The 10 best Rolling Stones albums – ranked

Mick, Keith and Ronnie are preparing to release a new album. But how will it compare to the greats?

The Rolling Stones in 1964
The Rolling Stones in 1964 Credit: Redferns/Getty

The Rolling Stones have a new album on the way in October, titled Hackney Diamonds. The raucous first single, Angry, bodes well for an album insiders are hailing as their best in four decades. Some might say that wouldn’t be hard, given that the self styled Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World have thrived mainly as a veteran touring outfit, reanimating their classic 1960s and 1970s back catalogue with thrilling panache. 

Throughout their 60 year recording career, compilations and live sets greatly outnumber their 23 studio albums, and latter day exercises in maintaining the brand (certainly from Undercover in 1983 to Bridges to Babylon in 1997) were largely disparaged by critics on release and haven’t improved hugely with passing time. 

Nevertheless, there were signs of regaining cohesive spirit and purpose with A Bigger Bang in 2005, and the surviving trio certainly seem to be enthused about their new album. And when the Stones are on form, every rock fan knows there’s few bands that can touch them. 

Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Mick Jagger at the launch of Hackney Diamonds in September 2023 Credit: AFP

So here’s my current top 10 Rolling Stones albums of all time, leaving open the question of where Hackney Diamonds might fit into such a stellar list:

10. The Rolling Stones (1964)

Let’s start at the very beginning. The Stones’ debut album is no out-and-out classic but it is still a thrill, a rough, adrenalized shot of garage band rhythm and blues covers that reconfigured rock music. As the raw young enthusiasts energetically tackled songs by Muddy Waters (I’m A King Bee), Jimmy Reed (Honest I Do) and Willie Dixon (I Just Wanna Make Love to You), sounds that once belonged to dedicated Chicago blues afficionados were shot right into the pop mainstream. All the elements of what the Stones are ready to become are in place: Mick Jagger’s lairy, stylized vocals and attacking harmonica, Richards driving rhythm guitar pairing with Brian Jones nimble virtuosity, and a swinging rhythm section of Bill Wyman on bass and drummer Charlie Watts holding everything just about in place. byCBCYgl_as

A trio of original songs indicate the burgeoning Glimmer Twins partnership of Jagger and Richards, although sentimental teen ballad Tell Me (You’re Coming Back) was the only one they owned up to, crediting the generic Now I’ve Got A Witness and Little By Little to the fictional Nanker-Phelge. It’s not quite The Stones’ big bang, but it’s got a vitality that makes it easy to understand why the Stones would quickly become a phenomenon to rival The Beatles.

9. Blue & Lonesome (2016)

Cut forward six decades, and the superannuated blues tyros thrilled fans by returning to their first love with all the swagger and experience earned in lifetimes on the road. Recorded in just three days in Mark Knopfler’s British Grove Studios, it started out as a warm up session and ended up as the Stones most satisfying album since their glory days. It is the first Stones album to be comprised completely of covers, as they tackle some of their favourite blues songs, ripping up Howling Wolf’s Commit A Crime and playing Magic Sam’s All Of Your Love as if they are down on their knees begging for one last chance at happiness. 

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards launching Blue & Lonesome in 2016 Credit: PA

Jagger’s harmonica playing is a treat, whilst his outrageous phrasing and bravura vocal delivery is glorious, conjuring up a dirty, growling old shaman on Otis Hicks’ sleazy Hoo Doo Blues. Eric Clapton swings by long enough to rip out a blistering solo on Willie Dixon’s I Can’t Quit You Baby. This swaggering blast of dense blues rocking is a righteous act of musical devotion, and a reminder of how the Stones have hung on to their Greatest Band title for 60 years.

8. Tattoo You (1981)

Arguably the last really decent album from the Stones’ imperial phase, Tattoo You was actually assembled from outtakes and rejects by associate producer Chris Kimsey. You can’t argue with the jerky opening riff of Start Me Up, reworked by Jagger and Richards from a throwaway 1975 reggae frivolity, Never Stop to become arguably the last all time classic Stones single, at least until Angry. MKLVmBOOqVU

Little T&A (a Some Girls reject) demonstrated that Richards’ fondness for clipped Chuck Berry riffs remained intact, Slave (left off Black and Blue) gives the rhythm section of Wyman and Watts a funky workout, Black Limousine finds them wallowing about in honky tonk territory with Ronnie Wood adding his raucous rocking touch to a song originally recorded in 1974, before he even joined the band. It closes with the gorgeous, sleazy sentimentality of Waiting on a Friend, an absolute Stones classic. An album of such disjointed parts really has no right to sound as good as it does, but who’s cares how long the songs had been in the vaults when they are as much fun as this.

7. Aftermath (1966)

Jagger and Richards wrote all of the songs on Aftermath, an album that saw them experimenting with pop styles, stripping back the rock edges, and feeding into a new sophistication in Sixties beat culture along with The Beatles’ Revolver and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. The versatile Brian Jones helped expand the horizons of their sound, playing keyboards, saxophone, mandolin, dulcimer, harpsichord, marimba, harmonica, hand bells and slide guitar, which also had the effect of forcing Richards to take more responsibility for the guitar parts. There is a dark sophistication to the lyrics, with Jagger at his romantic best on the ballad Lady Jane, although the sneery sexism of Stupid Girl and (albeit sonically fantastic) Under My Thumb haven’t aged well. flSmiIne-4k

The US version (currently the one available on Spotify) swapped out the audacious pill-popping social commentary of Mother’s Little Helper for the even more dramatic single Paint It Black. The Stones saved some of their best and most ferocious work for singles (such as 1965 smash (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and storming ’66 classic Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows) and confusion over track listings between UK and US releases dogs all the early Stones albums, making it hard to make a case for a definitive classic status. But Aftermath is probably the best of the Stones baroque pop period.

6. Some Girls (1978)

Following a blazing run of five classic albums from 1968-73 (see below), the Stones started to come unstuck, losing a second lead guitarist when Brian Jones replacement Mick Taylor quit. Meanwhile, Richards abdicated creative leadership through his increasingly debilitating drug and alcohol abuse and the attendant lifestyle distractions, a litany of arrests, court cases, accidents and deaths. Before he quit in 1991, Bill Wyman characterised the problem with later Stones records as “Mick wanted hits, Keith couldn’t give a f___”. But with The Faces’ clubbable slide guitarist Ronnie Woods recruited in 1976, Jagger (increasingly playing rhythm guitar himself) rallied the troops for an aggressive return to form in 1978, responding to the challenging context of New Wave music with their most brutal and (in many ways) least sophisticated set since their early days. hKOr0yzZcro

It opens with the Stones’ seductive super slick disco classic, Miss You, stirs snappy punk rock attitude on When The Whip Comes Down, Lies, Respectable and Shattered, and conjures up a moody, soulful, pleading treat on the plaintive Beast of Burden. Produced by Jagger and Richards as The Glimmer Twins, it is direct, punchy and deliberately offensive.

5. Goats Head Soup (1973)

The final shot from a wild period when the Stones could really do no wrong, Goats Head Soup is a sleazy, steamy classic. With Keith Richards deep in a heroin daze (immortalised with sweet despair on Comin’ Down Again) and Jagger becoming distracted by his status as jet set royalty, there is a darkness to the album signified by tortured yet sweatily compelling opener Dancing With Mr D. Ace American producer Jimmy Miller is at the controls for the last time, and a fantastic supporting cast are all encouraged to express themselves, with Beatles sidekick Billy Preston combining his soulful keyboard playing with Mick Taylor’s sinister wah wah guitar on the dark but funky Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker). 

The cover of Goats Head Soup

Composed chiefly by Richards and sung tenderly by Jagger, string laden ballad Angie may be the greatest romantic kiss off in pop history. Jagger’s on less tender form on the obscenity strifed album closer Star Star, with an opening riff shamelessly ripped from Chuck Berry and a chorus that essentially consists of Jagger accusing someone repeatedly of being a “Star______”, replete with rude references to sexual acts being performed on Hollywood stars Steve McQueen and John Wayne.

4. Sticky Fingers (1971)

Released in 1971, Sticky Fingers was the Rolling Stones’ ninth album, the first of a new decade when their image would shift from rock’s devils incarnate to something more campily hedonistic, jet set playboy outlaws. The album cover was designed by pop artist Andy Warhol, a life-sized close-up photograph of a man’s denim jeans clad crotch, which (on original pressings) featured an actual working zip. The album inside was as dirty and raw as the cover implied. With 19-year-old London prodigy Mick Taylor introduced as replacement to the late Brian Jones (dead aged 27 in 1969, having lost himself in a narcotic daze), the way Taylor’s fluid, silvery lead guitar intertwines with the rhythmic riffs and chord phrasings of Keith Richards is pure rock and roll magic, the molten centre of the Stones’ greatest line up. C39kQoprfP0

The band lock into burning grooves on Bitch and Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, counterweighted by tender, introspective blues and country ballads Wild Horses, Sway, Dead Flowers and Moonlight Mile. Jagger’s vocals unwind with sensual, sleazy conviction on songs of sex (Brown Sugar), drugs (Sister Morphine) and the blues (You Gotta Move). Producer Jimmy Miller coaxes wonderful contributions from Bobby Keyes on saxophone, Billy Preston on organ and Nicky Hopkins on piano, it showcases the Stones at their most unapologetically decadent, presaging a decade when they were less associated with rebellion than self-indulgence.

3. Beggars Banquet (1968)

Arguably the first truly great Stones album, following excruciating 1967 misstep Their Satanic Majesty’s Request, a misguided attempt to out-do The Beatles psychedelic masterpiece, Sergeant Pepper. The truth is the Stones have never been great studio technicians, capable of crafting elaborate sonic constructions. They are spirited, soulful musicians who can get down in the groove and rock with joyous musicality in ways few others can match, and these were the qualities emphasised by Keith Richards as he increasingly took the musical reins. He had discovered a G tuning for his guitar that allowed his fingers to roam across the fretboard, discovering all kinds of happy accidents. 

The Rolling Stones launching Beggars Banquet on December 5 1968 Credit: Getty

With Jones increasingly sidelined by drug abuse, Beggars is an album almost entirely running on Richards’ sweetly sloppy playing, a frazzled blend of acoustic and electric guitars under which Watts and Wyman slug it out with transparent pleasure. Jimmy Miller settled into the producer’s chair for the first time, and helped conjure a masterpiece of roots rock. The epic Sympathy for the Devil opens an album that includes the switchblade nasty Stray Cat Blues, flowing folk rock of Jigsaw Puzzle, rambunctious rock of Street Fighting Man and desolate country ballad No Expectations, showcasing Jones’s last desolate slide guitar solo.

2. Let It Bleed (1969)

The Stones were on a roll, even as founding member Jones was being unceremoniously bundled out of the door. Gimme Shelter is amongst the greatest opening tracks in rock history, a riot in a recording studio, with Richards forced out of his comfort zone to provide startling, stabbing lead guitar whilst Ray Charles’s backing vocalist Merry Clayton wails “Rape! Murder!” and Jagger jabs on harmonica. Ry Cooder lends mandolin to the Stones’ definitive country twist on Robert Johnson’s Love In Vain, whilst Richards’ short lived new drug buddy Gram Parsons encouraged a countryfied romp through Honky Tonk Women redubbed Country Honk. 

Charlie Watts and Keith Richards working with producer Glyn Johns on Let It Bleed Credit: Getty

On the last recording to feature all the original Stones lineup, an inaudible Brian Jones dabbles on production as the group wrap themselves around the murderously dark blues of Midnight Rambler, still a show-stopping staple of their live sets. It ends in outrageously over the top fashion with a choir singing along to the philosophical seven and a half minute epic You Can’t Always Get What You Want. All this and a cover featuring a cake baked by Delia Smith.

1. Exile On Main Street (1972)

Exile is an album so shrouded in myth it practically defines the bohemian, decadent, counter-culture appeal of Seventies rock and roll: wild, electric music played by narcotic demigods with one foot in the 20th century and the other in some ancient, mystic swamp of steamy, primal passion. From the black and white freakshow photo montage on the original gatefold cover to the four sides of black vinyl crammed to bursting with a dense, weird concoction of ragged rhythm’n’blues, country, soul and gospel this was a backs-against-the-wall voodoo jam from a band of outlaw rockers on the run from the tax man and their own bad habits. It’s a sprawling, messy double album that really reeks of the basement of the decaying French chateau in which it was recorded, where musicians would sit up all night playing, high as kites, and instruments kept going out of tune due to the humidity. 4e05rHpwjx8

If you were to judge each track on its own merits, only Jagger’s swaggering Tumbling Dice and Richards\ soaring Happy might deserve a place in a canon of the Stones’ greatest songs. But when you tuck into Exile, what you are really getting is a flavour, a particular taste. The mixes are gluey and dense, inseparably stuck together, with everybody playing their socks off, scales and solos weaving in and out of each other, and Jagger yelping and shouting to be heard above the din. At times it sounds like a brawl in a Harlem dance hall, with cheap liquor and twirling skirts, peppered with Bobby Keys’ wild tenor sax and Nicky Hopkins’ barrel house piano. 

The influence of other musicians on Exile is profound but at its heart is Richards himself. It rides on his droning, electric mantras, heard in the ever shifting nuances of Ventilator Blues, in which he bends every possible twist out of a two chord trick. Jagger has rarely sounded better, buried in the mix, part of the sonic tapestry of the band rather than its focus. Exile is a hypnotic, gale force, explosion of bloody, joyous, abandoned rock and soul. Is it the greatest rock album ever made? All I know is, when the mood is right, nothing else will do.