By 1978’s Some Girls, The Rolling Stones had outlasted most of their British Invasion peers. That’s not to say it hasn’t been a rickety ride for the London-formed group at times, because from Brian Jones’ prima donna tendencies and death in 1969, to Keith Richards’ heroin-plagued 1970s, to Mick Jagger and Richards’ bickering in the ’80s, it has been just that — a rickety ride.
With Some Girls, their last song-for-song classic LP, the band schooled the new school, cycling through punk, disco, and more. While the 36 years since then haven’t exactly tarnished the band’s legacy, they’ve rarely scaled the heights they reached so routinely in the ’60s and ’70s. Sure, they wrote the politicized “Undercover of the Night”, but it wasn’t “Street Fighting Man”. The Neptunes remixed “Sympathy for the Devil” in 2005, but it showed the generation gap more than anything.
From time to time, though, the Stones have managed to write a song that runs at least neck and neck with the pace they set with their first string of singles, that legendary four-album run (1968’s Beggars Banquet through 1972’s Exile on Main St.), and the years between Exile and Some Girls. Of course, it’s the cumulative impact of those older songs that draw tens of thousands of fans to the band’s live shows, but 1981’s Tattoo You, 1986’s Dirty Work, and 2005’s A Bigger Bang have more than warranted touring — indeed, Jagger has said he doesn’t like touring unless there’s a new album to support.
With the band’s 20th British and 22nd American album, Voodoo Lounge, turning 20 this month, we’ve collected our 10 favorite Rolling Stones songs post-Some Girls. (Full disclosure: resurrected and partially rerecorded songs like “Plunder My Soul” and “No Spare Parts” are ineligible.)
10. “Hold Back”
Dirty Work (1986)
Jagger was 42 when the Richards-spearheaded Dirty Work came out, and while that’s not old, “Hold Back” is impressive for his Energizer Bunny delivery, rare on later material. Dirty Work was the most Exile thing the Stones did in the ’80s; its rawness was in contrast to the overall glossiness that defined production in the decade. You hardly even notice what Jagger is saying over the lethal combo of Richards’ jagged riffs and Charlie Watts’ unrelenting drumming. As it turns out, the song boasts the band’s simplest mantras this side of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. “Don’t matter if you ain’t so good looking,” Jagger goes. “If you ain’t sharp as a blade, don’t be afraid, don’t hold back.” All told, “Hold Back” marked a return to the jittery speeds of past songs like “Rip This Joint” — still a more-than-manageable pace for the band in ’86.
9. “Doom and Gloom”
Non-album single (2012)
The “Doom and Gloom” sessions marked the first time the boys entered a studio together in seven years; alongside “One More Shot”, it was one of two new songs on 2012’s career-spanning GRRR! compilation. That’s not to say it sounds labored-over. Instead, it’s another riff-heavy romp, the one modern touch being its propulsive, clapping percussion. Jagger dreams about a plane ride on which he’s surrounded by “drunk and insane” passengers, and now he’s drunk? Sounds like a familiar predicament — after all, he’s shared the skies with the likes of Brian Jones and Keith Richards. When I first heard “Doom and Gloom”, there were feelings of both relief (the Stones are back) and skepticism (wrinkles are abounding). It didn’t jar me in any way, but after a few listens, after it started to sink in, I woke up — even if Jagger was still in slumberland.
8. “Rough Justice”
A Bigger Bang (2005)
“Rough Justice” — the opener from the Stones’ most recent album, 2005’s A Bigger Bang, which marked the end of an eight-year drought — has muscle and more muscle. The no-context-needed “Am I just one of your cocks?” line is, of course, contrived and a little goofy; a casual observer might laugh at the lament coming from a 60-something. In any case, from the HD guitar tone (assisted by co-producer Don Was) to the chorus and riffs that run through said refrain, it revives the power of classics like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. It’s delivered with sheer confidence, too, as if the band thought it would have that song’s searing, revolutionary impact. As it compares to recent works by other classic rockers, “Rough Justice” doesn’t lack any of the band’s original essence. Instead, it trusts that the Stones will always be pretty great at being the Stones.
7. “Emotional Rescue”
Emotional Rescue (1980)
This single, while a success, is basically flaccid, maybe even castrated — Jagger, with his Bee Gees-style, squeaking falsetto, has never sounded meeker, while Richards’ six-string presence is barely felt. It’s also got a couple lyrical cliches (“I’ll be your savior, steadfast and true/ I’ll come to your emotional rescue”), but ultimately “Emotional Rescue” works because it does sound nonchalant. It’s also a testament to the Stones’ willpower; they knew diehards wouldn’t be happy about it. As a disco/R&B/new wave contortion, it falls short of their Some Girls No. 1, “Miss You”, although it’s catchier — for better or worse.
6. “Little T&A”
Tattoo You (1981)
Like “Happy” (off Exile) or “Before They Make Me Run” (Some Girls), “Little T&A” seems like a song only an utter badass like Keith Richards could sing, if only for the attitude. Not that it’s a particularly defiant song; it just has the definitive K.R. ingredient that makes Jagger seem elegantly knightly. “The bitch keeps bitching, snitcher keeps snitching,” Richards goes, his right hand chopping a steady rhythm for Watts to reinforce. The innuendo of the title (tits & ass) might be lost on today’s listeners, but the lust is at least as prominent as the whip-cracking punk influence.
Tattoo You (1981)
“Slave” oozes one thing: sex. It’s one of the ultimate tongue-in-cheek moments in the Stones’ catalog. On “Brown Sugar”, the vaguely uncomfortable sexy-slave concept and accompanying testosterone were led by Jagger and no one else; here, the ladies sing as if they actually want to be under his spell. “Slave” has the fewest lyrics of any song on this list, and probably not by coincidence, it’s one of the catchiest. Jazz legend Sonny Rollins’ sax, which provides the biggest moments here, is as palpable as longtime Stones collaborator Bobby Keys’ ever was; its cratering effect is as seismic as anything Clarence Clemons played on short of “Jungeland”. The shape of the track is as if the overlong second half of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” has been redeemed, updated from a beer-buzz sprawl to a sweltering free-for-all.
4. “Rock and a Hard Place”
Steel Wheels (1989)
“Rock and a Hard Place”, a veritable powwow, has virtually all of the Stones’ best traits. In no particular order: the jutting riffs, the rotary guitar leads, the soulful vocals, the hook they shadow. Also: the strut. “Rock and a Hard Place” remains the Stones’ most recent top 40 hit in the United States, and while I think they have one more in them, it’ll probably sound closer to “Waiting on a Friend” than “Tumbling Dice”. (For some non-journalistic reason, I see a T-Swift collaboration in the near future.)
So, speaking broadly, what does/did a Stones hit do? I wasn’t around in the ’60s, when Andrew Loog Oldham locked Jagger/Richards in a kitchen until they wrote their first original hit (“As Tears Go By”, first recorded by Marianne Faithful). But there’s no question that some of their songs had the youth in revolt, while others had the kids dashing to the record store hungry for Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters platters. The mere popularity of “Rock and a Hard Place” inevitably inspired backtracking on the part of rock’s newest fans. It’s doubtful a single one of them regrets the journey.
3. “Harlem Shuffle”
Dirty Work (1986)
“Harlem Shuffle”, a cover of Bob & Earl’s 1963 soul single, is sweaty all right. But it’s relatively note-for-note, which means: a) there’s not enough Richards, but b) it doesn’t neglect the sweetness of its predecessor, either. It gives credence to the idea that the Stones knew the ins and outs of soul just as they were comfortable with relatively antique Chicago and Delta blues. Bob & Earl’s original, easily the Los Angeles duo’s most famous single, became better known to another generation for providing the opening blast sampled on House of Pain’s 1992 “Jump Around”. The Stones’ version, which ultimately peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, higher than the original “Harlem Shuffle” (No. 44) but not “Jump Around” (No. 3), is evidence of the longevity and solid foundation of American soul music.
2. “Mixed Emotions”
Steel Wheels (1989)
Back in ’89, any half-capable pop singer could’ve made this a hit. “Mixed Emotions” rocks, but you can see it performed a lotta different ways, some of them acoustic. Still, that’s not to say it doesn’t have the Stones’ (sticky) fingerprints all over it. Jagger’s eponymous sneer — “You’re not the only one with mixed emotions” — is mildly ironic given his perennial steal-your-girl reputation. Sonically, “Mixed Emotions” is straight-ahead and sounds like it was recorded during the mid-’70s, although Mick’s phlegmy vocal clings closer to “Tumbling Dice” or another gritty, grimy song from the oh-so-distinctive Exile.
1. “Start Me Up”
Tattoo You (1981)
This shouldn’t even count, arguably. “Start Me Up” was originally recorded in 1975, three years before Some Girls, and it also took the names “Never Stop” and “Start It Up” before the final nomenclature; it was considered for Black and Blue, Some Girls, and Emotional Rescue before finally landing on Tattoo You in 1981. The touch of reverb here gives away its actual decade, but “Start Me Up” is vintage Stones. Hell, it could have come out as early as ’68, its jolt right up there with “Brown Sugar” or “Street Fighting Man”. Writing in Life, Richards calls it “sheer rock and roll,” and there’s no doubt it came at the right time. “Start Me Up” opens Tattoo You and, by default, it functioned as a PSA: We’re not going away anytime soon. The band’s best single in a decade (and thus their best single with Ronnie Wood in the lineup), it was a reminder of the Stones’ archetypal power. The cycle, in all likelihood, will never stop, never stop, never stop…