Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every John Lennon Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Unfinished Music, Vol. 1: Two Virgins (1968, Apple)                                    
Unfinished Music, Vol. 2: Life with the Lions
(1969, Zapple)            
Wedding Album
(1969, Apple)

N/A                                                                        


Technically speaking, these are Lennon’s first three solo albums, though it's hard to imagine why anyone other than completists would especially want any of them, as there is no actual music contained anywhere within these discs, all three records consisting of spoken-word items (the notorious "John and Yoko" on Wedding Album merely being an entire album side's worth of John and Yoko just saying each other names' over and over ad nauseum), experimental tracks ("Baby's Heartbeat" is a recording of exactly that), radio-dial-twiddling ("Radio Play"), and even total silence ("Two Minutes Silence.")  Don't say you haven't been warned. 

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970, Apple)                             

A or C, depending on whether you prefer tortured Lennon or happy Lennon  

Typically heralded by critics as being his best solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is certainly a fascinating and extremely artistic album, but bear in mind it is also quite dark and depressing - not quite, say, Pink Floyd-circa-The Final Cut depressing (then again, what else is???), but not exactly a fun album to listen to, either - you really do need to be in the right mood to listen to it - and it is indisputably an album far more tailored for art and music critics than for the average music listener and has tended to be rather overrated over the years for that very reason.  It’s a very polarizing album, frankly, and you’ll either find it to be one of the most brilliant albums ever recorded or one of the most unappealing. It’s Lennon’s most ambitious artistic statement, to be sure, but also a blatantly uncommercial one.  The most famous tune here, "Working Class Hero," is perhaps also the album's most somber cut, a bleak and cynical Dylan-esque acoustic folk tune played solely by John with no other accompaniment; the stark piano ballad "Love" is lovely, yet so minimalist in its lyric and melody that it stands in stark contrast to the wordy and profound wisdom of “All You Need Is Love” from three years earlier; "God" is a manifesto-in-song that finds John disowning everything from religion to even his own years spent in the Beatles, finally revealing that "I just believe in me ... Yoko and me"; and if you aren't already in a downer of a mood by then, the fifty-second-long, album-closing "My Mummy's Dead" is sure to finally do the trick.  The closest thing to a commercial song here is the psychiatry-session-set-to-music piano dirge of "Mother," which missed the Top 40 and understandably so: it's just not a very radio-friendly song.  Not that the album is entirely lacking in great moments for more pop-minded fans - the angry minimalist rock of "I Found Out," propelled by some wonderful drumming from Ringo Starr, is certainly one of John's most underrated solo songs, for one.  But the album as a whole works much better than any individual song does, and it's a brutally demanding album emotionally for a listener to get through from start to finish, so just be aware beforehand that this is not exactly Lennon's most fun or commercial album - certainly an absolutely essential listen for Lennon diehards and fans of his more anti-pop moves, but definitely NOT the solo album to start with if you prefer, say, "Please Please Me" to "Yer Blues."  A few minor gems within, but definitely a hard album for pop music buffs to warm up to. 

Imagine (1971, Apple)                                                                                   

A –  

While not quite the album piece that its predecessor is, Imagine is arguably the more enjoyable listen of the two, if only because it's not nearly quite as insular and dark and only truly smacks of self-absorption on the notoriously vicious attack on ex-bandmate McCartney on "How Do You Sleep?" and the album-closing "Oh Yoko!", which might have been single-worthy material if not for the overly-personalized lyric.  And while its legendary title track may have gone on to become a Top Ten hit, it's also one of the more unlikely songs in rock history to hold that distinction, given the highly-charged political content of its lyrics, Lennon acknowledging himself that the song was "virtually the Communist Manifesto" in music form, the endless discussion over the song’s sociopolitical content serving to sadly draw attention away from the fact that it’s perhaps the prettiest melody Lennon ever wrote.  So this album isn't quite as commercial as it's often made out to be and isn't completely removed in tone and spirit from its predecessor, but the individual songs are a bit easier to enjoy than those on Plastic Ono Band.  The ironically happy melody of "Crippled Inside," the angry rock of "Gimme Some Truth," the lovely self-confessional "Jealous Guy" (which badly suffers from the addition of a maudlin strings section but remains a beautiful melody all the same) - all are wonderful additions to Lennon's catalog of songs, if not exactly as commercial as Lennon’s best Beatles songs, either.  A fairly strong album, Imagine is a tad on the overrated side and not quite as fun a listen as most of the albums that would follow it - though, as a whole, it stands as an "art piece" better than any of those discs do - yet it serves as the first of Lennon's solo albums likely to have much appeal beyond diehard fans and music critics, so it certainly shouldn't be overlooked.

Some Time in New York City (1972, Apple)                                                 

D  

Easily the worst of John's post-sixties solo discs, Some Time in New York City is a double-disc with absolutely nothing going for it and easily one of the worst solo albums ever issued by a Beatle.  The entire first disc alternates between John and Yoko numbers, but, unlike the similarly-designed final two Lennon solo albums (Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey), there are simply no good songs to be found here.  The problem isn't so much that the lyrics are politically-charged so much as it is that John - who's shown that he's capable of writing far more subtle polemics than anything here - so explicitly addresses political stories of the time - and relatively minor ones, at that - that they have consequently become horribly dated as a result (i.e. "John Sinclair," "Angela," etc.) and aren't likely to make the least bit of sense to those born after the ‘60s.  If these were married to strong melodies, this might not be so big a deal, but, unfortunately, there are hardly any hooks to be found here at all (and even the single makes gratuitous use of a racial slur that pretty much guaranteed the song would get banned at radio.)  To add insult to injury, John and Yoko have included a second disc here of live tracks, none of which (with the possible exception of the cover of the Olympics' "Well (Baby Please Don't Go)") should have ever seen an official release.  The first side (consisting of "Cold Turkey" and "Don't Worry Kyoko," live versions of which had already been released just three years earlier on Lennon's first solo live album) is marred by incessant feedback, and the second side consists primarily of three embarrassingly bad, improvisational jams between John, Yoko, Frank Zappa, and the Mothers of Invention that never quite go anywhere and whose vocals are limited to Yoko's perpetual shrieking and John shouting the word "Scumbag!" ad nauseum.   Definitely an album to be avoided, this one is for completists only.