Lou Reed – Top 50 Solo Songs

Lou

Lou Reed’s influence as a solo artist and leader of the now canonised Velvet Underground touched countless rock fans and artists alike (as Brian Eno once said, “The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band”), and his prolific and eclectic solo career yielded some of the most seminal releases in rock.

Back in the early ’70s, when he left the VU for a solo career, nobody was sure how long he would even last. He poured all his energies into rock and roll, concocting a literary street styles that was distinctly his own, contemporary and ultimately timeless. His solo career turned out to be enormously varied and wildly erratic (to put it mildly), from glam rock meets music hall to electronic noise and free-form heavy metal, he divided critics but declared himself unmoved.

An artist’s artist, Reed’s lasting influence is vast: punk, new wave, college rock, alternative music and indie rock is undisputed, and the musician indirectly influenced, imitated and idolised by entire generations of musicians, remains deeply respected in the world of rock music.

There are some excellent tracks throughout Reed’s thorny solo career that deserve reassessment and revisiting, even some that have been woefully overlooked or simply given a bad rap by critics in the 70s, 80s and beyond. Enjoy this trip through the Top 50 Lou Reed solo songs. We’ve compiled his best solo recorded tracks during his RCA, Arista and Sire years, beginning with his self-titled post-Velvet’s album in 1972. A perfect opportunity to get re-acquainted with this late great legend’s work. Special mention must go to material that missed the cut, such as the harrowing yet brilliant Berlin (eg: The Kids, The Bed, and both Caroline Says), Sally Can’t Dance, and all of Ecstasy and Metal Machine Music.

50. Average Guy

I am just your average guy tryin’ to do what’s right“. Perky track lifted off career highlight comeback album The Blue Mask (1982). A now sober Lou denies his ego in his buzzy vocal style of the time. “My temperature is 98.2“.

49. No Money Down

Bubblegum electro-rock, one of the many programmed drum tracks off Mistrial (1986). Its catchy and its works. In the 80s video, a twisted animatronic Lou rips synthetic flesh from his face with disturbing/hilarious results.

48. Families

Over an insistent horn-driven line this personal account of Lou’s family members and the breakdown of their relationship is both poignant and heartfelt. The penultimate track off 1979’s druggy The Bells, an album heavily represented here.

47. Leave Me Alone

A messy, semi-live track buried on side two of the live and studio album Street Hassle (1978). Leave Me Alone is dirty and nasty. Its slowed down to a bassy murk, added driving sax squalls and Lou’s demented vocal, its a colossal number, similar to but better than muscular non-album track ‘Nowhere At All’.

46. Dime Store Mystery

Closing piece on career best album New York (1989). A dedication to the recently passed Any Warhol, including Jesus on the cross imagery. Rob Wasserman’s bowing bass and Reed and Mike Rathke sending guitar chords heavenwards. Dime Store Mystery also features Mo Tucker guesting on percussion. Suddenly the Velvets sound is among us.

45. The Bells

Tracks like the harrowing finale of The Bells is where Lou Reed with his evocative and poetic lyrics had, according to Lester Bangs “become a great writer in a literary sense.” Musically its a sludgy beast, the low-in-the-mix vocal, and trumpet player Don Cherry adds his free-jazz genius to this disturbing and cinematic nine-minute monster.

44. Rooftop Garden

Lifted off 1983’s second tier Legendary Hearts album that certainly has its charms, particularly this bouncy and lovely understated album-closing ballad of blissful domesticity.

43. Dirt

Another sludge-fest perfectly suited to the unrelenting lyrical content of Street Hassle, this vengeful put-down could be directed towards a rival or someone who did Lou wrong, although more than likely to be to towards himself after his perceived commercial sellout of 1974’s Rock and Roll Animal and Sally Can’t Dance. Reed mocks his foe with menacing, slowly rendered quotes from “that song by a dude named Bobby Fuller. It went like this: I fought the law and the law won.

42. Kill Your Sons

Speaking of Sally Can’t Dance, this is the first of two tracks off that turkey. This semi-autobiographical song would sound better live with the Quine/Saunders band of the early 80s. Here it still packs a punch, painfully revisiting his disturbing childhood undergoing electroshock therapy.

41. Women 

Another Blue Mask triumph; Lou declares his love of all things womanly over a lilting Saunders/Quine groove. It includes all the good things about a Lou Reed song: it’s direct (“I love women, I think they’re great”), personal (“I used to look at women in the magazines I know that it was sexist, but I was in my teens”), humorous (“Can’t keep my hands off women and I won’t till I die”) and disturbing (“I feel like buying flowers and hiring a celestial choir of castratis to serenade my love”).

40. Stupid Man

Opening with a jazzy piano couplet, Lou chimes in like he’s singing a different song the band are playing. It all pulls together quite nicely becoming quite a moving dedication to a daughter from his self-exiled stupid father “living all alone by the still water“.

39. Shooting Star

Signature late-70s double tracked quavering vibrato vocal from Lou, this Street Hassle semi-live and glorious dark whirlpool cacophony of discordant guitars and bleating sax is another put-down to some unfortunate soul who got on Lou’s wrong side.

38. How Do You Think it Feels

The crowning jewel off Lou’s mega-depressing concept album Berlin (1973). This track encompasses the entire album in miniature: desperate, dark, powerful, building to a huge brass section crescendo. The lyrics about the doomed drug addicted lovers of Berlin, Caroline and Jim, are some of Lou’s best: “How do you think it feels when you’ve been up for five days, hunting around always, ’cause you’re afraid of sleeping“. The centerpiece of an album that makes Mein Kampf look like Bridget Jones Diary.

37. Sick of You

Late album track off New York, Lou cheerfully takes a massive dig at just about everyone in a machine-gun barrage of cracking one liners. “They ordained the Trumps, and then he got the mumps, and died being treated at Mt. Sinai“. Lou’s wit is as sharp and compelling as ever on this essential listen.

36. Magician 

Beautiful and moving ballad off Magic and Loss (1992). Lou’s intimate performance is nothing short of exquisite; essentially his guitar, a lovely little solo, and Rob Wasserman’s Clevinger electric standup bass accompanies dark ruminations of loss and death. A far cry from the industrialized aggression and abrasiveness of many tracks on this list.

35. Beginning of a Great Adventure

This is fun jazzy number, two guitars and bass, from New York. He ponders what it might like to bring a child into the world: “It might be good to have a kid that I could kick around, create in my own image like a God.” Namechecks his wife Sylvia and even himself, “Take it Lou.” Again, as effortlessly smart and lyrically brilliant as anything he has recorded.

34. Gimme Some Good Times

The opening song off Street Hassle. Twisted, druggy and completely awesome. In a weird, mocking take on Sweet Jane, Gimme Some Good Times opens with a drugged out fanboy (which could be himself) hassling Lou on the street: “Hey, if it ain’t the rock and roll animal himself…fuckin’ faggot junkie.” Once he gets going, Lou sounds like an irate robot, his lead vocal strangely double-tracked. He says he wants some good times but he sounds like he doesn’t care either way: “Don’t you know things always look ugly, to me they always look the same.”

33. Nobody But You

Lou teamed up with original Velvet Underground bass/viola player John Cale in 1990 for the superb Songs for Drella. One hell of a stirring tribute to their friend and mentor; the recently deceased Andy Warhol. The single from the album, Nobody But You features two guitar tracks, a bass track and Cale’s experimental spirit by way of subtle heavenly keyboard chords underneath. The lyrics are Andy talking in first person about being shot. Deathly humorous.

32. Kicks 

Speed-inflected chiller from Coney Island Baby (1976) plays out like a scary conversation with that guy with the alien stare at a party. Sounds as close as you get to Lou on a speed trip. He assesses his vices and ends up with murder as the ultimate high. Underneath the din of an aural party and cutting guitars, an increasingly demented Reed, with creeping momentum, lays down the challenge to live vicariously through his seedy explorations.

31. Real Good Time Together

A metallic redux of the old Velvet Underground song “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together” is a manic take, as the song undergoes an abstraction before your very ears: Na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na, na-na. Patti Smith used to open her set with this. A scary thrusting statement of intent from Lou’s 70s classic Street Hassle.

30. Temporary Thing

Hey now bitch, you better pack your bags get outta here quick.” Lou at his nastiest on this album closer from the largely awful Rock and Roll Heart (1976), his first album for Arista. Clive Davis had high hopes for Lou, unfortunately it never happened. The album bombed. This track is strong though, Lou adds some bad language and the kind of venom only a junkie can provide, and a nice malevolent groove. You can hear early echos of some of his best work here.

29. NY Stars

The white hot guitar lick is a winner, and Lou’s suitably deadpan vocal slurs through some of his most miserably downbeat lyrics and inventively cool phrasings, with audibly drugged out and heavily-delayed Lou. A track taken from the Sally Can’t Dance (1974) album where Lou mostly dialed it in. No exception here but it works well.

28. Waves of Fear

A cathartic track from one of his masterpieces, The Blue Mask, Waves of Fear documents the psychosis of Lou’s drug paranoia in visceral terms. A harrowing listen, he screams the at-times absurd and terrifying obsessions, finishing with a perfectly manic solo by Robert Quine.

27. New Sensations

From one extreme to the other. A big come down on the relaxed and free-spirited New Sensations, the title track to his creatively successfully album of the same name released in 1984. Lou has finally gone straight, thank God. His drug-induced paranoia has been replaced by earthly pleasures such as riding his motorbike in the country, stopping at a roadside diner for a burger and a coke. Life affirming stuff and a cool groove is the winner here. Superb fretless work by Fernando Saunders with Lou now on all guitars.

26. Andy’s Chest 

Instead of a dentured ocelot on a leash…” Something of a frivolous and surreal ditty found within the phony glamour of Transformer (1972). Originally recorded in 1969 by the Velvet Underground, the title literally refers to the scar on Andy’s chest following the shooting, but could also mean another kind of chest, a treasure trove of sorts, of weird Factory characters.

25. Pow Wow

Another understated and lovely track off the self-produced Legendary Hearts. Despite Quine being buried in the mix on this album, Pow Wow, with its tuneful flourishes and naked production, is a true hidden gem in a vast catalog.

24. Crazy Feeling

Lou assembled a stellar cast of backing musicians for Coney Island Baby and this glistening opening track is full of hooks and well represents the shiny commercialised sound of that album. Bob Kulick excels on slide guitar, this song is about the flash of recognition that links one late-night cruiser to another.

23. Wait 

What initially sounds like cheap irony, Wait’s twisted 50s doo-wop (a style Reed loved) and shabby live/studio production is a beautiful if harrowing listen – the perfect closer for Street Hassle.

22. I Love You

Acoustic and folksy for Lou, he really sings on this, and is in great voice too. I Love You is taken off his eponymous self-titled debut album from 1972. A gorgeously melodic number and very sweet lyrically, until the line: “At least for now, I love you.” Showed up on Walk On the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed (1977), his first greatest hits compilation.

21. All Through the Night

This track, recorded over a late-night cacophony, finds Lou holding court at the bar. There’s clinking glasses and laughter. Marty Fogal’s insistent soprano sax line accompanies Reed’s litany about dark nights of the soul and loneliness. A peak on the shattered masterpiece that is The Bells.

20. What’s Good?

A driving meat and potatoes groover from Magic and Loss with a hook and a hall of fame guitar tone. Reed presents surrealist juxtapositions: “Life’s like bacon and ice-cream“, “space without room” and “a mayonnaise soda“, he concludes what is actually good: “Life’s good, but not fair at all.” Bang on again Lou.

19. Charlie’s Girl 

The lighthearted swing and delightful 70s cowbell of Coney Island Baby’s Charlie’s Girl misrepresents the spiky lyrical content about being sold out by a narc on New Years Eve.

18. Wild Child

Blatant Dylanisms abound (“So we both shared a piece of sweet cheese”) on this highlight rocker from Lou Reed. The scuzzed-out guitar riff, busy drums, prominent bass line and outro guitar solo work well, while Lorraine, the “Wild Child” here, is a glamorous lowlife, she lives out on the street and nobody can get to her. Bowie replicates this on Aladdin Sane with his assorted freaks on Watch That Man.

17. Vicious 

The proto-punk swagger of Vicious’ lyric is based on an Andy Warhol suggestion (“You hit me a flower“), and establishes the campy-bitch persona of Lou’s glitter-rock phase. The lyrical put-downs are enhanced by Mick Ronson’s slashing guitar on this Transformer’s opening track.

16. Heavenly Arms 

Essentially a reworking of Satellite of Love, the rapture of the unrestrained Heavenly Arms is the perfect finale to The Blue Mask. The simplicity of this unabashed love song is where its power lies. Reed’s marriage and his new life are absolutely central to the career reinvention around this time and this unabashed and celebratory love song to his then wife Sylvia finds Quine and Reed playing off each other in superb fashion. Fernando Saunders closes things beautifully with a truly sweet doo-wop vocal coda.

15. Good Evening Mr. Waldheim 

A driving rocker off New York, one of his finest solo albums. Lou directly addresses some anti-semitic, self-righteous assholes of the 80s and doesn’t miss; for example Kurt Waldheim, an Austrian politician and Secretary General of the UN who covered up his involvement in the Nazi party, and Jesse Jackson, a black civil rights leader who said a few off-colour things about Jews, such as referring to New York as “Hymietown”.

14. Outside 

Lou’s mid-80s stab at top 40 MTV consumption wasn’t all bad. Like the majority of Mistrial, Outside has a crafty circular hook and a bright uncluttered arrangement. Thoroughly enjoyable, it’s one of his most underrated tracks.

13. Turn Out the Light

A secret charmer from Legendary Hearts. Forget I’m Waiting for the Man, this is Lou’s signature sound and its on full display here on the chugging Turn Out the Light.  A terrific version of this track appears on An Evening With Lou Reed at New York’s The Bottom Line. Essential viewing.

12. Warrior King 

A gruff hard rocker from a heartfelt album (Magic and Loss) of introspection. This one finds Lou, Chuck Berry-style, rocking with a hint of art-rock textures. His sardonic humour to express his neck-bulging anger and grief is intact: “It wouldn’t cross my mind to your break neck or rip out your vicious tongue. It wouldn’t cross my mind to snap your leg like a twig or squash you like some slug.

11. A Gift

Is he being sarcastic or ironic? Is he talking about himself or is he in character of someone he met in the underbelly of New York in the mid-70s? The sighing A Gift, is a throwaway delight from Coney Island Baby and finds Lou poking fun at his street hustler image, and like much of that album, examining his formative years growing up in New York, invoking Coney Island as a metaphor for bygone American dreams.

10. Think it Over

The only song here off Growing Up in Public (1980). This absolute gem is a moving love song to his wife-to-be Sylvia. He ruminates on asking her to marry him while she sleeps. His descriptions of her beautiful face and hair, he wants to rush, she wonders if he knows what he’s getting himself into. She tells him to cool it down and think it over. The instrumentation is exquisite and vocal performance is subtle and restrained, unlike much that album. A treasure.

9. Romeo Had Juliette

Perfect opener off New York. Romeo Had Juliette spotlights the guitar interplay between Reed and Mike Rathke – unparalleled in his career. It heralded a new phase of Reed’s career, that of an accomplished lyricist, guitarist and songwriter. There’s detailed packed into every single line. This track imagines a pair of lovers trying to make it in a city that is completely falling apart. Its also Lou’s love letter to the dirty, wrecked, beautiful town he adores.

8. Perfect Day

An intimate epic from Transformer, co-produced by Bowie and Ronson. Reed once called it “A lovely song. A description of a very straightforward affair.”  There’s the park, the movies, the zoo: this is urban realism, a normal date on the weekend. But there’s something disturbing about Perfect Day. From the conversational verses to the gigantic chorus, the slow, stately feel accompanies a feeling of tragic foreboding: “I thought I was someone else, someone good.” A beautiful ballad, its the album’s most arresting song.

7. My House 

My house is very beautiful at night.” The smoldering My House has evocations of Reed’s present-day serenity colliding with the intimate otherworldiness of the guitars. It can be attributed to Reed and Quine and the astonishing empathy of Fernando Saunders’ fretless bass, calling upon the spirit of late poet Delmore Schwartz to bless the domestic calm of Lou and Sylvia’s NY house. Perfect opener for the magnificence of The Blue Mask.

6. Dirty Blvd.

Lou describes New York’s poverty directly through the eyes of down-and-out character Pedro. This track and the accompanying album (New York) put Lou Reed back on the rock landscape map. Stripped down to two guitars, bass and drums, the sparseness works. There’s no overdubs, no effects, so Reed’s powerful words sparkle. Dirty Blvd also benefits from backing vocals at the close of the song, courtesy of Dion Dimucci, one of Lou’s childhood idols.

5. Satellite of Love

Satellite of Love finds Lou Reed at his most tuneful and accessible. Recorded at Trident Studios in London in 1972, from his most universally loved solo album Transformer, although only achieving minor chart success as a single. Mick Ronson lends his hand with the gorgeous piano, and big-Reed-fan David Bowie provides magnificent backing vocals to the swooping choruses. Reed would write later of DB: “He has a melodic sense that’s just well above anyone else in rock & roll. Most people could not sing some of his melodies. He can really go for a high note. Take ‘Satellite of Love,’ on my Transformer album. There’s a part at the very end where his voice goes all the way up. It’s fabulous.

4. I Wanna Boogie With You

The Bells was recorded in West Germany in 1979 and the standout track conveying an urgent intensity that borders on naked agony is the droning jaw dropper I Want to Boogie With You. Its also funky as hell. The lasting appeal is the powerful economy of its arrangement. There are disco and doo-wop flavours at work here, and it’s undoubtedly one of Reed’s most underrated offerings.

3. Coney Island Baby

A rare example of Reed expressing emotional vulnerability, Coney Island Baby’s devastating title track sets a moral battle between the druggy, debauched character Reed had become and the youthful idealist he once was. This magnum opus starts with the lines: “You know, man, when I was a young man in high school you believe it or not, that I wanted to play football for the coach. All those older guys, they said he was mean and cruel but you know, I wanted to play football for the coach.” In those few lines, Reed captures the very essence of American childhood. Gradually unveiling its humanity and beauty, and poignancy, it’s not that everyone wants to play football; it’s that everyone wants to belong. And the way he sings, “The glory of love might see you through” may be the most generous and compassionate gesture of his entire career, especially when he ends the song in dedication to his transsexual lover and old Brooklyn public school class; “I’d like to send this one out to Lou and Rachel, to all the kids at P.S. 192. Man, I swear I’d give the whole thing up for you.” Masterful.

2. Street Hassle

The quintessential New York street track; this 11-minute, three-part narrative tour de force oozes personal and very disturbing portraits of the city’s darkened alleys. It opens with a repetitive cello motif picked up by the guitar and continued on electric bass until the phrase becomes a near-hypnotic rhythmic spell. Reed turns graffiti into poetry, tying in themes of loneliness, sexual anguish and death, including erotic images, cynicism and strangely moving lyrical passages (plus a Bruce Springsteen cameo) until the final catharsis.  The title track off his best ever solo album is also the greatest love song in his entire catalog.

1. Walk On the Wild Side

Transformer’s opus of cross-dressing creatures of the night, oral sex, open homosexuality and drug use, and Lou delivers the subjects’ proclivities in his matter-of-fact monotone on this rock classic. It famously slipped past the censors and became a surprise hit in 1972. He refers to speed and valium, drug references that also flew under the censors radar. Reed’s effortless neon-drenched goodbye to his association with Andy Warhol and his factory acolytes, features session pro Herbie Flowers on sliding bass, jazz musician Ronnie Ross on the baritone sax coda, string arrangements by rock-god Mick Ronson, David Bowie on acoustic guitar, and the coloured-girls are the backing singers Thunderthighs. A timeless classic that sounds as fresh today as when it was released.

This entry was posted in Lou Reed, Mixtapes, Top 50 Songs. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Lou Reed – Top 50 Solo Songs

  1. Reblogged this on Pierce's Press and commented:

    This Lou Reed Top 50 Songs is now avaiable to listen to on Spotify.

    Listen here.

  2. Tom Bodus says:

    Just goes to show how rich his catalog was. I would have placed “New Sensations” much higher. It’s one of my desert island Lou Reed songs. My list also leaves room for “What’s Good (The Thesis),” from “Magic and Loss,” “Paranoia in the Key of E,” from “Ecstacy,” and his cover version of Dylan’s “Foot of Pride.” I also have a soft spot for “Video Violence” from “Mistrial.”

  3. Actually I think What’s Good might be there after all.

  4. Pingback: Lou Reed – Street Hassle | THE PRESS | Music Reviews

  5. Good work Press. I’m ImPRESSed by your detail. I remember listening to the ‘Coney Island Baby ‘ album. ‘Kicks’ was playing and my Oldman came into my room chuckling and asking me “What the hell are you listening to?”. We both started laughing.

  6. Kaydence says:

    After the disappointment of Berlin, Reed’s career revival came in the form of a live album – Rock’n’Roll Animal, a runaway success – followed by Sally Can’t Dance, the highest-charting US album of his solo career. Reed’s fourth studio album held the distinction of being his first without any surplus Velvet Underground material on it, and the first recorded back in the US (the first three were all recorded in London). Reed famously despised talking to journalists, insisting they weren’t necessary, because the naked truth of his life had already been documented in all of his songs. Few artists were writing about waiting for their drug dealers in the, and none this decade have yet put themselves in the shoes of lustful h-century wunderkinds from the works of Frank Wedekind. On Kill Your Sons, Lou addresses the electroshock therapy he endured as a 17-year-old. It’s a dark psychological thriller of a song with wild guitar meanderings that call to mind The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam’s Dice by Jimi Hendrix. Incidentally, Lou once told Lester Bangs that he could “take Hendrix”, claiming he was “one of the greatest guitar players, but I’m better”. Those fans who paid up for the squalling feedback guitar-loop madness of follow-up album Metal Machine Music might have begged to differ.

  7. Pingback: Lou Reed – I’m So Free – The 1971 RCA Demos | THE PRESS | Music Reviews

  8. Pingback: More Album Cover Outtakes | THE PRESS | Music Reviews

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