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Five Essential Velvet Underground Albums (And A Great New Soundtrack)

Mark Smotroff offers some pointers for new listeners…

So you say you’re getting into The Velvet Underground after seeing the great new Todd Haynes documentary about the band on Apple TV+. Hooray and welcome aboard! Now, get prepared for a mystery tour unlike any other band out there.  

But I suspect there are some new listeners out there who have no idea where to start in building a collection of Velvet Underground albums. Honestly, there aren’t many of them but which ones you get first can impact your appreciation for the group.  Plus, there are lots of odd compilations you can find on the market which are OK but I feel they don’t serve band well and are mostly for seasoned fans and hardcore collectors.  

Given this is a new film, one of the things you can do if you wanted to just stick with the documentary is to get The Velvet Underground: A Documentary Film By Todd Haynes Soundtrack. Indeed, this two-CD set offers a handy overview of the group, its origins and accomplishments. There are some nice rarities on it including Lou Reed’s early band called The Primitives and their wanna-be-a-hit record that never charted called “Do The Ostrich.” Plus there are some rare mono mixes, live tracks and fun things like that.  It is an interesting and useful overview.

If you think you might be ready for something a bit deeper, the good news is The Velvet Underground’s catalog is available pretty much everywhere these days including on many streaming services. Accordingly, following is my list of five essential albums to best appreciate The Velvet Underground, presented in order of priority:

#1. Sometimes referred to as the “banana album,” for most people The Velvet Underground’s debut is the best starting point towards appreciating this band.  It is a gloriously powerful listen, start to finish. This is the one with the suggestive peel-able banana cover designed by Andy Warhol. It contains many classic tunes including “Heroin,” “Sunday Morning” and “I’m Waiting For The Man.” It is also the only Velvets album with Nico on vocals and her contributions are haunting.

#2: The eponymously titled third album The Velvet Underground contains some of Lou Reed’s most poignant, powerful and beautifully recorded songs. This is home to “Candy Says,” “What Goes On,” “Pale Blue Eyes” “Beginning To See The Light” and “I’m Set Free.”  ‘Nuff said. 

#3: 1969 Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed  is a great concert recording issued in the mid 70s on Mercury Records when Lou was having a hit run of albums on the pop charts. An excellent snapshot of the band recorded in Dallas and San Francisco, this has some really interesting and very different versions of songs which ended up on Lou’s solo albums as well as the last VU album, Loaded. Admittedly different than the early version of the band with John Cale, this incarnation no doubt had many powers evident on these recordings.

#4: White Light / White Heat is the second velvet underground album and — depending on who you talk to — some say it is the band’s best. It is certainly their edgiest. If you’re a VU newbie, you need to go into this with really open ears because the album is a classic of proto-punk rock noise making (warning audiophiles: distortion ahead!). This album is beautiful and best appreciated played loud.  Featuring classics like the epic near-side-long “Sister Ray,” the hilariously goulish story-song “The Gift” and the storming title track, this album was all about pushing the band’s energy and recording levels into the red, capturing their essence basically live in the studio in all of its distorted, overdriven assaultive glory.

#5:  This last suggestion is admittedly a cheat as it isn’t really a single album and it is not on vinyl. But… it is one of the great CD boxed sets that came out a number of years ago called Peel Slowly And See. In it, you get all the albums including the Velvet Underground’s final LP Loaded. The reason I prefer this version of Loaded is that it gives you the full extended versions of some key songs which had been edited back in 1970 (“New Age” and “Sweet Jane”). Loaded is one of the great rock and roll albums of the early 1970s and in some ways might be considered Lou Reed’s first album. Either way, you should also eventually get Loaded on vinyl. But, in this boxed set you got all sorts of bonus tracks including outtakes, demos, alternate mixes and other rarities. All in all it’s a fantastic set and you can find it pretty reasonably these days on the used market.

Of course if you are streaming albums these days you can find the VU catalog (including the new film soundtrack!) on Tidal and Qobuz.  Some of these sound quite nice especially when played through a good DAC that can deliver the music your stereo in Hi Res and MQA formats.  There are many VU albums to explore, many with bonus tracks and rarities on Tidal (click here) and Qobuz (click here) so if you have access to those services there is much fun awaiting you. 

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