Vintage Violence, Caribbean Sunset, and Artificial Intelligence have their defenders (the 1985 album has “Dying on the Vine,” redone in what looks like a coke-fueled frenzy for The Whistle Test). But I settle on the following records. Until 1976 if a Velvet Underground fan had said he preferred John Cale to Lou Reed’s solo work, no one would’ve said he was full of shit. I owe my deep dive to 1996’s The Island Years, bought through Columbia House for — no joke — 99 cents three years later.
My lucky seven:
1. Fear (1974)
As Roxy Music went from peak to peak, Cale joined the band’s own disruptive force and their guitarist for a series of albums that they treated as interlocking hotel suites: Phil Manzanera’s Diamond Head, Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), and this excellent distillation of Cale’s command of studio massaging. Elegant balladry, goofy reminiscing, and proto-punk rage — Fear has the most range of any Cale release. Juxtaposing chug-a-lug rhythm guitars and a call-and-response six-string shriek in “Barracuda” against a nursery rhyme chorus comes as easily as the Paris 1919-worthy “Ship of Fools.” From the bowels of the earth comes “Gun,” seven minutes of frenzied distortion manipulated by a gassed Eno.
2. Wrong Way Up (1990)
3. Paris 1919 (1973)
Steeped in string arrangements as heavy as whipped cream and Dylanist lyrics that take their cues from “the ceremony of the horsemen,” Cale’s beloved 1973 album also anticipates what W.G. Sebald would accomplish in fiction two decades later: narratives too dense to be fractured that evoke memories difficult to pin down. “Hanky Panky Nohow” (covered by Yo La Tengo), “Andalucia,” and the title track dispel doubts about his commitment to melody. Other fans might let Paris 1919 top their lists.
4. Slow Dazzle (1975)
Bam bam bam — thirty-five minutes, ten tunes, none but one over 3:55 (“The Jeweler,” proof that the world of letters lost nothing from never publishing Cale’s prose, let alone Lou Reed’s). “Mr. Wilson” is a poignant valentine to a key influence in the influence’s own vein that succeeds on its own terms, a rare feat. While “Guts” may boast one of the more memorable openers in a rock song (“The bugger in the short sleeves fucked my wife”), the tautness of the piano/guitar arrangement is its own reward; the closing howls were Cale’s way of reminding Alice Cooper that they should’ve co-headlined gigs. Word from the Elvis estate about what its resident thought of the “Heartbreak Hotel” cover has never been confirmed.
5. Songs for Drella (1990)
When Cale and pal/rival Lou Reed collaborate on an audio project meant for PBS to commemorate Andy Warhol, I expect spare curlicues of melody given weight by Cale’s warm port of a voice and given tang by the stray squeal of his viola. Conjuring a life, fictionalized because memory intervenes, “Style It Takes” works as pointillist self-definition too — style John Cale has always had. “The Trouble With Classicists” is a terrific Cale piano pounding. Bet he would have waited ten lifetimes to sing the Warhol monologue “A Dream” to Lou. Overlooked by Reed and Cale fans (ahem, me), Songs for Drella is stately without being mummified: an album whose contours expand in reminiscence. A bit like people. Even Andy.
6. Fragments for a Rainy Season (1992)
Among the best unofficial Unplugged albums.
7. Music For a New Society (1982)
Fans treasure this album released at the start of an unfocused period — an exercise, partially successful, in discomfort in which one looks for melody as a man at sea looks for a piece of jetsam. “Thoughtless Kind” and “Taking Your Life in Your Hands” would get sensitive live treatment several years later.