The individual Beatles could never hope to live up to their legendary band’s original run after they split for good in 1970, but that didn’t stop the members from achieving wonderful things on their solo records all the same. John Lennon, one-half of the group’s chief songwriting duo and the band’s tortured soul, only had 10 years to produce his own solo material before his life was famously, tragically cut short in 1980, but he still managed to leave us with more than eight solo albums that found his deeply personal, hard-edged approach to rock music evolving along with Lennon himself.
1. ‘Cold Turkey’
The Beatles touched on drugs a few times in their songs, but even the heroin-addled “I’m So Tired” can hardly compare to the disturbing, bluesy portrait of drug withdrawal Lennon offered with his 1969 single “Cold Turkey.” The song is built around a thundering bass line, drumbeat, and distorted guitar riff, giving it the sort of edge only he could provide, along with stark lyrics about the hellish reality of coming clean. It might be a fun blues-rocker if it wasn’t so fascinatingly bleak as well.
2. ‘Instant Karma!’
The first solo single from a Beatle to sell more than a million copies in the U.S., “Instant Karma!” is an amazingly promising start to Lennon’s solo career, the product of a speedy 10-day recording and release process that clearly demonstrated Lennon didn’t need Paul McCartney to pen a catchy and original pop hit. Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound approach characterizes the rich piano-based recording, but the true highlights are Lennon’s lyrics and vocals — powerful, uplifting, and life-affirming at a time when many Beatles fans probably needed to know things were going to be alright.
The only single from John Lennon’s solo debut (not counting a few experimental albums released with Yoko Ono during the Beatles’ run) is an affecting emotional experience wherein he sings to the dead mother who abandoned him for much of his childhood, bidding her an emotional and bittersweet farewell through song. The clean production pulled along by lonely piano chords and a plodding drumbeat make this a showcase for Lennon’s soulful voice, and the personal lyrics demonstrate the therapeutic, cathartic approach to songwriting that shines on Plastic Ono Band.
4. ‘Jealous Guy’
Lennon’s second post-Beatles album Imagine sounds sweet and sugar-coated compared to the rough Plastic Ono Band, but the production and balladry of Imagine can’t dull the honest emotion of a song like “Jealous Guy.” Beneath the sweeping loveliness of the string arrangement and tinkling pianos, this is a song about admitting fault and confronting the ugly parts of yourself in order to make a relationship work. The members of the Beatles matured on their own, and one can hear at least the beginning of Lennon’s maturation here.
5. ‘Oh Yoko!’
Forget all the emotional pain, turmoil, and political messaging. Even without all that, John Lennon could still pen one hell of a simple pop song, with or without his former band mates. “Oh Yoko!” finds Lennon flexing his pop muscles with astounding results, singing simple lyrics about his devotion to his wife with a rich tapestry of tinkling pianos and strumming guitars a little reminiscent of Highway 61 Revisited-era Bob Dylan, infused with the sort of irresistible melody you only get from a member of The Beatles.
6. ‘Watching the Wheels’
The final single from John Lennon’s Double Fantasy was released posthumously, which must have made the lyrical ode to the simple joys of living life as a family man sting much more. Never one to be coy with his songwriting, Lennon takes on the questions of former collaborators and audiences head-on by beautifully explaining he would rather “watch the wheels” than immerse himself constantly in the music industry. It clearly shows Lennon’s evolution as a person who can now allow himself to be happy, and it’s one hell of a great tune too.
7. ‘#9 Dream’
Lennon’s solo records after Imagine and Plastic Ono Band couldn’t quite match the high standard he set for himself, but the single “#9 Dream” from his 1974 album Walls and Bridges showed listeners that he could still craft an original pop song. It’s an oddity among his work for the straightforward lyrics, recounting the details of a dream, and for the lush production style that might overwhelm a song that wasn’t so well-realized. Instead, the strings and layered backing tracks only help the song to soar.
8. ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’
“We have grown,” Lennon sings on maybe the best love song he wrote as a solo artist, a direct reference to the personal growth that was consistently a touchstone on his best solo records. This is a love song not for the young but for the young-at-heart, as Lennon sings of joyously rekindling an old romance. It’s positively life-affirming, featuring doo-wop backing choruses and a toe-tapping beat that feels authentic and well-earned rather than cheesy or ingenuous thanks to Lennon’s iconic vocals.
9. ‘Working Class Hero’
Plastic Ono Band is an album of spare but powerful compositions that allow John Lennon’s songwriting voice to shine better than any other album in his career, and few songs are as spare or as powerful as the delicately strummed “Working Class Hero.” His droning voice practically whispers over his acoustic guitar, here delivering a message more political than personal, fearlessly addressing the miseries of lower-class life and the perils of modern society, tossing in a few F-words for added impact and finally hinting at an uprising with the chilling final lyric “If you want to be a hero, then just follow me.”
10. ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’
This 1971 single has since become a staple of the holiday season, and it is indeed one of the best Christmas songs, primarily because it isn’t really about Christmas. Rather than focusing on trite old cliches, John and Yoko used the moving, rousing melody of the song as a platform to protest the ongoing Vietnam War, hoping for an end to a bloody, unnecessary conflict with Lennon’s typical fearless honesty and political messaging. Ono and the Harlem Children’s Choir carry the song’s chorus, but it’s Lennon’s unadorned voice saying “So this is Christmas” that packs the most punch, no matter what time of year.
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