4. Lou Reed, New York
Lou Reed’s New York has the following instructive message amongst the liner notes: “This album was recorded and mixed at Media Sound, Studio B, N.Y.C., in essentially the order you have here. It’s meant to be listened to in one 58 minute (14 songs!) sitting, as though it were a book or a movie.” The usefulness of that suggestion was completely plausible coming from Reed, given that the best solo album of his career–up to that point, at least–was probably 1973’s Berlin, which was a song cycle (or a concept album, or a rock opera; use the pretentious categorization of your choosing) about a couple mired in romantic tragedy, in every sense of the term. It did indeed tell a story, with plot points that could be mined from the lyrics. Why wouldn’t Reed take that approach again?
Except he didn’t, really. As he admitted in interviews at the time, be brought a batch of new songs into the studio and basically recorded them in random order. He and his fellow producer, Fred Maher, spent time trying to figure out a sequencing approach that was especially evocative before deciding that largely following the recording order was as good a method as any. Reed’s printed message to the listener, then, was less of a sincere expressive of artistic intent and more of a sleight of hand to make his audience take this record seriously, to treat it like a true work of art instead of mere background music for other activities. Generally speaking, the eighties represented a fairly low point for Reed, creatively speaking. By the time 1989 rolled around, Reed was starting to get more attention–and scathing, dismissive attention at that–for the way he was exchanging his cache of cool for sponsorship dollars from decidedly uncool products like American Express and Honda scooters. Emphasizing the importance of New York with an emphatic couple of sentences on the back cover of the LP might seem a little desperate, but Reed had good cause to think it might be necessary. At this stage, he couldn’t count on anyone else to do it for him.
The thing is: he was right. New York is an amazing record, probably the best of his solo career. Without forcing an overarching storyline or set of themes on the album, it definitely comes across as a snapshot of big city, urban life at that point in time. Released in early January, just as Ronald Reagan was wrapping up his presidency and the ravaging hangover of his callous war on the downtrodden of the nation was starting to throb, the album was a poignant, piercing survey of the agony out there on the streets. Reed always had a deep empathy as a songwriter that ran somewhat counter to his prickly reputation as an ego-driven collaborator. That’s fully evident on this record as song after song finds him crawling into the skin of other people to offer detailed reports from the front lines in the struggle for an American dream that seems ever more illusory. The lead single, “Dirty Blvd.” did that as well as anything on the album, focusing on a boy named Pedro who lives in a hotel room with his large family, trapped in his existence in part because “It’s hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs.” The closest thing he has to hope is a “book on magic” he retrieves from the trash, inspiring fruitless wishes of vanishing away to a better place.
That sense of existential desolation prevails throughout the album. Fierce guitar playing underscores the litany of hated platitudes on “There Is No Time” and there’s a wounded, ruminative quality to the lament for friends lost to AIDS on “Halloween Parade.”. In general, the harshness of mortality and the burden of grief cuts across the hole album. Besides the dangerous environs traversed by the characters in the songs, Reed continually employs songwriting as a method of morning. At the time of New York‘s release, Reed had just started performing some of the songs from the Songs for Drella project that reunited him with Velvet Underground cohort John Cale to provide a tuneful eulogy to their shared former mentor, Andy Warhol. New York closes with a preview of sorts: the jagged elegance of “Dime Store Mystery,” which is dedicated “to Andy-honey.”
In some ways, Reed’s insistence that the album needed to be taken as a whole actual serves to diminish its actual value. New York works wonderfully that way, but it’s also satisfying in individual pieces. Songs such as “Romeo Had Juliette” and “Last Great American Whale” stand as tremendous achievements all on their own, not needing the surrounding record to bolster their effectiveness. The lyrics are sharp enough that Reed could, and did, publish them on editorial pages and make arguments for the urgent need to address the mounting social decay as convincingly as any master rhetorician. The proof of New York‘s potency as a work of art isn’t measured by how well it can be equated to a book or a film or some other linear form. It’s instead in its adaptability, the profound value of the music and words considered in a wide range of settings and delivery mechanisms. In the way of the very best albums, its strength is evident whether taken as a whole or a collection of thrilling components. It’s everything a great album can be and should be.
20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
14. Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie
13. The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
12. The Godfathers, More Songs About Love & Hate
11. Guadalcanal Diary, Flip Flop
10. The Pogues, Peace and Love
9. The Weeds, Windchill
8. Hoodoo Gurus, Magnum Cum Louder
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mother’s Milk
6. The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul
5. XTC, Oranges & Lemons