Almost all of the Rolling Stones albums through Exile on Main St. are essential for any rock fan, as are Tattoo You and Some Girls. After that it gets a bit tricky. Even the most hard-core Stones fans admit to only listening to their post Tattoo You albums with vague interest. Sure, the albums after Tattoo You aren’t groundbreaking, but there’s still plenty of great music to be found if you take the time.
The Almost-Great Albums
Voodoo Lounge (1994)
Producer Don Was attempts to capture the burning-blues of the Stones’ Exile hey-day. That’s mostly true though there a few experiments that don’t quite work. Still, Keith knocks off some off his best riffs in years and Charlie Watts is as tight and dynamic as ever. Steel Wheels may have been the album where Mick and Keith buried the hatchet during their infamous feud during the mid-1980s, but this is the album where they feel like a band again. The only real problem is its excessive length. Exile was fueled by its sprawling length, Voodoo Lounge not quite so much.
Key Tracks: “Sparks Will Fly”, “You Got Me Rocking”, “Out of Tears”
A Bigger Bang (2005)
If Voodoo Lounge was meant to capture the spirit of Exile or the early 70’s Stones, A Bigger Bang is the album that actually does. It’s not calculated, it’s just the Stones rocking out with some of their best songs in years. Perhaps to prove Pete Townshend’s point that the Stones shouldn’t grow old gracefully, Mick spits out some of his nastiest and most hilarious lyrics in years.
Key Tracks: “Oh No, Not You Again”, “Driving Too Fast”, “Look What the Cat Dragged In”
The “Keith Saves the Day” Albums
Bridges to Babylon (1997)
This is the first time I remember a Rolling Stones’ album being released and also one of the last times that one of their news songs was played on mainstream radio – “Saint of Me” and “Anybody Seen My Baby”. For Voodoo Lounge, Jagger has gone on record that he wanted more experimentation, and Bridges to Babylon finds the Stones incorporating some “new trends” (by 90’s standards) into their music including samples and drum loops. Some The rockers seem more forced here (particularly the opener “Flip the Switch”), but it’s Keith who steals the show here with lead vocals on the two album closers “Thief in the Night” and “How Can I Stop?” Both songs are exceptional boozy, bluesy slow-burners that perfectly suit his gravely and smoky voice.
Key Tracks: “How Can I Stop”, “Thief in the Night”
Steel Wheels (1989)
I’ve always liked “Mixed Emotions”. Though Mick says it’s not about him and Keith, it’s hard not to listen to it without thinking of the Glimmer Twins’ reconciliation. Steel Wheels was designed as the Stones’ “big comeback” and in some cases it feels exactly like that. Like Bridges to Babylon, Keith delivers the goods – whether it’s his guitar-work on “Terrifying” or “Sad Sad Sad” or his lead vocals on “Can’t Be Seen” and the album-closer “Slipping Away”.
Key Tracks: “Sad Sad Sad”, “Mixed Emotions”, “Slipping Away”
The Not-So Good
If you’re a huge fan of “Starfucker” (aka “Star Star”) and its sexual nastiness, then Undercover might be the album for you. The Stones have sometimes been accused of being misogynistic especially during their early days, but Undercover is filled to the brim with sexual imagery that’ll make your head turn. Even the titles sound menacing and sleazy: “Tie You Up”, “Pretty Beat Up”, “All the Way Down”. The Stones may have perfected the sleazy image of rock and roll, but here it just sounds tired.
Key Tracks: “Undercover of the Night”, “She was Hot”
Dirty Work (1986)
Dirty Work might be the only Stones album that is downright embarrassing. I know an album shouldn’t be judged by its cover but that cover photo of the Stones in bright 1980s suits sums it up. It’s the anthesis of Exile with its synthy production. Even worse there are no memorable songs. Okay, maybe the cover of “Harlem Shuffle” narrowly escapes.
Key Tracks: “Harlem Shuffle” – if that’s your thing.