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The Velvet Underground: Ranking the Songs

The Velvet Underground: Ranking the Songs

We rank all of the Velvet Underground’s songs from worst to best.

Record companies love reissuing music on anniversaries. However, few acts can claim the 50 years that the surviving members of the Velvet Underground are currently celebrating. To honor this milestone, UMe has reissued a box featuring four of the band’s iconic albums, Nico’s debut solo record and a reconstruction of the band’s “1969” album. The set, limited to 1,000 copies, will also feature a book of photos of the band.

To honor the release, the Spectrum Culture staff listened to all 67 songs and then ranked them from worst to best. The Velvet Underground produced so many indelible classics, choosing the best one was quite the task. We invite you to read along, and then comment, as we present our ranking of the Velvet Underground’s songs!

The Velvet Underground - 50th Anniversary Stereo LPs Vinyl Box

67. I’m Sticking with You (1969)

“I’m Sticking with You” is one of the simplest songs in the Velvet Underground’s catalog. Notably, it’s one of the few times we get to hear Moe Tucker’s vocals, and they match the baroque cutesiness of the follow-the-bouncing-ball melody and lyrics that pair childlike wonder (“Saw you hanging from a tree/ And I made believe it was me”) with topical reporting (“Moon people go into the stratosphere/ Soldiers fighting with the Cong”). Lou Reed’s vocals provide a minute groundedness, as does the rest of the band when they show up to close out the track. But even as “Sticking” matures into “proper” rock ‘n’ roll as it progresses, it’s already served its purpose to remind us that the world is an absurd place and we might as well accept it. – Steve Lampiris

66. Little Sister

A lilting orchestral pop song from Nico’s first solo album, Chelsea Girl, “Little Sister” is a moody affair. Lou Reed and John Cale bring together strings, some textural guitar and a carnival-esque organ that slow dance around Nico as she wields some rather aggressive imagery (“Take up all your jewels and gold/ Bury them away in the earth/ Let your memory reduce them to dust/ But don’t forget the knife that was thrust”) as a forceful kiss-off. There’s no percussion anywhere on this album, but when a track like “Little Sister” hits as hard as this, you don’t need any. – SL

65. Ferryboat Bill (1969)

This strange fragment made its first official appearance on Another View. Just a little over two minutes, it creates a kind of bizarro-world sea shanty, begging the title character, “Won’t you please come home/ You know your wife has married a midget son.” In the studio, the track blends the Velvets’ minimalist rock aesthetic with doo-wop. And the angular rhythm makes one wonder if it’s merely a coincidence that this was recorded on June 19, 1969, just three days after Captain Beefheart’s landmark Trout Mask Replica was released. “Ferryboat Bill” also appears on the bootleg The Legendary Guitar Amp Tapes in a longer, more amped-up version that perhaps better suits the collective memory of the group, but this almost childlike vignette is not charmless. – Pat Padua

64. It Was a Pleasure Then

Nico’s Chelsea Girl is an odd piece of work, perpetually torn between the commercial instincts of Nico’s management and her newfound status as an avant-garde chanteuse in the Velvet Underground. It’s not as confrontational as the Velvets were—at least, not until “It Was a Pleasure Then” comes on. Co-written with Reed and Cale, the song finds Nico at her most unsettling. Backed by a composition that seems moments away from collapsing in on itself, Nico laments a dissolved relationship, turning tragedy into madness as her voice struggles to rise above the instruments. Chelsea Girl is best regarded for its more low-key moments, but “It Was a Pleasure Then” is a moment of disquieting terror that shows Nico at her best. – Kevin Korber

63. Coney Island Steeplechase (2014)

First released on Another View, Reed literally phoned in most of the vocal for this New York-centric ode to a Brooklyn amusement park. The Steeplechase in fact closed down in 1964, five years before this was recorded, making this ‘50s throwback unusually nostalgic given the band’s jaded reputation. But there is an undercurrent of autobiographical tension as Reed sings, “Like a sister and brother who cling to each other/ When they find out their parents are mad.” When Reed adds a studio-recorded voice over the distorted telephone vocal, it’s as if the smart-alecky counterculture rock star is communicating with his younger self in a bittersweet pining for lost innocence. It’s proof that at his creative peak, even Reed’s apparent throwaways could be fraught with personal trauma. – PP

62. Lonesome Cowboy Bill

If Loaded was the Velvets’ last-ditch effort to shift units, “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” epitomized just how shamelessly Reed cast about for an accessible sound. A honky-tonk rocker that sprints ahead on the rubber-band twang of guitar, the song is utterly impossible to square with anything the band made before, or anything Reed subsequently made on his own. The lyrics are pleasant nonsense that do little other than let Doug Yule’s flat, nasal monotone take a stab at country drawl. Yet in a weird twist, even this flailing novelty shows some of Reed’s shrewd vision, anticipating as it does the budding roots revival that would dominated ‘70s airwaves. – Jake Cole

The Velvet Underground & Nico61. Somewhere There’s a Feather

Another from the vast collection of songs you didn’t realize Jackson Browne wrote, “Somewhere There’s a Feather” is the slightest song off Chelsea Girl, both in size and lyrics. As always, Larry Fallon’s string arrangements are sterling, and the song even packs in two miniature key changes to keep the lilting enterprise on its toes. Appropriate for a song about learning how to gracefully handle the rollercoaster of romantic strife. It’s a teensy nugget in between the album’s more substantial (and often more heartbreaking) tunes, but having a respite this brief and comforting is a welcome diversion. – Nathan Stevens

60. Temptation Inside Your Heart (Original Mix)

For a band that had a reputation as dour and mysterious, this easy, breezy tune is something of a shock to hear. A skronkily attacked guitar chord, rollicking piano,and fuckin’ BONGOS gallop away as Reed brags about finally figuring out where temptation, evil and the mirror’s edge lie (spoiler: it was inside your heart the whole time!). What really makes this track great though is the on-mic chatter of Reed and crew as they get ready to perform backup vocals. To hear these legendarily serious, arty types joke around with each other is fun and it’s hard not giggle along with them as the various non sequiturs pile up. – Eric Mellor

59. White Light/White Heat

By the release of the Velvet Underground’s second album in January 1968, psychedelic rock had developed a whole arsenal of sonic signifiers meant to evoke the experience of an LSD trip. With White Light/White Heat’s title track, the Velvets singlehandedly did the same thing for methamphetamine. Jittering with nervous energy, the group’s breakneck performance and Lou Reed’s stuttering lead vocals are the perfect aural equivalent to the lyrics’ nihilistic speed jive: “Watch that speed freak, watch that speed freak, everybody gonna go and make it every week.” And John Cale’s maddeningly out-of-sync fuzz bass solo not only mimics the throbbing, ear-ringing effects of a meth rush, but is also likely to leave listeners with ringing ears of their own. – Zachary Hoskins

58. The Murder Mystery

For any other band, a nine-minute song where two members recite different beat poems and two other members sing differing lyrics while music acts as background happenstance would sound ludicrous. But say it’s the Velvet Underground and your reaction might be, “Sure, why not?” That’s just the kind of band they were, and “The Murder Mystery” is surely the most Velvet-y song in existence. Its nervous and neurotic arrangement is oddly hypnotic, allowing you to forgive the all-at-once vocals in both channels. It’s possible that there exists a version of “Murder” without all the vocal tracks that make you question your sanity, but would you really wanna hear it? – SL

57. Train Round the Bend

This bluesy Loaded deep cut is conventional by Velvet standards; but even at its most seemingly ordinary, the group’s influence is extraordinary. Reed’s constant tremolo (which a Pitchfork critic goes so far as to claim “essentially invents Spacemen 3”) takes one of the most iconic American images—the locomotive—and reinvents it with a guitar line that’s both an evocative sonic din and a great hook. And the lyric more or less casts Reed in the Eva Gabor role on “Green Acres”: “I’m sick of the trees/ Take me to the city.” Yet there’s still a personal note of self-loathing: “Trying to be a farmer/ But nothing that I planted ever seems to grow,” he laments, despite planting the seeds of so much contemporary rock. – PP

56. Eulogy to Lenny Bruce

The end of Chelsea Girl contains a touching guitar ballad written to a beloved and iconic comedian who had overdosed on morphine the previous year. A guitar gropes in the dark for meaning and logic in a time of devastating loss, while Nico poses rhetorical questions (without bitterness) for the same reason: “And why after every last shot/ Was there always another?,” “Why didn’t you listen/ To the warning words of your friends/ While they told you so?.” The sudden death of someone you love is never easy. One of the ways to work through the pain, though, is to pay tribute to the lost loved one. That’s what “Eulogy” is, and it’s a beautiful tribute at that. – SL

55. I’m Gonna Move Right In

Maybe the Velvet Underground could have decided to be a blues band after Cale left, hitting the festival circuit and playing jams of infinite length. But probably not. “I’m Gonna Move Right In” indicates what that path might have sounded like. The group stays tight, with the lead guitar line reworking itself across six minutes. Clean and instrumental, the song sounds like a mistake in the mix of a VU shuffle session. It never quite crescendos, but it hints at what a finished version would have looked like (and why such a track would never have worked on Loaded). Live performances brought out the beast in this song; in its studio form, that energy bristles around the edges, with pent-up tension remaining the primary feeling. – Justin Cober-Lake

Nico: Chelsea Girl54. Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams

Nico’s arcane style arguably peaked in this neopastoral bliss. A thick bassline undergirds what otherwise sounds like music for a Renaissance festival, all delicate flute and some start-stop strings. Nico’s ice-goddess drone tosses in a clashing pagan mood, turning the courtyard music into a druid ritual. Reed’s lyrics pile on this mood, sketching vivid images of Viking violence, of “cutting entrails in its path” and “excrement filters through the brain.” Nico delivers these lines without an ounce of passion, watching this all as tribute paid to the lords of Asgard. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so chilling. – JC

53. She’s My Best Friend (1969)

This won’t be the first time we see Lou Reed cannibalize his Velvets past to pad out his solo career. Most will have heard “She’s My Best Friend” on Lou’s mid-‘70s masterpiece Coney Island Baby, but the Velvets’ version is a slightly different beast. Lou’s pansexual swagger isn’t as pronounced here as it would be later on; here, he’s just a rocker, albeit a decidedly unconventional one. There’s a youthful despair to Reed as he struggles to hit the high notes on the bridge, and the whole ramshackle affair has an air of immaturity to it. The song only highlights just how much of a shame it was that the late-period Velvets lasted for so short a time as a rock band; it turns out they were very, very good at it. – KK

52. That’s the Story of My Life

The Velvet Underground is the band’s most song-oriented album, and B-side highlight “That’s the Story of My Life” is a superb demonstration in sleek songwriting. Everything about it is tidy—the two-minutes-and-change runtime, the guitar solo and the performances. Nothing is wasted here. Even Reed’s lyrics, composed of only four lines, express a big idea—the concept of morality is gone—in few words, and it feels tossed off right along with the rest of the track. But don’t mistake the seeming offhandedness for apathy. It takes a lot of practice and care to sound like you don’t give a shit. – SL

51. European Son

The Velvets close out their debut with the sonic opposite of its opener, a pummeling, tumbling track that threatens to careen out of control every 10 seconds. It sounds as though the Velvets took all their guitars, drums, amplifiers, a metal chair and some dishes, threw them into a large barrel, clambered inside and then rolled the barrel down a steep, rocky cliff and recorded the results. Considered something of a kiss off or rebuttal to Lou Reed’s mentor, poet Delmore Schwarz, and his distaste for rock ‘n’ roll lyrics, “European Son” seethes with pent-up anger and frustration and serves as a segue to the dissonance and distortion of the Velvets next album. – EM

50. Andy’s Chest (1969)

Another song that eventually saw the light of day when Reed went solo, “Andy’s Chest” is best known as a glammy vamp-up that appears on Transformer. In its first incarnation, it becomes less ornate and more aggressive. In some ways, it’s slightly unassuming; the picked guitar solo is buried in the mix, as if it were too meek to steal Reed’s spotlight. And this is indeed the Lou Reed show, as the singer turns in a trademark sing-speak performance of a winding kiss-off that could be insulting to someone were it not so surreal. Call it nonsense if you’d like, but it’s damn infectious in its nonsensical ways. – KK

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