5 Top Rolling Stones Albums That Shaped Rock Music History

The Rolling Stones’ 2023 release of Hackney Diamonds makes 26 American albums for the rock legends. Their consistency with those records is truly impressive, which is why undertaking the task of choosing the five that stand out from the rest is quite daunting. With apologies to the ones that just missed the list (Aftermath, Let It Bleed, Steel Wheels) and their more underrated platters (Between the Buttons, Black and Blue, Emotional Rescue), here are the five occasions when the Stones rose above their own imposing standards to deliver albums that are among the most impactful in rock music history.

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1. Beggars Banquet (1968)

It took a misstep and a subsequent course correction for the Stones to get to the first masterpiece on this list. They had tried to emulate The Beatles’ mélange of psychedelic rock and baroque pop through much of 1966 and ’67, culminating in their polarizing Their Satanic Majesties Request. Realizing they weren’t playing to their strengths, they came back with the single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” which took the riff rock of “Satisfaction” and added some darkness and dread. That led them right into Beggars Banquet, which found them marrying some of the experimentation of the previous era with a bluesy realism.

“Sympathy for the Devil” found them operating at a ridiculously high degree of difficulty and making it all seem simple as pie, while “Street Fighting Man” showed that Keith Richards and Mick Jagger could write about the world around them with streetwise savvy and piercing insight. Other highlights include Jagger channeling his inner Dylan on “Jigsaw Puzzle” and a beautiful closer in “Salt of the Earth,” which sends the album out on a note of gospel uplift.

2. Sticky Fingers (1971)

The Stones’ resiliency has always been one of their more remarkable traits, and they displayed it once again at the dawn of the ‘70s. Brian Jones had become estranged from the group and barely contributed to 1969’s Let It Bleed before his death that same year. The choice to replace him with young guitar virtuoso Mick Taylor started to pay off in a major way with Sticky Fingers. He could either play off Keith Richards or he could step out on his own. It added another dimension to the band’s music, leading to wild, thrilling instrumental excursions like the second half of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?”

The band’s grasp of just about every kind of roots music is on full display here. Listen to Jagger’s loving homage to Otis Redding on the tantalizingly slow “I Got the Blues,” while the country rock influence of Gram Parsons on Richards is all over “Dead Flowers.” And we haven’t even mentioned the soaring opener “Brown Sugar” or the gorgeous closer “Moonlight Mile.”

3. Exile on Main St. (1972)

As sharp and tight as Sticky Fingers had been the previous year, that’s how loose and shambolic Exile on Main St. turned out to be in 1972. And yet somehow it was no less brilliant. Considering the circumstances in which it was made, the album should have been a mess. The Stones were indeed exiles, having decamped for Keith Richards’ French villa due to tax problems at home. They set up a portable studio in a dank basement and recorded at all hours in various states of inebriation.

Mick Jagger has always been critical of the album’s mix, which often backgrounded the vocals in favor of Keith Richards’ and Mick Taylor’s guitar interplay and the rhythmic churn of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. For all that craziness, it’s a double album that never falters, with surprises coming up at every turn: the furious opening thrust of “Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint,” the swaggering blues of “Ventilator Blues” and “Stop Breaking Down,” and the gorgeous gospel of “Let It Loose” and “Shine a Light,” the latter a loving farewell to Brian Jones.

4. Some Girls (1978)

One wonders how Some Girls might have sounded had Keith Richards been more involved. Always skeptical of Mick Jagger’s efforts to drag the Stones into a more modern sound, Richards couldn’t do much to obstruct it this time around due to his preoccupation with mounting drug and legal problems. Hence, Jagger got his way and made a very of-the-moment record, one that largely left behind the Delta in favor of the car horns and screeching tires of New York City streets.

It’s funny how there was such a big fuss made about the disco moves of “Miss You” at the time; now, it just sounds like another in a long line of grooving Stones songs. “Shattered” depicted a love/hate relationship with the Big Apple and is all downhill momentum, while “Beast of Burden” slowed it down for luscious mid-tempo soul. Lest you think that Richards was completely frozen out of the picture, he steps up to solidify his rebellious reputation and mewl his way through “Before They Make Me Run.”

5. Tattoo You (1981)

This album is a great example of the Stones’ knack for turning problems into opportunities. While the record company was expecting a new album, relations between band members (specifically Mick Jagger and Keith Richards) had deteriorated to such a low point that nobody could bear the thought of holing up to write and record new material. Chris Kimsey, who had been working on Stones’ albums for a decade by that time, came up with the idea to scour through old tapes from the cutting-room floor, knowing there were gems to be found.

In many cases, the tracks just needed new vocals from Jagger, and Tattoo You somehow came out sounding like the most cohesive album they had made in years. The band also had the idea to sequence the album with all the ravers on Side One, meaning you quickly get the adrenaline rush of killers like “Start Me Up,” “Hang Fire,” and “Little T&A.” Side Two gathers the ballads, including a pair of underrated soul jams (“Worried About You” and “Tops”) and the lovely closer “Waiting on a Friend,” which found the Stones preaching amity even if they weren’t exactly in the mood to practice it.

Photo by Harry Hampel/ullstein bild via Getty Images

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