Ranking the Top 5 Rolling Stones Songs of the ’80s

The Rolling Stones came out the other side of the ’80s unified and prepared to show other rock and roll bands what longevity really meant. To get to that point, however, they had to overcome a rough 10-year stretch that included some shaky albums and a near-breakup.

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It’s to their credit that they managed to rise to the occasion several times during the decade to deliver songs that were every bit as wonderful as the classics from the ’70s and the ’80s. Here are our choices for the Stones’ five best songs from the 1980s.

5. “Emotional Rescue,” from Emotional Rescue (1980)

The Emotional Rescue album deserves more credit as a whole, as it found the band tackling many different genres with a sneering grace. As for the title track, many critics whined that it was just a rehash of “Miss You.” That makes about as much sense as complaining that “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was just a rehash of “Satisfaction.” Why not return to the quasi-disco vein that had been so rich for them before? “Emotional Rescue” is a blast, featuring Ronnie Wood pinch-hitting for Bill Wyman with a slinky bass line, Charlie Watts as cool as ever on the beat, and Mick Jagger riding in on a fine Arab charger with his falsetto.

4. “She Was Hot,” from Undercover (1983)

Undercover captures the Stones at a time when the aggression in their music kind of overrode everything else. (Dirty Work from 1986, an unfortunate misfire of an album, was the natural culmination of this process.) But “She Was Hot” avoids that pitfall, perhaps because the band returned to a sweet spot by paying homage to the chugging rock and roll of Chuck Berry. It’s one of the rare songs of that era where the Stones actually seem to be having fun, from the easy chemistry of the instrumentalists to Jagger’s winning depiction of a frustrated lover stuck on a cold night without a warm body.

3. “Start Me Up,” from Tattoo You (1981)

It’s hard to imagine this massive hit as a reggae song, but that’s indeed the direction it was headed before the band originally abandoned it. Luckily, Tattoo You was all about finding the band’s forgotten songs from the ’70s. They rescued “Start Me Up” via an opening guitar salvo that earned its way into the band’s Hall of Iconic Riffs. Nobody really ever pays attention to what’s going on in the lyrics outside the refrain (there’s actually a story about auto racing buried in there). Better to stick with the lascivious innuendoes and irresistible rhythmic pull.

2. “Slipping Away,” from Steel Wheels (1989)

It wasn’t the greatest Stones’ album (although it was plenty good), but Steel Wheels will go down as perhaps the band’s most important album. Jagger and Keith Richards returned from the brink of pistols at 40 paces to prove that they could indeed work together again. Maybe some of Richards’ concerns they might not reform slipped into the writing of the album closer. There’s something moving about the moment when Jagger comes in to harmonize with Richards in the middle eight, before leaving again so that his buddy can bemoan the passing of time over some luscious horns.

1. “Waiting on a Friend,” from Tattoo You (1981)

Nobody but the two men themselves will likely know the exact parameters of the personal relationship between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. But “Waiting on a Friend” at least yielded a fictional world where their most faithful relationship has always been with each other. And even if you had no idea who Jagger and Richards were and tuned into this song for the first time, it would still pack an emotional wallop as one of the finest rock songs about friendship in general. What a counterintuitively perfect closing track for an album where the band had to rework leftovers because they couldn’t get along long enough to do new stuff.

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