The best of John Lennon -- A short discography of his work with the Beatles and on his own

The best of John Lennon

The Beatles Years

Without question, Lennon’s greatest music was made with the Beatles. By the same token, the greatest Beatles songs weren’t always Lennon’s: Where would we be without Paul’s work on ”Hey Jude” and ”I Saw Her Standing There”? Moreover, because Lennon and McCartney were true collaborators, it’s risky to give the main credit to either for most of their early songs.

Still, perhaps 50 major Beatles songs (out of 180 total) might be attributed to Lennon as dominant writer, performer, or both. My roster of his greatest hits includes flat-out rockers like ”She Loves You,” ”Ticket to Ride,” and ”Help!”; moody soul numbers like ”Day Tripper” and ”No Reply”; quasi-confessional love tunes like ”In My Life” and ”Don’t Let Me Down”; folk-oriented tracks like ”You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” ”Rain,” and ”Norwegian Wood”; proto-psychedelic numbers like ”She Said She Said,” ”Strawberry Fields Forever,” and ”I Am the Walrus”; and ”Revolution,” ”Yer Blues,” and ”Come Together,” in which Lennon threatens to invent heavy metal before its time. The Beatles albums John most clearly dominated were Rubber Soul and Revolver. I’d also say those were the Beatles’ two greatest albums. But by any yardstick, the only reasonable grade for this whole group is: A+

Post-Beatles Singles

Lennon’s career after the Beatles remains hard to sort out, thanks to his emotional turmoil and the lack of precedent for the committed, personal rock- as-art (not art-rock) he was trying to create. On his own, he usually made better singles than albums. The best were ”Give Peace a Chance,” his 1969 debut and his most memorable piece of agitprop; ”Cold Turkey,” also 1969, a nerve-wracked blues that may be the most harrowing anti-drug statement ever written; and 1970’s ”Instant Karma (We All Shine On),” John’s greatest collaboration with producer Phil Spector and a wonderful cold splash of post-psychedelic realism.

These three are A-level work. The most convenient way to hear Lennon’s singles is on anthology albums like the following:

Shaved Fish (1975)
The first collection, still the best. B+

The John Lennon Collection (1982)
Too much recycling of Double Fantasy, though it does feature the early singles. B-

Imagine: John Lennon (1988)
Collects crucial Beatles tracks and a hilarious take of ”Imagine” that shows John knew how corny those sentiments could be. But it lacks key solo singles. B

Lennon (1990)
The new four-CD boxed set is splendidly packaged and the material is well chosen. But it treats the songs as though they speak for themselves; there’s not much annotation and no liner notes. So in the process of making Lennon monumental, the producers have robbed his music of its history. B-

The Lennon Solo Albums

The first two of the following are the only indispensable studio albums. The third remains fascinating for what it suggests about the music Lennon might have gone on to make:

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
Remembered as spare because Spector’s production made the orchestra unobtrusive. It needed to be, so John could work out his trauma over separating from his parents and the Beatles, his problems with his fans’ expectations, in fact most of his previous life. Finally, the simplicity is shattering. A

Imagine (1971)
This one feels lush, but musically and thematically it’s almost as spare and bitter as Plastic Ono Band. ”Imagine” might be its only stand-alone smash, but the album succeeds on its internal unity and integrity. A

Double Fantasy (1980)
Lennon’s last album would be stronger if it had only his songs, instead of seven of Yoko’s. Still, ”Watching the Wheels,” ”Starting Over,” and ”Woman” show that Lennon’s gifts for melody, lyrics, social satire, and personal revelation survived his sabbatical. B+