John Lennon gave us some of the most sublime songs of the 20th century. He also gave us Imagine, a song that was not, as some people say, killed by ubiquity, but that committed Harakiri by its own tedious hand. But we’ll forgive him that. We’ll also forgive him for bowing out of music for five years in 1975. Why? Because of Instant Karma, Working Class Hero, Jealous Guy, and the dozens of other songs that have worked their way into our collective conscience and given us hour upon hour of listening pleasure. In tribute to one of the greatest song and dance men of all time, here are the 10 best John Lennon songs of all time…. and no, Imagine isn’t on it.
10. Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)
Lennon’s first son, Julian, inspired Paul McCartney to write the gorgeous Hey Jude. His second son, Sean, inspired Lennon to write Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy), an equally gorgeous song that reads like a lullaby and soars like a hymn. Named by udiscovermusic.com as one of Lennon’s finest songs, this is Lennon at his sweetest.
9. New York City
1972’s Some Time In New York City wasn’t a great album. Most of it sounded like a protracted lecture, with far too much emphasis on left-wing ideals and liberal posturing and far too little on quality songs. But Lennon could still pull a trick out of the box when he wanted, as he did on New York City, a belligerent, swaggering slice of old-school rock and roll that demands a second listen.
8. Happy Xmas (War is Over)
In 1971, Lennon was still worrying himself silly over war, peace, and the state of the world. Fortunately, it would only be a couple more years before his worries turned inward and he started treating us to songs like Mind Games. In the meantime, he still had a few more things to say about War. He didn’t like it, basically, and he didn’t think we should either. And how could we, really, when faced with Happy Xmas (War is Over), a joyous, if slightly earnest, track that would have given even Ghengis Khan pause for thought.
7. #9 Dream
According to Lennon, #9 Dream was simply something he’d “churned out” after waking up with a melody stuck in his head. Dismissive though he may have been about his own work, it’s hard to feel the same when you listen to this exquisite piece of psychedelia-infused pop. Cushioned by a sublime string arrangement and featuring some top vocals from Lennon, it ranks as one of the standout highlights from his 1974 album, Walls and Bridges.
6. Working Class Hero
Working Class Hero is, like most of the songs on Lennon’s debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, an open book. There’s nothing ambiguous about the sentiment, nothing tricky about the lyrics – it’s a straightforward, simple roasting of the ruling elite who prioritize social conformity over personal freedom. Its liberal scattering of obscenities didn’t escape the censors, to the extent that it didn’t get a whole lot of airplay on its release. Nonetheless, it’s found its audience since, with everyone from David Bowie to Ozzy Osbourne recording their own take on the classic track.
5. Jealous Guy
According to beatlesbible.com, Jealous Guy has its origins in a trip the Beatles made to India where they studied meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The trip ended badly when the band got into a standoff with the guru after hearing whispers of his inappropriate advances on Mia Farrow and several other women in their group. Even so, the trip proved a rich source of inspiration, with both Sexy Sadie and this, one of Lennon’s most well-known solo songs, coming out of the experience. Originally titled Child of Nature, it almost made the final cut of the Beatles White Album, but Lennon decided to hold it back, work on it a bit more, and include it on his 1971 album Imagine. It was fortunate he did – although it was never released as a single, it’s since become one of his more popular and covered songs.
4. Watching The Wheels
After his son Sean was born in 1975, Lennon stepped back from the studio and into the kitchen, where he spent the next five years baking bread and looking after the baby. As loudersound.com notes, domesticity clear suited him, and when he did finally return to music in 1980, it was with the blissfully breezy ode to househusbandry, Watching The Wheels.
3. Mind Games
By 1973, Lennon had given up trying to get the world to give peace a chance. He and Yoko were going through problems, and he had more on his mind than world peace. Originally conceived during the Let It Be sessions under the provisional title of Make Love Not War, Lennon later revisited the song, reworked the lyrics, renamed it Mind Games, and delivered a deeply personal, hugely listenable earworm with a killer chorus, a sublime melody, and some of the most affecting vocals of his career.
2. Cold Turkey
John Lennon was still a Beatle when he released Cold Turkey in 1969. The follow-up to Give Peace A Chance removes the global statements and aspirational demands of its predecessor to give us a gritty, highly personal account of John and Yoko’s heroin withdrawal. Despite Ringo Starr proving he WAS the best drummer in the Beatles (despite Lennon’s previous assertation) and Eric Clapton doing godly things on the guitar, Lennon ferocious vocals are the main event, giving a depth and a substance to the song that makes for sublime, if unsettling, listening.
1. Instant Karma
John Lennon was a pacifist. Instant Karma is a song about peace, love, and hippie wisdom. The soaring, gospel-type melodies are as divine as the sentiment. And then you hear the words. “Instant Karma’s gonna get you/ Gonna knock you right on the head/ You better get yourself together/ Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead/ What in the world you thinking of/ Laughing in the face of love?” A pacifist, sure. A nice, gentle soul with a tolerance for different opinions? Not even slightly. Take away the peace signs and the bed-ins, and Lennon was no more a hippie than Johnny Rotten was. Instant Karma, for all its surface sentiment, proves it. It’s phenomenal stuff.