It's a daunting task to dig through a catalog as deep as John Lennon's, but with all of his albums finally available for digital download via iTunes, there's now more reason than ever. Paste's senior contributing editor Mark Kemp has sorted through some of Lennon's finest work, cataloging playlist-ready popular favorites and deep tracks alike.
1. “Look at Me,” from Anthology
In one of his most vulnerable songs, Lennon asks his listeners to look at who he is beyond the Beatles, beyond fame, beyond the mythology that had grown up around him during his tenure with the biggest pop band in the world.
2. “Mother,” from Plastic Ono Band
After the Beatles’ acrimonious break-up, Lennon turned inward, looking to his childhood for reasons for his insecurity. This song came out of his scream-therapy sessions and is one of the rawest, most primal songs in the rock canon. “Mother, you had me but I never had you,” he sings, and then in the next verse, “Father, you left me but I never left you.” The song was recently covered, brilliantly and fittingly, by Shelby Lynne, whose father murdered her mother when Lynne was a child and then turned the gun on himself.
3. "God," from Plastic Ono Band
Throughout his youth and as a Beatle, Lennon looked to gurus, different religions and his own musical idols, like Elvis and Dylan, for answers to life’s big questions. In this song, he decides the only concept he can truly believe in is his own existence.
4. "Working Class Hero," from Plastic Ono Band
Another dark one from his solo studio debut, this acoustic-guitar ballad chastises Britain’s class system for making the working-class citizen believe he can never raise himself above his place in society.
5. "Imagine," from Imagine
On his second album, Lennon returns to the dreamer of his past, and in this beautiful piano-based ballad he dreams of a world with no boundaries, no theology, no rules, no limits.
6. "Gimme Some Truth", from Imagine
Always one to expose hypocrisy, Lennon demands the Truth in this song. The problem is that Lennon himself – a confessed violent soul, a drug addict, a megalomaniac, a cheater – was as hypocritical as anyone he targeted, and he knew it.
7. "How Do You Sleep," from Imagine
In this song he proves his hypocrisy. It’s perhaps the most brutal, least compassionate song ever directed at any one person. In this one, he attacks Paul McCartney, basically calling him a no-talent poser. On his early solo album Ram, McCartney had directed a number of barbs at Lennon.
8. "Cold Turkey," from Lennon Legend
If the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” romanticizes the drug, this one puts dope in its proper context – as a conduit to utter pain. In the horrible screams toward the end of “Cold Turkey,” you can practically hear Lennon kicking the drug.
9. "Woman is the Nigger of the World," from Sometime in New York City
One of Lennon’s most powerful political songs, this one accurately describes women as the most oppressed minority in the world: “We make her paint her face and dance / If she wont be a slave, we say that she don’t love us. / If she’s real, we say she’s trying to be a man. / While putting her down, we pretend that she’s above us…”
10. "Mind Games," from Mind Games
Inspired by the book of the same name by Robert Masters and Jean Houston, in which the authors suggest that humans have the potential to succeed, spiritually and otherwise, by playing mind games with themselves.
11. "You Are Here," from Mind Games
Fueled by pedal steel guitar and a Caribbean rhythm, Lennon sings to his lover Yoko Ono, “Wherever you are, you are here.” He wrote this gorgeous song after his infamous lost weekend away from Ono.
12. "One Day (at a Time)," from Mind Games
Another song directed to Ono, the title has become something of a cliché since 12-step groups became all the rage in the 1980s. But listening to this ballad without judgment makes the wisdom of the “one day at a time” philosophy resonate beyond the field of addiction treatment. “One day at a time is all we do,” Lennon sings over a dreamy, almost surreal melody, “One day at a time is good for us, too.”
13. "#9 Dream," from Walls and Bridges
With its George Harrison-like slide guitar, changes in tempo, and obsession with dreams and the number 9, this one sounds more like a Beatles song than anything in Lennon’s solo catalog. The repeated nonsense words “Ah, bowakawa, poussé, poussé” reportedly came to Lennon in a dream.
14. "Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)," from Anthology
The raw take of this cynical slow-burner is much more effective than the overly-echoed, horn-heavy version from Walls and Bridges. In this one, Lennon questions his own capacity for honesty in lines like, “And still you ask me do I love you, what it is, what it is / All I can tell you is it's all show biz.” At the end of this take, Lennon sounds deeply depressed when he mutters to the engineer, “All right, let’s go have a listen – and a break from it.”
15. "I’m Losing You," from Double Fantasy
For the most part, the songs on his comeback album represented a renewal for Lennon, but this smoking, noisy blues rocker finds him and Yoko still coming to terms with the betrayal and hurt of their rocky years away from each other. “What the hell am I supposed to do – just put a Band-aid on it, and stop the bleeding now?,” Lennon asks, and then later: “Do you still have to carry that cross? Drop it!”
16. "Help Me to Help Myself," from Double Fantasy
This is another one from his comeback that suggests Lennon still was dealing with his demons long after it was being reported he was living a life of domestic bliss. Even the Double Fantasy version is raw and pure, just Lennon and his piano and lines like, “Well I tried so hard to stay alive, but the angel of destruction keeps on hounding me all around.” Then he begs to the God whose existence he’d once denied, “Lord, help me. Lord, help me now. Help me to help myself.”
17. "Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him," from Milk and Honey
This is Lennon’s version of a song Yoko had done on Double Fantasy. In this version, released posthumously, Lennon sings the exact same lyrics Yoko had written to reassure him: “Every man has a woman who loves him / In rain or shine or life and death / If he finds her in this lifetime.”
18. Sean’s “Little Help…,” from Anthology
No rip-and-burn of Lennon songs should be without the voice of his and Yoko’s son, Sean. Not the grown-up Sean who worked with the Beastie Boys, but the young Sean who partly inspired Lennon’s comeback. In this minute-long segment, Sean incorrectly sings the lyrics of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” And father, gently and lovingly, corrects him.
19. "Beautiful Boy," from Anthology
The previous spoken segment segues perfectly into one of the sweetest songs Lennon ever wrote, a lovely, Asian-themed melodic ode to the son he would never see grow up. The lyrics, “Close your eyes, have no fear, the monster’s gone, he’s on the run and your daddy’s here” ring horribly sad in light of the fact that a monster with a gun would soon appear outside the Dakota and take Lennon away from his son.
20. "Grow Old With Me," from Milk and Honey
Another sad song, in retrospect. In this one, he wishes for Yoko and himself a long and more stable relationship into their twilight years. And again, he asks God to bless their love and employs other religious language, such as “world without end, world without end.”
Read Mark Kemp's review of the entire recently-digitzed Lennon oeuvre from Paste #37 here.