While the Velvet Underground is often remembered for its principal songwriter, the enigmatic ‘King of New York,’ Lou Reed, it was only as strong as Reed’s collaboration with John Cale, a classically trained musician that balanced out Reed’s erratic rock and roll personality with intensely intelligent and genre-bending compositional structure. The Velvet Underground, while short-lived, defined a new generation of rock music.
The Velvet Underground released four records during their active years as a band, and a series of compilations and unreleased material have followed in the subsequent five decades. (Yes, four albums. ‘Squeeze’ just doesn’t count.) This list contains ten of the outfit’s finest songs from their career in descending order.
# 10 – ‘New Age’ | ‘Loaded’ | 1970
‘Loaded’ is technically the last Velvet Underground album, since again, ‘Squeeze’ was some bizarre cash-grab in which the majority of the band wasn’t involved to begin with. With that said, that corporate mentality of cashing in the band began during the early stages of the creation of ‘Loaded.’ The label told Reed to write an album “loaded with hits.” So, that’s what he tried to do.
As a result of that, ‘Loaded’ is surely the most commercially acceptable album of the four Velvet Underground endeavors. The songs are accessible, and at times, Reed’s disillusionment with the task is painfully apparent. It does house, however, some of the band’s better tracks. ‘New Age’ is one of those tracks. It’s a beautiful track that Reed originally wrote about his then-girlfriend, with some of his most stunning lyrics. “I’m come running to you, baby if you want me,” he croons over a gorgeous composition.
One thing worth noting is that the best versions of songs on ‘Loaded’ are actually not found on the album, but rather on ‘The Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed: 1969,’ a two volume series released in 1974. The live performances of the ‘Loaded’ tracks on that album are spectacular, stripped down into sheer intensity and emotion. Plus, Reed’s heart is in the performances, unlike much of the studio album.
# 9 – ‘Beginning To See The Light’ | ‘The Velvet Underground’ | 1969
The Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album is their most subdued effort. The songs are soft-spoken, and with the exception of ‘The Murder Mystery,’ they don’t have much of the avant garde experimentation that filled the two album’s worth of material preceding them. That isn’t a bad thing, though, and one could argue ‘The Velvet Underground’ is the band’s most cohesive, fully-realized album. From start to finish, it’s pure genius.
‘Beginning To See The Light’ is the perfect mixture of edginess and infectiousness. Reed’s vocals are carefree and exuberant. His youth fills the sonic landscape, and it makes ‘Beginning To See The Light’ one of the band’s most enduring songs. The loose harmonies are splendid, too, and it’s fantastic to hear the band jumping in on vocals with Reed.
# 8 – ‘Lisa Says’ | ‘VU’ | 1985 | (Recorded 1969)
In 1985, the most compelling Velvet Underground archive release project was put out: ‘VU.’ The album consists of 15 tracks recorded between 1968 and 1969, and it’s a remarkable insight into group’s creative process during their latter years. ‘Lisa Says’ can be found in its studio form on ‘VU,’ but again, the best version is on the 1969 live album.
Fans of Lou Reed will likely be familiar with ‘Lisa Says.’ It’s a track Reed reworked a dozen times in his catalog. As fans of his will also know, Reed also had a penchant for songs about women with the title ‘[Name] Says.’ In this case, ‘Lisa Says’ is one of Reed’s most fascinating songs. The key change and interlude in the middle of the track is unlike anything else in the Velvet Underground catalog, and the troubled introspection of Reed’s struggles with the opposite sex is something that would later become a hallmark of his style. (It would also be the cause of much criticism.)
# 7 – ‘Sister Ray’ | ‘White Light / White Heat’ | 1968
‘Sister Ray’ is a wonderful mess – a beautiful cacophony. At 17:30, the track is the longest excursion in the band’s catalog, and it took up nearly the entire opposite side of 1968’s ‘White Light / White Heat.’ The record engineer famously left the studio during the recording of the track, remarking that he couldn’t listen to the song anymore, and to have the band call him back when they were done performing it.
The traditional song structure that ‘Sister Ray’ begins with devolves, or perhaps, evolves, depending on how you view it, after several minutes. Reed and Cale bounce back and forth at one another with the former on guitar and the latter on a distorted, fuzzy celesta. ‘Sister Ray’ is a thing of beauty because it isn’t just noise; it’s organized chaos. It’s the groundwork for avant garde, noise rock, and Cale is arguably injecting jazz influence throughout, too.
# 6 – ‘Candy Says’ | ‘The Velvet Underground’ | 1969
‘Candy Says,’ another track Lou Reed reworked throughout the years, is arguably at its finest during its first execution on the third Velvet Underground record. It’s the Velvet Underground at their softest. (A huge contrast to ‘Sister Ray,’ which is the band at their loudest.) Reed sings in a near-whisper, and ‘Candy Says’ is a track that you could hum a lullaby to.
The lyrics, of course, may not be lullaby material. Like much of Reed’s lyricism about women, ‘Candy Says’ is a heartbreaking affair. The titular character, Candy, is essentially in a self-induced state of perpetual turmoil as she dreams of a world uninhibited by her fears and her pains. The themes in ‘Candy Says’ are an early insight into the songwriting style that Reed would dig his heels deep into four years later on his second solo album, ‘Berlin.’
# 5 –‘Sweet Jane’ | ‘Loaded’ | 1970
There are few tracks accessible enough in the Velvet Underground catalog to be viable for radio airplay. ‘Sweet Jane’ is one of them, and in the years since its release, it’s become one of the Velvet Underground’s most iconic, recognizable tracks. Upon its release on ‘Loaded,’ however, it created an even larger rift between Reed and the rest of the band when a good chunk of the track was cut upon release. In later releases, the cut interlude was added back into the track in an effort to appease Reed.
It was clearly a favorite of Lou Reed’s as well, and the track exudes his personality. He continued to perform it through every era of his career, often reworking the track into different keys and structures. Collectors should seek out Reed performing the track in 1978 at Park West in Chicago – it’s one of the best live performances of the decade and a superb look into ‘Sweet Jane’ at its best. (We’ve included a stream of the performance below.)
# 4 – ‘White Light / White Heat’ | ‘White Light / White Heat’ | 1968
The title track of ‘White Light / White Heat’ is an intriguing composition. Out of the gate, it made a defiant statement that the Velvet Underground had grown massively since their debut album the year before. The track is also the embodiment of classic rock and roll, but at the same time, it’s mixed with the typical taboo subject matter of the Velvet Underground.
‘White Light / White Heat’ features a pounding rock piano, a clear R&B influence that sounds like something right out of a Fats Domino recording. It’s a simple track, one that’s jam-packed with that thunderous piano, vocal harmonies, and a whole lot of distortion. The lyrics, though, are inspired by taking methamphetamine, giving the lighthearted atmosphere a decisively darker tone upon further inspection.
# 3 – ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ | ‘The Velvet Underground’ | 1969
‘Pale Blue Eyes’ is one of those love ballads that floors you the very first time you hear it. Lou Reed’s emotional, intimate performance is jaw-droppingly personal. “Thought of you as my mountaintop,” he sings. “Thought of you as my peak. Thought of you as everything I’ve had but couldn’t keep.” The reason Reed couldn’t keep that woman, though, is because she was married.
In that way, it breaks itself away from the traditional love ballad. It isn’t just a love song. It’s a track of forbidden infidelity and personal anguish. Reed’s love for the subject is clear, but you can hear in his voice that it tears his heart apart that he shouldn’t be with her. ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ is one of the best Velvet Underground songs of all time, and it’s arguably one of Reed’s best pieces of songwriting throughout his whole career.
# 2 – ‘I’m Waiting For My Man’ | ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ | 1967
‘I’m Waiting For My Man’ is the most infectious song you could ever write about waiting for your smack dealer. It’s one of the most covered songs in the Velvet Underground catalog, and there’s something about its barrelhouse intensity that’s unforgettable after hearing it. (In fact, it has a similar compositional style to ‘White Light / White Heat.’)
The song is, in some ways, pure Velvet Underground. It’s rocking, you can dance to it, it’s incredibly well written, and it’s chock-full of drug references. If one was to imagine a soundtrack to Andy Warhol’s Factory in the late 60s, it would be ‘I’m Waiting For My Man.’ (In fact, in the video below, you can see the band rehearsing it at The Factory.)
# 1 – ‘Heroin’ | ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ | 1967
The importance of ‘Heroin’ cannot be stressed enough, not just within the context of the Velvet Underground’s discography, but within the historical context of the era in which it was released. It’s the band’s most genius composition, both lyrically and instrumentally, as Cale and Reed jam back and forth in a droning landscape of erratic percussion, two electric guitars, no bass, and an unending, droning electric viola.
Reed’s lyricism is as bizarre as it is troubling, as he essentially devolves into a place of existential fear about overdosing on heroin. The uncomfortable, droning nature of ‘Heroin’ and its instrumentation is designed to create an aural portrait of being on heroin. That’s why the track rises and falls repeatedly before ultimately overdosing in a chaotic explosion of disorder.
‘Heroin’ is gorgeous. It’s poetic. It’s also really, really terrifying. It’s the Velvet Underground’s masterpiece.