Mick Jagger has just turned 70. We are now at the point where legendary rock bands and artists are touring and recording at an age when the average person might be retired and enjoying their grandkids while taking it easy during their twilight years. Not so with the greatest rock band ever, The Rolling Stones (nor with artists like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and many others). The Stones just wrapped up a short comeback tour to celebrate 50 years as a band, and last fall released a new compilation called “Grrrr” that, in its expanded edition, included a staggering 80 tracks… so the notion of narrowing down 12 “Essential” tracks to celebrate Mick Jagger’s 70 years on the planet is a little daunting – there are dozens and dozens of true rock and roll classics to choose from. That vast back catalog might be a little confusing and intimidating to a new fan trying to figure out where to begin with the Stones (and the best place might be to start with the holy quartet of “Beggars Banquet,” “Let it Bleed,” “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile on Main Street,” perhaps the greatest 4-album run in rock and roll history). But for a complete career overview that you can play in less than an hour, here is a rundown of 12 essential tracks that mix some of their most iconic songs with lesser known tracks, and spans generally their entire career. There’s even a Mick Jagger solo track thrown in for good measure. Of course, this is just the very tip of the iceberg, but ya gotta start somewhere… and you could do a lot worse than these 12 gems.
This is the song that launched The Rolling Stones from a rockin’ blues covers band tearing up small venues in UK to a worldwide phenomenon. “Satisfaction” is one of the songs that define rock and roll, one of the very cornerstones of the genre. It’s got the riff, it’s got the attitude, and it’s got Jagger’s brazen lasciviousness when he drawls “I can’t get no.. satisfaction” before working his way up into a frenzy of sexual frustration. They still can’t get away from playing this song live, even all these years later. One of the most important singles in rock and roll history, and if not for Jagger’s uninhibited approach the song wouldn’t have worked. It did, and upper-to-middle class suburban parents recoiled in horror all over the world when it was unleashed upon their poor innocent, unsuspecting teenagers.
The Rolling Stones were viewed as the “bad boys” of rock n’ roll, whereas The Beatles were generally viewed as more benevolent (at least in comparison with the Stones). It’s easy to see why. One need only point to a song like “Under My Thumb” and lyrics that are astonishingly misogynistic, but that Jagger delivers like a crack of the whip. “Under my thumb – a Siamese cat of a girl. Under my thumb – she’s the sweetest pet in the world. It’s down to me! The way she talks when she’s spoken to. Down to me, the change has come, she’s under my thumb.” Um, yeah. It would come across as parody if the performance weren’t so convincing, and the dark groove of the track, complete with Brian Jones’ marimbas, so unsettling and ominous. When folks assert that rock is much more daring and out-of-bounds now than it was in the early days, just point to “Under My Thumb” and that pretty much ends the argument. The Stones later claimed the song was a “caricature”. Yeah, right.
This song changed forever for me when I saw that wonderfully cheesy mid-80s movie of the same name. At one point the film’s star, Whoopi Goldberg, is frantically trying to make out the lyrics of this song. Ahh, remember the days before being able to instantly look up the words to a song online or on your smart phone… rewinding the cassette or pushing the needle back endlessly repeating sections, trying to figure out what the hell he is saying. In the end it doesn’t matter. Something about a “toothless hag” and “crossfire hurricane.” The Rolling Stones’ essence is really boiled down to this smokin’ hot 3 minutes and 42 seconds, and Jagger delivers one of his best, most inscrutable vocals. Classic in every sense of the word.
“Oh yeah, you’re a strange stray cat. I bet your mama don’t know you scream like that. I bet your mother don’t know you can spit like that. Oh yeah, you’re a strange stray cat. I bet your mama don’t know you can bite like that. I’ll bet she never saw you scratch my back.” 1968. The Beatles were riding high with songs like “Hey Jude” and “Lady Madonna”, whereas the Stones were taking a different path. “Beggars Banquet” was a remarkable album. Opening with “Sympathy for the Devil”, it veers into some rootsy blues numbers before unloading the sauntering, oversexed debauchery of “Stray Cat Blues.” Jagger practically sneers the lyrics, enjoying the debasing of innocence he is perpetrating (one is reminded of Valmont in “Dangerous Liaisons”). This is the stuff that parents’ nightmares were made of, and a completely new uninhibited brand of rock n’ roll that spawned countless imitators. The Stones were the real deal, and all one needs to do is point to this song as Exhibit #1.
If you had to name one essential Rolling Stones tune, you could do a lot worse than “Gimme Shelter.” It’s sinister quality, the ominous shuffle beat, Jagger’s searing vocals and of course the brilliant performance by Merry Clayton (who would go on to record her own stellar version of the song) – all combine to put a stake in the heart of the idealism of the summer of love, and reflect a much more dangerous world. No Rolling Stones collection is complete without this masterpiece.
“Exile on Main Street” was a messy, shambolic affair. Groovin’ rockers, slow bluesy numbers, all loose and unorganized and raw and utterly brilliant. “Tumbling Dice,” a slow, sauntering blues-rocker, was the biggest hit from the album. It’s another essential classic… The Rolling Stones in microcosm. Jagger’s cocksure vocal is down in the mix as he drawls about the flick of the dice and living like a gambler – which of course the band essentially did at the time. Their lives are reflected in this music. “Women think I’m tasty, but they’re always tryin’ to waste me, and make me burn the candle right down. But baby – baby – I don’t need to jewels in my crown.” Sex and drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll. In other words: The Rolling Stones at their most basic level. “Tumbling Dice” and the rest of “Exile on Main Street” is a template that garage bands are still (trying) to follow to this day.
“Some Girls” was a return to form for the Stones after a couple of their prior albums didn’t exactly set the world afire. “Miss You” was their acknowledgment to disco, but in a completely Stonesy way. It’s a slow groove, funky, with that unforgettable falsetto “Oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh” refrain providing the main hook. Jagger infuses his vocals with just the right amount of detached cool for the song to work. With typical Stones swagger, they conquer yet another subgenre with style and attitude. A #1 single and all-time classic, and the lead off track to one of the band’s best albums.
1981’s “Tattoo You” album was largely a collection of left-overs and scattered tracks that had been lying about unused from several different album projects. Strange that a collection that was cobbled together in such a way would become such a landmark album, but the material on “Tattoo You” was top notch – especially first single “Start Me Up” which would become one of the band’s greatest rock anthems. Jagger struts and prances around in a performance video that landed them heavy rotation on MTV and sent the song barreling up the pop charts. One of the Stones’ defining moments – it’s got the riff, the swagger, the hard rockin’ vibe, and of course Jagger’s raucous vocal. This is what rock and roll is all about.
Some artists from prior generations struggled to remain relevant in the 80 – Neil Young and Bob Dylan, for instance. For the Stones there were some bumps along the way (but then that’s always been the case for the Stones), but they managed to negotiate the changing cultural tides of the 80s with some success. 1983’s “Undercover” is a dark and rather bloody little album – underrated and overshadowed by their older classics, it’s a record worth rediscovering. “Undercover of the Night” is a motoric rocker that gives a modern (well, by 80s standards) twist to the classic Stones sound. There are gun blasts in the night, revolutionaries in the jungle, sex in seedy brothels… just what you’d expect from a classic Stones track. The band’s best offering of the 80s outside “Tattoo You.”
After the very public mid-80s feuding between Jagger and Richards, a couple solo albums and a Stones record (“Dirty Work”) that is widely considered one of the worst of their career (rightfully so), the band returned in a huge way in 1989 with “Steel Wheels” – a massively successful album and a mega tour that put the band back at the top of the heap. First single “Mixed Emotions” even galloped into the Top 5 on the singles charts, the last time in their career that they would do so in America. It’s almost a joint therapy session between Jagger and Richards; has a classic Stones riff, and when you hear Jagger open the track with “Button your lip, baby!” you just know it’s gonna be good. “Steel Wheels” was a quality album, and the Stones tour in support of it smashed all records at the time.
With so many essential Rolling Stones tracks to choose from, it’s hard to justify selecting a Mick Jagger solo track. After all, his solo career didn’t exactly set the world on fire. And yet, he had his moments. “Just Another Night” was a sizzling hot electronic rock track from his “She’s the Boss” album; he also had moments with subsequent singles like “Sweet Thing” and “Let’s Work” and a handful of others. Arguably Jagger’s finest solo album is 1993’s “Wandering Spirit,” and one of the high points is this mid-tempo rocker “Don’t Tear Me Up”. A great vocal, and a song that maybe should have been saved for the next Stones album.
It’s strange to consider an album that’s nearly 20 years old as being part of the Stones “modern” era, but when you’re talking about The Rolling Stones, time doesn’t mean what it does with other artists. “Love is Strong” was the lead single from the “Voodoo Lounge” album, a solid collection that doesn’t really break any new ground, but at least sounds like the band is still invigorated and invested in what they are doing. “Love is Strong” features a great harmonica line and a terrific growling vocal from Jagger in his lower register. A mid-tempo bluesy rock track, it’s one of the band’s better tracks of their “recent” output.
So we’ll see what happens now with the septuagenarian rockers known as the Rolling Stones. Was this tour (finally) their last hurrah? Will there be more studio recordings, or maybe more solo work by Jagger and/or Richards? I doubt even the band knows at this point. But regardless of what they do next, they already have a peerless collection of rock music that absolutely defines the genre – there is so much to discover and enjoy that even if the band never released another note, new fans would still have an immense task in front of them trying to grapple with the band’s massive catalog. Start with these 12, and then branch out from there. You won’t regret it.