"their cathartic forays into the world of blues-rock offer a crucial point of human connection"Instagram/therollingstones

The Rolling Stones are one of those rare, decade-enduring bands that we can’t seem to quit, nor would we ever want to. Mick Jagger believed their recent single ‘Living in a Ghost Town’ - the band’s first original song in eight years - ‘would resonate through the times we’re living in’, reflecting the Stones’ dark, playful and ironic lyricism. The song echoes the side of the band that we’re familiar with: the enduring face of Jagger and his (frighteningly) smooth virility only exacerbates their cheeky rock 'n' roll sound, immortalised in hits like ‘Start Me Up’, ‘Black Limousine’ and ‘Casino Boogie’.

Jagger is, undoubtedly, the archetypal rock frontman, a countercultural figure that oozes a Dionysian allure. Yet, it was Keith Richards’ and Brian Jones’ masterful oeuvres for rhythm guitar that brought Jagger’s illusively teasing and agonizingly philosophical lyricism to life, and formed the (literally) pulsing heart of the songs we have come to know and love. The Stones’ extensive catalogue cements their position as the forerunners of hard rock, but we can’t neglect the band’s sensitive, soulful sound. This is where Jagger and the band are at their most musically vulnerable and pared back, as their cathartic forays into the world of blues-rock offer a crucial point of human connection.

"The Stones’ extensive catalogue cements their position as the forerunners of hard rock, but we can’t neglect the band’s sensitive, soulful sound"

To discuss every ballad written by the Stones would require expert skills of condensing that, as an English student, I simply don’t possess. So, here are six of the band’s renowned and also, frankly, underrated ballads. There is certainly no point in crowning these six as the definitive best, because that would be completely criminal. Homage must be paid to the band’s most influential ballads, such as ‘Angie’, ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘No Use in Crying’, which cast the spotlight on their most intimate feelings (including battles with drug addiction and renouncing loved ones).

1. Winter (from the album Goat’s Head Soup), 1973

Commencing this list with my personal favourite is absolutely self-indulgent, but it has to be done. Written by Mick Taylor, the song’s title is oddly paradoxical: Bill Janovitz commented that the band were writing the album in ‘sunny Jamaica’, and they ‘felt that starting the sessions with “Winter” could transition them out of the old and into the new climate’. Jagger croones ‘And it sure been a cold, cold winter’, opening the song alongside Taylor’s free and easy, country-style lead guitar. Despite lamenting the cold weather, the band finds something inherently warm and restorative in generating that feeling of heat for a loved one, seen by the lines ‘Sometimes I wanna wrap my coat around you / Sometimes I wanna keep you warm’. What affects me the most in ‘Winter’ is the seraphic string arrangement, courtesy of Nicky Harrison, which overwhelms me every time.

2. Tops (from the album Tattoo You), 1981

Tattoo You was the first Stones’ album I picked up in HMV, aged 14, thinking I was all-that for listening to an old band. ‘Tops’ immediately became my favourite, and it’s endured since, maybe because it dates back to the Goat’s Head Soup sessions, so a musical symmetry of sorts remains. Listening to the lyrics, they can certainly be heard as Jagger’s typical teetering between flirtation and self-congratulation: ‘Every man is the same come on / I’ll make you a star’ most likely reverberated from Jagger’s lips to his female fans for decades. Yet, there’s something that can’t be ignored about Bill Wyman’s seductive bass guitar, that almost parodies Jagger’s lyrics with its own guttural, teasing sound. It’s hard not to be somewhat affected by Jagger, who actually converses with his listener at several different points on the track in his freakishly amorous speaking voice, delivering monologues that feature the lines ‘I’ll take you a million miles from all this / Put you on a pedestal’.

3. Let It Loose (from the album Exile on Main Street), 1972

Jagger and Richards composed this heavenly gospel blues ballad, featuring a gospel choir to mark the band’s initial venture into the genre. Jagger had recently attended a church service of the Reverend James Cleveland and was moved by the performance of the gospel choir he saw there, and felt inspired to incorporate this into a track. Even though Jagger’s typical brazen flirting is revealed by lines like ‘I can’t resist a corny line (can’t resist)’, there is something spiritual and heartfelt about the track, something that renders it raw and revealing. The track’s refrain, ‘Let it loose let it all come down’, feels like a step back from their rock’n roll façade, leaving a young Jagger harmonising with the pure vocals of his gospel choir.

4. Coming Down Again (from the album Goat’s Head Soup), 1973

Back to Goat’s Head Soup for this one. This masterpiece is the brainchild of Keith Richards, who is responsible for the gentle, spectral lead vocals - an unexpected, but welcome change. The airy beauty of this ballad opens with the typically-polished keyboard of Nicky Hopkins, and tells the story of Richards’ relationship with Anita Pallenberg, who had recently left Richards’ bandmate Brian Jones to pursue things with him. The standout feature of this track is Bobby Keys’ mellow saxophone solo, melodiously raw with its echo of hope and promise amidst a heart-breaking love triangle. 

5. Moonlight Mile (from the album Sticky Fingers), 1971

The result of an all-nighter is usually (well, in my case) disastrous. Not for our favourite Micks - Jagger and Taylor, of course - who produced ‘Moonlight Mile’ in a single night. If the Stones’ ballads reveal their often-hidden vulnerability, then ‘Moonlight Mile’ is the epitome of this. Jagger laments his life on the road, and his drug-hazed memories in a set of lyrics that rival his entire catalogue. Jagger introduces his refrain, ‘Just another mad mad day on the road’, with lines like ‘The sound of strangers sending nothing to my mind’ and ‘Oh I’m sleeping under strange strange skies’, which feel both hopeless and weary. The enigmatic, fiery stage presence of Jagger is toned down, revealing a burdened, burnt-out man ‘with a head full of snow’. This may be seen as an allegorical representation of cocaine, but dismissing the song as an ode to drug-fuelled nights feels wrong. The truth is presented to us in the form of Jagger’s lethargic acoustic guitar riff: he’s taking a literal and a musical step back.


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6. Till The Next Goodbye (from the album It’s Only Rock ’n Roll), 1974

I’m aptly bidding farewell to my list with a country-inspired ballad designed to represent the parting of illicit lovers. ‘Till The Next Goodbye’ is another track that has been routinely overlooked by followers of the band, and it’s never been performed live, nor is it included on a single compilation album. This doesn’t detract from its heart-breaking beauty: Jagger assumes the role of the narrator, imploring his forbidden partner to both love him and leave him. In this rare glimpse into Jagger’s unguarded and powerless love affair, he sorrowfully trills ‘Till the next time we say goodbye / Till the next time we kiss goodnight / I’ll be thinking of you’. Impossible to imagine, I know, but Jagger has been rendered exposed and helpless. In a story-like narrative, it seems like Jagger may be at fault, especially when he pleads ‘I can’t go on like this, can ya? Can ya?’.

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