Those Sappy Stones: The 5 Best Rolling Stones Ballads

When you think of the music of The Rolling Stones, it’s likely that the first thing you think of is a kind of bruising, blues-based rock. While that’s certainly a big part of what they’ve always brought to the table, don’t forget about what they can do when they slow things down a bit. Over their six-decade career, the Stones have always known just when to pull back a bit and deliver gentle, sensitive balladry. In fact, many of the slow ones have become among their most beloved songs, including the five we have listed for you below.

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5. “Ruby Tuesday” (from the album Between the Buttons, 1967)

Keith Richards wrote this lovely, baroque ballad all on his own, allegedly about a girlfriend he lost to Jimi Hendrix. It’s a wonderful character sketch, one of a girl who just can’t be tethered to any one thing or person for very long. The narrator can do nothing but watch her leave in wonder and sorrow.

“Ruby Tuesday” touches a nerve with anyone who seems to be stuck in a rut, though, since we’d all like to be as freewheeling as Ruby. Mick Jagger does a wonderful job conveying all that with his vocal, but a big musical assist also goes to Brian Jones. Jones, who had a knack for playing all kinds of instruments with aplomb for the band, tackles the recorder here, creating a part that’s mesmerizingly tender.

4. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (from the album Let It Bleed, 1969)

The Stones, known for their debauchery and decadence, opened this track with a children’s choir, and it was a touch of genius. But that was just the beginning of the brilliance they would display on this one. The lyrics send the narrator into a series of scenarios where he observes humanity at its most greedy and grasping. And he comes away from it realizing that the ideal is no longer possible.

Thus, settling for consolation is the best you can do. Or at least you can settle for great music. There’s a moment in the middle of the song when guest player Al Kooper’s piano keeps rising as Keith Richards provides some soulful licks on guitar, and it just blows the roof off—leading Jagger to let out a happy whoop of approval.

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3. “Moonlight Mile” (from the album Sticky Fingers, 1971)

From top to bottom, Sticky Fingers is the Stones’ greatest album. (Exile on Main St. has more great music, but the batting average isn’t quite as high on that double album.) All superb LPs deserve a perfect closer, and “Moonlight Mile” qualifies. It’s one of the Stones’ most ambitious musical forays, which is interesting because Keith Richards is nowhere to be found on the track.

Instead, it’s mostly Mick Taylor’s exotic guitar, Charlie Watts’ exquisite touch on drums, and Mick Jagger’s dreamy vocals. I am sleeping under strange, strange skies, Jagger sings. “Moonlight Mile” takes the rock-star-on the-road theme and takes it to an existential level. This song doesn’t get as much love as some of the more famous tracks on that record, but it certainly deserves it.

2. “Memory Motel” (from the album Black and Blue, 1976)

Black and Blue often gets overlooked among Stones albums, in part because they used it as an excuse to audition new guitarists to replace the departed Mick Taylor. (Ronnie Wood won the gig.) Yet it’s a great record, buoyed by a couple of standout ballads. In addition to the hit single “Fool to Cry,” there’s “Memory Motel,” a song where Mick Jagger moans over plinking keyboards about both the girl who got away and the rough life he has to endure on the road without her.

Keith Richards chips in with vocals that attest to how special that wayward girl was, as well. The harmonies are among the most luscious the group has ever produced, and the falsetto “sha-la-la” refrains are simply impossible to resist.

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

Like the rest of Tattoo You, “Waiting on a Friend” was an old track (circa early ‘70s) given a fresh polish by the Stones in the studio for the album. It serves as the closing song, and it’s a bit different from the typical slow song that pines for a romantic relationship.

Instead, over languid guitar and a slinky beat, Mick Jagger tells us what he really wants: I’m not waiting on a lady / I’m just waiting on a friend. In the instrumental runout, jazz legend Sonny Rollins is given free rein to blow all the bad vibes away with his saxophone work. Even if, in reality, they weren’t always getting along, this song, along with its sweet video, can make you believe that the Stones were buddies first, bandmates second.

Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images

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