In honor of the Rolling Stones’ recent reissue of Sticky Fingers, perhaps their grittiest album ever, let’s celebrate the 10 “grittiest” Rolling Stones songs. These are the ones where Keith Richards’ riffs are dirty and Mick Jagger’s yowl hits you right in the stomach. These are not the ones with cheesy keyboards or smooth-jazz sax solos or wannabe-Beatles piano pop or Mick’s yellow pants. The Rolling Stones could excel when they put on the sheen and glitz (see “Miss You”), but nothing beats the Stones at their most gritty and grimy. Here are the 10 best examples. (Note: All the songs are collected in a Spotify playlist at the bottom!)
10. Brown Sugar | Sticky Fingers (1971)
The opening guitar riff is one of the best of all time, and Mick’s voice is all blues. Plus, this is one of the few songs where a sax solo actually adds to the grit rather than subtracts from it (it probably helps that it’s a tenor sax).
9. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction | Out of Our Heads (1965)
Take yourself back to 1965. The “Sixties” as we know it hadn’t taken hold yet. The hair was still short and slicked back, and the culture at-large was still a little uneasy over the foothold that rock and roll was taking. Then out come the Rolling Stones, more sinister than the Beatles, with easily the grittiest song to ever reach #1 at that point in time — “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” This was when the Stones first introduced their brand of grit to the masses.
8. Ventilator Blues | Exile on Main Street (1972)
You can hear the 100-degree heat in this song. It sounds like it was recorded in a dark, swampy basement (and believe it or not, it was!).
7. Street Fighting Man | Beggars Banquet (1968)
It’s harder to make an acoustic guitar gritty when compared to an electric, but “Street Fighting Man” succeeds. It’s strummed with power, as Mick menacingly sneers about disrupting a sleepy London town.
6. Bitch | Sticky Fingers (1971)
Here’s an ultimate example of Sticky Fingers‘ gritty excellence, with one of the band’s many landmark, unforgettable guitar riffs.
5. Rocks Off | Exile on Main Street (1972)
In 1972, the Stones could put anything on a record and have it sound like a good time, even though they were internally falling apart. “Rocks Off” is perhaps the band’s most underrated album opener. It sets the sloppily brilliant tone for Exile on Main Street. It’s fast-paced, energetic, effortless, and inspired.
4. Sway | Sticky Fingers (1971)
This is one of their slower numbers, but the guitar sounds so dirty and druggy. “Sway” is loose and unhinged but somehow still cohesive. Mick Taylor, their short-lived lead guitarist at the time, contributes a rip-roaring, howling guitar solo.
3. Midnight Rambler | Let it Bleed (1969)
Keith Richards once called “Midnight Rambler” a “blues opera.” Opera isn’t gritty, but blues operas sure as hell are. Mick and Keith contributed equally on the epic track, showing the songwriting prowess that they could have when working together. Even at almost 7 minutes, it’s lean and mean.
2. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking | Sticky Fingers (1971)
“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” opens with the Keith’s most filthy, grungy riff. Mick almost sounds like a crazy person (which is a good thing if that wasn’t clear). And right in the middle of the song, after what could have been a perfectly good 3-minute rocker, the band goes into an impromptu Santana-like jam session. Although the jamming second half is awesome, I wouldn’t necessarily classify it as gritty. But that’s why we have the first half.
1. Jumpin’ Jack Flash | Single (1968)
It’s 1968 and the Rolling Stones had just spent the previous year in full-on hippie mode, releasing singles like “She’s a Rainbow” and “We Love You”. After lulling their listeners into an acid haze, they cut through it with a jolt to the gut in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” They returned to their “funky, essential essence,” as Brian Jones put it, and thank goodness they did. The riff is blistering, the vocals are piercing, the drum beat is relentless. It’s as gritty as they come.
And for an even grittier take, here’s their promo clip to the song, with an even sludgier version.