Friday, March 2, 2012

Lou Reed's 25 greatest songs (a thoroughly subjective selection)

It's Lou Reed's birthday, and that means it's time for my annual birthday blog. This being his 70th, I've decided to skip the irreverence and go with some full-on fanboy gushing. In the nearly two decades that Lou's been a big part of my life I've developed a go-to roster of favorite songs that could easily stretch into the hundreds. For this blog, I've culled the field to a lean 25, presented more or less in the order of my preference. (Here's a Grooveshark playlist for easy consumption.)

A couple of caveats: I'm excluding Velvet Underground songs and covers in the interest of making this list as as Lou-ish as possible. Feel free to disagree with me or make your own additions in the comments. And happy birthday, Lou. May there be many more to come.

Romeo Had Juliette (from New York, 1989)
Most short story writers would kill to pen one perfect opening or closing line. Here Lou Reed pulls off both in less than four minutes. (Respectively, “Caught between the twisted stars, the plotted lines, the faulty map / That brought Columbus to New York” and “Something flickered for a minute / Then it vanished and was gone.”) This scuzzy-sweet story of young loves, street corner hoodlums and urban decay is the essence of Lou. His wit, his poetry, his vitality, his eye for finding beauty in ugliness – they’re all showcased in one perfectly crafted masterpiece.

Street Hassle (from Street Hassle, 1978)
It was the late ‘70s. Everybody was doing rock operas. Not everybody, however, was condensing them into a single, string-driven 11-minute song packed full of death, drugs, prostitution, misogyny and junkie philosophy, with a little space left over for a Bruce Springsteen cameo. The dealer’s shockingly callous spoken word set piece in the middle (called “Street Hassle” on the album sleeve, making it the titular movement of the record’s titular song) is the highlight for me, but this is genius from start to finish.

Kill Your Sons (from Sally Can’t Dance, 1974)
What do you do when your parents commit you to an electroshock ward at age 17 in an attempt to cure your homosexual tendencies? Write it all up into a searing, sardonic howl of nihilistic numbness, of course. Lou was never punker than he is here, nor were many others.

Baton Rouge (from Ecstasy, 2000)
I count this as one of the saddest, loveliest songs I’ve ever heard. Lou fills this disarmingly honest reminiscence of a failed marriage with quickly sketched images both wistful and painful. Perhaps the most affecting element is the narrator’s not-quite regret upon seeing photos from his ex’s daughter’s wedding. As he momentarily loses himself in a fantasy of the all-American family he’ll never have (nor honestly want), the bittersweetness becomes almost unbearable. Maybe the most underrated song in Lou’s entire canon.

Magic and Loss (from Magic and Loss, 1993)
I hold Magic and Loss as the finest album about death anyone’s ever made. Whenever someone close to me dies, I make a point of sitting down and listening to it front-to-back as soon as I have the chance. The album as a whole, and this closing track in particular, goes a long way toward easing the pain. In my hour of darkness, I can’t tell you how reassuring it is for me to hear Lou repeating his gentle reminder that “there’s a bit of magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out.”

Caroline Says II (from Berlin, 1973)
I rank Berlin as one of the three greatest records Lou ever made, but the album is such an organic whole that it’s tough to single out any one song. This heartbreaker stands out as a severely damaged woman’s deceptively pretty send-off to the abusive husband she can’t abide any longer. “You can hit me all you want to / But I don’t love you any more.” Just devastating.

Like a Possum (from Ecstasy, 2000)
I can understand why some people might find 18-minutes of Lou Reed bellowing about possums over a droning, repetitive guitar riff unappealing. Those people are dead wrong, of course, but I can understand where they’re coming from. Personally, I can’t get enough of it. I have a pet theory that Lou’s much-maligned Metallica collaboration Lulu (which I’m on record as kind of liking) was his attempt at expanding the magic of “Like a Possum” across an entire album. Sadly, it didn’t quite work.

New Sensations (from New Sensations, 1984)
At its core, this is just an amiable ramble about this one time when Lou had a really fun day riding his motorcycle. Somewhere along the line, though, “New Sensations” becomes a whole lot more than that. Maybe it’s the production, the imagery or just the relative contentment in Lou’s delivery, but it winds up being an exhilarating anthem of feeling good and being free.

Sword of Damocles (from Magic and Loss, 1992)
It takes guts to face down the powerlessness of watching a loved one dying slowly. To do so as honestly and unflinchingly as Lou does here is just plain remarkable. “I’ve seen a lot of people die from car crashes and drugs / Last night on 33rd Street I saw a kid get hit by a bus / But this drawn out torture over which part of you lives is very hard to take.”

Walk on the Wild Side (from Transformer, 1972)
At this point it’s almost enough of a cliché to turn me off, but it’s not for nothing that this remains Lou’s defining song after all these years. The lulling bass line, the skittering guitar, the almost-whispered vocals and of course the Colored Girls and their “doot-d-doot-d-doots” make it every bit the classic it’s cracked up to be. Unlike “Perfect Day,” whose ubiquity has finally made me weary of a song I once loved, this one will never wear out its welcome.

Dirt (from Street Hassle, 1978)
Street Hassle is hands-down Lou’s grimiest album (as well as my personal favorite). Aside from the title track, this is probably the nastiest offering on the record, a spiteful takedown of some unknown poseur. There’s something about Lou inexplicably quoting Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law” in the middle of his tirade that sends chills down my spine every time.

Waves of Fear (from The Blue Mask, 1982)
A harrowing portrait of self-loathing, withdrawal and general misery set to a big, burly guitar riff that eventually devolves into spastic squalling. “I cringe at my tremors / I hate my own smell / I know where I must be / I must be in Hell.” What’s not to love?

Doin’ the Things that We Want To (from New Sensations, 1984)
A celebration of Martin Scorcese, Sam Shepard and the artists who make life worth living, this is an endlessly exhilarating tribute to creative genius. The opening verse, where Lou describes his reaction to watching a live performance of Shepard’s A Fool for Love, is a miracle of minute observation.

Wild Child (from Lou Reed, 1972)
Throughout the early ‘70s, Lou had a weird penchant for songs that strung together a jumble of grotesque character sketches and half-realized puns. (See also: “Andy’s Chest,” “Oh, Sweet Nuthin,” “She’s My Best Friend.” Heck, even “Walk on the Wild Side” could fall under that umbrella.) This is my favorite of the bunch, a darkly cheerful display of wordplay for its own sake. I’m especially fond of “I was talking to Ed, who’d been reported dead by a mutual friend / He thought it was funny that I had no money to spend on him.”

Last Great American Whale (from New York, 1989)
There are a lot of undeniably weird entries in the Lou Reed song book, and this might be the weirdest of all. It’s just your standard story of a story of an endangered, sentient, possibly amphibious whale who seems to moonlight as some sort of anti-racist superhero. Hearing this song for the first time when I was 15 confirmed for me that this Lou Reed cat was somebody I could really get into.

The Power of Positive Drinking (from Growing Up in Public, 1980)
This playful tribute to all things alcoholic is probably the straight-up funniest song in Lou’s repertoire. His snide portraits of various breeds of barfly are as universal as they are well-observed. Drunken self-justification doesn’t come much better than “Some say liquor kills the cells in your head / But for that matter so does getting out of bed.”

I Believe (from Songs for Drella, 1990)
The climax of Lou and John Cale’s brilliant, operatic remembrance of Andy Warhol is this furious piano ballad tracking Valerie Solanis’ botched assassination attempt. Lou’s decades-old indignation is palpable as he takes us inside multiple heads – Valerie’s, Andy’s and his own – in a plainspoken but complex pastiche of the day the Factory dream died.

The Last Shot (from Legendary Hearts, 1983)
Lou’s songs about his long and varied history with substance abuse are always winners for me. The casual matter-of-factness of this one sets it apart from most songs about kicking an addiction. Lou sounds almost blasé delivering theoretically horrific lines like “I shot a vein in my neck and I coughed up a Quaalude.” As the chorus goes, “When you quit, you quit,” and you can almost believe that it’s just that easy.

What’s Good (from Magic and Loss, 1992)
This preamble to what’s arguably Lou’s most powerful album sets the stage for all the confusion and soul-searching to follow, and still allows a little shimmer of hope to seep through all the cynicism. “What’s good? Life’s good (but not fair at all)” pretty much sums up the human experience as I see it.

Egg Cream (from Set the Twilight Reeling, 1996, though I prefer the version from the Blue in the Face soundtrack)
Childhood remembrances in Lou Reed songs are seldom positive things, but this salute to the quintessential New York beverage of his youth is buoyantly infectious.

Growing Up in Public (from Growing Up in Public, 1980)
The title track of an excellent album that’s often unfairly derided, this one features my all-time favorite pseudo-pretentious Lou Reed lyric: “They’re quasi-effeminate characters in love with oral gratification / They edify their integrities so they can prey on your fears.” Who else would have the temerity to slip that onto a major label rock album in the mid-1980s?

Temporary Thing (from Rock and Roll Heart, 1976)
Maybe the best of Lou’s numerous ‘70s “I’m Mr. Big Stuff” songs, this one is all swagger and sneer propelled by a sinister, insistent combination of piano and percussion.

The Heroine (from The Blue Mask, 1982)
This one is an anomaly in the Lou Reed catalog, and especially in the context of The Blue Mask. On an album that veers unpredictably between domesticity and depravity, the last thing one expects to find is Lou murmuring a murky seafaring metaphor accompanied only by a laconic guitar strum. But damned if it isn’t all the more effective for its incongruity.

Riptide (from Set the Twilight Reeling, 1996)
A grim, primal howl of guitar and macabre imagery churning along over Fernando Saunders’ perennially underrated bass work. It’s pretty cool that Lou’s gotten more and more metal as he’s grown older.

Lisa Says (from Lou Reed, 1971)
Lou’s cycle of “__ Says” songs are beloved for good reason, and this is the best of the pre-Berlin bunch. There’s not a whole lot to it, just a character sketch of a lonely young lady, but it’s one of the prettiest little songs Lou ever put together.


  1. Hi and thank you for publishing this wonderful list of the great Lou Reed songs. I'm 52 and have just begun getting into his music. "White Light White Heat" is partly what generated my interest, however a friend introduced me to his music in the early '80's. The more I hear the more I love. We are so fortunate to live during his time. I can't wait to study, learn and listen more. Lou Reed is the quintescence of our culture. Thank you again Ira, I'll definitely be back to your blog.

  2. You're more than welcome! I'm delighted that Lou's drawn another fan into the fold. I bought 'Lou Reed Live' from the $3 bin at my local Pamida discount store when I was 14 and I'm still hooked nearly 20 years later.

  3. Good to see Like A Possum getting the respect it deserves! 'I Believe' is another masterpeice thats rarely talked about. The transformation from vengeful tirade to guilt ridden third person confession is haunting. "Visit me, why didn't you visit me?"

  4. the picture of lou iggy and bowie together must make oscar wilde smile from above hope all 3 follow oscars last act of confession and conversion when they face death 'the cold black sea waits for me forever the waves hit the shore crying more cold black sea is waiting'

  5. Thank you! Especially relevant today!

  6. Very nice selection from Lou best unknown tracks.
    I would add: Voices of freedomn, Busload of faith, ride sally ride.