Voodoo Lounge (1994)
"Hey, hey! You got me rocking now!"
Best Song: Baby Break It Down or Moon is Up
Worst Song: Thru and Thru
The real comeback. Even now in 2013, this is still the band's best album since Tattoo You, and being as I only gave it a 10, that's not too particularly encouraging. But hey, this is the ROLLING STONES we're talking about, and way back when they had a FOUR ALBUM streak of perfect albums, so if after a while they kinda ran out of steam, can we really blame them?
And it's not like this material is truly bad. Not at all! Take the smoldering gospel/blues-rock of "Baby Break It Down", for instance. That's one mighty fine chorus, and the rest of the song's no slouch either! Mick sounds really great here, and the thing slinks along mightily. Don't the guitars just sound great here?
Heck, don't the guitars just sound great over the entire album? Sure, on Steel Wheels the band brought back its classic, roaring guitar sound, but it was still just a pale imitation of the glory years. No, the tones on here are FAR better than they have been in ages -- Keith's actually providing some great riffage for the first time in seemingly forever and Ronnie's throwing in some fine solos, so all of that's well and good. Hallelujah.
But when referring to the band and its guitarists, it must be mentioned that for whatever reason, good 'ol Bill Wyman left after Steel Wheels to be replaced by Daryl Jones, a perfectly suitable replacement. In all honesty, I can't even tell the difference. Maybe that's saying more about my lack of an ear for bass playing than Daryl's actual similarity to Wyman, but whatever the case -- they sound alike to me.
The general sound the band's going for is obviously a very straight-laced "back-to-basics" sort of thing (I'm pretty sure at this point they were trying to separate themselves for their 80s iteration as completely as possible), but a good bit of the old genre-experimenting spirit still shows up from time to time. This...doesn't always go so well, but at times it provides for an interesting twist in the album. For every flop like the REALLY dumb funk of "Suck on the Jugular" (which, while a terrible song, still doesn't even come close to beating Zeppelin's "The Crunge" for the title of worst attempt at funk ever), you also get an absolute winner like the harpsichord-driven balladry of "New Faces", which happens to hold one of the best vocal melodies we've heard from these guys in AGES. This is something of a return to the Britpop stylings of Flowers and Between the Buttons, and it works WAY better than it has any right to.
Another great genre-bender is the brilliant "Moon is Up", which is completely impossible to classify. Is it country? Is it a grunge-y 90s mid-tempo ballad? Psychedelia? A heartbreaking tale of longing? An excuse for Keith to break out an AMAZING guitar tone? One of the very best melodies Mick's ever come up with? It's all of these things, and it is glorious.
Keith also gives us another endless whiner, "Thru and Thru", that bores me to death, and "Sweethearts Together" is a completely insipid ballad, but let's talk about the good stuff, eh? The album opens with three rockers in a row, and they're all great -- "Love is Strong" is wonderfully dark and moody, "You Got Me Rocking" is a fun blast of energy, and "Sparks Will Fly" is RIDICULOUSLY catchy. Great melody, that one.
Keith also has another ballad, but this one's actually great! "The Worst" is a wonderfully subdued country song that lasts a mere two minutes, and here's the best part....there's actually a melody! WOW! And "Blinded by Rainbows" is another fine ballad, albeit a bit boring. Still though, there's enough inherent novelty in having Mick sing lines like "Did you ever feel the pain / That he felt upon the cross" and "See the face of Christ / Enter paradise" to push it over the edge of mediocrity into something quite entertaining.
I'm not too crazy about the bluesy shuffle of "Brand New Car" -- all it does is induce a yawn in me. Same for the deathly serious and sterile AC ballad "Out of Tears", which goes on for 6 minutes for...some reason I can't begin to fathom. WE GET IT MICK, YOU WON'T CRY IF SHE SAYS GOODBYE, YOU'RE OUT OF TEARS, WE GET IT.
So half of it's great and the other half's filler, but that's good enough for me. Wanna hear some post-Tattoo You Stones? Check this out. I can't see anyone who's in love with the classic albums not enjoying this.
Bridges to Babylon (1997)
Rating: A low low low low 9
"What will it take to bury me? / I can't wait, I can't wait to see!"
Best Song: Flip the Switch
Worst Song: Anybody Seen My Baby?
I flip-flopped between an 8 and a 9 about a million times for this one, but eh, it's decent enough for a 9. An extremely low one, but a 9 nonetheless. For those not in the know, after the retro-throwback-fest of good 'ol Voodoo Lounge, Mick decided that the band needed to take a giant step forward. And, as I'm sure you all would guess, the logical thing for The Rolling Stones to do at this point would be to make an electronica album! I mean, come on! It makes perfect sense! Their music is sooo heavily processed and synth-driven that I can't even think of a better genre for them to try!
....I kid, I kid. But at least the electronic elements aren't too invasive on the band's sound. Sure, if not for this new direction we wouldn't get suck-fests like the late-90s-mid-tempo-soft-rock-adult-contemporary-vomit "Anybody Seen My Baby?", which is enjoyable for purely subversive purposes, but hey, at least it's interesting. In all honesty, I like sloppily-done albums that remain interesting (this one) more than completely solid albums that are nevertheless boring and completely generic (A Bigger Bang), so this thing is at least worth a listen for that reason alone.
And it's not like there aren't some strong tracks on here! "Flip the Switch" is one of the band's best rockers in seemingly forever -- Keith's Eastern-influenced riff rips and roars, the massive backing vocals give the track some much-needed "oomph", and Mick completely owns the mic here, even when he's spouting out dumb lyrics like "I had the turkey and the stuffing too / I even saved a little bit for YOUUUUUUU!!!" and "I even got myself a little shaving kit!". And no, this isn't a novelty song; he's shouting these lines like he's singing for his life. Of course, this doesn't downgrade the song in any way -- it's still friggin' amazing -- but it is really stupid-sounding.
I'm also a fan of the funk-rocker "Gunface", which has a really catchy vocal delivery from Mick as well as some cool rhythm work from you-know-who. "Saint of Me" is a FANTASTIC gospel track, full of surprisingly Biblical lyrics, cool backing vocals, and another great delivery from Mick. Heck, the mixture of synthesized rhythms and a traditional gospel structure make the song a pretty accurate precursor to Brian Eno and David Byrne's "electronic gospel" album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Neat stuff.
I also like "Out of Control", a very cool number that is cleanly divided into two sections -- the verses are dark, intriguing, and foreign-sounding, almost like the second half of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking", and the chorus/outro is a powerful, rocking anthem, almost like "Gimme Shelter". Of course, it's nowhere near as good as "Gimme Shelter", but that's obviously what they're going for. Oh, and "Might as Well Get Juiced" has to be one of the strangest songs in the band's catalog. At its core, it's a very basic blues song, but it's completely drenched in these goofy, dated synths, and when I say dated, I MEAN DATED. Like, they would have been dated way back when the song was released. They sound far more 1985 than 1997. And even weirder is that Jagger sounds IDENTICAL to the way that Tom Waits sounds in his 90s work. I mean, geez, the melody itself sounds eerily similar to "Lowside of the Road" to begin with (there's no plagiarism going on here though -- the Waits song didn't come out for 2 years), but Jagger's delivery is frighteningly accurate. If you don't believe me, just listen to him scream "If you've got the strength to scream out, 'HELL WHY!!'". It's absolutely spot on.
Sadly, though, that's about it. Everything else is merely mediocre -- there's the generic rocker "Low Down" which is really only notable for its bizarre lyrics (they seem to be about...um...the news), Keith gets in a decent reggae number with "You Don't Have to Mean It", "Already Over Me" is an alright Mick-sung ballad, "How Can I Stop" is a terrible Keith-sung ballad (shock!), "Too Tight" is a surprisingly pleasant rocker -- you get the idea. It's a late period Stones album. Ya like the Stones? You'll probably like this too. But get Voodoo first.
A Bigger Bang (2005)