Ranking John Lennon’s solo albums in order of greatness
John Lennon fearlessly led The Beatles in the early days — it could be argued that he tirelessly and relentlessly drove his band of Liverpool lads to eventually conquer the world. His leadership at the time could be quickly summed up with his little rallying phrase that acted as the reminder to the fab four: “Where are we headed, boys?” In which the rest of the band would chime in with him, “Uppermost to the Toppermost”. Eventually, The Beatles would team up with producer George Martin and manager Brian Epstein who helped elevate them to worldwide stardom.
The story of The Beatles is of legendary stuff; many artists of practically any genre, when asked what moment inspired them decide to become a musician, would reply with “When I saw The Beatles live on the Ed Sullivan Show” – this was widely regarded as a groundbreaking moment in rock and pop history.
Later in their career, things got more complicated, to say the least, that is part of growing up, after all. When Brian Epstein passed away, clear despair permeated The Beatles’ team; it remained unclear how they would carry on, and who exactly would now lead the team. In many ways, Paul McCartney assumed leadership responsibilities. John Lennon began drifting further away, he began using heroin frequently, albeit not intravenously.
With such a growing abuse problem, naturally, Lennon began losing himself more and more. The pressures of performing not unlike a show monkey continuously, being expected to turn up for this and that, Lennon began looking for a way out of the imposing lifestyle he had fought so hard to achieve.
Many who fiercely loved The Beatles, began resenting Yoko Ono; many blamed her for taking John away from his involvement with The Beatles, despite the whole band admitting that, it was The Beatles that broke the band up. Regardless, the more people and the world at large resented Yoko, and ultimately John for allowing it to happen, the more John began to resent them. In songs like ‘God’ off his solo 1970 album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, he denounced everything. From The Beatles, Elvis, Robert Zimmerman, Jesus, God, to his past identity, promulgating that all that anyone has is themselves.
This is precisely what makes Lennon’s solo work incredible, and among his best work, overall. It seems, that for better or for worse — at times it seemed ambiguous — his songwriting, later on, came from a place of sheer honesty.
By the last few albums The Beatles did, throughout all the albums John did as a solo artist, and with his Plastic Ono Band, Yoko Ono was by his side. When ranking these albums, we considered the strength of the album as a whole, with or without Yoko’s vocal/songwriting contribution. John probably would have considered the two of them as one, anyway.
John Lennon’s Solo Albums Ranked:
11. Wedding Album (1969)
Upon John and Yoko meeting, an explosion of creativity leaked into the atmosphere and prompted a three-part avant-garde collection of albums. This is the last in the trilogy, the reason for placing this at the very last, is simply because of all three, it is the least music-oriented of them all, although almost being beat out by Unfinished Music No.2: With the Lions.
The first experimental piece features John and Yoko simply repeating each other’s names one after another, placed onto the backdrop of a heartbeat. The second piece is titled ‘Amsterdam’ — the first part of it is Yoko performing a wavering acapella atonal melody. The second half is a recording of John and Yoko speaking about their protest from their bed. Yoko beautifully states on record, “All the violence going into the world, is just a symbol of all violent atmosphere that already exists.”
10. Unfinished Music No.2: Life With the Lions (1969)
The second part of their avant-garde trilogy, the title is a play on the words of the BBC Show, Life with the Lyons. The album was recorded at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in London and Cambridge University.
The project incorporated aspects of Fluxus Art, a term derived from the ’60s and ’70s, that defined an art collective, whose movement focused on the process of making art, over the finished product.
9. Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins (1968)
The first part of the avant-garde trilogy, this one proved to be the most controversial one of them all, mostly owing to the album artwork, which featured both John and Yoko, naked. It was an all-night musical session of experimentation at John’s home in Kenwood, while his wife, Cynthia, was in Greece.
This album certainly contributed to more disparaging feelings within The Beatles at the time; particularly Paul McCartney, who was slightly enraged at the fact that John had posed naked, while George Harrison was becoming increasingly annoyed with Yoko’s antics.
8. Rock n’ Roll (1975)
John Lennon’s cover album of the late ’50s and early ’60s — the single off the album was ‘Stand by Me’ from Ben E. King, peaked at 20 and 30 in the US and UK, respectively. The album was certified gold and is worthy of a gentle spin.
Although initially recorded and produced by Phil Spector in 1973, due litigation issues involving Lennon being sued by the notorious Morris Levy, Phil Spector disappeared with the tapes and then ended up in motor vehicle accident, the album was not released until later. While it features some great classics, it was the last album for Lennon’s contract and was recorded within drunken chaotic rowdiness; It seems as if Lennon was happy to be done with it.
7. Milk and Honey (1984)
Recorded in the last few months of John Lennon’s life, the album was the first to be released posthumously. The album is one of his most watered-down works ever. Ironically, it features some of Yoko’s more accessible and listenable performances.
The songs are slightly mediocre in comparison to the rest of his canon but there’s more than anenough here to please any Lennon fan beyond comprehension.
6. Sometime in New York City (1972)
John Lennon’s third solo album and features songs sung by Yoko Ono. The album, like his first two, was co-produced between Phil Spector, Lennon and Ono. After his first two incredible albums, critics and fans alike were patiently and excitedly waiting for something similar. Stephen Holden for Rolling Stone at the time wrote the album is “incipient artistic suicide.”
‘The Luck of the Irish’ was one of two songs that Lennon wrote to support the Irish Republican movement in Northern Ireland. ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ was written after the British army massacred 30 people. It is a nice sentiment – the lyrics to most of these songs are definitely very campy. My favourite track is ‘Woman is the N***er of the World’. It captures the poignant artistic and cutting side of Lennon that many love.
5. Walls and Bridges (1974)
One of his most successful albums, the LP spawned two singles ‘Whatever Gets You thru the Night’ featuring Elton John and ‘#9 Dream’, both charted very well — the first single was Lennon’s first and only chart-topping #1 single in the US and the UK.
The album was recorded during his “Lost weekend”, or 18 months of separation from Yoko Ono. The Material of the songs explore a renewed sense of freedom as well as him missing Yoko; during their temporary separation, Lennon took the opportunity to reconnect with his first son, Julian.
4. Mind Games (1973)
Recorded the year before Walls and Bridges, this was the first album that Lennon produced without Phil Spector. Recorded at the beginning of his “Lost Weekend”, this album’s pain comes through more so than the following one. The title track is one of his best songs; it explores the difficulties of being in a relationship and asks why we constantly play these minds game – after all, love is the answer.
‘Out of the Blue’ is a gorgeous song, it is very painful but finds solace in some inkling of hope of a dream. It contains every side of Lennon, that made him such a powerful performer and writer: Soft at times, but with a rough edge, and unpredictable chord changes. Mind Games definitely comes close to the third spot.
3. Double Fantasy (1980)
As a whole album, I believe the concept of Lennon and Ono’s relationship is captured masterfully within this album. It’s got a bit of everything that makes the two a great pair, but Lennon still carries the album with his powerful songwriting. Especially when starting an album off with a song like ‘Just Like Starting Over’ – how can you not fall right into it? It is one of his best, if not best, songs.
Other incredible songs off this album are ‘Watching the Wheels’, ‘Woman’, and ‘I’m Losing you’. I believe this is John in his peak of his absolute prime songwriting abilities.
2. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
Lennon’s first solo album — John is getting a lot off his chest here. The songs are the most poignant of this catalogue; they are sharp little snapshots into the pastiche of Lennon’s juvenile pain. Yoko and Lennon were going through primal screaming therapy at the time – there’s screaming recorded on the powerfully heart-wrenching ‘Mother’.
‘Working-class Hero’ is as razor sharp you can get with a song, in terms of wit and simplicity. It is dylanesque and provides the perfect anthem for many. This album represents Lennon at his rawest, hands down.
1. Imagine (1971)
While it was a close toss-up between the top two and which one will receive the number one position — ultimately, it has to be Imagine. It opens with the classic title track and then proceeds to go into the myriad of Lennon’s deepest emotions. It possesses the rawness of his first album and skill of Double Fantasy; what this album has that the others don’t have is the perfect balance of the two.
The album as a whole is an elegant masterpiece: Lennon is simultaneously the observer as well as the participant at the heart of the world. While most of his albums are brilliant and are essential to include when considering the full picture of him, this one is ultimately the quintessential Lennon album.