In marking what would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday, artists, critics, friends, and family have tried to describe his legacy. Some articles, such as a recent Vanity Fair piece, have speculated on what Lennon might have been like at 70. While no one may ever be successful in fully encapsulating his complex life and personality, one indisputable fact remains: Lennon was a first-class singer and songwriter. Everyone knows "Imagine," "Instant Karma," and "(Just Like) Starting Over," among many other hits; digging through his catalog (much of it remastered as part of a box set, individual CDs, and new compilations) reveals some lesser-known treasures. This list is limited to official releases, although many quality bootlegs exist.
"Isolation": John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, otherwise known as the "primal scream album," featured highly confessional songwriting in tracks such as "Mother," "God," and "Working Class Hero." His anguished, bare-bones vocals transform listeners into eavesdroppers, as if Lennon is inviting the audience to share his doubts, insecurities, and pain with him. While the aforementioned tracks are all standouts, my favorite song from the album remains "Isolation." Few other songs have captured the essence of loneliness and feelings of helplessness like this one does in its lyrics. The first words insist on the listener’s attention: "People say we got it made/Don't they know we're so afraid?" Perhaps referring to his work with Yoko Ono, he sings of "a boy and a little girl/Trying to change the whole wide world"; yet they sometimes feel discouraged as "The world is just a little town/Everybody trying to put us down." During the bridge, Lennon addresses an unknown nemesis. "I don't expect you to understand," he sings, his voice starting to rise. But he seems to forgive the person, as he/she is "just a human, a victim of the insane." When Lennon holds the note while singing the word "isolation," his voice rises to almost a scream, enabling everyone to experience his anguish. "Isolation" may be a heartbreaking track, but it represents Lennon's unique ability to express blunt honesty in a brutal yet beautiful way.
"I Don't Want to Be a Soldier Mama I Don't Want to Die": Choosing a particular song from Lennon's masterpiece Imagine poses a challenge. The album contains no filler tracks; they are all artfully crafted works. But "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier Mama" receives less attention than other songs such as the title track, "Jealous Guy," and his jab at Paul McCartney, "How Do You Sleep?" However, "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier Mama" stands out for its unusual rhythm, biting slide guitar, and Lennon's drawling vocal performance. The shuffling percussion, amplified by Phil Spector's resonant production, differs greatly from the album's other tracks. George Harrison's slide guitar adds just the right amount of anger to the politically charged song. At the beginning of each line, Lennon draws out the words "well" and "I," further enhanced by Spector's echoing effects. The effect lends an angry but uneasy air to the song, with Lennon expressing uncertainty at following society's expected roles. The line that resonates with me is "Well, I don't wanna be a failure mama, I don't wanna cry." Again, Lennon infuses his lyrics with honesty, using strong words like "failure" to demand that everyone listen.