14 October, 2010

The Best of the Best-Ofs: John Lennon

If you count the posthumously-released Milk and Honey, John Lennon made eight regular albums in his post-Beatles career. Since his death, there have been six best-of compilations, three box-set compilations, three odds & sods compilations and several other regional versions. So which should you go for?

Shaved Fish – 1975
This was the only compilation released in John’s lifetime, so it has the benefit of being the one that clearly had his approval. It collects all the singles to date, half of which were not available on any other album, which would have made them hard to get in 1975. It opens with Give Peace a Chance, but this is faded after 60 seconds. The song is reprised at the end of the album with an excerpt of the live version from the One to One concert. (The full version is available on Live in New York City).

There’s one advantage that Shaved Fish has over all the ones that came after it. With its surreal artwork and bonkers title, it’s the only Lennon compilation to show John’s sense of humour. John was always a master piss-taker but you’d never know it from the po-faced seriousness of all the collections that followed. I’ve nothing against Yoko, but I don’t think she ever really understood John’s humour.

Original, authentic.
Against: Short, incomplete.

The John Lennon Collection – 1982/1989
Contains most of the tracks included on Shaved Fish and adds Stand By Me from Rock and Roll and all but one of John’s tracks from Double Fantasy. The tracklist was expanded for the CD reissue in 1989 to include Move Over Miss L and Cold Turkey, but tacking them on at the end disturbs the flow of the album significantly.

It’s the one that everyone bought after John’s death.
Against: Leans heavily on Double Fantasy.

Imagine: John Lennon – 1988
Not to be confused with Imagine by John Lennon, this collection accompanied the documentary film of the same name, itself not to be confused with The Making of Imagine.

Rather than being a best-of per se, the tracks are chosen and sequenced to reflect the narrative of John’s life. Controversially, nine Beatles recordings are included. An acoustic guitar version of Real Love and the initial demo of Imagine are included, presumably to attract those who already owned the rest of the music.

For: Gives an overview of John’s entire career.
Against: Beatles recordings on a John Lennon album? Let’s see Paul McCartney get away with that!

Lennon Legend - The Very Best of John Lennon – 1997
Apparently released with the intention of having a definitive collection, it’s also pretty likely that Lennon Legend was intended to take advantage of the renewed interest in John Lennon at the time thanks to the Beatles Anthology and Britpop. Two tracks from Milk and Honey are included as well as Working Class Hero, considered by many to be one of John’s most important songs. I guess by 1997, you were allowed to swear on a best-of album.

Has a balanced selection from all phases of John’s solo career.
Against: Made redundant by what came next.

Working Class Hero - The Definitive Lennon – 2005
“Definitive,” is a big call, but this 2-disc collection comes closer than any other. It aims at being a true best-of, rather than just collecting the greatest hits or most recognised songs. Lesser known album tracks are included, such as Bless You, Scared and I’m Stepping Out, as well as important tracks such as Isolation and God, which hadn’t been included on any previous collection. The version of I’m Losing You is a raunchier version, (previously available on Wonsaponatime and Lennon Anthology), there is the original piano version of Real Love (ditto) and Come Together from Live in New York City. There seems to be no logic to the sequencing of the tracks but other than that, this is the best overall collection so far.

For: Two discs, remastered.
Against: Odd sequencing, takes itself awfully seriously.

The US vs John Lennon – 2006
The soundtrack to the documentary film of the same name. Movie tie-ins, especially to do with musicians, are usually a no-brainer but let’s take a little reality check: If you’re at all interested in the film, you probably have more than a passing interest in John’s music. If you have more than a passing interest in John’s music, it’s pretty likely that you’ve got most of this music already. On the off chance that you have discovered John’s music by viewing the film out of an interest in early-to-mid ’70s US politics, then there are better places to start listening than this.

The track selections naturally follow the theme of the film, and so include John’s more political songs and others that reflect what was going on in his life at the time. Scared is used to great effect in the film. The carrot for those who own every other album is a previously unreleased live version of Attica State (not the one that’s on Anthology) and instrumental version of How Do You Sleep? Hearing the latter sans vocal track does bring home what a relentless, pulsating groove the song has, but it’s hardly worth buying the whole album for.

For: One previously unreleased track, one new mix.
Against: Otherwise pointless.

Power to the People – 2010
In 1978, John Lennon wrote a short memoir of his life with Yoko, which was eventually published in 1986 in the book Skywriting by Word of Mouth. In it, John described the song Power to the People as “rather embarrassing,” and implies that he was shamed into writing the song by some of the more radical characters he was hanging out with at the time. Of course, it’s not uncommon for artists to have love/hate relationships with their own songs. For all we know, John’s view of the song may have softened had he been allowed to live, so I won’t speculate on whether he might have approved of the title being used this way. However, given what he wrote just six years after releasing the song, one does wonder how he would have felt about it being so closely associated with him, and being included on every single one of these compilations.

The only thing that makes this latest collection worth considering is that it’s compiled from the 2010 remasters. However, this isn’t like the Beatles remasters where they haven’t been touched for over twenty years. The last round of Lennon remasters came out between 2000 and 2005. It’s hard to imagine that new kinds of digital pixie dust have been invented since then that will further improve recordings that sonically, were pretty good to begin with. Remasters in the 21st century can be cause for concern but fortunately, that have not put them all through the make-it-loud machine. Instead, the remasters are at a more civilised level than the previous versions but to my (admittedly untrained) ears, there’s nothing like enough audible difference to warrant replacing your current collection.
(Just Like) Starting Over, 2000 remaster. Note the clipping.
(Just Like) Starting Over, 2005 version from Working Class Hero
(Just Like) Starting Over, 2010 remaster

As for the album itself, it’s call the hits and that’s what it delivers. The track sequencing is tasteful and there’s the option of a bonus DVD, although it doesn’t contain anything that isn’t already available on Lennon Legend.

For: 2010 remasters
Against: Please, please, let this be the last one!

If you had to choose one, choose....
Working Class Hero. Between that and a couple of downloads, you could make up all the other ones from it.

See also,

Menlove Ave. – 1986
Inessential collection of outtakes mostly from the Rock and Roll and Walls and Bridges sessions.

Lennon – 1990
Four-disc box set which is essentially an extended best-of. Contains the whole of Plastic Ono Band, all but one track of Imagine and all John’s tracks from Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey. Now out of print and overpriced. Avoid. Buy the real albums instead.

John Lennon Anthology – 1998
Is to John’s solo career what the Beatles Anthology is to theirs; collected out-takes, demos, live versions and home tapes. Very interesting to the serious fan but, like the Beatles Anthology, should not be used as an introduction to the music. Four themed discs covering the Ascot, New York City, Lost Weekend and Dakota periods. Bit pricey.

Wonsaponatime – 1998
Single-disc collection of highlights from Anthology.

Acoustic – 2004
Worthwhile collection of acoustic versions – some demos, some live – most of them previously released. Includes chord sheets for budding guitarists.

Remember – 2006
Curious selection of hits and album tracks. Perfect for those who only buy their music from Starbucks.

Gimme Some Truth – 2010
You want the truth? The truth is that these four themed discs (Working Class Hero, Woman, Borrowed Time and Roots) are little more than glorified iTunes playlists, repackaged and resold. Again, it contains nearly all of the Plastic Ono Band and Imagine albums. Pointless. Buy the real albums and make your own.

Disclosure: I do not own all of these albums, but I do own nearly all of John’s music in one form or another which means I know what each album will be like without owning every one of them.


  1. Great break down of these. I can't believe anybody would have all of these. I won Gimme Some Truth from the Lennon facebook page and while I haven't got it yet, it looks so useless. All of POB and R 'n' R are on it and more than half of all the other albums. So ridiculous.

  2. Thanks Dan!
    Congratulations on the win. It may be redundant but the price is right.

  3. First time visit from blogthis.com.au; nice to meet you, great post! Did you see Google's Lennon tribute?

  4. Thank you, and welcome.

    I did - it was beautiful.