In September and October, I did a series of Facebook posts on favorite songs from Elvis Costello albums — one album a day. I am now doing the same for Lou Reed, starting with his work with the Velvet Underground, and will compile them here.
The ground rules are the same: I’m not saying each song is the “best” from the album, just a song that I like and want to share. I’ll include music from some anthologies, live albums, collaborative projects, etc., but not necessarily all.
Here are the songs. I have also embedded, underneath the videos, a Spotify playlist for virtually all of the songs.
We start with 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico — one of the few albums that took rock to a place it had never been before and continued to reverberate as a primary influence for many other artists, for decades to come — and its visionary epic, “Heroin.”
The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat (1968) doubled down on the dissonance and stunning inventiveness of the VU debut. The track I’m choosing to share, “Here She Comes Now,” is actually the album’s outlier — its shortest, most subdued and most straightforward song. A moment of comfort and winsome beauty at the end of side 1, before another deep dive into chaos on side 2.
The third, self-titled Velvet Underground album, released in 1969 and featuring Doug Yule in place of co-founder John Cale, is, for the most part, gentler and less groundbreaking than its predecessors, but still unquestionably great. With its propulsive beat and vocals so joyful Reed almost seems on the verge of losing control of them, “Beginning to See the Light” is one of many highlights.
Reed’s fourth and final studio album with the Velvet Underground, Loaded (1970), contains — in addition to gems such as “Sweet Jane,” “New Age” and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ ” — “Rock & Roll,” Reed’s enduring and heartfelt anthem about the life-saving power of rock itself.
Reed left the Velvet Underground in August 1970, but in May ’72, shortly before he released his self-titled debut solo album, another VU album came out: Live at Max’s Kansas City. It was recorded at the New York club on Aug. 23, 1970, at Reed’s last night with the band. Joining him were VU co-founder Sterling Morrison on guitar, Doug Yule on bass and vocals, and Yule’s brother Billy on drums. The songs were recorded on a portable cassette recorder, with no thought of eventually being released in album form. So this album is very lo-fi, though the raw power of the band still comes through. Here’s “I’m Waiting for the Man”:
After leaving the Velvet Underground, Reed debuted as a solo artist with a self-titled album in June ’72, though most of the songs were originally played at Velvet Underground concerts, or were outtakes from VU recording sessions. Reed would establish himself as a major artist in his own right soon enough, but the songs just aren’t strong enough here. My favorite is the taut, very VU-ish “I Can’t Stand It.”
Lou Reed may not have made much of an impact, but Reed’s second album, Transformer — co-produced by David Bowie and released just five months later that year — was a revelation. Its most famous song is the hit single “Walk on the Wild Side,” and “Perfect Day” has become something of a standard over the years. “Vicious” and “Satellite of Love” are quite well known as well. But I’ll go with “I’m So Free,” a catchy rocker that sounds like it could have been made by The Ramones (though that band didn’t even exist yet).
Berlin (1973) is, I think, one of Reed’s greatest efforts — an extremely dark song cycle whose characters suffer through addiction, abuse and more. It really has to be heard in its entirety to be fully appreciated but here is “Lady Day,” the album’s second song, which offers a first glimpse at one of the doomed characters, foreshadowing what is to come but not fully descending into tragedy yet. “I said, ‘No, no, no, oh Lady Day,’ ” the narrator sings over and over, as if trying to fend off what is coming.
After releasing his commercial breakthrough Transformer in 1972 and the ambitious Berlin song cycle in 1973, Reed made one of the all-time great live albums, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, recorded at the Academy of Music in New York in December ’73 and released in 1974. With the exception of “Lady Day,” from Berlin, the songs all dated back to his Velvet Underground years, and benefited from the muscular, polished guitar work of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. Hunter also wrote the stunning new extended intro for album opener “Sweet Jane”:
After three striking albums in a row, Reed ran out of steam on 1974’s Sally Can’t Dance, which goes for shock value at times and crass commercialism at others while rarely making much of an impact. The only track I can really recommend is the raw, harrowing “Kill Your Sons,” inspired by Reed’s own family history and his experiences with mental illness.
Two years after the Velvet Underground’s Live at Max’s Kansas City was released, a double album, 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, followed. It was recorded at two different shows in late ’69 (Live at Max’s Kansas City came from late ’70s) with original drummer Maureen Tucker still in the band (Live at Max’s Kansas City features Billy Yule). The sound is better, too, though still not pristine. Here is a ferocious extended jam on “What Goes On,” with Doug Yule soloing on organ.
Reed’s 1974 live album Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal was such a revelation that in 1975, he released more songs from the same 1973 concert as Lou Reed Live. “Vicious,” like the best of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, got a major boost from the hard-hitting guitar work of bandmates Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner.
The double album Metal Machine Music (1975) — almost universally reviled upon its release and rarely played again by anyone, afterwards — is an audacious experiment: Each side of the vinyl release contains 16 minutes of screeching electronic noise. I can hear some music in it, if I try really hard. But I would never listen to more than 30 seconds or so, voluntarily. To endure the whole thing in one sitting would be torture. Yet Reed clearly intended it as a sort of symphony (or anti-symphony) in four parts, so I am sharing, here, the whole thing. Enjoy.
Just five months after releasing Metal Machine Music, Reed went in almost the direct opposite direction on Coney Island Baby. Though not without its dark moments, it’s dominated by melodic, straightforward pop and rock music, and Reed has rarely sounded as tender and sincere as he does on the doo wop-flavored title track.
1976’s Rock and Roll Heart was all over the place, ranging from plainspoken ballads to moody, Berlin-like art-pop and hard-edged rock, with even some occasional jazz influence working its way in. “Follow the Leader” was written back in the Velvet Underground days and still feels unformed — more like a sketch than a finished song. But Reed’s new band (featuring keyboardist Michael Fonfara, saxophonist Marty Fogel, bassist Bruce Yaw and drummer Michael Suchorsky) helps give it an urgent edge and make it a standout.
The title track of 1978’s Street Hassle — its 11-minute, three-part centerpiece — is musically gorgeous and lyrically ambitious, starting with tales of deadpan decadence but building to a heartbreaking peak, with a cameo by Bruce Springsteen in the middle. Interesting fact: Reed claimed he wrote the “Tramps like us, we were born to pay” line without consciously thinking about “Born to Run.”
The double album Take No Prisoners (1978) was Reed’s third live album of the ’70s, and his fifth if you count Velvet Underground live albums. It was recorded at The Bottom Line in New York — an intimate, hometown venue for him — and finds him frequently talking at length, rambling on about all kinds of stuff, though he sticks to the music on the explosive album closer, “Leave Me Alone.”
The Bells (1979) is most notable for its daring, haunting title track, which lasts more than nine minutes, most of which is devoted to an ominous, free-form instrumental (featuring co-writer Marty Fogel on saxophone and Don Cherry on trumpet) wrapped around a short song about an actor committing suicide.
“Think It Over,” from Growing Up in Public (1980), is, I think, an overlooked gem in Reed’s catalog, a sensitively sung grown-up love song that finds the singer proposing marriage but being warned by his partner that they shouldn’t rush into anything: “When you ask for someone’s heart/You must know that you’re smart/Smart enough to care for it, so I’m gonna/Think it over.”
The Blue Mask (1982) was widely hailed as a triumph on its release, featuring sympathetic and dynamic backing by a tight three-piece band (guitarist Robert Quine, bassist Fernando Saunders, drummer Doane Perry) and a strong batch of songs. There’s no camp and no bizarre experiments here, and no hip indifference. Here is the album’s opening song, “My House,” which functions as both a tribute to Reed’s lyrical mentor (the poet and short story writer Delmore Schwartz) and an introduction to the new, mature, contented Reed. “I really got a lucky life/My writing, my motorcycle and my wife/And to top it all off a spirit of pure poetry/Is living in this stone and wood house with me,” he sings.
When writing about Reed, one tends to focus on his lyrics and his audacious sonic experiments, but the main attraction of “Martial Law” (the standout track from 1983’s Legendary Hearts) is the hypnotic groove Reed creates with the album’s stellar band: guitarist Robert Quine, drummer Fred Maher and bassist Fernando Saunders.
The double album Live in Italy (1984) offers a snapshot of Reed’s great early-’80s band (guitarist Robert Quine, bassist Fernando Saunders and drummers Fred Maher) and shows them, here, stretching out on an intense medley of the Velvet Underground songs “Some Kinda Love” and “Sister Ray.”
New Sensations (1984) gave Reed a surprise hit single with “I Love You, Suzanne,” but I prefer the title track, which is just as catchy (though in a more subtle way) and more substantial, lyrically, with the refreshingly positive-minded Reed saying he has no need for “people who are always on a down” and raving about the simple joys of riding his motorcycle and playing a hillbilly song on the jukebox.
A collection of Velvet Underground outtakes, released in 1985 as VU, did not feel like just an afterthought to the Reed/VU catalog. Many of the songs had already been re-recorded by Reed for his solo albums, and most were strong enough to have been worthy additions to those original VU albums. “Foggy Notion,” first recorded for the self-titled 1969 album, was perhaps the most notable “find.”
Reed did not demonstrate much of an interest in covering other artists’ songs at any point of his career. But he did so occasionally — more so for special projects than for his own studio albums. Perhaps the most notable example of his prowess as a song interpreter is “September Song,” from the 1985 Hal Willner-produced tribute album, Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill (other contributors include Sting, Marianne Faithfull, Tom Waits, Aaron Neville and Todd Rundgren). Reed makes the standard sounds like one of his own sincere ’80s love songs with the help of a gorgeous, prominently featured bass line from Fernando Saunders, with a horn section (a rarity for a Reed recording) for dramatic emphasis.
Mistrial (1986) was notable for Reed’s experiment in rap — lead single “The Original Wrapper” — as well as “Video Violence,” a bracing protest song about the pervasiveness of violent images in film and television. Horrors have become mundane: “Up in the morning, drinking his coffee/Turns on the TV to some slasher movie,” Reed sings.
The Velvet Underground outtakes collection Another View (1986) was a sequel to 1985’s VU. Naturally, the first album got the stronger songs. Another View is basically the leftovers. Still, any Velvet Underground recording is of interest to the band’s hardcore fans, and Another View did offer, among other things, the feverish original studio version of “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together.” (A concert version of the song had been included on the 1969: The Velvet Underground Live album, and Reed had come up with a new arrangement for it for 1978’s Street Hassle.)
New York (1989) is widely regarded as one of Reed’s strongest solo albums, and “Dirty Blvd.” is its principal gem: An unflinching but compassionate tale of a New York boy trapped in a life of squalor and abuse, and yearning to escape. Dion’s aching backing vocals are a perfect touch.
No one expected Reed and his equally headstrong Velvet Underground partner John Cale ever to make an album together after Cale left the group in 1968. But that’s what happened in 1990, when they reunited to record a tribute to their mentor Andy Warhol, who had died in 1987. Their chemistry was back in full force on much of it, including “Work,” which is about Warhol’s fierce work ethic. Reed sings: “Sometimes when I can’t decide what I should do/I think what would Andy have said/He’d probably say you think too much/That’s ’cause there’s work that you don’t want to do.”
One World One Voice was an experimental concept album, throwing together, literally, scores of musicians from a wide range of countries and musical traditions, in hopes of raising awareness of environmental issues. Participants ranged from rock stars such as Sting and Peter Gabriel to the traditional Irish group The Chieftains, the Kodo Drummers of Japan, Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy and the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra. Reed contributed this earnest anthem, with support from French accordionist Richard Galliano and England’s Penguin Cafe Orchestra.
Reed stared into the abyss of death on 1992’s Magic and Loss, which also, somehow, included one of his catchiest songs ever: “What’s Good,” in which he explores existential confusion in a playful way (“What good is seeing eye chocolate/What good’s a computerized nose/And what good was cancer in April/Why no good, no good at all”) and concludes, “Life’s good, but not fair at all.”
Velvet Underground members Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker reunited for a European tour in 1993, documented in the album Live MCMXCIII, which was recorded during a three-night stand in Paris. There are two new songs on it: The jokey “Velvet Nursery Rhyme” but also the majestic “Coyote,” written by Reed and Cale, sung by Reed and performed as the shows’ encore.
Set the Twilight Reeling (1996) contained some of the strangest songs of Reed’s career (“Egg Cream,” “Sex With Your Parents”), and that’s really saying something. But it also boasts, among its highlights, one of his greatest heart-to-heart ballads, the low-key but musically beguiling “Hang On to Your Emotions.”
Perfect Night: Live in London (recorded in ’97, released in ’98) was Reed’s fifth concert album (his eighth if you count the Velvet Underground) and unique among them for its calmness and clarity. This isn’t Lou Reed the showman or Lou Reed the provocateur, just Lou Reed the rock craftsman and a great, sympathetic band (guitarist Mike Rathke, bassist Fernando Saunders, drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith) working their way through his catalog. Here’s “Busload of Faith,” from Reed’s New York album.
In 2000, Reed released his Ecstasy album. With a one-of-a-kind video like this, how could I not share “Modern Dance”? (I actually like the song quite a bit, too.)
2001 saw the release of American Poet, a concert album from 1972, when Reed was touring in support of his Transformer album. Backed by guitarists Vinny Laporta and Eddie Reynolds, bassist Bobby Resigno and drummer Scottie Clark, he doesn’t come anywhere close to the heights of his Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal album (recorded just a year later), making American Poet a minor addition to his catalog. But I do like “Walk It Talk It,” a song that had been demoed by the Velvet Underground, then recorded by Reed for his self-titled 1972 debut album, but never really ignited before, as it does here.
Reed’s 2003 double album The Raven was an ambitious, uneven affair, featuring songs written for “POEtry” — Reed’s 2000 collaboration with director Robert Wilson, an experimental opera based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe — with support from a multitude of guest musicians and actors, including David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe. Here’s “Guilty,” featuring one of Reed’s biggest influences, Ornette Coleman, on alto sax.
Animal Serenade was a live album, recorded in Los Angeles in 2003, featuring a kind of chamber-pop band configuration with Reed and Mike Rathke on guitars, Fernando Saunders on bass and vocals, Jane Scarpantoni on cello, and some guest vocals by Antony Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons). Rathke also does an amazing job of re-creating the sound of a piano on a guitar synthesizer: Listen to him do so here on “Vanishing Act,” originally from the then-recent album The Raven.
Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse, a concert album recorded in Brooklyn in 2006, includes, as its title implies, a performance of Reed’s Berlin album in its entirety. I was lucky enough to be at one of these shows, and the highlight for me then, and when I listen to the album now, is not one of the Berlin songs, but one of the non-Berlin encores: Reed’s delicate, emotionally intense duet with Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons) on the Velvet Underground song, “Candy Says.”
Reed’s last studio album was Lulu, recorded with Metallica and released in 2011; he died in 2013. Lulu got mixed reviews, including some very negative ones. I’m not a huge fan of it myself but do offer, here, a track that I think does work pretty well: “Iced Honey.”
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