It’s always tough whenever we try to rank the songs in any essential band’s catalog—and whether you prefer to call them protopunks, art rock or just simply the epitome of cool, there’s no denying that The Velvet Underground is as essential as they come. But ranking the work of a group that changed its tune so frequently proves especially challenging: what you consider the “best” depends almost entirely on whether your tastes lean more experimental and avant-garde or if the radio-friendly Loaded era is more your style.
In the end, we went with our gut, and we’re confident we’ve come up with a list that reflects the best Lou Reed and company put forth during their too-brief time together. As always, be sure to sound off in the comments section and tell us your picks.
Maureen Tucker is a machine, a driving force. On “Sister Ray” she plays straight 2/4 time for seventeen minutes. The rest of the band has the luxury of falling apart all around her, because she’s wide awake at the wheel… munching on coffee beans like they were sunflower seeds. Listening to the drums on this track, I see Tucker in my mind as some kind of Speed Racer anime character, hunched over her kit with her elbows flailing, her teeth clenched, her eyes squinted and all those wild anime speed lines flying around her sticks and over her head.—Curt Cloninger
Sure, it’s about a lady of the night who’s “got the power to love me by the hour,” but Reed’s warning to take things slow so you get your money’s worth is a much broader lesson. Perhaps it’s a plea to all the hard-living Warhol scenesters to slow down if they want to make it to old age.
Clocking in at just over two minutes, this is one of the VU’s most concise tracks. Reed originally intended for this to be a Nico song, but the German singer’s collaboration with the band was over by the time they got around to recording White Light/White Heat, so Reed handles the vocals himself, turning in a track that’s short, simple and strangely mystifying.
This Loaded outtake features some sweetly childish lead vocals by Maureen Tucker accompanied by a piano riff that brings to mind school recitals before Reed and the rest of the band come in and it evolves into something that sounds more typical of the Velvet Underground.
The Velvet Underground’s third effort is their first to feature Doug Yule. In addition to playing bass, Yule handles lead vocals on “Candy Says,” the album’s opening ode to Candy Darling (who would later famously become a subject of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”). The album marks a departure for the art rockers as they began to shift from their experimental Warhol years into calmer, mellower—but no less outstanding—sonic territory, and “Candy Says” is the perfect example of this.
“Run Run Run” is exactly the kind of portrait of New York seediness that would become Reed’s bread and butter; it’s got characters like Teenage Mary, Seasick Sarah and Margarita Passion running around Union Square trying to get their fix and selling their souls, as well as a wonderfully unhinged guitar solo.
It’s as good a soundtrack for the first few minutes of a summer day as there is, and guaranteed by doctors to erase a hangover instantly.*
In which Nico attempts to warn us all about Edie Sedgwick’s man-eating ways. It’s a fairly straightforward track, but there’s something about the way she hits the words “everybody knows” that’s absolutely chilling—it’s as if you’re just realizing that you’ve been taken for a fool and, even worse, everyone you know watched it happen.
A driving song that would find new life later when the Talking Heads would lift its organ riff for the climax to “Once in a Lifetime.”
The wonderful double meanings in this song open it up to several different interpretations. Has Lou Reed’s protagonist really had an epiphany about the error of his ways, or is this nightowl literally “beginning to see the light” because he’s stayed out until dawn? Is it all about the decisions we make (“here comes two of you, which one will you choose?”), or are we ultimately destined for darkness and unhappiness (“one is black, one is blue”)?
Nico’s vocals have never sounded lovelier than on “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” one of the group’s greatest love songs. Honestly, don’t we all just live to be fed romantic lines like “I find it hard to believe you don’t know the beauty you are, but if you don’t, let me be your eyes, a hand in your darkness so you won’t be afraid”?
Inspired by the book of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose name inspired the term “masochism”), “Venus in Furs” features S&M-heavy lyrics like “taste the whip, now bleed for me” set against John Cale’s eerie-sounding viola and the slow pulse of a tambourine.
A love letter to the genre, this Loaded song tells the story of Jenny, whose “life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.” Unlike much of the VU catalog, which tends to focus on the dangers of subscribing to the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, this one’s an innocent number dedicated to the power music wields over us. Putting on the right record—perhaps, oh I don’t know, this song—or discovering something you truly love can erase even the darkest of moods, and it’s nice to hear a man who so often sings of lives destroyed give us a happy outcome for once.
Meant to sound like its subject matter (a speed high) feels, the first track on the Velvet Underground’s second album somehow manages to have feet planted in both the past and future: the piano sounds like something you’d hear inside an old juke joint or on a Jerry Lee Lewis track, while the fuzzy guitars and feedback would go on to inspire legions of punks for years to come.
There are only a handful of songs that can be described as the musical equivalent of the cool side of the pillow, or an omelet prepared by someone you love, or a coffee table you can kick your feet up on while you do the crossword puzzle—and “Sunday Morning” is one of those songs. Don’t let John Cale’s heavenly celesta part fool you though: it’s about moving past any regrets, letting all those Saturday-night toxins work their way out of your system. Lines like “watch out, the world’s behind you” and “I’ve got a feeling I don’t want to know” lend an appropriate sense of darkness to the otherwise-sunny track.
Lou Reed was on his way out of the group during the recording of Loaded, but while Doug Yule handles lead vocals on this song, it’s still got all the markings of a classic Reed work: a collection of characters—plenty of whom are homeless junkies—trying to get by, a cruel urban backdrop, a lack of judgement of its flawed protagonists. It feels more like a short story than a song at points, and it’s proof of how indispensable to the group Reed truly was.
One of Lou Reed’s most iconic songs, “Sweet Jane” was also a source of contention after he left the band: an extra verse was cut from the final Loaded version without his consent. Purists may opt for the added verse, but Reed himself eventually abandoned it, playing the shorter version live in solo concerts decades later.
Forget best Velvet Underground songs—this one’s arguably one of the best songs, period. The pounding track about waiting to score whatever $26 will get you has been covered by the likes of David Bowie, Beck and Belle & Sebastian, but no one does it quite like the original.
A hauntingly beautiful tale of unrequited love, “Pale Blue Eyes” is about recognizing you’re being used and allowing it to happen anyway. It’s one of the few songs that can make the phrase “best friend” feel as cutting as a four-letter word, as Reed sings “It was good what we did yesterday, and I’d do it once again. The fact that you are married only proves you’re my best friend.” Anyone who has ever been friend-zoned can relate to the aching sadness oozing from this track.
No single song captures The Velvet Underground’s ethos more perfectly than “Heroin.” Contrary to popular belief, it’s not an endorsement of the drug (you only need to listen to Reed’s wry, self-deprecating laugh after he sings “it’s my wife, and it’s my life” to glean that much), but it’s also not an after-school special. Like in most of his work, Reed offers a harrowing tale without any overwhelming judgement. Musically, the song mimics the narrator’s high, starting off slowly, then picking up speed and building to a frenzied crescendo (highlighted by John Cale’s viola screeches) before coming back down again in the end. It’s a song that serves as a portrait of a specific scene, expertly reflecting a certain time and place when hedonistic socialites, intellectuals and bohemians converged on The Factory to challenge social norms, demand acceptance and be codependent—and it does it all with only two chords.