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Re-imagining John Lennon

Tribute album offers range of interpretations

In the years since his murder, John Lennon the songwriter has often played second fiddle to John Lennon the icon.

The bespectacled Liverpudlian was indeed a Beatle, an activist, an agitator, an artist, a husband, and a father. But he was also a tremendous solo musician, filling his ever-melodic songs with empathy, rage, tenderness, nonsense, and acidic wit. Which is, of course, why we cared about all of those other aspects of his post-Beatles life.

The headline on "Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur," out today, is that dozens of well-known and semi-well-known musicians from across genres have banded together to release a double-disc tribute that raises awareness about the genocide in Sudan. (Proceeds will go to Amnesty International.)

It's a noble gesture from suspects usual (U2, R.E.M.) and novel (Jaguares , Regina Spektor ), and a terrific reminder of the range of Lennon's post-Fab Four output. Fortunately, it's also a great listen, not always the case with these feel-good but often sound-messy compilations.

Reverence prevents many of the participants from going too far out on the re-imagining limb and afflicts those you think it wouldn't (country mavericks Big and Rich for example).

Exceptions include the Flaming Lips' reinvention of "(Just Like) Starting Over," which features trilling electronic bird noises and has been changed from a lively celebration into a tender peace offering. Jack Johnson bravely strips the familiar piano lines from "Imagine." His lullaby-tender acoustic approach feels like the perfect way to introduce the littlest music fans to one of the greatest meditations on erasing boundaries and embracing love. (Avril Lavigne does not fare as well with her furrow-browed, string-enhanced "serious" version. Whose choice was that?)

But even without radically rearranging their selections, most of the artists acquit themselves well enough to avoid embarrassment. Yes, even the Black Eyed Peas, who unwisely ad-lib during "Power to the People" but otherwise nail the rousing, raised-fist tone.

Green Day's already familiar rough-up of "Working Class Hero" is a peak, as is Christina Aguilera's shockingly unvarnished and vulnerable "Mother" and Matisyahu's winking, I-can-relate reggaetronica retrofit of "Watching the Wheels."

So many artists answered the "Instant Karma" call that some didn't make the cut. Twelve additional tracks -- by artists including the Deftones and diehard Beatlemaniac Ozzy Osbourne (criminally left out) -- will be available starting today as digital downloads on iTunes.

Even if it's not a full-throttle sonic knockout, "Instant Karma" reaffirms the notion that all of Lennon's plans and schemes have not been lost like some forgotten dream.