Lou Reed, whether in the Velvet Underground or solo, inspired entire genres – glam, art rock, punk, industrial, grunge, shoegaze, goth, indie rock – so to try and boil down 50-plus years of his work into 15 tracks is more perverse than that one song where he gets pissed off at a fictional Laurie Anderson for finding a bobby pin of some other woman he fucked in their bed, which is just the most perversely stunning move ever. How can I not include "Vicious," for instance, you may ask? Ask me tomorrow and I'll explain in detail why it was idiotic to leave it out, so go ahead, hit me with a flower. With Reed, it's not just that we all have our favorites, it's that we're all totally bewildered by his discography. As SPIN contributor Keith Harris put it: "I think it's great that there's so little consensus about which solo Lou songs are great and which are shitty, after all these years."
Here are 15 songs that showcase the man's bewildering genius.
FIVE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT TRACKS
1. "Heroin" (The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967)
Of Lou Reed's drug epics, "Heroin" was the romantic, self-justifying delusion. The one that sent you rushing and picaresquing and collapsing in a warm coma, again and again. It seduced you into its dank, condemned building – where you got on your knees and begged for a fix like a trembling baby bird – then seemed to satisfy your darkest, kingdom-building desires with its lurching and soothing and bruising. But inevitably, it threw your ass out on the street. "Well, I guess that I just don't know," offered your host blankly. And then you crapped your pants or retched into a storm drain or cried uncontrollably for Mommy and Daddy's covers. But you kept coming back, because it made killing yourself so fucking sexy. That's "Heroin."
*Note: "I'm Waiting for the Man" is my personal talisman, since it dramatically nails, like Scorsese before Scorsese, the flop-sweat titillation of going where you shouldn't go to get to a place beyond your imagination that you'll eventually have to leave in shame. Hey, white boy.
2. "Sister Ray" (The Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat, 1968)
The churning, the hitting it sideways, the noise-as-ecstastic-colonic, it's all here, with Reed's need to perform shock therapy on the mushy American brain (moralizing drips and freely babbling hippies alike) enabled by John Cale's expertise in transformative drones via organ-through-jacked-up-guitar-amp and Sterling Morrison's very human impulse to fuck these two pretentious twats and crank his guitar to the point of excruciating oomph. If you've ever claimed to enjoy the purgative effects of frightfully tuneless feedback, this is why. Also, a buncha sailors get their ding-dongs sucked by drag queens. Shout to Hubert Selby.
3. "Candy Says" (The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground, 1969)
Aside from being the most tenderly overwhelming song many of us have ever heard (ranking with the ballads of Little Jimmy Scott, a favorite of the singer), Reed often contended that it was the best song he'd ever written. Inspired by the transgender struggles of swoon-worthy Warhol Superstar, actress, and "real lady" Candy Darling (the former Jimmy Slattery of Forest Hills, Queens, and Massapequa, Long Island), "Candy Says" is a gently plucked tableau of finely wrought existential despair, doomed doo-wop caresses, and a melody like bluebirds flying over your shoulder. In a brilliant switch-up, it's sung by folky VU straight man Doug Yule. Versions by Antony Hegarty (who performed the song with Reed), Portishead's Beth Gibbons, Martin Gore, Garbage, and Dax Riggs all have their merits. Conversely, I'm sure Shannon Hoon meant well.
4. "Rock & Roll" (The Velvet Underground, Loaded, 1970)
The ringmaster of the Velvets' art-aspiring innovations and the solo artist who Lester Bangs once called a "pathetic death dwarf" was also a boyish, unabashed acolyte of rock'n'roll's elemental, redemptive power. Thus, on the Velvets' commercially grasping, Yule-tide fourth album, Loaded (which did not include Cale or drummer Maureen Tucker), he wrote a peerless anthem about rock radio that never came close to cracking rock radio. Sung from the point of view of a girl even though it was autobiographical, as were many of Reed's best songs, "Rock & Roll" was inflected with the man's pathological baggage – drugs, sexual confusion, the whole nihilistic panoply of New York street seediness – but somehow it felt joyous and light as a feather. His voice gave the straightforward, "Here she goes, now!" lyrics a cathartic growl, while he and Sterling Morrison provided more indelible guitar riffs and hooks and flourishes in four minutes than the Kings of Leon have in their entire career. "Amputations" and "computations" be damned.
5. "Waves of Fear" (Lou Reed, The Blue Mask, 1982)
Some twerps claim the centerpiece of Reed's most celebrated post-'70s record is too grandiose or obvious, but after a lot of farting around on his previous solo albums, he decided to smash us in the nose bone with this terror-stricken diary of depression and paranoia, which still makes me shake and sweat like unprotected sex on the night before finals. "Waves of fear, squat on the floor / Looking for some pill, the liquor is gone / Blood drips from my nose, I can barely breathe / Waves of fear, I'm too scared to leave." Thing is, he sings all this like he's planting his feet and puffing up his chest in preparation to face the next wave. The 40-year-old, apparently happily married Reed finally plays some flaying guitar again, too, as he and ex-Richard Hell and the Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine lob broken wine bottles of screech across stereo channels at each other, somehow creating a breath-gulpingly exquisite mosaic of shattered self-hatred. This fear shit may take him down, but it's not gonna take him out.