March Through Time: John Lennon

For many years after his tragic death, it was considered bad form to utter or write so much as a critical word on the subject of John Lennon’s body of work. His presence looms large in popular music to this very day, though he’s remembered primarily as a Beatle and a cultural icon. With the passing of time, people seem to have forgotten that he released a number of albums. Some were great, and some were not.

  • Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (1968) – This and the two that would follow in rapid succession are properly thought of as audio art pieces, not music-as-such. If you care to dig deeper into the man’s work – i.e. beyond the hits – these are worth a listen. Just know what you’re getting into. And for context, you’d do well to pick up John Robertson’s book, The Art and Music of John Lennon.
  • Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions (1969) – see above comments.
  • Wedding Album (1969) – ditto.
  • Live Peace in Toronto (1969) – Rough and ready, wild and wooly, and rocking as hell. John, Eric, Klaus and Ringo, warts and all. A great concert document. Side Two is great as well, but in a very different way. If you don’t appreciate Yoko, Side Two is best avoided.
  • John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) – People talk about Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night and Big Star’s Sister Lovers/Third. You want visceral? Try this. Harrowing, more stripped-down than the Stooges, and (uncharacteristically) a Phil Spector production!
  • Imagine (1971) – The opposite of JL/POB in nearly every way. Lush and finely-wrought, but with nearly as much fire and venom. A triumph.
  • Some Time in New York City (1972) – Gritty and loose-limbed, it’s musically effective. But the strident, politically-themed lyrics are largely bereft of nuance. Copyright issues aside (sorry, FZ), the bonus disc is kinda fun. “Well” is particular is superb.
  • Mind Games (1973) – Imagine writ small. The songs aren’t quite as good overall, but there are some real keepers and some overlooked gems.
  • Walls and Bridges (1974) – The production on this is a bit overwrought. It has its moments, and there’s no denying the majesty of its best tracks, “#9 Dream” chief among them. Groovy packaging design, too.
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975) – Far better than its reputation suggests. Even with Phil Spector’s heavy-handed production, a classic. “Just Because” is a classic.
  • Double Fantasy (1980) – Very good but alas perhaps not always great. Some of Yoko’s material is stronger than some of John’s. Still, essential.
  • Milk and Honey (1984) – The muse had returned, though. Had it been finished as intended, Milk and Honey would have been well-received. And we’d have gotten to hear those songs live.
  • Menlove Avenue (1986) – More than a collection of demos, this relatively hard-to-find LP offers song you’ve heard in arrangements you haven’t, with less filigree and more emphasis on the songs themselves. An overlooked piece of the catalog.

Honorable Mention: Find yourself the three-song EP documenting John’s final stage performance, at Madison Square Garden, guest of Elton John.