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 20 essential tracks from the great Lou Reed, rock & roll animal and legendary heart.
“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.
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”
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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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.