Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Rolling Stones Album (Part 3)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Tattoo You (1981, Rolling Stones)

A + 

Technically speaking, this disc is comprised of previously unused songs and recordings dating as far back as 1973 – which means that Mick Taylor can be heard on two cuts here – but it’s a lot more cohesive than you might expect it to be considering the range of musical territory and production styles adopted by the band during that time period. Best of all, the songs here are so good that you can’t help but wonder how this material could have stayed in the vault for so long. The now-iconic Number Two hit “Start Me Up” (a Some Girls outtake) is here, as is the unforgettable, Latin-tinged balladry of the near-Top-Ten “Waiting for a Friend,” which dates all the way back to the Goats Head Soup sessions and boasts a sax solo from jazz legend Sonny Rollins. There’s also a third Top Twenty hit here in the wildly underrated Some Girls outtake and frantic rocker “Hang Fire,” which doesn’t pop up on too many Stones compilations but is nonetheless one of their finest ‘80s singles. The punky Emotional Rescue leftovers “Neighbours” and Keith’s “Little T&A,” the Black & Blue outtakes “Slave,” and the great ballad “Tops” (hailing from the Goats Head Soup era) all warrant repeated listens as well.

Undercover (1983, Rolling Stones)

C –

Arguably the worst studio album they ever made, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the album’s biggest flaw is. The dated production certainly doesn’t help and just makes the album feel cold in comparison to the rest of the band’s catalog. Mick and Keith seem musically more at odds with each other here than they ever have before (not unlike the musical tension going on around the same time between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the Clash), Mick wanting to delve deeper into dance sounds while Keith naturally wants to rock, resulting in their most schizophrenic record yet. Mick has also never written such dark and grisly lyrics as he does throughout here on such cuts as “Tie You Up (The Pain of Love)” and “Too Much Blood,” which gives the disc a really creepy and unsettling feeling. It’s not an entirely dark album – Keith brings some much-needed levity to the table with his fine “Wanna Hold You,” one of the few keepers here – and there is one sizable hit here to help redeem the disc, the new-wave-styled Top Ten-charting “Undercover of the Night,” but with the exception of those two songs, there’s not much else here to recommend the disc.

Dirty Work (1986, Rolling Stones)

B –

Not exactly a return to form but an encouraging step back in the right direction, anyway, Dirty Work was recorded during a low point in relations between the band members, and it does show. Jagger’s heart doesn’t seem to be completely in it – bear in mind he had begun a solo career since the last Stones album and scored a pair of all-but-forgotten-these-days Top 40 hits in “Just Another Night” and “Lucky in Love” from his solo debut She’s the Boss – and Keith just sounds too angry at Mick to seem as if he’s having all that much fun here, while Charlie Watts contributes only minimally. The album also sounds just a little too much like Mick’s solo albums to make a particularly convincing Stones disc. But, on the positive side, the material here is much stronger than the songs on Undercover, and there are a fair number of keepers here amongst the filler. The remake of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” isn’t one of the Stones’ more essential singles, but it did reach the Top Five and is one of the more fun and playful cuts here. The overlooked Top 40 hit “One Hit (to the Body)” and the great album cuts “Had It with You” and “Winning Ugly” are even better.

Steel Wheels (1989, Rolling Stones)

B +  

The Stones’ final album of the Eighties ends a spotty decade for the band on an encouraging note, our five boys finally back to sounding again like the Rolling Stones we know and love, and they noticeably sound quite re-energized here, even right down to the little things like Charlie’s fill work on “Mixed Emotions,” which is animated as can be. While there’s still a bit too much filler here to put this album on par with Tattoo You, this is the band’s strongest set of songs in some time, and the album tends to be a bit underrated. “Mixed Emotions” in particular is easily the band’s best single since at least “Hang Fire,” if not “Waiting for a Friend,” and is bursting with charming elements, from Charlie’s aforementioned reinvigorated drumming on the cut and the Spector-sized wall of backing vocals (featuring the talents of Lisa Fischer and former LaBelle member Sarah Dash) to the song’s rock-solid chorus. The horn-heavy “Rock and a Hard Place” is almost just as fun, while plenty of great album cuts crop up here and there, especially Keith’s “Can’t Be Seen,” the album-opening “Sad Sad Sad,” and the first-rate ballads “Almost Hear You Sigh” and “Slipping Away.”

Voodoo Lounge (1994, Virgin)

B

Darryl Jones joins the fold, replacing longtime bassist Bill Wyman. The band’s first outing of the Nineties lacks any single quite as strong and immediate as “Mixed Emotions” and turns out to be slightly spottier overall than Steel Wheels, but that’s in large part because, at fifteen cuts and sixty-two minutes, it’s also unnecessarily long. Still, even with the filler, this is a much more satisfying listen than Dirty Work. The bluesy “Love Is Strong” may not have been the greatest choice of lead-off single, but it’s still an album highlight. Much more effective as singles are the infectious “You Got Me Rocking” and the fantastic lazy piano ballad “Out of Tears.” Elsewhere, “Sparks Will Fly” is a fine throwback to the sounds of “Hang Fire,” while Keith turns in a pair of minor gems with “The Worst” and the menacing ballad “Thru & Thru.”

Bridges to Babylon (1997, Virgin)

B –

Ever so slightly less memorable than Voodoo Lounge, the band’s second and final studio album of the ‘90s still suffers from feeling a bit overlong – there are technically two fewer songs here than there were on Voodoo Lounge, but the running time is almost identical, and six of the songs here stretch past the five-minute mark. The hit-to-miss ratio is about the same as that on the last disc, but the better songs don’t leave quite as much impact, and even the hook on the album’s lead-off single, “Anybody Seen My Baby?”, was unintentionally borrowed from k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving,” though it’s still a fine song all the same and serves as one of the album’s highlights. “Saint of Me,” “Flip the Switch,” “Out of Control,” “Already over Me,” and Keith’s “How Can I Stop” are also standouts. 

A Bigger Bang (2005, Virgin)

A

A true return to form, this is undeniably the band’s best work since at least Tattoo You. The band’s radio-hit days behind them, Mick and Keith don’t seem quite as concerned as they did on the pair of Nineties albums to playing to the latest trends in contemporary music and instead try to craft a classic-sounding Stones album. They’re also armed with their best set of songs in decades, highlighted by “Rough Justice,” “Laugh, I Nearly Died,” “Let Me Down Slow,” “Oh No, Not You Again,” “Biggest Mistake,” “Streets of Love,” and Keith’s fun “Infamy.” The album was slightly overpraised at the time – critics tended to gloss over the filler on this very long album, and the album might have ended on a more solid note had a few tracks been excised and “Laugh, I Nearly Died” segued into “Infamy” instead – but, while it may not be perfect, it’s as close to perfect as the band has been in nearly twenty-five years, and this is a very welcome comeback.

Rarities 1971-2003 (2005, Virgin)

C –

A thoroughly disappointing archival package, this album pales wildly in comparison to Metamorphosis. There is certainly no shortage of rarities – both in the form of B-sides and unreleased outtakes from the vaults that have been unofficially released via bootlegs – but this disc doesn’t delve very deep at all, instead including only a tiny handful of B-sides (such as 1989’s “Fancy Man Blues,” 1974’s “Through the Lonely Nights,” and 1998’s “Any Way You Look At It”) while missing plenty of others (notably the“Shattered” B-side “Everything Is Turning to Gold,” 1984’s “Think I’m Going Mad,” and 1989’s “Cook Cook Blues”) and padding out the disc with a large number of live recordings and – ill-advisedly –  extended dance remixes of songs like “Harlem Shuffle” and “Mixed Emotions.” It’s nice to have the studio-recorded B-sides like “Through the Lonely Nights” on CD after all this time, but for all the other non-LP items not featured here and the famed outtakes in the band’s vaults (most notably the notorious Some Girls outtake “Claudine,” an anything-but-subtle dig at Claudine Longet), this is a package that is too specialized to appeal to anyone but diehard fans but doesn’t really contain a whole heck of a lot that will make those same fans get excited. Avoid.

Blue and Lonesome (2016, Virgin)

A –

In a way, it’d be really fitting if this were to end up being the final studio album from the Stones, because it takes the band completely full-circle back to their blues roots. But in another way, as great though this album is, it’d also be somewhat unfortunate if this is the last hurrah for the group, if only because the album, entirely comprised of blues covers, is also extremely insular and seems more like a vanity project than something made with the Stones’ massive fan base in mind. The band sounds phenomenal here, and this is also noticeably the rawest the Stones have sounded on disc in some time as well, which should delight fans of such albums as Exile. The band has also brought Eric Clapton in to play on a pair of cuts, including the delightful album-closing cover of Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” There are quite a few highlights here, among them “Ride ‘em on Down,” “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing,”
Lightnin’ Slim’s “Hoo Doo Blues,” and Little Walter’s “Hate to See You Go,” and it’s clear from the performances that a fun time was had by all and that the band is truly passionate about this music. Still, while the band may have got its start playing blues covers, it wasn’t pure blues that made the Stones the biggest rock band on the planet, and for that reason alone, this disc might only be of very limited interest to Stones fans who prefer the raucous rock of “Brown Sugar” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or “Start Me Up” and zone out at concerts during numbers like “Midnight Rambler” or “Little Red Rooster,” so while this disc is certainly worth checking out, listeners should be aware before purchasing the disc that it’s more akin to their debut album than to Sticky Fingers or Some Girls.

Live Albums:

There is no shortage of Stones live packages you can check out, and most of them have something worth recommending. The 1982 package Still Life, for example, is far too brief (just barely clocking in at over forty minutes) and features a weak track selection, but it also features a Top 40-charting fun cover of the Miracles’ “Going to a Go-Go” that’s quite tough to find elsewhere and some of the original U.S. vinyl pressings were issued as gorgeous picture discs.  1995’s Stripped features the band playing mostly “unplugged”-style, avoiding most of the hits (although “Angie,” “Wild Horses,” and “Street Fighting Man” are included) in favor of blues-or-country-oriented album cuts like “Love in Vain,” “Sweet Virginia,” and “Shine a Light,” while they also fittingly and memorably cover Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” 1998’s No Security incorporates only songs that have either never or only rarely appeared on previous live albums, meaning that, though a few hits are here (“Gimme Shelter,” “The Last Time,” “Waiting on a Friend”), you’ll also get many a seldom-played gem like “Memory Motel,” “Respectable,” and “Live with Me.” Though it arrived too early in their career to really sound representative of a typical Stones show and technically only includes two of the band’s Top 40 hits (even excluding “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”!), 1969’s Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!: The Rolling Stones in Concert is arguably the finest Stones performance caught on disc to date and has a real electricity and fire to it, and the nine-minute rendition of “Midnight Rambler” is truly the definitive recording of the song, even blowing away the studio version from Let It Bleed. Of the band’s more recent live albums, 1991’s Flashpoint – recorded on the Steel Wheels tour – is actually very underrated, if not the best; while a bit too brief to completely seem representative of a Stones concert, it’s actually got a pretty stellar song selection for a single-disc live package (there’s nothing quite like hearing such classics as “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Brown Sugar,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Satisfaction” one after another without interruption!), Eric Clapton pops up as a special guest to play guitar on “Little Red Rooster,” and the disc even closes with two new studio cuts, including the shockingly great “Highwire,” one of the band’s most criminally overlooked singles. Avoid Got Live If You Want It! and Love You Live like the plague.  

Compilations:

Unfortunately, there is no perfect Stones compilation. The band has forty-one Top 40 hits to their name in the U.S., and that’s not even including such iconic lower-charting singles or album cuts as “Gimme Shelter,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Street Fighting Man,” so a definitive Stones anthology with both all the hits and all the band’s signature songs would likely require a minimum of three discs. [It certainly could be done, but then, I suppose Virgin wouldn’t have reason to keep churning out a new compilation every few years.] But you do still have several good options to pick from. The 1989 3-CD (or 4-LP) box Singles Collection: The London Years is a fun ride that includes all the A-sides (and most of the B-sides as well!) from all the band’s singles from 1963 through 1971, even tossing in such obscurities as the Jagger solo single “Memo from Turner” and the rare 1963 non-LP single (and near-instrumental) “Stoned.” If you’re looking exclusively for the hits, the 1971 double-disc package Hot Rocks 1964-1971 is fabulous, both including most of the band’s major hits (all the way up through “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses,” which are both here) and including such vital non-singles as “Gimme Shelter,” “Midnight Rambler,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The best-of has a companion piece in 1972’s More Hot Rocks (Big Hits & Fazed Cookies), which gathers up all the stray hits skipped over by Hot Rocks (including “Tell Me,” “The Last Time,” “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?”, the non-LP single “Dandelion,” and “She’s a Rainbow”) while also including an additional handful of the band’s best album cuts (including “Let It Bleed,” “No Expectations,” “I’m Free,” and “Sittin’ on a Fence”) and tossing in a full side’s worth of cuts from 1963-1966 previously released only in the U.K.  If you pick up both Hot Rocks and More Hot Rocks, you can gather up most of the remaining hits from the band by picking up 2004’s Jump Back: The Best of the Rolling Stones, which covers the period from 1971 through 1989; it frustratingly lacks a few lesser hits like “Happy,” “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker),” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Shattered,” “She’s So Cold,” “Hang Fire,” “Going to a Go-Go,” and “One Hit (to the Body)” (yet strangely includes “Hot Stuff” and the album cuts “Respectable” and “Bitch”) but is otherwise complete. The band’s latest compilation package, 2012’s full-career-encompassing Grrr!, is arguably its most thorough, but the tracklist varies wildly depending whether you buy the two, three, or four disc version, and even in its four-disc incarnation, you’re still left without quite a few of their Top 40 hits, the band’s very first (“Tell Me”) among them, bizarrely enough. (Seriously, guys, is it too much to ask to get all forty-one songs on a single package?) Avoid Made in the Shade and Sucking in the Seventies, and be advised that the sound quality on original vinyl pressings of Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) is absolutely abysmal.