up the optimism and ultimate disillusionment of the counterculture movement. The London Bach Choir serves as a Greek chorus while Al Kooper’s searing organ playfully counters Jagger’s vocals (Kooper also plays French horn on the song’s dramatic opening). The song is also notable for being one of the few times Charlie Watts isn’t the featured drummer. Producer Jimmy Miller plays the now memorable drum parts.
  • Miss You.  The Stones going disco? It wasn’t as big of a stretch as you might think. Jagger and bassist Bill Wyman frequently attended clubs such as Studio 54 and Charlie Watts loved the drum work heard on Philly International records. So when the decision was made to do a straight up disco/dance jam, the band’s head – and chops – were already in the right frame of mind. It was also one of the few times outside musicians were featured: Sugar Blue plays the distinctive harmonica riff; former Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan plays electric piano and saxophonist Mel Collins (formerly of King Crimson and The Alan Parsons Project) has an extended sax solo. Their sincerity to the medium paid off: It became the band’s eighth #1 hit – and still makes people move on the dance floor.
  • Beast of Burden.  Keith claimed to have offered this song as an allegorical thank you to Mick for keeping the band together while he battled drug addiction and legal problems. Whatever the reasons behind it, this slinky slab of rock and R&B just oozes with groove and attitude.
  • Street Fighting Man.   Inspired by the political protests happening in London and Paris, the opening track to Beggars Banquet was, and remains, the most politically pointed song in the band’s catalog. Artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart to Motley Crue and Rage Against The Machine have all covered this rebel anthem. Springsteen called the lyric, ‘What can a poor boy do except sing for a rock n roll band’ as one of the greatest lines of all-time. He’s absolutely correct in that assessment. It’s a song for the streets.
  • Dead Flowers.  The band’s new found love for pure C&W (courtesy of Keith’s friendship with Gram Parsons) was never more evident on this Sticky Fingers era gem. Guaranteed to start a sing along when played at a party or a bar. ‘Take me down little Susie, take me down’…
  • Ruby Tuesday.   The guys show their sensitive side with this glorious ballad about a free-spirited former love (Keith Richards claims in his book, Life, that it was written about former girlfriend Linda Keith, who left him for Jimi Hendrix). Ruby Tuesday also is a showcase for Brian Jones, who plays piano and the haunting recorder part that closes it out.
  • It’s Only Rock n Roll. Mick Jagger claims that the moment the song was written it was going to be a single. Keith knew it was a classic just from the title alone. Both were right: It’s the Stones at their toughest, defiant and the song swings like it’s nobody’s business.
  • Under My Thumb.  Featuring a sneering Jagger vocal, this tale of a man’s (sexual?) triumph over a previously pushy woman, reinforced by the band’s status as the Bad Boys of Rock. It also singled the group stretching out its sound to include fuzz bass and Brian Jones playing the song’s signature riff on marimba.
  • Waiting on a Friend.  This elegant track from ‘Tattoo You’ features one of Mick’s best vocal performances and a searing sax solo by jazz great Sonny Rollins. The accompanying video was shot on New York’s East Village and features a cameo by reggae great Peter Tosh.
  • Happy.  Featuring Keith on lead vocals, the jaunty rocker from Exile On Main Street is a pure joy from start to finish. Keith has had other great moments when singing lead (‘You Got The Silver’, ‘Before They Made Me Run’, ‘Thru And Thru’) but they never matched the level achieved on ‘Happy’.

What are your essential Stones tracks?


  1. Foggy_Otis

    November 14, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Songs!? ALBUMS baby, ALBUMS!

  2. RonsCigar

    November 14, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Even though we have two songs from Sticky Fingers, somehow that isn’t enough. But good list overall!

  3. edrooney

    November 14, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Exile on Main St would have to be #1 for essential Stones albums.

  4. rockdory

    November 14, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Agree on Albums.

  5. dcapaldo

    November 14, 2012 at 11:52 am

    i wanted to be able to bash earl, but a good list. i wouldve added monkey man and faraway eyes, but good job earl

  6. rockdory

    November 14, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Anybody here getting Barclay tickets?  If you have extra – give me a shout!  I’d love to join!!  Live in PA and can never seem to get tickets online via ticketmaster.

  7. sterlingblue

    November 14, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    “Can’t be Seen” – Any song where Keith sings I tend to like. Plus, it is about a guy who was seeing a married woman. The wronged husband just happened to be a very dangerous criminal type…. according to Keith’s book.

  8. sterlingblue

    November 14, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” didn’t make it?

  9. don d.

    November 14, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    all songs youve heard 30 times on classic rock radio…essential to most…ill take moonlight mile as my #1

  10. Rorschach7

    November 14, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    These are all great.. but I dislike when people ignore their later stuff.

    • Rorschach7

      November 14, 2012 at 12:30 pm

      Little T&A, Undercover Of The Night (fucking awesome song and Richards riff) , One Hit To the Body, Hold On To Your Hat .. Just some of the top of my head..

      • jerkstoresean

        November 14, 2012 at 12:33 pm

        @Rorschach7 I love Doom And Gloom. It’s good I hear good new music that isn’t produced on a keyboard

    • Rich from Buffalo

      November 14, 2012 at 1:39 pm

      @Rorschach7 Even the brand new one is very good and I hate everything when I hear it for the first time.

  11. JAFO1966

    November 14, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    If Hicks wasn’t hunched over his computer every night his back would be fine. vs Stones

  12. JCGregg

    November 14, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    Bitch, Monkey Man, Let it Bleed, Heartbreaker (Doo doo do do doo)

    • edrooney

      November 14, 2012 at 4:02 pm

      Bitch absolutely has to be in there.

  13. JCGregg

    November 14, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    …….  and Angie.

  14. StewartBumley

    November 14, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Two overlooked ones from Bridges to Babylon are Keith’s. Thief in the night and You don’t have to mean it. Great songs.

  15. willwhatup

    November 14, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    No monkey no sister morphine no can you hear me no rambling man… What the fuck? This list is subpar eat a dick!

  16. C H

    November 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    What, no Fool to cry?!

  17. ChrisBrown1

    November 14, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    no Sway?!?

  18. Docintoxicated

    November 14, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    If sympathy for the devil comes on I can’t turn it off.

  19. Rich from Buffalo

    November 14, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    Great list, but needs “Monkey Man” (my all time favorite) and “Rocks Off”. Stones over Beatles for me.

    • StewartBumley

      November 14, 2012 at 1:44 pm

      @Rich from Buffalo Good fuckin call. Rocks Off is solid.

  20. samechick

    November 14, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    19th Nervous Breakdown? Mother’s Little Helper?

  21. Toin Coss

    November 14, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    No seems to give any love to the Between the Buttons album, but it has one of Keith’s best Chuck Berry riffs on Amanda Jones!?

  22. kingvape

    November 14, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Can’t you hear me knockin…uh, Earl’s list is pretty much the greatest hits track for track

  23. kingvape

    November 14, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    No some girls…come on Earl, just because you don’t care if Black girls like to fuck all night…

  24. Scott_Chandwater

    November 14, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    Slave, Monkey Man, Dead Flowers, Blinded by Love, Heaven etc…etc…wow

  25. Toin Coss

    November 14, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    My other favorite that hardly ever get mentioned….

  26. Toin Coss

    November 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    One more and I’ll stop…Live .Midnight Rambler….From Get Your Ya Yas Out!

  27. Toin Coss

    November 14, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    Oops almost forgot.  Keith Did this as his one song on the last tour I saw….You Got the Silver You Got the Gold.  Fantastic Live!?

  28. Whoman

    November 14, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    Rip this joint!

  29. JamesSkiles

    November 14, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Doom & Gloom – Play with Fire – Dancing With Mr. D – Heartbreakers –

  30. Choppachang

    November 14, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    I agree with ‘Midnight Rambler’  but why no ‘Stray Cat Blues’? Different musically but a pretty good homage to Chuck’s ‘Sweet Little 16’ further along.

  31. dumbass

    November 14, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Just call Earl “Hot Rocks”
    What about?:
    Live With Me
    Stray Cat Blues
    Out of Time
    No Expectations
    Midnight Rambler
    Have You Seen Your Mother Baby…
    Get Off of My Cloud
    Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’

  32. Gunner

    November 14, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    There are far too many songs to list. The essential stones should be album only.

  33. FezKilledHisCat

    November 14, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    “Start me Up” is not  #4 on ANY Essential Stones song list.   A better song from the 80’s era Stones would be “Undercover of the Night”.   The Irrepressible “Vibe Manager  also forgot to include “Midnight Rambler”.   WTG Black Oil Douglas!

  34. theeli77

    November 14, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    Love sticky fingers. I got the blues, sway, love in vain from ya ya’s, like a rainbow, can’t you hear me knockin-

  35. RFGvac

    November 14, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    You want essential Stones?  First pick up all of their “Grand Slam” albums – the 4 studio albums they released between 1968-1972, “Beggars Banquet”, “Let It Bleed”, “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile On Main Street.”
    Then grab the live album they put out in between – “Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out.”
    It’s the perfect Stones primer, and if you don’t agree that they’re the Greatest Rock And Roll Band EVER after listening, you don’t know what rock and roll is.

  36. fervt

    November 14, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    I have mixed emotions with this list.

    • edrooney

      November 15, 2012 at 10:34 am

      @fervt You’re not the only one.

  37. Evboat

    November 14, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    I think it depends on where you were at in your life when you hear these songs.   Prodigal Son is a pretty simple song but it is huge to me.   It won’t make any lists though.   What did they say was the song East Side Dave liked so much?

  38. Anthony From California

    November 15, 2012 at 12:05 am

    You can’t always get what you want is my favorite, even with those stupid kids singing at the beginning.

  39. MikeZoltek

    November 15, 2012 at 10:42 am

    cant you hear me knocking is #1 for me

  40. DelCoTrash

    November 15, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    bubble gum Early D

  41. rockdory

    November 16, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Who got some Barclays tickets?

  42. Dannielle

    November 16, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    With the new Rolling Stones documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, (dir. Brett Morgen) premiering this Thursday at 9pm on HBO, we put together some Stones Essentials.  Here are twenty must-have songs by the Rolling Stones.

  43. spacefaced

    November 18, 2012 at 9:29 am

    SWAY earl, SWAY, come on