Playlist: The 10 best Rolling Stones albums

As Keith Richards steels himself to muster enough breath to blow out 75 birthday candles next week, Graeme Ross reveals his favourite LPs by the ‘Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band In The World’

Graeme Ross
Wednesday 12 December 2018 21:45 GMT
The Stones in 1968 (clockwise from top left): Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
The Stones in 1968 (clockwise from top left): Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (Redferns)

Famed Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards celebrates his 75th birthday on 18 December and with Mick Jagger having reached the same milestone in July, both halves of the “Glimmer Twins” will have passed their three-quarter century. And you have to hand it to the duo who, along with their equally ancient band mates, are undertaking yet another US tour in 2019 and who have long since disregarded Grace Slick’s dictum that rock stars over the age of 50 shouldn’t be seen in public.

Richards is the very essence of the rock star, the ultimate survivor of the rock’n’roll lifestyle and the heart and soul of The Rolling Stones. If I didn’t dislike the overused “National Treasure” expression so much, I would probably use it to describe Keith in an ironic, inelegantly wasted kind of way. I love his frequent and humorous put-downs of Mick’s affectations almost as much as I love the innumerable deathless guitar riffs he has conjured up for the self-proclaimed “Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band In The World”.

Of course the Stones lost the rights to that title decades ago, around about the time they became a brand, a corporate entity, but for a good number of years, in the late Sixties and early Seventies certainly, it was an indisputable fact. So, in tribute to “The Human Riff” and Sir Mick and the rest of the Stones – going all the way back to original members Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Ian Stewart, and with a nod to Mick Taylor as well – and bearing in mind there’s been a few clunkers along the way, here are my 10 greatest Rolling Stones albums.

10 Goat’s Head Soup (1973)

R​​eleased to middling reviews from critics spoiled by the unprecedented run of creativity that began with Beggar’s Banquet in 1968, Goat’s Head Soup is now viewed much more favourably. There’s a high funk quotient on “100 Years Ago” and “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” and more ballads than normal. It’s hard to think of more wildly contrasting tracks like US No 1 single “Angie”, and the notorious “Star Star” which would have sounded more at home amid the sleaze of Exile On Main Street.

9 Tattoo You (1981)

An odds and sods album consisting of outtakes dating back as far as 1972 (the nicely reflective “Waiting on a Friend” with a fabulous solo from jazz legend Sonny Rollins). The original vinyl album had a fast and a slow side and went on to sell shedloads on the back of the rifftastic opening track “Start Me Up”, the last of the great Stones singles. The rockier numbers provide the best moments – Keith has fun on “Little T&A” – and the album was a critical success too. The Stones would never sound so energized and relevant again...

8 Blue & Lonesome (2016)

Until, that is, this return to their blues roots which was as much a delight as a surprise after decades of by-the-numbers albums, as their studio recordings increasingly took second place to the their lucrative live tours. One question springs readily to mind as regards Blue & Lonesome: why the hell couldn’t they have done something like this years ago? If this is to be their valedictory album then what better way to go out than with a return to the music that first inspired them. The material and performances are exemplary, with Keith in his element and Jagger proving that he can still blow a mean harp too.

7 The Rolling Stones (1964)

And this is where they came in with one of the great debut albums which captured perfectly the raw excitement of the group’s live shows of the time. The Stones paid tribute to their R&B and blues heroes on a series of standards including “Carol” (Chuck Berry), “I Just Want To Make Love To You“ (Willie Dixon) and ”Mona“ (Bo Diddley), while the album also featured the first flowering of the nascent Jagger/Richards writing partnership with the admittedly derivative “Tell Me”.

6 Aftermath (1966)

Their first album consisting entirely of Jagger/Richards originals didn’t look out of place in a year of touchstone albums such as Revolver, Pet Sounds and Blonde On Blonde. The social commentary of “Mother’s Little Helper”, the strutting misogyny of “Under My Thumb”, (now one of their most requested live songs) and critiques of Swinging London (“Out of Time”, “Stupid Girl”) are among the highlights, but even these key Stones songs from their first classic era must bow to the ornate beauty of “Lady Jane”.

5 Some Girls (1978)

The Stones reacted brilliantly to the twin threats of punk and disco with an album that embraced both genres. There’s a return to the riff-driven glories of the past on “Shattered”, “When the Whip Comes Down” and “Respectable” and the hypnotic dance groove of “Miss You” gave them a US No 1 single. The standout track, however, remains Richards’ “Beast of Burden” – one of the band’s finest ballads.

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4 Beggar’s Banquet (1968)

Beggars Banquet and attendant single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (which surely features Richard’s greatest and most famous riff) heralded the beginning of the band’s second great era. It was the album that found the Stones back on track after a troubled and uncertain 1967 as they wholeheartedly embraced the shift away from the trippy excesses of the psychedelic era towards more roots-based music. The bulk of the album was authentic country blues, as exemplified by “Parachute Woman”, “Factory Girl” and the brilliant “No Expectations” which was illuminated by Brian Jones’ weeping slide guitar. Jagger again proved himself an adroit social commentator, capturing the revolutionary air of the times on “Street Fighting Man” while chillingly adopting the persona of Lucifer on “Sympathy for the Devil”.

3 Let It Bleed (1969)

Released the day before the infamous events at Altamont in December 1969, Let It Bleed was the first Stones album released after the death of Brian Jones, continuing the roots-based direction of Beggars Banquet on tracks like “Midnight Rambler” and “Love In Vain”. It’s the Stones darkest album as they positioned themselves as harbingers of doom on the monumental and still disturbing “Gimme Shelter”, and are at their most deviant on the title track. However, the twinkling piano leading into Richard’s jagged riffing and Jagger’s desperate vocal on “Monkey Man” and the album’s epic closer “You Can’t Always Get What You Want“ complete with ethereal vocals by London’s Bach Choir counterbalance the apocalyptic feel of an album that appropriately brought the curtain down on a turbulent decade.

2 Sticky Fingers (1971)

They had ridden the wave of tragedies that haunted them in the latter years of the Sixties and on their first release of the 1970s (and the first on their own record label) they made a bold statement of artistic intent for the times, and I’m not just talking about the infamous Andy Warhol-designed zipper cover. Quality control was key on Sticky Fingers – the bar was set high with the strutting lasciviousness of opening track “Brown Sugar” and barely dropped an inch over 10 tracks that presents the band at their most brazenly assured. “Sway” does just that, and the countrified “Wild Horses” may well be their greatest ballad. Killer riffs and punchy brass drive “Bitch” and “Sister Morphine” still chills the soul. The oft-overlooked reflective beauty of “Moonlight Mile” brings proceedings to a close on an album that many would rank as the Stones greatest.

1 Exile On Main St (1972)

In the late spring of 1971, on the run from the taxman, the various members of the Stones, along with their extensive entourage, gathered in Richards’ French villa where they recorded the bulk of this grimy, grungy classic – a record that is totally reflective of their debauched lifestyle of the time. Richards was in the grip of heroin addiction and it was left to Jagger to pull the end result together. However, Keith’s pawprints are all over an album featuring copious country, soul and gospel and the now-obligatory Delta blues influences. “Tumbling Dice”, “Rocks Off” and “Happy”, with Keith on vocals, continued the long line of riff-laden anthems and other ramshackle classics include “Sweet Virginia” and “Let it Loose”, while “Shine a Light” may be the most soulful tune they ever did. A second masterpiece in a row after Sticky Fingers and a worthy contender for the title of the greatest double album ever, Exile on Main St just shades pole position as the Rolling Stones’ greatest album.

Best live album – Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! (1970)

With their back catalogue and reputation as a live band, with a touring history to rival Dylan’s never-ending tour, you would expect the Stones to have magicked up a handful of classic live albums from over 20 in-concert releases, but you would struggle, I’m afraid. Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!, their first official live release, remains the best document of their live show, in this case late November 1969 at Madison Square Garden, with the band at the height of their Beggars Banquet/Let It Bleed era pomp. Sadly, the horror of Altamont was just a week away.

Best compilation – Forty Licks (2002)

In pre-Spotify days this was the best compilation to go for and it remains so. Many of the Stones’ great singles of the Sixties were only available on the US versions of their albums, so, if you want unimpeachable classics “The Last Time”, “Paint it, Black”, “Satisfaction”, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Honky Tonk Women” et al, alongside the best of their Seventies work up to 1981’s “Start Me Up” (their last truly great anthem), all in one place, then this for you.

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