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20 Essential Lou Reed Tracks

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"The Day John Kennedy Died"

After years of positioning himself as an antisocial rock 'n' roll freak, Reed made The Blue Mask in 1982 and declared, improbably, that he was an average guy. This plainspoken song about November 22, 1963, is a well-observed tale on the mundane reality of death.

"Waves of Fear"

On The Blue Mask, Reed found the musical foil he had lacked for many years: guitarist Robert Quine, who had grown up bootlegging Velvet Underground shows. "One thing that's crucial is that I listen to the lyrics," Quine said. "'Waves of Fear,' if it had been about making an egg cream, my solo would be different than a guy having a nervous breakdown." The track is four astounding minutes of psychosis: the band cuts loose while Reed shouts, "Crazy with sweat / Spittle on my jaw."

"I Love You, Suzanne"

On New Sensations (1984), Lou Reed played the role of a fun-loving pop singer – and pulled it off! As he sang, "You try anything once / You try anything twice."

"Strawman"

Reed's 1989 New York album was a return to vicious form: stories about the seamier side of New York City with a muscular guitar backing. "Strawman" is one of the angriest, and best, songs on the album, with lyrics about the inequalities of society: "Does anybody need yet another politician caught with his pants down and money sticking in his hole?" This live version has a furious guitar solo by Reed.

"Hello It's Me"

Reed reunited with his Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale in 1990 to do Songs for Drella, an excellent album about their onetime patron, Andy Warhol. Most of the material is written from Warhol's POV, but in this beautiful coda, Reed sings directly and lovingly to the man he knew.

"Egg Cream"

Not a song about a guy having a nervous breakdown, but one about making an egg cream. From Set the Twilight Reeling (1996), this is a sweet serving of Brooklyn nostalgia with a classic Reed guitar hook. 

"Perfect Day"

In 1997, the BBC commissioned an all-star cover of "Perfect Day" (originally the flip side to "Walk on the Wild Side," it was having a resurgence of popularity due to its inclusion on the Trainspotting soundtrack). The singers included Bono, Elton John, Emmylou Harris, and, croaking three words, Shane MacGowan from the Pogues. Somehow, in the UK, this single went all the way to number one.

"Like a Possum"

The centerpiece of Reed's 2000 album Ecstasy is this eighteen-minute track about the limits of his animal urges: "Just another useless night in bed," Reed sings. Meanwhile, the guitars grind away at his emotions until they're pureed.

"The View"

Lulu, the 2011 album Reed made in collaboration with Metallica, was the most divisive thing he had done since his 1984 commercial for Honda scooters. But its best songs were heavy and visceral, showing that at age 69, Reed was still unrelenting. And he got bonus points for challenging Lars Ulrich to a "street fight."

"Dirty Blvd." / "White Light White Heat"

In 1997, for David Bowie's fiftieth birthday, Reed got onstage with his old friend and collaborator to perform "Dirty Blvd." (the lead single from New York) and "White Light / White Heat" (the title track from the Velvets' second album, and a longtime Bowie live staple). They traded lines and secret smiles – on their faces, you could see how Reed's music, often alienating, was also the source of profound joy.

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Song Stories

“American Girl”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | 1976

It turns out that a single with "American" in its title--recorded on the Fourth of July during the nation's Bicentennial, no less--can actually sell better in Britain. Coupled with the Heartbreakers' flair for Byrds jangle and Animals hooks, though, is Tom Petty's native-Florida drawl that keeps this classic grounded at home. Petty dispelled rumors that the song was about a suicidal student, explaining that the inspiration came from when he was 25 and used to salute the highway traffic outside his apartment window. "It sounded like the ocean to me," he recalled. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by."

More Song Stories entries »
 
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