John Lennon's 20 greatest songs, ranked

6 October 2023, 12:38 | Updated: 6 October 2023, 13:19

John Lennon was one of the great music icons of the 20th century.
John Lennon was one of the great music icons of the 20th century. Picture: Getty

By Thomas Curtis-Horsfall

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There's a valid reason why he is regarded as one of the greatest songwriters in popular music.

During his time with The Beatles, John Lennon's creative partnership with Paul McCartney produced pop music which changed the world.

Shape-shifting from Beatlemania pop stardom, to psychedelic introspection, to countercultural peace anthems, the band brought mainstream music into a boundless new future.

After The Beatles broke up, Lennon was free to express his own truth without battling McCartney for air time - clearly, he'd checked out long before they actually called it a day.

In what seems like an incredibly short ten years as a solo artist, John Lennon created an enviable breadth of impactful music, one that still stands the test of time.

Whether he was calling for world peace, angrily piecing together his fractured past, or acting as a doting father and husband, Lennon's solo material was consistently poignant as he repeatedly shed the skin of his Beatles' albatross.

At least at first, John Lennon was considered the most credible member of the Fab Four in the wake of their demise, and he still might have been perceived that way had his life not been tragically curtailed in 1980, and he was still able to contribute to the pop pantheon.

We can't rewrite history, but what we can do is appreciate how timeless his body of work is. That said, here are John Lennon's 20 greatest solo songs, ranked:

  1. '(Just Like) Starting Over'

    [Just Like] Starting Over (Ultimate Mix)

    With his final album, Double Fantasy, in 1980, John Lennon was starting afresh.

    His first full-length album since 1975's Rock 'n' Roll, which wasn't warmly received, Lennon had become a father for the second time and found a new lease of life personally and professionally.

    '(Just Like) Starting Over' is very much an ode to that, as well as his relationship with Yoko Ono getting back on track once again.

    "It was kinda obvious what 'Starting Over' was about," said journalist David Sheff, who did the last major interview with Lennon, to Mojo magazine.

    "He'd been untrusting of Yoko, she'd been untrusting of him, all that kind of stuff. But in that one song was this incredible optimism and joy."

  2. 'Power To The People'

    POWER TO THE PEOPLE. (Ultimate Mix, 2020) - John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (official music video HD)

    Few artists could write a chant-able call-to-arms quite like Lennon, and 'Power To The People' was just that.

    Re-using the popular phrase coined during the countercultural movement, he said he wanted to "awaken the power in the people."

    Talking about the song's origins, Lennon said: "I wrote 'Power To The People' the same way I wrote 'Give Peace A Chance' as something for the people to sing."

    "I make singles like broadsheets. It was another quickie," he joked.

  3. 'Out The Blue'

    Out The Blue (Remastered 2010)

    John's wife Yoko Ono was frequently the focal point of most of his solo work. She was very much his muse.

    'Out The Blue' is another moment where he gushes about her magic, how she provides the lightning bolt of wisdom and direction when he least expects it.

    Many believe it to be about his then-mistress May Pang, though it's clearly about Yoko - without her, would he have ever reached his potential post-Beatles?

  4. 'Watching The Wheels'

    WATCHING THE WHEELS. (Ultimate Mix, 2020) - John Lennon (official music video HD)

    After 1974's Walls And Bridges, Lennon didn't write any original material until Double Fantasy in 1980.

    In 'Watching The Wheels' he explains why - he'd become a dedicated father after reconciling with Yoko in 1975, and immersed himself in domestic life.

    He admitted to no longer being interested in fame and its trappings, instead becoming a house-husband and sturdy father for Sean and Yoko.

    The lyrics say it all: "I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round/ I really love to watch them roll/ No longer riding on the merry go round/ I just had to let it go."

  5. 'Cold Turkey'

    COLD TURKEY. (Ultimate Mix, 2020) - Plastic Ono Band (official music video HD)

    One of the most primal songs that John wrote, he actually tried to emulate Yoko singing, which explains the pained wail.

    His vocal was befitting of the song however, as it was inspired by his own experience of quitting drugs cold turkey to start a family with Ono, who did the same.

    Lennon initially wanted to record 'Cold Turkey' with The Beatles, but after the band rejected it he formed Plastic Ono Band to record and release it instead, becoming technically his first solo song.

    Eric Clapton also performed on the track, though wisely declined the invitation to join the Plastic Ono Band after John insisted.

  6. 'Give Peace A Chance'

    GIVE PEACE A CHANCE. (Ultimate Mix, 2020) - Plastic Ono Band (official music video HD)

    Lennon's second-ever solo song, 'Give Peace A Chance' was far more iconic.

    The pair's pertinent and much-parodied bedroom protest offered them the perfect platform to promote peace.

    Yoko admitted years later that they both knew it was a silly stunt, but the media attention it garnered was an effective way to get their message across.

    Understandably because of its readily chant-able chorus, the song became an instant anti-war anthem after its 1969 release.

  7. 'Gimme Some Truth'

    Gimme Some Truth (live vocal out-take)

    John Lennon had a spiteful relationship with politicians, predominantly US politicians who deemed him a cultural threat and continually refused him citizenship.

    'Gimme Some Truth' probably didn't help his cause, a scathing attack on the lies and corrupt nature of contemporary politics.

    Disillusioned by political cover-ups like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Lennon felt inspired to write this song, calling for simple truth, plainly and simply.

  8. 'God'

    God (Remastered 2010)

    Lennon's well-documented "bigger than Jesus" comments which caused outrage during his time with The Beatles were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to his relationship with religion.

    His new guise as a countercultural-aligning artist gave him more creative freedom in his solo career, and he went straight for God.

    "The dream is over", he sings on 'God' from his 1970 album with Plastic Ono Band, later explaining that "If there is a God, we're all it".

    Implying religion had failed him, he was more concerned with looking inward for answers, whilst scything down the Bible, Jesus, the Buddha, mantra, the Gita, yoga, Elvis Presley, and even Zimmerman (Bob Dylan) at the same time.

  9. 'Mind Games'

    MIND GAMES. (Ultimate Mix, 2020) - John Lennon and The Plastic U.F.Ono Band

    It's a popular misconception that 'Mind Games', Lennon's 1973 lead single from the album of the same name, was in fact about his and Yoko's disconnected relationship.

    The track's origins started in 1969, initially titled 'Make Love, Not War', though the melody was lifted from another working title called 'I Promise'.

    After reading Robert Masters and Jean Houston's 1972 book Mind Games: The Guide to Inner Space, Lennon felt inspired to complete the song.

    There was a nod to Yoko of course - the lyric "YES is the answer" references her art piece that brought them together, though Lennon ironically recorded 'Mind Games' as he left Yoko for May Pang.

  10. 'Working Class Hero'

    WORKING CLASS HERO. (Ultimate Mix, 2020) - John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (official music video HD)

    John Lennon forever struggled with the magnitude of his fame, given his working-class beginnings in Liverpool - though many detractors are quick to point out his aunt raised him in a middle-class environment.

    Waging war on the class system, 'Working Class Hero' juggles the expectations of his fans and the media with his own trajectory, upbringing, the social ills he's been surrounded by his entire life, and the moment it all changed with The Beatles.

    "I think it's for the people like me who are working class, who are supposed to be processed into the middle classes, or into the machinery," he later explained.

    The line, "If you want to be like the folks on the hill" directly references Magical Mystery Tour's 'The Fool On The Hill' also.

  11. 'Whatever Gets You Thru The Night'

    WHATEVER GETS YOU THRU THE NIGHT. (Ultimate Mix, 2020) - John Lennon (official music video HD)

    Remarkably, 'Whatever Gets You Thru The Night' was Lennon's first US number one single post-Beatles in 1974, making him the last member to hit the top spot with a solo song.

    It came about during his 'lost weekend', his 18-month stint in Los Angeles after separating from Yoko Ono where he'd cause chaos with Elton John, booze consistently with Harry Nilsson, and even reunite with Paul McCartney for a final studio session together.

    Having contributed piano and backing vocals to the track, Elton famously wagered that it'd be a number one single, and if it was John had to perform on stage with him.

    He made good on that promise, joining Elton at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving, which would also turn out to be his final ever live performance.

    In a twist of fate, it was also the same night he and Yoko would reconcile.

  12. 'Woman'

    WOMAN. (Ultimate Mix, 2020) - John Lennon (official music video HD)

    This blissful moment of dream-pop from Lennon is one of his most endearing.

    An ode to the ever-lasting power of women - well, one woman in particular - after spending five years as a dedicated husband, Yoko was still the first thing on his mind.

    In some ways, it was also an apology after their break-up years before - John's behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic, so Yoko allowed him to do his thing for the greater good.

    In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine just days before his murder, Lennon explained: "What dawned on me was everything I was taking for granted."

  13. 'Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)'

    BEAUTIFUL BOY (DARLING BOY). (Ultimate Mix, 2020) - John Lennon (official music video HD)

    Released on 1980's Double Fantasy, 'Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)' took on an entirely new function after John's murder. What started as an ode to Sean and fatherhood quickly became Sean's only point of contact with his late father.

    John also referenced Paul's lyrics on The Beatles' 'Getting Better' with "Every day, in every way, it's getting better and better."

    The duo had repaired their bond in recent years, and loving life as a new dad, John confirmed that Paul was right - life does just keep getting better and better.

    Macca said it was one of the most beautiful songs John had written. "I think it is a beautiful song. It's very moving to me," he stated in 1982.

  14. 'How Do You Sleep?'

    How Do You Sleep? (Remastered 2010)

    There was a period when John and Paul weren't always as affable with one another post-Beatles. In fact, it became somewhat vicious between them, and 'How Do You Sleep?' is case and point.

    After the band broke up, John made no qualms about his perspective that McCartney's best days were behind him, singing: "Everything you done was yesterday. Since you gone you're just another day".

    The frosty sentiment is emphasised by the track's deep, murky guitar groove, with George Harrison contributing to the record - though it's not confirmed if he was on board with the scathing message directed at Paul.

    When asked about the song in 2008, Macca retorted: "The answer to John was well - I was sleeping very well at the time."

  15. 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)'

    HAPPY XMAS (WAR IS OVER). (Ultimate Mix, 2020) John & Yoko Plastic Ono Band + Harlem Community Choir

    In 1971, Lennon managed to transform a peace anthem into a perennial Christmas favourite.

    Ignoring the traditional festive tropes of sleigh bells and mistletoe, the ravaging melody instead asks us to consider those who live in fear and oppression at Christmas time.

    During their anti-war campaigning, John Lennon and Yoko Ono devised the slogan "War is over! (If you want it)" which served as the basis for this Christmas classic.

    Though it took a while to warm the hearts of Americans, 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' was released in the UK the following year and reached No.4 in the charts. Nowadays, Christmas wouldn't feel the same without it.

  16. '#9 Dream'

    #9 DREAM. (Ultimate Mix 2020) John Lennon w The Plastic Ono Nuclear Band (official music video 4K)

    Undoubtedly the most psychedelic song he'd written as a solo artist, '#9 Dream' saw Lennon absorb some of George Harrison's Eastern mysticism.

    Centred around the mantra "ah böwakawa poussé, poussé" which supposedly came to John in a dream, the remainder of the song flooded out from him almost immediately.

    "I just churned that out," he revealed in an interview at the time. "I'm not putting it down, it's just what it is, but I just sat down and wrote it, you know, with no real inspiration, based on a dream I'd had."

    The song is mystical, nonsensical, and refreshingly a far cry from his usual political output.

  17. 'Instant Karma (We All Shine On)'

    INSTANT KARMA! (WE ALL SHINE ON). (Ultimate Mix, 2020) - Lennon/Ono with The Plastic Ono Band

    'Instant Karma (We All Shine On)' was written as instantly as the title would suggest, with Lennon writing and recording the song on the same day.

    Utilising the Hindu and Buddhist belief as a rallying cry, he suggests we're all capable of making a change and reaping the benefits of doing so - we all shine on.

    George Harrison, Billy Preston, and Yes drummer Alan White - who can a forget that drum fill - all contributed to the song, with Lennon and Yoko rounded up a group of strangers from a local pub to chant the chorus in the studio with them.

    Yoko later explained the sentiment of the song, saying: "It's like, 'Let's all be together and anybody who's out there who's not in this game, why don't you join us?'"

  18. 'Jealous Guy'

    JEALOUS GUY. (Ultimate Mix, 2020) - John Lennon and The Plastic Ono Band (w the Flux Fiddlers)

    With 1971 'Jealous Guy', John Lennon was uncovering and analysing the macabre aspects of his own personality in full view of the world.

    Yoko felt it was because he felt inadequate for her almost constantly: "He was jealous about the fact that I had another language in my head, you know, Japanese, that he can't share with me," she later revealed.

    The song was offered a new lease of life after Bryan Ferry covered it with Roxy Music in 1981 as a tribute to Lennon after his shocking murder.

    It was released as an official John Lennon single in 1985, and has been covered by 92 artists since then, in turn becoming one of his most celebrated but torturous and revealing songs.

  19. 'Mother'

    MOTHER (Ultimate Mix, 2021) - Lennon & Ono w The Plastic Ono Band (Official Music Video 4K Remaster)

    'Mother' was a truly exposing insight into the pained childhood John Lennon had, and parental love he'd wished he'd had.

    Undergoing primal scream therapy, he delved deep into his psyche and began writing about the loss of his mother, who died in a car accident when he was young - "Mother you had me, but I never had you."

    "I wanted you, you didn't need me," he sings about his father, a sea merchant who left John to be raised by his aunt.

    It's a brutal, nerve-shredding ballad that was stripped-back to imperious effect, emphasising the anguish in his lyrics.

    Lou Reed later called 'Mother' one of his all-time favourite songs, stating: "The lyrics to that are real. You see, he wasn't kidding around. He got right down to it, as down as you can get."

  20. 'Imagine'

    IMAGINE. (Ultimate Mix, 2020) - John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band (with the Flux Fiddlers) HD

    It's the peace anthem that echoes endlessly through the corridors of time, given the humanistic message at its very core.

    Synonymous with John Lennon and everything he stood for as an artist, 'Imagine' is undoubtedly the greatest song he ever penned.

    Everything about 'Imagine' and its accompanying music video is iconic - Yoko, his muse and confidant, sat alongside John at the piano, walking hand-in-hand down the misty path together.

    It's a masterpiece of a simple message that hasn't been diluted over the years, despite it being overused as the soundtrack for any overly sentimental campaign, which would've likely been to Lennon's chagrin if he were still here.

    "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one," his iconic and optimistic words state. They've kept us dreaming ever since.