50 years ago today, on July 12, 1962, at London’s Marquee Club, the Rolling Stones made their live debut with a set that featured covers of songs by American bluesmen including Jimmy Reed (“Big Boss Man”) and Bukka White (“Ride ‘Em on Down”). By the end of ‘63, with the lineup of vocalist Mick Jagger, guitarists Keith Richards and Brian Jones, bassist Bill Wyman, and drummer Charlie Watts, the Stones would find their way at or near the tops of singles charts with their covers and, eventually, original songs.

By the mid ‘60s, the Stones, with two-and-a-half- and three-minute R&B- and rock-infused songs like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Ruby Tuesday,” and “As Tears Go By,” were seriously rivaled only by the Beatles. But by the late ‘60s, both acts were doing very separate things, as the Stones grabbed hold of their American influences (Muddy Waters, Little Richard, etc.) and began releasing more disparate material: audacious, structurally advanced songs like “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter”; bluesy and/or countrified tracks including “Let It Bleed” and “Love in Vain”; and hard-rocking bulldozers like “Brown Sugar” and “Honky Tonk Women.” And, despite all the unconventionality, they ruled the top of the pops through it all. By 1972’s stylistically sprawling Exile on Main St.—the Stones’ best album and maybe the greatest album ever, period—the band had more than earned the right to think of themselves as the best rock-and-roll band in the world.


Later, as the ‘70s wore on, and as most of the bands they came up with burned out or faded away, the Stones kept pressing on, finding success in singles (“Angie, “Fool to Cry,” “Miss You”) and putting together an album, Some Girls, whose material was bettered only by the band’s Beggars Banquet-Exile output. The band’s ‘80s, due to feuding in the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership, weren’t as kind, seeing just a few songs (“Start Me Up, “Waiting on a Friend,” “Mixed Emotions”) that would keep the Stones relevant. Still, though, those eras and even later periods were enough to cement the band as one of the most successful—critically and commercially—of all time.

The following list is by no means comprehensive, or even exhaustive of the Stones’ noteworthy output. Just about any song from Beggars BanquetExile could be here, and that material, 47 tracks in all, would nearly fill up the entire feature. That said, the following 50 still make for a set that identifies all of the most important contours of Jagger, Richards, and company’s 50-year career, consequently laying out some of the songs that have shaped rock and roll, and popular music, as we know it. Enjoy.

Written by Mike Madden (@_mikemadden)

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