Listen to This, Not That: The Rolling Stones

I’ve always thought of The Rolling Stones as more of a singles band than an albums band, often when contrasting them with their rivals of sorts The Beatles. When The Stones released a single, it was good and people liked it. Each of their albums from the 60s and early 70s had a bunch of memorable hits.

I might sound like a bad classic rock fan when I say that I haven’t listened to a lot of their albums in their entirety. I find it funny when people pit the two bands against each other. They didn’t hate each other. In fact, they liked each other’s music and were friendly with each other.

On the radio, you will only hear a small portion of The Rolling Stones’ discography. Like a lot of classic rock bands I talk about, The Stones are more than meets the ear. They aren’t just “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” and “Brown Sugar”, although I really like those two songs.

Let’s go beyond Forty Licks and find out what songs are the least appreciated in The Rolling Stones’ discography. Like in my Beatles post, I’m sticking with the same rules: can’t be a greatest hit and can’t be a top 20 hit. In the case of The Stones, there are a bunch of compilations so for our purposes, we’re going with Forty Licks. The reason I chose that compilation is because it’s one of their most recent best of albums and I think time is a filter. Songs that were appreciated in the 60s may not have the same appreciation as today and it’s important to look at more recent perspectives on what are the band’s best songs. This will mean we’re going with a lot of songs not released as singles.

Because The Rolling Stones have a bit of a confusing discography because of the common practise at the time of 60s British Invasion acts having different releases on either side of The Atlantic, I’ll outline this era by era since I think The Stones discography can be split into distinct eras.

Not That! – Overplayed Rolling Stones songs

Like I said for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones’ “overplayed songs” aren’t bad or even overrated for the most part. I really like the following songs, but it seems like people’s enjoyment and knowledge of the Stones’ discography is limited to this list.

Then again, there’s nothing wrong with that because not everyone has the time to be a super fan of every single band. I’m not a gatekeeper. My goal with this blog is to broaden your classic rock horizons because classic rock is more than meets the eye and ear.

Here’s a list of the songs that I believe are overplayed/well-known. Typing them and not hearing the songs, I can hear them in my head, that’s how well known these songs are. I’ll put their peak chart positions in the US and UK in parentheses next to them:

  • “It’s All Over Now” – #1 UK, #26 US
  • “The Last Time” – #1 UK, #9 US
  • “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” – #1 UK & US
  • “Get Off of My Cloud” – #1 UK & US
  • “As Tears Go By’ – #6 US
  • “19th Nervous Breakdown” – #2 UK & US
  • “Paint It Black” – #1 UK & US
  • “Under My Thumb” – surprisingly not released as a single, but a fan favourite
  • “Let’s Spend The Night Together” – #3 UK, #55 US
  • “Ruby Tuesday” – #3 UK, #1 US
  • ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – #1 UK, #3 US
  • “Sympathy For The Devil” – Surprisingly this generation defining song didn’t chart in the US or UK, the fans love it though and it’s considered one of the best songs of the 60s
  • “Honky Tonk Women” – #1 UK & US
  • “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – B-side to “Honky Tonk Women”
  • “Gimme Shelter” – Surprisingly never released as a single, but a staple of Rolling Stones live shows and therefore it made it onto a compilation album.
  • “Brown Sugar” – #2 UK, #1 US
  • “Tumbling Dice” – #5 UK, #7 US
  • “Angie” (especially so because that’s my name and everyone quotes this song around me) – #5 UK, #1 US
  • “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll (But I Like It)” – #10 UK, #16 US
  • “Miss You” – #3 UK, #1 US
  • “Emotional Rescue” – #9 UK, #3 US
  • “Start Me Up” – #7 UK, #3 US

Listen To This: Underrated Rolling Stones songs

Now we get to the part you’ve all been waiting for, the underrated Rolling Stones songs. I’ll be organising this by era to keep it simple and organised.

R&B Era 1964-1965

During this time The Rolling Stones were an R&B band and mostly did covers. They were young and haven’t found themselves yet, but don’t worry, that’s coming! Every band starts off by doing covers before writing their own songs, so I’m not faulting the Stones. Their covers are very good. Like a lot of British bands of the 60s, they covered Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Motown songs. The majority of songs on their debut were covers with just two songs credited to the band as Nanker Phelge: “Now I’ve Got a Witness” and “Little by Little” and one credited to just Jagger & Richards – “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)”.

My favourite original of those three would be the instrumental “Now I’ve Got a Witness”. I’m just a sucker for instrumentals and it’s something different for The Rolling Stones. You really can’t picture them doing an instrumental because what’s the Stones without Mick Jagger?

Some overlooked songs on their debut are their versions of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, Bo Diddley’s “Mona (I Need You Baby)”, Chuck Berry’s “Carol”, and Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “Can I Get a Witness”

The R&B era of the band continues on with their sophomore albums The Rolling Stones No 2 if you’re British and 12 X 5 if you’re an American. Even on these albums you’ll see a lot of covers: Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bobby Womack, and Wilson Pickett.

As for No. 2, my favourite songs that aren’t the obvious ones are “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” – which isn’t the first version of the song I’ve heard, actually I knew the Blues Brothers’ version of this song first and I have many memories of my dad blasting that version in the car. I generally love this song. The version on this album is longer than the one on The Rolling Stones, Now! (an American release).

Other gems from that album, are their version of Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” – a song John Lennon referenced in The Beatles’ “Come Together” – if you want to know where that came from, it’s Chuck Berry who inspired the British Invasion; two Jagger-Richards origin all “What a Shame” and “Off the Hook”, and their cover of “Under the Boardwalk” originally performed by the Drifters.

On 12 X 5, I like “Empty Heart” and the instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue” – which references the address of the recording studios of Chess Records in Chicago (I’m proud of my hometown and I love seeing it referenced in music).

In 1965, The Stones released Out of Our Heads, which was an even mix of originals and covers. The American version of that album had one of their signature songs “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”. Rather than listen to that, listen to their cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike”, O.V. Wright’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, and an energetic live cover of Bo Diddley’s “I’m All Right”. I found that their original material got better and the originals I liked most were “Play with Fire”, which barely made the top 100 in the US and “One More Try”.

From December’s Children (and Everybody’s), I like “I’m Free”. It was a strong b-side to “Get Off of My Cloud”. A song whose lyrics can sum up the free spiritedness of the 60s.

Breakthrough/Psychedelia: 1966-1967

By this point The Rolling Stones were well established and achieving Beatle like success and they started to find themselves and branch out into other sounds. Think of how a Pokemon evolves, well that’s what the Rolling Stones did in 1966. No longer are they a Pikachu, they’re a Raichu now. Who is this? I’m you but stronger.

The album that marks The Rolling Stones’ breakthrough was the dark and edgy Aftermath from 1966, released in both the US and UK. What made this one distinct from their previous four (UK) or six (US) albums, was that each song on this one is a Rolling Stones original and experimented with different styles, incorporating country, baroque, classical, and world music. That’s how you know a band have found themselves. They’re writing their own material and not singing someone else’s songs. On top of that, the atmosphere for recording this album was more relaxed and not so rushed like the other recording sessions were for previous albums.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are often credited as the stars, but on this one Brian Jones played an important role by experimenting with different sounds like the sitar on “Paint it Black”; koto on “Take it Or Leave It”; and the dulcimer on “Lady Jane” and “I Am Waiting”.

There are some good b-sides on this album like “Stupid Girl” and “Lady Jane”. If you are in a yeehaw mood, listen to their take on country with “High and Dry. “Think” has a psychedelic sound. There’s something for everyone on this album. If you want catchy call and response British Invasion go for “It’s Not Easy”. Overall, a strong album and proves wrong my idea of the Stones being a singles band.

Between The Buttons continues that psychedelic and baroque pop sound and marked the end of the Andrew Loog Oldham era with it being the last album he produced for the band. My picks for this blog post are “Yesterday’s Papers”, “Connection”, “Please Go Home”, “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” (sounds Dylan-esque).

The compilation album, Flowers, has a very good cover of The Temptations’ “My Girl”, recorded during the sessions for “Satisfaction”. I always love seeing rock stars covering Motown and vice versa.

The Rolling Stones recorded one more psychedelic album in 1967, Their Satanic Majesties Request, which at the time sold quite well right after it was released, but critics at the time thought it was a poor man’s Sgt. Pepper. Coincidentally, John Lennon and Paul McCartney provided uncredited backing vocals on “We Love You”. Two other guest musicians on the album were Ronnie Lane and Steve Marriott of The Small Faces who contributed backing vocals on “In Another Land”, the latter was considered as an option to replace Mick Taylor in 1975 – but Mick Jagger didn’t want to be upstaged by the powerful Steve Marriott.

This was the first Rolling Stones album to have a novelty album cover – with a lenticular image on the cover on original pressings of the LP. This album marked the end of that short experimental psychedelic era. There are some great songs on it like “Citadel” (my favourite on the album), “2000 Man”, the experimental “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)”, “Gomper”, and “2000 Light Years From Home”.

Back to Basics/Golden Age: 1968-1972

The Rolling Stones returned to more blues inspired music, but this go around they have found themselves and they sound a lot more original and not trying to be like their idols or doing covers.

Beggars Banquet marked the return of the Rolling Stones to their blues rock roots, but don’t mistake back to basics for boring. This isn’t a basic album and there’s variety and diversity to be found with Latin beats, Indian instruments, and African influenced drumming. This is the last Stones album with founder Brian Jones. Go beyond the hits “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Street Fighting Man” and give “Jigsaw Puzzle”, the controversial “Stray Cat Blues”, and the folk inspired “Factory Girl” a chance.

One of my favourite Rolling Stones albums is their 1969 album Let it Bleed. The opening track and closing track are equally iconic: opening your album with “Gimme Shelter” and closing it with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”? There’s a reason The Rolling Stones are considered one of the best classic rock bands. They did that. In between those songs there are some great tracks like “Midnight Rambler”, “You Got The Silver” (with Keith Richards on lead vocals), and “Monkey Man”.

Two years later, Sticky Fingers was released. Andy Warhol designed the iconic album cover. Original pressings had a working zipper on the jeans that would reveal cotton briefs. That same year, The Rolling Stones famous tongue logo was introduced to the world.

This album had big hits with “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”. If you want to listen to something new, give “Sway”, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (love the Santana-esque jam), and “Bitch” a try.

In 1972, double album Exile On Main Street was released. If you want to go beyond “Tumbling Dice”, I recommend “Rocks Off”, “Shake Your Hips” (Slim Harpo cover), “Sweet Virginia”, “Torn and Frayed”, “All Down The Line”, and “Shine a Light”. Overall, I think this is one of the band’s best albums.

The Other Albums: 1973-

The next albums: Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock n Roll, and Black and Blue are not considered the bands’ best work and I have to agree with the critics that the quality of the albums don’t exactly match up to the high standards they set with the previous albums from their golden age. It’s a rite of passage for a rock band to slip into decadence and excess, rest on their laurels, and put other things first on their list of priorities. In short, what I would say about these is that it’s not their best. There are a few good songs here and there, but mostly just stick with singles. These albums aren’t must listens and you can get away with skipping them.

Some Girls, released in 1978, is considered a return to form for the Stones. It’s definitely at a higher standard than the previous 3 less inspired studio albums. Instead of “Miss You” and “Beast of Burden”, listen to their cover of The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination”, “Lies”, and “Respectable”.

Emotional Rescue is an album you can skip. Disco is great and all, but that’s not my favourite Rolling Stones sound. “Dance (pt 1)” is okay, but not the best rock and roll attempt at disco.

Tattoo You was the album that brought you “Start Me Up” – an overplayed Stones song. Instead of that, listen to “Little T&A” with lead vocals by Keith Richards – personally, I think it’s better than the hit.

You can skip the rest of the albums in the classic rock era, in my opinion.

Listen to the whole playlist here:

Did I miss a deep cut you liked? Have your say in the comments section! Next on Listen to This, Not That will be The Who. Stay tuned for a “Letters to the Editor” where some of my followers have their say on overrated vs underrated Stones songs.

Shoutout to my friends Patrick and Matt for supporting the blog!

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