John Lennon may just be the most widely recognized of The Beatles. His career as a solo artist, however short as it sadly destined to be, was mercurial.
The songwriter’s best songs as a solo artist are known worldwide. His more experimental work leaves most casual fans glad to overlook it.
While brief, Lennon’s career outside of the Fab Four is, I believe, a fascinating one that incorporates classic pop-rock, avant-garde, political sloganeering, and even some 50s-styled rock n’ roll.
Here are John Lennon’s albums ranked from worst to best.
John Lennon Albums Ranked
“Wedding Album” (1969)
John Lennon had once been an art student, of course. And working with Yoko Ono wasn’t the first time that he’d asked a fellow artist to collaborate on music. Stu Sutcliffe had been the bass player for The Beatles based largely on his competence as a visual artist.
Still, with all that considered, it takes a lot of patience to analyze what are technically the first three solo releases from John Lennon in collaboration with Ono. These are, at best, forward-thinking, avant-garde recordings and at worst temperamental gags.
“Wedding Album” is more of a souvenir than an album. It features a photograph of the newlywed couple. It includes a piece where John and Ono whisper each other’s names for far 20 minutes. And it contains an interview.
The fact that the world’s biggest pop star would sign out on this kind of release is intriguing, but there isn’t much value beyond that.
“Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions” (1969)
This is the second of John & Yoko’s sound collages. Fans hoping for pop songs were barking up the wrong tree, but that may be the point. These albums are, in part playful exercises and part pranks.
“Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions” is the most severe of the three records. Occasionally it can function almost as a horror-movie soundtrack. When judged on that basis, it works. The artwork that depicts Ono in a hospital bed and Lennon sleeping on the floor seems to suggest as much.
This is another curious entry John Lennon souvenir, but not exactly a musical release meant to be included in his discography.
“Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins” (1968)
This is the more interesting of the three avant-garde John Lennon albums that he put out with Yoko Ono. It’s also the more famous of the bunch. This owes mainly to the controversy that accompanied its release. The artwork features the couple in a naked pose that’s been cleverly hidden by record stores ever since.
Unlike the other two releases, there are sounds here that might be of interest even to fans of The Beatles. At times, the musique concrete pieces are reminiscent of “The White Album” piece “Revolution No. 9”.
Even Yoko Ono’s high-pitched yelling, an acquired taste for most, doesn’t feel out of place on here.
You won’t go back to listen to this more than a few times, but those interested in Lennon’s art career outside of music may find a thrill or two here.
“Live Peace in Toronto 1969” (1969)
Not so much a John Lennon record as a glorified garage-band jam session, “Live Peace in Toronto 1969” is the first glimpse into Lennon as a non-Beatle (with songs included this time).
The fact that this would turn into a concert, let alone a live record, may have happened as a fluke. Despite this, Lennon and Yoko Ono sound energized here as they take turns fronting The Plastic Ono Band.
Backing them is a stellar band consisting of guitar hero Eric Clapton, prog-rocker Alan White and Beatles companion Klaus Voorman. The all-star band had been assembled hastily, and the group went on stage without much rehearsal.
The playing isn’t really the problem here, though. Yes, Lennon powers through a selection of rock and blues tracks as well as a few of his Beatles numbers. Still, as more time elapses, the record appears as something that only true fanatics will appreciate.
Lennon said that this concert gave him the confidence to leave The Beatles. One reckons he should’ve listened to the rough recordings first.
“Some Time in New York City” (1972)
The success that Lennon, and to a lesser extent, Ono, enjoyed immediately after The Beatles’ split energized the artists. This overconfidence may be partly to blame for “Some Time in New York City.”
This is John Lennon’s most overtly political record. It would also likely, become an important reason for the couple’s hassles in managing to remain living in the U.S.A.
This is an agit-pop record, and surely Lennon is looking for a fight. He’ll get one soon enough, with the United States government on the other end of the ring.
And while his intentions are good, most of the songs sound contrived. Lennon wants to fashion himself as a left-wing-leaning revolutionary. Being in The Beatles allowed him to only hint at this role.
“Some Time in New York City” is also notable for being another record where John Lennon attempts to write songs quickly and immediately put them on tape. It’s what the former Beatle described as a way to document events in the same way that a newswriter might do.
The concept for the record had three significant problems. The first was that despite the major promotional push, Lennon and his management, which still included Allan Klein, misjudged the general public’s desire for grand political statements (e.g., an album cover that includes a caricature of a naked Richard Nixon wrestling Mao Zedong).
Secondly, the album has few memorable songs. Lennon’s witty, sharp songwriting is simply not present here. Pick “John Sinclair” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday” highlights if you must.
Lastly, the album mixes Lennon and Yoko Ono-sung pieces. While the merit of the latter can be debated endlessly, Ono’s songs certainly have fewer fans.
The album was commercially and artistically unsuccessful, the first time that this had happened to Lennon. It left the singer with plenty to consider and a few years of catching up to his past.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll” (1974)
The making-of story of “Rock ‘n’ Roll” is, at least, as interesting as the release itself. It starts with Lennon giving over creative control to producer Phil Spector, the man who had helmed many of the great 1950s rock n’ roll recordings and who’d angered Paul McCartney by adding an orchestra to “The Long and Winding Road.”
However, it also includes a bizarre lawsuit. This originated from Lennon using a phrase lifted from a Chuck Berry song on The Beatles’ “Come Together.” It also includes an even more bizarre abduction of the tapes by Spector.
The music itself feels like an upbeat, energized version of what Lennon recorded put out as “Live Peace in Toronto 1969.”
On “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” he is accompanied by his friends and going through some of his favorite tunes in manic, drunken abandon. It’s a fun listen for sure, although more punk-rock than “wall of sound.”
“Milk and Honey” (1984)
The fact that John Lennon, one of the greatest songwriters, had stepped away from music had been sad. That he’d lost his life just as he had returned to music was heartbreaking.
“Milk and Honey” is an odds-and-ends compilation. It supposedly contains material being made ready for release before his assassination.
There are some highlights here. “I’m Stepping Out” sounds giddy. “Nobody Told Me,” a song intended as a gift to Ringo Starr, is one of Lennon’s best solo songs.
Still, overall the record feels unfinished, and for all of Lennon’s insistence, many fans of his music will need to dig deep into their hearts to find appreciation for Ono’s contributions.
“Mind Games” (1973)
John Lennon was undoubtedly brave when it came to the music that he released. Still, he was not oblivious to the reaction of the public.
If “Some Time in New York City” was a gamble, “Mind Games” finds Lennon playing it safe for the most part. This means that the record more melodic, introspective numbers.
It also means that Lennon’s heart is less into the writing of this album, and it shows. There’s even a glimpse into the highly successful songwriter’s paradoxical lack of self-belief.
The song “Mind Games” is excellent and sounds like it could have easily found its way onto “Imagine.”
“Bring on The Lucie (Freda People)” and “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry)” shows that Lennon’s heart is still in the right place.
Still, casual listeners will find few reasons to indulge in repeated listens.
“Mind Games” wasn’t the colossal success that many had predicted with would be. For a while, this left Lennon in a surprising position of being the less successful solo Beatle, something few would have predicted.
“Walls & Bridges” (1974)
Turns out that Lennon, as involved with the avant-garde and button-pushing as he was, wished for commercial success also.
Lennon’s mojo had taken a bit of a tumble. His previous two albums, one indulgent and the other not, had not been hits.
“Walls & Bridges” promises to play things by the book this time. But, all Lennon projects are made or broken by the quality of the songs. Here, they hint at great things but never truly get going.
Longtime critics of Yoko Ono won’t be able to direct their ire at her this time. “Walls & Bridges” is recorded within the couple’s separation period.
The fact that this was actually a success was worrying, especially considering the collaboration with Elton John on the pop-boogie of “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.” Perhaps Lennon had misevaluated the public’s desire for avant-garde sound collages.
“No. 9 Dream” is one of Lennon’s best solo compositions. It’s a song destined to be featured on most future compilations.
And, while the songwriter does venture deep within his personal issues in some songs, like “Steel and Glass” and “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out,” more often than not, it sounds like he’s double-guessing himself. This would be a curse that would not leave him for a few years.
Overall, this is an enjoyable listen. But it’s not quite groundbreaking nor melodically satisfying enough.
“Double Fantasy” (1980)
“Double Fantasy” is an album destined to be overshadowed by the events that immediately followed it.
But, in 1980, it was not just an unexpectedly triumphant return from Lennon, but an unexpected return full-stop.
Much like former Beatle, Ringo Starr, John Lennon had spent recent years in the wilderness and well outside the pop charts. This was a time when both were determined to change this for themselves.
“Double Fantasy” also marks a return to the collaboration between Lennon and Yoko Ono, with whom he’d reestablished a romantic relationship.
The surrounding good mood means that “Double Fantasy” ends up being an album split between Lennon and Ono’s sung tunes once more.
The Ono numbers have a hint of new-wave about them, a genre that Lennon claims his partner had helped influence. Still, songs like “Kiss Kiss Kiss” and “Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him” remain an acquired taste.
John Lennon, on the other hand, delivers several memorable songs that lean on some of his greatest songwriting strengths.
“Watching The Wheels” and “Just Starting Over” find the writer in a reflective mood. “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” features a sweet-Beatley arrangement. And “I’m Losing You” shows that there’s still grit waiting to come to the surface.
Yes, there’s some fluff here. And, yes, the unexpected new of Lennon’s return helped drive interest in the album. However, it’s undeniably one of the highlights of John Lennon’s discography.
Sadly, neither plans for joining Ringo Starr on his new album nor ideas about fashioning Yoko Ono into a 1980s pop star would not come to fruition. This would be the last Lennon album recorded during his all-too-short lifetime.
All of the four members of The Beatles achieved commercial success immediately after the break-up of the band. The most outspoken of the four was, as predicted, Lennon.
“Imagine” finds the musician creating the kind of songs and philosophy that could have well been used to start a religious cult. The title track, in particular, lays out his peace-loving, positive-minded worldview.
Fortunately, the songwriting is, once again, strong enough here to support Lennon’s weighty claims. This is, furthermore, the record where cooperation with Phil Spector, the producer behind the fabled Wall of sound, yields the best results.
George Harrison contributes excellent lead guitar on several tracks. It includes the anti-Paul McCartney song “How Do You Sleep?”.
And, while that’s amusing, the highlights are to be found in Lennon’s most melodically advanced songs. “Imagine” and “Jealous Guy” are superb pop-rock numbers and two of Lennon’s most famous songs.
“Oh My Love” and “Crippled Inside” allow the singer an opportunity to shed his macho image further. And “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier” and “Gimme Some Truth” foreshadow Lennon and Ono’s pursuit of politically-themed rock.
“John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” (1970)
John Lennon was always an artist with plenty on his mind. This meant that quick jumps from one interest to another were frequent. He would carry the same approach in his recordings as a solo artist.
“John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” finds Lennon and his partner Yoko Ono at their most open and vulnerable. The result is an album that is, at times, harrowing and other times gorgeous.
But the album doesn’t get by on charm alone. This is one of Lennon’s best and most consistent collections of songs ever written. This kind of quality, no doubt, provided the songwriter with a good deal of confidence.
Even today, it doesn’t take more than a week before I read a new interview in which an artist declares his admiration for this record.
“Mother” finds Lennon delving into this primal therapy as a means to relive the trauma of his mother’s passing. “Hold On,” “Remember,” and “Look at Me” are beautifully brittle admissions of fragility.
“Working Class Hero” is a folk-rock song about the things that made Lennon ambitious to be a pop star in the first place and where these got him.
Meanwhile, “God” must’ve arrived as a shocking official break-up from the 1960s symbols with which Lennon had been associated. The line “I don’t believe in Beatles” has particular venom to it.
The record was accompanied by a companion piece, “Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band,” solidifying the partnership between Lennon and Ono.
“Plastic Ono Band” remains the best document of Lennon as a magnificent singer-songwriter when all favorable conditions were met.