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The Velvet Underground & Nico

The Velvet Underground

1967

It's really hard to overstate the importance and influence this album had on music.  A stark contrast to the psychedelic and vibrantly colored sound that was tremendously popular at the time, The Velvet Underground represented the antithesis of that idea.  The music found here is harsh, grating, avant-garde, dark, and raw.  This was challenging music, artfully bleak yet beautiful at the same time.  This album was effectively the first art-rock album of all-time, a genre that I am not a huge fan of, but definitely have appreciation for.

It's like when you go to an art gallery and you see a piece of abstract art on the wall.  You like it, you appreciate it, and it may not be pretty, but it is compelling.

Haven said that, it's not like The Velvet Underground & Nico is all ugliness.  On the contrary, there are more than a few songs that are fairly catchy, at least in a traditional sense of the word.  Some of these songs are downright beautiful ("I'll Be Your Mirror" for example).  But, as alluded to, what makes this album so compelling are the darker songs, the atmosphere they conjure up, and the intensity they manifest.  "Venus In Furs" is a good example of that.  It's a bleak tale of sado-masochism, and the sound reflects that concept/vibe.  Subject matter like this was completely out of bounds in 1967, but the Velvet Underground were all about breaking boundaries.  "Waiting for the Man" is a dirty and raw little tune about going to meet your drug dealer in a seedy part of town in New York City.  Again, incredibly ballsy subject matter for the era, but it's realness is palpable.

Perhaps the most frightening song on the album is "Run, Run, Run", a twisted and surreal tale of various sketchy characters running around the city searching for drugs.  "Seasick Sarah, had a golden nose. Hobnail boots wrapped around her toes. When she turned blue, all the angels screamed. They didn't know, they couldn't make the scene..."  Wicked shit.

"All Tomorrow's Parties" has a certain dreadful yet graceful quality about it.  It's kind of withdrawn and drab, yet beautifully done.  Nico added a nice feminine touch to their early sound here that helped add a since of grace to all the harshness found on this album, which helped make their debut a unique listening experience in their impressive catalog.  This is best displayed on the really beautiful "I'll Be Your Mirror", perhaps the best song on the album, or at least it's probably my favorite.

Easily the most compelling and striking song on the album has to be the classic "Heroin".  This song really showcases the genius and sincerity of a young Lou Reed.  It's just a song about shooting up heroin and how it makes you feel, but it's certainly not glamorous and it's not meant to be.  It's just honest and real, and the song evokes a profound feeling of empathy.  Compelling stuff, it truly is.

With all due respect to "Run, Run, Run", "Black Angel's Death Song" is in actuality probably the most frightening song on the album.  Its energy is truly menacing, brooding, and abrasive, and Lou Reed's sinister poetry certainly helps add to the atmosphere of a song that suits its name to a tee.

The album closes with "European Son", which starts out with a few brief lyrics, then a sample of what sounds like a car crash or glass breaking, followed by several minutes of distorted guitar feedback, ending the album on a bleakly unsettling note.

As you probably have gathered, The Velvet Underground & Nico is not a particularly peachy album.  For 1967, it must have sounded like a nightmare to some people, but that's what makes it so compelling.  Its significance and influence on some of my favorite artists/bands (David Bowie, NIN, etc) is profound.  The Velvet Underground & Nico truly broke the rules of what music could sound like.  It didn't have to be grand and beautiful and melodic, but it could be harsh, ugly and dark.

Though virtually ignored and unappreciated at the time of it's release, The Velvet Underground & Nico has long since been recognized as a classic and hugely influential album.  It's a compelling listening experience to this day, and will always be a favorite album of mine not only for its unique sound/mood, but for what it represents: the underbelly of music, the dark side.  Profound stuff.

9.3

White Light/White Heat

The Velvet Underground

1968

This is a raw, decadent, loud, sloppy, avant-garde album, a step in a harsher/rawer direction from their debut.  Granted the VU's 1st album was certainly groundbreaking (even though it was virtually ignored upon release), and while White Light/White Heat is not nearly as good as that album, it is arguably more influential.  White Light/White heat takes the abrasive sonic extremes found on their debut a step further, as well as the decedent subject matter.  Most of these songs are sadistic and depraved, whether Lou Reed or John Cale are singing/talking/yelling about amphetamines, a girl accidently splicing an axe through her misguided boyfriend's head, a gory botched surgical operation, or cocksucking nuns, they pretty much run the gauntlet here.  If most of that sounds somewhat shocking today, imagine what people must have thought back in 1968?  As for the music itself, it's kind of like the aural equivalent of being cracked out of your mind on speed running through NYC on a long and decadent night.  It's loud, sloppy, grating, and chaotic, at least most of the time.  So when you add all this up, you have a challenging album, an engaging album.  It's certainly not ear-candy, but it is compelling and real and groundbreaking.  Great stuff.

8.7

The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground

1969

Fresh off the heels of two of the most abrasive and groundbreaking albums of all-time, The Velvet Underground took a turn in a decidedly different direction on this their best album.

This self-titled album stands in fairly stark contrast to the sound of their prior album, the incredibly harsh, grating, raw, and decadent White Light/White Heat.  This album sounds like the calm and repentant Sunday following a long, chaotic, and overindulgent Saturday night.  This album is not only much more melodic and mellow compared to their prior album, but it also has added depth and beauty as well.  It's a quiet album, a reflective album, a sweet album, a somewhat somber album, and overall a more earnest and modest listening experience.

This album has always been a uniquely personal listening experience for yours truly.  It is one of my favorite aural companions.  It's a warm album, and it's overall mood/vibe perfectly capture the sometimes lonely experience of living in a very large city.  I listened to this album a lot during my last few disillusioning years in San Francisco, doing the 9-5 grind.  It's a perfect album for a Tuesday afternoon lunch break, grabbing some lunch, people watching, and hitting the pavement exploring downtown and seedy back alleys.  This album, more than any other that comes to mind, seems to capture that ambivalent feeling I often times have regarding my big city existence.  For all its excitement, energy, and diversity, sometimes it just seems like a rat race.  You can see it in people's eyes if it's new to them, or if it has run them into the ground, or if it's somewhere in between.

Whenever I find myself in that in-between train of thought, of feeling like the city is running me down, I usually put on this album.  It gives me solace, it helps give me peace of mind, and it helps put my mind and spirit at ease.  This is a truly special album for me.  I could talk about all the great songs here, and how they individually make me feel, but that would be a bit redundant at this point.  Suffice to say many of these songs evoke sublime feelings in me.  It's all very affecting.  But perhaps more importantly, this album as a whole gives me these feelings.  Pretty much every song here fits the broader mood of the album as a whole.  They all work together earnestly and beautifully.  This is not only my favorite Velvet Underground/Lou Reed album of all-time, but it certainly ranks very highly as one of my favorite albums of all-time period.

9.6

Loaded

The Velvet Underground

1970

Had I grown up in the 60s, I could see myself yelling "Sellouts!" when the VU dropped what proved to be their final album in 1970.  That's because Loaded has an undeniably poppy sound to it, a fairly significant departure for a band that had revolutionized the course of music history with their groundbreaking artsy and decadent albums of the late 60s.  That said, Lou Reed and company do a damn good job of pumping out some pure pure ear-candy on Loaded's 10 tracks.  The standout here of course is the classic "Sweet Jane", but other highlights include "Rock & Roll", the triumphant "Head Held High", and the somewhat hilarious "Lonesome Cowboy Bill".  "I Found A Reason" is another favorite of mine, featuring lyrics I can certainly relate to: "I do believe, if you don't like things you leave, for someplace you've never been before".  Word.

So overall, Loaded is certainly a unique album in the VU's catalog, one that emphasises the simple pleasures of a good melody and great songs over experimentation and pushing the envelope.

8.9

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