Undoubtedly one of the pioneering members of the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, the late and great Lou Reed’s contribution to music is undeniable. The singer-songwriter carved out an influential niche as one of the founding members of the Velvet Underground but arguably his work as a solo entity is his finest.
As a tribute to that solo work, a collection often overlooked thanks to the aforementioned pivotal alt-pop band, we’re taking a look through 22 of his studio albums and ranking them in order of greatness. Reed is an artist who never sat still so expect this journey to be a bumpy ride.
Despite being a cantankerous man when interviewed, it’s fair to say that Lou Reed gave his life to music. From a very young age, the singer began writing songs and was even drafted in as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records. It was here that he honed his craft and began noting the blueprints for the Velvet Underground.
The bastions of New York’s oozing underbelly, the Velvet Underground weren’t as lauded by their contemporaries as they should have been. While they could count on a healthy collection of arthouse elites to understand their project, on the whole, VU were only truly discovered after the band had split. As such, Lou Reed was more committed than most to making his solo career soar.
While other artists to have left bands, they usually do so with a whimper and a hope that they may level up to their former colleague’s body of work. Reed, on the other hand, was dead set on exceeding everything he had done with pretty much every album he put out. From his first in 1972 to his last in 2011, Reed was never ready to compromise his vision for anybody, least of all his audience. It makes for one of the most abrasive back catalogues you’re ever likely to find.
Ranking Lou Reed’s album from worst to best:
22. Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007)
Regarded as Lou Reed’s final solo album, there was the slight taste of dissatisfaction when his longtime rock fans cracked open this LP. Undoubtedly influenced by his growing obsession with Tai Chi, Reed pushes the idea of meditation to the fore of his work on this record.
The 67-minute LP, made up of four instrumental pieces, hinted that Reed’s days as the provocative punk pioneer were surely over. Instead, we find a man trying to centre himself and using music as the guiding light to get him there. A great listen for meditating and a snoozefest for anything else.
21. Rock and Roll Heart (1976)
When Arista records signed up Lou Reed he had come off the run of some extraordinary records so they may well have been disappointed with Rock and Roll Heart. But while some of his recent output had been musically impressive, his off-stage persona must’ve raised eyebrows.
Reed was struggling for money and was supposedly on the verge of bankruptcy when he signed and, when you couple that with an artist who is seemingly unwilling to be interviewed or take part in any promotional work, then you have a tough sell. The record suffered and finds itself low on our list.
20. Mistrial (1986)
As with a host of stars in the eighties, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan to name just two, Lou Reed spent the decade trying to recoup the money he lost during the previous decadent decade. It meant that he ditched his rock star persona and created a purely plastic pop version of himself.
It is this version which can be found on Mistrial from 1986. The album actually came at the end of a run of great records and hinted that try as he might, being the synth-happy eighties guy was never going to suit Reed for very long.
19. Growing Up in Public (1980)
At the turn of the decade, we expect Lou Reed had very little recollection of the previous ten years. The seventies had been such a head-spinning mess of failures and success for Reed that the new decade must’ve promoted the idea of moving on.
As such on Growing Up in Public, Reed attempts to stitch together a brand new version of himself, removed from the experimental and dastardly image he had created. The album did little to help quell nerves that the eighties would be just as up and down. Now, it just so happens that he started on a downer.
18. Lulu (2011)
The final album Reed ever made wasn’t a reflection of his own career but proof that even at the end of his life, Reed was all about experimenting. On Lulu, the album he shared with metal legends Metallica, Reed adds a permanent full stop to the sentence.
On the album, Reed takes on vocal duties but instead of singing delivers his lines with the flourishing tone of a spoken word genius. Though the band offer up a selection of industrialised buzzsaws to back him up, the album has never really set the hearts alight of either set of fans and genuinely goes on for far too long.
17. The Bells (1979)
Reed has a habit of creating some of the most arresting pieces of pop you’re ever likely to hear. The trouble is, he also has a habit of creating wholly forgettable records. One such album is 1979 effort The Bells.
Reed was famed for becoming easily bored by his own career and it’s easy to hear that resignation in this record. Though there are some good moments on the album, the jazzy horn section really is brilliant, on the whole, the album has no real purpose or direction, much like Reed at the time.
16. Metal Machine Music (1975)
If we were to judge all of Lou Reed’s albums on musical joy alone then Metal Machine Music from 1975 would be stone dead last. But we’re not, we’re ranking them in order of greatness and no matter what you say, this album is really great. At over an hour of solely aggressive and antagonistic industrial noises, it is one of the strangest albums ever released.
There is not a song or section of the album that we could lovingly tell you to go listen to. Instead, we ask you to consider the giant middle finger to the industry that the album was. Reed was in the middle of his resurgence as an artist and chose to honour that with an album he was hoping would insult and upset music critics and lovers everywhere. If that’s not the most punk thing you’ve ever heard, we don’t know what is.
15. The Raven (2003)
Taking lessons from the pioneer of moody looking visages, Reed borrows directly from the imagery of Edgar Allan Poe for this album. Based on an opera that was based on Poe’s writings, this record saw Reed invite some old friends into the studio including Laurie Anderson, Steve Buscemi and, of course, David Bowie.
There is certainly a distinct whiff of retention on this album, weighty as it is, but there’s something incredibly engaging about the record. Whether it is being dragged in by the narrative of the LP or its unusual subject matter, it’s hard to put this one down, try as you might.
14. Sally Can’t Dance (1974)
Lou Reed may well be one of the most loved figures of music today but that doesn’t mean the charts have ever paid attention to him. Reed’s only top 10 album came in 1974 with Sally Can’t Dance. Detractors will point to the record as one of Reed’s most boring but there’s a real charm to proceedings.
The record is largely composed of original material (a new thing for Reed having relied so heavily on VU leftovers in the past) and was also the first album Reed recorded in America. While the album does lack a certain spark, it was good enough to impress the label and see them force Reed back into the studio for a new LP. What arrived was Metal Machine Music. Serves you right.
13. Set the Twilight Reeling (1996)
The 1996 album Set the Twilight Reeling came after two of Reed’s more successful solo outings. The album does pay homage to the late Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison with one track but otherwise, the songs included are pretty standard fare.
It sees Reed return to his favoured pose of a cranky uncle and take on his usual swagger with an air of authority. He was no longer looking for credit or commercial success but something closer to artistic integrity. He loses none of it on this record.
12. Ecstasy (2000)
The last album you could call Reed’s rock and roll years, Ecstasy from 2000 sees Reed once again employ a concept to his LP but this time with a more directive and assertive effect. This one is all about marriage and relationships and rightly includes three songs featuring his future wife Laurie Anderson.
Released in the new millennium, it’s clear to see that Reed has lost nothing on this album as he vomits the troubles and strife that have befallen him during relationships as well as reflecting on the more sun shining moments too. ‘Rock Minuet’ may well be one of his best songs of all time—VU included.
11. Legendary Hearts (1983)
Reed’s twelfth studio solo album sees the singer follow-up one of his best records with another LP to add to his then-growing momentum. Reed self-produced the album, and dedicated it to his then-wife, Sylvia, who was credited with the cover concept. Though Robert Quine had been an integral part of the LP, his parts were later removed after a dispute with Reed.
While Blue Mask, the preceding record, may have arrived as a much-needed antidote to Reed’s style, this album was more akin to general well-being. It was a long glass of water after a heavy night out, it wouldn’t completely solve the issues but it certainly helped.
10. Lou Reed (1972)
The first solo album Lou Reed ever mustered was compiled largely of songs leftover from his days with the Velvet Underground. As such, the songs are well-crafted and compelling, noting the street life Reed was still wholly immersed in. It also means that this LP is missing the cut-throat wit of Reed’s later work.
Yes members Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman are part of the backing band which really hints at where the album falters. Perhaps operating without a clear sense of direction, Reed still manages to craft a record that will please his fans both with and without the band.
9. Magic and Loss (1992)
For Lou Reed, there weren’t many albums he loved more than 1992’s Magic and Loss, “It’s my dream album, because everything finally came together to where the album is finally fully realized,” said the singer. “I got it to do what I wanted it to do, commercial thoughts never entered into it, so I’m just stunned.”
It was the first time Reed was out on his own in the new decade and seemingly, he was finding his groove once again. It sees Reed once again focus his laser-pointed mind towards a singular goal and, as more often the case than not when Reed is focused, the album is a shining moment of his back catalogue.
8. New Sensations (1984)
If there’s one album which shows the lighter side of Lou Reed then it has to be New Sensations. The record is delightfully imbued with a rollicking horn section, some extremely potent back-up singers and the brand new sound everyone was using: synthesisers.
It saw Reed finally break in the MTV generation and with his single ‘I Love You, Suzanne’ receiving some light airplay on the channel, the scene was set for one of Reed’ 1980s victories. 11 tracks of Reed having fun may be as unsettling as Metal Machine Music but the album certainly stands up because of it.
7. The Blue Mask (1982)
Most of what Reed produced during the eighties was somewhat disappointing but he did get it right on a few occasions and most of those occasions are on 1982’s classic LP The Blue Mask. A concept album about marriage (another one), Reed admits that making love stretch out forever is a task not many people can manage.
While offering a drastic sense of foreshadowing (his own marriage didn’t last very long after this) the stripped-back tracks show Reed’s songwriting at its potent best. Released on the star’s 40th birthday, the album has a sense of maturation as he tackles his usual thematic pillars of violence, substance abuse and paranoia.
6. Street Hassle (1978)
If there’s a quick way to describe Street Hassle, Reed’s eighth studio album, then it is “a punk rock opera”. Using both studio and live recordings to create narrative and texture, Reed proves that he isn’t just about being a rock star, he’s a truly gifted musician too. Perhaps the crowning moment of the album comes from the eleven-minute title track which even includes Bruce Springsteen too.
There’s a good case to say that this is Reed moving out of one of the most fruitful periods of his career and the confusion of such a sea-change can be heard in the production of the record. Remove all the extra fuss though and you still have a collection of tracks worth their weight in gold.
5. Songs for Drella (1990)
After the Velvet Underground had rekindled their relationship following the death of their creative overlord Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and John Cale reconnected. The duo saw fit to pay homage to their friend and leader with a tribute album composed entirely for him.
With most of the songs being heard from Warhol’s point of view, there’s a poignancy to this collection of songs. Not only because it remembers the post-modern artist but also with the added gravitas of Cale and Reedproving that they could have kept writing VU songs for decades. While Reed’s reputation as a pitbull is rightly observed, he could also open his heart. Songs for Drella is the best example of that.
4. New York (1989)
The eighties were tough for Lou Reed but perhaps as a celebration for surviving the decade, Reed produced one of his standout albums when he released New York in 1989. The album is a perfect representation of the city that bears its name and is an uncompromising return to rock for the singer,
As well as lighting an internal creative fire within him, New York also served as a potent reminder of Reed’s ability to capture a moment in time and make it truly timeless. One of the few records of Reed’s to go Gold in sales, it is a landmark moment for a songwriter with a seriously inconsistent brilliance at play.
3. Coney Island Baby (1976)
Quite possibly Reed’s most romantic record, Coney Island Baby saw the singer scrawl out a love letter to his girlfriend of the time Rachel Humphreys. She was a trans woman and Reed’s ultimate muse, providing him with the heavy beating heart needed to write an album so dripping in subtle sentimentality.
The record did have a slight headstart in regards to Reed’s fans as it followed Metal Machine Music‘s release. After such a record, any album would sound a little sweeter than it was but listening back to the record today it still stands up as one of his best. It may well be one of Reed’s most conventional albums but for our money, this is when he is at his best. Providing the subverted view of normality.
2. Berlin (1973)
The early seventies were a good time for Lou Reed. Fresh out of his run with the Velvet Underground, there must have been a sincere degree of trepidation when considering his solo career. After Berlin was released we imagine most of it melted away.
It’s another set of hyper-stylised reworking of songs in Reed’s vault and captures the dark intensity of the man who wrote them. The sex, drugs and the scummy streets that provide them both are expertly rendered in this album. Telling the story of a couple’s struggle with drug addiction, Reed is astute and accurate with his observations and marked himself out as one of the finest songwriters in the land by doing so.
1. Transformer (1972)
When you draft in the mercurial talent of both David Bowie and Mick Ronson, chances are you will have a good record on your hands. When you match up those two admitted fans with the object of their affections, Lou Reed you have yourself one of the best albums of the 20th century.
Helped by Bowie’s incessant promotion of Reed as a vital player in music, the record quickly gained notoriety and has never fallen far from the top of the “greatest album of all time” lists. Built on a healthy selection of classic Reed songs including ‘Satellite of Love’ and ‘Vicious’ the LP also includes Reed’s biggest chart hit to date, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ as well as his Magnus opus, ‘Perfect Day’.
The real reason that Reed’s Transformer was so widely loved, and continues to be to this day, is that he was doing what he did best—subverting the norms of pop music. Using his internal nous for constructing a pop song, Reed creates tracks that, on the face of it, are radio-ready but under closer inspection champions the underbelly of city life. It was what made Lou Reed such an icon in the first place and his greatest album is the best place to see it up close and personal.