This exercise started because Gene said Monkey Man was on his Stones Top 10, and I didn’t see how he’d find room for it AND Gimme Shelter.
I haven’t looked at anyone else’s list yet, so I don’t know that he did. But my guess is he made it work.
This exercise is also ridiculous, since the distinctions between scores of songs are slight. Is Gimme Shelter better than Monkey Man? I would say yes, simply because the subject is sublime instead of epic, searing instead of hot, plus there’s Merry Clayton. But those are two great songs on just one of many albums.
As Les, our newest remnant, pointed out in an email yesterday, while the Stones’ greatest stretch of creativity extended from Beggars Banquet to Sticky Fingers, the album Aftermath may be their greatest. And while some would say that’s based on the string of hits that grace the UK side one (I’m thinking Mothers Little Helper, Under My Thumb and Lady Jane) and Paint It Black, which lands on the US side one, the record is a trove of brilliant blue rock songs, including High and Dry, Think, Flight 505, Going Home, and I Am Waiting. Among others!
I could find a place for all these songs on my Top 10, and yet when I looked at the 10 songs I did name, none of them are on Aftermath. There are just too many other songs that for one reason or another are ranked higher.
Is this right? The only answer is there is no right and wrong, and it’s my hope that each of our Top 10 lists is an introduction to some surprises. And that the composite list is collectively smart rather than collectively dumb. It could go either way.
So please, enjoy these notes and clips while knowing that on any other day things could have gone very differently.
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction–Out Of Our Heads (1965)
If there is a single greatest rock song, this is it. It was the first Stones single to hit No. 1. The propulsion of the opening riff, Jagger’s vocals and the harmonies, the specifics of the lyrics, the driving unrelenting ensemble beat, are all just about perfect. Played too much? Heard too many times? It doesn’t matter. That’s how good this is.
Get Off My CLoud–December’s Children (and everyone’s) (1965)
The band’s follow up to Satisfaction is kind of a rockin’ version of (I Am A) Rock, but the Stones crush Paul Simon by turning isolation into a dance party in a back room. How else does the Get Off My Lawn call and response chorus also become a party chant. In any case, a swinging rock song that also reached No. 1 in the states.
Heart of Stone–Rolling Stones Now! (1964)
This is a slow country blues that has the lyrics of a suburban teen, perfectly and candidly describing his reactions to his cold cold heart and his desire for something warmer. Twining guitars, a cleverly syncopated backbeat, and a Mick’s vocals makes some kind of soul music that sounds of the world, but is made only by the Stones.
No Expectations–Beggars Banquet (1968)
What sets this blues apart is Brian Jones’ slide guitar, but the whole ensemble is in there, having stripped the country blues down into it’s base parts. Simple, direct, unadorned, lovely, distilled and aged, smooth and rich. It’s here and then its gone.
Sway–Sticky Fingers (1971)
Sludgy Stones music. Not blues, exactly, and not country, but a ton of layered instruments interweaving, with Mick Taylor’s guitar sliding over the top when Jagger’s voice isn’t doing it. Written by Taylor and Jagger, according to Taylor, though credited to Mick and Keith, it is just a spectacular evocation of some sort of eternal gloaming and perpetual unfulfilled desire, uncategorizable and deliciously decadent, too.
Brown Sugar–Sticky Fingers (1971)
As rifftastic as Satisfaction, but somewhat more problematic lyrically, this still stands as one of the great rock songs of all time. Charlie’s dead simple drum beat (one at a time, mostly) creates a perfect syncopation with Keith’s rhythm guitar. Airy and easy and rocking, with plenty of room for piano and sax solos. One day while in high school, preparing to throw a house party, I blew out two sets of speakers playing this song too loudly for technology. The party went on anyway, but quieter.
Shine A Light–Exile on Main Street (1972)
Not a typical Stones song. Mostly written by Jagger, mostly played by Mick Taylor and Billy Preston (will Jimmy Miller on drums), this was typical of the hodge podge sessions that produced Exile. It is the gospel sounds of the keyboards and the backup singers that turn this into that great double album’s emotional climax.
Gimme Shelter–Let It Bleed (1969)
This is the one great Stones song that has become freighted with cultural signifiers. It is a summary of the 60s, and yet it is so sonically and musically powerful that it shouts down years of lame summary montages of political unrest in the states and the war in Vietnam. The bottom line is that it really does sound as big as history, and yet is a simple blue-rock stomp. Let’s thank Merry Clayton for her clarion call.
Parachute Woman–Beggars Banquet (1968)
Utterly simple blues evokes the road north to Chicago, and echoes with desire and lust, without menace, yet menacing and dark and deeply weird, too. This isn’t a major tune by any stretch, but it is a distinctive and great recording by every measure, pulsing and catchy as it bores into your head, seemingly trad and avant garde at the same time.
The Singer Not the Song–Decembers Children (and Everyone’s) (1965)
A bit of Merseybeat built on a memorable lyric and jangly guitars, it came out originally as the b-side of Get Off My Cloud in the UK and on this odds and sods collection of miscellanea in the US. Maybe my untoward affection comes from learning to play it on guitar as a teen, spending many afternoons hammering away while singing the lyrics. It also seems like the perfect capper for a Stones’ top 10.
Just want to call out some other Stones songs that could easily been included in this list: As Tears Go By, (Have You Seen Your Mother Baby) Standing In The Shadows, Stray Cat Blues, Rip This Joint, (Doo Doo Doo Doo) Heartbreaker, Jigsaw Puzzle, Connection, The Last Time, Factory Girl, Winter, Torn and Frayed, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, You’ve Got the Silver, Amanda Jones, and 2000 Man. Plus many more!