Thirty years ago this month, the Rolling Stones entered the 1990s with Voodoo Lounge. Very few bands have been as adaptable as the Stones: they were one of the few massive bands of the ’60s to survive and thrive in the ’70s. They were able to adapt to the ’80s; they were a pretty frequent presence on MTV in the ’80s (and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ respective solo efforts got a lot of love as well).

It was the second album since their reboot of sorts with 1989’s Steel Wheels. And more to the point, it was their second album of the CD era. Compact discs allowed artists to pack more songs onto an album, and on the surface, that seemed like a good thing. If you love an artist, it follows that you’d prefer having more songs for the same amount of money, rather than less.

Here’s another way to look at it: our time is valuable. Also, every “filler” track on an album takes it that much farther away from classic status. It’s incredible that, three decades in, the Stones still had gas in the tank (and course, that still seems true three additional decades later: 2023’s Hackney Diamonds was a great album).

But Voodoo Lounge clocked in at one hour and one minute long; it was the Stones’ second-longest album. The first, of course, was 1972’s Exile On Main Street. Released during the LP era, it was an hour and seven minutes long and came during the peak of the Stones’ powers. It came on the heels of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet (just under 40 minutes), 1969’s Let It Bleed (42 minutes) and 1971’s Sticky Fingers (a lengthy 46 and a half minutes). Other classics had similar runtimes: 1978’s Some Girls just broke the 40 minute mark; 1981’s Tattoo You was a lengthy 44 minutes. In the early ’60s, they barely went past a half hour: 1964’s England’s Newest Hit Makers was 31 minutes, 1964’s 12×5 was 32 minutes and 1965’s The Rolling Stones, Now! was nearly 36 minutes.

By 1994, surely a part of new producer Don Was’s job was to keep the peace and not bruise any egos, and given that CDs contained more space, it probably made sense to not turn down too many songs. But it has resulted in a much less memorable album, and there are some real gems to be found on Voodoo Lounge. So here, we’re cutting the album in half. You’ll note that we aren’t including “You Got Me Rockin’,” a song the band has given entirely too much love to (and which sounds like a lesser cousin to the Steel Wheels hit “Mixed Emotions”). Per Setlist.fm, they’ve performed the song over 450 times, and it’s their 16th most performed song (at press time).

  • "Love Is Strong"

    The album’s first song and opening track is a sexy, mid-tempo bluesy jam that sounds more than just a little like Keith’s “Wicked As It Seems” from his 1992 album Main Offender. Fun fact: his drummer on that album (briefly seeing contributing backing vocals in the video) is now the Rolling Stones’ drummer. He was recommended to Keith in the ’80s by Stones drummer Charlie Watts, and he was also Watts’ choice to fill in for him when he was ailing towards the end of his life.

  • "The Worst"

    One of the more surprising developments of the second half of the Rolling Stones’ career is how Keith Richards has developed as a balladeer. He’s not for everyone, of course: he’s kind of like if Tom Waits decided to be a country singer. That’s especially true on this song. And while we might not say this to Mick’s face, his backing vocals behind Keith’s leads are lovely. Decades later, Sheryl Crow did a beautiful cover of this, with help from Keith. She, of course, changed the gender (“I’m the worst kind of girl for you to be around”), and Keith reprised Mick’s backing vocals to sweet effect.

  • "New Faces"

    This is another lovely ballad, this one sung by Mick Jagger. But the secret weapon here is longtime Stones touring and recording keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who plays harpsichord, giving it a vibe similar to ’60s gems like “Play With Fire” and “Lady Jane.” It’s a song that a younger Mick probably couldn’t have sung. Now he’s in his 50s and wondering if his lover is leaving him for a younger, hotter guy: “There’s a new guy in town/He’s been dragging around/He’s the figure of youth/And his eyes are so blue/And they’re looking at you/So tell me the truth.”

  • "Out Of Tears"

    Another ballad. It’s a heartbreaker. Some cynical rock critics have asked how can a millionaire (or multi-millionaire) rock star credibly sing the blues? This isn’t a blues song, but it answers the question: you’re never too rich or too old to get your heart broken. And maybe after enough failed relationships, you might feel like, they’ll never work out. Mick often sings with a wink and a nod, but you don’t feel that here: “And I just can’t pour my heart out/To another living thing/I’m a whisper, I’m a shadow/But I’m standing up to sing/I won’t cry when you say goodbye/I’m out of tears.”

  • "Brand New Car"

    It’s kind of a laid-back rockabilly/funk hybrid that shows that the Stones had lost none of their swagger, even after three decades. Mick uses the age-old blues and rock and roll metaphor, using cars in place of sex (which he describes pretty explicitly in another song on the album, “Sparks Will Fly,” you can Google those lyrics). “Slinky like a panther/You can hear her purr/Touch her on the seat/Go on, feel the fur” almost sounds like he lifted them from an Aerosmith or AC/DC song.

  • "Baby Break It Down"

    On Steel Wheels, Mick and Keith were clearly addressing their relationship with “Mixed Emotions” (perhaps also referencing their respective romantic relationships): “Let’s bury the hatchet/And wipe out the past/And make love together/Stay on the path.” But it felt like a mission statement for a new phase of the band. “Baby Break It Down” is a reassessment after a very successful reunion album and tour. The Stones were in uncharted territory in ’94: they’d been estranged from each other but never broke up after thirty years, and they were still a viable band with a massive audience. Here, they seemed to be saying, “Hey, we can do this thing for a really long time if we play our cards right and give each other space.” “There’s no river running, that we can’t cross,” Jagger sings. “Does one or the other of us have to be the boss?” Realistically, Mick is probably the boss, but Keith has veto power. It’s an arrangement that keeps working three decades later.

  • "Thru and Thru"

    And finally, the other song featuring Keith’s lead vocals on the album, and it’s also a ballad. Richards’ vocals are almost sweet, and he sounds amazing backed by Jagger, along with Stones backing singer Bernard Fowler, and Keith’s bandmate in the X-Pensive Winos, Ivan Neville. We barely hear Charlie’s drums for the first four minutes of the song, but when he comes in, his playing packs a surprising wallop. Meanwhile, Keith sounds unusually vulnerable here. Something has happened, and he’s lost a bit of his swagger: “Any minute, any hour/I’m waiting on a call from you/And you know this heart is constant/I’m your lover, baby, through and through.” But he hasn’t lost his edge or his temper: “I only found out yesterday/I heard it on the news/What I heard really pissed me off/’Cause now I got those fucking blues/He ain’t got those awesome blues.” It almost feels too dark to end the album, and that’s probably why they added “Mean Disposition” to close the Lounge.

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