The canon of “the greatest rock and roll band in the world” has been assessed so much (by pros, amateurs, illiterates, etc.) that there’s no need to rattle cages with a best-of ranking. Instead, here are some underrated, overlooked, or seemingly forgotten Stones songs, 15 picks each.
Tattoo You (1981)
CM: “Slave” may be unceremonious on paper, just a guitar/drum vamp with keyboards, sax, the “don’t wanna be your slave” refrain, and stray Mick lines about running someone else’s errands. Yet it overflows with the inimitable sensuality of The Stones in their zone, always an appeal however informal the song. It’s also an example of how much they can wring from a riff when the vibe is right, locking in, pulling back, rising up, and so forth. Born circa Black and Blue, it found home a few years later on Tattoo You, which spit-shined leftover tracks into a superb album.
As an aside, a lot of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on Love You Live sounds quite akin to “Slave” (albeit in a different key), particularly after the 3-minute mark. That live performance and the initial “Slave” jam were recorded in the same time frame, so I suspect one may have been the inspiration or further investigation of the other.
CM: Murky grunge with seafaring imagery stuck at the end of four vinyl sides...maybe that’s why “Survivor” never gained much traction. The chorus is straightforward – based a staccato guitar motif Keith would reuse later (hear “It Must Be Hell”) – but even that appears too sporadically for popular expectations. Which is fine; I’d just as soon this song skirt the main radar because it’s great to encounter and “get” as one explores the Stones. It exemplifies their style at the time yet connects in a different way, particularly in the “gonna be the death of me” hook.
CM: Exile’s virtue appears when you soak in the whole shebang (optimally with beer and friends), a double LP that captures the boys letting loose on blues, boogie, country, rock, soul, and other roots. “Shine a Light” touches on gospel to become the album’s benediction, an otherwise modest song robed in piano, organ, tambourine, and churchy background vocals. It’s passionate but not over the top, going from a quiet first verse to exuberant choruses. Jagger sings it well, Mick Taylor adds memorable guitar, and even the quick-tapered ending is part of its charm.
CM: As an outtake dressed up as a reissue bonus, “Pass the Wine” hasn’t been widely tasted, but it’s from a vintage any connoisseur would enjoy (as is “Plundered My Soul”). Sexy as Sophia Loren, “Wine” pours out a party-ready groove with chin-up lyrics – don’t let disappointments get you down, be merry when you can. It would have been a great addition to Exile had they finished it, but then it wouldn’t have the overdubs that make it so fitting now, like the line about “glad to hear my heart still ticking.” Hooray for a healthy time-traveler.
CM: A precursor to their ‘70s style that scratches its nails down the back half of Beggars Banquet. Given that album’s holiness, “Stray Cat” isn’t exactly unknown but neither is it mentioned as often as the two hits. Much of the Stones’ work to date adhered to pop-rock protocol with every element in place, but in this song a particular group sound emerges, specifically Keith’s guitar and Charlie’s drums in tight-but-loose tandem, laced with Bill Wyman’s bass and Mick’s snarl (and Nicky Hopkins’ piano, bless that brother). It still sounds raunchy to this day; live versions are good but miss the edge of the studio recording.
CM: This isn’t the place for me to ward off derision for Emotional Rescue, but I wonder why it’s often considered an unworthy followup to Some Girls when the contents are quite similar. Girls is superior, sure, but the sequel plays in the same ballpark and has a decent on-base percentage. Having said that, Rescue’s “Dance, pt. 1” is kind of goofy, and that’s because it’s a reduction of “If I Was a Dancer”, a longer (yet more focused) non-album track that has different vocals and flows much better. Nonstop Keef/Ron guitar ties in with disco-fied bass and drums, sax riffs, and Mick singing about being your own boss rather than inhabiting someone else’s fantasy. If you’re carried in its current, by the end it seems downright epic.
CM: This artifact sits outside the margins, only accentuating its scraggly appeal far as I’m concerned. There’s not much to it, a two-chord workout with Mick barking along, backing vocals providing some semblance of a hook, and a sax-solo bridge broadening the picture. It’s drawn from a studio jam that I assume the band capitalized on due to its infectious feel. In particular, Charlie determines the dynamics with his hi-hat and snare, Ron Wood adds spark (credited as co-writer, in fact), and everyone seems to have a blast. “Gold” may not be royal jewelry but it shines in the right light.
CM: The centerpiece of Tattoo You’s magnificent second half, “Heaven” is basically just Mick, Bill, and Charlie creating a transcendent reverie. There’s a hard-to-pinpoint synergy between the main components (Jagger’s guitar and falsetto over a light rhythm) and the atmospheric mix that seems to float above the earth without losing touch. Along with that, sparse words leave ultimate meaning up to the listener.
CM: I’m arguing uphill with this one, I know. The dance beat was already out of date in 1983, the chords go places the Stones otherwise don’t, there’s an outside guitarist, glitzy horns, two slurred Jagger recitals (“when ‘er ate er”), and hey, I just named its virtues – along with the terrific bass. It’s not a miscalculation, rather an entertaining detour that deserves more love than loathing, and like most of Undercover, it’s got spirit. Also like a lot of the album, it comments on violence, albeit through Mick’s humor. Not necessarily a hidden gem, mind you, but it has a lot going on and I’ve never had trouble reveling in the gory glory.
CM: After some dysfunctional years, Steel Wheels reunited The Stones on a carousel of solid songs: “Mixed Emotions” and “Rock and a Hard Place” deserved their airplay, “Terrifying” cuts a rug, “Hold Onto Your Hat” rocks hard, “Continental Drift” goes tribal, “Break the Spell” turns retro, and more. It also contains this lovely number that shoots skyward from a Charlie/Keith launchpad, continually unfolding new layers of melody and decoration, especially around the bridge. The crescendo of feeling makes it one of their better ballads, at least to my receptors.
CM: Surveillance paranoia set to spy-funk. “Fingerprint File” was a hot live piece in its day but was too specific to last, as The Stones had enough evergreens by that point to give new material a fair shake in concert then terminate leases at will. Yet it remains a cracking track, what with the steamy rhythm initiated by Jagger’s guitar and the super-fly shadows appearing around 2:20 (on the studio version). The lyric, written in an era of suspicion, is more historical intrigue than prophecy; nowadays, people know they’re being traced and happily submit.
“Fingerprint File” is sped up on most issues, slightly changing the pitch, including Mick’s voice. Usually that kind of thing bugs me but not here.
CM: The latest Some Girls reissue comes with a bonus disc of period outtakes that were completed at one point or another, and they form a great lost Stones album that many fans probably haven’t heard yet. This selection has a strong pep in its step, from the spanky guitar to the stuttering rhythm and fluttering harmonica, topped by tales of keeping up with high-society. Mick added a modern vocal here, and while the aging in his voice is noticeable (compared to vintage vocals that survived on other tracks), it’s not detrimental, and the song’s vigor makes it a moot point. Most everything on that bonus disc is just as good, so check it out if you haven’t.
CM: Voodoo Lounge as a whole is underrated and misunderstood, on top of which “Jugular” occasionally garners negativity from people who do enjoy the album. It’s unwarranted to me; this track needs to be there. After most of Lounge’s menu has been devoured, one thing not yet served is a funky entree, and this fits the bill well. On that note, founding bassist Bill Wyman had left, and Darryl Jones makes a mark in filling that role for years to come. One would have to be rhythmically deficient to not dig his pocket here, which in turn dictates the contour of the song above it. Yeah, it’s banal, but if your foot taps, the message might be delivered: let’s drink of life’s juices and have a ball.
I could pick any of the last three Lounge tracks as well – “Baby Break It Down”, “Thru and Thru”, and “Mean Disposition”, each for different reasons.
CM: Keith occasionally gets in a good last word on Stones records, like “All About You” (Emotional Rescue) and “How Can I Stop” (Bridges to Babylon). “Slipping Away” may be his most poignant. It observes another dream, day, and song slip away while noting that new opportunities are bound to come around. Mature appreciation of life cycles, in short. For me, it also happens to speak to the Stones reuniting at the time. The music is appropriately vulnerable yet optimistic, especially in the verses (“Just as you have touched my heart...”) and the soaring end. A treasure.
CM: “Bitch” frequented radio for years and isn’t forgotten, though it often ranks second or third-tier amongst Stones selections. It may belong there, but it’s a quick-punch example of why the group was so important at the time, delivering memorable material of various stripes (in this case, a groove no one else could have played) and inventing longevity as a true working band. I also love the early version on the deluxe Sticky Fingers released in 2015, with Mick figuring out the words and Bobby Keys’ sax riffs in bloom. This is the third expanded edition I’ve mentioned; I can’t help it as they contain fantastic extras. The Sticky bonus disc is as satisfying a Stones spin as I know. Five alternate studio versions are followed by five live numbers from 1971, of which “Midnight Rambler” rivals the Ya-Yas rendition for definitive status.
Between the Buttons (1967)
TG: Compared to its peers on the album, this song lives up to its name, including swinging toms from Watts and brief organ nuggets from Brian Jones. Given these positives, it’s disappointing that the Stones didn’t employ diverse stylistic devices for more of their early tunes. It stands that Brian Jones was the impetus for such oddments; his influence culminated in the glorious mess of Their Satanic Majesties Request and shines through in early hits like “Paint It Black” (sitar), “Under My Thumb (marimba), “Ruby Tuesday” (recorder) and “Lady Jane” (dulcimer). Otherwise, the Stones’ early catalog suffers an overdose of American R&B injections – from both cover versions and songs written in that style.
Jones’ talents notwithstanding, the Glimmer Twin combo of Mick and Keith wouldn’t hit their stride as composers until the top-flite trio Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. Considering how little he contributed to the first album of those three, perhaps Mr. Jones was actually holding the band back before his death. However, a prime example of that not being the case is Beggars Banquet.
TG: Brian Jones may have been an infrequent (and unwanted) visitor during the recording of Banquet but he did contribute his touch to some songs, including the sitar and tambura combination on “Street Fighting Man”. And though Jones is credited with Mellotron on this track, and Bill Wyman is credited with synthesizer, I’ll be damned if I can tell which is which.
“Puzzle” is a great track with plenty of atmosphere, but it’s the bass that takes us on an undulating journey as slide guitar gives way to an unabashed groove and Nicky Hopkins’ rollicking piano outro. When you add in Mick’s seemingly unrelated lyrics about incensed grandmas, band member information, and rainy day entertainment, you have one of the reasons Banquet was an invigorated start to a new Stones era.
TG: It’s notable that as the Beatles were imploding, the Stones were exploding. You can choose one band over the other if you wish, but I enjoy both because their material is different enough to delight in varied ways.
The Beatles’ Let It Be is earnest and, let’s face it, a bit hokey at times. Paul’s idea to get back to basics yielded some nice songs but mostly established that a band once known for its harmonies was entrenched in disharmony at that time. Let It Bleed is also earnest but in a lowdown sense, and it’s malevolent enough to make you think twice about asking it to babysit the children. Indeed, the kiddies might enjoy a fun song about the “Monkey Man” with its chattering chimp riffs and bouncy beats, but three lines in we learn that “All my friends are junkies”. Blimey, now what kinds of plans is Nigel making? If Sgt. Pepper’s represented the culmination of the “Hippie Ideal” as the soundtrack of the Summer of Love, then Let It Bleed was the death knell of that ‘60s attitude. Its dark corners reminded everyone that the world was a real place that required participation and interaction. Turning on, tuning in, and dropping out doesn’t make your problems go away, it just pushes them aside.
TG: Back in ’65, the duo of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were starting to write their own songs thanks to inspiration from other English lads and direction from their manager Andrew Loog Oldham. He wanted the Stones to write their own songs for the simple reason that there wasn’t as much money to be made in recording and releasing cover versions. The Stones would later set up offshore publishing for their music to avoid heavy British taxation – earning themselves untold millions over their many years of existence, but Mr. Oldham was well out of the running by that time.
Other than attitude, not much might stand out about this song. It’s not the galvanizing “Satisfaction”; it’s a mid-tempo number with barely a guitar solo. It’s not a wacky ‘60s dance number, yet it’s of its time and place. It’s not a call to action, but the lyrical refrain “I’m free to do what I want any old time” represents a youthful attitude applicable to any generation emerging from the shadows of its upbringing.
TG: “Moon Is Up” reflects past musical aesthetics (perhaps the ‘50s even more than the ‘60s), but almost 30 years on from “I’m Free”, the Stones are wiser and here pulled off a track that recalls the past while still sounding fresh. I’m even tempted to call this one timeless. It was a favorite of mine when Voodoo Lounge first came out, and I still enjoy it now. The lyrical opposition of the sun and moon as two bodies separated by time and space as related to two lovers is also a nice touch.
TG: This spellbinding track is a callback of a different sort. Someone in the Stones camp apparently remembered that Brian Jones had recorded an album featuring the Master Musicians of Jajouka (led by Hadj Abdessalem Attar) some 20 years earlier. As homage, the Stones recorded this track featuring the Master Musicians, but this time they were led by Hadj’s son, Bachir Attar. To be fair, there is another group of Master Musicians in Morocco called the MM of Joujouka, and both groups lay claim to being the original (and, one assumes, more masterful).
The album Jones recorded sounds more immediate and intense than the Stones track, but that’s to be expected. Jones carried a recording device with him to experience these musicians in real time so that others could hear what was being created in another part of the world miles (and a millennium) away from Fleet Streets and Mersey beats.
“Continental Drift” starts with horn calls much like those heard on Jones’ recording; however, a world music beat soon takes center stage as modern and ancient sounds interweave. But that comfort is cast aside thanks to the sounds arising as the Master Musicians threaten to fling the track out of control. The musical climax builds for over a minute until resolution comes. A horn refrain appears and Mick reminds us that “love comes at the speed of light” as the song closes. The lyric is simple but complete and I think it melds well with the given English translation of the term “jajouka” (or joujouka): Something good will come to you.
TG: TSMR was a mess in execution. Positioned as a more psychedelic and sinister response to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album too often fails at delivering a pleasant trip – I’m looking specifically at you, “Gomper”. Still, several quality tracks survive the morass, with “She’s a Rainbow” also considered for our lists.
“2000 Light Years” succeeds because its varied elements are presented cohesively. I swear this list isn’t meant to be a paean to Brian Jones, but he mans the Mellotron with superlative results, and his electric dulcimer (during the intro and briefly near the end of the song) give a sensation of other-worldliness.
Indeed, if I wasn’t familiar with the details of how the album came together, I’d be tempted to say that TSMR is supposed to be a concept album about space/time travel (or at least a performance about such; see the final track, “On with the Show”). On the other hand, there are songs like...
TG: “Candy and Taffy / Hope you both are well / Please come see me / In the Citadel.” Mick could be singing about a space citadel, but it’s more likely a metaphor for prison/jail. Candy and Taffy are sweets, but they were also girls who hung around with Pop artist Andy. Sometimes you can’t ignore real-life circumstances. Anywarhol, Keith’s guitar tone is fabulous, and the extra fuzz bass adds a little menace. Meanwhile, you-know-who contributes with flute, dulcimer, pump organ, oud, marimba, talking drum and an electrified fooling machine (okay, only the first two things in that list). My only complaint is that the track is too short. They could have given Keith more time to fuzz things up.
TG: Satanic Majesties aside, this album might be the most-derided offering in the Stones catalog. Multiple reasons exist, but the main one may have been that Charlie Watts was dealing with addictions, one reason that Mick wasn’t keen on touring to support the album. Another was that Mick was too busy being a pop star – dancing in the streets with David Bowie and such. Whatever the distractions, this song features an adroit bassline and beat, plus various flourishes. The end result is like a lot of ‘80s music – slick and catchy. What makes the song stand out for me are the Atomic Age meets Cold War lyrics where Mick writes about getting turned to radioactive dust and being thrust “Back to zero / Back to nothing.” Depressing stuff for an ‘80s “dance” song.
PS – If the reader will indulge me, I must mention that one of my favorite Stones tracks also resides on this album, but “Too Rude” doesn’t qualify for the list because it’s a cover. Granted, the original by Half Pint sounds like crap (mostly due to the vocal; the music is almost exactly the same), but improving a song doesn’t qualify it for this list. Steve Lillywhite, and for legal reasons I must say the Glimmer Twins, did a fantastic job of production here. You can crank up the volume and drench yourself in the reverberating drums and bass.
TG: From “Too Rude” to “Too Tough” we go. Undercover offers plenty of deep choices because a lot of its material has been ignored since release – even though the title track is a heavyweight and “side two” (tracks 6-10) features quality songs. My personal highlight for this one includes the rhythm guitar that kicks around in a host of Stones songs, and for me, “Brown Sugar” houses the ultimate example. Let’s just call these parts Mick & Keith’s Magickal Mystery Seeds – sometimes they produce beautiful orchids, sometimes stubby okra. If you don’t know the sound I’m talking about, it’s the way you can kind of hear “Brown Sugar” in a lot of their songs. It’s somewhat present here; “All Down the Line” and “Little T&A” offer additional examples.
In addition to the rhythm guitar, the solos are tastefully done. After the choruses, Charlie pulls out his tom thunder; further listen as Bill offers his own commentary. There’s a lot more going on in “Too Tough” than many other Stones efforts from this era. Also, Mick’s voice sounds appropriately rough and tough – not too affected, as he has sometimes been accused.
TG: It’s sometimes difficult to decide what songs may be underrated, underplayed, or underheard. I’m pretty sure “Loving Cup” is well-known, but is it as well-regarded or well-liked as other songs from Main St.? What I do know is that “Loving Cup” is an abundantly rewarding listen. Nicky Hopkins is the star of this particular show with his piano shoved up right against the listener’s ear. Mick and Keith escort us vocally through fields and mountains – stumbling, slouching, tumbling, and crouching – until the band gives them a bit of support. All this commotion would be exciting enough for most, but then the brass kicks in to drive us all home in a funky-ass pickup truck (‘cause my car don’t start).
TG: This track is next because it sounds like it would have fit in on Exile, but this time the piano is played by Mr. Jagger. The tenor sax is provided by Bobby Keys as on “Loving Cup”. And if it feels like this song has a different feel than the rest of the GHS, that’s because it was recorded in a concert hall in Rotterdam during rehearsals. There’s no “studio jive” going on. The song is simple, but it has soul, and that’s why I like it.
In fact, when it comes down to it, I really can’t remember much else about GHS besides the two big singles, plus “Silver Train” and “Winter”. And I usually have to be in the mood for “Winter”, much like the later “Memory Motel”, which I really dig when I’m listening to it...but other times not so much.
TG: Some songs are just fun. This is one of them. Mick must have been in a playful mood; in one part, he sings that if a girl can’t travel, he’ll take a mule train or an aeroplane to get her. The next section of lyrics is mostly unintelligible. Then near the end, Mick rattles off country names from which some girls could be sent to him, pronouncing Romanian as “Roo-manian” and what I’d always assumed was Bulgarian as “Boo-barian” (yes, listen for yourself). He even sings, “She might be the alien / Send her to me”. He’s not picky, at least.
TG: Here’s another fun tune, but the music is more intense. Apparently a little reggae groove is all it takes to get Mick Jagger to loosen up. This one was “inspired” by Ron Wood, which basically means he wrote it. You see, people love the Mick Taylor era of the Stones, and rightfully so. He contributed greatly and helped rudder the Stones onto their new tack following the early Earthly departure of Brian Jones. Mick’s songs don’t appear much on my list because people know he was great with the Stones, and there’s no doubt about that.
But Ronnie, if anything, was under-appreciated – mostly by the band itself since he didn’t become a full, vested member until much later. Black and Blue served as his ersatz audition. So, here we get the grinding squonk of “Negrita”, the main riff of which is based on a deft repeated pattern with occasional power chunks shoved in. Maybe this song is the reason the Stones decided to keep Ronnie on the squad, if only on “retainer.”
TG: I must admit a predilection towards this song. My mother was the singles buyer in our household. Dad was more of an album guy. So, we had several Beatles and Stones singles floating around. Being the curious type, I would play the A and B sides. Being the weird type, I often preferred the B-sides. “Crazy Mama” was the B-side of “Fool to Cry”, but it’s not too surprising that an 8-10 year old wouldn’t care for a somewhat sappy ballad.
Anyway, “Crazy Mama” was certainly good enough to be a single. On the album version, Jagger plays rhythm and Richards plays lead guitar. Ronnie is credited with backing vocals and sometimes electric guitar, depending on sources. There’s no doubt he played guitar in subsequent live versions. Why bring all this up? Because of the bright arpeggi that show up and accentuate the already great guitar of the track. You can hear them specifically at 2:19-2:36 and from 3:52 through the fadeout. This part was probably played by Ron Wood on the record since later performances show him doing just that, and it doesn’t seem to be a lick in the wheelhouse of Mick or Keith.
Another cool thing is that these shimmering accents bely the more bellicose message of the lyrics which boils down to “I’d rather shoot you than marry you.” Now that’s crazy, mama.