The most underrated John Lennon songs often share little in common, and that's certainly fitting. After all, the former Beatles star remains an enigma, decades after his awful murder: He was a peace-loving street fighter, and a house-husband activist. Lennon is as inscrutable as he is compulsively listenable.

His music followed suit, as Lennon chased dreams both big and small. He's remembered for a flinty impulse to create (Lennon wanted to write, record and release 1970's "Instant Karma" in a single day), and his sometimes shocking honesty (not just when he was angry, but also within his lover's admission on "Jealous Guy.") He could be a love-struck fool and remarkably vindictive, stubbornly in the moment and lost in a utopian dream. Lennon boasted Top 40 U.K. hits with a Christmas song, but also a song about kicking heroin.

He didn't score his first chart-topping Billboard solo hit until "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night," some four years after Lennon's old band split. But there were plenty of big hits along the way, including eight Top 20 singles during his lifetime. (Lennon added another four posthumously, including the No. 1 smash "Starting Over," which was climbing the charts when he was killed.) Most notable was "Imagine," a peace anthem for the ages which somehow only reached No. 3 on the U.S. charts in 1971.

Yet even if you leave off his early verite experiments in sound recording, Lennon still left dozens of tasty album cuts to dig more deeply into – and might have created far more if not for the comparative brevity of his post-Beatles solo career. Here's a look at the best of those that have been somehow overlooked:

"I Found Out"
From: Plastic Ono Band (1970)

This is the scuzzy, street-fighting heart of an album that remains one of the most remarkable musical — and personal — statements ever issued by a major recording artist. And it sounds as angry as it is, with Lennon unleashing a series of distorted, slashing riffs over a chugging rhythm courtesy of Klaus Voormann and former Beatles bandmate Ringo Starr. Phil Spector was credited as producer on the date, but is perhaps nowhere less present than on the nervy and unfettered "I Found Out." Elsewhere, Lennon confronted demons, talismans and heroes on songs like "Mother," "Working Class Hero" and "God," but he never rocked harder on Plastic Ono Band than he does on "I Found Out." If those other justifiably well-regarded moments presented rigorous questions about Lennon's (and, of course, his listeners') relationships with such things, then "I Found Out" simply demolished them.

"Oh My Love"
From: Imagine (1971)

Lennon began this song during the White Album sessions, and he retained that era's feel by inviting George Harrison to take over again on guitar. But much had changed in the interim: Harrison ended up playing on half of Imagine – but one of the tracks, "How Do You Sleep," was a brutal takedown of Paul McCartney. (Starr was in the studio as an observer at the time of its recording, and reportedly blanched at the swipes being made at their ex-bandmate.) Yoko Ono had also become a key – though often dismissed – lyrical collaborator. Her fingerprints are all over "Oh My Love," with its diaphanous references to clouds and wind. This was initially the only official Lennon-Ono collaboration on Imagine, before she was belatedly given co-writing credit on the title track years later.

"New York City"
From: Some Time in New York City (1972)

John Lennon's move to the Big Apple coincided with a political shift leftward and, perhaps not coincidentally, new issues with immigration. Along the way, Some Time in New York City became one of his most determinedly topical, and most critically reviled, solo projects. Really, all of it is typically ignored – and that's understandable, since fate had already rendered some of these hyper-contemporary songs irrelevant before the album even arrived. Still, like even the least of the Beatles' solo efforts, Some Time in New York City wasn't without at least one moment of small-scale charm: "New York City" served as a Chuck Berry-esque mash note to Lennon's new hometown, an effortless romp on an LP sorely lacking such moments.

"Out the Blue"
From: Mind Games (1973)

Mind Games opened the door for Lennon's so-called Lost Weekend, when the former Beatles star separated from Ono – and the album, on balance, sounds just as unfocused, just as in flux, as his private life had become. The only constant seems to be Ono. She simply looms over Mind Games, and not just because of the Lennon-designed cover image. There’s also "Out the Blue," a tale of once-devoted lovers now apart who somehow still seem destined to return to one another. It's not hard to see how being away from her would eventually send Lennon into a spiral, so deep was their connection. This song, as much as any other, reveals the depth of that loss. It also hints at the sweet reconciliation to come.

"Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)"
From: Walls and Bridges (1974)

The sad irony of "Nobody Loves You," where a broken-down musician laments his latter-day role outside the circle of fame, is that decades without Lennon have done nothing to dull his influence on rock music (from Kurt Cobain to Grant Lee Phillips to the Smashing Pumpkins) and even less to soften the cutting wit found on this largely undiscovered track. It's easy to overlook Walls and Bridges because of its period-piece studio tricks, but Lennon remains in complete control of a lyric. And he's still willing to strip himself utterly bare, to be just as hard on himself as he is on everybody else. At the end Lennon admits, with harrowing honesty: "Everybody loves you when you're six foot in the ground." Not without moments like these.

"You Can't Catch Me"
From: Rock 'n' Roll (1975)

An update of Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" went to No. 20 in 1975, but the center point of this long-gestating look back at Lennon's early musical influences was a pair of Chuck Berry songs – topped by his dangerous take on "You Can't Catch Me." Lennon had always loved Berry, and made no secret of that: "Black music started the revolution in the world, the so-called youth revolution," he once mused. "This whole change of style, of attitude, was started by rock 'n' roll – and rock 'n' roll is black." But cribbing the first line of this song for "Come Together" was more than Berry's lawyers could stomach, so Lennon was forced to make good with some revenue-driving covers. Lennon's passion ensured that he was incapable of mailing it in, even under legal orders. He sounds tough, of course – very tough. But there's also a notable undercurrent of fear, like a bully who knows his threats are losing their potency.

"I'm Losing You"
From: Double Fantasy (1980)

There were bigger hits, of course, but "I'm Losing You" actually provides a deeper sense of the long-awaited return of Lennon's muse. Call it the vibrant, angry yang to his bread-making house-husband yin. At his zenith, Lennon was a scratched-and-dented treasure, laconic and all edge, but too often on Double Fantasy he seemed to have settled into middle-aged domesticity — both figuratively and, by employing the prevailing pop veneer, literally. Not here: There's a crunchy, kinetic sizzle as Lennon looks back at his own alcohol-induced mid-'70s dumbassery. But "I'm Losing You" is more than that. Lennon was coming to grips with what lay ahead (middle age, a settled life, marriage and parenthood), and also how much fight was still left in him. Displaying a sinewy new grit, he sounds like a rebel again.

"I Don't Wanna Face It"
From: Milk and Honey (1983)

Prototypical John Lennon, beginning with an intro that is this dazzling absurdity. He counts off in made-up gibberish, melding Old World-sounding language with a drunken Lewis Carroll: "Un, deux, eins-zwei-hickel-pickel!" A grinding guitar and Tony Levin's utterly nasty bass line tell a different story, however, as Lennon peeks from under the mask for some illuminatingly personal commentary. It's complicated, just like Lennon, brutally frank and sort of tossed off, too. That dissociative attitude — found in Milk and Honey in general, and "I Don't Wanna Face It" in particular — has ultimately made this LP more in keeping with Lennon's uneven solo career than did the sometimes too-slick Double Fantasy. The song's ending is transitional, and probably needed one more take. That works, too, in its way. This is another searing reminder of the fate that lay just around the corner for Lennon on a New York City street.

 

 

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