Lou Reed: 11 Essential Songs

From "Sunday Morning" to "Dirty Blvd." — a look back at the legendary rocker's best moments

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Gijsbert Hanekroot / Redferns / Getty Images

Lou Reed performs live at the Carre Theatre in Amsterdam on March 9, 1975

On Sunday, legendary rocker Lou Reed passed away at the age of 71.

(MORE: Rock Legend Lou Reed Dead at 71)

Reed embodied New York cool and the downtown culture of the 1960s and ’70s. His influence — first, with the seminal art-rock band the Velvet Underground (inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame in 1996), and then in a series of solo albums — cannot be underestimated.

“The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years,” producer and musician Brian Eno once said. “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”

Reed’s body of work defined rock ’n’ roll for generations, with his music imitated and idolized by bands played on the left and the right of the radio dial. It’s easy to draw a direct line from the music created by Reed and the Velvets in the ’60s to the punk, New Wave and alternative rock movements of the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and the indie rock of today. Rock fans of all ilk are indebted to Reed for the music that fills their iPods and record players.

While Reed’s legacy is most closely identified with the Velvet Underground, some of the music he created on his own in a series of diverse and brilliant albums were the equal of the Velvets and, occasionally, even better.

From 1972’s David Bowie–produced Transformer through 1989’s New York, Reed knew how to craft a memorable song whether it was based on a melancholic melody or a hard-grinding edge. Even when an album was almost universally disliked, such as Lulu, his 2011 collaboration with Metallica, Reed knew how to get people talking about his music. At the time of his death, we take a look back at the legendary rocker’s best moments from the Velvet Underground and beyond.

Here are 11 essential tracks that illustrate Reed’s impressive musical legacy:

“Sweet Jane”

The song originally appeared on the Velvet Underground album Loaded (1970) and has been covered by a wide range of artists, from Mott the Hoople to Cowboy Junkies to Phish. This version is from Reed’s 1974 live album Rock ’n’ Roll Animal.

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“Walk on the Wild Side”

This track from Reed’s second solo album, 1972’s David Bowie–produced Transformer, is filled with numerous references to drugs and sex.

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“Street Hassle”

The three-part song, from Reed’s 1978 album of the same name, features a brief (and uncredited) spoken-word contribution from Bruce Springsteen.

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“Perfect Day”

Also from Transformer, “Perfect Day” was introduced to a new generation when it was featured in the 1996 film Trainspotting.

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“Coney Island Baby”

The title track from Reed’s 1975 album is a powerful and plaintive love song that demonstrated his vulnerable side.

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“Pale Blue Eyes”

Arguably Reed’s greatest ballad, from the Velvet Underground’s self-titled 1960 album.

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“Sister Ray”

Written by the Velvet Underground — with lyrics by Reed — and appearing on their 1968 album White Light/White Heat, the track was a band favorite — they often closed their shows with this song.

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“Satellite of Love”

David Bowie provide backing vocals on yet another standout track from Reed’s Transformer — U2 covered the song on the 1992–93 Zoo TV Tour, with Bono singing with prerecorded vocals from Reed himself.

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“Dirty Blvd.”

Perhaps the standout track from Reed’s widely acclaimed 1989 album New York, “Dirty Blvd.” is just as urgent and relevant more than two decades later, with its astringent take on the gap that divides the haves and have-nots.

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“I’m Waiting for the Man”

From the Velvet Underground’s debut album, 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico (with its famous Andy Warhol–illustrated cover), “Man” tells the tale of a heroin deal in Harlem.

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“Sunday Morning”

The opening track from The Velvet Underground and Nico was co-written by Reed and bandmate John Cale and was originally intended to be sung by Nico, who provides backing vocals to Reed’s lead for the album version.

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PHOTOS: Lou Reed’s Life in Photos: 1942–2013
MORE: Music Monday: Lou Reed and Metallica Sing About Magnets

2 comments
Ocsicnarf
Ocsicnarf

My first favourite albums were 1969 (Lou with Velvet Underground) and Before the Flood (Bob Dylan with The Band). You were great Lou but you should have lived more healthy.

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

I still remember hearing "The Velvet Underground with Nico" for the first time, in 1968, and thinking: This is either the worst or the best band I've ever heard. For me, a West Coast Hippie/ surfer/  all around slacker it, was New York on a vinyl record. "White Light/ White Heat" still blows my ears off. So long, Lou. Thanks for the music.