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20 Essential Lou Reed Tracks

A look back at the legendary rocker's best moments from the Velvet Underground and beyond

Lou Reed performs at Ahoy in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Michel Linssen/Redferns
October 27, 2013 1:18 PM ET

After leaving the Velvet Underground in 1970, Lou Reed went to work for his dad's accounting firm as a typist. If he had never played a note of music again in his life, the four albums he made with the Velvets would be enough to establish him as one of rock's leading songwriters and visionaries. Fortunately for him, and for us, he made decades' worth of uncompromising music. (Actually, there were a few compromises along the way, but some of them are worthwhile too.) Here's twenty essential tracks from the great Lou Reed, rock & roll animal and legendary heart.

Lou Reed, Velvet Underground Leader and Rock Pioneer, Dead at 71

"I'm Waiting for the Man"

Start with $26 in your hand and this clattering track from the Velvet Underground's first album (The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967): an urgent rocker about going uptown to score drugs. With John Cale pounding away on the piano, Reed laid out the blueprint for his career: tough, urban, noisy, taboo, poetic.

Lou Reed's Life in Photos

 "Sister Ray"

On the Velvet Underground's second album,White Light / White Heat, Reed pushed the group as far as he could with this epic of noise and debauchery: seventeen and a half improvised minutes, with lyrics about a drug-fueled transvestite orgy. It would serve as a blueprint and inspiration for countless bands in the following decades – but on its release in 1968, with psychedelic sounds seemingly everywhere, the Velvets stood alone, a genre unto themselves.

"Pale Blue Eyes"

The flip side to Reed's endless supply of deadpan venom was his ability to write gorgeous, yearning ballads, such as this one, from the Velvet Underground's self-titled third album (1969). The song has been covered by R.E.M., Hole, and Patti Smith – but the original remains unsurpassed.

"Satellite of Love"

From Transformer, Reed's breakthrough 1972 solo album, produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson. Is it a science-fiction tale of infidelity and voyeurism, a space-age lullaby, or an allegorical lament? For 41 years now, it's been a riddle, wrapped in a melody, inside an enigma.

"Walk on the Wild Side"

Reed's most famous song, a sweetly nostalgic tale of the transvestites in Andy Warhol's entourage coming to New York City and giving backroom blowjobs. The single, drawn from Transformer, was so transgressive in so many ways, it seems like a small miracle that it ever got played on the radio – yet it was Reed's only American Top 40 hit.

"Vicious"

The leadoff track on Transformer, remembered for the famous couplet, "Vicious / You hit me with a flower." (The lyric was drawn from a conversation Reed had with Andy Warhol.) This live version features Reed in full-on bleached-hair speed-freak mode.

"Sad Song"

While many musicians have made Berlin albums, Lou Reed's Berlin (1973) is the wrist-slashing standard against which they're all judged. When the record concluded with the epic ballad "Sad Song," it felt like the whole world was shutting down.

"Sweet Jane"

This live version of a Velvet Underground favorite (from 1974's Rock 'n' Roll Animal) was a rock-radio staple for many years, in large part because of the lengthy introduction: guitarists Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter weaved licks together and played off each other like they were attached with surgical glue.

Metal Machine Music

One of the most hostile moves any musician has ever made towards his fans and his record company: in 1975, Reed followed up his highest-charting album ever (Sally Can't Dance) with a double album of squalling white noise. MMM inspired some of the best writing ever by legendary critic Lester Bangs, who said "sentient humans simply find it impossible not to vacate any room where it is playing."

"Street Hassle"

A miniature rock opera (from Reed's 1978 album of the same name), starting with just orchestral strings and gradually swelling into a full rock band. A tale of lust, death, misogyny, and lies – and it includes a monologue spoken by an uncredited Bruce Springsteen.

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