Well, Charlie Watts has died. The Wembley Whammer is no more. There have been lots of great eulogies and tributes over the past five days, and I don't need to write another one. I will simply say that the Stones have been a part of my life for a long time, and Charlie was one of the essential elements -- some say the most important one -- that made that band so great.
In any case, while it's very difficult to whittle that storied band's output over the course of almost six decades to a limited number of favorites, here are my top ten. Note that this is my top ten, not the top ten. My reasons for enjoying these songs might have little to do with yours, and the list is based on my unique experiences in life that have some association with the music. It's in alphabetical order, because I can't possibly rank stuff of this greatness.
Can't Ya Hear Me Knocking (Sticky Fingers, 1971)
This song kind of has it all. A super edgy riff by Keith, a great drum performance by Charlie, and a super Jagger vocal. And then a whole improvised jam at the end which is beyond brilliant, featuring a killer sax solo by Bobby Keys. It was the first thing I listened to after hearing that Charlie was gone. That must mean something.
Gimme Shelter (Let It Bleed, 1969)
Well, when you have a song that becomes the go-to sound for defining an entire era in history, you've probably done something pretty cool. It pulls you in with that soft yet menacing descending vibrato-laden progression by Keith, but I will always listen through to hear Merry Clayton's voice crack during her solo section.
Monkey Man (Let It Bleed, 1969)
This is the Stonesiest song ever. It's built around a raunchy open-tuned riff by Keith, has that fucking great Nicky Hopkins piano throughout, and has an undertone of druggy antisocial badness that helps define that band in its greatest mode. Mick's vocal on this is perfect; it's the swagger that defined rock moving forward. When I started curating this list, it was the first song I wrote down... draw your own conclusions.
Paint It Black (Aftermath, 1966)
A little personal note. I was born in 1969, so a big chunk of the Stones' output happened either before I was alive, or before I was old enough to be my own person with my own musical preferences (more on that below). However, in 7th grade or so, I got ahold of a Rolling Stones compilation album on vinyl LP called Hot Rocks 1964-1971, and I wore out the grooves with the number of times I played it. Almost all of my deepest familiarity with their earlier series of hits came via that album. I loved the Middle Eastern-sounding melody here. Cool stuff and very adventurous for 1966.
Shattered (Some Girls, 1978)
Here's a point where I can give credit where credit is due. I was the oldest in my family, but my best friends had older brothers and/or sisters, and it was through them that I got my initial exposure to some of the coolest music that I enjoy to this day. I was just nine when Some Girls came out, but while hanging out at my friends' homes, I heard this album on constant repeat and grew to love it before I even really knew who the Stones were. "Shattered" had that great phaser sound on the guitar, and the bass was played by Ronnie Wood in a way that makes this ode to New York City distinctive in the Stones' catalog.
Start Me Up (Tattoo You, 1981)
So, as I may have mentioned before, Tattoo You was the very first album of music I went and bought for myself, and the reason I bought it was "Start Me Up". I don't know what it was about that song. Again, the sonic uniqueness of Keith's riff was big, but Charlie turning the fucking beat around on the first drum hit of the song (snare on the one? What the fuck man?) made it impossible to stop listening once it started. A little tidbit on that album: I assumed it was brand new when it came out (I was in 8th grade at the time), but not really. They'd recorded most of those songs at various sessions between 1972-1979, and were basically considered outtakes originally intended for other albums, which blows my mind.
Sway (Sticky Fingers, 1971)
People seem to forget that the Rolling Stones had three guys who played along with Keith Richards on guitar. The early stuff was by the tortured genius and co-founder Brian Jones. The later stuff was done by the always seemingly pleasant Ron Wood. But right in the middle, between 1969 and 1974 when the band was, in my opinion, doing its very best work, was a guy named Mick Taylor. There is some controversy about "Sway" with Taylor claiming he deserved a writing credit on the tune, but regardless of that, his solos on both the bridge and outro are among the best guitar work that's ever been on any Stones recording. Even without the guitar, that chorus ("It's just that demon life has got you in its sway") is so... fucking... good.
Sympathy for the Devil (Beggars Banquet, 1968)
Hard to not include another generation-defining song here. For me, I think "Sympathy" was also my introduction to the concept of the anti-hero. It's also interesting that the Stones never considered themselves a "political band", and yet this song and "Street Fighting Man" off the same album were the soundtrack of the youth movement and cultural change, and both faced controversy as a result. As a kid, I just loved the beat and the vibe. I still do.
Under My Thumb (Aftermath, 1966)
Might as well get this out of the way: did a number of Rolling Stones songs have elements of misogyny? Oh yeah, most definitely. I'm not going to write a novel explaining or justifying this, but in the case of "Under My Thumb", I've always had the feeling that the protagonist of the song is more hurt than intent on being evil. I get the idea that he's dreaming that the girl could be controlled by him, rather than actually being the controlling person he paints himself to be. Anyway, I loved the marimba part by Brian Jones, and the fuzz bass by Wyman is terrific as well.
The Worst (Voodoo Lounge, 1994)
Here's the only song on my list that's a) not a hit of any kind, b) from the band's later period, and c) sung by Keith Richards instead of Mick Jagger. It's also the only one from this list that came out when I was in my 20s, married, and had a real career-focused job, as opposed to in my childhood. From the first time I heard it, I like the "guilty as charged" tone of the narrator here. Still great. Simple but beautiful.
Impossible-To-Not-Mention Other Amazing Stones Songs...
2000 Light Years From Home, Angie, As Tears Go By, Beast of Burden, Bitch, Dead Flowers, Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker), Emotional Rescue, Get Off of My Cloud, Happy, Heart of Stone, (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It), Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Little T&A, Midnight Rambler, Miss You, Mixed Emotions, Moonlight Mile, Mother's Little Helper, Play with Fire, Ruby Tuesday, She's a Rainbow, She's So Cold, Slave, Some Girls, Street Fighting Man, Tumbling Dice, Undercover of the Night, Waiting on a Friend, You Can't Always Get What You Want
Feel free to mention your own Stones favorites in the comments... and include what you love about them!