10 Best Lou Reed Songs
If you take all of Lou Reed‘s albums as a whole, the man himself has stated, you’ll realize he’s written the great American novel. We’re inclined to agree. The legendary former Velvet Underground lead singer has released a metric ton of solo material since the early ’70s, and on the strength of Reed’s songwriting, much of it punches above its weight. Consequently, picking the top tracks in this quintessential NYC rock ‘n’ roll street poet’s canon isn’t easy, but what follows are our selections for the 10 Best Lou Reed Songs.
A shadowy detour on the already-dark ‘Sally Can’t Dance’ album, ‘NY Stars’ speaks to the hollowness of hangers-on and drug addicts in ’70s New York — Lou’s writing specialty, as you might have noticed. But here, you might not notice the dark subject matter beneath the upbeat guitar riffs and practically jaunty delivery.
‘There Is No Time’
Lou’s critically beloved ‘New York’ album yielded several classic cuts, including ‘Dirty Boulevard’ and ‘Romeo Had Juliette.’ But ‘There Is No Time’ is perhaps the hardest-charging of them all, a throwback to his early days. It ends as abruptly as it begins — a fitting approach on an all-around gritty album detailing the highs and lows of ’80s New York.
As a whole, the ‘Street Hassle’ album is often referred to as a rock opera, and for good reason. Just check out the three-part title track, which includes everything from elaborate orchestration to a spoken-word cameo by none other than Bruce Springsteen. One could argue ‘Street Hassle’ is Lou’s magnum opus.
‘Nobody But You’
From 1990’s Lou Reed/John Cale collaboration ‘Songs for Drella,’ a tribute to Velvet Underground producer and artist Andy Warhol, ‘Nobody But You’ is a quietly haunting tribute to the legendary pop artist, who died in 1987. The musicians’ homage to their mentor is profoundly moving, and Warhol’s impact on VU’s career can’t be overstated. Without the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the event series they frequently headlined, the band might never have had a launching pad to reach the public.
‘Who Am I? (Tripitena’s Song)’
‘The Raven,’ Reed’s 2003 tribute to Edgar Allen Poe, includes everything from spoken-word poetry to guest appearances by Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons and Steve Buscemi (you read that correctly). But the piece de resistance here is ‘Who Am I? (Tripitena’s Song),’ equal parts love letter to nostalgia and meditation on getting older.
‘I Can’t Stand It’/’Wild Child’/’Ocean’
The next entry on our list of the 10 Best Lou Reed Songs actually comprises three tracks off of Reed’s truly excellent self-titled debut album. When forced to choose the best from that LP, we simply couldn’t. The Velvets originally recorded ‘I Can’t Stand It,’ though the album on which it appears didn’t drop until 1985, and here, Lou gives it his own stamp. ‘Wild Child’ is a reeling and rocking story song, and the prosody of ‘Ocean’ (also originally recorded by the VU) is truly masterful.
The version of ‘Heroin’ — another track initially laid down by the VU — on Lou’s live ‘Rock and Roll Animal’ album is a surprisingly raw recording. Whereas the Velvets’ version pulled back, this one charges forward, and it’s undoubtedly inspired thousands of bands. During this period in his career, Lou would mime the act of shooting up onstage, offering a visceral reminder of his former addiction. Watch a performance from that era via the link below.
‘Coney Island Baby’
There’s a camp of critics who say Lou doesn’t actually sing, and that he simply speaks, or sing-speaks, but those people are incorrect. Even so, those people are unlikely to have their minds changed by ‘Coney Island Baby,’ a brooding, stream-of-consciousness song about adolescence. That might not sound appealing, but it’s also a glorious tribute to nostalgia that makes ‘American Graffiti’ look like a Pauly Shore movie. Yeah, he speak-sings, but think of him as the Jack Kerouac of rock poetry.
Upon its release in 1973, the concept album ‘Berlin’ divided critics. Some felt it was simply depressing, but this treasure of a record has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, thanks in part to ‘Lou Reed’s Berlin,’ a 2008 concert film in which Lou performs the album in its entirety with a full orchestra. The album tells the story of a couple’s slow decline and struggles with addiction in Germany, and ‘Sad Song’ is the ultimate gem in its crown.
‘Satellite of Love’
The chart topper on our list of the 10 Best Lou Reed Songs was another originally recorded by the VU, but on 1972’s David Bowie-produced ‘Transformer,’ Lou makes it all his own. Production-wise, Bowie’s handprints are all over this one (he even does the backing vocals), and there’s no harm in that. The two men were rivals for much of the era, but when they came together — especially on this track — it made for an inimitable musical alchemy.