100 Greatest Rolling Stones Songs – Rolling Stone
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100 Greatest Rolling Stones Songs

From “Paint It Black” to “Shine a Light” – the hottest rocks from the Stones’ 50-year career, chosen by our expert panel of writers, critics and artists

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To make the list, we asked each of these Stones experts to rank their 50 favorite songs, then tabulated the results.

The Panel: Patrick Carney (the Black Keys), Jonathan Cott (contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Cameron Crowe (director), Anthony DeCurtis (contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Jon Dolan (contributing editor, Rolling Stone), David Fricke (Senior Writer, Rolling Stone), Robert Greenfield (journalist and author), Will Hermes (contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Robert Hilburn (journalist and author), Howard Kramer (Director of Curatorial Affairs, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Chuck Leavell (musician), Jonathan Lethem (novelist), Martin Scorsese (director), Rob Sheffield (contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Lucinda Williams (singer-songwriter), Warren Zanes (the Del Fuegos)

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“Rip This Joint” (1972)

"[Mick] didn't like 'Rip This Joint' – it was too fast," recalled Richards. This rockabilly jump-blues blaster – with session man Bill Plummer on upright bass and two kick-ass Bobby Keys solos – is a crazy American travelogue in which even President Nixon is holding dope for the band. If it's not the fastest Stones song ever, it's one of the hottest.

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“Dandelion” (1967)

"Dandelion" is the gorgeously moody peak of the Stones' brief fling with psychedelic pop, highlighted by Jones' harpsichord. Even in the Summer of Love, the Stones weren't the types to put on a smiley face. At the height of flower power, fresh out of jail, they were more interested in singing "Blow away, dandelion." As Richards put it a few years later, "We didn't have a chance to go through too much flower power because of the bust. We're outlaws." Richards named his first daughter after the song – although she decided to go by her middle name, Angela, instead.

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“She’s So Cold” (1980)

At the dawn of the Eighties, the music world was full of young post-punk bands trying to fuse rock energy with disco momentum – but it took the Stones to get it right like this. "She's So Cold" cruises on that undeniable rhythm section, with scruffy guitars battling it out on top. Like so many of the cuts on Emotional Rescue, it's a deceptively breezy mix of the blues and contemporary dance music. "There's a lot of pastiche all over the album," Jagger explained at the time. "It's all our piss-taking, in other words. 'Pastiche' is just a big word for it."

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“Connection” (1967)

So this is what it felt like to be the Rolling Stones in 1966 – dark, jumpy, surly, a little bit paranoid, barely a step ahead of the law. Jagger and Richards sum up their jangled nerves in "Connection," one of their most searing vocal duets, over a staccato rhythm-guitar riff. (It's one of the first Stones songs to feature Richards' voice so prominently.) They sing about being locked up in some kind of prison cell or asylum ("The doctors want to give me more injections") with tongue-in-cheek wit: "The bags, they get a very close inspection/I wonder why it is that they suspect 'em?" There's a jolly swagger in the way they blend their voices. Yet the paranoia turned out to be totally justified in real life. Soon after "Connection" came out on Between the Buttons in January 1967, the Stones found themselves targeted by the police and facing the prospect of jail time. During their drug-possession trial later that year, Jagger and Richards flaunted their outlaw defiance – as Jagger announced to the press, after posting bail, "There's not much difference between a cell and a hotel room in Minnesota. And I do my best thinking in places without distractions." "Connection" flaunts the us-against-the-world rebel defiance that would forever define the band. Although it's barely two minutes long, and never became any kind of hit, "Connection" has always been a favorite of Stones connoisseurs – including Richards: This was the Stones song he picked to bust out on his first solo tour, in 1988.

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“Lady Jane” (1966)

"Lady Jane" is a flower-bearing foray into Elizabethan balladry that exerted a huge influence on the refined, genteel side of British psychedelic pop. "There are a few places in England where people still speak that way, Chaucer English," Richards said, referring to Jagger's slightly comic vocal delivery. Augmented by Jones' innovative use of dulcimer and Jack Nitzsche's harpsichord, the decorously pretty song showed that rock could look to England's cultural heritage for influence, in the same way the sitar on "Paint It, Black" alluded to its colonial past.

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“Salt of the Earth” (1968)

In 1968, Jagger was reportedly inspired by John Lennon to write a working-class anthem. Featuring a cracked, soulful vocal from Richards during the intro, "Salt of the Earth" ascends to gospel reverie. Jagger's tributes to the common foot soldier and lowly of birth are tinged with harsh irony ("They don't look real to me"). But he was passionately sincere when the Stones played a transcendent version of the song (with tweaked lyrics) at the Concert for New York City a month after 9/11. "I've got a feeling this town's gonna make it," Richards said with a massive grin.

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“Torn and Frayed” (1972)

In the summer of 1968, Richards started hanging out with the Byrds' Gram Parsons. "He taught me all the Everly Brothers stuff and the cross harmonies and shit like that," Richards said. Those Southern harmonies come to life on "Torn and Frayed," an endearingly sloppy juke-joint singalong about a ragged, well-meaning rambler touring ballrooms and smelly bordellos. The debauched character sounds a lot like Richards, who reportedly was in detox and couldn't complete the guitar overdub on the song – Parsons' friend Al Perkins was called in to handle the job.

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“Stray Cat Blues” (1968)

For fans threatened by the Stones' anti-Beatles image, Jagger doubled down on this sleazy rocker, scowling, "I can see that you're just 15 years old/No, I don't want your ID." (In concert, he even lowered the age to 13.) Richards stabbed his Telecaster in newly discovered open-G tuning he learned from Ry Cooder. "You get a drone going all the time," Richards wrote. The music's dark vibe has an appropriately droogy influence. "We pinched from the very first Velvet Underground album," Jagger said in 1977. "You know, the sound on 'Heroin.' Honest to God, we did!"

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“She’s a Rainbow” (1967)

Arguably the prettiest track ever by a crew not known for "pretty" – a pastoral piano melody wrapped in chamber-music strings arranged by a pre-Led Zeppelin John Paul Jones, with child-like la-la-la's swooping through like gnomes in a playground. It's the one essential track on Satanic Majesties, a beautifully constructed piece of psychedelic pop. But the dissonant breakdown and the faintly lewd vision of a girl who "comes in colors everywhere" (a line possibly bitten off Love's "She Comes in Colors") reminds you who is behind it.

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“Shine a Light” (1972)

Fans speculated Exile on Main Street's gospel masterpiece – a heartbreaking portrait of a wasted loved one in twilight – was about Jones. But Jagger had completed a version as early as 1968, a year before Jones' death. The band resurrected the song in July 1970 during the Sticky Fingers sessions. It's basically a Jagger solo track, with Taylor on guitar and bass, Jimmy Miller on drums and Billy Preston on haunting organ and keyboard – Jagger added the elegiac gospel choir after Preston took him to hear music at the Los Angeles church of the Rev. James Cleveland.

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“It’s Only Rock n Roll ‘(But I Like It)” (1974)

After the decadence of Exile and the burnout of Goats Head Soup, It's Only Rock 'n Roll was an attempt to put things in perspective. The title track was written by Jagger, who cut a demo with David Bowie. When Richards heard it, he demanded they "steal that motherfucker back." A celebration of their music with a dig at rubbernecking fans and journalists – "If I could stick a knife in my heart/Suicide right on stage/Would it be enough for your teenage lust?" – it created a classic catchphrase.

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“No Expectations” (1968)

Jones' mournful slide guitar on this quiet masterpiece would be one of his final major contributions. "We were sitting around in a circle on the floor . . . recording with open mics," Jagger said in 1995. "That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved." "No Expectations" was also an early, vital result of the Stones turning to rock's deeper roots – pre-war blues and country music – a hallmark of classic albums like Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main Street. "The mixture of black and white American music," Richards later wrote, "had plenty of space to be explored."

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“Memory Motel” (1976)

When the Stones decided to have a bash at mega-sincerity, they really went all the way – like in this extravagantly sentimental road ballad, which they stretch out to seven minutes. "Memory Motel" is unique both in its heart-on-sleeve tenderness and its Seventies yacht-soul keyboard sound. Jagger and Richards trade off lead vocals in the tale of a guitar-toting hippie girl named Hannah with hazel eyes, curved teeth and a pickup truck who meets Jagger at a cheap motel on Long Island and leaves him drunk and crying – "a real, independent American girl," Jagger said in 1978.

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“Before They Make Me Run” (1978)

"That song . . . was a cry from the heart," Richards said of this taut rocker from Some Girls. "I was in the studio, without leaving, for five days." The tempo on "Before They Make Me Run" has a wired energy, the hammer-on open-G riff is a Richards staple, and the lyrics are a strikingly open plea to the Canadian authorities to go easy in his drug-possession case. "Booze and pills and powders . . . done my time in hell," he sings, giving one of his heroically raw vocal performances a sense of unguarded personal urgency.

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“Play With Fire” (1965)

Cut on a late January night as a janitor swept up at L.A.'s RCA Studios, "Play With Fire" wasn't really a Rolling Stones record: While Jagger sang and added echo-chamber tambourine and Richards played a haunting minor-key progression, Phil Spector played bass and Jack Nitzsche played the ballad's signature harpsichord. Released as the B side of "The Last Time," the song is a takedown of a spoiled aristocratic woman, which fit the band's anti-establishment image. "The music was fueled by my emotions," Jones said. "The lyrics were done by Mick for me."

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“Sweet Virginia” (1972)

This beautifully shambling acoustic jam from Exile on Main Street is another song reflecting the country influence of Gram Parsons, along with the druggy atmosphere at Nellcôte, where it was recorded. It name-checks California wine, alludes to pills ("Drop your reds, drop your greens and blues"), and in what might be the album's most memorable line – "Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes!" – riffs off Richards' slang term for low-grade heroin ("Mexican shoe scrapings"). Taylor's liquid guitar runs make it a candidate for the greatest acoustic song in the Stones catalog.

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“Waiting On a Friend” (1981)

Speaking of waiting, the Stones kept this song in the vaults for almost a decade before releasing it as the grand finale on Tattoo You. They originally cut it in Kingston, Jamaica, during the 1972 sessions for Goats Head Soup, with Nicky Hopkins playing graceful piano runs against Richards' fragile strumming. Jagger went back years later, finished up the lyrics and delivered one of his masterfully soulful vocal performances, ruminating over a case of grown-up loneliness. "The lyric I added was very gentle and loving," Jagger said years later. "About friendships in the band." The Stones invited one of their all-time heroes to do the sax solo, jazz legend Sonny Rollins. As Jagger recalled, "I said, 'Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?' He said, 'Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and dance the part out.'" So Jagger danced, Rollins translated the moves into sax glory and "Waiting On a Friend" closes out Tattoo You in style. The famous video features Jagger and Richards hanging out with some buddies (including reggae great Peter Tosh) on a stoop on New York's St. Mark's Place – in front of the same building Led Zeppelin put on the cover of Physical Graffiti.

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“Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” (1966)

"The ultimate freakout," Jagger said of this single. It still sounds impressively nuts – from its long, vaguely scandalous title to its five-alarm horn blasts to its early use of guitar feedback to its haywire tempo to its decadent noir-psych lyrics. It was especially controversial for its cover, an image of the bandmates dressed in drag. After they shot it, they went to a bar, still dolled up in dresses and wigs. "No one said anything," Richards recalled.

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“Let It Bleed” (1969)

The Stones worked on the title track to Let It Bleed for so long that Richards' fingers literally started bleeding from playing its acoustic-guitar riff over and over. Yet the finished product has an intimate raggedness, with Ian Stewart's roadhouse piano and Taylor's country-tinged leads perfectly complementing Jagger's evocations of degradation and salvation, "coke and sympathy." And what about that titular similarity to the Beatles' "Let It Be"? "Not a thing," Richards told Rolling Stone in 1971. "'Let it bleed' was just one line in that song Mick wrote."

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“Dead Flowers” (1971)

This campy honky-tonk jam is part sendup – "[I] think a lot of country music is sung with the tongue in cheek, so I do it tongue-in-cheek," Jagger said. Yet it's utterly convincing: a boozy dressing-down of a former girlfriend that doubles as a kiss-off to the flower-power Sixties, recorded under the clear influence of Richards' drug buddy Gram Parsons. That balance of revelry and mourning, in fact, is what makes it a great country tune, and why Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, among the many who have covered it, helped to make it a genre classic.

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“Happy” (1972)

Richards' exuberantly sung anthem happened "in one grand bash," according to the guitarist. "I had the riff" – that jolting introduction – but no other Stones. "Everybody was late for one reason or another. It was only [saxophonist] Bobby Keys and Jimmy Miller, who was producing. I was like, 'I got this idea, let's just put it down for when the guys arrive.'" Four hours later, "We'd cut it" – with Miller on drums and Richards on bass and slide guitar. Jagger added harmonies later. "I was pretty happy about it," Richards crowed, "which is why it ended up being called 'Happy.'"

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“Start Me Up” (1981)

"Start Me Up" sat in the can for half a decade before the band got a version it liked. The song was originally a reggae tune recorded during the sessions for 1976's Black and Blue. It was reworked into a rocker at the Some Girls sessions, before finally landing on Tattoo You in 1981. "When they started playing it this time, it wasn't a reggae song, it was what we know today as the great 'Start Me Up,'" said engineer Chris Kimsey. "It was Keith's song; he just changed it." Richards' dirty riff and Jagger's smutty strut made it their biggest hit of the Eighties.