The other night I got a random text from my friend JT – sadly, not that JT – asking me my three favorite Rolling Stones songs. In my first text back, I protested at the impossibility of answering such a question, especially considering the immediacy of a response that a text usually implies. And then faster than I could ask Siri how is Keith Richards still alive, three songs came immediately to mind.
Gimme Shelter “Rape. Murder! It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away.” Not exactly Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree is it? The dark, eerie, foreboding quality of this song – qualities I love in music – is one thing. But it’s the supernatural wail of Merry Clayton, who tells the story of her vocal in the Oscar-winning documentary about backup singers Twenty Feet from Stardom, that makes this song so celebrated.
Merry enters an already spellbinding Gimme Shelter in the first chorus at the 1:05 mark. She shares or leads the vocals thereafter, and with each appearance puts more of her mark on the song. When she gets to the legendary “Rape! Murder!” yelps, Gimme Shelter is no longer a song, it’s an out-of-body experience.
Brown Sugar Rhythm. That opening guitar riff – “one of the most compelling ever laid down on a rock & roll recording” – is all about rhythm. And about rhythm, Washington Post music critic (and one of my favorite writers) Chris Richards says, “Rhythm is . . . something you feel with your entire body, it’s the memory that you stash in your bones . . . coursing through the entirety of your physical being.” Sure, Mick’s scratchy “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields” which follows that killer opening guitar riff grabs your attention and attempts to draw you into a story with enough salacious content to make Prince blush. But the visceralness of this song’s persistent rhythm just makes me want to put my stank face on and move and groove.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash First of all, Aretha covered it. Second, its infectious, insistent, and irresistible groove combined with its grungy, jangly opening guitar riff makes this song equal parts Chuck Berry and Nirvana. Third, Aretha covered it.
Honorable Mention: Sympathy for the Devil
Besides Merry Clayton mentioned above, two other singers from Twenty Feet from Stardom have strong connections to The Stones. Lisa Fischer, who is closely associated with Luther Vandross, has backed up The Stones on their tours since 1989 and sings Clayton’s parts in Gimme Shelter. And ex-Jagger girlfriend Claudia Lennear (Joe Cocker, Delaney and Bonnie, Stephen Stills) is said to be the inspiration behind Brown Sugar.
 #38 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
 No other word would do, so I made one up.