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John Lennon on January 16, 1964. (Photo: Harry Benson/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
John Lennon on January 16, 1964. (Photo: Harry Benson/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
John Lennon on January 16, 1964. (Photo: Harry Benson/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was originally posted on October 9, 2010 to mark what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday. We’re re-posting on October 9, 2015 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Lennon’s birth. The songs in the piece were selected by Anglophenia reader votes.

Top 10s like this are always a tough read. Even if you agree with all of the songs that have been picked, it's impossible to concur with the order in which they are placed. And for an artist like John Lennon, whose work forms part of the musical backbone of so many different people, with so many different tastes, it's inevitable that this won't reflect everyone's view of who he was and what he did.

But it does capture a few of the key moments: the nakedly flawed human in "Jealous Guy," the questioning peacenik in "Imagine"—a song which is still massively misquoted, for all that people use it as a benchmark of what we can be as a species—or the newly reborn debunker of all mythology in "God." Then there's the loving husband and father in "Woman" or "Beautiful Boy," and the chest-poking snoot-cocker in "Working Class Hero."

The picture that emerges is of a complicated, passionate man, who could be ferociously bitter when let down, but enormously optimistic about the things people can achieve if they put their minds to it. Arguably, the most Lennon-y song in this list is "Instant Karma," which bridges both of these extremes and still sounds like the most life-affirming, fun pop music ever put to tape.

Naturally, your opinion will be different. That's how this thing works. – Fraser McAlpine

10. "God" (1970)

"God," a stand-out track on 1970's John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, finds Lennon fully and unapologetically reborn as a solo artist. He opens the song with the aphorism, "God is a concept by which we measure our pain," and, one by one, shouts out all of the "myths" he doesn't believe in, including Jesus, Buddha, Kennedy, Bob Dylan, yoga, and finally, most emphatically, his deified former band The Beatles. He concludes that list with the simple statement, "I just believe in me…Yoko and me," signaling his retreat from the dreamlike 1960s world he once knew. Behind the anger and disillusionment, "God" reveals Lennon as vulnerable, an artist – and a man – with nothing to hide. And you could take him for what he was or not at all. An amazing song. – Kevin Wicks

8. (tie) "(Just Like) Starting Over" (1980)

It can feel like a climb, descent or maybe just a long trip along a road with a few necessary, nostalgic detours, but you can always begin again in love. Add a few doo-wop-sh-wahhhhs and it may even feel easy. Play it again, John, straight from that crystalline, opening bell. – Lindsay Davis

8. "Mind Games" (1973)

John Lennon's impeccable talent to write about love's various simplicities and complexities is richly fluent throughout his vast catalog. "Mind Games," one of the many introspective standouts found on Lennon's 1973 album of the same title, doesn't stray beyond those earthly ideals. Regardless of our differing opinions on politics and religion, we, as people, must band together to keep the world moving in a positive way. Anything else is nonsensical. "Keep on playing those mind games forever/Raising the spirit of peace and love, not war." Yep, Lennon said it best, didn't he? – MacKenzie Wilson


7. "Jealous Guy" (1971)

When Lennon tells us he's "shivering inside" and "swallowing his pain," he does it with such poignancy and truth, we feel and forgive him in one beat. His reveal, done at once with matter-of-factness and understated, musical elegance, makes you wonder how we all would've learned to deal with and express emotion if John Lennon kept making music. – LD

6. "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" (1980)

In 1980, Lennon was well-ensconced as a family man with wife Yoko and released "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" as a lullaby to their 5-year-old son Sean. Opening with "Close your eyes, have no fear, the monster's gone and your daddy's here," this acoustic romp is as chirpy and bright as any of Paul McCartney's domestic ditties. But this is warm and deeply moving stuff, and, the lyric, "I can hardly wait to see you come of age," is unbearably sad in light of the tragedy that was around the corner. – KW

4. (tie) "Woman" (1980)

The video for "Woman," released after John's death, is a romantic collage of unguarded moments between John and Yoko, but the flash inclusion of John's grisly post-mortem photo so disturbed me as a child that I could never watch it. I'm so glad that I re-discovered the song as an adult because it's one of the simplest, most mature, and most direct love songs ever recorded. Yeah, the chorus is ultimately doo-wop nonsense lyrics – "Oooh-ooh/Well, well/Doo-doo-doo-doo" – but they take on the intimacy of pillow talk. And when in the last chorus, Lennon finally articulates "I love you, now and forever," it feels earned, sincere, and utterly un-cliché. – KW

4. "Watching the Wheels" (1980)

With the birth of his son, Sean, in 1975, Lennon quietly reverted into the calm of family life in his adopted New York City. It would be another five years until he'd create music and 1980's Double Fantasy blissfully captures his domestic happiness and without apology. "Watching the Wheels" finds the late Beatle "no longer riding on the merry-go-round" of the various expectations that come along with being one of the world's most adored celebrities. I'd like to think he found some peace in the end, wouldn't you agree? – MW

3. "Working Class Hero" (1970)

This 1970 song was written during a period of intense introspection, anger and insecurity in John Lennon's life, and it shows. A withering broadside against the injustices of his own youth, a disgusted Lennon offers a clear-eyed dissection of the small-minded people who held positions of responsibility over him, and actively held him back. A classic rock star whinge against bad teachers, right? Well, as with the best of his work, it's not just a personal song. It also chimes with anyone who ever felt like the grown-ups had no idea what they were doing. It chimes with anyone who has been treated harshly by officials of any stripe – police, teachers, doctors. It's a song which says even if you believe you are in control of your own destiny, there are still people who can take that away, and some of them work for the government. It would be nice to think that this message would be less relevant now than it was 40 years ago, but the song's high placing on this chart would suggest otherwise. – FM


2. "Instant Karma" (1970)

Don't let your karma catch you, people. With one of the best hooks in pop music, one that's oft mistaken for the title (you mean it's not called "And We All Shine On"), Lennon sings against laughing in the face of love in favor of celebrating your brilliance with a tambourine-shaking respect for humanity. (All with the joy of a child who finds his photo underneath a gold-star magnet center fridge.) Consider yourself warned (in the best possible way). – LD

1. "Imagine" (1971)

"Imagine" is unquestionably the most memorable and successful song of John Lennon's solo career. Released just over a year after leaving The Beatles, Lennon metaphorically hints at political upheaval of the time while composing a very tangible and vivid picture for the future. His words here are as real today as they were then and that's the beauty of this song. Simple composition with loaded lyrics, and emotional on every level, "Imagine" is quintessential John Lennon. – MW

Do you agree with the list? What are your favorite Lennon tunes?

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Filed Under: John Lennon, The Beatles
By MacKenzie Wilson