Graphics by Noelia Jiménez
When someone as important as Lou Reed dies, it’s inevitable that there will be a glut of personal accounts that talk more about the writer than the artist themselves. That’s how we know that an artist’s work was capital-I important — when those people that they touched cannot disassociate their own experience of the art with the person that made it. If there ever was an artist so intrinsically attached to the art that he made, art that truly touched people, it was Lou Reed. It’s been said over and over in the days since his passing that he and his band The Velvet Underground influenced the course of music history, of cultural history — that almost every rock fan owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude to the works that Reed created. It’s impossible to think of rock music, of American Culture, of New York City as a whole without Lou Reed, and it’s truly crushing to think that we now must. It’s impossible to think of myself as the fan, the obsessive that I am today, without that first listen to The Velvet Underground and Nico, and the spiral it sent me in to. I never met Lou Reed, I have no anecdote to tell about him, just my undying love of the music he made and the incredible influence he had on me — the immeasurable debt I owe him.
The way that seemed most natural to mourn the passing of someone so wildly important to so many people was to look at what touched us about him in the first place, his music. Ranking the whole discography of Lou Reed is a fools errand, with too many brilliant projects diverging in too many ways– so we decided to focus on the four records that changed music history from The Velvet Underground. It’s impossible to rank the catalog of a band that released nothing but brilliant works, so instead think of this as a playlist to open the door.
Thanks for the music Lou, Rest in Peace.
10. Rock n’ Roll
Pure joy is not something that you often associate with The Velvet Underground, with the darkness of the music and Reed’s songwriting so often coming to the forefront. This track, though, just revels in the pure and wonderful power of the genre that the band helped move forward. It’s innocent, sweet and damn fun to dance to.
9. I Heard Her Call My Name
The aggression of this song paved the way for it to be one of the first real punk songs. The Velvet Underground influenced countless bands and helped inform almost every form of music since their inception, but their influence on punk remains the greatest. This song shows exactly why their nonchalant, experimental cool resonated so intensely with the scene they helped create. It’s also the perfect entry point for another of Reed’s great, extremely difficult masterpieces, Metal Machine Music.
8. Sweet Jane
It’s perhaps one of the songs most often associated with Lou Reed, and rightfully so — it’s another testament to his absolutely masterful songwriting. It allows you to turn off and just sing along, while still lingering on the lovely turns of phrase and the beautiful mediations on the day to day.
7. All Tomorrow’s Parties
When listening to the sweet, simple songs of their later career, it’s easy to forget the wild experimentation that informed The Velvet Undergrounds first few records, particularly with Nico’s strange, deep voice sinking into the incredible droning created by the rest of the band. Once again, though, the music just highlights the lyrics, which takes the fractured brooding and puts it in stark focus.
6. I’m Waiting for the Man
The pounding piano and motoring guitar chug along throughout the song, perfectly complementing Reed’s effortless, NYC-infused poetry. It’s simultaneously dirty and beautiful — everything that we love about the band.
5. Sunday Morning
The delicate track that starts off the Velvets debut record is deceptively sweet and light, with Reed’s almost childlike vocals and Cale’s puckish instrumentation masking the remorse that clouds the song. It’s the perfect juxtaposition of light and dark, with masterclass music working perfectly with the lyrics to create a fantastic and enduring song.
4. White Light / White Heat
Like another song that appears on this list, Reed wrote this to sound like a high feels, and the driving fuzzy guitars do just that. The quick, energetic track is another example of just how influential The Velvet Underground was to the early punks. You can hear this songs DNA in just about everything that came out of CBGB in the 70s.
3. Pale Blue Eyes
There’s no song quite as lovely as Reed’s ode to painfully unrequited love. It’s the kind of track that sticks with you, the kind of track whose lyrics materialize in your head long after you’ve listened for the first time. It’s sweet mournfulness and beauty tinged with darkness are exactly what Reed excelled at and what made him so completely indispensable.
2. Venus in Furs
Taken from an early erotic novel, “Venus in Furs” is heavily tinged with S&M inspired lyrics that are perfectly set against Cale’s haunting viola and slow, pulsing tambourine. It’s a song that mows you over the first time you hear it — nothing before and nothing since has sounded quite this effortlessly cool, captivating and dark. It was wildly subversive when it came out, and has maintained that air of absolute reverence in the decades since.
The brilliance of this song knows no limits. Truly one of the most fantastic pieces of music ever written, the lyrics describe the pleasures of the drug as well as wryly note the all-consuming effect it has on his life. The true genius of this song, though, is the way the music mimics the stages of the narrators high, with Cale’s screeching viola rocketing it’s way to a frenzied crescendo that suddenly comes back down again. It’s a stunning song and a stunning artistic achievement.