The Beatles seem to be as popular as ever. While I am not about to call any part of their catalogue underrated, I believe that under the weight of the group’s output, the solo releases of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr tend to be overlooked. After the 1960s were over, each of these musicians continued to explore new sonic avenues on their own, free of the others’ judgement. This resulted in a wild variety of music, from the fantastic to the terrible. In the early 1970s, all four Beatles had carte blanche to release whatever kind of records they felt like. So they did. Here are the best ones.
- Imagine by John Lennon, 1971
The title track is so overplayed, it’s easy to go into this album expecting a lot of socially conscious balladeering. However it’s one of Lennon’s most comfortably diverse solo records, and the production is phenomenal. Producer Phil Spector adds some surprisingly delicate touches to make each song sparkle in its own unique way. The soft songs (“How?”, “Oh My Love”, and the title track) are lush and intimate, while the rock tunes (“It’s So Hard”, “How Do You Sleep?”) hit hard with the help of brass and strings. Every song on this album is charming and unique. “Oh Yoko!” is a bouncy pop tune that feels almost pastoral with its quaint acoustic guitars and piano. “Gimme Some Truth”, an off-kilter political rant, explodes with classic satirical Lennon fury. Some killer guitar work here, and the best vocal performance on the album. And then there’s my two favourite tracks on the album: “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier” and “Jealous Guy”. “I Don’t Wanna…” absolutely drips with reverb, with piano and drums bouncing around what sounds like a cathedral. The unpredictable syncopation of Lennon’s voice adds a lot to this ferocious groove. To me this track sounds like Spiritualized or even Primal Scream, predicting a 90s alternative sound by a few decades. “Jealous Guy” is one of my favourite Lennon songs of all time, and from the opening notes, the airy piano and strings take me to another place. The lyrics are confessional without getting too preachy, and are just as universally resonant as the title track. If you want to hear Lennon exercise his songwriting abilities in a variety of styles, check this album out.
If you like this, try: Nilsson Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson, 1971; Goon by Tobias Jesso Jr., 2015.
- Ram by Paul and Linda McCartney, 1971
Paul took the Beatles’ breakup very hard, but he had the excitement of a new wife and family to fall back on. His debut album McCartney was more of a sequence of loose ideas, probably recorded just to prove to himself that he could defy his own perfectionism. With Ram, the feel is still very loose and domestic, but Abbey Road-esque ambitions start to sneak into play, particularly on the closing track “The Back Seat of My Car” and the mini-opus hit “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”. Similar to Imagine, this album boasts excellence in multiple styles. Mischievously silly rock tunes with nonsensical lyrics (“3 Legs”, “Monkberry Moon Delight”, “Smile Away”, “Eat at Home”) capture McCartney’s musicianship at its most relaxed and intuitive. Then there are more carefully constructed tracks which propel you through musical worlds and atmospheres (all of them whimsical of course). “Heart of the Country” and “Too Many People” are pop standouts, as well as the lush “Dear Boy” and haunting “Ram On”, which bookends the album as a cohesive whole. This album faced harsh criticism in its day for its domestic whimsy (primarily Beatles fans being intolerant of Linda’s presence), but Ram has been thankfully reconsidered in the last decade. Many modern critics hail it as a forerunner of indie rock, and I couldn’t agree more. While many Beatles records take the listener away on a fantasy voyage, Ram celebrates the beauty of staying at home with your loved ones and not giving a damn.
If you like this, try: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco, 2002; The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips, 1999.
- All Things Must Pass by George Harrison, 1970
George Harrison was a late bloomer as a singer-songwriter. Also there’s the fact that he was still very young when the Beatles took off and he had Lennon-McCartney to contend with. By the time of Abbey Road‘s release in 1969, he was fully emerging as his own artist, and had outgrown the Beatles’ dynamic. All Things Must Pass is the culmination of years of Harrison material spilling out in one go – and it’s all good. This album dives into genres such as country and gospel, and has a lot of highly religious lyrics – all characteristics that I don’t usually go for, but in this context they work perfectly. This album is well known for producer Phil Spector’s ‘wall-of-sound’, but the tracks on here are actually very diverse. Firstly we have the radio hits, “My Sweet Lord” and “What is Life”. “My Sweet Lord” is such a simple idea, but its careful pacing and colourful production make it uplifting and exciting. Then we have what I like to call the “big church songs”: “Isn’t It a Pity”, “Beware of Darkness”, “Hear Me Lord”, and the title track. These tunes are all incredibly dense with instruments, laidback, and anthemic – traits that could easily render a song too bombastic or pretentious. Yet in this case they all sounds beautiful and sincere – these are excellent songs at their core. My personal favourites on All Things Must Pass are actually the smaller, quirkier tunes that I find really fun and hooky. The album opener “I’d Have You Anytime” is so cool and mysterious with changing time signatures and unusual chords, but manages to sound very accessible, thanks to that trademark slide guitar. “Run of the Mill” and “Apple Scruffs” are little chugging acoustic tunes that totally steal my heart away. “Wah-Wah” is an absolute monster of a song (and quite a feat of engineering) that you have to hear to believe. This album is long and heavy, but is paced beautifully that it’s impossible to get tired listening. All Things Must Pass stands huge and mysterious like an ancient temple, holding sounds and feelings that many artists are still chasing.
If you like this, try: Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes, 2008; Music from Big Pink by The Band, 1968; Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan, 1975.
- Band on the Run by Paul McCartney and Wings, 1973
Band on the Run is Paul McCartney’s attempt at creating a Beatles album all by himself. And does he ever come close. This album has everything you can find on Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road – adventure, humour, edginess, accessibility, unpredictability, high concepts, and an epic climax. Personally I like to think of this as Abbey Road part 2, except without the other Beatles of course. I feel like McCartney uses so much of that album’s formula to create what he sees as the ‘perfect album’. And by his standards, it is perfect. If you like any of his music, you’ll like all of this album.
The title track and “Jet” are twin pinnacles of 70s pop glory, simply put. The former is a mini-suite that becomes as natural of a singalong as anything McCartney wrote for the Beatles, while the latter is driving glam rocker with a hint of reggae. “Bluebird” and “Mamunia” are acoustic pieces with unbelievable McCartney melodies. “Let Me Roll It”, “Mrs. Vandebilt, “No Words” and “Helen Wheels” are a collection of rockers one step up from those on Ram, still a lot of fun but much more refined and fleshed out. My favourites on the album are the two last tracks, “Picasso’s Last Words” and “1985”. In “Picasso”, McCartney takes his time with an elegant song and then throws in little reprises of previous tunes – which would have sounded corny if they all weren’t such great songs. Finally with “1985” he delivers perhaps the most remarkable song, and vocal performance, of his career. The climax of this piece is genuinely terrifying, with a clarinet and synthesizer swooping around in front of a rock band and orchestra. Apart from his work with the Beatles, Band on the Run is McCartney’s defining statement as an artist.
Also – his vocal work on this album is mind-blowing. Check it out.
If you like this, try: What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, 1971; Sheet Music by 10CC, 1974.
- John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band by John Lennon, 1970
Unlike McCartney’s attempts at recreating the Beatles’ sound on his own, Lennon’s first several solo records set out to defy his ex-band’s legacy. This album’s production is as stripped down as possible, with only a few close friends playing as his band: Klaus Voormann (who had designed the Revolver cover) and Ringo Starr. Lennon had been undergoing primal scream therapy at the time, and was on a quest of self-analysis and introspection. Because of this, all of the songs concern his life and the problems therein. The tracks on this album can be mostly put into one of two categories: soft-edged and thoughtful (“Hold On”, “Working Class Hero”, “Love”, “Look At Me”, “God”, “My Mummy’s Dead”) or hard-edged and aggressive (“Mother”, “I Found Out”, “Remember”, “Well Well Well”). Only the track “Isolation” bridges these two sides in one track. My interpretation of these two categories is that they represent the dual nature of Lennon’s personality as he explores the full range of his emotions. As you’d expect, all of this makes for a very intense and jarring listening experience – but also captivating and incredibly human.
The album’s pacing works as a chronological tale of Lennon’s life as well, with him singing about his parents in the opening “Mother” and then culminating in his maturing and denouncing everything around him but himself in the epic “God”. The album then comes full circle with the brief closer “My Mummy’s Dead”, reinforcing just who is the most important figure in Lennon’s life and art. Few pop/rock albums have provided this dramatic of a personal study as John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. On a lighter note, the music is great. My favourites are two of the smallest tunes, “Hold On” and “Look At Me”, both of which feel as though Lennon had just stepped into a room and casually started picking away at a guitar. For anyone who is interested in his music, this album is essential listening.
If you like this, try: After the Gold Rush by Neil Young, 1970; Nevermind by Nirvana, 1991; In the Aeroplane over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel, 1998.