Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Plastic Ono Band [extended]

  • Live Peace in Toronto 1969 [Apple, 1969] C
  • Plastic Ono Band [Apple, 1970] A
  • Imagine [Apple, 1971] A
  • Some Time in New York City [Apple, 1972] C
  • Mind Games [Apple, 1973] C+
  • Walls and Bridges [Apple, 1974] B-
  • Rock 'n Roll [Apple, 1975] B-
  • Shaved Fish [Apple, 1975] B+
  • Double Fantasy [Capitol, 1980] A
  • Season of Glass [Geffen, 1981] A-
  • The John Lennon Collection [Geffen, 1982] A-
  • It's Alright [Polydor, 1982] B-
  • Milk and Honey [Polydor, 1984] A
  • Starpeace [Polydor, 1985] B-
  • Live in New York City [Capitol, 1986] B
  • Menlove Ave. [Capitol, 1986] B+
  • Imagine: John Lennon: Music from the Original Motion Picture [Capitol, 1988] C+
  • Walking on Thin Ice [Rykodisc, 1992] A
  • Rising [Capitol, 1995] A-
  • New York Rock [Capitol, 1995] D+
  • Wonsaponatime [Capitol, 1998] A-
  • Blueprint for a Surprise [Capitol, 2001] *
  • Acoustic [Capitol, 2004] *
  • Rock 'n' Roll [Capitol, 2004] Choice Cuts
  • Between My Head and the Sky [Chimera, 2009] ***
  • Take Me to the Land of Hell [Chimera Music, 2013] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Live Peace in Toronto 1969 [Apple, 1969]
This is the famous Lennon/Clapton/Ono/Voorman/White (Voorman?/White?) concert. I happened to be there and it wasn't so hot live. It is worse recorded. The anti-Yoko reaction has long since passed beyond boorishness, but that doesn't mean I want to hear her keen for 20 minutes, and the rock side is raw and badly recorded, with Clapton's masterful lead obscured by Lennon's rhythm. Of value primarily as a document. C

John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band [Apple, 1970]
Of course the lyrics are often crude psychotherapeutic cliches. That's just the point, because they're also true, and John wants to make clear that right now truth is far more important than subtlety, taste, art, or anything else. At first the music sounds crude, too, stark and even perfunctory after the Beatles' free harmonies and double guitars. But the real music of the album inheres in the way John's greatest vocal performance, a complete tour of rock timbre from scream to whine, is modulated electronically--echoed, filtered, double-tracked, with two vocals sometimes emanating in a synthesis from between the speakers and sometimes dialectically separated. Which means that John is such a media artist that even when he's fervently shedding personas and eschewing metaphor he knows, perhaps instinctively, that he communicates most effectively through technological masks and prisms. A

John Lennon: Imagine [Apple, 1971]
Primal goes pop--personal and useful. The title cut is both a hymn for the Movement and a love song for his wife, celebrating a Yokoism and a Marcusianism simultaneously, and "Gimme Some Truth" unites Lennon unmasked with the Lennon of Blunderland wordplay as it provides a rationale for "Jealous Guy," which doesn't need one, and "How Do You Sleep?," which may. "Oh Yoko!" is an instant folk song worthy of Rosie & the Originals and "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier" an instant folk extravaganza worthy of Phil Spector. "It's So Hard" is a blues. "Crippled Inside," with its "ironic" good-time ricky-tick, is folk-rock in disguise. And the psychotherapeutically lugubrious "How?" is a question mark. A

John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band: Some Time in New York City [Apple, 1972]
Half caterwauling live weirdness with the Mothers of Invention, half tuneless topical rock songs with Elephant's Memory, this is where Lennon risks his charisma instead of investing it. I like its rawness and its basic good-heartedness, though J&Y's politics are frequently condescending. But if agitprop is one thing and wrong-headed agitprop another, agitprop that doesn't reach its intended audience is hardly a thing at all. C

John Lennon: Mind Games [Apple, 1973]
A step in the right direction, but only a step. It sounds like outtakes from Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, which may not seem so bad but means that Lennon is falling back on ideas that have lost their freshness for him. Still, the single works and I hope he keeps on stepping. Favorite Plastic Ono Band outtake: "One Day (at a Time)." Favorite Imagine outtake: "You Are Here." C+

John Lennon: Walls and Bridges [Apple, 1974]
These songs seem more felt than those on Mind Games, probably because they express personal pain rather than generalized optimism--"Bless You," to Yoko in someone else's arms, is a real leap. But the melodies are received, the accompaniment ordinary, and the singing disoriented. What can it be like for this ex-Beatle to trade harmonies with Elton John (who sings backup on "Surprise, Surprise," just as Lennon does on Elton's new single) in the inescapable knowledge that it's Elton who's doing him the favor? B-

John Lennon: Rock 'n Roll [Apple, 1975]
No doubt mysteries of emotional and rhythmic commitment (soul and groove) determine why this runs out of gas after "Be-Bop-a-Lula" and "Stand by Me." But it's also true that covering Gene Vincent and Ben E. King is considerably less perilous than covering Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, whose songs follow. Which may be why "Ya Ya" (Lee Dorsey) and "Just Because" (Lloyd Price) work. Too bad he didn't go for more esoterica--this could have been another Moondog Matinee. B-

John Lennon: Shaved Fish [Apple, 1975]
Eleven shots in the dark from the weirdest major rock and roller of the early '70s. All the hits are here, many of them misses, with the number-one single as out of place as "Happy Xmas" and "Woman Is the Nigger of the World." Not just because it's bad, either--in retrospect, "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" and "Power to the People" sound equally bald, equally stupid. Not counting the two available on must-own albums, the only great cuts are "Instant Karma" (Lennon's best political song) and "#9 Dream" (catchier nonsense pop than McCartney's ever managed). So I don't play it much. But I'm sure glad it's on the shelf. B+

John Lennon/Yoko Ono: Double Fantasy [Capitol, 1980]
In a special message for all the ignorami who think he never should have married the pretentious bitch, John turns the professional rock he hacked his way through when they were separated to the specifics of his life (and genius) as it's now constituted. In a special message for all the ignorami who think pretentious bipeds should stay out of recording studios, Yoko keeps up with him. This is an unfashionable piece of music--only Poly Styrene, of all people, has gotten away with anything remotely similar all year. But you don't have to be married to hear its commitment and command. I hope. A

Yoko Ono: Season of Glass [Geffen, 1981]
The little voice "chokes" and "crackles" (her words), the production relies on the usual sessioneers (Newmark, McCracken, yawn), and the composition is elementary (not primal). Yet damn near every song is affecting, and the segue from "Extension 33"'s retrospective irony to "No, No, No"'s cut-off vulnerability positively gut-wrenching. After all, we've never heard a forty-eight-year-old learn to rock (not rock and roll) before. Or a widow's concept album, either. A-

John Lennon: The John Lennon Collection [Geffen, 1982]
I grant that it's superfluous--basically an Apple best-of plus John's songs from Double Fantasy. It goes on my A shelf because John was John, not just half of John & Yoko. Also because it omits the half-cocked "Cold Turkey" and ragtag "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" from the official Apple best-of and doesn't medley "Give Peace a Chance." A-

Yoko Ono: It's Alright [Polydor, 1982]
Supposedly a big shrewdie, Yoko is transcendently simplistic at the core, which in many ways worked better when she was an avant-gardist than it does in her belated pop phase. This somewhat presumptuous message of hope to the world is cunningly devised around the edges--she exploits the studio with fifty years' and countless dollars' worth of childlike delight. but back at the core, the singing and the songs are more one-dimensional than good pop ever is. B-

John Lennon/Yoko Ono: Milk and Honey [Polydor, 1984]
Those too numbed by tragedy or hope to connect with Double Fantasy aren't likely to hear this one either--it's definitely more of the same, in John's case outtakes. But these were clearly rejected on conceptual rather than musical grounds, as just too quirky to suit the careful househusband image John wanted for his return to the arena. Which is why I like them better, especially spiced with asides he would have erased before final release. Yoko's songs are more recent and that's another plus, because her pop only began to jell with Double Fantasy; the horny querulousness of "Sleepless Night" and the cricket synthesizers on "You're the One" are confident personal elaborations of a tradition she comes to secondhand. Only the two middle cuts on the B get soupy. What a farewell. A

Yoko Ono: Starpeace [Polydor, 1985]
Bill Laswell looked like the perfect choice to assist Yoko's rebound from It's Alright, especially given his commitment to non-Western music and his penchant for avant-gardists, mostly jazzmen but a few of Yoko's ilk. But despite unfailingly humorless lyrics and the skillful input of Laswell regulars from Aiyb Dieng to Anton Fier, the result is insistently, self-consciously, and rather clumsily light in the head. Often it tries to be cute, which is difficult for anyone and utterly impossibly for Laswell, who isn't exactly a froth specialist. Sure he helps with the hooks and beats, that's his job, but the overall effect is as joyless as the kind of record Toto might cut for a girlfriend of their manager's--the soulless studio-rock anti-intellectuals have always accused him of making. Great exception: "You and I," a silly love song for Sean. B-

John Lennon: Live in New York City [Capitol, 1986]
Just by putting his all into such unsung great songs as "Well, Well, Well" and "It's So Hard," the great singer comes a lot closer to justifying this ad hoc document than Jagger did with Ya-Ya's or Daltrey did with Leeds. The alternate "Instant Karma" and "Cold Turkey" and "Mother" are also welcome. But his accidental romance with Elephant's Memory never did him any good musically. And for all his encouragement Yoko wasn't yet a rock-and-roller, so "Hound Dog" remains a concept. B

John Lennon: Menlove Ave. [Capitol, 1986]
The late-night session-band workups of songs later embalmed on Walls and Bridges are startlingly stark and clear, making side two the finest music of the hiatus between Imagine and Double Fantasy, whose precisely felt studio-rock they prefigure. Phil Spector produced the commercial versions. He also produced Rock 'n' Roll, source of the outtakes on side one, which were rejected because they're even stiffer than the intakes. John never could figure out what to do about loving Rosie & the Originals. And Phil wasn't the guy to tell him. B+

John Lennon: Imagine: John Lennon: Music from the Original Motion Picture [Capitol, 1988]
Nothing wrong with the music, though you can do without the bait--"Imagine" work tape, carefully hoarded new song work tape. But the useless configuration, foreshortening the Yokoless first half of his career and romanticizing the de-Beatled second, wouldn't exist without the tireless promotional efforts of Albert Goldman. C+

Yoko Ono: Walking on Thin Ice [Rykodisc, 1992]
Four CDs of Patsy nod me out, four of Aretha make me wonder, but six of Onobox get me going. Often not great and sometimes awful, they brim with previously unheard or unnoticed highs. This 19-cut condensation skips the educational stuff and ought to convert anybody with better taste than Albert Goldman--namely, you. As a student of Western composition, an adept of Japanese vocal technique, and an avant-gardist sworn to throw convention to the wind, Yoko was unready to rock three different ways. Yet on the four early songs the transparent simplicity she strives for sounds truer than the dumb authenticity of Elephant's Memory, and by the '80s she's mastered a studio-rock art-pop whose unremarkable timbres and textures are subtly transformed by her inappropriate training. A transparently simple, transcendently self-conscious triumph of the will--and of the "Woman Power" she was corny and prophetic enough to crow about back when she was the weirdo who broke up the Beatles. A

Yoko Ono/IMA: Rising [Capitol, 1995]
Finally history leaves Yoko free to find the music her life has taught her to make. Neither primitivist/minimalist retro nor a final awkward attempt to improve on Season of Glass, this brims with the calm confidence of an semidetached bystander now hailed as a direct influence by all manner of rock bohemians, including some too snobbish to understand that, actually, her late husband was the stone genius in the partnership. Its precondition is the avant-garde's new pop panache. In the world before Nirvana, I doubt any major would have bankrolled the 14-minute title track's virtuoso vocalese, or the shrieks that fill a six-minute number of identical title and lyric: "I'm Dying." What '80s bizzer would have been down with her arch, lovely animal imitations, or the starkly literal "Turned the Corner," or the plainly simple "New York Woman," or the platitudinous "Revelations"? But these days Courtney could cover "Talking to the Universe" and no one would blink. A-

Yoko Ono: New York Rock [Capitol, 1995]
It's reassuring that she came back to cut the album of her life, because this doomed musical's utter absence of pop instinct had me assuming the worst--that she was past learning what it means to communicate with an audience, that she'd twisted her angel's arm, that she didn't respect her own songs. Not only did she lack the modesty to stick with the best, she betrayed the good ones. The arrangements are dreck, and the performances--oy. Eminences from Rosanne Cash to the B-52's have covered her with the love she deserves, but the canniest Broadway belter would wreck material so sensibility-specific, and these unknowns are the kind they call hopefuls because deludeds wouldn't have the right ring. D+

John Lennon: Wonsaponatime [Capitol, 1998]
As someone who scoffs at the outtake collections of known improvisers, I doubt I'll be delving into the box too often, although the live stuff is worth hearing. But not only does this one-disc distillation spare borderline obsessives financial anxiety, it proves Lennon the great singer he's rarely remembered as. Whether the alternate rearrangements are drastic (Cheap Trick on "I'm Losing You," strings on "Grow Old With Me") or subtle (pianoless "God," single-tracked "Oh My Love"), every song is renewed by a vocal commitment that shades the canonical take, usually toward sweetness or rage. There's new material, too: blues cover, Platters cover, pledge of love, and the priceless Dylan answer song "Serve Yourself." Lennon wasn't above dabbling in religion. But he never got so down he mistook God for more than a concept by which he measured his pain. A-

Yoko Ono: Blueprint for a Surprise [Capitol, 2001]
avant-minimalist and pop-simplistic, Japanese and English, old and new--all is one ("I'm Not Getting Enough," "Rise II") *

John Lennon: Acoustic [Capitol, 2004]
Nirvana unplugged it ain't, and a precious resource he remains ("God," "What You Got"). *

John Lennon: Rock 'n' Roll [Capitol, 2004]
"My Baby Left Me," "Angel Baby" Choice Cuts

Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band: Between My Head and the Sky [Chimera, 2009]
Still sui generis and still not repeating herself, which means among other things a little too much piano etude ("The Sun Is Down!" "Between My Head and the Sky"). ***

Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band: Take Me to the Land of Hell [Chimera Music, 2013]
Recorded in the six months preceding Ono's 80th birthday and released seven months after it, this is a quantum livelier and more assured than Between My Head and the Sky, Ono's 2009 album with her and Sean's revival of her and John's band/concept. In fact, it outstrips 1981's Season of Glass and 1995's Rising, surely her two standouts from a pop perspective. In other words, this justly renowned avant-pop figurehead not only made a good album as she looked 80 in the face, she made her best album, separated from her previous peak by 18 years, which was separated in turn from its previous peak by 14 years. That's what I call a life. Crucially, failed frontman Sean mirrors the boss's artistic appetite and force of personality by overseeing a studio-rock that's as eclectic as it is unified. There are clubby beats and avant-noise and straight rock guitar; there's a song that starts with little bells and a song that anchors his mom's ululations to bassy avant-funk. Of course she preaches peace and bemoans her desolation and tells us to dream. But my two faves are both quite funny for an artist some stupidly pigeonhole as pretentious: "Bad Dancer" and "Leaving Tim." Both are about what they say they're about, and delighted as I am that a Fluxus grad who's been known to flirt with EDM should giggle about breaking a leg, I'm even more delighted to hear an old woman break off snippily and light-heartedly from her latest boyfriend. A-