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Who Sang It Best? "Imagine"

Music enthusiast FlourishAnyway introduces some fun competition into the songs that have been covered by many artists by ranking them.

Some of the most beloved songs have been covered by a variety of artists over the years. We look at John Lennon's classic tune, "Imagine" and rank 14 contenders. Who do you prefer?

Some of the most beloved songs have been covered by a variety of artists over the years. We look at John Lennon's classic tune, "Imagine" and rank 14 contenders. Who do you prefer?

Imagine a World of Unity and Peace

Simple and serene, this soft rock piano ballad by former Beatle John Lennon implores us all to envision a world of unity and brotherhood in which there are no borders or boundaries to separate us. An uplifting peace anthem, it is a frequent response to tragedy, including:

  • Lennon's murder in 1980
  • 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing
  • September 11 terrorist attacks (although it was also included on a post-9/11 "do not play" list by Clear Channel Communications, now iHeartMedia)
  • November 2015 Paris attacks
  • March 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, and
  • 2022 war in Ukraine.

"Imagine" is one of most performed tunes of the 20th century. The song visualizes a day when there will be nothing to divide people—no religion, material possessions, greed, or hunger. Although deeply political, Lennon's "anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic" message is encloaked in such resounding hope and positivity that it became commercially viable as well.

Many people have considered this Grammy Hall of Fame Award ditty to be the ex-Beatle's masterful, musical gift to the world, and it has been recognized by Rolling Stone magazine as one of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." The tune has also been honored as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll" and dubbed the “Song of the Century” in 2017 by the National Music Publishers Association.

Not everyone is a fan, however. The tranquil song has been controversial since its 1971 release for its allegedly Godless lyrics, "Imagine there's no heaven" and "no religion too."

Other naysayers have rejected some of the song's underlying ideals. Such critics perceive in the lyrics a leftist attack on private property ("imagine no possessions") and a tribute to hedonism. Thus it seems that even for this extraordinarily popular, award-winning song on global harmony, one could never have total agreement.

More than 200 artists have performed or covered "Imagine," including pop, rock, country, and R&B musicians. (Lennon's son and widow are among them!) Find your favorite from some of the most diverse and most prominent versions as we look at who sang it best.

"Who Sang It Best?": Here's How It Works

In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the original version of popular songs that have been covered multiple times. Then we present a set of contenders, artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover versions honor the original artist's style while others are reinterpretations.

Since the original song version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. Instead, we display it first for comparison, with up to 14 contenders presented next in ranked order. Use the polls below to vote on your preferences:

  • Do you prefer the original song or a cover version?
  • Which of the cover versions do you prefer?

"Imagine" by John Lennon (1971)

At about three minutes long, "Imagine" is the 1971 best-selling single of John Lennon's solo career. A simple ballad, it begins with a brief piano introduction that sets the overall serious but hopeful tone for the song as Lennon's voice then initiates his plaintive pleas for world harmony.

The mellow, piano-backed vocals are shortly joined by a steady drum beat, followed by guitar and the light sound of strings. Although a straightforward song both instrumentally and lyrically, that is really its beauty. The effect is pure heaven.

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Shortly before Lennon's death in 1980, the ex-Beatle acknowledged in an interview with BBC that he had been inspired to write "Imagine" by Yoko Ono's 1964 book, "Grapefruit." Both the lyrics and idea for the song, according to the singer, were shared creations. As a result, in 2017, the National Music Publishers Association awarded Ono co-songwriting credit in order to amend the public record.

Many artists have ventured to imitate or reinterpret Lennon's 1971 original. His has been considered the gold standard. Can any contender possibly beat it?

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1. "Imagine" by Eva Cassidy (2002)

Against the soft strumming of a guitar, the ethereal, pristine voice of Eva Cassidy floats sweetly like a bird from near whispers, bounding up to the clouds then back down again. Understated instrumentals allow her lilting vocals to take center stage. Cassidy's unique intonations are truly convincing; she took this song of peace and transcended its beauty, making it all her own by adding another dimension to Lennon's original rather than trying to imitate his style.

At over four and a half minutes, her version is slower than other offerings. She truly feels this song, and I envision her now in the great beyond soaking in the peace.

In 1996, the songstress passed away at the tender age of 33 in relative obscurity following a brief battle with cancer (melanoma). Sadly, she never knew of her international acclaim, as this song was released posthumously. If you enjoy this songstress' sound, take in her version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

2. "Imagine" by Julian Lennon (Featuring Nuno Bettencourt) (2022)

Like déjà vu, it is striking how much Julian Lennon looks and sounds like his famous father. Listening to this soft rock rendition of "Imagine" is almost like being in the presence of the ex-Beatle's ghost.

He has carried such weight living in the shadow of his legendary parent. Julian is the neglected first son of John Lennon by his first wife, Cynthia. Although cut out of Lennon's will, Julian has since made peace with both his step-mother, Yoko Ono, and step-brother, Sean.

Having consistently pledged that he would not publicly sing his father's song, "Imagine," unless it was "the end of the world," the younger Lennon finally relented in 2022. He felt that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was about as close as the end gets. The singer thus sought to inspire people by uniting them to end the unthinkable violence.

Julian's voice has the same distinctive nasal vocal tone that his father did, and he nails the "you-hoo" notes. Moreover, Julian's strong voice takes on a more prominent focus, as he opts for a guitar rather than a piano accompaniment and ditches the steady drumbeat of his father's original.

The song is also distinctive for its powerful harmony denouement. Nuno Bettencourt joins him to emphasize, "I'm not the only one" in a truly impactful message that drives home the unifying message of the song. What he achieves is an approximation of John Lennon's original—about as close as one could get while managing to provide his own unique flourishes.

3. "Imagine" by Emeli Sandé (2012)

With this breathy, appealing number, Scottish R&B singer Emeli Sandé paints the picture of a utopian existence where everyone belongs and lives in harmony. This remake from 2012 is quicker-paced than that from other contenders, and at less than three and a half minutes, it is just a little longer than Lennon's original.

While at some points in this efficient, quicker-paced version, Sandé's song feels a bit rushed, the singer's earnest yearning for a peaceful world noticeably permeates her vocal delivery. Rather than coming off as melancholy, her version is simply dreamy, hopeful. The piano enhances the effect. Her gorgeous talent, as evidenced by this song, merits stronger public focus.

4. "Imagine" by Lady Gaga (2009)

This four-minute version launches with a serious, spaced-out aura swirling about Lady Gaga. She runs together the second and third stanzas, quickly picking up the one that begins, "Imagine there's no countries." At points, her voice simply floats against the background piano accompaniment. Notice that for Gaga, there aren't the usual "you-hoo"s in this song, as that is not her style. She opts for, "Ah-ah-oh-oh-oh" instead.

The singer's intonations are creatively her own, and beginning with the "imagine no possessions" stanza, her voice goes full-tilt, belting about the brotherhood of man. Gaga's imagination sparks as her voice soars, then with a soulful coda, she ad libs to "imagine all the people" before softly returning to silence.

Although this is a solid and innovative rendition overall, Lady Gaga is capable of a better overall performance. The drama of the second half didn't compensate for the relatively flat start. Taken together, there is such a drastic contrast that the song has a bipolar feel. The songstress performed "Imagine" at the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan to an adoring public.

5. "Imagine" by Blues Traveler (1995)

This 1995 version by Grammy Award-winning folk rock band Blues Traveler begins with a piano and the soft vocals of lead singer John Popper painting the picture of a better future. As he throws himself more into the vocals, pining for this harmony among humanity, he is joined by bass, guitar, and drums. This adds pleasant complexity to the song. In particular, the instrumental solo in the middle flows like honey and seems to inspire the singer's concluding vocals.

6. "Imagine" by Pentatonix (2017)

Pentatonix offers up this slow blend of smooth harmonies in a pleasant rendition that clocks in at just under five minutes. Thankfully, the Grammy Award-winning acapella group minimizes their usually plentiful—but ever-annoying—beatboxing (a percussion sound made with the mouth) in favor of dums, whishs, ooos, and ohs. The group's high notes are particularly graceful, as is the contribution of female lead Kirstin Maldonado.

Towards the song's end, Pentatonix unfortunately overdoes the "live as one" lyrics to the extent that the words become a vocal pile on, detracting from their overall performance. They also adjust Lennon's original lyrics slightly. After the third stanza. the lyrics, "Will be as one" repeats. Additionally, at the song's finale, the group adds, "as one" and repeats the four-line stanza regarding being a dreamer. It made me wonder a bit when the song was truly going to end.

The quintet came to the public's attention when it won the NBC acapella competition, The Sing Off, in 2011. The group's name is derived from the pentatonic scale, a musical scale with five notes per octave.

7. "Imagine" by Ray Charles (2001)

Brother Ray doubles down on the drama in this 2001 soul rendition of "Imagine." Putting some real hurt into his singing, he gets down with this unexpected version that will leave you swayin' in the pews and feeling triumphant.

This is not a standard way of covering this song, and I liked his rendition better the more I listened to it. Specifically, I appreciate the genuine emotion that the legendary singer pours into the tune as well as the backing of the choir. Charles and the choir emphasize "Livin' (livin') livin' (livin') livin' (livin') for today" and "(sharing) sharing (sharing) sharing (sharing all the world)."

Recognized by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winning musician turns this melancholy single into an uplifting tune of inspirational yearning.

8. "Imagine" by Dolly Parton (2005)

In this version by country music star Dolly Parton, the brief orchestral introduction reminds me of a Disney film. Subsequently, it transitions to her wispy, cotton candy vocals, accented by a piano and a gentle country ensemble. Canadian musician David Foster chimes with the line, "I'm not the only one," joining Parton in the most minimal duet. Parton ends the tune with a meaningful, hopeful coda that looks forward to a possible day of imagined tranquility for the world.

9. "Imagine" by Avril Lavigne (2007)

Is that really the Pop Punk Queen? Known for her pop punk and alt-rock sound, Canadian singer songwriter Avril Lavigne renders this delicate, airy cover of "Imagine" as a part of a charity album, Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur.

In 2007, Lavigne was in her early twenties when she recorded the tune. Except perhaps for the lovely riffs where her vocal maturity shines through, she sounds much younger than her actual age. In just over three minutes, Lavigne conveys the innocence and simplicity of a young girl who hopes for a brighter world in the future. A piano and strings assist her in that effort. This Avril Lavigne seems worlds away from the one who released "Complicated" (2002), "Girlfriend" (2007), and "Here's to Never Growing Up" (2013).

10. "Imagine" by Josh Groban (2007)

Like a fish out of water. That's Josh Groban here.

For all his talent, Groban's voice lends itself more to classical music, thus when he attempts to tackle this John Lennon soft rock number, he overly enunciates. This changes the overall vibe of the song, stiffening it. Unfortunately, he sounds like a musical theater performer (a stage actor) who takes himself too seriously. He sounds like he's trying too hard.

There isn't enough genuine emotion in this 2007 piano-supported rendition. Additionally, when it comes to the song's end, he decides to go off-script and add his own touch by repeating, "I hope someday you'll join us" several times. Although doing so inserts emotion, it had me questioning when the real end of the song was coming.

11. "Imagine" by The Herbie Hancock Project (2010)

Yep, imagine is the name of the game here. Imagine if you had a bunch of big name talent in one room and you did way too much to a simple song. That's what you have with this dumpster fire rendition. Collaborators on the project include Herbie Hancock, Pink, India.Arie, Seal, English guitarist Jeff Beck, Malian singer Oumou Sangaré, and Konono N°1, a traditional vocal group from Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In spite of winning a Grammy Award for the Best Pop Vocal Collaboration, this effort is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink version that endeavors to please everyone. However, it is too much, too varied, and oddly cobbled together. At a whopping seven minutes long, the melancholy song starts off strong but slow with piano-backed contributions by pop stars Pink and Seal. It should have stopped with them.

But then the wheels come off the bus with the transition to R&B singer India.Arie. Her rushed, jazz-like treatment of the lyrics are dominated by the distracting, hurried and cheesy hotel lounge beat (stop that, Herbie Hancock!). Arie's vocals, together with jazz keyboard music, are a stylistic force-fit for this song. They don't seem to naturally mesh.

Moreover, the song goes further sideways with the addition of traditional African drums, African vocalists singing in their native tongue, and a solo instrumental on electric guitar by Jeff Beck. Zoinks! The hodgepodge mixture is so experimental that it works better in concept than in actual practice. It's stimulus overload.

12. "Imagine" by Des'ree (1992)

Sounding like a skit at talent night is this wobbly version by R&B singer Des'ree. She became famous as a one-hit wonder in the US for her 1994 tune, "You Gotta Be."

Her three and a half minute rendition of "Imagine" begins with dull, flat vocals. Thanks to a "livin' for today-hey, hey, hey" she sounds like an airplane that can't get off the ground. Des'ree doesn't execute high notes well in this song.

Although you won't hear any "you-hoo"s, Des'ree does have a singsong cadence that rises and falls rhythmically. However, this is not in a way that serves the song well or pleases the ears.

Things go real wonky when the songstress gets jazzy and takes creative license with intonations beginning with the "Imagine no possessions" stanza. Des'ree's off-key vocals and overly familiar delivery will leave you hungering not for the brotherhood of man but rather for the finish of the song which cannot come soon enough.

13. "Imagine" by Neil Young (2001)

Only a diehard Neil Young fan would want to treat themselves to this piano adorned beauty of "Imagine." Let's be clear: Young's voice is a sad universe away from "Cinnamon Girl" (1970) or "Rockin' in the Free World" (1989).

This rendition is just over three minutes and features the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee performing an off-key, strained, hot mess of vocalizations. Call it creative caterwauling. The "imagine no possessions" stanza just hurts. The Grammy Award winning musician's heart is in the right place, however, if that is any consolation. He performed this song as a part of a televised benefit concert in the aftermath of 9/11.

14. "Imagine" by Yoko Ono (2018)

Omigod this cannot be real, yet here it is. An elderly Yoko Ono sing-speaks her murdered husband's peace anthem in her pronounced Asian accent and creaky vocals. At the time of this 2018 recording, Ono was in her late eighties. Her vocals initially appear against a discreet ambient background, as if the piano is too embarassed to accompany the performance, but it eventually relents during the second half.

Why didn't anyone tell this woman that she can't carry a tune in a bucket? The most painful part of Ono's rendition is obviously the "oo-hoo"s. Ono's little musical torture session is somewhere between unbelieveable and "please make this stop," with a sprinkling of "chuckle worthy."

Reader Poll: Your Favorite Cover Version

© 2022 FlourishAnyway

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