The late, great Lou Reed took anger and turned it into an art form. Although capable of tender love songs and reflections on life and death, he is best known for songs about the outsiders of society. The only predictable thing about Lou Reed’s solo career was his unpredictability. His prickly personality broke up the Velvet Underground and made any reunions short-lived. Here are the top 10 Lou Reed albums ranked.
# 10 – Lulu
No, wait, hold on – this widely panned 2011 collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica has three things that go into any great Lou Reed album – great lyrics, anger and lots of surprises. According to Lou Reed’s widow, Laurie Anderson, none other than David Bowie called this a masterpiece in the same way that Berlin was basically ignored for a couple of decades and is now almost universally considered a classic. Lou Reed’s health had greatly declined when this, his last album was made, so he mostly rapped instead of sang, although he does sing on tracks like “Iced Honey.” And let’s be clear – this is a Lou Reed album with Metallica as a backing band. Imagine if James Joyce had made a rock album. That’s Lulu (or LouLou, Lou squared.)
# 9 – Sally Can’t Dance
This 1974 album divides fans since it has a much more mainstream sound than any previous work. This is because Lou Reed left producing to someone else. He wouldn’t do that again. Producer Steve Katz did a good job with these twisted songs of psychiatric patients, animal abuse and, of course, drugs, putting on lots of background singing and hot guitar licks and groovy keyboards. Critics hated this album but it sold really well, causing Lou Reed to quip that the less involved with a record he was, the bigger a hit it became, so if he wasn’t on his next record at all, it may hit Number One.
# 8 – Coney Island Baby
Lou Reed often went high-concept, but he also could put out a more conventional rock album in his unique style. Who else could sweetly sing, “I said if I ever see Sharon again I’m gonna punch her face in” to a background of “la la la”s and a groovy beat? If you’re not paying attention to the lyrics, you could be fooled into to thinking this was just your usual pop record, even with the clips of people talking at a party in “Kicks.” Lou Reed loved seeing how much he could get away with. You’ll enjoy listening to him do it in this 1975 album. Hard to believe this was put out by the same guy in the same year as his ode to guitar feedback, Metal Machine Music.
# 7 – Magic and Loss
This 1992 album is supposed to be a concept album, but you can’t help but wonder what concept Lou Reed had when making this. The beauty of it is that it could be any concept you want. Despite’s its emphasis on death, it’s a look at life, as explained in “Magic and Loss (The Summation)”: “There’s a bit of magic in everything and then some loss to even things out.” The standout track is “Cremation (Ashes to Ashes)” where Lou Reed talks to the ashes of his beloved dead, about to be tossed into the waves of the dark Atlantic. It is heartfelt and sad, yet not sappy.
# 6 – Rock and Roll Animal
This is a roaring, punk-like short album of a Lou Reed concert from December 21, 1973 never lets up. It originally appeared with only five songs, four of which were Velvet Underground songs. A re-release came out with two more songs. It, too, is filled with Lou Reed’s stylish brand of anger. Guitarists Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter provide some ferocious licks here.
# 5 – New Sensations
Lou Reed got off most of his drugs and, surprisingly, became happy. The result was this 1984 album of mostly happy songs set to a rocking beat. There are songs like “Endlessly Jealous” which a domestic abuser apologizes for his misdeeds, so Lou Reed hadn’t gone entirely crazy with happiness. The album sold well enough, but the public was more used to an angry Lou Reed than a happy one. In-fighting with his guitarist led to Lou Reed playing most of the guitar parts on the album.
# 4 – The Blue Mask
While Lou Reed was cleaning up from drugs, he took a hard look at growing up. The result was this hard rock exploration of paranoia, his marriage, a dead poet living in his house, violence and drinking. It opens up with feedback and the first lyric is, “They tied his arms behind his back to teach him how to swim” and just goes off from there. It demands a lot of a listener, but it’s worth the journey. This originally came out in 1982 and was re-released in 2000.
# 3 – New York
Lou Reed did spoken word to music long before Lulu, as seen here on this 1989 offering. Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker lends her unconventional style to two songs. The whole album seems to be snapshot of New York City in just one day. The album produced a rarity for Lou Reed – a hit single in “Dirty Blvd.” Lyrics contain some real Lou Reed gems like this one, describing Americans, “Stick a fork in their ass and turn ’em over, they’re done.” Topics in songs include domestic abuse, celebrities at the time and, of course, drugs. Try to listen the album in one sitting as Lou Reed meant you to hear it, like a huge wall mural of New York in rock and roll
# 2 – Transformer
David Bowie had a love-hate relationship with his creation Ziggy Stardust, but it did bring one big positive to his life – a chance to produce a Lou Reed album and sing background vocals. Guitarist Mick Ronson came along to help with arrangements, to sing and play various instruments. All the production in the world would not have helped had Lou Reed not been able to produce a solid set of songs with strangely captivating lyrics. Songs include Lou Reed’s best-known song, “Walk on the Wild Side” as well as the classics, “Perfect Day” and “Satellite of Love.” Lou Reed was in fine voice here, his quavering tenor fitting in with the bizarre, witty and at times tender lyrics. “New York Telephone Conversation” is the forgotten gem. Warning – hearing it makes you miss Lou Reed all the more.
# 1 – Berlin
This dark and times stark album dared to look at topics not usually found in hit rock albums – domestic abuse, prostitution, suicide and amphetamine addiction, all apparently set in the city of Berlin. It was reviled when it was released in 1973. By 2003, it was rightly considered a masterpiece. The album includes one of the saddest songs ever found in rock, “The Kids”, where a prostitute mother’s children are dragged way. Producer Bob Ezrin told his children to think of the saddest thing they could and then recorded them crying. A great album takes you to another place and leaves you changed after hearing it. Berlin is such an album and that’s why it’s at the top of our Lou Reed album list.
10 Best Lou Reed Albums Ranked article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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