According to the Rock 'n' Roll Calendar, Grumpiest Old Man Lou Reed turns 70 on Friday, March 2. (Folks, it's going to be a long year.) Mr. Laurie Anderson is still kicking around, devising ways to make himself the "intellectual" of the rock 'n' roll party. The glasses help, the contemptuous snarl fulfills and palling around with Julian Schnabel completes the illusion that Reed is more important than musicians who have made albums people play for actual pleasure during the past twenty years or so. That said, his solo career is still ranked 36 points higher than the solo careers of Eric Clapton, Robbie Robertson and Ringo Starr, according to Y! Music algorithms.
That said, let me point out that John Cale, Lou's bandmate in the Velvet Underground, also turns 70 a week later on March 9. (Sterling Morrison would've turned 70 on August 28 and Maureen Tucker isn't up for her 70th until 2014.) And while I would love to give you the rundown on John Cale, for sheer name recognition, Lou Reed is our candidate.
(However, if you want to do yourself a favor, pick up Cale's Vintage Violence, Paris 1919, Fear, Slow Dazzle and Sabotage/ Live, for starters. Cale ranks 27 points higher than Reed using the Y! Music algorithm.)
Back to the artist at hand.
What a long, odd trip, this will be. Pack a lunch.
25) Lulu: What does it tell you when this collaboration with Metallica is at #25? It tells you The Raven is really that bad. (I checked.) I give Lulu points for being a new adventure in hi-fi, and I don't think it's as bad as people want it to be, but, that said, it's also the tenth best Metallica studio album. The math hurts.
24) Metal Machine Music: Rating this album any higher is as stale a joke as Reed's continued insistence that he's a serious musician who deserves his Arts & Letters distinction. Um, Between Thought Expression requires output. Ask Bob Dylan.
23) Legendary Hearts: Reed as Average American Rocker is as valid as Reed as Slumming Bisexual, but without Quine it takes an extra amount of concentration and despite people referring to this album as "Legendary Farts," this isn't that interesting. Maybe he makes the music this dull so you'll pay attention to the words. "Better Than Mistrial" is not an ad campaign.
22) Sally Can't Dance: OK, OK, I admit it. Even staring at the song titles, the only tune I remember is "Kill Your Sons," which would be a highlight even on an album higher up on this list, but the fact that I've listened to this album more than a few times over the years and still can't tell you what "N.Y. Stars" or "Ennui" sound like means Lester Bangs owes me money, too. Take Lester's advice, buy Nico's The Marble Index if you want to feel the silence.
21) Magic and Loss: Ha Ha, another album that falls into the "One Great Song Don't Stop No Show" category. This time it's "What's Good," which could've comfortably fit onto New York and made it all the, uh, merrier (?). That's not quite the term, since the song -- and this entire album -- serenades the cancer patient. This album would turn the walls of Sloan-Kettering black, which is why it isn't played there. But "Power and Glory, Part II -- Magic" picks up enough speed to push the album ahead of Sally Can't Dance.
20) Set The Twilight Reeling: This is graduate level Lou Reed. People collecting useless degrees can charm one another with their intimate knowledge of "Hang On To Your Emotions," Sex With Your Parents," "Hookywooky" and, of course, "Egg Cream," which is designed to show you that Reed once had a childhood. Keep working down the list. It gets better, I promise.
19) Coney Island Baby: I'm throwing this one in here for the coach. The title track is classic. But the version of "She's My Best Friend" shows you how much he misses the 1960s and the Velvet Underground. Hear it on VU and hear why critics are skeptical about Reed's artistic "progression."
18) Lou Reed: Further proof that Reed shouldn't have been so quick to deep-six the Velvets and retreat to his parents' house on Long Island. Even if he couldn't have rescued the lost Velvet Underground album from limbo, Morrison and Tucker could've re-recorded these tunes with better results than the Wakeman-Howe team who were clearly not doing the things they wanted.
17) Transformer: OK, this is where Reed begins to string a sentence or two together without tying up in knots. "Not bad." Most performers don't have 17 albums worth hearing. "Walk On The Wild Side" deserves whatever airplay it still musters. (I mean, if I have to hear "Teach Your Children" or anything by CSN in this day and age, I can welcome "Wild Side" with Journey's open arms.) "Perfect Day," "Satellite of Love," "Vicious." The haircut becomes you, Lou. People think it's Bowie's fault, but I'm thinking it's Klaus Voorman's magic touch. Really.
16) The Bells: I like "Disco Mystic" because it sounds like a dance party thrown by guys who took a gamble on the pills in the punch bowl and lost. "I Want To Boogie With You" doesn't even bother to compete with K.C. and his band of Sunshine. This is dark music, as you might expect from Reed. If the production sometimes makes you wonder who's in charge around here, the songs still pull together just enough to prove Reed was paying attention. Or maybe that's what happens when you end the album with three decent tunes.
15) Songs For Drella: The Velvet Underground could've likely managed into the early 1980s as a viable band before losing their time and place to the mainstreaming of America. They owned the punk movement. So, if the two elder statesmen want to get together and wax poetic about their glory days, well, I'll bite. Just wondering, tho. Couldn't you at least have invited Sterling and Mo onto the album? They could've used the money.
14) Berlin: Revisionists now place this album way up on the list and critics who panned it the first time around are now the butt of the joke. However, they had a point. This isn't easy listening and a lot of it isn't very good. Crying, screaming kids? Really? And he's still re-writing his Velvet Underground days. It is fun in spots, just not how you usually think of fun. It's a pretty good Bob Ezrin album, that's for sure, though Love It To Death was better.
13) Growing Up In Public: The Bells began the transition from subversive underground star to family man and Growing Up In Public stars Reed as Son of the Year, if you don't wince at him writing about a 'harridan mother' and a 'weak simpering father at best.' Everybody say CHEESE.
12) New Sensations: The hissing of the suburban lawns proved fruitful for Lou Reed, even if he overshot a bit and ended up in horse country. While dismissing guitar man Robert Quine for Legendary Hearts was a fatal flaw, there wouldn't be any place for him here where Reed replaces his angst with satisfaction of sorts. "Doin' The Things That We Want To," "My Friend George," "Turn To Me," even, heck, "I Love You, Suzanne" make the revolutionary discovery that you don't have to be pricking your skin to get yourself high.
11) New York: Reed would like you to sit down and listen to all 57-minutes "as though it were a book or a movie," but I give you permission to skip around. Its conceptual thrust might be just fine, but I don't see any reason to push it. You can drop the needle anywhere on this thing and find something interesting. Sometimes the guitars are even as inviting as the words. Nice move.
10) The Blue Mask: If Reed were being fair, he'd co-bill Robert Quine and give Fernando Saunders an "also starring" role. Sure, Reed's lyrics move all over the place. ("I love women!") But it's Quine who really moves.
9) Ecstasy: This might be the lost album. Years of rapturous reviews of crappy Reed albums kept people away. After all, eleven times bitten, forever shy. But this one has its moments. The opening track "Paranoia Key of E" does that interesting trick of imitating the Stones without making it rock. Reed is the Marble Statue of Rock, always present, never moving. A lot of your like or dislike for the album will fall to how you feel about the 18-minute "Like A Possum," which makes me happy, though it probably shouldn't.
8) Live: Take No Prisoners: Alright, I should take Live In Italy if I'm looking for musical performances. But having heard these songs thousands of times, I'm all for a stand-up routine that devolves into bitterness. The jokes aren't funny, but the circumstances are. What to do when you're at a Lou Reed show and a song breaks out?
7) Rock 'n' Roll Animal: It's a bit of a cheat to be listing "Live" albums, perhaps, but Reed wasn't getting it done in the studio with any regularity and he needs the Velvet Underground tunes to make him interesting. Why else would he go four for six? Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner deserve all the accolades here. They do arena rock right.
6) Street Hassle: Richard Robinson rectifies his work on Reed's first solo album with this fine production that finds a way to make Reed relevant in the punk-new wave era he inspired without forcing him to play at the kids' level. Live recordings and "binaural" audio make this interesting to engineers, while the title cut scares away the pretenders.
5) VU: Here's where we're going underground. Even Reed himself knows to load Greatest Hits collections (and live albums) with Velvet Underground tunes. I'm not so much ranking the albums at this point as listing them. I'm sorta figuring that this 1985 album of previously unreleased material also stands in for Another View, the other collection of outtakes and stuff. I think I might be a partisan.
4) Loaded: It's pretty damn amazing to see how quickly Reed lost the number of his muse. He's still riding high on this final Velvets album (if you count Squeeze, that's your OCD hangup). "Sweet Jane," "Rock & Roll," "New Age," "I Found A Reason," the album reads like a Greatest Hits album. I guess you can blame what follows from his pen on the 1970s. Lots of people blamed the decade. But it didn't stop many of his peers from pulling out a few tricks.
3) White Light / White Heat: The noisy album that inspired bands to believe that with enough feedback they could be a band. "Sister Ray" sounds great when you're driving down an endless highway and "Lady's Godiva's Operation" is proof that professional production techniques have nothing on just messing about. Hit this one sideways.
2) The Velvet Underground: The third album inspired every sadcore, slo-core, mope rock, Cowboy Junkies, Galaxie 500 band for the next bunch of decades, but "What Goes On" and "Beginning To See The Light" still sound pretty loud to these ears. Funny how groups base their entire careers on one album, while the band in question never stayed in one place long enough to stall.
1) The Velvet Underground & Nico: Don't feel bad, Lou. Lots of artists never improve upon their first album. It happens. It doesn't mean you didn't do some fine work, but no one has their cherry popped more than once. With Cale, the Welsh guy, at your side and that Nico woman, you created a sensation that lives up to your band's name. How many albums deliver on their title? This music belongs to the shadows.