The Rolling Stones Albums From Worst To Best
Wrangling with the history of any five-decade long institution is an inherently thorny business, but the Rolling Stones’ story is particularly challenging. Of the roughly five distinct periods that comprise the epic history of what is perhaps the greatest ever rock and roll band, the current one — in which the Stones as moneyed rock royalty occasionally reunite to milk a seemingly endless cash cow through intermittent reissues and greatest hits albums, just okay new releases, and extortionately priced stadium tours, is by far the longest. It has been 32 years since the band’s last great (or great-ish) release Tattoo You, 35 since its last inarguable bonafide masterpiece, 1978’s Some Girls. How strange this must understandably seem to a certain demographic. For rock music fans under the age of 30, this is the only version of the band they have ever known.
By comparison, the group’s high water mark lasted only four years, between 1968 and 1972, and comprised four studio records that represent perhaps the greatest distillation of rock, blues, country, and soul ever achieved. Untroubled and even enhanced by the passage of time, those four albums — the militant and populist moral quagmire of Beggars Banquet, the epochal, frightening, funny, and depraved Let It Bleed, the druggy, harrowing, staring-death-in-the-eyes stupor of Sticky Fingers, and the simply perfect Exile On Main Street — are by themselves a veritable Mt. Rushmore of the rock and roll genre. Anyone who wants to know anything about what came before and after would be well-advised to start here — where Robert Johnson casts a lurid eye at Liz Phair while shaking hands with Pussy Galore.
Most music fans are by now acquainted with the high and lowlights of the Stones’ insane journey — the early rise to prominence as hard-core interpreters of the American blues and the “anti-Beatles,” the full flowering of the Jagger-Richards song machine, which was ultimately to yield countless classics, the flirtation with psychedelia, the early death of the unanimously unliked band founder and original guitarist Brian Jones, the hiring of Mick Taylor as replacement resulting in vaulting heights nearly unimaginable, the stunning apocalypse of Altamont, Taylor’s eventual, regrettable departure, replaced by Ronnie Wood of the Faces. And on and on. Certain turns of phrase evoke whole, mythic tales that made the Stones early leaders in the clubhouse of rock debauchery: cocksucker blues, junkie nurses, poor Marianne Faithfull, and the apocryphal chocolate bar. To give any sort of comprehensive overview here would be nigh well impossible — fifty years to tell in a few short lines, to bastardize a lyric from Merle Haggard. (For interested parties the band’s history has been assiduously and expertly covered in a series of publications ranging from Stanley Booth’s brilliant memoir The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones to Bill Janovitz’ terrific 33 1/3 consideration of Exile On Main Street.)
Over the years, many once-seemingly unimpeachable classic rock warhorses have experienced at least some amount of downward critical revision. Most people still probably wouldn’t argue that Who’s Next or Dark Side Of The Moon are not seminal records in the history of rock and roll, but elements of those albums which once seemingly marked them as groundbreaking or thoroughly novel can feel a little dated or silly. The point is not to denigrate these albums or artists, but rather to recognize that with the best Stones records, this kind of reevaluation has never been needed. No one really argues that Beggars Banquet isn’t as great now as the day it was released, or even more impactful. Besides being brilliant songwriters, the vintage Stones largely insulated themselves from the rigors of time by studiously avoiding the trends — or at least niftily navigating the line between commercially viable and traditionally minded (Their one early misstep in this regard being the too eager to follow-the-leader ersatz-Beatlisms of Their Satanic Majesties Request).
In their later iteration, the most puzzling and perhaps troubling question about the Rolling Stones is: Why they have stayed together? It can feel awfully mercenary, if only because they often seem so much happier and productive acting apart. Keith’s priceless 1987 documentary film tribute to Chuck Berry Hail, Hail Rock And Roll features some of his best and most expert playing in years, in the presence of his unquestioned idol. Similarly, his work in the late-’80s with his non-Stones band the X-Pensive Winos yielded some of his most immediate and energetic work in years. Mick has always engaged in a lot of silly shit but in some ways was never more persuasive in recent years then when killing it with his 2012 version of “The Last Time” on SNL backed by the Arcade Fire.
Maybe the less cynical explanation for the group’s persistence lays in the same traditionalism that vouchsafed their greatest records with timeliness. A band that came of age worshiping Willie Dixon, opening for Muddy Waters and eventually working alongside the likes of Sonny Rollins and Chuck Berry might well see growing old with their music as a part of their destiny. While there is no doubt that money is incentivizing, they certainly have enough of it. Maybe they don’t quit because they worship a different tradition then rock-as-youth-movement, and rather imagine themselves playing their own kind of blues until finally they all finally drop — if we can stipulate that Keith is actually mortal. In this regard, the band’s one true remaining contemporary is Bob Dylan, who, following a difficult passage through his late 30s and 40s, has sounded more energized and creative as an old man than at anytime since the early 1970s. That hasn’t yet proven true of the Stones, but who’s to say it’s impossible? It seems like they don’t think it’s impossible, and that, more than anything else, is the reason you probably have a new Stones record and tour coming at you in the next year or so.
In any event, here is a through-the-past-darkly look at the Stones’ catalog to date. It should be noted that we have elected to rank only the U.S. studio releases, which in some cases are different than what was released overseas. We have also included one live album — Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out — because it iterated something extraordinary about the band’s remarkable prowess. Ranking these records is a bit like ranking scripture. Certain things stand out, but probably the entire thing is best taken as a whole. Also, it means we are probably going to hell. Pleased to meet you …
25. Dirty Work (1986)
1986's Dirty Work is the first Stones record that feels officially like product -- almost entirely bereft of inspiration, with song after song seeming like a wax museum representation of the riffs and attitudes that the band realizes it is expected to produce, without any real conviction behind them. Lead track "One Hit (To The Body)" is a kind of template for what will pass as late-period Stones singles, sounding almost exactly like later efforts "Between A Rock And A Hard Place" and "You Got Me Rocking." This is the Stones as obligatory pastiche, self-consciously attempting to sound like themselves. Even their seemingly fish-in-a-barrel cover of "Harlem Shuffle" feels perfunctory and inert. It's not all bad -- the charming blues shuffle of "Winning Ugly" retains some of the old charm -- but by and large this is the worst Stones record, one stuck between an onerous legacy and a future that had become creatively uncertain.
24. A Bigger Bang (2005)
Forever captive to the Rolling Stones' previous achievements, A Bigger Bang is no embarrassment and would in fact qualify as a very fine Black Crowes release -- no insult intended. Songs like the frenetic opener "Rough Justice" and the vituperative and desperate "Oh No, Not You Again" are energetic reminders of the special and unique power of the Stones working as a unit. Having said that, too much of the album's 16-track, 64-minute running time fails to engage. The highlights of the record, coupled with the needlessly exorbitant running time, cause one to hearken back to the days when the band made records regularly and did not feel the need to festoon the rare release with every idea that might seem viable. We will likely never see those days again, and A Bigger Bang may just represent the Stones as we must come to love them.
23. Bridges To Babylon (1997)
Working with producer Don Was, a man nearly synonymous with ginning up veteran acts past their prime to allegedly commercial effect (see Dylan's unfortunate 1989 release Under A Red Sky), Bridges To Babylon is filled with bright sounds and the occasional hook, but mostly feels like the sound of a barely engaged group of older musicians meandering their way through pleasantly insignificant material with little conviction. Keith's winsome reggae confection "You Don't Have To Mean It" has its charm, but also feels a bit too much like a rallying cry for a band merely punching the clock. The soul-inflected slow burn "How Can I Stop" (also sung by Keith -- where was Mick?) is a little better, but still feels like a half-baked "Beast Of Burden" minus a hook. The Stones are never less than interesting, but on Bridges To Babylon they flirt with the perimeter.
22. Voodoo Lounge (1994)
On 1994's Voodoo Lounge the Stones sound present and convicted, even when the uneven songcraft fails to accrue to their accustomed capacity to muster the goods. Keith's affecting ballad "Thru And Thru" recalls the sad yearning of "You Got The Silver," while the infectious "Sparks Will Fly" is a terrific rocker in the Tattoo You mold that suggests that even in their dotage, you fuck with these guys at your own peril. Unfortunately the two lead tracks -- "Love Is Strong" and "You Got Me Rocking" -- are the kind of generic, struck-by-lightning idiocy that we would expect from Bad Company or Robert Palmer. On Voodoo Lounge, we can feel the true heart beating, but too frequently it is corrupted by a mindless take on riff rock that flatters neither band nor genre.
21. It's Only Rock 'N Roll (1974)
The last record to feature the sublime work of lead guitarist Mick Taylor is a bit of a mixed bag. But the highs on 1974's It's Only Rock 'N Roll are unmistakably high. Their definitive take on The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" is one of their best soul covers, with uniformly excellent performances from all and sundry. The title track is the band's obvious entry into the Mark Bolan glam sweepstakes and works like gangbusters, with lyrics that echo Ziggy's rock and roll self-immolation: "If I could stick a knife in my heart/ Suicide right on stage/ Would it be enough for your teenage lust?/ Would it help to ease the pain? Ease your brain?" Meanwhile, "Luxury" and "Fingerprint File" are interesting (though not fully successful) explorations into reggae and disco, respectively, suggesting that while the band were hugely successful at this point, they were still creatively restless and not entirely willing to be complacent with their signature sound.
20. Undercover (1983)
The last in a lengthy run of rejuvenated Stones releases between 1978 and 1983, Undercover is a difficult, troubling, and underrated album. Leapfrogging between musical genres with utter insouciance, including soul, dub, and straight rock, the band is once again able to make its creative wanderlust and differing interests into a virtue. The record is largely doom and death obsessed -- "Too Much Blood" laments the violence that is the stock and trade of both daily news and contemporary culture. Undercover is not one of the great collections of Stones songs, but it is a sterling exemplar of their still revolutionary spirit.
19. Steel Wheels (1989)
The run up to 1989's Steel Wheels included a particularly nasty bit of press-driven infighting between Jagger and Richards, who were able to set aside ancient grievances long enough to produce a credible Stones album highlighted by a number of memorable tracks, ranging from the catchy single "Mixed Emotions" to the infectious throwback "Sad Sad Sad." Meanwhile, album closer "Slippin' Away" is a classic Jagger-Richards heart-on-sleeve weeper, demonstrating that the duo, in whatever state of dysfunction, could still be unstoppable when all the gears were turning.
18. Emotional Rescue (1980)
A placeholder between late period highpoints Some Girls and Tattoo You, this was the Stones' most explicit endeavor into dance music and disco, and one that yielded considerable dividends between the infectious title track and the straight rock of "She's So Cold." Unfortunately, most of the album's other tracks feel a bit underwritten, from the witless opener "Dance (Part 1)" to the ostensibly political but largely incoherent "Indian Girl." This is the sound of a band perfectly capable of making a great record, but simply not inclined to put in the time and effort. The strange and periodically intriguing result is a group of geniuses going half speed and seemingly being fully satisfied with the results.
17. 12x5 (1964)
The Stones' second U.S. release followed in the same path as England's Newest Hitmakers, with an array of impressive R&B and soul covers and a small handful of original material. The originals -- "Empty Heart," "Good Times, Bad Times," "2120 South Michigan Avenue," "Congratulations," and "Grown Up Wrong" -- all serve as exciting documents of a band exploring and discovering its sound, but the real standout track is their shambolic cover of Jerry Ragovoy's "Time Is On My Side," previously popularized by Irma Thomas, which is both terrifically enjoyable and prophetic.
16. The Rolling Stones, Now! (1965)
The Rolling Stones' third studio LP released in the States is apiece with its predecessors -- well-executed covers from the band's idols and a small representative sample of what the Jagger-Richards hit factory was capable of producing. The record also captures the undeniable incandescence of a young band on the verge of superstardom. Their reimagining of Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster" and "Mona (I Need You, Baby)" by Bo Diddley both exude a powerful intensity -- particularly in Jagger's reading of the lyrics -- that abets the band's obvious reverence for their idols. And then, they do the listener one better by providing some of their own exciting offerings -- the highlight of the bunch here is the slow burning "Heart Of Stone," which has the ability to fit in perfectly in this mix of R&B standards and simultaneously sounds completely unique.
15. Get Yer Ya Ya's Out! The Rolling Stones In Concert (1970)
There have been several official Rolling Stones live albums (and equally as many bootlegs) but Ya Ya's deserves special attention as the one true showcase of the band at the absolute peak of its not inconsiderable powers. This 1970 release features the Stones' best line up at full capacity, manhandling songs from the recent records Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed with a tough, take-no-prisoners approach which anticipated the era of arena rock without ever condescending to its least attractive, overblown tendencies. These Stones were genuinely live wire and frightening -- check out Mick's fully invested character study on the "Midnight Rambler" if you don't believe us. Most live albums are novelties or trivial add-ons. In the case of Ya Ya's, this is something near perfect that you need to hear.
14. Black And Blue (1976)
It's fair to say that the Stones were a bit unmoored during the post-Mick Taylor interregnum, and Black And Blue is a testament to that assertion. The record bobs and weaves between genre and personnel and the results are actually fairly serviceable. "Melody" makes nice use of pianist/organist Billy Preston's not insubstantial gifts and is a fantastic jazz offering, while lead track "Hot Stuff" is a fine funk opener with all hands on deck. But the album's highlights are actually the quieter, more stripped down ballads, "Fool To Cry" and "Memory Motel," the latter featuring stunning performances by both Mick and Keith on lead vocal.
13. Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
Not even the blues-obsessed Stones could entirely fight off the lure of psychedelia in 1967, with the result being the baffling Beatles-aping Their Satanic Majesties Request, featuring everything from hazy, high-concept cover art to period-dated tunes like "Gomper" and "Citadel." Typical of the Stones' greatness, even this awkward and often uncomfortable commingling couldn't help but yield some classics like "She's A Rainbow" and "2000 Light Years From Home." Satanic Majesties would ultimately serve as a palliative, reorienting the band toward its baseline aesthetics. Beggars Banquet would follow shortly, and rock music would never be the same.
12. December's Children (And Everybody's) (1965)
December's Children (And Everybody's) would be the last of the early Stones records that were equal parts covers and originals. As ever, the covers are well-curated and executed. Their speedy take on "Route 66" feels so natural it almost seems original, and their live version of Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On" is loaded with energy and promise. But what made all of these early records so remarkable was the original gems that they allowed to dot the landscape -- in the case of December's Children, it's the no-holds-barred ode to insubordination "Get Off Of My Cloud," with it's irrepressibly catchy call-and-response chorus, which proved that the band was capable of taking all of their influences and making them into something that sounded like nothing else that had ever come before.
11. Tattoo You (1981)
Out of a ragtag collection of abandoned ideas and afterthoughts the Stones somehow managed to craft their last great record. Tattoo You is an amalgam of muscular rockers and meditative ballads, bookended by two unforgettable standards: It opens with the winsome and undeniable horndog classic "Start Me Up" and ends with the positively lovely and surprisingly poignant "Waiting On A Friend." In between there is a lot of very strong standard issue Stones fare. "Black Limousine" is a fabulous blues workout, "Little T&A" gallops along agreeably to a pretty inspired Keith vocal, and "Tops" is decent rehashing of "Fool to Cry." Leftovers should always be this tasty.
10. England's Newest Hitmakers (1964)
The Rolling Stones' debut featured ten distinctive covers of classic songs -- including a spirited reimagining of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" that is a highlight as an album opener. There are also originals -- the instrumental "Now I've Got A Witness" feels like bit of a toss off, but "Tell me" is a fully actualized track, with all of the DNA of the band's great early signature style.
9. Goats Head Soup (1973)
It seems like almost an impossible task to follow up something like Exile on Main Street and the records that immediately preceded it with something that isn't going to most assuredly suck, relatively speaking, and perhaps this explains why Goats Head Soup is kind of a redheaded stepchild in the Stones' formidable late-'60s-early-'70s catalogue. But absent of that kind of context, Goats Head Soup is actually a really good record, albeit a thematically tough hang. Opener "Dancing With Mr. D" -- a meditation on death -- builds off a simple riff into a substantial vintage Stones rocker. "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)" manages to wed inspired horn arrangements to the tale of an accidental shooting of a child. And the jubilant album closer "Star Star" is … well, an unsubtly evocative contemplation of carnal pleasures -- not conventionally "romantic" by any stretch of the imagination, but an awful lot of fun. It's not all lyrically so bleak or sarcastic though -- the truly lovely, yearning "Angie" is a welcome breath of fresh air that redeems so much of the album's cynicism and darkness. A terrific release that has only grown in stature over time.
8. Out Of Our Heads (1965)
Comprised nearly entirely of great covers of '60s blues and R&B songs, Out Of Our Heads might, at first blush, seem mostly notable as a great band grounding themselves in the standards. That was no small thing. However, the U.S. release of Out Of Our Heads featured three early Jagger-Richards singles that would prove instant classics: "The Last Time," "Play With Fire," and a little number they called "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." And with this, history was changed forever.
7. Between The Buttons (1967)
1967 must have been a weird year to be in the Rolling Stones. Brian Jones was fading and new commercial imperatives had come to the fore. The Stones were no longer a cover band, but they were still at the initial stages of cobbling together records that were wholly comprised of original material. Moreso than any other Stones record, on Between The Buttons you can hear the contemporary influences of the Kinks, the Who, and the Beatles make their mark. The overall effect is really cool and represents the band at some of its experimental best, featuring humorous skits between the atypically short tracks. And there are a couple of unimpeachable singles -- "Let's Spend The Night Together" and "Ruby Tuesday." All of the songs on Between The Buttons are worth exploring: "Connection" is a perfectly unique Stonesy comedy combining friendship, romance, and the attempt to smuggle contraband, while "Yesterday's Papers" is an acknowledgment and anticipation of psychedelia. On the whole, it's an excellent, often underrated early Stones effort.
6. Some Girls (1978)
When the Rolling Stones went into the studio to record their sixteenth (16th!) album, popular music was being pulled in two separate directions -- disco and punk rock. Neither genre was what one would consider, at the time, the Rolling Stones' milieu, and yet the band managed to split the difference between these two poles and make what is widely considered one of their best records of all time. Have you heard Some Girls? It's awesome. From the jaw-dropping four-on-the-floor opener "Miss You" to the remarkable, comic, desperate man-in-the-mirror closer "Shattered" this is vintage Stones. Pure energy, humor, and dystopian anxiety. A surfeit of brilliant material on the record has the tendency to make barnstorming gems like "When The Whip Comes Down" a respectable, simple afterthought, but in fact this ranks with the most pugnacious and exciting work the band has ever done. It comes as no surprise that Johnny Rotten would say in 1977 that he did not even think of the Stones as a band and maintain that "they're more like a business," but perhaps -- for understandable reasons -- he didn't anticipate that Jagger and company would be able to respond with such unvarnished conviction.
5. Let It Bleed (1969)
A first in a series of works -- along with Neil Young's Tonight's The Night and Hunter Thompson's Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas -- that recognizes the counterculture-movement '60s as more terrifying than idyllic. Songs like "Gimme Shelter" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" have been repurposed in a million sea-of-regret boomer contexts in pop culture through the years from Martin Scorsese to The Big Chill. But none of that really speaks to the unique sadness of Let It Bleed. The painful honesty of "Gimme Shelter"'s "War, Children/ It's just a shot away" refrain combined with the dull and disappointing realities of chasing unattainable dreams from the personal to the political to the visceral in "You Can't Always Get What You Want" encompass the feelings of a band for whom the scales had fallen from their collected eyes. Other tracks like "Midnight Rambler" eerily and impossibly reflect the murderous acts of the Manson Family, which were happening almost simultaneously to the album's release.
4. Aftermath (1966)
The U.S. version of Aftermath represents all of the engaging, dissonant and out-and-out frightful elements that would eventually exemplify the Rolling Stones as both a waking dream and dark nightmare of rock and roll. "Paint It Black" borders on primordial malevolence -- a kind of senseless cynicism that nevertheless comports to the evil in the world and anticipates the ugly times we are about to live through (Viet Nam, Watergate, etc.). "Under My Thumb" is as nasty and misogynistic as the group ever got, but amidst a fraught plea for power there was always a looming subtext of desperation. Aftermath is the record on which the Stones check their hero worship of the blues at the door and begin to look in the mirror. The results aren't always pretty but the overall effect is fearfully aspiring, incisive, and game changing. Pop music was not the same after this.
3. Sticky Fingers (1971)
Hey, do you know what is a truly great record? Sticky Fingers. It's the Stones at the near height of their unstoppable brilliance, it's got awesome cover art straight from the Warhol factory, and the songs kick all ass. Still not convinced? Well allow us to get remedial: The album starts with "Brown Sugar," which is the hottest song about slave ownership ever written. Should you feel uncomfortable enjoying listening to it? You should. But if you don't enjoy listening to "Brown Sugar" you probably don't like music. From there the album proceeds with all manner of bluesy, drug-fueled meditations on love, lust, and, um, drugs. The energy that fuels tracks like "Bitch" and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" could fuel a city block, while songs like "Wild Horses" exude a sympathy and sensitivity so nuanced it's almost shocking to acknowledge that it is written by the same masterminds that brought you "Brown Sugar." Sticky Fingers is one hit after the next, a near perfect exertion from a band at the peak of its powers, but somehow the overall feeling is one of sadness and despair, from the depressingly aching "Dead Flowers" to Mick's painful closer "Moonlight Mile" -- tracks steeped in regret so palpable that you cannot help but know the many rivers they have crossed. You just wish they could go back again. But they can't go back. They can never go back.
2. Beggars Banquet (1968)
Beggars Banquet came as a total surprise -- backing down on the all-together-now peace and love vibe of Between The Buttons and the trippy sentiments of Satanic Majesties in favor of a frightening, dystopian, and fearfully violent worldview. That the assassination of the Kennedys still stings nearly fifty years later is a window into the raw wound that Jagger addressed with his chilling take on their slaughter -- "after all it was you and me." Jagger's sentiment could be interpreted a lot of ways -- maybe it was cruel. But it would have been impossible to not be preoccupied in this way. Bobby Kennedy was killed just six months previous to the release of the record. Martin Luther King had been shot a few months earlier. What was left of the '60s, and "pacifism," was an awkward joke. The Stones understood this. "Street Fighting Man" was "White Riot" before the Clash. "Salt Of The Earth" was an elegy for every working person left in the mines or factory workers suffering from a choice of cancer or polio. The Stones were never a vision of utopia. Here, at least, they imagined a future.
1. Exile On Main Street (1972)
It makes all the sense in the world that critics like Lester Bangs first recoiled from Exile On Main Street before embracing it as perhaps the finest rock album ever made. Exile is so dense and purposeful that it can be off-putting on initial listens. The cruel truths of "Ventilator Blues" don't always rest easily amidst the ecstatic epiphanies of "Happy" and "All Down The Line." The near gospel assertions of "Shine A Light" and "Let It Loose" are crushingly moving in their inherent suggestion that there might actually be a drab afterlife to follow the monotonous lives we lead. In that regard, Exile asks all the right questions, some painful, some futile, some ecstatic. Perhaps Jagger sums up the whole human comedy on the opening track "Rocks Off," when he sings: "Kick me like you kicked before/ I can't even feel the pain no more." Regardless, may the good Lord shine a light on all of us.