From 1968-1972, The Rolling Stones released four albums that not only are considered the best work of their career but some of the best albums in rock history. With the release of Exile On Main St., the final album (a double album, no less) helped close out that truly epic tetralogy in the grandest of fashion that only the Stones could accomplish.
While we all know the origin story of the band fleeing to Keith Richards’ rented villa in the South of France as a result of Britain’s tax laws on high earners, the album’s lush mix of blues, soul, country and rock provide for a sound that’s anything but European.
A rarity in the realm of double album lore, its 18 tracks of all killer, no filler.
There’s “Rocks Off,” which is perhaps one of the greatest side one/track ones ever…
…the classic blues boogie in “Tumbling Dice…”
…the incredible country twang on all of side two, from “Sweet Virginia” to “Loving Cup…”
…one of Richards’ finest Stones’ moments in “Happy…”
…the achingly beautiful nod to the late Brian Jones in “Shine a Light…”
We really, truly could go on and on in our gushing admiration.
Despite the album receiving mixed reviews when first released, it’s clear that history has treated Exile well and will undoubtedly continue to do so.
Rolling Stones: Their 50 Best Songs Ranked
“Stop Breaking Down” is one of two covers found on ‘Exile on Main St.’ (You’ll see the other one later in this list.) The Stones’ take on this Robert Johnson classic serves as a great reminder of the band’s blues roots. Mick Jagger is, once again, dynamite on harmonica and Mick Taylor’s slide work is “chef’s kiss,” as the kids say.
This cover of the classic Temptations hit is loose, fun and infectious. It’s no wonder it was a top 20 hit for the Stones on the Billboard Hot 100.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote this tender track along with their manager Andrew Loog Oldham. While the song was originally recorded by Marianne Faithfull and released in June 1964, the Stones would record and release their own version in December 1965, which would become the band’s fifth top 10 single in the United States. “As Tears Go By” has been covered by a variety of other artists, including Nancy Sinatra and Avenged Sevenfold.
Echoing the themes of “the problem that has no name” in Betty Friedan’s classic book ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ “Mother’s Little Helper” is the cautionary tale of the daily struggle of medicated housewives of the 1960s who weren’t satisfied with their lives. It’s a song that 50+ years later that still resonates, because sometimes, what a drag it is being a mom and a wife.
From the moment Charlie Watts’ drum fill kicks off “You Got Me Rocking,” it’s difficult to not simply rock the f--- out. It’s nothing fancy, but there has never been anything wrong with meat-and-potatoes rock and roll.
There is an overall timelessness about the Rolling Stones, but there are certainly a number of songs from their early releases that simply just feel like the ‘60s. “I’m Free” is definitely one of them. Perhaps you can attribute that to the tambourine. You just don’t hear a lot of tambourine anymore!
Imagine writing an absolute classic like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and then being tasked with following it up. While the Stones were enjoying their success, the record company was looking at their collective watch and wondering what was next. What they got was “Get Off of My Cloud,” a tune that is perhaps the most polite kiss-off in rock history.
There is a lot going on with “Anybody Seen My Baby?” related to its creation. It’s the only track from the Stones to feature sampling; in this case it was hip-hop artist Biz Markie’s “A One Two.” The song also famously features song credits for k.d. lang and Ben Mink for the chorus, because it resembled Lang’s 1992 track “Constant Craving.” Oh, and an early 20-something Angelina Jolie is the star subject in the song’s music video. You also can’t mention “Anybody Seen My Baby?” without tipping a cap to Jamie Muhoberac, whose bassline truly is the backbone of this haunting tune.
“Love Is Strong” marked a couple of firsts for the Stones: It was the first single from ‘Voodoo Lounge,’ and, more importantly, it was the band’s first single without Bill Wyman, the first lineup change in the band since Ronnie Wood joined in 1975. Despite the changes, the Stones stuck to what they did best on the track: sexy, hooky, blues-based rock, which led to them taking home the very first Best Rock Album Grammy Award in 1995.
For pretty much any other band, “All Down the Line” would be a single, but it was instead released as a b-side to “Happy.” This could be due to the Stones’ messy legal battle with ABKCO’s Allen Klein who alleged the band wrote “All Down the Line” and four other ‘Exile’ tunes while still under contract with ABKCO. Legal issues aside, it’s an instant party of a track thanks to the trumpet and trombone work of Jim Price.
“Shattered” was a cheeky tribute to New York City that still rings true today. (“Pride and joy and greed and sex/That’s what makes that town the best.”) “Shattered” served as both the final single from ‘Some Girls’ and the final single of the ‘70s from the Rolling Stones. If the band thought the ‘60s were a wild ride, the ‘70s was a whole new level. Also, kudos for the heavy use of the word “Shadoobie.” Frankly, it’s just fun.
'GRRR!’ was the Rolling Stones compilation set released in honor of the band’s 50th anniversary. The set featured two new tracks, with the lead single being “Doom and Gloom.” The track is two things: 1. A total banger of a rock tune and 2. A reminder that even five decades later, the Stones were more than capable of writing songs that any band would dream of writing.
Like the aforementioned “I’m Free,” “She’s a Rainbow” definitely feels like it’s from the ‘60s. Even if you just read the lyrics, you can feel the Summer of Love-ness of it all. (“She comes in colors everywhere/She combs her hair/She’s like a rainbow.”) “She’s a Rainbow” is so buoyant it could warm the cold heart of even the biggest badass. The strings on the song were also arranged by some session guy named John Paul Jones. He went on to have an okay career.
The second cover from ‘Exile,’ “Shake Your Hips” was originally recorded and released by Slim Harpo in 1966. It yet again serves as another example of the band’s love and respect for the blues. The minimalist production provides an interesting variance only three tracks into 'Exile,’ perhaps the Stones’ greatest masterpiece.
The Rolling Stones are far from being known as a “political” band, but “Sweet Black Angel” is one of the few times the band made a political statement in their songs. The ‘Exile” track served as a tribute to renowned civil rights activist Angela Davis who, at the time the song was written, was incarcerated on erroneous kidnapping and murder charges of which she’d later be found not guilty.
Whenever someone writes the definitive history of “diss tracks,” there most certainly should be a section dedicated to “Star Star.” A cut at groupies (and perhaps also former Jagger beau Carly Simon), the track was originally called “Starf---er,” but Ahmet Ertegun, whose Atlantic Records distributed the Stones’ records back then, put a stop to that. Gee...don’t know why?
A rockabilly jam that featured Jagger spitting lyrics at breakneck speed, “Rip This Joint” is a wild tale about drugs and traveling across the southern United States as a foreigner. The songs features shoutouts to various cities from Tampa to Santa Fe as well as name dropping “The Butter Queen,” the nickname for famous groupie Barbara Cope. If you don’t know why Cope was called “The Butter Queen,” Google it yourself, but you might want to use the “Incognito” tab and probably don’t do it while you’re in the office.
“Torn and Frayed” paints the picture of a journeyman guitarist traveling from town to town but it easily could be a metaphor for how any band could feel during a long, grueling tour. The tune leans into the Stones’ country influences, which is appropriate considering Gram Parsons famously visited the Villa Nellcôte mansion while the band recorded ‘Exile’ in its basement.
The Rolling Stones will forever be that “bad boy” alternative to The Beatles, but even bad boys can be really sweet and romantic as evident from “Loving Cup.” Many of us would openly swoon if someone said they’d “love to spill the beans with you till dawn.” Also, this track wouldn’t be the same without Nicky Hopkins on piano, who is both the heart and backbone of the song.
The Stones have more than a little love affair with country music (and various references to drugs.) “Sweet Virginia” sees both of those interests collide along with Mick Jagger’s harmonica and the late Bobby Keys’ brilliant saxophone. Get used to seeing more of these elements later in the list.
A tender ode to the working class, “Salt of the Earth” closes out ‘Beggars Banquet’ on a poignant note. The song took on increased poignancy when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards performed it at “The Concert For New York City,” the all-star benefit show at Madison Square Garden in honor of NYC’s police and fire fighters following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
That undeniable bass line! By the way, that was Keith Richards, not Bill Wyman, playing bass on this song. The track notably is the first song the Stones recorded with new guitarist Mick Taylor, who replaced a fired Brian Jones, and the first song to feature Bobby Keys on saxophone. The chemistry between the guitars of Richards and Taylor was just incredible, bordering on telepathic.
Some of the most devastating love songs are about love that just wasn’t meant to be even though two people really put in the effort. Many people often experience this at some point in life, and once that experience is in the rearview, a song like “Angie” just hits differently. Crossroads are hard to deal with, but this beautiful ballad, written primarily by Keith Richards, offers a lot of comfort. After all, “They can’t say we never tried.”
If you make a playlist of awesome rock songs with killer brass sections and “Bitch” isn’t on there, that playlist is simply incomplete. Credit is due to Bobby Keys and Jim Price, both of whom should show up mutiple times on any such list. If you take away their saxophone and trumpet tracks from “Bitch,” the song just isn’t the same. The Rolling Stones are one of the greatest bands of all time for many reasons, but one of those was how they surrounded themselves with the right cast of musicians on the studio. Keef, once again, shines and is the reason why the song’s original tempo increased.
“Did you ever wake up to find/A day that broke up your mind?/Destroyed your notion of circular time?” If you presented those lyrics to someone who isn’t familiar with the Rolling Stones, they might think it was the opening verse of a song written during lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic. “Sway” is primarily the work of Mick Jagger and Mick Taylor, even though the song is credited to Jagger/Richards. Taylor’s guitar work is the perfect partner to Jagger’s, at times, dramatic vocals, and “Sway” marks the first time Jagger lent his own guitar work to a track.
The first of 18 tracks on ‘Exile,’ “Rock Off” is an incredibly dark and filthy song to set the tone for a truly epic double album. To put it bluntly: The song is about a drug addict (like with a heroin problem) who’s having problems performing sexually because of said drug problems. Despite the grizzly subject matter, the song’s organized chaos – from the overlapping vocals in the chorus to the distorted bridge – adds up to a type of magic that, really, only the Rolling Stones could create.
Want a surefire way to help a song go to number one? Make it the flip side of a single that radio is too afraid to play! “Ruby Tuesday” was released as a double A-side with “Let’s Spend the Night Together” as the lead single. Since “Ruby Tuesday” was the less-randy of the two tracks, many stations were more comfortable playing the sweet ballad, whose lyrics were penned by Keith Richards. The song would go on to be the Stones’ fourth number one single on the Billboard Hot 100.
Hindsight is a funny thing. A song like “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is practically puritanical by the standards of the 2020s. Alas, it was nothing short of scandalous when it was first released in 1967 and would infamously be changed to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” when the Stones performed it on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ (Seeing Mick Jagger dramatically roll his eyes when singing the altered lyric is still funny, though.) However, good for Mick for making the evening a two-way street, if you know what I mean. (“I’ll satisfy your every need (your every need)/And now I know you will satisfy me.”)
The Stones have many songs about love lost, but none of them are as dark as the appropriately titled "Paint It Black." Besides the general bleak nature of the song, Brian Jones' sitar playing is clearly one of the track's standout aspects. The track would go on to be the Stones' third song to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Country and drugs return in full force on “Dead Flowers,” a brooding, bitter tune that is also remarkably catchy. Those elements shouldn’t work this well, but they just do on “Dead Flowers.” It goes without saying, but “And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave” still remains one of the most subtly brutal burns in the Stones catalog.
“Shine a Light” is as heartbreaking as it is grand. The song serves as a tribute to late guitarist Brian Jones, and while released on ‘Exile’ in 1972, Mick Jagger had started writing the song back in 1968 when Jones was still in the band, but his drug use was becoming an increasing problem. From top to bottom, the lyrics are gripping and touching and resonate with anyone who has lost a loved one at a young age, especially from substance issues.
The idea that life on the road is glamorous is painfully put in place on “Moonlight Mile,” the moving closing track to ‘Sticky Fingers.’ (The Rolling Stones sure had a knack for ending an album on an emotional note, didn’t they?) Sure, performing before fans is amazing, but that time between shows traveling town to town is often lonely and cold. (“The sound of strangers sending nothing to my mind/Just another mad, mad day on the road.”) Guitarist Mick Taylor, pianist Jim Price and Paul Buckmaster’s string arrangement put the song’s emotional weight on their back and really carried this track home.
If there’s one lesson to be learned from “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” it’s to always keep the tape rolling because you never know what you could capture. The song’s iconic instrumental jam at the end wasn’t even planned; the Stones and their incredible cast of session musicians didn’t even realize that they were being recorded until after the fact. Saxophonist Bobby Keys had many great moments on Rolling Stones tracks, but his work on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” could easily be his finest moment of them all.
Not all love songs are about romantic love, and “Waiting On A Friend” might be the greatest example of that. The second single off 1981’s ‘Tattoo You,’ the lyrics for “Waiting On A Friend” were penned by Mick Jagger about the friendships within the Stones: “Don’t need a whore, don’t need no booze. Don’t need a virgin priest, but I need someone I can cry to. I need someone to protect.” If you’re lucky, you’ve got a friend that fits these lyrics, and you know full well that that friendship is one of the greatest loves of your life.
Some could argue that the Rolling Stones – one of the greatest rock bands of all time – are the keepers of one of the best disco songs of all time, too. Unlike Mick Jagger walking in Central Park and singing after dark, that thought isn't crazy. It might be the hookiest hook Mick and Keith ever wrote, truth be told.
The most successful song from the Stones where Keith Richards sang lead vocals, “Happy” happened, according to Keef, “because I was for one time early for a [recording] session.” It’s a good thing Richards was early that one time: “Happy” has become a significant part of the Stones’ setlist and has been played live by the band over 500 times, per Setlist.fm. On top of his vocals and guitar work, Richards pulled triple duty by playing bass, too.
Despite how Dick and Berry from ‘High Fidelity’ feel about this song’s association with ‘The Big Chill,’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” has remained one of the Rolling Stones’ biggest showstoppers for 50 years and for good reason. The ethereal sounds of the London Bach Choir provided a unique juxtaposition to the Rolling Stones closing out not only this album but the ‘60s themselves, a decade that brought both profound change and pain. The ‘70s were on the horizon, and while so much was uncertain, one thing that wasn’t was how somehow, we’d all figure out how to get what we need.
Let’s just cut to the chase: “Beast of Burden” is sexy as hell. It’s the perfect combination of lust, romance and general coolness, which is one of many ways to simply describe the Rolling Stones as a band. It’s a casual groove but it’s in no way sloppy. It truly is rough enough, tough enough, rich enough and in love enough.
If the rock genre had some sort of keynote address, “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)” would likely be it, or at least be a firm contender. It has attitude for days, great guitars and a killer rhythm track. What more could you really want? Someone to stick a pen in their heart and spill it all over a stage?! People don’t choose rock and roll; it chooses them. This track understands that. And they like it. (Yes, they do!)
The Rolling Stones have plenty of ballads in their quiver, but “Wild Horses” is the band’s best that hits your heart’s bullseye every single time. How could it not? “No sweeping exits or offstage lines/Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind.” You’d have to be a damn cyborg not to feel that!
The lead/most commercially successful single from ‘Exile,’ “Tumbling Dice” is easily the coolest song that relies on gambling and love as metaphors. Mick Taylor is on bass here, with Mick Jagger picking up rhythm duties. (Keef, of course, is on lead.) Charlie Watts’s drumming is minimalist perfection. The track is put over the top thanks to the sublime backing vocals of Clydie King, Venetta Fields and Sherlie Matthews.
Easily one of the best straight-forward blues tracks written by Jagger and Richards, “Midnight Rambler” opens up side two of 'Let It Bleed’ and serves as another example of Jagger being incredibly underrated on the harmonica. While the studio version is outstanding, the live version on ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!” is pure blues jam heaven.
Let’s get this out of the way: There’s no way in hell lyrics like this would fly today. It’s something Mick Jagger recognized in an interview with ‘Rolling Stone’ published in 1995 where he said, “God knows what I'm on about on that song. It's such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go... I never would write that song now.” Lyrical content aside, the track would become the Stones’ sixth number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 thanks in large part to its incredible groove. No wonder it’s the song the band has played the second-most times in concert, which leads perfectly into...
The song the Rolling Stones have played the most live is “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” (Per Setlist.fm, they’ve played this absolute gem more than 1,100 times.) The track marked a welcome return to form following the very of-the-era ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request.’ Not to say a band isn’t allowed to experiment with their sound, but blues-based Rolling Stones will always be superior to anything else they do. And if you’re looking for any further evidence, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” has been covered by a bunch of other artists from Tina Turner to Aretha Franklin to Peter Frampton.
God...bless...cowbell and producer Jimmy Miller’s playing of the instrument that kicks off this classic tune. While we’re at it, bless the women that maybe inspired this song, too. (Particularly the one that blew Mick Jagger’s nose and then his mind. That’s both thoughtful and...let’s just say thorough.) While the song was born from more country influences as evident from “Country Honk” featured on ‘Let It Bleed,’ “Honky Tonk Women” is just leaps and bounds better and a testament of what can happen when you simply play around with a song idea.
Inspired by various anti-war demonstrations that occurred around the world in 1968, “Street Fighting Man” is the Rolling Stones at their most visceral. Despite being about protests in the ‘60s, its message and attitude still apply to countless movements that have played out in streets the world over in the decades since its release. There is a timelessness to many Rolling Stones songs, but “Street Fighting Man” might be the most universal track in their entire catalog. Props to Brian Jones for his sitar and tamboura work, which truly adds a unique layer and texture to an already potent track.
One second. That’s all you need to pick out “Start Me Up”; by 0:01, you know exactly what you’re listening to. It’s one of the band’s most radio-friendly tunes in their entire catalog, perhaps the most radio-friendly. This fact is incredibly ironic considering they inexplicably snuck the lyric “You make a dead man cum” past censors. Or at least that lyric wasn’t considered the scandal that “Let’s Spend The Night Together” was 14 years prior. Regardless, what an iconic riff from Keith Richards!
“Sympathy for the Devil” and its storytelling of tragic moments in history from the perspective of the devil never really gets enough credit for how clever it is. The Stones were criticized for their behavior and the content of their lyrics from pretty much the jump, but instead of complaining about their critics, they decided to hold a mirror at them instead. Sure, the song is playful in that very British wink-and-a-nod sort of way about Satan, but the way it turns the tables on a hypnotic wave of “woo woos” is nothing short of brilliant.
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is about as legendary as the story of how Keith Richards wrote the song’s classic riff while still half-asleep. The preferred music of younger generations may have changed over time, but the frustrations are still pretty much the same. (Older generations are out of touch, everyone keeps telling me what to do, I can’t get laid, etc.) If you could pick just one thing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” did really well – which is admittedly an incredibly daunting task - it was establish an angst anthem blueprint for future younger artists to follow. Sure, there has been some evolution over the decades, but you can almost always find the root of those works in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Many things add up to “Gimme Shelter” being the greatest Rolling Stones song ever. For starters, it’s one of the greatest opening tracks ever and kicks off ‘Let It Bleed’ in dramatic fashion. It also features the most iconic rock vocal solo ever thanks to Merry Clayton’s fervent delivery. (Her voice breaking when she belts out the final line of “Rape, Murder” will forever send chills up and down spines.) Perhaps most importantly is that “Gimme Shelter” is somehow over 50 years later more relevant and poignant now than it was when first released. In an age when multiple mass shootings happen nearly every single week in the United States, a line like “It’s just a shot away” cuts remarkably deep, and it’s difficult not to think of it with every piece of breaking news or memorial hashtag. “Gimme Shelter” is a desperate plea for peace in the face of seemingly non-stop violence. Maybe one day, we’ll find the love the song speaks of as it comes to a close.