Last week marked the 50th birthday of The Rolling Stones. Not the guys in the band, the band itself.
The Stones have been a working band longer than the combined ages of the members of Jack White’s new touring band.*
Though they’ve devolved into corporate hackery in their later years, and haven’t put out any worthwhile music in at least two decades, we’re still going to celebrate their longevity by ranking every one of their studio albums.
*may not actually be true
Here we go, from first to worst, considering the band’s US releases only:
1) Sticky Fingers (1971)
The template for the perfect Rolling Stones album. 10 songs, and they’re all pretty close to perfect. The record’s two sides open with “Brown Sugar” and “Bitch,” two pure jolts of adrenaline, and the album closes with the amazing “Sister Morphine”/”Dead Flowers”/”Moonlight Mile trifecta. Sticky Fingers finds one of the greatest bands ever at the absolute peak of their powers. They had grown from their early days as an R&B cover factory into master songwriters and players, and they showed off their skills on this album. It’s not just the Stones’ best work, it’s one of the great rock albums ever made…
2) Exile on Main Street (1972)
…but so is this one. And if you want to argue that these first two should be swapped, I won’t put up much of a fight. Exile sprawls while Sticky Fingers is wound tight. Exile showcases the band’s breadth while Fingers focuses on what they do best. The Stones released these albums back to back, and probably should have just dropped the mic and walked away forever.
3) Let It Bleed (1969)
Let It Bleed was sort of a rehearsal for Sticky Fingers. It features a similar scope and sound, it’s just not quite as uniformly excellent. The Stones liked to cloak their forays into country music in irony, but that obscures the fact that they could write some really great country songs, like “Let it Bleed” and Country Honk.”
4) Beggars Banquet (1968)
One song makes all the difference on Beggars Banquet. Imaging this album without “Sympathy for the Devil.” It would probably drop seven or eight spots on this list. But it does indeed include “Sympathy for the Devil.” So here it sits.
5) Goats Head Soup (1973)
Because it immediately followed the one-two punch of Exile and Fingers, Goats Head Soup is terminally underrated. Undoubtedly, it represents a step down from those two classics, but it’s laced with good songs top to bottom. Soup lacks an all-time classic, but it boasts one of the highest batting averages of any Stones album.
6) Some Girls (1978)
The Stones’ motivation for dipping their toe in the waters of disco may be questionable, but the results are wonderful…at least the first time out. Some Girls marks Ron Wood’s first album with the band, and also the Stones’ last great album before their slow, agonizing descent into mediocrity (and worse).
7) Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
Let’s be clear: the concept of this concept album is ridiculous. The cover art is ridiculous. The naked attempt to compete with Sgt. Pepper’s and Pet Sounds is ridiculous. But despite all the flak Majesties receives, it contains some pretty great songs. Just because Mick Jagger and Keith Richards can’t do what Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson do as well as them, that doesn’t mean they do it poorly. Majesties is worth listening to for the Stones’ experiments with arrangements, instruments, and sound — experiments they didn’t conduct all that often.
8) Between the Buttons (1967)
Between the Buttons is a watershed album for the Stones, marking a transition from their early days as a blues-influenced singles band to a group capable of putting out great albums, and one showing newfound maturation as songwriters. Of note, only the U.S. release contains “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”
9) It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (1974)
The first of the Stones’ periodic back-to-basics straight-up rock albums (and the most successful), It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll came during the band’s weird, dark, mid-’70s fallow period. Unable to continue the run of creative success that preceded this album, the Stones spent these years mired in infighting, drugs, arrests, and recording sessions that only included half the group. Though the title track is insipid, this album is redeemed by songs like “If You Can’t Rock Me” and “Short and Curlies.”
10) Voodoo Lounge (1994)
Although Steel Wheels received far more attention, Voodoo Lounge is the Stones’ true comeback album. Not only is it their final worthwhile recording, it’s the only time from 1978 to 2012 that the band doesn’t sound eternally bored with itself. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but songs like “Sparks Will Fly,” “New Faces,” and “Moon is Up” show a deft songwriting touch that’s lacking in their surrounding material. Plus, when else are you going to hear Mick Jagger exclaim, “I want to fuck your sweet ass”? Well, on record, anyway.
11) Aftermath (1966)
Another album buoyed by the inclusion of key singles on the American release (“Paint It, Black”), Aftermath serves as a prequel to Between the Buttons. It shows off advances in craft and further formation of the band’s identity, but it’s not as strong overall top top bottom.
12) December’s Children (And Everybody’s) (1965)
The Rolling Stones of 1965 were not yet capable of recording a great full-length album. About half the track list were covers, and only two of the originals are standouts — “Get Off My Cloud” and “As Tears Go By.”
13) Out of Our Heads (1965)
Ibid. But with only one standout — “Hearts of Stone.”
14) Tattoo You (1981)
By this point, the Rolling Stones’ creative spark had been extinguished. Most of the songs here were written and/or recorded years earlier. As U2 learned with Pop, rushing to complete an album so that you can start your tour on time is never a good idea. Still, Tattoo You is better than it has any right to be given that it was cobbled together from scraps. It’s just too bad that Bill Gates ruined “Start Me Up” forevermore.
15) Emotional Rescue (1980)
After Some Girls, the Stones dived deeper into disco, with diminishing returns. At least we’ll always have the video for “She’s So Cold.”
16) Black & Blue (1976)
The sound of a band running out of gas. At only eight songs, and not a memorable one in the bunch (“Memory Motel” notwithstanding), Black & Blue doesn’t even sound like the same band that released Exile on Main Street just four years earlier.
17) The Rolling Stones, Now! (1965)
A worthy snapshot of the Stones as young men, before they became artists, still leaning heavily on blues and R&B covers, and sprinkling in just a few original compositions. The covers are carried by Jagger’s voice and charisma, but otherwise, you’re better off turning to the original versions by the likes of Solomon Burke and Willie Dixon.
18) 12 x 5 (1964)
More covers, less charisma. Only partially salvaged by the inclusion of “Time Is on My Side.”
19) England’s Newest Hitmakers (1964)
The Stones sounds like a generic garage band on their debut LP, offering little hint of the greatness to come. The lone Jagger/Richards song on the album — “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)” is incredibly of its time — it could have been a Herman’s Hermits song.
20) Bridges to Babylon (1997)
The only noteworthy aspect to this uninspired late-career effort was the vocal melody to lead single “Anybody Seen My Baby?” ripping of k.d. lang. And “Might as Well Get Juiced” is one of the most embarrassing tracks this band has ever laid down.
21) Dirty Work (1986)
The 1980s were not kind to our boys. When “Harlem Shuffle” is your lead single, the ship may have run aground.
22) A Bigger Bang (2005)
At this point, the Stones are firmly locked into a cycle of shitty album release followed by trillion-dollar tour followed by live album or concert film. Repeat. Really, the only thing you need to know about A Bigger Bang is that it includes a song called “Sweet Neo Con.”
The Affronts to Humanity
23) Undercover (1983)
Jagger and Richards were barely speaking. The Stones were again attempting to update their sound, but since this was 1983, that meant awful, garish production values and disastrous percussion choices. An unlistenable album.
24) Steel Wheels (1989)
You’re not the oooonly one….with miiixed emooootions. Guh. The very idea that this album was heralded as a triumphant comeback is nauseating. In a long career filled with potholes and ditches, Steel Wheels is the nadir.