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

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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5

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (1969)

On the final track of their last album of the Sixties, the Stones delivered the shotgun lesson of that decade with bittersweet flair: Everything was possible, and it all came at a price. They were at a new creative peak and preparing to return to the road. But Richards was using heroin; Jagger's girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, had suffered a miscarriage; and Jones was all but gone. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" was "basically all Mick," Richards admitted. The singer turned that turmoil into a witty evocation of universal disillusionment countered by the practical hope in the chorus and a sumptuous R&B arrangement: the entrance of the London Bach Choir, arranged by Jack Nitzsche; guest pianist Al Kooper's regal contribution on French horn; and the pushing shuffle in the drums, played by producer Jimmy Miller. "It was," Richards crowed, "a beautiful juxtaposition" – just like the Sixties.

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4

“Street Fighting Man” (1968)

"Street Fighting Man" was recorded in the spring of 1968, after Jagger witnessed a massive anti-war protest in Grosvenor Square. The song's literal meaning was ambivalent. But its energy wasn't, and it felt like a call for radicals to up their game. Inspired by Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Streets," the song emerged from the band's first sessions with Jimmy Miller, who produced all of its albums from Beggars Banquet to Goats Head Soup, in 1973. Remarkably, bass aside, it has no electric instrumentation. Richards created the layered guitar parts by distorting his acoustic through a cassette recorder. Jones played sitar and tamboura; Dave Mason, of Traffic, played a droning double-reed shehnai; Nicky Hopkins tinkled some ascending notes on piano, and Watts played a small practice drum kit miked to sound gargantuan. What emerged was the Stones' most explicitly political moment. As Richards later wrote, "You wouldn't have had 'Street Fighting Man' without the Vietnam War."

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3

“Sympathy for the Devil” (1968)

No band ever summed up its mission on Earth as perfectly as the Stones did here. "Sympathy for the Devil" was a shot at their critics that also mirrored real-world evil. (Jagger had to change the lyric "who killed Kennedy" to "who killed the Kennedys" when news of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination reached the Beggars Banquet sessions in June 1968.) Originally written as a Dylan-esque folk song, it rolls forward like a storm front, driven by a menacing samba-funk groove from Watts and African percussionist Rocky Dijon and piano and bass (played by Richards), with a wicked guitar solo midway through. The unrepentant whoo-whoo backing vocals were sung by a crowd that included Watts, Jones (who would be dead in a year) and his ex-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, who was keeping company with Richards. Jagger based his portrait of Satan as "a may-yun of way-elth and tay-ste" in part on Mikhail Bulgakov's satirical novel The Master and Margarita. But he made the role his own.

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2

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965)

Built on the Stones‘ greatest riff, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” near-singlehandedly turned “rock & roll” from a teenage fad into something far heavier and more dangerous. The guitar line was conjured by Richards while he was asleep. “I had no idea I’d written it,” he recalled in his memoir, Life, explaining how he awoke to discover the bones of the song – evidently recorded the previous night with his acoustic guitar – on a bedside cassette machine. Jagger thinks his partner got the title from a line in Chuck Berry‘s 1955 single “30 Days” (“I don’t get no satisfaction from the judge”); the singer wrote the remaining lyrics sitting next to a hotel pool in Clearwater, Florida, in early 1965, during the band’s third U.S. tour, distilling his “frustration with everything,” especially with “America, its advertising syndrome, the constant barrage.” The verses took him all of 10 minutes. It ended up being the band’s first Number One in America.

RB/Redferns

1

“Gimme Shelter” (1969)

"That's a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It's apocalypse; the whole record's like that," Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995, describing "Gimme Shelter." Like nothing else in rock & roll, the song embodies the physical experience of living through a tumultuous historical moment. It's the Stones' perfect storm: the ultimate Sixties eulogy and rock's greatest bad-trip anthem, with the gathering power of soul music and a chaotic drive to beat any punk rock. The song was born during a pounding English rainstorm. "It was just a terrible fucking day," Richards recalled. He was killing time in the apartment of English art-scene guru Robert Fraser while girlfriend Anita Pallenberg was on set making Performance, a film in which she beds down with Jagger. With chords ghosted by a droning E-note, the music radiated dread – clearly inspired by a mix of Jimmy Reed's trance-inducing blues, Richards' own romantic anxiety, and ­heroin, which he'd just begun using. It took him about 20 minutes or so to get down the basics, which were fleshed out over several sessions in London and Los Angeles during 1969. The finished version is something entirely new for the Stones, with a slithering Watts-Wyman groove and full gospel-style backing vocals; New Orleans-born Merry Clayton was asked to sing on the track because the band's first choice, Bonnie Bramlett, was unavailable, and she seized the opportunity, wailing, "Rape, murder! It's just a shot away!" like the end times were nigh. When the band played the song at Altamont, minutes before concertgoer Meredith Hunter was stabbed, the lines seemed like grim prophecy. Richards later said that his guitar fell apart during the recording, "as if by design."

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