This week marks the 50th anniversary of The Velvet Underground’s debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico, which pioneered the experimental and art rock genres and influenced countless alternative sub-genres, including punk, noise, glam, and goth.
To celebrate the album’s anniversary, here are its 11 tracks ranked, from weakest to best.
11. European Son
The main reason “European Son” has been rewarded the dubious distinction of being the worst song on this perfect album is that it’s not really a song. Sure, there’s a simple chord progression and a melody and some lyrics, but this lasts for all of 60 seconds before the band breaks wide open into a frantic noise jam. These types of freakouts were just one of the many things that the Velvet Underground excelled at and pioneered, but if this track had been placed anywhere other than the end of the album, it would have ruined the momentum.
10. The Black Angel’s Death Song
Though Lou Reed was the Velvet Underground’s lead songwriter, multi-instrumentalist John Cale was largely responsible for pushing the band into its more sonically experimental directions, such as penultimate track “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” a hypnotic stream of surreal poetry set to Cale’s piercing electric viola. It’s the album’s most challenging listen, but a fascinating window into the band’s more avant-garde influences.
9. There She Goes Again
Seeing as how The Velvet Underground & Nico is the epicenter of countless alternative sub-genres, the relatively straightforward R&B sound of “There She Goes Again” comes off as a little surprising, a mainstream move on an aggressively underground (pun somewhat intended) album. Despite this, the song is still incredibly fun and satisfying, a testament to Lou Reed’s effortless pop songcraft.
8. Femme Fatale
Perhaps the most popular, or at least the most covered, song from The Velvet Underground & Nico is “Femme Fatale,” Lou Reed’s ode to Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick and written at the suggestion of Warhol himself. The decision to have Nico sing the song instead of Reed was a stroke of genius, morphing it from a standard tale of “boy gets heartbroken by girl” into something more complex, perhaps even LGBT-leaning, which was of course unheard of in rock and pop music at the time.
It’s not that unusual to write a rock song with only two chords, but for that song to stretch past the 7 minute mark like “Heroin” does is almost an act of defiance to the listener. However, the length of “Heroin” actually works to its advantage, giving it enough space to constantly build and release tension, resulting in some of the most exciting 7 minutes of music ever recorded.
6. Run Run Run
On an album defined by raw druggy darkness, “Run Run Run” is the rawest, druggiest, and darkest song of all, a barreling subway train packed with heroin addicts and feed-backing guitar amps. It’s a true testament to the song’s power that even 50 years after its release, it still sounds ear-splitting and dangerous.
5. I’m Waiting for the Man
The Velvet Underground & Nico is arguably the most influential rock album ever released, and “I’m Waiting for the Man” might be the single most influential song on it, not to mention the most fun. Echoes of the song’s overdriven two-chord riff can be heard straight down the line of ‘70s glam, punk, and power pop bands, from the Stooges to the New York Dolls to David Bowie to the Ramones and so on.
4. I’ll Be Your Mirror
One of the most remarkable aspects of The Velvet Underground & Nico is how varied it is both sonically and lyrically, ranging from the drug-fueled noise rock of “Run Run Run” to “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” a delicate love ballad and arguably the album’s prettiest song. Even though he was a jaded, sardonic New Yorker on the outside, Lou Reed was still capable of writing unambiguously sweet songs like nobody else.
3. Sunday Morning
One style of music that the Velvet Underground doesn’t get enough credit for pioneering is dream pop, the roots of which can be heard on the album’s lush opening track “Sunday Morning.” It’s arguably the best pop song that Lou Reed ever wrote (with help from John Cale), but the production gives it the same otherworldly quality of a My Bloody Valentine song, where you’re not quite sure what instruments are being used to create such a gorgeous atmosphere.
2. All Tomorrow’s Parties
Placed directly after the nocturnal grime of “Run Run Run,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties” comes in like the sun rising on a beautiful new day. Like album opener “Sunday Morning,” it’s a gorgeously ethereal track, the best song Nico ever sang, that manages to incorporate avant-garde elements into a pop context such as Lou Reed’s droning ostrich guitar (with every string tuned to the same note) and John Cale’s prepared piano.
1. Venus in Furs
One of the most significant ways in which the Velvet Underground revolutionized rock music was their fearless approach to taboo sexual subjects, best exemplified in “Venus in Furs,” which was inspired by the S&M-themed novel of the same name. It’s the ultimate Velvet Underground song, combining transgressive lyrics with an eerie drone rock groove and yet somehow managing to fit a catchy chorus in the middle of it all.