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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

The Rolling Stones

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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)

The Rolling Stones

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34

“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.

The Rolling Stones

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33

“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.

The Rolling Stones

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32

“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."

The Rolling Stones

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31

“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.

The Rolling Stones

Robert Knight Archive/Redferns

30

“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.'"

The Rolling Stones

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29

“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.