5 - 1
(Metal Machine Music, 1975)
Probably the most talked-to-death record in Reed’s entire catalog, this album is almost tame by modern noise music standards, though still respected by many who cite it as influential or at least brazen. Though released five years after the far edgier Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, Metal Machine Music bears no resemblance to anything that precedes it in Reed’s discography. It does have a certain terrifying quality though, and many of those who consider themselves fans of his work have strategically avoided it, making the record ideal for scaring away Halloween party guests who overstay their welcome.
Notable lyrics: Not applicable.
(Magic and Loss, 1992)
Grounded in grave matters undeniably more earthly than phantasmagorical, Magic and Loss boldly takes on the complex mix of emotions, memories, and stories associated with death and dying. Spiritually linked to the then-recent passing of two of Reed’s dear friends, the album can be a harrowing listening experience at times—and then, incredibly, truly uplifting at others. This cut falls into the former category, illustrating the horrors of chemotherapy juxtaposed with even more morbidity, including a bus accident seemingly forgotten almost as soon as it is mentioned.
Notable lyrics: “But this drawn-out torture over which part of you lives is very hard to take / To cure you they must kill you / The Sword of Damocles above your head.”
Nobody would mistake this record for anything but tragedy, a grim rock opera only vindicated for its brilliance many years after its release. Far removed from the glammy glitz of its predecessor Transformer, the album abounds with uneasy moments. Coming towards the end, “The Bed” is the album’s ghost story, if you will. Adorned with icy drones and voices, the track showcases Reed in an unusually fragile form, singing tenderly and wistfully. Echoes come and go. He revisited the album in 2006 with a series of concerts in Brooklyn, and used a children’s choir on “The Bed” to great effect.
Notable lyrics: “And this is the place where she cut her wrists / That odd and fateful night.”
(The Blue Mask, 1982)
Those woefully uninitiated who have limited experience with Reed’s vocal range might be forgiven for thinking him a sort of mumbling mushmouth. If you know people who believe this fallacy, steer them hurriedly towards this one and watch their reaction to his passionate—albeit ghoulish—delivery. Bloodcurdling and masochistic, the grisly title track off this cult favorite leaves little to the imagination, with Reed spinning a yarn of Oedipal nightmares. Incest, the pleasures found in pain, and so much shame flash before the mind’s eye while dueling jagged guitars of Reed and Robert Quine heighten the palpable tension.
Notable lyrics: “Don’t take death away / Cut the finger at the joint / Cut the stallion at his mount / And stuff it in his mouth.”
Did you really think Lulu—Reed’s macabre collaboration with Metallica—wasn’t going to make this list? After all, countless reviews of this mostly-reviled album fixated on the perverse and violent lyrical content. Though just about anything off this one could have earned placement in the top ten, “Pumping Blood” might as well take top (dubious) honors as it may be the most over-the-top, avant-garde Jack the Ripper tale, set to a heavy metal soundtrack. Discordant and dizzying, the song recalls some of Metallica’s most foreboding and menacing work, with Reed delivering a heart-pounding performance. It’s terrible at times, but it sure is scary.
Notable lyrics: “Blood in the foyer, the bathroom / The tea room, the kitchen / And knives splayed.”