The songs everyone should hear

Over the last couple weeks, I ran an informal survey asking people for the ‘five songs they think everyone should hear.’ I left it to those surveyed to decide precisely what that meant. My hope was to get enough responses to produce a relatively short list of consensus picks, as well as a broader set of interesting songs that someone interested in broadening their musical palette might want to peruse.

What I got was a long, somewhat bewildering, and wonderfully diverse list with far less overlap than I expected. Which is great. There is an inner circle songs that stood above the crowd, which I’ve collected into a relatively compact playlist suitable for handing to someone utterly unfamiliar with the western popular music canon.

But the notable thing to me was just how much didn’t make the cut. Dozens (maybe hundreds) of all-time classic songs failed to garner a single vote. Which, ultimately, is testament to just how much great music exists out there.

A few notes before I dive into analyzing the results:

  • I drew about a hundred results, which is a nice amount but nowhere near enough to draw any truly definitive results.
  • The selections skew pretty heavily toward the western rock and pop canon. It’s not quite as lilywhite as a list from Rolling Stone, but this should by no means be taken as a great representation of the diverse array of songs that come from different cultures, backgrounds, and timeframes.

With those caveats entered, here are the big topline results.

Three songs came at the top, with five votes each: “So What” by Miles Davis, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, and “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix. “Watchtower” probably gets the nod as the #1 selection, though, since it also received a nod from someone for the Dylan original. Two other songs received four votes each: “Hey Jude” by The Beatles, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (which was recommended in whole and in part by different responders, which I chose to group together). There were then six other songs that received three votes each, giving us a top 11 of:

  1. All Along the Watchtower – Hendrix/Dylan (6)
  2. So What – Miles Davis (5)
  3. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen (5)
  4. Hey Jude – The Beatles (4)
  5. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (4)
  6. A Day in the Life – The Beatles (3)
  7. Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry (3)
  8. Imagine – John Lennon (3)
  9. Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin (3)
  10. What’s Goin’ On – Marvin Gaye (3)
  11. Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen/others (3)

Like I said, the responses leaned fairly heavily toward the rock canon, so none of these are probably too surprising.

It’s hard for me to argue with any of these as must-listens. While I don’t necessarily love them all (I’d be fine with retiring “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Stairway to Heaven” for good at this point), they’re all key pieces of musical history. Still, as I noted, the responses leaned fairly heavily toward the rock canon, limiting the diversity of these choices. You’ve got a universally acclaimed jazz track, a universally acclaimed piece of classical music, and then 9 songs drawing heavily on the classic rock songbook.

Once you get into the two-vote selections, things get a little more interesting, though we remain fully ensconced within the post-war modern musical tradition. In alphabetical order, these are the tracks receiving two recommendations:

  • A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
  • A Love Supreme, Pt. 1 – John Coltrane
  • Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
  • Canon in D – Pachelbel
  • Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd
  • Crossroad – Robert Johnson
  • Formation – Beyonce
  • God Only Knows – The Beach Boys
  • He Stopped Loving Her Today – George Jones
  • I Will Always Love You – Whitney Houston
  • Jolene – Dolly Parton
  • Karate – Baby Metal
  • Let It Be – The Beatles
  • Like a Prayer – Madonna
  • Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan
  • Man in the Mirror – Michael Jackson
  • One Sweet Day – Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men
  • Rhapsody in Blue – George Gershwin
  • Same Love – Macklemore
  • Shadow Moses – Bring Me the Horizon
  • Straight Outta Compton – NWA
  • Tangled Up in Blue – Bob Dylan
  • The Sound of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel
  • Uptight – Stevie Wonder
  • We Belong Together – Mariah Carey
  • What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong

Still very little hip-hop, which feels like a major omission for what has been the principle popular music genre of the past two decades. But at least we’ve now got a little country, a bit more true pop (finally got some MJ and Mariah), some blues, some metal, and so forth. And we also get the first instances of songs that I literally had never heard of (I’d vaguely heard of Baby Metal and never heard anything of Bring Me the Horizon).

There is a ton more diversity in the list if you drop down to all the songs that were recommended only a single time (link to all the songs is available here). That’s nice because, while one goal of this exercise was to get some consensus picks, a big part was also to simply collect a list of the more idiosyncratic choices. I’m very happy with how that part turned out, and I’m slowly building out a Spotify list of all the recommendations, which is available here (and is embedded at the end of this post).

In terms of artists, you will probably not be surprised to learn which band got the most recommendations. Unsurprisingly, it was The Beatles with 13 picks, followed by Michael Jackson with 9 (from seven different songs!), Hendrix and Queen with 7, and Dylan with 6.

Behind those big five, there were a lot of other expected names, including Miles Davis (whose five votes were all for “So What”), David Bowie (who got five votes for five different songs), and Mariah Carey.

The one big surprise for me was some of the titanic names that received almost no votes. Bruce Springsteen picked up two recs (neither for “Thunder Road”), the Rolling Stones only got four, and Aretha Franklin just two. Bach only picked up three, and there were none for Mozart. There were no Charlie Parker songs. No Tupac. Nothing from Nas. No Wu-Tang Clan. Very little Diana Ross. Just one Joni Mitchell song. And so on.

That’s clearly a feature of the exercise, which asks the impossible of respondents: to distill all music down to five songs requires slicing away hundreds of good picks. So I wouldn’t read too much into it. But it is still interesting to see what people say when asked to narrow things down to the absolute core choices.

For what it’s worth, the five songs I contributed were:

  • Hey Jude – The Beatles
  • Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 – J.S. Bach
  • Blue Train – John Coltrane
  • Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2 – Neutral Milk Hotel
  • Straight Outta Compton – NWA

After I submitted my picks, though, I immediately regretted the lack of a good pop song. If I could do it again, I think I’d swap in something from, say, Madonna or Diana Ross.

Did you miss out? Feel free to submit your choices in the comments.

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Top 25 albums of 2017

Last year I struggled to find fifteen albums I could fully endorse. This year I probably could have run the list out to forty or fifty if I had the time to write them all up. I don’t know whether that’s just coincidence, or whether the feeling of permanent crisis that seems increasingly define our era has sparked an artistic explosion. Maybe a bit of both. As is often the case: social trauma tends to travel in close proximity with artistic innovation. And while very few of these albums speak directly to our current political moment, it’s not at all hard to hear it echoing through many of them.

Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot less time for music posts in 2017, so I haven’t had a chance to write up any of these albums over the course of the year. But I’m happy to carve out a bit of space here at the end of the year to celebrate the music that has been keeping me company all year long.

As always, this is a list of my favorites. I make no claim that these are objectively the best. They’re just the ones I liked the most.

Spotify playlist is available here.

25. Fazerdaze – Morningside

Dreamy vocals, warm bubbling guitar, a nice hit of reverb. Put it all together and you’ve got a perfect summer record. As is often the case with these things, there’s actually quite a bit of anxiety nestled within the dulcet tones, which adds another level of richness to the experience of listening. It not a terribly complex record, but it is one that develops and grows as you listen.

Highlights: Shoulders, Last to Sleep, Bedroom Talks, Lucky Girl

24. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet

Less immediately rewarding than last year’s Psychopomp, but enormously fulfilling on repeated listens. More than any other record this year, it feels impossible to pick apart the individual songs. It’s a gestalt, experienced in bits and pieces but only coming together through the flickering synapses that bridge the cavern between meaning and knowing. To listen to this album is to pick your way through tiny fragments of fossil, left for future archaeologists to puzzle over. In the end, each of us builds a form in our mind of what it’s really about, never really knowing whether we’ve truly grasped its essence.

Highlights: Road Head, Till Death, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, The Body Is a Blade

23. Various Artists – Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa

A collection of songs recorded in Mogadishu in the 70s and 80s, when it was a multicultural and cosmopolitan hub. And the songs reflect this. You hear funk, disco, reggae, folk, rock and roll, and soul in these tracks – all filtered through the particular lens of that time and place. It’s a remarkable document, and a reminder of just how fragile our cultural memory is. Thinking of Somalia today, it’s almost impossible to imagine the vibrant shimmering city that produced all this music not so long ago. It’s all compounded by the particularities of this compilation–which exists only because radio operators hid recordings–in some cases literally burying them in the ground for years–to keep them safe from the bombs being launched by governmental forces seeking to control the flow of information and popular culture. Those old tapes are now being digitized, making it possible for the whole world to see just a glimpse of what once was ‘the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.’

Highlights: Na Daadihi, Haddii Hoobalkii Gabay, Gorof, Uur Hooyo

22. Sufjan Stevens – The Greatest Gift

There are vanishingly few artists good enough to justify listening to their outtakes. Sufjan Stevens clears the bar by a mile. As with his Illinois outtake record a decade earlier, this record is plenty good enough to stand on its own, and is only made better by the window it offers into his creative process. The Greatest Gift contains several (lovely) new songs, but it’s heart and soul is the remixes and demos of songs already seen on Carrie & Lowell.

Highlights: The Greatest Gift, City of Roses, Wallowa Lake Monster, Drawn to the Blood (Fingerpicking Remix)

21. Cayetana – New Kind of Normal

New Kind of Normal is an ode to everyone struggling to find their way in a world that claims to love diversity while still contriving to punish every deviance. It’s power pop for a cloudy day, punk rock layered over some interesting time signatures and chord progressions, the aggression and frantic energy of youth tempered by the weariness of wisdom.

Highlights: Mesa, Certain for Miles, Side Sleepers, Too Old for This

20. Dori Freeman – Letters Never Read

This record feels old-timey, which I definitely mean as a compliment, though perhaps a slightly guarded one. To listen is to dig through boxes in your attic, the quiet history that your grandparents left behind. There is so much joy there, and a sense of peace and calm. It doesn’t really take any risks – which is why I say that my compliment is slightly guarded – but there’s plenty of room in the world for music that just makes you feel good. I do hope for something a bit more ambitious from Freeman at some point. But if the goal was to deliver a solid followup to last year’s wonderful debut record, this one fits the bill quite nicely.

Highlights: If I Could Make You My Own, Cold Waves, Turtle Dove, Just Say It Now

19. Alex Lahey – I Love You Like a Brother

Ten songs in 35 minutes, with each track tightly would up to pack the maximum punch. In that way it feels like a throwback to the era when rock records came in quick, hit you hard, and went off on their way. And as is often the case with this sort of breezy rock and roll: Lahey’s songs have the air of something merely tossed off on a whim, a sort of cheerful insouciance which is actually exceptionally tough to pull off.

Highlights: I Haven’t Been Taking Care of Myself, Backpack, Perth Traumatic Stress Disorder, Awkward Exchange

18. Harmony Woods – Nothing Special

It has all the gloss of an emo-revivalist act (to the point of being produced by Modern Baseball’s Jake Ewald, which honestly might be a little too on the nose), while still feeling like a piece of utterly independent self-creation. It’s jam packed with all the little details that are utterly specific in that way that makes them totally universal. And the songwriting is top notch. RIYL: songs about feelings, chiming guitars, crippling self doubt, cautious optimism, records that don’t overstay their welcome.

Highlights: Jenkintown-Wyncote, Renovations, Parking Lot, Negro y Azul

17. Natalie Hemby – Puxico

A slightly uneven record, which packs its four best songs into the first four tracks. But oh boy are those first four songs great. The peak is Cairo, IL which deserves to become an immediate inductee into the great American songbook. It also features one of the best opening tracks of the year, with Time Honored Tradition offering a perfect induction into the beautiful blend of past and present that defines the record. The defining element of the record is Hemby’s voice, a powerful instrument in its own right, and blended perfectly with delicately plucked strings, a weeping pedal steel, and whisper-light percussion.

Highlights: Cairo IL, Time Honored Tradition, Lovers on Display, Grand Restoration

16. Football, Etc. – Corner

I love this record plenty in 2017, but if I had heard it in 2003, I would have been absolutely head over heels. It would slot very nicely into the stuff I was spinning regularly then – early Rainer Maria, American Football, Jimmy Eat World, The Promise Ring, and so on. The guitars rise and fall in waves, with the vocals surfing along the top of the crest, occasionally bursting out with a clever lyrical twist that cuts right to the bone. Fun side story: I got to meet the band this year when my two side gigs (music blogger and soccer journalist) ran headfirst into each other at the final of National Women’s Soccer League. Turns out they’re huge women’s soccer fans and were helping to organize a conference I attended the morning of the final. Small world.

Highlights: Eleven, Save, Foul, Space

15. Balmorhea – Clear Language

This is a much weirder album than the previous efforts from the Austin-based instrumentalists. While there still are plenty of examples of stately piano movements and delicately-plucked guitars, this does not feel like an album recorded in a symphony hall. I hear sounds of jazz, noise rock, Americana, and even pop. On the whole, I’m still most moved by the beautiful and minimalist numbers, but there certainly is an additional sense of heft granted to those efforts by their inclusion within a much broader sonic palette.

Highlights: First Light, Waiting Itself, 55, Dreamt

14. Nadia Reid – Preservation

I came to this record very late in the year and honestly have not really had enough time to sit with it and let it soak over me. In many ways it’s a very simple album, a folk record tinged with touches of the surreal–very much in the tradition of a Neil Young. There is certainly some straightforward pop sensibilities here, and at times you can almost imagine Reid playing one of the side stages of Lilith Fair. And yet, there’s a sort of psychic gap here that I simply haven’t been able to adequately wrap my head around. Songs like Richard and the title track sound like they must have come through a wormhole from some alternate dimension where Napoleon never went to Russia and no one ever invented the internal combustion engine or something. I don’t know. It’s a great album, but I feel like I’m at a bit of a loss deciding just how great it is.

Highlights: Richard, Preservation, Right on Time, Hanson St Part 2 (A River)

13. Hammock – Mysterium

I enjoy every Hammock record, in part because they are willing to explore the boundaries of their genre. Each record is still noticeably from the same artist, but tend to vary widely in forms of instrumentation, pacing, and development. On this record, for example, they’ve turned away from most of the post-rock elements that infused their recent work. Instead, it’s mostly strings and wordless choruses–the echoes of lost hymns unheard in centuries, but still lingering in the form of tiny echoes that reverberate in undusted corners. In that sense, it’s perfectly named. This is, more than anything, the sound of mysterium brought to life.

Highlights: Now and Not Yet, Dust Swirling, Numinous, For My Sister

12. Adult Mom – Soft Spots

No frills, no whistles. Just nine perfectly constructed, sweet, jangly, clever little indie pop gems. It sings with the rhythm of life, the everydayness of doubt, the little joys of friendship and compassion, the peculiar mixture of freedom and loss that comes with every big life choice.

Highlights: J Station, Ephemeralness, Same, Full Screen

11. Gordi – Reservoir

Gordi’s full length debut lacks any single song as breathtaking as “So Here We Are,” which helped elevate her EP into my top 5 last year, but fills in the gaps very nicely with interesting, richly textured, music. It’s pop, it’s electronic, it’s folk, it’s rock, it’s operatic. Think Bjork co-writing with Bon Iver, produced by Phil Collins. Except not really like any of them. Ultimately, the incorporation of so many different approaches generates a record that feels strangely timeless – as if it belongs wholly to itself and not to any particular moment or genre.

Highlights: On My Side, Long Way, Bitter End, Heaven I Know

10. Tica Douglas – Our Lady Star of the Sea, Help and Protect Us

A rumination on life, loss, faith, and the meaning of existence. I’ve loved Tica’s work from back when they were practicing chords down the hall and playing tiny coffeehouse gigs in our little New England college town, and you can still hear the sort of intimacy and cleverness that defined those old coffeehouse days, but it’s now been dialed up an entire new level. This is an album to sit with in a dark room and piece together the meaning of every note, but it’s also a record for playing loud with the windows rolled down. I hear tinges of White Album era Beatles, of the late 70s post-punkers, of the Elephant 6 set, of contemporary pop. That melange never fully coalesces into a single theme or style, but it also never feels confused or muddy. This is an album that offers no answers, no clarity of vision or purpose. Instead, it asks for something much better (and harder): to dwell with the indecision, and to accept that we will never be fully secure.

Highlights: Death Come in Threes, My Friend’s Exes, The Same Thing, I Won’t Lie

9. Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound

When discussing this album before its release, Dylan Baldi called it ‘new age’ record, which was certainly a strange comment for a band defined primarily by noisy, snarling rock and roll. But the descriptor actually makes a lot of sense. This is still, very noticeably, a Cloud Nothings record–the guitars still burn brightly, the percussion is still soul-rattling–but there is a mindfulness here that is surprising from a rock record. The transition is by no means perfectly executed, and there are glimmers of overweening rockism here, of the sort that produced a generation of self-satisfied prog-rockers. But only glimmers. On the whole, it’s masterfully done.

Highlights: Up to the Surface, Modern Act, Enter Entirely, Sight Unseen

8. Katie Ellen – Cowgirl Blues

A record that walks the knife’s edge between exuberance and depression with incredible poise. It’s a breakup album, but is also so much more. Fundamentally, it’s a reminder that life is about more than surviving, that if we climb high we will sometimes fall. And if that brings great pain, there is really no other way to be our authentic selves. It’s called Cowgirl Blues more as a reference to the Tom Robbins novel than as an indicator of musical themes–this is more a record about suburban blues than cowgirl ones. But there’s something universal in its ambition, which hopes to speak to the sort of independence evoked by the idea of the cowgirl–a spirit which beats even in the heart of the boring suburban millennial.

Highlights: Sad Girls Club, Bleeding Heart, Houses Into Homes, Drawing Room

7. Caroline Spence – Spades and Roses

Country music exists to explore the space between our deep vulnerabilities and our unflinching hopefulness. When it’s done poorly, it degrades quickly into nostalgia. But when it’s done well, it offers an unvarnished glimpse of the human condition. On this album, it’s done very, very well. Hotel Amarillo is a tornado of loneliness and self-doubt, layered over a relentless commitment to continue placing one foot in front of the other. Southern Accident cribs musically from Long Black Veil in order to tell a coming of age story that is instantly recognizable while still being completely specific. Another highlight is Softball, which approaches the gender gap through the lens of softball, and concludes with the utterly devastating line: “they’ll go to strike you out, and say “cheer up it’s only softball.” It’s a lovely song, but it cuts right to the bone.

Highlights: Hotel Amarillo, Slow Dancer, Goodbye Bygones, Softball

6. Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life

Celebration Rock is probably my favorite album of the decade so far, and there was very little chance of the follow-up matching its glorious heights. And, to their credit, they have preserved much of the same joyous spirit that drove that record, without simply trying to re-record it. More than anything, to me it sounds like an ode to the great midwest bar rock bands of the 80s: Husker Du and The Replacements, and the like. Sure, there is something lost in the change. But there is also something gained: a looseness and easiness that comes with age and experience. It’s not Celebration Rock, but it’s still a great rock and roll record.

Highlights: Near to the Wild Heart of Life, True Love and a Life of Free Will, No Known Drink or Drug, Midnight to Morning

5. Susanne Sundfør – Music for People in Trouble

A cool autumn night in Lothlorien. High above the earth a canopy of leaves shifts aside to reveal the full moon. Its silvery light washes over a singer, golden-haired, pale, mysterious. Her words enfold you, and all memory fades into nothingness. You drift, cocooned in this fugue state, for what seems like only an instant. And yet, when you wake, all is different. The mountains worn down, the sky brighter, the ground softer. And you wonder: is it the world that changed, or only myself?

Highlights: Reincarnation, Undercover, The Sound of War, No One Believes in Love Anymore

4. Benoît Pioulard – Slow Spark, Soft Spoke and Lignin Prose

It’s not particularly difficult to make decent ambient music – each composition is so simple that there’s very little to really mess up. But it’s exceptionally difficult to make great ambient music. Again, because it’s so simple, there’s absolutely nothing to hide behind. Every breath, every movement, needs to be perfectly aligned or the spell will break. Well, Benoît Pioulard makes great ambient music. These two records, put together, are probably the closest we’ve come to matching up with the classic And Their Refinement of the Decline by Stars of the Lid.

Highlights: Never Just As You Wanted, Lignin Poise, Hawk Moth Mirage, Same Time Next Year

3. Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness

One of the great wonders of music is the depth and complexity that can be found from very simple instruments. This record breaks no boundaries, offers no new techniques, and could just as easily have been recorded in 1967 (or, frankly, in 1917) as in 2017. And yet it feels utterly distinct and new. From these simple pluckings, in this dusty voice, there are truths as yet unexplored. Stories as yet untold. This is a record for long afternoons on the porch, drinking sweet tea and watching the rays of light drift down through the leaves above.

Highlights: Sleepwalker, Follow My Voice, Morning Dove, All the Land Glimmered Beneath

2. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps

Coming into the year, we had some tantalizing hints from Bridgers (she had songs on my 2015 and 2016 list), but still no full length album. Well, the wait was worth it. This is a stupendous record, which exhibits all the deft songcraft, insightful lyrics, and keen sense of melody which we anticipated. If I have a complaint, it’s only that there are a few places where the production slightly overwhelms the songs. In particular, two tracks are re-recordings of work she’d already released (Killer and Chelsea), and in both cases, I think I actually prefer the rougher demo. But in other cases (Motion Sickness, Demi Moore), there is a clarity and crispness that turns great songs into classics. So it’s hard to get too worked up about it.

Highlights: Motion Sickness, Smoke Signals, Funeral, Demi Moore

1. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

This band is operating on a different level from everyone else. This is their second #1 showing on my list in the past four years. And while this record isn’t (quite) as mind-blowing as Lost in the Dream, it still comes in as my favorite of the year. The synths are a bit overbearing in places, and the production is just a bit too airy for my tastes. But there is no denying these songs. Propulsive, introspective, joyous, weathered. There were more innovative and interesting albums this year, but none that drew me back to insistently.

Highlights: Thinking of a Place, Nothing to Find, In Chains, Holding On, Strangest Thing

Honorable Mentions:

Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights and Aimee Mann – Mental Illness. Two beautiful records filled with deceptively simple, heartfelt story-driven songs. Neither did quite enough for me to make the cut, but that’s just a sign of how much great music there is out there.

Vanessa Peters – Dal Vivo. A live record from one of my long-time favorite artists. I finally got a chance to see her live last fall, and hope to make another show soon. But in the meantime, this is a nice way to tide me over.

Lorde – Melodrama. I was never quite able to sell myself on this as an album qua album, but I still enjoyed it immensely even if it didn’t quite stick the landing.

Blis – No One Loves You. Sounds a little too close to a Sunny Day Real Estate knock-off for comfort. But on the bright side, it sounds like a Sunny Day Real Estate knock-off!

Jason Isbell – The Nashville Sound. This is probably my least favorite Isbell solo record (which makes it a little strange to me that it seems to be getting the best press) but even a mediocre Isbell record has plenty to love.

Thurston Moore – Rock N Roll Consciousness. Thirty years since Daydream Nation came out, and he’s still bringing the heat.

Land of Talk – Life After Youth. Indie rock no longer has quite the cachet as it did ten years ago, but Land of Talk are still keeping the spark alive.

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Top 50 songs of 2017

2017 has been a year of revolution in gender politics, and that has absolutely been reflected in the musical world as well. As with so many industries, there is a sense that the dam may be bursting: that sexual violence, exclusion, and discrimination will no longer be confined to whisper networks. And while there is still a lot to do, there’s also a growing awareness that the future of popular music is feminine.

The trend has been developing for a while, but this year definitely felt like a tipping point to me. At this point, I think we can state definitively and unequivocally: the best music is being made by women, and it’s not even really all that close. Of the 50 songs on this list, only 14 are from male artists. And it’s not just me. Look at the consensus lists floating around out there and you’ll find a vast army of female, queer, nonbinary, and nonwhite artists.

This explosion of incredible work is important not just for the bare fact of better representation (important as that is), but also for the way it brings new themes, new attitudes, and new perspectives into the fold. There is still a lot wrong with the way music works, but if you want to look for glimmers of hope, look to the level of poise, determination, talent, and perseverance of artists who have shattered the glass ceiling and taken over the music business from the bottom up.

My list this year wasn’t consciously constructed with these developments in mind, but it certainly can’t help but reflect them.

As always, these are just my favorites. I make no claim that they were objectively the best. One song per artist. Spotify playlist available here.

50. Addison – Trophy Dad

A song that feels like it came from a happier time, when intentions were pure and all things remained possible.

49. Bodak Yellow – Cardi B

The biggest rap song of the year, and for good reason. This is a killer track.

48. Another Sunny Day – Star Tropics

It’s been a few years since we’ve had a top-notch album from Labrador records, but if you’re in the mood for fuzzy indie pop, this is an excellent substitute.

47. Aura – Bicep

My favorite club track of the year. Great rhythmic spine that centers a gorgeous synth mélange.

46. Nightfall – Mimi Page

This is four of the last five end-of-the-year lists to feature Mimi Page. I just can’t get enough of the way she textures musical components, drawing on the simplest of simple elements to produce something that sounds like it exists in some state beyond space and time.

45. Blue Field – The Luxembourg Signal

I would listen to Beth Arzy sing the phonebook.

44. Mercury – Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister

We didn’t get any home runs from Sufjan this year, but he sure hit a lot of singles. This one is probably my favorite, but there were six or seven other songs from various projects that might have made the list instead.

43. Michael Collins – Bedroom Eyes

It’s been a long time, but it’s great to have some Bedroom Eyes back on the list (last seen all the way back in 2006!).

42. Road Head – Japanese Breakfast

A woozy synth line, a fumbled kiss, an uncomfortable laugh, a quiet allure.

41. More Romantic – CLOSENESS

Residing in a warm space between the Phil Spector wall of sound and the synthy 80s pop production, this is one of those songs that just feels like you’ve known it your whole life, even on the first listen.

40. J Station – Adult Mom

That strange reminiscence for an old lover–someone who knows you better than almost anyone else in the world, but who has suddenly become a virtual stranger. The awkward fumblings.

39. Prom – SZA

Glossy and smooth and just indelibly cool.

38. For Light – Jay Som

The journey is seven full minutes, each step taken with a grim determination, ratcheting higher and higher. More tension, more emotion, more pain, more urgency, more desperation.

37. 7 Years – EMA

“For seven years I let this waste me / Seven years before I could face it / All that time of guilt and shame / I couldn’t even say it’s name”

36. On My Side – Gordi

I could have picked any one of five or six tracks from this record for the list, but ultimately went with On My Side because I just can’t get enough of the way her voice bends around the notes on the verses.

35. Mesa – Cayetana

I’m a sucker for a bass-heavy punk record with a whole lot of bounce.

34. Now and Not Yet – Hammock

The feeling of standing in an old Italian church, where uncounted prayers have been murmured, with eyes locked on the heavens. All you can do is breathe in the sense of something so much larger than yourself.

33. Long Time – Blondie

Debbie Harry is a national treasure.

32. Promise the World – Son Volt

The cross-pollination between fiddle and pedal steel, reflecting off that beautiful, weathered voice. Yes, there’s also a Tweedy song on this list, but if you force me to choose, I remain, as always, #TeamFarrar.

31. Deadly Valentine – Charlotte Gainsbourg

If you devoted a roomful of supercomputers to the project of constructing the most Charlotte Gainsbourg-esque song imaginable, they would spit this one out. It’s slinky and clever and strange and beautiful-without-making-a-big-deal-about-it.

30. Reincarnation – Susanne Sundfor

I adore a weeping pedal steel, and this year featured a ton of wonderful examples of how to do it right, but none better than the coda to this song.

29. Old Timer – Willie Nelson

Please never leave us, Willie.

28. Symphony (feat. Zara Larsson) – Clean Bandit

Just a beautiful pop song. Nothing more, nothing less.

27. Eleven – football, etc.

This song glides like a motorboat over a choppy lake of churning guitars. And amidst all the tumult, you catch these reflections of shimmering light.

26. Latchkey Kid – John Moreland

John Moreland is at his best when it’s just him and the guitar. The album as whole felt a bit awkwardly overproduced, but this song is pure gold.

25. First Light – Balmorhea

A song that sounds exactly like what it promises: those first rays of light in the morning, as they creep up over the horizon, casting long, deep shadows. Still cold, but with the promise of warmth to come.

24. Pink Rabbits – Vanessa Peters

One of my favorite artists covering one of my favorite songs. The clarity of the mix is key here. The original feels like a swirling haze. This feels like a balloon rising out from the cloud cover to discover the endless bright blue sky.

23. Sad Girls Club – Katie Ellen

To those who have been told to hide their pain and put on a happy face. To those who can no longer bear to maintain the illusion. To those who live, honest and true. To those who find joy even in the dark.

22. Via Chicago – Jeff Tweedy

This is now the definitive version of Via Chicago. Just soul-shredding.

21. Shoulders – Fazerdaze

The gentle curves of a rolling hillside. The soft caress of a summer breeze. The feeling of time stretching out endlessly before you.

20. Deaths Come in Threes – Tica Douglas

A jagged, beautiful song, which ruminates on loss. How we struggle to make meaning out of what we know is ultimately meaningless. How we can’t help but search for beauty. How it isn’t always enough.

19. Never, Just as You Wanted – Benoît Pioulard

“As winds come whispering lightly from the West / Kissing, not ruffling, the blue deep’s serene.”

18. SGL – Now, Now

Does the world really need another song about the heartbreaks of young love? When it’s this good, yes, absolutely, it does.

17. Jenkintown-Wyncote – Harmony Woods

A beautiful story, told in 125 seconds. We suffer many small indignities, just to find someone who makes it all seem bearable.

16. Richard – Nadia Reid

At its core, this is a very simple song. Drums, a guitar, verses, choruses. And yet…it feels ethereal, spectral, savage. To listen is to set out on a journey that might prove your undoing. Which asks: what would you risk for the sake of love?

15. Song – Sylvan Esso

“I’m the song that you can’t get out of your head” is both very meta and very true.

14. New Rules – Dua Lipa

Probably the most effervescent pop song of the year. The video is a lot of fun, too.

13. Carry Me Home – Michelle Branch

I am so happy to have a new Michelle Branch song on my best-of list. It’s been a long time.

12. Hope the High Road – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

I think If We Were Vampires is probably the better song from this record, but Hope the High Road is the song I needed in 2017. There’s so much to be sad about, but we can’t let it overwhelm us.

11. Pretty Girl – Maggie Lindemann

This song is massively overproduced, aggressively trite, and I just do not care even a little bit. I love it so much.

10. Headache – Grouper

I’ve run out of superlatives for the work of Liz Harris. Every song from her is a gem. Weighed down by a life of pain and loss, but with eyes still locked on the stars above.

9. I Haven’t Been Taking Care of Myself – Alex Lahey

Rock and roll is so good.

8. Thinking Of A Place – The War On Drugs

A languorous song that stretches out over eleven minutes, without ever overstaying its welcome. It took me a while to fully grow into appreciating its layers, but it feels richer, more complex, more essential, every time I hear it.

7. Hotel Amarillo – Caroline Spence

The loneliness of the road, brought to life through a series of perfectly evocative moments. The hotel clerk who gives you two keys for a room that you aren’t sharing. The bottle of wine that you hope will sing you to sleep. The crushing weight of time and distance. The sense that your life is being wasted just trying desperately to get somewhere else.

6. Near To The Wild Heart Of Life – Japandroids

Nothing will ever hit as hard as they did on Celebration Rock, but this song gives it a hell of an effort.

5. Cairo, IL – Natalie Hemby

Remembrance untainted by the creep of nostalgia. Pure, sad, beautiful.

4. Green Light – Lorde

Musical genius is very much a young person’s game. This song is a perfect illustration of why. Is it sophisticated? Not particularly. Is the message new or unique? Not at all. But it has a vivacious energy, a sense of belief that if you just reach higher, jump further, dive deeper, the truth is there to be grasped. That it comes in the context of an album that is full of archness and ironic distance only makes this song hit with that much more force. Behind every jaded cynic is a true believer afraid of being hurt. On this song, she shows what it looks like to take the risk.

3. Up to the Surface – Cloud Nothings

I know a lot of people were sad to hear them dial back the aggression on this record, but the slow burn of this song is just so good. The instrumental climax is probably my favorite minute of music this year.

2. Motion Sickness – Phoebe Bridgers

This song is so clever and bright that you almost miss how tightly constructed it is. Phoebe Bridgers has penned quite a few great songs in her young career already, but this is the best. “I have emotional motion sickness” is my favorite line of the year, and second place is not close.

1. Sleepwalker – Julie Byrne

A song so pure and true that it makes my heart burst. To listen is an act of devotion. Whatever darkness may come, there is still light. And, maybe, the hope of solace for those in pain.

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A time of reckoning: the Democratic Party and sexual abuse

Breaking news today that Al Franken kissed and groped a woman without her consent.  Franken has long been a minor hero of mine. An ideologically passionate but intensely pragmatic politician, who took advantage of his celebrity to move into public service and took the responsibility seriously. So, of course, I am deeply disappointed to hear this. But I’m not surprised.

I had no particular reason to think Franken had done wrong. But I was certain that prominent men in the Democratic Party were guilty, and that a reckoning was coming. Now, the time is here, and the question that faces us is simple: will the Democratic Party honor its commitment to be a servant of the vulnerable and an agent for justice? Or will it reveal itself to be just as craven as its critics have always claimed?

It’s not enough to simply mouth the words. Now is the time for action. Franken needs to resign. He needs to be made to resign. And that should only be the beginning. It’s time for the Democratic Party to open its doors, to invite victims to speak, to protect them, to listen to them.

We are near a tipping point, a moment when it’s possible to see something new on the horizon. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Senator, a President, a Democrat, a political ally, or a friend. It’s doesn’t matter if you ‘meant it as a joke.’ It doesn’t matter if you have worked for good policies. If you use your power to demean and diminish, if you harass and threaten, if you degrade and humiliate, you are working against everything that this party ought to stand for.

This has been a long time coming, and few of us are free from the guilt. We had a chance, when faced with clear and convincing evidence of Bill Clinton’s wrongdoing, to believe his victims. Instead, we chose expediency. We made excuses. We dissembled. We pointed to partisan motivations for impeachment, complained about hypocrisy, or simply shrugged our shoulders and pointed to the economic numbers. We distinguished between public and private actions.

It was wrong.

I made many of these arguments myself, and for that all I can do is apologize and promise to be better.

None of us are angels, and we shouldn’t expect perfect moral character in our leaders, any more than we can expect perfect moral character in ourselves. But this is far beyond a matter of simple mistakes or misunderstandings. This is a systemic and pervasive social practice, one that pollutes every promise made to serve principles like equality and justice.

Enough is enough. It’s time to become the people that we have promised to be. It’s time to open our ears to those who have suffered, to be better than we have been. We will not retreat into whataboutism. We will not point our fingers at Trump and Moore and so many others to excuse the misdeeds or our own side. We will not shrug our shoulders and get on with our lives. We will not make excuses for our heroes that become caught up in this maelstrom.

Because they were never heroes, even if we allowed ourselves to believe it.

When history looks back, they’re going to see a lot of terrible things in 2017. But maybe, just maybe, it will be a significant marker of the date when men finally started suffering consequences for the evil that they do.

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Top 10 Ani DiFranco songs

Ani DiFranco burst out in 1990 with a self-titled album of complex, beautiful, haunting songs characterized by a unique guitar picking style and an evocative lyrical style. Ever since, she’s spent three prolific decades experimenting with an impressive array of musical styles and themes. Her peak probably came during the late 1990s–the period most heavily represented on this list–but there’s great music everywhere along the whole path.

You’ll also notice the number of live tracks on here. DiFranco is notable for being the rare artist who is better live AND for whom that superiority actually manages to come across in recordings. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that Living in Clip is on the shortlist for greatest live albums of all time. It’s jam packed with great songs, most of which are the definitive takes, and almost all of which are better than their studio counterparts. Seriously, everyone should own that record.

10. Talk to Me Now (Ani DiFranco)

So many of her great songs deal with the small ways in which femininity is weaponized. It’s an interesting feature of her work, to engage seriously with the question of how patriarchy produces standards of attractiveness the hurt everyone. The way that presenting as abnormal—a shaved head, tattoos—generates danger, which is different but not separate from the dangers that come from presenting as conventionally beautiful.

Here, all she wants to do is walk around her own city, and get on with the business of her own little life, and is faced with endless harassment from men who think their attention is inherently complimentary. Men who will “stop at nothing once they know what you are worth.” The defiance in her voice is cathartic, even as you are forced to recognize that every single battle must be fought over and over again. Patriarchy doesn’t present itself as a Big Bad, to be slapped down once and then consigned to the dustbin of history. It is everywhere, ubiquitous, a constant hassle. And so she sings her strength, just to keep herself afloat.

9. Gravel (Little Plastic Castle)

While I don’t have any of her truly experimental and weird stuff on this list, I at least wanted to make sure to include Gravel, as a reminder that when she wanted, she could unleash some blistering rock and roll. It’s also a helpful corrective for anyone who ever doubted that an acoustic guitar could spit fire.

8. Untouchable Face (Living in Clip)

Unrequited love is one of the classic themes of popular music, but a vanishing few that manage to convey the experience so precisely or with such care. It features a lot of wry self-deprecation, but also a lot of vulnerability, all packaged with a simple, warm guitar line.

In this case, the difference between this version and the studio recording is primarily in the balance between the humor and the pathos. The studio version feels just a bit too heavy with the weight of feeling; this one is a joke shared between friends, who laugh because they know the pain is real but they also know how ridiculous it all is.

7. Angry Anymore (Up Up Up Up Up Up)

The first time I saw her play live was on her tour following the release of this album. This song was the highlight of that show, and remains one of my favorite concert memories. She did it acoustic and solo, and all of its tenderness and generosity came across perfectly.

It’s a song about growing up and coming to understand yourself better. And it’s a song about how that maturity can reshape your understanding of the events that drove your childhood. To see your parents as human beings, with all the attendant imperfections, and to love them even more for those limitations.

I’ll refrain from quoting too much as I discuss these songs, because it could easily get out of hand. But I can’t let this one go past without noting one of my all-time favorite verses:

She taught me how to wage a cold war with quiet charm
But I just want to walk through my life unarmed
To accept and just get by like my father learned to do
But without all the acceptance and getting by that got my father through

The amount of depth that she manages to pack into just a few words here is just astonishing. This is an entire short story composed in less then fifty words.

6. Letter to a John (live)

This is a grim song, particularly the third verse (“I was eleven years old, he was as old as my dad. And he took something from me, I didn’t even know that I had”), but it refuses to let the pain become overwhelming. Instead, it explores the way that violence and desire are intermixed, and the ways that women find strength both through and against this effect. And so it’s certainly not an empowerment anthem—she’s wise enough to understand the danger of trading on that sort of narrative—while still helping to show how resilience can grow into something more than just ‘hanging on.’

As with most of her songs, there are quite a few versions of this one floating around, all of which give a slightly different flavor. This one is my favorite. I’ve never actually been able to figure out where it came from, though. If anyone knows, let me know!

5. Marrow (Revelling/Reckoning)

This is Ani at her biggest and brightest. As with many of her great songs, it’s poised carefully between several different and powerful emotional currents. There is joy here (it comes from the ‘Revelling’ side of the album, after all), but also a deep wellspring of pain. We struggle to stay afloat in the stormy waters, desperate to forget all of the things that hurt us, and therefore doomed to repeat them over and over again.

Back in 2009, I wrote a post about the poem that was read at Obama’s inauguration, complaining that it offered platitudes in place of politics, and in its timidity failed to live up to the moment. And I noted that this was more a flaw in the form of the inaugural poem than it was a failure of the poet. It is hard to speak truthfully to the hope embodied by a new dawn without coming to terms with all the suffering that continues to remain hidden in the dark of night. That’s why inaugural poems—which owe too much to the grandeur of the moment—are doomed to failure, while something like this song—which is free to speak honestly about just how deep we remain trapped by the mistakes of our past—would be far more appropriate to the occasion.

4. Present/Infant (Daytrotter Session)

In so many ways, music is a young person’s game—driven by the unwavering certainty of self that so often defines youth. When we are young, we race over the horizons, driven by the need to discover what else might be out there. We seek new challenges, in the hopes of showing the world what we might yet become. As we grow older, the horizons grow more distant, and we increasingly come to understand that we were often running away from ourselves as much as we were running toward the horizon. There comes a moment of reckoning, when we ask whether we can ever be comfortable in our own bodies, in the horizons that we have marked out for ourselves. When we begin to see ourselves not as isolated individuals, but instead as objects reflected back by the world that we’ve created. And we are forced to ask: does this make me happy?

In this song, we get a sort of answer, as we encounter the precociousness of youth growing into maturity, and as we find the artist learning how to grow into herself. Finding a way to dwell with her fears—accepting them without letting them rule her. Discovering that there’s still room to thrive even as she enters a new phase of life. Coming to see that beauty is what we share in our quietest moments.

3. Little Plastic Castle (Little Plastic Castle)

This is the first song of hers I ever heard. The moment the horns burst onto the scene, I was completely hooked. It’s a piece of unbridled joy, a statement of intent. Only after I dug into the rest of her catalog did I fully understand how this song fit into the arc of her career, the slyness of the lyrics, the perfect blend of ironic detachment and exultation that it embodies.

2. Both Hands (Ani DiFranco)

It’s raw, lovely, heartbreaking. Even now, after all these years, it still shocks the system. The way it creeps over you, the way the guitar fills you and then falls away. The way her voice cradles you, fills you with a swell of empathy that is almost impossible to bear. And all you can do is wonder that this young woman—just 20 years old when it was released—could understand so much, could see so deeply inside. It’s an astonishing piece of music.

1. 32 Flavors (Living in Clip)

There aren’t many songs that leave me totally defenseless, no matter how many times I hear them. This is one of the few. A defiant stare. A blushing cheek. A prayer sent upward into the unyielding heavens. A poem written in the stars.

Honorable mentions:
11. Swan Dive (Little Plastic Castle)
12. Napoleon (Living in Clip)
13. Hello Birmingham (To the Teeth)
14. Fire Door (Living in Clip)
15. Buildings and Bridges (Out of Range)
16. Not a Pretty Girl (Not a Pretty Girl)
17. School Night (Revelling/Reckoning)
18. Tis of Thee (Up Up Up Up Up Up)
19. You Had Time (Out of Range)
20. Fixing Her Hair (Imperfectly)

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The Beatles from worst to first

Back in the early days of the blog, I published a series of posts ranking every Beatles song from worst to first. Recently, I’ve seen a couple more such lists popping up, and thought it might be a good time to consolidate those old posts into one comprehensive list, and make a couple minor edits along the way.

You can check out the original introduction if you want to know the full ground rules, but the nuts and bolts is that I ranked every studio track from the British albums and the two Past Masters collections. I originally split the Abbey Road medley into its two halves but by the time I got there in the rankings had decided to think of it as one whole unit. So in this republishing, I’m consolidating it down. That means there are 205 songs for me to rank.

The most important thing to say is: this is a subjective list. I make no claim about what is truly ‘best.’ This is just what I like the most.

205. Wild Honey Pie from The White Album

So, this is the worst Beatles song, though it hardly even seems fair to call it that. It’s only a minute long and is more an interlude than a song in its own right. It’s really just a product of the sprawl that characterized the White Album. On any other record, this would have been scrapped. Still, it’s hard to really be that upset about the decision. It provides a nice bit of texture, and the circular feel of that guitar line is plenty interesting. But there has to be something that sits on the bottom, and this is it.

204. Boys from Please Please Me

Poor Ringo was left hanging out to dry with this one. His songs did improve (some) over the years, after they found a more suitable groove for his limited voice to occupy. Again, this isn’t a terrible song–the drumming is solid and the beat is fine. But the backing vocals are a little off, the “bop-shoe-op, bop-bop-shoe-op” just doesn’t really work for me, and the guitar solo is pretty weak. You do have to give the guys some credit for leaning so hard into “I talk about boys, yeah” without any sense of shame, or trying to play it for laughs. They loved the Shirelles and wanted to play the song; nothing more, nothing less.

203. You Know My Name (Look up the Number) from Past Masters, Vol 2

Paul called this one his favorite Beatles song one time, but we can only assume that was a joke of some kind. It’s hardly meant as a song in the traditional sense, so it seems a little unfair to judge it on those terms. Ultimately, this would make more sense on the Monty Python Sings! collection than in the Beatles catalog. It’s a nice oddity, but I don’t think anything would have been lost if it was just a weird demo stuck in the middle of one of the Anthology discs.

202. She’s a Woman from Past Masters, Vol 1

“My love don’t give me presents. I know that she’s no peasant.” Paul was an underrated lyricist, but this is not one of his better works. The vocal performance is at least interesting, but the rest of the song is frankly pretty awful. The drumming is lackluster and tinny, and while there’s a nice piano buried in the mix, it’s not nearly enough to rescue the rest of the instrumentation, which is defined primarily by that jarring staccato guitar that drives the song. I’ve never been a fan of that technique, but this is the most egregious case. The whole song, it’s  just sitting there in the left channel: whap, whap, whap, whap, whap, until your ears begin to bleed in protest.

201. Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? from The White Album

When I first listened to the White Album as a kid, this song made me very uncomfortable. I mean, jeez, “why don’t we just do it in the road?” Now that I’m older, it no longer scandalizes me in the same way, but without that sense of of unease there just isn’t much to work with here. The opening eight seconds promise a nice little drum progression, which never ends up going anywhere. Paul yodels his way through a couple dozen repetitions of the theme, and then we’re done. It’s an oddity, and a relatively harmless one, but certainly not an essential piece of the puzzle.

200. Little Child from With The Beatles

A lyrical disaster (“Little child, little child, little child won’t you dance with me, I’m so sad and lonely, baby take a chance with me”) which is saved from last place by a vintage vocal performance from John. It ends up as a perfectly serviceable pop song for 1964, but can only be seen as a failure in the context of everything else they put together.

199. Dizzy Miss Lizzy from Help!

It’s a nice vocal blowout from John, and a nice tight recording from the band. I wouldn’t argue too strongly if you wanted to rank this one much higher. For me, though, I just can’t get past that piercing guitar. It cuts through the whole song, leaving a bitter taste that can’t be overcome, like a dish that’s been aggressively oversalted. It also gets a bit of an extra demerit because of its album placement. I will never understand why they thought it made sense to use this as the final track on Help!, as opposed to the far superior Yesterday.

198. Sie Leibt Dich from Past Masters, Vol 1

Well, it’s in German, so that’s interesting, I guess. But “She leibt dich, yeah, yeah, yeah!”? It just sounds goofy.

197. Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby from Beatles For Sale
196. Honey Don’t from Beatles For Sale

Two covers from an album full of inessential covers. The Beatles never had a bad album, but by far the closest they came is Beatles for Sale. They look tired on the album cover, and the music sounds tired. Even the title suggests that they were a little overwhelmed by Beatlemania. These songs aren’t terrible – they just aren’t really that interesting. Ringo and George take the vocals and it isn’t really the finest moment for either, and the music is serviceable but doesn’t really jump out at you. “Honey Don’t” is clearly the better of the two, and probably could have ranked a few slots higher if it wasn’t so easy to just lump them together.

195. Hold Me Tight from With The Beatles

What’s the deal with Paul’s voice on this song? It really does sound like he’s got a cold or something. There’s not really much to say about this one. It’s pretty standard early-sixties fare. Inane lyrics and all. It’s as good as a lot of stuff you’ll hear on the Oldies station, but it stacks up pretty weakly against the rest of the Beatles catalog.

194. I Wanna Be Your Man from With The Beatles

It’s a little too trebly for my tastes. The story goes that it was written in an afternoon to give to the Rolling Stones for a single, while they (the Stones) sat in and watched, impressed with the Lennon/McCartney writing team. As with almost every Beatles story, there seems to be some truth as well as some myth in there. It wasn’t really a brand new song composed on the spot, but instead a throwaway they had been tweaking and were basically ready to abandon. But no need to tell Keith and Mick. Anyways, neither version of the song is all that impressive.

193. Revolution 9 from The White Album

I used to hate this track, considering it to be total nonsense gibberish. Then, for a few years I was convinced it was genius, only to eventually go back to hating it. I’ve finally settled somewhere in the middle. It is an interesting piece of work, and ultimately I think the world is better for having to grapple with it. If I was making a list of the most significant or interesting Beatles tracks, this would probably be quite a bit higher as I really do think it’s compelling as a work of art. It’s just not much of a ‘song.’

192. Slow Down from Past Masters, Vol 1

This song starts so promisingly. The swooping piano intro and the quick beat lead into a great vocal performance by John, featuring a couple great screams. Things do bog down a bit as the song grows a bit repetitive. But even so, this one would rank quite a bit higher if not for That Guitar Solo. I have no idea what happened here, but it starts out bad and goes downhill from there. By the end, it’s nowhere close to the beat and trails away in an agonizingly slow death. You can almost see George in the studio, desperately plucking the strings, waiting for a merciful end.

191. For You Blue from Let It Be

George definitely gets the short shrift in my rankings, with a lot of his later blues-influenced songs not faring very well. They’re not terrible – just not really my jam.  This one is the lowest of the bunch, mostly because of its relentless monotony. You could start at any moment in the song and really have no way of telling. Except for John’s solo on the slide guitar, which is pretty cool.

190. What Goes On from Rubber Soul

I really want to like this song but every year I realize it’s not quite as good as I thought the year before. I love Ringo, but his singing just doesn’t cut it here. Beyond that, the guitar playing on this song just drives me nuts. It’s just a series of short notes. It sounds like perpetually aborted attempts to actually string something together. I just can’t deal with it. And it’s a shame because there’s a good song here, waiting to be set free.

189. One After 909 from Let It Be

This was an old track that they had kicking around for years before it finally showed up on Let It Be. Frankly, I don’t think it would have been missed. It’s pretty innocuous – interesting as an example of a song that would have fit perfectly into their early period played by the 1969 version of the band. So in that sense, it helps you see how they had progressed musically, even as they were finally circling back around to the simpler sort of rock and roll that had got them started. But I can’t say it really does much for me other than as a signpost. The version on Let it Be Naked is marginally better and is one of only two songs from that disc that I think is noticeably superior to the original (the other is waaaay at the other end of this list).

188. The Word from Rubber Soul

“The Word” is one of the first countercultural songs, about the power of the word: love. And I appreciate it for that. But for some reason I can’t quite define, I’ve just never enjoyed the tune. Maybe it’s the almost-falsetto voice. Or the not-quite-right arrangement. They were really great about incorporating all kinds of instruments and making it fit, but the harmonium feels a little misplaced here.

187. Bad Boy from Past Masters, Vol 1

Everything that I said above about Dizzy Miss Lizzy applies equally to this song. It’s a very tight recording, and John really lets it fly. So while it’s just not really my jam, I can still appreciate it as a representation of what sort of band they might have been if things had gone a little bit different.

186. Blue Jay Way from Magical Mystery Tour

This song just doesn’t really work. It’s soooooo slowly paced and the vaguely psychedelic background effects don’t really go anywhere. It’s hard to think of it as anything more than plodding, which is not really the term you’d want to attach to a song. I do like the unintentional tension between the real lyric of “please don’t be long” and the misheard one of “please don’t belong.” But it’s one of the few Beatles songs that really has no ability to transcend its era. This is a song that could only have been recorded in the late 60s and it probably needs to stay there.

185. Act Naturally from Help!

It’s a nice little Ringo country-western song. There’s not really anything wrong with it. It just…you know…is kind of boring. Sorry Ringo.

184. Birthday from The White Album

Another example of White Album bloat. This one is a perfectly fine little song with a nice guitar riff (one of their best, actually. The Beatles never really were that much about guitar riffs), but not a heck of a lot else.

183. Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey! from Beatles For Sale

Many of my lowest ranked songs are, like this one, covers of some of the band’s heroes. And I appreciate their commitment to paying homage to the greats. But for me, most of these songs don’t do all that much. It’s a perfectly good cover of a perfectly good song. I would just rather listen to Lennon/McCartney singing a Lennon/McCartney song.

182. A Taste Of Honey from Please Please Me

Paul sure did love these old fashioned songs. And this track shows he could croon with the best of them. Beyond that? Eh.

181. Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand from Past Masters, Vol 1

Not much to say here. It’s obviously got a great tune, since it’s just “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and that’s enough to elevate it a little bit, but I can’t conceive of why I would ever choose to listen to this when I could just have the original. Novelty, I guess.

180. Matchbox from Past Masters, Vol 1

This song is the dividing line for me. I really feel like it should be higher, but I can’t seem to justify moving it ahead of any of the songs above it. That will be the case with virtually everything from here on. It’s ranked where it is because other songs are even better, not because it’s bad per se. To put it another way: the twenty or so songs below here are ones I could ultimately do without. But every song from now on is one that I cherish, in some way or another. Here, it’s another early years Ringo cover. In this case, the rockabilly beat is nice, and Ringo turns in a nice performance.

179. I Me Mine from Let It Be

Poor George, already with his fourth appearance on the list. And it’s not that I’m an anti-George guy. In fact, I think his solo career is maybe the best of the bunch. But I’m definitely a bigger fan of “I write soft, pretty songs” George than I am of “I’m into the Blues” George. This one, despite some interesting musical turns, runs into trouble with the lyrics: focusing on ego, existence, and all that stuff. Alan Pollack makes the following comment:

But here, in “I Me Mine”, I fear that George unwittingly traps himself in the pit of self righteousness, not only by his indiscriminite inclusion of “everyone” as his target, but by the essential scenario of the song in which an individual zealously condemns the entire community for being self-centered.

As a counterpoint, his solo album Living in the Material World covers many of the same themes, but with a less abrasive, preachy feel.

178. What You’re Doing from Beatles For Sale

It’s got a decent little guitar riff, and the opening drum beat is very solid. This is one of those songs that may have received a lower ranking than it truly deserves, simply out of frustration at what it could have been. This has some of the elements of a great little Spector-esque song that would really come over the top. But instead, it just hints at that without ever taking off. The guitar solo in the middle is pretty weak, and the melody is just inexplicably a little bit off. A better production of the song could really have bumped it up a lot, but the version we actually got is just a testament to the fact that even The Beatles made mistakes sometimes.

177. Another Girl from Help!

Don’t really have much to say about this one. Nothing spectacular. I guess it shows how good the Beatles were that their thrown-together songs, rushed to be ready for the movie, could still be pretty good.

176. Dr. Robert from Revolver

There are three basic themes in rock and roll. 1) I’m in love; 2) My life is miserable; 3) I have a doctor who prescribes me crazy drugs. This song falls into the third category. So there’s that. It’s got a nice little beat and the “well, well, well, I’m feeling fine” segment is among the best moments on Revolver. Still, it’s definitely the weakest track from the album (which really is praising with a faint damn)

175. Money (That’s What I Want) from With The Beatles

This is one of those songs I’ve always felt like I should like more than I do. It’s a fun little song. And John does good work with the vocals. But, I don’t know. Something seems like it’s missing.

174. All Together Now from Yellow Submarine

I don’t get mad at this song for being ridiculous, over-the-top, and silly. It’s meant to be that and it works just fine on those terms. It’s just that I have to be in the mood for a silly song to really have any desire to listen to it. And while those moods aren’t exactly uncommon, this song can’t beat out the majority of their catalogue which are more versatile and meaningful. But seriously, who doesn’t love the Yellow Submarine movie?

173. I’m Happy Just To Dance With You from A Hard Day’s Night
172. Do You Want To Know A Secret from Please Please Me

These songs would be higher if they just didn’t feel so precious.  They’re great little 2-minute pop songs, but just a little bit too much to handle. “Do You Want to Know a Secret” in particular has an interesting chord progression and the little introduction “You’ll never know how much I really love you; you’ll never know how much I really care” which is never returned to. Both are sung by George, for what it’s worth.

171. Love Me Do from Please Please Me

This was their first single, and it shows. But everyone has to start somewhere. I prefer the version on Please Please Me (with Andy White drumming) to the one on the first Past Masters disc (with Ringo), though it really has nothing to do with the percussion. I just think the vocals are a little tighter and John’s harmonica is better. Anyways… “Love, love me do, you know I love you, I’ll always be true, so pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease…love me do.” Yeah, it’s not their best work.

170. Tell Me What You See from Help!

I really wish this song was better. The arrangement is a little lackluster, and on about a third of the lines, the vocals are just terrible. It almost sounds like they’re trying to spit…out…each…word…sep…er…ate…ly… and enunciate perfectly, which is not particularly what I’m looking for in my rock and roll. It’s really a shame because it’s a beautiful song, particularly the “look into these eyes now” section. A little bit better done and this could have jumped up quite a few spots.

169. The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill from The White Album

Let’s get it out of the way: the three seconds when Yoko sings drag this song down a bit. I really do like Yoko a lot– she has done some genuinely interesting work both visually and musically over the years. But this song really could have done without her. As for the rest of it, it’s wacky, zany, maybe even kooky. I like the tune fine, and vaguely metaphoric “Shooting an Elephant”-esque story is fine, but it’s not one of their stronger songs.

168. Baby It’s You from Please Please Me

A cover from their first album. I’ll admit that I haven’t heard the original so I’m not sure what to compare it to. It does seem like a song more suited to a woman’s voice, but in spite of that, John does a really fantastic making it his own. It’s got a great 50’s feel to it with the sha-la-las and John’s flourishes. They would soon move on to bigger and better things, but if they had never moved past this kind of stuff, they still would have been a pretty great band.

167. I’m Down from Past Masters, Vol 1
166. Long Tall Sally from Past Masters, Vol 1

I never used to like these two songs all that much (see my comments on “Roll Over Beethoven”) but I’ve come around on them a bit. They’re frantically paced and feature some of Paul’s best rock-and-roll vocal performances. “Long Tall Sally” was their usual show-closer, and was replaced by “I’m Down” for some of their last concerts. It’s one of the few situations where I can imagine that The Beatles live would be even better than the studio versions. Also, my brother’s band used to do a cover of “I’m Down” that I really enjoyed.

165. Love You To from Revolver

The first song on which they really put the sitar to use. It doesn’t have quite the appeal of the other sitar-songs, though. This is due mostly to the fact that it is very close to the genuine article where a song like Norwegian Wood is really just a regular Beatles song with the sitar as an extra instrument. Even “Within You, Without You” is really two separate musical portions, one the droning Indian-influenced background and the other a George Martin orchestrated, and very Western classical score. So, while I find “Love You To” to be interesting in its faithful effort, I just can’t really get into it. My musical tastes are pretty decidedly western, so I enjoy harmonies and melodies. Which means this is one of a number of Beatles songs where I can appreciate the artistry without necessarily wanting to listen to it all the time.

164. Honey Pie from The White Album

One of Paul’s many attempts to re-create the music his father loved. It’s got a nicely loping feel, and would feel perfectly in place on one of Paul’s solo albums from the seventies. Which can be either a good or bad thing, depending on how you feel about the post-Beatles Paul. It’s a pleasant-enough song, though it doesn’t knock my socks off.

163. You Like Me Too Much from Help!

Just a nice song by George. I really enjoy the way the harmony and the rising cymbals from the “it’s nice when you believe me / If you leave me” section transition flawlessly into the resumption of the tone of the verse as George’s voice emerges alone: “I will follow you and bring you back…” And I really enjoy the piano which drives the song and gets the centerstage for the middle of the song.

162. Good Night from The White Album

Too much orchestration. Too much with all the background vocals. But in spite of that, this is one of the few Ringo songs where his voice is a perfect match. It just makes you feel good, safe even, to listen. It’s a great lullaby. One thing: it really is a perfect fit to end the White Album, especially given that “Revolution #9” is the second-to-last song. After the madness of that track, having such an old-fashioned, yes, even schmaltzy song, is a palate-cleanser, leaving you free to end the album, turn off the lights, and go to sleep unfettered.

161. Dig It from Let It Be
160. Maggie Mae from Let It Be

These are hardly songs at all, just snippets tossed onto “Let It Be” to help evoke an organic feeling. It was envisioned as an album about the making of an album, thus the inclusion of some of the more playful moments. However, while these are songlets more than songs, they are not throwaways. Both are a bit of fun, musically and lyrically. “Dig It” represents the jam sessions, with playful, even silly lyrics, and a rising sound. “Maggie Mae” is a fun harmony, with John and Paul doing their best to make Henry Higgins scream. An important consideration is the placement of these songs on the album. They bookend “Let It Be” which is very clearly a very powerful, but possibly overly emotional, song. Placing these two on either side of it provides a little relief and helps to lighten the mood a bit.

159. Devil In Her Heart from With The Beatles

Not their most impressive cover, but not too shabby either. The back-and-forth dialogue between John and Paul who warn George “she’s got the Devil in her heart,” and George who insists “no, she’s an angel sent to me” is a little cutesy, but it works.

158. Drive My Car from Rubber Soul

I suspect that this is one of the first songs where my low ranking will conflict with a substantial number of Beatles listeners. I don’t know – it just doesn’t do it for me. The “beep beep, beep beep yeah” thing is annoying. And, for some reason, I just can’t deal with Paul’s vocals. They sound atonal, almost grating. All that said, I love the bass, and the piano over the chorus is quite nice.

157. Because from Abbey Road

One of those songs that I’ve always felt that I should like more. It’s very pretty. The multi-tracked three-part harmony is great. But it just doesn’t do that much for me, and I don’t really know why. Part of it is that, like most of Abbey Road, when listened to by itself it is not nearly as enjoyable as when listening to the entire album. This is clearly true for the medley, but I think it’s also the case for every song: the composite exceeds the sum of the parts.

156. Savoy Truffle from The White Album

Yet another lowly place George song. The horn section adds a nice effect here, and like many White Album tracks, the musicianship is pretty strong – the drumming is good and the guitar solo is well done. Still, let’s face facts: it’s a song about candy. And it inexplicably is lacking in the driving bass beat that featured so prominently in a number of other songs from this era and which could have really helped the song rock out a little more.

155. Ask Me Why from Please Please Me

One of their least-sophisticated sounding songs. Also one of their first compositions, which may be closely connected. The lyrics aren’t anything impressive, but the singing is lovely, and on closer listen, you realize that the progression is a little more complicated than it might seem at first. The verses are virtually identical, but they break off at different points to move into either the chorus or the bridge, depending on the location in the song. Moreover, the chorus flits in and out, almost dropping in at random, and exiting in quite different fashion. The first time it ends abruptly, allowing for a sharp return to the verse. The second and third times, it lingers, easing into the bridge and then the fadeout. These changes are minor, but in my mind, they give it just enough weight to sustain it.

154. Taxman from Revolver

It’s a little too repetitive for me, with the same guitar riff driving the whole song. When the second guitar takes on a larger role toward the end, it really helps, but a little more variation in percussion throughout the song would have been great to alter the tone a bit. In spite of that, the lyrics are clever (if weirdly right wing, but hey, it was a very different time) and the guitar interlude is great.

153. Every Little Thing from Beatles For Sale

I love the opening guitar. Pretty standard fare otherwise. Two minutes, double-tracked vocals by John, a John/Paul duet for the chorus. He loves her, she’s great, life will be good from now on because they’re together. This will never be among my favorites, but it’s solid mid-album filler.

152. I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party from Beatles For Sale

I really love the chorus to this song. However, the rest of it just doesn’t do much for me. The background harmonies are pleasant, and the guitar solo is nice, but for some reason the vocals just don’t mesh together right. It all sounds a little flat to me (especially on the line “I think I’ll take a walk and look for her” where they unfortunately try to rhyme “care,” “there,” and “her”). Still, that chorus is something else. Really fantastic John/Paul melody.

151. Till There Was You from With The Beatles

Paul really loved these old show tunes, and he does sing them very well. And George plays a nice guitar, too. Though, for some reason, Paul’s pronunciation of ‘saw’ as ‘sarr’ just drives me up the wall.

150. This Boy from Past Masters, Vol 1

Gets extra points for its placement in A Hard Day’s Night. Ringo’s stroll around town while the song plays is just perfect. It’s got a great three-part harmony, and some very nice John solo lyrics. It does suffer a bit from comparison to Yes It Is, a very similar song in many ways, but one that’s far weightier.

149. Roll Over Beethoven from With The Beatles

There’s really nothing wrong with this song. It’s a great cover, with some nice guitar-work and one of George’s best vocal performances of the early years. So why’s it so low? It’s more to do with my personal tastes than anything else. The Beatles always seem best to me when they’re breaking new ground, or when they’re delving back into less rock-oriented genres. It may seem weird, but The Beatles as a straight-up rock band have always been the least impressive to me. So this is a faithful translation of Chuck Berry, but I guess I’d just rather hear them cover Smokey Robinson.

148. When I Get Home from A Hard Day’s Night

I like the sound of this song, and John’s “I’ll love her more” is devastating, but it loses a whole lot of points for the lyrics. “Whoa-oh, ahhhh.” And then “I’m gonna love her til the cows come home.” Come on guys.

147. Mr. Moonlight from Beatles For Sale

I know a number of folks who would put this among their least favorites. I can understand why. It’s a cover and feels a bit out-of-place with the rest of the Beatles work, particularly with the weird Hammond organ instrumental bridge. But, for some reason, I am strangely attached to the song. I really enjoy the bass/drum dum-dum-dum-dum-BAM lead-up to John belting out “Mr. Moonlight” which is reversed at the end of the bridge, with the drum-beat and then a series of bass notes.

146. Come Together from Abbey Road

Alright, this is probably a lot lower than most people would put this song. What can I say? It just doesn’t do it for me. For all that I love the bass line and John’s spooky lyrics and the guitar riff as he sings “come together…right now…over me,” the song just sounds a little tired, or maybe quiet. It feels like it ought to be coming after you but instead it just treads water. And the outro seems far too long to me. Still a good song, but I rarely find myself thinking “I really should listen to ‘Come Together’ right now.”

145. Misery from Please Please Me

I like this song more than I probably ought to. There’s nothing particularly impressive about it, other than the general impressiveness that goes along with all of their early work. That said, it’s got a great beat, the jauntiness of which provides a nice counterpoint to the downbeat lyrics. And for some reason I just love the descending piano notes that punctuate the bridges.

144. I Need You from Help!

This is a nice little song, though it doesn’t really stun me at all. I have to say that I can’t really get into the organ or whatever it is that is the primary background instrument. It’s more distracting to me than anything else. George provides serviceable vocals, and the low-key tone works fine to convey the feeling of gentle longing.

143. Not A Second Time from With The Beatles

I’m a little conflicted on this song. At times it sounds like a close match to some of their weakest early efforts. At others, it seems to hint at the complexity to come. The instrumentation is unobtrusive, to the point of feeling a little lackluster, but maybe that’s the strength of the song – that John is trying to convince her (and himself) that he’s not going to stand for her nonsense any longer but just doesn’t have the willpower to make it stick. There’s an interesting (if somewhat esoteric) take on the song here.

142. Oh! Darling from Abbey Road

I go back and forth on this song. I love Paul’s vocal performance – it sounds so ragged and fierce. But it also feels kind of tired. And it’s got the annoying single-guitar-note-as-percussion thing going on. Which I really dislike. When I’m in the mood, it would be ranked higher, and when I’m not, it would be quite a bit lower. So I’m putting it here as a compromise.

141. I’ll Get You from Past Masters, Vol 1

This is one of those “could be a lot higher or could be a lot lower depending on my mood” songs. It’s fairly standard early-Beatles fare, albeit a pretty solid example. But the harmonies are great, I love the opening line “Imagine I’m in love with you” with its presaging of “Imagine” almost a decade later, and I like that the harmonica becomes basically a rhythm instrument, never taking the mainstage but always in the background guiding the tune. And it’s fun to listen to them stumble on the words, but just plug along in the bridge (1:14 to 1:18).

140. Words Of Love from Beatles For Sale

One of my favorite Buddy Holly songs, and they do a pleasant cover. It’s not substantially different than the original, though the harmonies (particularly as the song fades) are quite nice.

139. Chains from Please Please Me

A great old Goffin/King song. Nothing particularly special going on here, though it’s one of George’s nicer vocals from the early years.

138. I Want You (She’s So Heavy) from Abbey Road

When I’m in the right mood, I really enjoy this song. When I’m not, I wonder who decided that they needed to spend 8 minutes on the subject of “I want you, I want you so bad it’s driving me mad. She’s so heavy.” It’s technically very well done, with a neat little bass line, some fine drumming, nice guitar flourishes, a well-placed organ, and the heavy, almost bruising extended coda. Also, I like it as a counterpoint to the medley which dominates side-two. Back in the days of records that you had to actually get up and turn over, there was something appealing about the symmetry (or lack thereof) in one side being a bunch of tiny songs melded to make one extended song, while the other is a very short song extended for a very long time.

137. Tell Me Why from A Hard Day’s Night

I see this as the representative example of the Beatles’ early period. They have better songs and worse songs, and this one is pretty much right in the middle. It doesn’t really go anywhere new, but it isn’t totally conventional. It’s got a great harmony, some nice drumming to hold the beat, and an occasional guitar flourish from George. It’s got some of the bitterness and anger that set The Beatles (and John in particular) apart from many other contemporary artists, but it doesn’t feel as visceral as some of their very best songs from this period. I can’t imagine this is anyone’s favorite Beatles song, but I also can’t imagine anyone who hates it.

136. Only A Northern Song from Yellow Submarine

I go back and forth a bit with this one. At times I really enjoy the melody, the chaotic background sounds, and the slyly self-deprecating lyrics. At others it sounds slooooooow, the background is distracting, and the lyrics seem a little too accurate to be ironic. The song is about how George constantly got pushed into the background as a songwriter, and about the deal they had signed with meant they didn’t actually own any of their music (they all were owned by Northern Songs Ltd.), which seems pretty unfair, and eventually led to Michael Jackson owning the rights to all the Beatles songs. Doh!

135. Baby’s In Black from Beatles For Sale

Let’s begin with “oh how long will it take til she see the mistake she has made” – just a fantastic John/Paul harmony. This song is ranked as highly as it is almost solely for the power of that line. The rest of it is decent, though after many years I’m still undecided about the guitar solo. Unlike most George solos, which provide a subtle twist on the main theme, this one goes off into the woods and spins in circles by itself. While it’s a little jarring, the solo, combined with the plodding, waltz-but-not-quite-a-waltz beat give the song a pleasantly chaotic feel.

134. Flying from Magical Mystery Tour

It’s an instrumental, but it really just sounds like they never got around to finishing the song and adding words. The result is a half-improvised take around some very slight changes in chords. And the music only last about 90 seconds, with another 40 seconds of sound effects as it fades into the distance. All that said, I really enjoy the tune, as well as the slightly bouncy guitar that chugs along. I often find myself humming the tune for hours (or even days) after listening to it, and that should count for something, shouldn’t it?

133. Her Majesty from Abbey Road

At just 23 seconds, it’s easily the shortest Beatles track. Originally planned as a connector to follow “Mean Mr. Mustard,” it starts with a single chord which would have been the final sound of the previous track. Then, it’s just Paul and his acoustic guitar, singing a little ditty. The story goes that they had no intention of saving it but someone in the studio liked it so much they tacked in on the end and everyone ended up agreeing that it provided just the right amount of comic and emotional relief. The medley is clearly their crowning achievement, and a fitting end to their career, but it might be just a little bit too much on its own. The long pause at its conclusion gives everyone a chance to catch their breath, and then drops this song on you, just to remind you that The Beatles are as clever and fun as they are musically talented.

132. The Night Before from Help!

When I was very very young, this was among my favorites. Then, for a very long time I more or less forgot about it and it was relegated to the bottom of the list. Listening to it closely again for this project, I was reminded of how solid a song it really is. Great vocals by Paul, great drumming by Ringo, lovely background vocals. A devastating little song about betrayal.

131. You’re Gonna Lose That Girl from Help!

Great background vocals is what sets this song apart for me. Paul and George follow closely behind John, echoing his lyrics, kicking in on each line a second or two before John finishes to create a lovely layered effect.

130. The Inner Light from Past Masters, Vol 2

Here’s something that doesn’t sound the same as the rest of their songs. One of George’s Indian-influenced songs, all the backing instruments are Indian and that lilting whatever-it-is that forms the basis of the introduction and appears occasionally through the rest of the song is really something else. It sounds almost human at times. The lyrics are typical spirtual-George fare: “See all without looking, do all without doing.” This was the B-side for Lady Madonna. Could they have found two more different-sounding songs to put together?

129. Your Mother Should Know from Magical Mystery Tour

Another one of Paul’s excursion into the dance hall songs of yesteryear. Still, it also clearly benefits from the late 60s musical scene, with a great little bass line, the strong keyboards that drive the song, and the harmonium interludes. It also benefits from a strong ending, just rolling along for the first 1:45 and then suddenly kicking it up a notch as the drums play a much more prominent role in the final verse.

128. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer from Abbey Road

So the synthesizer is almost ridiculously outdated. So the song is cutesy and yet-another Paul tribute to his father’s music. So it’s about a serial-killer. So what? It’s a great song. The bassline is fantastic, Paul’s voice has just the right amount of sly self-awareness, and the chorus is great. It’s an interesting counterpoint to John’s “Instant Karma!” which came out around the same time. Same theme: slightly different approach.

127. Rocky Racoon from The White Album

A lot of people don’t like this song, and I totally understand why. It’s almost a guilty pleasure for me. Still, I think people get too caught up in the silly lyrics, and the meandering half-singing half-talking, not-quite-on-a-beat introduction. The vaguely country feel is pleasantly done, and the musical interludes (the harmonica moving to the front for one bar, the piano solo, which makes you feel like you’re in a saloon, etc.) are perfect. And, despite the fact that the song is basically three and a half minutes of the same beat, it doesn’t sound monotonous

126. There’s A Place from Please Please Me

Opens with a great harmonica lick and takes off from there. The drum counterpart when they sing “and it’s my mind” is perfect. And, I think the harmony between John and the backing vocals is perfectly discordant. They track along with each other, but for the verses John is slightly off. Paul and George create the framework while John extemporizes. And then, when they join together for the chorus, it has an even greater effect.

125. Thank You Girl from Past Masters, Vol 1

An early, short song. It’s one of their happier “gee I love love” songs, which I enjoy. I especially like that it’s not about how she’s pretty, but instead about how he likes being with her, and how she makes him feel good. I really like Ringo’s drumming here, too.

124. I’m A Loser from Beatles For Sale

Their first serious foray into a folk-inspired sound, but the heart of this song is John at his cuttingly bitter best. Unlike some of his other unhappy-love songs, this one is not an attack on the woman who hurt him, but is almost entirely directed inward. He noted that this was of his first truly introspective songs, and it comes through clearly.

123. Don’t Bother Me from With The Beatles

George’s first song, which I’ve always enjoyed quite a bit. He described it as an exercise in songwriting, to see if he could do it, and didn’t give it much more credit than that. I agree that it’s not particularly sophisticated, but it’s got a nice minor-key sound to it, and the bleakness of the lyrics are a nice counterpoint to the mostly-optimistic, almost gleeful, Lennon/McCartney songs from their early albums.

122. Run For Your Life from Rubber Soul
121. It’s Only Love from Help!

Two songs that John effectively disavowed, for very different reasons. In each case, you can see his point, without necessarily feeling obliged to agree. Run For Your Life is a horrifically misogynistic song, while It’s Only Love is precisely the sort of boring love song he would rather blame on Paul. Still, in each case, there’s plenty worth rescuing, if only to demonstrate the strange dualities of John as a songwriter. On the one hand, a man filled with shame and doubt about his failures–his failures of kindness as well as his failures of imagination. On the other hand, a man driven to try, again and again, even in the face of that pain.

120. I Should Have Known Better from A Hard Day’s Night

The double-tracked vocals from John where he harmonizes with himself on “Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii should have…” is pretty much the entire reason why I love this song. The rest of it is pleasant enough, with a nice bit of harmonica on the side, but it wouldn’t really stick out from any number of other early songs otherwise.

119. Wait from Rubber Soul

This is a song from the Help! sessions, brought in to bring Rubber Soul up to 14 songs to meet the deadline. Therefore, it’s commonly referred to as being a little out of place, as being on the wrong side of their breakthrough. Frankly, I don’t see it. It’s not the strongest track on the record, but it’s not the weakest, either. The subject-matter is pretty simple (yet another take on “I’ve been away, now I’m coming back”), but the percussion (with a tambourine and some nice drum rolls) and the harmonies fit right in with the more sophisticated sounds of the rest of the record.

118. Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

My favorite part of this song is the circus-like atmosphere in the middle when everything sounds like it’s going in circles. The imagery of the song is fantastic, and it only improves it to know that it’s basically all cribbed from an old poster John had. Talk about extracting genius from the mundane… Oh, and that crazy section of looped sounds? They recorded it, cut the tape into snippets, tossed them in the air, and re-assembled them at random. Delightful.

117. You Won’t See Me from Rubber Soul

A great song about lost love from Paul. It’s more wistful and less accusatory than similar-themed ones from John (“No Reply,” “You Can’t Do That,” etc.). Here, Paul simply tries to convince her that he is lost without her, that she should give it more of a chance. It’s a group effort, with some lovely singing by Paul, some nice harmonies, and a couple great drumming sections (particularly the “time after time…” section).

116. I Want to Tell You from Revolver

The fade-in opening is used here to great effect, giving the song the feel of something much larger than the simple two-and-a-half minutes that you hear. George said a few years later that he got it exactly wrong. From the Eastern perspective he would soon adopt, it should be “it isn’t me, it’s just my mind.” It’s funny that he stumbled into a line so radically opposite what he would so believe a few years later.

115. When I’m Sixty-Four from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

This song, more than almost any other, really defines Sgt. Pepper for me. Not because it’s my favorite, and not because it exemplifies the counterculture themes of the time. Precisely the opposite, in fact. It’s fascinating that the biggest band in the world could release an album containing this song, and have it be lauded as cutting-edge, as the defining sound of a new generation. “We’re going to release anything we want, in any style, and you’re going to love it.” In a way, the album became a focal point for the counterculture precisely because it was so unique in its combination of different styles. “If it feels good, do it” pretty easily translates into “if it sounds good, play it” after all. So here we have a little bit of old-fashioned camp on perhaps the most influential rock album of all-time. As it should be…

114. The Ballad of John and Yoko from Past Masters, Vol 2

The neat thing about this song is that it was recorded in a single session by John and Paul alone (and some nice drumming by Macca, no less), in the spring of 1969. I think it shows that in spite of the other stuff going on (the impending breakup) things were not always as tense as all that. This is just the sound of two friends making a song off the cuff, and having a good time doing it. By the way, in a song skewering the press, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that John chooses the phrase “they’re gonna crucify me” given the blow-up over his “bigger than Jesus” comments a couple years before.

113. No Reply from Beatles For Sale

A strangely melancholic album-opener. While most of their early albums kicked off with optimistic rockers, this one suggested that things were changing. Not only is the sound different (the Dylan influence is clear), the subject-matter is along the lines of classic John: “why have you ruined my life?” — usually saved for much later in the album, or for a b-side to a more rollicking single. The sound they put together for the quick bursts of “I nearly died!” is pretty amazing, and the bridge “If I were you, I’d realize…” is just fantastic.

112. Back In The U.S.S.R. from The White Album

Paul’s spoof on the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry, and also one of the more rocking songs from the White Album. I do wish the bass was given a little more prominence. There’s this great beat buried down there. How they managed to release this song and not have the Red Scare folks come after them in a serious way, I don’t really understand. I mean, obviously it’s not meant to be taken at face value, but since when were those folks known for getting the joke?

111. Within You Without You from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

This song is a stunning bit of fusion. An Indian raga overlaid with a Western melody. I understand (and to some extent agree with) all of the complaints. From one side, it’s a curiously atonal song, a let-down in the middle of a rock album. From another side, it’s the musical equivalent of curry powder, the Anglicized variation on the Indian original. And there are definitely times when I’m listening to Sgt. Pepper and find it a bit of drag in the middle. But most of the time, I try to appreciate it on its own terms, as a hybrid of cultures and musical styles that is almost stunningly complex in its amalgamation of these perspectives. And it’s really quite pretty, too.

110. Yer Blues from The White Album

Jeez, sometimes you have to wonder how tough it must have been to live inside John’s head. This song punches you in the gut a few times and then kicks you to the curb. It’s crazy to listen to this and realize that this is the same band that only a couple years ago was singing “Love Me Do.” Or, to put it another way, it’s crazy to listen to this song and have the very next song be “Mother Nature’s Son.” Talk about versatility.

109. Good Day Sunshine from Revolver

The intro to this one is what does it for me. That rising piano, the quick drum beats, and then the “good day sunshine…” I just can’t help but smile. And it probably shouldn’t get extra points for this, but whatever: the transition between the end of this one and the bursting out of the guitar from “And Your Bird Can Sing” is among my all-time favorite transitions.

108. I Call Your Name from Past Masters, Vol 1

The weird thing about this one is that I didn’t hear the Beatles version until long after I had grown accustomed to it as a Mamas and the Papas song. It almost sounds like a totally different song when done by Mama Cass. I like them both, but I probably slightly prefer John’s take. And if you toss in a little bit of George on the guitar…you’ve got a really great song.

107. From Me to You from Past Masters, Vol 1

One of their first big songs, in the days before Beatlemania truly hit. It’s a pretty simple love song (well, as simple as you can expect from the Beatles). It’s written to “you” to emphasize the closeness to the fans. It’s got the great harmonies. It’s the sort of song that can really make you understand why so many teenage girls fell in love with these guys.

106. Michelle from Rubber Soul

It’s so schmaltzy and beautiful and…how did this end up on a rock record? Perhaps my favorite thing about this song is that perfectly toes the line between parody and genuine affection. Is it schmaltz or ironic schmaltz? Is it French or faux-French? Is it serious? Whatever it is, I love it.

105. Yes It Is from Past Masters, Vol 1

A song that’s grown on me a lot over the years. It starts slow, languorous, even. I once mistook that for boredom. But the more I listen, the more I hear it as numbness. An unwillingness to acknowledge the pain he’s inflicting by refusing to move on. Once he emerges from the shell a bit, the harmonies lift off, and the song clicks into place.

104. Don’t Pass Me By from The White Album

Ringo’s first real writing credit, and I think it’s a shame it took until 1968. Sure, it’s not the most complex song ever, and sure it’s a little silly, but it really does have a nice tune, and that fiddle gives the song such a perfect country-western feel. The song had been floating around for at least a couple years before the White Album and I tend to think it never would have been released if they hadn’t made a sprawling double-album. So while that album does receive some fair accusations of bloat, I mostly side with Paul’s statement on the Anthology series: “it’s the bloody Beatles White Album. Shut up.” Everybody probably has a couple tracks they could do without, but one person’s filler is another person’s favorite track.

103. I’ll Cry Instead from A Hard Day’s Night

Under two minutes, is only two verses, and has such a quick ending (no outro at all) that if you blink you might miss it. It’s got a great country/bluesy feel, and John is at his misanthropic best. The moment with about 10 seconds left when the guitars disappear briefly and it’s just John singing “show you what you’re loving man can do” is great stuff.

102. Dig A Pony from Let It Be

Full of nonsense John lyrics, and a great guitar interplay. This song has always seemed to me like it could have been much better. It’s a little ragged and a little repetitive, and the nonsense lyrics from John might have been better. For instance “you can radiate anything you are” is great, but I can’t say I get “you can syndicate any boat you row.” But forcing myself to judge it on its own merits, rather than on my imagined scale of what could have been, I’m forced to accept that it’s a great song, flaws and all. Especially the “All I want is you…” bit.

101. Any Time At All from A Hard Day’s Night

Oh, George, how you can make the 12-string guitar sing! That, and the bridge “there is nothing I won’t do…” is what makes this song for me. Most bands would kill to write a song this good, and we’re still barely into the top 100.

100. Get Back from Past Masters, Vol 2

The first question is which version. I very slightly prefer the one on Past Masters, mostly because the outro is a lot of fun (though I do love “I hope we’ve passed the audition” from the end of the version on Let It Be).  As for the song itself, it’s great, but has never felt particularly substantial to me, and it’s always struck me as a little odd that it was one of their #1 singles.  Sidenote: I love the Simpsons episode with the Be Sharps parody of the Beatles, where after they play a rooftop show, George drives by and says “it’s been done.” And Homer ends with “I hope we’ve passed the audition,” everyone laughs and Barney says “I don’t get it.”

99. Long, Long, Long from The White Album

This song always struck me as a failure of album placement. It’s just so quiet, and it immediately follows the sensory assault that is “Helter Skelter.” But over the years–especially once I moved from analog records to digital music and could therefore listen to the song on its own a bit more easily–it has grown on me a lot. Turn up the volume and you’ll get a really beautiful tune, and a surprisingly touching bass riff. Elliott Smith loved this song, and you can really see why.

98. All I’ve Got To Do from With The Beatles

One of the best ‘filler’ tracks from their early period. It doesn’t do much to add to the legend of the band, and fills no crucial gaps in their catalog. It’s simply a great pop song. John really lets go in the bridge, and then pulls it back in for the verse. And the song fades with his “mmm mmm mmm’s” and you just want to play it again…

97. You Can’t Do That from A Hard Day’s Night

Another John song that takes fear of losing love in a slightly dangerous direction. Also, another John song that deals with his worries about how others will think: “but if they’d seen you talking that way they’d laugh in my face.” It’s a song about being angry, not about being sad. John never mentions how he actually, y’know, feels about his ladyfriend. It’s all jealousy, worrying about what others will think, etc. Musically, it’s got a great beat, a heavier sound, and George really rocking out the guitar. It’s a little too choppy for my tastes, but still a great song.

96. Old Brown Shoe from Past Masters, Vol 2

This song, more than any other, probably fared the best in my final results compared to my initial thoughts. Since I still had trouble thinking of it as anything other than a throwaway tucked on the end of the second Past Masters, I was amazed to discover that it comfortably beat out some songs I’ve loved for years. It’s got a great beat, and the lilting piano gives it a fun, almost loping sound. When’s Paul’s bass enters into the fray, with it’s quick-paced variation on the same theme, it makes for a great, almost oval-shaped sound.

95. If I Needed Someone from Rubber Soul

Great riff. One of George’s better songs, though also one of his least unique, in that it doesn’t sound all that much different than a Lennon/McCartney song from the time.

94. Day Tripper from Past Masters, Vol 2

I’ve mentioned that the boys, for all of their great songs, didn’t really have many good guitar riffs. Well, this is the mother of all the exceptions. One of the very best riffs out there. It kicks off the song, and ties it together the whole way through. I know I’ve got it ranked relatively low, but if you told me this was your favorite Beatles song, I wouldn’t really have any reason to argue. It’s not exactly my cup of tea, but it really is a great song.

93. Helter Skelter from The White Album

The mythology of this song is expansive. There’s the origin story (Paul read a review of The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” describing it as the loudest, wildest music ever made and wanted to prove them wrong), the appropriation of the song by Charles Manson (including writing it in blood at one of the murder scenes…yikes), the credit given by many to this song as part of the birth of heavy metal, the original 27-minute version, the multiple fadeouts. All of that makes it interesting as a cultural artifact, but it would still be a great song on its own merits. Loud, devastating, and raucous, ended perfectly with yet another aborted fadeout and Ringo screaming “I got blisters on my fingers!”

92. I Saw Her Standing There from Please Please Me

The opener for their first album, and what a great opener it is. A great rock and roll song, not just for the time, but for all-time. It’s got the handclaps, a driving drum beat, a nice scream, and some great guitar-work by George. And for a song about seeing a girl across the dance-floor, it’s riddled with sexual tension. The not-so-hidden naughtiness in the line “She was just seventeen, you know what I mean” gives the song just the right amount of edge. So why isn’t it ranked even higher? Well, because all the other songs are even better.

91. Girl from Rubber Soul

Achingly beautiful. This is a much more mature song (both lyrically and musically) than their standard fare from even a year earlier. It also is a (somewhat) rare example of John single-tracking his voice. Listening to this one, it’s not difficult to understand why he often chose to double-track. His voice here is so raggedly tender that it would never work on some of the more upbeat numbers. But here, it’s perfect

90. Fixing A Hole from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

One of the interesting things about Sgt. Pepper (as I alluded to when discussing “When I’m Sixty-four”) is that most of the songs aren’t anything particularly cutting-edge on their own. However, because each song is so inextricably tied to the album (and its mythology) that they grow into something more when heard in context. Read simply, this is just a song about discovering that it’s perfectly easy to live a happy, satisfied, and complete life without going out into the world or doing anything “important.” Read another way, it’s a song about heroin (the junkie “fixing a hole”) or it’s about the counterculture and “dropping out” from society. Absent its place on Sgt. Pepper, this song would probably be a lot lower. But here, perfectly situated between “Getting Better” and “She’s Leaving Home,” all of the things I might never have heard are made clear. Maybe that means I’m buying into the Sgt. Pepper hype. But if so, well, I’m just going to enjoy it.

89. Think For Yourself from Rubber Soul

Great fuzzed-out bass layered on top of the regular bass track here. It’s really the focal point of the song. This is one of George’s best Beatles songs. It does sound a bit like George trying to write a Lennon/McCartney song, but there are enough Harrison elements here to make it clearly his own.

88. Mother Nature’s Son from The White Album

For what is at heart a very simple song, this one is intricately layered. The acoustic guitars, the light touch of brass, mild percussion, a bit of drumming buried deeply. This is clearly one of the tracks written in Rishikesh, with its themes of nature and unity with the world. It also shows just how powerful a little bit of humming can be, when it’s done right.

87. I’ll Be Back from A Hard Day’s Night

The list that inspired me to do this project has this one ranked as the #2 Beatles song, which frankly astonished me. I had never even thought this would be in someone’s top 20, much less #2. Still, I gave it a few more listens, trying to see what I had missed, and discovered that it really is a pretty good piece of music. I had never quite given it the attention it deserves, tucked all the way at the back of the album there. It’s an almost perfectly crafted piece of two-minute pop. Heartache, love, and the way it makes us all go crazy — typical John sentiments — have almost never been expressed so clearly. It’s sad with just enough of a hint of happiness to explain why we keep coming back for more.

86. I Feel Fine from Past Masters, Vol 1

Here is another counter-example to my claim that The Beatles didn’t have all that many great guitar riffs.. This song has one of their best. And that feedback to kick off the song is pretty amazing. Ringo really pounds the drums. And the “I’m so glad…” section just sends shivers down the spine.

85. Magical Mystery Tour from Magical Mystery Tour

It’s a bit of a throwaway, and it’s not really all that interesting musically. Still, it just puts me in the right mood. The percussion (particularly as the song slows down for those 15 seconds in the middle), and Paul’s voice on “the magical mystery tour is coming to take you away…” just gets me pumped up to listen to the rest of the album. As a standalone song, it would probably fare worse, but since it’s pretty inextricably tied to the rest of the album in my mind it does just fine.

84. Lovely Rita from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

What is this here? A rock song on Sgt. Pepper? Who would’ve thought? Like many of Paul’s songs from the period, this song is a vignette, a slice of not-quite-everyday life. In this case, about not quite making it with an attractive meter maid. And though it doesn’t rock out like “Helter Skelter” or anything, it adds some much-needed oomph to the middle of side two.

On that note, this song also gets me thinking about the great care that was put into building Sgt. Pepper as a coherent album. The ‘concept’ album was always a red herring, but there’s still quite a lot of thought that was put into managing the sonic progression of the record. Unlike most early Beatles records, which were built around the idea of starting off each side with a bang, side two of Sgt. Pepper opens quietly, taking a deep breath before it launches into the final stretch. Rita begins to amp up the voltage, guiding you toward the climax of the reprise and the denouement of “A Day in the Life.”

It’s also worth pointing out that “Rita” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” were the two songs that would have been cut had “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” not been separately released as singles. And while it’s probably true that these are the two least essential songs on the album, but I think it would have lost some of its playfulness without them.

83. It Won’t Be Long from With The Beatles

Now this is how you kick off an album. And have I mentioned John’s voice recently? Lord almighty, he could sing. I also love the call-and-response “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah”s and that descending guitar riff. As for the lyrics, there’s always been some ambiguity for me. Did she dump him or did she just leave physically (like, on a trip or something)? Either way, I like it.

82. Please Mister Postman from With The Beatles

John really can sing, can’t he? This song is ranked this highly purely based on his vocal performance. Not that there’s anything wrong with the music or the backing vocals or anything; there’s just nothing really special there. John’s vocals, however, are enough to cleanse the soul. Wow.

81. Baby You’re A Rich Man from Magical Mystery Tour

I said earlier that “Blue Jay Way” might be their only song that is unable to transcend the era in which it was recorded. However, there is an argument to be made that this song might be another. But this might require a question of what it means for a song to transcend its origins. Sure, it’s a hippie song for a hippie time, both musically and lyrically. Still, where “Blue Jay Way” was boring, this song is playful. It is a product of the 60s in a way that makes that era come alive even now. All those crazy instruments, lyrics about finding true meaning in life…

My first copy of Magical Mystery Tour was an incredibly scratched record. On all the other songs, this was an annoyance but nothing more. On this one, though, there was a divot that meant I got to listen to the 1.8 seconds of John saying “beautiful people” at around the 52-second mark on repeat until I got up and pushed the needle along. I still expect to hear it, even listening today twenty years after the fact.

80. Yellow Submarine from Revolver

My first truly memorable concert as a kid was when I went to go see Ringo and his All-Starr band. I was 13, and in love with this song. He played it, and for a brief moment there, I probably would have called this my favorite song in the world. Over the years, my adoration has faded a bit, though I still love it dearly. There is a place for whimsy in the world, and there’s something to be said with the speed at which these four young men from Liverpool were blowing through conventions, mashing up genres, and trying their hand at every possible style. “Rock, check. Indian, check. Psychedelic, check. Classical, check. Ballad, check. Children’s song, eh? Hey Ringo, come on over, we’ve got a song for you.” And that is all just on Revolver. As Alan Pollack says: “Could anyone other than the Beatles get away with this? Try to imagine “Yellow Submarine” as the first or second song of a no-name group.” Indeed.

79. Can’t Buy Me Love from A Hard Day’s Night

One of Ringo’s finest drumming jobs. The crashing of the cymbals, the underlying beat. It really drives the song. The section of the A Hard Day’s Night movie where this played is almost certainly one of the best music videos ever. Beyond that, the scream before the guitar solo is great, and the solo itself is one of George’s finest. In fact, I can’t think of another one that’s better. The songs just screams energy and excitement. Beatlemania doesn’t seem hard to understand when listening to songs like this.

78. P.S. I Love You from Please Please Me

Not one of their more sophisticated songs, it basically plays on the same beat with the same chords the whole way. But, for some reason, it hits a note for me that a lot of their other early songs don’t. I do like the idea that the song itself is the text of the letter and the title is the p.s.

77. Hello, Goodbye from Magical Mystery Tour

One of my absolute favorites when I was growing up, and it’s been slowly but surely falling ever since. I still love it a lot, but the silliness and simplicity has started to feel a little bit strained. You can call it a loss of innocence or a refinement in taste. Either way, the point is that I just can’t quite make myself suspend my disbelief and accept that Paul has discovered something profound in “You say yes, I say no, you say stop, and I say go, go, go.” Great instrumentation, though. The strings, the guitars, and that outro is pretty fantastic.

76. Cry Baby Cry from The White Album

This is a bit of a weird one. The King and the Queen, the Duke and the Duchess, what these have to do with the chorus beats me. And what any of it has to do with anything else in the world, I also have no idea. And the music is a little crazy, too. It’s incredibly thick, with that piano drenching the whole track, and assorted other instruments keeping the background sounds at a constant. Still, there’s a very sweet melody underlying it all, and John’s vocals have the perfect ghostly feel.

75. I’ve Got A Feeling from Let It Be

There’s a lot to be said for the early-era version of the Lennon/McCartney collaboration, when they wrote much more in tandem. But, to be honest, I think they were at their very best when they produced almost-complete songs on their own, and then let the other tweak around a little bit. Songs like this one go one step beyond, turning two completely separate song fragments into one whole song. There’s really no reason to think the songs should go together except that it fits so perfectly. When John starts in with “everybody had a good year,” it’s like a drink of cool water in the middle of Paul rocking out. And when they’re each singing their own song at the same time–it’s as good as any harmony. In my mind, this is what Let It Be was supposed to be about–their more mature selves making the rock album that they never could have imagined at the age of 22.

74. Getting Better from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Two things to love about this one. First, and most obviously, the absolutely perfect distillation of what made the John/Paul partnership so perfect. Paul sings unambiguously “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better” and John returns: “it can’t get no worse.” Put together, and it’s profound in its simplicity. Second thing to love: the bass, which really takes off on the second verse. It frames the song so well that it sounds remarkably full and “rocking” despite its rather leisurely pace.

73. With A Little Help From My Friends from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
72. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

You pretty much have to put these two songs together. For all the talk of Sgt. Pepper as a “concept” album, the concept only extended to these two songs (and the reprise). “Sgt. Pepper” is a fantastically tight rocker, with Paul’s screaming vocals and churning bass line stealing the show. Also, the use of “crowd noise” is done expertly to heighten the anticipation of the arrival of Billy Shears at centerstage, and to make the segue into “With a Little Help From My Friends” seamless. That song is the #2 Ringo song on this list (sandwiched in between two songs about being underwater). I actually heard the Joe Cocker version of this song first (that’s what growing up in the 80s watching The Wonder Years will do for you), and still appreciate that one a lot, but you just can’t beat Ringo. He sounds so plaintive, so honest. Once again, the bass dominates this song (a sign of things to come on the rest of the record). As a final note, once again the arrangement of the tracks on Sgt. Pepper is perfect. The campiness of these two songs is a great way to ease the transition into to the crazy genre-bending to come. And it just gets you feeling good.

71. And I Love Her from A Hard Day’s Night

I don’t know much about music theory, but my understanding is that a lot of the effect of this song is created by the way it blurs the line between major and minor keys. So bittersweet, so pure. Paul’s voice hovers above this song like a halo, particularly on “bright are the stars that shine…”

70. Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey from The White Album

This one is a bruiser. There’s that ringing bell just making your whole body move, a crazy drum beat that always sounds like it’s just about to tear away from the rest of the song but never quite does. And, some typically John lyrics, opaque in their simplicity. Great stuff.

69. You Really Got A Hold On Me from With The Beatles

A really great cover of an already fantastic song. As I’ve said, I wish the boys had done more covers of these type of songs and less of the rock/blues stuff. Their talent with harmonizing and arrangements (especially with the presence of George Martin) really adds something special. When they’re all singing together on “I love you and all I want you to do…” it is simply glorious.

68. Lady Madonna from Past Masters, Vol 2

The Beatles generally avoided the saxophone, which I think was a wise choice. It’s such an easy instrument to abuse. But this track is an example of using a sax as it was meant to be used, to bolster a solid rock line, and to add even more energy. You’ll notice that the musical accompaniment is different for almost every section of the song. Different combinations of drums, guitar, bass, sax, piano, and harmonies give it an incredibly textured feel. That, combined with the quick pace, means that I never cease to be amazed that it’s only a little over two minutes long.

67. She’s Leaving Home from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Yes, it’s a little overdone, but it’s still stunningly beautiful. Written by Paul after reading a news report about a runaway, this is yet another song from Sgt. Pepper which perfectly captures an element of the countercultural explosion, but from a unique perspective. It’s a song about dropping out, abandoning your square parents who just don’t get it and can’t understand that there’s more to life than money and comfort. But here’s the thing, it’s written from the perspective of the parents, for whom we cannot help but feel sorry. They may not get it, but it’s not their fault–they just wanted what was best for their daughter. That they are clueless as to what she wants and needs is a strike against them, but we understand that they are not bad people, nor do we find much reason to sympathize with the daughter. The parents want to understand, they simply cannot. It’s not a polemic, but rather is a recognition of broad forces in society that make things tough for everyone.

66. Martha My Dear from The White Album

Yeah, so it’s about Paul’s sheepdog. That’s just fine by me. The background music is quite interesting on this one, with the piano running through the whole way, the brass section, and drums and a bass that are faded in and out in different sections. That means that for a very short and seemingly simple song, there is a lot of aural variety.

65. Glass Onion from The White Album

John wrote this song mostly to poke fun at everyone who insisted on reading deeply into his nonsense lyrics. Accordingly, he references a number of older songs and introduces a number of new classically bizarre Lennon phrases to dazzle and confuse (“glass onion,” “cast iron shores,” “dove-tail joint”). Musically, it’s one of their more rocking numbers, with some great drumwork and a thumping bass beat.

64. Hey Bulldog from Yellow Submarine

Here we find one of the least-known Beatles songs (if there indeed could be such a thing), since it’s one of the four tracks that only appeared on Yellow Submarine. It’s a shame because it’s not only one of their better songs, it’s also one of their most unique. It would be worth the price of admission if only for the first 13 seconds, You first get the central riff of the song pounded out on the piano. The second time through, the drums and guitar kick in, and the third time the bass and the tambourine (I think) join up. And it all goes boom. The rest of the song is pretty great, too. That bruising riff holds throughout, and there’s the extended outro, with the trademarked fade-out-back-in-fade-out-again. Alan Pollack has a pretty interesting discussion of it here that’s worth reading.

63. Paperback Writer from Past Masters, Vol 2

The early Beatles were a wonderful, all-time great band. And if that’s all they had ever been, we’d still think of them very highly. But once they started writing songs about novelists and taxmen and yellow submarines that they truly became The Beatles. I love that this song is written in the form of a letter, in particular that it begins “Dear Sir [or Madam].” I’ve always wondered whether the narrator’s book was actually any good. I have to assume the answer is no, based on the description we get of it. But I still hold out hope that maybe it really is good and he’ll make it big. Musically, this is one of their strongest tracks, with that fantastic bassline and a great lead riff.

62. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

John has insisted from the very beginning that this was never supposed to be about LSD, and that the inspiration for the song came from a picture drawn by John’s son Julian. And, given the existence of the picture, the girl named Lucy, there’s clearly something to that explanation. Still, the song is pretty obviously about acid, even if the name might be more coincidental than intentional. As if the lyrics weren’t enough (“tangerine trees and marmalade skies,” “plasticine porters,” “a girl with kaleidoscope eyes,” and so on), the musical soundscape with the harpsichord or whatever it is, the crazy fluttering guitars, and vocals from John that seem to float up out of the ether would be proof enough. Some people swear by Elton John’s cover. Those people clearly have gone off their medication.

61. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) from Rubber Soul

John trying to write an oblique song about an affair and having it be so oblique that no one ever guessed. They were too busy being confused by the suggestion that he was an arsonist. This is their first use of the sitar, and I think it’s a perfect fit. It’s obviously much less authentic than their later attempts, but that’s kind of the appeal. It gives the song just the right amount of exotic charm. I’ve always really loved the line “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.”

60. Anna (Go To Him) from Please Please Me

The best Beatles song that none of my friends have ever heard. Of all their covers, I think this one might sound the most like a Lennon/McCartney number. The original is nothing spectacular, but it is transformed in the hands of John, who gives one of his very best vocal performances. Lyrics that suggest sadness at the departure of a woman are turned into a firestorm. I’d really like to squeeze this one into the top 50, but just couldn’t find the space.

59. A Hard Day’s Night from A Hard Day’s Night

And here was the magic of the 12-string guitar made clear. That opening chord! The fadeout! The solo! And throughout the song, the guitar and a virtual wall-of-sound brought to life by Ringo and his drums.

58. Revolution from Past Masters, Vol 2

I know some folks go the other way on this, but I strongly prefer the single-version to the one on the White Album. The sloppy, loud full-frontal assault of the guitars, Paul’s scream to kick it off, and John’s in-your-face vocals completely define this song for me, to the point where listening to “Revolution 1” kind of weirds me out. I used to wake up to this song every morning, because I knew it would get me revved up for the day.

The lyrics are typically John in their ambiguity. I think it’s pretty powerful to come out with your “political” song and have the basic point be: “we all want to change the world, but I really have no idea how to do it.” He’s not against revolution, but he wants to be convinced that it’s revolution for a purpose, not just for its own sake. I think the lessons of Robespierre suggest that he may have been onto something. As John says: “you say you’ve got a real solution, well you know, we’d all love to see the plan.” I sure would…

57. I’m So Tired from The White Album

This song, more than almost any other I can think of, perfectly evokes the feeling it describes. Raw, angry, bitter, listless, terrified, depressed, on the verge of a breakdown. When John finally lets loose and screams “I’m going insane” it’s an instant of release. The final 20 seconds consist of three repetitions of “I’d give you everything I got for a little piece of mind” over a cacophony of drums and bass in a wonderful heightening and release of the tension.

56. If I Fell from A Hard Day’s Night

Bonus points here for the very best John/Paul harmony. After the beautiful introduction sets the stage, it’s all harmony from there out. The lyrics reflect the desperate tension of love, between wanting your feelings to have true requited love, but being so afraid of rejection that you are unwilling to give yourself up. And as if all that wasn’t complicated enough, the pain of a failed love and the feeling of devastation at rejection is framing all of that. For a very pretty song, there’s a lot of psychological trauma going on here.

55. Sexy Sadie from The White Album

John wrote this song as a tirade against the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, after discovering that he had tried to sleep with one of the women there. He was convinced to change “Maharishi” to “Sexy Sadie” and to remove the curse words, but it’s still a delightfully vindictive song. Great guitar, too

54. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da from The White Album

Yes, yes, I know that lots of people hate this song and let the complaints roll in if they must. I don’t care. It’s an incredibly fun song, one that I still, to this day, cannot listen to without discovering about 30 seconds in that I am bouncing merrily along to the beat. That bass simply will not let me go, and the horns, the handclaps, the piano, and everything else only add the effect. And anyways, who wants to be serious all the time? Life goes on, after all, and sometimes you just have to let it go, give into the beat, and enjoy it.

53. Good Morning Good Morning from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

The guitars are blistering, the horns are almost percussion instruments, and the constant changes in meter give the song a herky-jerky feeling. As Paul would later declare, this was John skewering the “suburban torpor.” Can we transcend the banalities of life in the modern liberal state? The pulsing sound and sly irony in John’s voice suggests that even amidst the drudgery, all is not lost. Each verse concludes with the line, “I’ve got nothing to say but it’s okay,” which is better than nothing, eh? The extended outro fades into animal sounds, and out of it emerges the reprise, which will be showing up a little later on the list.

52. The Fool On The Hill from Magical Mystery Tour

And just in case those who hate “Ob-La-Di…” are still complaining that Paul is a talentless huckster, we have this song to shut them up. If you can’t find the time to lighten up, here is something of much more weight to satisfy you. Those woodwinds! That voice! “The man of a thousand voices talking perfectly loud”! It’s got a great scene in the movie, too.

51. I’ll Follow The Sun from Beatles For Sale

A simple, but beautiful song. The primary instruments are those gently plucked acoustic guitars, and the light tapping is the only percussion. It’s less than two minutes and so gentle that it almost feels like it would blow away in the wind. Which is sort of the point, given the song’s emphasis on transience and the departure of love. It’s really quite a depressing song when you get right down to it, but so beautifully done that it doesn’t seem to matter.

50. Tomorrow Never Knows from Revolver

I don’t even know where to start. While this is by no means my favorite Beatles song, it’s very high on the list of songs I could listen to on repeat for a very long time. No matter how many times I hear it, I find there is always more to uncover. That they put this together with the technology available in 1966 is, frankly, just astonishing. It’s like finding out that the Wright Brothers built their flying machine out of a couple sticks and some saltwater taffy. Some scattered thoughts/sounds: the seagulls, a guitar solo that sounds like it’s being played from some dimension that’s just a bit out of kilter from our own, “listen to the color of your dreams,” and let’s not forget that underneath all of those effects, it’s a pretty darn good rock song.

49. Rock And Roll Music from Beatles For Sale

This is the last cover on the list. Everything in the top 50 is all John, Paul, George, and Ringo. I like Chuck Berry a lot, but I have say that the original of this song just doesn’t, y’know, sound like “rock and roll music.” I know my standards now are a lot different than they were 50 years ago when it came out, but only a few years later The Beatles came out with this version which rocks pretty damn hard. Oh, and John has a great voice in case I haven’t mentioned that recently.

48. While My Guitar Gently Weeps from The White Album

In terms of musicianship, everyone is at their best here, from a great piano introduction and fantastic bass-work from Paul to drumming by Ringo that is taut with tension to some nice lead guitar by a fellow named Eric Clapton. I can’t fault the decision to go with this version since it is devastatingly well done and really drives home the feeling of abandonment of ego, and the spiritual emptiness of most people’s lives. Still, it’s almost too much. The sparse, acoustic version on the Anthology suggests that they might have produced a version a bit less depressing. Maybe I’m a fool for wanting a fundamentally dreary song to still be pretty, but that’s just how I feel, and I don’t know that there’s much point in trying to change at this point in my life. As it is, I still love what we ended up with, and can appreciate the artistry that went into it, while still wishing for a little more.

47. Things We Said Today from A Hard Day’s Night

A great song in a minor key, sounding dark and ominous, without succumbing completely. The tone of the music adds a great deal of flavor to what might otherwise be seen as relatively inconsequential lyrics. “I love you, even when you’re far away. We’ll surely be together forever” is given a new context. You notice that the song is mostly about the hard times, that the time of happiness is far off in the distant future. It is there, waiting for us surely, but we are forced to recognize that it will not be easy, nor necessarily pleasant to get there. Love will sustain, but can we really be sure? It’s all Paul here, with some nice shifts between single and double-tracking the voice to change the mood. One more thing: the moment at around two minutes where the bridge bleeds into the verse–“Love is here to stay and that’s enough…to make you mine, girl”–is pure genius.

46. Got To Get You Into My Life from Revolver

We’re in the middle of a run on Revolver tracks, and they really run the gamut. From the classical orchestration of “Eleanor Rigby” to the trippy backwards guitars and lazy sound of “I’m Only Sleeping” to the…well…whatever it is that we’ve got here? Is it a pop song? Is it rock and roll? Blues? Motown? It was re-released in the 70s as a single and you can understand why, since it feels very much like a 70s pop song. The horns are the stars, and Paul gives a fine vocal performance. This is also another example of perfectly organizing the tracks on the album. “I Want to Tell You,” which is similar both in theme and style, leads into this one. And on a normal album, this would be the big finale, with the extended outro to send us all on our way. But…just as we are packing up our things and looking for the exit, the lights dim again and we are hit full-force with “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

45. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

The hardest rocking song on Sgt. Pepper, which would have made for a more than suitable end to an album that everyone was ready to declare the greatest of all-time as soon as they concluded their first listen. But it works even better as a false conclusion, a mere setup to the encore that’s still to come.

44. Eleanor Rigby from Revolver

It’s an entire novel condensed into a two-minute song. It is so brilliant because the first two verses sound entirely disconnected, and it isn’t until the final verse that you understand the connection between these two. Beyond that, it is so fitting that although they are connected, the “meeting” of the two only serves to heighten the feeling of loneliness. And those strings! Where would The Beatles have been without George Martin? Surely they would still have been a huge band, but I think it would have been nowhere close to the same thing.

43. All My Loving from With The Beatles

The best song from With the Beatles, hands down. It’s also the best of their many “we’ll be apart, but our love will endure” songs from the early years. I love the way it jumps right out of the gate with “close your eyes and I’ll kiss you.” I’m told it’s a fairly sophisticated song musically, though I don’t really know A from B as far as that goes. I do know that it’s got a great melody, though.

42. I’m Only Sleeping from Revolver

The production still sounds amazing 50 years later. The backward guitars are nicely done, and the overall feel of the song is of heaviness, even drowsiness. It’s precisely the sort of song that, totally apart from the lyrics, feels appropriate for a listless late morning when you just can’t drag yourself out of bed to face the day. John’s vocals are, as usual, well done. But the highlight for me might be, as bizarre as it sounds, the short interludes with the bass (for example, from 1:56 to 2:03). It’s such a small part of the song, but it really sets the whole mood. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that bass riff throughout the song. By the way, you can contrast this one with “I’m So Tired.” Same basic theme, but such completely different approaches that they end up feeling and sounding totally dissimilar.

41. Here, There, and Everywhere from Revolver

Incredibly beautiful. Especially Paul’s voice, and those harmonies. When he sings “there…running my hands through her hair,” my heart pretty much just melts. The only thing that holds me back on this one is something I’ve mentioned before: the single-plucked guitar notes over every…single…beat…of…percussion. It just punctuates the notes too much. The musical accompaniment is so secondary to this song that it should stay far in the background and accentuate (as it does in the bridges). It’s a minor complaint, but we’re splitting hairs to try and rank these things at this point.

Paul wrote the song after hearing Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. He wanted to produce something that could stack up, and I’d say he met the mark. It can’t quite top “God Only Knows” but is certainly in the ballpark.

40. Piggies from The White Album

I know it’s not a particularly consequential song, but who cares? It’s a great bit of fun, and one of the few times that George shows his playful side. Add in the macabre element of the cannibalistic piggies, the not-so-subtle digs at The Man, and the joyous melody and you’ve got a song the whole family can love.

39. It’s All Too Much from Yellow Submarine

I’m guessing this one wouldn’t be in the top 50 for too many folks, but something about it really appeals to me. The shimmering guitar, the same fascinating hybrid of Western melody and Eastern drone that makes “Within You, Without You” interesting. This one does not have a “Wall of sound” as much as it has an “Ocean of sound.” Lyrically, I think this song serves as an essential counterpoint to George’s other songs on the subject of spirituality and Eastern religion. The line “show me that I’m everywhere, and get me home for tea” shows that George didn’t always have to be so deadly serious.

By the way, the remastered version that came out on the redone Yellow Submarine shows that sometimes less really can be more. The new version has the benefit of modern technology which can separate every instrument or tone on its own track. While this makes for a much crisper sound, it pretty much ruins what makes this song great. I don’t want to extract the sounds, I want the whole thing to hit me together so I can lose myself in the chaos.

38. Twist And Shout from Please Please Me

What a performance by John! This is what Paul was hoping to get with his attempt to run his voice ragged before recording “Oh! Darling” but that is nothing compared to what John got here the old-fashioned way. The Isley Brothers original is a classic and a fantastic song, but it pales in comparison to John’s performance. There are a lot of their songs I like more, but I’m not sure there’s another one I would have rather seen them do live.

37. Dear Prudence from The White Album

This one is the closest John came musically to George’s droning sound. It really just repeats that single guitar line for the entire song, with small variations. While I know one person who hates this song with a fiery passion for precisely that reason, I think it makes the song interesting. The whole song builds and builds, adding a piece here, subtracting one there, remaining stuck on the same theme, but inexorably growing, until it all comes together at 2:37. Then, when John sings “won’t you let me see you smile” it’s about as big a climax as they ever created. But, the thing is, they’re not even done yet and there’s still another 40 seconds before they’re going to let you go.

36. I’m Looking Through You from Rubber Soul

The moment of realization, when everything that once made sense finally is revealed as false. The pain, the humiliation, the anger…the compassion.

35. Strawberry Fields Forever from Magical Mystery Tour

A tour de force for John, drawing in many of the elements they had introduced on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, with bizarre chord progressions, a whole host of backing instruments, backwards tapes, studio mutterings buried in the mix (this is where the infamous supposed quote of “I buried Paul” is meant to be. In fact, John is simply saying “cranberry sauce”). One new innovation, which would appear on a number of occasions is the false ending. Musically, it draws from the ‘heavy’ music which was beginning to emerge from San Francisco. Lyrically, it draws from John’s childhood to paint a picture of inchoate anxiety and confusion. And yet it is not negative. Nothing really makes sense, and we all experience our lives differently. But maybe that’s just fine.

One other note on the studio trickery. As is often discussed, the “final” version is really two different takes spliced together. The problem was that the two takes had been recorded in different keys! So take 7 (in the key of A) was speeded up slightly, and take 26 (in the key of B) was slowed down, in order that they would both approximate the key of B flat. Of course, the transition is not quite seamless (you can notice the change at the 1:00 mark – the latter section sounds thicker, if that makes sense), but in my mind this is a bit of serendipity, as the song is all about feeling a bit disjointed without being able to quite explain why or how.

34. Octopus’s Garden from Abbey Road

Ringo didn’t do too badly for himself, did he? Only two songs, but they both fared pretty well on the list. Though to be fair, a huge part of why this song is so good is the ridiculous talents of the other three, the backing vocals, the guitars, the bass… The series of descending notes behind “we would be so happy, you and me” and the guitar in the last 30 seconds as Ringo repeats “In an octopus’s garden, with you…” are some of the very best moments from the band. Still, Ringo does a mighty fine job himself. Great drumming, and this song is perfectly suited to his voice: warm, friendly, no pretension, no assumed irony. He is singing a song about living in an octopus’s garden and all you can think is “yeah, that does sound nice, doesn’t it, Ringo?”

33. Eight Days A Week from Beatles For Sale

We should need no explanation for this song. It is pure joy to listen to it, and that’s all there is to it. The faded intro, the clever title, the purity of the melody. If ever you have been in love, you know that it feels like this song is playing inside your head constantly.

32. Blackbird from The White Album

Utter simplicity. It’s just Paul, his guitar, and (I think) a metronome. The first few seconds are among the most beautiful moments of music I can think of. “All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise…” The only thing that marrs the song for me is the bird noises at the end. Nice idea, but not executed especially well, and they might have sustained the lighter-than-air feeling even better if it had stayed just Paul and his guitar. By the way, what’s the deal with all the songs about animals on the White Album? We’ve got “Blackbird” and “Piggies” to start with. But then there’s “Rocky Raccoon.” And as I’ve mentioned “Martha My Dear” is about Paul’s dog. And “Bungalow Bill” is about hunting tigers. And just in case we were wondering, John lets us know that his monkey has nothing to hide.

31. Nowhere Man from Rubber Soul

It’s not the most sophisticated song, maybe even a little trite compared to their later cosmic musings, but the simplicity is also part of its charm. Some people seem to think the song is preachy, but I think that misses the point–John wrote this song at himself, making this the thematic precursor to “I’m So Tired” and other songs about his state of mind. Great harmonies here. And I love the Nowhere Man from the Yellow Submarine movie.

30. I Will from The White Album

For all the amazingly complex work that they were doing at the time, my heart continues to fall back on this simple, short, and incredibly beautiful song about an ideal love, or perhaps for someone who has come to fill that idealized role. I used to walk around for days at a time with this in my head, almost in a dream. I would wait a lonely lifetime…

29. Don’t Let Me Down from Past Masters, Vol 2

When discussing “I’ve Got a Feeling,” I said that it felt like the essence of what Let It Be was supposed to be about. But maybe that was wrong, and this song is what it was all about. It sounds like it was recorded all in one take. It’s delightfully imperfect. And it’s just haunting. John’s voice goes into I can’t even count how many different places, with screams, yelps, deep places, and soaring heights. And that piano playing by Billy Preston is just…have I already used the word “haunting?” Well, it gives me shivers.

28. Happiness Is A Warm Gun from The White Album

Four totally unique songs (or song fragments) in one, all in under three minutes and somehow it not only holds together, it creates a gestalt whole that is far beyond the already significant strengths of each part. Section 1: “She’s not a girl who misses much.” Draws you in slowly and then hits you again and again with fascinating imagery. The man with the mirrors on his boots is actually someone John knew (he was trying to see up girls’ skirts). Section 2: “I need a fix.” Dominated by that fuzz guitar, it only lasts about 20 seconds, but paves the way perfectly for… Section 3: “Mother Superior jumped the gun.” That would be Yoko. The tambourine enters, and after a couple repetitions we finally encounter… Section 4: “Happiness is a warm gun.” The dark mood of the song is lifted and we are treated to a back and forth between John and his chorus about…well…happiness being a warm gun.

The title comes from an advertisement John saw which claimed that happiness was, indeed, a warm gun, but I’ve always enjoyed the ambiguity of it. First, is the gun a gun or a metaphor for You-Know-What? It is clearly sexual, but exactly how sexual? Second, are we meant to understand that happiness is a state which is achieved upon the firing of a gun? Or is it that happiness itself IS a warm gun?

27. Two Of Us from Let It Be

Supposedly a love song from Paul about Linda, and that may very well have been his intention. But let’s face facts. This is about John and Paul, even if only accidentally. I mean, “You and I have memories longer than the road stretches out ahead.” The two of them romping around the town, and eventually finding their way back home, playing games, and living life simply for the joy of it…this is the song where John and Paul say goodbye. The warm harmonies and the acoustic instrumentation only heighten the feeling. I know the atmosphere when they recorded this song wasn’t great. Still, you have to feel that, for at least a few minutes when they recorded this, they remembered just how they cared about each other.

26. You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away from Help!

In one long, lonely winter of my life, I spent a great deal of time with this song. Brokenhearted, disconnected…I couldn’t face the world when I was so busy just trying to keep myself from falling apart. And of course I made it through, but while I was in that deep dark night, it was truly comforting to have a song like this to keep me company.

I’ve talked a lot about John’s voice on the more upbeat numbers, but he shows here he can do the world-weary folk-singer just as well. The classic debate about which Beatle is your favorite is a tough one for me. Purely based on the songs, I think I might have to go with Paul, but with John, you know the emotion, the pain, and the joy is all real. He can lash out and threaten to break every heart in the world on “I’ll Cry Instead,” he can insist that “All You Need is Love” and he can sit devastated in the corner on this song, and you understand it’s all different aspects of the same person.

25. I’ve Just Seen a Face from Help!

Rubber Soul is supposed to have been the breakthrough record, the moment when everything changed. But here we find that all that possibility was already apparent, well before they raced into the studio to change the world in the fall of 1965. In this song, Paul produced one of the all-time great love songs. That first moment, when you have glimpsed all the glory of creation. You stumble over yourself, and the words to express your joy can’t seem to come fast enough. All you want is to hang onto the feeling, and hope against hope that it can last forever.

24. Julia from The White Album

This song holds a special place in my heart. When I was in high school, a friend of mine named Julia died in a car accident. She was one of the more amazing people I have ever met: spontaneous, intelligent, caring, wise, and fun. She was the kind of girl you just knew was going to be President one day, or write a world class symphony, or cure cancer. But more importantly, you knew that she was going to live life to its fullest. I never got to know her as well as I would have liked, something I only realized completely once she was gone. When I heard about the accident, I couldn’t help but think of the line “half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you.” John’s song is for his mother, but I think the sentiment is the same. A sense of loss, an ethereal sound, the delicately plucked guitars, and John’s heartbreaking voice. Julia’s parents set up a foundation in her name that does all kinds of things that Julia would have loved. While a song this beautiful is a fitting tribute, a tangible foundation that gets real things done is even better. I miss you, Julia. I’m sorry I never got to know you better.

23. And Your Bird Can Sing from Revolver

Worth the price of admission just for that opening guitar lick. It just jumps out of the speakers, grabs you by the collar, and shakes you around. An interesting comment was left a couple days ago by The Sanity Inspector: “I liked the story Joe Walsh told about “And Your Bird Can Sing”. He practiced and practiced until he could finally play the guitar part, and then later learned that George had simply double-tracked himself. “Wow!”, Walsh quoted himself as saying. “Am I the only person in the world who can play this?”” That’s pretty funny. For what it’s worth, John never liked the song, but what does he know?

22. She Loves You from Past Masters, Vol 1

What is there to say about this song that everyone doesn’t already know? It is glorious–everything that made The Beatles so amazing, so mind-blowing to the world in 1963 and 1964–the harmonies, the furious drumming that lifts the whole song into the stratosphere, the clever lyrics, it’s all here. And don’t even get me started on the “yeah, yeah, yeahs.” As I said about Johnny Boy, there is really no need for a lyric in rock and roll beyond the simple repetition of “yeah, yeah, yeah.” If you can’t say everything you want to say with that, maybe it wasn’t worth saying in the first place. There is no pretense here, nothing beyond “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” And that’s just all there is.

21. Something from Abbey Road

I know a fair number of people who rank this one #1 and I can’t really say they’re wrong. When I first did this list, it was down in the 50s, but it just keeps inching its way up for me. And frankly, if I were doing the “best” of The Beatles, this would go even higher. For any other band on the planet it would be the absolute crowning achievement of their career. One fun note: Frank Sinatra declared “Something” to be one of the greatest love songs of all-time, and regularly sang it in concerts, though (in typical fashion for the perpetually overlooked George) he often referred to it as his favorite Lennon/McCartney song. He was right though: this really is one of the all-time great love songs.

20. The Long And Winding Road from Let It Be

Alright, I’ll admit it. I like the Phil Spector-ed version best. Sure, it isn’t what Paul intended, but even a genius can be (very slightly) wrong once in awhile. The strings and the chorus give the song a grandiose feel that it really needs. It’s incredibly pretty and moving, but it is the kind of song that has to feel epic–it shouldn’t just be moving, it should make you ache inside–and the orchestration helps it achieve that. If you need one example to prove Spector’s version is better, check out the section from 2:25-2:40. In Paul’s version, he repeats “many times I’ve been alone” in a curiously dull spoken voice. Spector eliminates it and adds a soaring violin solo, and it’s exactly what is needed.

19. Please Please Me from Please Please Me

This song is pure energy. In bottled form, it’s more dangerous than liquid nitrogen. Ford is working on a new model of car which runs entirely on this song. Play this song too loudly, and you might overload the whole grid. There is the “come on, come on” section, the clever wordplay (“I do all the pleasing with you, it’s so hard to reason…with you, oh yeah, why do you make me blue?”), and that amazing guitar (check out from 46-48, for an example). I defy anyone to listen to this song and not feel blessed to simply being alive and in possession of functioning ears.

18. I Want to Hold Your Hand from Past Masters, Vol 1

Speaking of music that could start a forest fire… How did they not just give up after this song–how did they have the courage to try and top it? Listening to it now, all these years later, it’s still crystal clear how it changed the world. It’s just a series of climactic moments, one on top of another, until you just can’t take it any more. And when their voices rise up with that third “I can’t hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide” it’s like a volcano erupting. And the handclaps, don’t forget about the handclaps. And how many completely different ways can you make “I want to hold your hand” sound like the single most important thing that has ever been said? I count at least three in this song. If I had been born 30 years earlier, I would have been right there screaming my lungs out for this song.

17. I Am The Walrus from Magical Mystery Tour

The very best of their more “experimental” songs (depending on how you define “A Day in the Life”), this one goes off in about a million directions, yet somehow manages to never feel lost. Despite the reputation for this as seriously far-out, I will say that the thing which grabs me more than anything else is that it’s got a fantastic beat. Some of my favorite moments (a list which cannot possibly be exhaustive): John singing “I’m cryyyyyying.” The overdub of the radio broadcast from King Lear: “oh, untimely death!” (bear in mind that it wasn’t planned–this is just what happened to be on. Talk about serendipity). “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”–once again, from a song that’s intentionally nonsense, this is one of John’s more profound lines. The middle section with those strings and “sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun.” Just an amazing song.

16. Across The Universe from Let It Be

This is the song in the top 20 that is the most mercurial for me. I originally put it in the top 10, and it still could easily be there on a good day. But other times I might drop it as low as 20. Either way, it’s an all-time great, of course. This is the one other track (in addition to “One After 909”) where the Let it Be Naked version of the song is superior.  I fell in love with the Spector-ed version, but this is one case where the lush orchestration really is out of place. And don’t even get me started on the World Wildlife version from the Past Masters. I’m not prepared to say that the version on Naked is the perfect version of the song–sadly, I don’t think the perfect version exists–but of the imperfect options, it is clearly the best. Mostly unvarnished, we are able to hear the pure beauty of the song. In my mind this song goes hand in hand with someone standing alone on a hilltop at night, staring off into the distance, perhaps at some object beyond the curve of the earth, perhaps off into the stars. And the lyrics are among the very best poetry they ever created. “Pools of sorrow, waves of joy,” “thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox,” and more.

15. We Can Work It Out from Past Masters, Vol 2

Much celebrated for the John/Paul interplay between verse and bridge, and rightly so. It’s like two completely different songs, both in tone (“we can work it out” vs. “life is very short”), and in style (upbeat rock number vs. downbeat waltz). Yet the transition between the two is so perfect that you cannot even imagine how one could exist without the other. As John’s bridge ends with the slowed-down waltz, Paul’s verse burts forth with a renewed force, like the sun cutting through the clouds. One thing you’d never notice until you pay attention: the forcefulness of the underlying instruments grows substantially over the course of the song. Try listening to it and, in the middle of that last verse by Paul, quickly switch back to the opening few seconds. It builds gradually, but what starts off as gentle-but-insistent ends up with quite a kick.

14. Ticket to Ride from Help!

In some ways, this song was the turning point. Beatles For Sale showed them going in new directions, but the release of this single a few months later made it clear that they were soon to be walking on paths never before seen. From the first few seconds, with that ringing guitar riff and the crazy drum beats, this is the real deal. And the moment when John sings “awwwww, she’s got a ticket to ride” is one of the all-time great moments in rock and roll history.

13. Here Comes The Sun from Abbey Road

Can a song feel like sunshine? Yes, it can, and George Harrison is here to prove it. This is my favorite George song (though it runs into some stiff competition from a number of his solo songs) and it’s just one of those tunes that’s guaranteed to make you feel good no matter what. It gets the full Beatle treatment, with some fine drumming by George and those glorious handclaps. I really enjoy George when he is just a little less serious, and just expresses joy at being alive (which is why, as much as I like his first couple solo albums, I think my favorites might be the ones from the 80s: Gone Troppo and Cloud Nine, where he’s just having a blast with his music).

A thought about album placement: Abbey Road was designed to be an LP where you would have to, physically, get up and turn the record over (imagine that!). In that context, there was something significant about moving past the thunderstorming coda of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and into the sunlight of Side Two. The same effect holds true on the CD, but I sometimes think it comes a little too quickly. The time it took to change the record provided a little breathing room, an intermission, between the changing of the seasons.

12. She Said She Said from Revolver

Everything that made the middle-period great is here to be found, including but not limited to: the almost overpowering lead guitar, great drumming, psychedelic imagery, experimentation while still keeping a firm grip on writing great tunes. Oh, and the seamless amalgamation of two completely different songs into one perfect whole. Who would ever have guessed that the sunny little fragment “when I was a boooooooyyyyyy, everything was right” would turn out to be exactly what was needed to complete a song about a terrifying drug trip. No one but these boys and that’s why they’re the biggest band of all-time. One final note: check out the way the pace of the drums quickens substantially in the last 20 seconds. It creates a fascinating double-effect of a fadeout that, at the same time, heightens the adrenaline rush of an already overwhelming song.

11. Rain from Past Masters, Vol 2

This, even more than “Octopus’s Garden” is Ringo’s shining moment with The Beatles. Just listen to that drumming! Next time anyone tries to tell you that Ringo wasn’t any good, play this song at them and they’ll shut up right quick. Everyone else shows up to play as well, with some great guitar-work, and probably their most seamless piece of studio trickery. Other songs might be more complex, but the backwards vocals are perfectly integrated, such that they feel entirely organic. And the whole song feels like a tidal wave. I know it’s a cliche to call something punchy, but I’m not talking about a little punch, I’m talking about flat-on-your-back, wake-me-up-next-week punchy. I’m not sure you could do any better with the technology we’ve got now. Oh, and there’s some great lyrics from John, one of his best efforts at social commentary minus the heavy-handedness. Anyways, how is this song not more famous? If you haven’t heard it, go out and buy a copy of the Past Masters volume 2 today. You won’t regret it.

10. All You Need Is Love from Magical Mystery Tour

Sure, it sounds a little silly in this cynical day and age. And sure, it probably sounded a little too starry-eyed even at the time. But who cares? Maybe love alone isn’t enough, but we have to believe that it’s possible. At some point in the Anthology, one of them (probably Paul) commented that one of the great things about The Beatles is that, at their core, they sang songs about love and joy and positive things. And this is the best of them all.

This song was written specially to be broadcast on the first ever global satellite transmission. Over 300 million people watched as the biggest band in the world told them that love was enough. That such a thing could even occur gives me some hope. It opens with the theme from La Marseillaise, which adds a perfect amount of international flare (and also calls to mind the glorious scene in Casablanca when Victor Lazlo leads the crowd in a rendition of this song to drown out the Nazis). Other highlights include deceptively simple lyrics from John: “nothing you can know that isn’t known, nothing you see that isn’t shown, there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be…it’s easy” and a fantastic outro with the “love is all you need” the playful horns, and that transcendental moment when out of the swirling sounds emerges “she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” It all comes full circle…

And speaking of favorite movie scenes, one of the most heart-wrenching is in the Imagine movie when this song plays as the whole world mourns his death. There’s one moment when you can see someone singing along at the top of her lungs with tears streaming down her face. The magic of John is that it doesn’t seem the least bit silly for her to feel that way.

9. A Day In The Life from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

It’s the quintessential song from the quintessential album. I cannot possibly do justice to it, so I’ll shy away from any attempt to speak about what’s really going on here and instead simply mention a few highlights.

To begin with, any discussion of this song is, by law, required to mention both of the following. 1. The interplay between John and Paul. In some ways, this song is the mirror image of “We Can Work It Out.” Here, the primary verse is John’s eerie accounts of the “the news today,” while Paul supplies his own completely distinct song for the bridge. For a brief moment, we move from abstraction to the concrete, from the gauzy texture of John’s section to the smoother, lighter feel of Paul’s, from the bizarrely mundane events of the world “out there” to the bizarrely mundane events of one’s own life. 2. The orchestra. They brought in 41 people who clearly had no idea what they were in for. For that huge buildup, they were left completely on their own, apart from the general instruction to get from the lowest note to the highest by the end of the 24 bars. It is fascinating to listen to all the instruments rising, but each at their own pace. And then, after an almost unimaginable build-up, that final piano note, lasting over 40 seconds as they turn the volume up higher and higher to catch the fading hum.

Apart from those, can we talk for a second about the sound of the song? Delightfully off-kilter, particularly in Paul’s bridge, the piano, the drums, and the bass do everything in their power to keep you off balance. John’s voice is another highlight, as if broadcast from another plane of existence through some twisting of space and time around a dimension we can’t even understand. I could go on and on but the more I do the more I’ll have to beat myself up for ranking it this low, so I’d better be on my way.

8. Yesterday from Help!

This is justifiably one of the most famous songs of all time. Every detail is done exactly right. Holding off on the entrance of the strings until the second verse: perfect. The descending notes at the end of the second bridge (“now I long for yester…day…ay…ay…ay”): perfect. Perfect craftsmanship, perfect songwriting, perfect singing. Such sadness, such aching loss, it’s a portrait of a heart that is breaking, as sophisticated as any novel could be. I would say that there’s no point in me even describing the song since if you haven’t heard it you clearly have been living on Neptune since 1965, but I have a good friend who insisted that she had never heard this song until I played it for her. No joke.

7. Help! from Help!

It bursts out of your speakers with that opening “Help!” and then launches into the very best of their upbeat rockers. John turns in yet another fantastic vocal performance, but Paul and George do just fine for themselves as well. Have you ever noticed the variations in the backing harmonies? At times, they’re singing along with John, at times they’re following behind him, at times they’re a step ahead. I really think it’s a big part of what makes the song sound so unique, and what gives it such a broad scope.

The standard line is that The Beatles exclusively wrote love songs until their turn toward more prosaic topics with Rubber Soul and Revolver. But this song predates that shift and is only in the barest sense a ‘love song.’ You could certainly read “I do appreciate you being round” is a romantic sentiment, but in retrospect there is no reason to think so. This is a song about finding yourself to not be sufficient for the tasks you face, and reaching out for help, for support in getting your life together. That could be romantic, but it’s really much broader. It’s also incredibly brave. It’s hard to admit that you’re scared and that you don’t have all the answers, especially if you’re a rock star on top of the world.

6. For No One from Revolver

“The day breaks, your mind aches, you find that all her words of kindness linger on when she no longer needs you.” Who starts a song like that? That’s just amazing. And then there’s the French Horn solo, which for 14 seconds proves that there is a God, and he was caught on tape in the Abbey Road studio in 1966. And then the horn returns to break your heart all over again, joining with Paul for the beginning of the final verse. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, there’s the haunting piano and the light touch of the bass. I love “Yesterday,” obviously, but I really think this is the definitive song about heartbreak and loss.

5. Let It Be from Let It Be

There’s a part of me that knows the song is a little too sappy, overwrought, and overdone. But there’s a much stronger part that just doesn’t care. It’s so good it has every right to be over the top. You couldn’t go wrong with any of the versions, but my favorite is the one on the original Let It Be for the most organic sounding of the various solos, for the backing “ooooooooooos,” and for that moment about a minute and a half in when the song explodes. My absolute favorite is when Paul sings “I wake up to the sound of music…” Somehow it just seems to be enough. No matter the trouble, you wake up to the sound of music and you know that you can go on.

4. Penny Lane from Magical Mystery Tour

This is the song I rely on to make me happy no matter what the circumstances. When my grandfather died, I listened to this song on repeat for hours–it was the only thing that kept me from feeling like the whole world was slipping out from under me. When things are getting me down, this is what I hold in reserve. I always know that if I haven’t had to put on “Penny Lane” yet, it can’t really be that bad. More than anything else, it’s the sound of Paul’s voice. It’s like he’s smiling the whole way through the song. The bouncing bass and the churning piano help, too. And then there’s the glorious trumpet which, like on “For No One” has its solo in the sun, but returns later in the song to lend a hand for the climax. But that voice. That’s what it’s all about.

Regarding the “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” single, it’s common for people to declare it the conclusive proof that Paul is an entertainer while John is an artist. This is usually phrased in a value-neutral way, but the subtext is almost always to declare that John is more sophisticated and “Penny Lane,” for all of the pleasure one has in listening to it, was not as ground-breaking or as forward-looking. In my opinion, that’s just plain silly. “Penny Lane” is every bit as nuanced, every bit the work of art that “Strawberry Fields” is, and it has the added benefit of sounding like laughter, like a warm afternoon in the park, like every friend you haven’t seen in a decade but run into on the street, like getting off a plane and seeing your loved ones. He sketches all of these characters, reveals their foibles and silliness, their strangeness, but only gives us just enough to understand how little we understand. And we come to realize that the point is not to understand, but simply to love without cause, to accept without knowledge. Rather than trying to seek out, to identify, to control, we let the world wash over us, and accept it as “very strange.”

3. In My Life from Rubber Soul

Is there a more beautiful love song in existence? “But of all these friends and lovers, there is no one compares with you.” The romance is so powerful because it is not overwhelming or effusive. It is not simply a song on the theme of “gee, you’re swell” – in John’s musings on the importance of memories and the past, he comes to the slow realization that this moment, this time with one particular person, is the best of times. We tend to romanticize the past, and the present always seems to slip away from us. It is sometimes hard to take stock and recognize true wonder and happiness when it is being lived.

Many of the traditional Beatles tricks are at play here. There is John’s double-tracked voice, intimate and tender, and Paul joins in on every other line. Also, three songs in the top 10 share a “classical” instrumental interlude (the horn solo on “For No One,” the piccolo trumpet on “Penny Lane” and the piano on this song). Of the three, this one is my favorite. George Martin recorded it slower and then speeded up the tape to give it the dancing, baroque feel we all know so well.

2. Hey Jude from Past Masters, Vol 2

This has been my favorite Beatles song since I was about 10 years old, to the point where it was almost instinct: “what’s your favorite Beatles song?” “Hey Jude, of course.” I’ve sort of been dreading the arrival of the top 10 because I knew it was going to force me to really think about whether it was still true. “Hey Jude” has been there for me for my whole life, an institution, and foundation for my whole being. But still, there comes a time to say goodbye, and in doing so, to move on to the next stage of your life. It’s kind of the whole point of the song after all: “Hey Jude don’t let me down, you have found her, now go and get her.” So I know in the grand scheme of things, where I rank a song by The Beatles doesn’t really matter that much, but it’s symbolic. It’s about recognizing that people can change, that beauty can be discovered in new places, and that holding onto the past for its own sake is silly.

As for what makes this song so great, I think everyone knows. Even the most emphatic of the Paul-bashers have to admit the purity, the genius of this song. Starting with Paul, alone at his piano, and slowly bringing in backing elements to reach a stunning crescendo, and then sustaining that climax for the final four minutes of the song. The drums come in at the perfect moment, but (like many great elements of Beatles songs) this was serendipity. Ringo was in the bathroom when this take began and had to rush back; he enters the fray several measures past the original plan–yet it works perfectly. This song also features the glorious harmonies that just leave my heart in a puddle on the floor (seriously, you can take the Beach Boys, you can take the Everly Brothers, you can take ’em all – I’ll take The Beatles for my harmonies). And then the whole monumental four minute outro. It is transcendent–the ‘na na na’s burrow into your soul and you achieve a deep and abiding inner peace. Meanwhile Paul is going nuts with his extemporaneous screams, and the background music only continues to grow. This was their biggest selling single, and rightly so.

1. The Abbey Road Medley (You Never Give Me Your Money/Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through The Bathroom Window and Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End) from Abbey Road

So here we are. I’m sure it will frustrate many to list a strange brew of half-songs and snippets as the greatest song by the greatest band in the history of music. But I can only speak the truth that speaks itself to me.  And that truth is simple. It says that here, with this medley, we stand atop the mountain. This is the point from which we can look down and survey the entire history of rock and roll, and pronounce it to have been good.

Three of these songs (“You Never Give Me Your Money,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” and “The End”) would fit comfortably in the top 20 on their own, but the broad scope provides time for dramatic ebbs and flows. The three form the backbone of the broader work as the start, the end, and the climactic moment in the middle. But the other songs provide background, dramatic progression, and (in some cases) breathing room. In its totality, the medley is the clearest proof in existence that the whole may not only be greater than the sum of its parts, but may transcend them to such an extent that it becomes something completely different.

Paul is in charge, but everyone gets their moment in the sun. Ringo’s drumming is fantastic–explosive and strong (check out “…Bathroom Window”), and he gets his one drum solo to shine. All three guitarists trade licks on “The End” demonstrating that these boys knew how to rock and roll as well as anyone. John is at his playful best on “Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam.”

“You Never Give Me Your Money” sets the stage, with its own mini-arc, a story that would make Springsteen proud, of what happens when nothing is left but everything is possible: “one sweet dream came true today…” However, this is only the introduction, themes are introduced but not fulfilled, the stage is filled, but the story is left to tell. Next is “Sun King” to dial down the tension, to provide a buffer before the rambunctious energy of the next three tracks. It’s by far the weakest song of the medley, though it is not terrible by any stretch and does serve its purpose well.

“Mean Mr. Mustard had been floating around since 1968 and was drafted into service here, and John decided his sister really ought to be named “Pam,” adding just another touch of continuity. These two songs just build and build, “Mustard” being drive by that fuzz guitar and “Pam” by Ringo’s powerful drumming and the interplay between the rhythm and lead guitars. “Bathroom Window” was recorded in a single take with “Polythene Pam,” and, as such, they share essentially the same backing track. However, where “Pam” was a fragment of a song, this is the complete package. In fact, it hardly makes sense to consider “Mustard” and “Pam” as anything but the setup for this song. Together, they form a movement of the medley and build towards the first climax.

If they had ended at this point, it would have been perfectly adequate. Still, it finishes rather abruptly, suggesting that we are meant to read this ending as a false climax. Many of the loose ends have been tied up, but the final chapter is still to come.

That is provided by the second act. We return, as the medley began, with the soft strains of the piano. “Golden Slumbers” carries the feel of a lullaby, but quickly expands, blossoming into “Carry That Weight” a song which I can’t help but associating with “Hey Jude” (“don’t carry the world upon your shoulders” – “boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time). The long progression of the medley is given clarity by the inclusion of a reprise from the very beginning (“I never give you my pillow, I only send you my invitation”).

And it ends, of course, with “The End” as each of the players is given his chance to come out, take a bow, and play for us one last time. The tension grows and grows with each new guitar riff until it can go no further, the storm lifts, and out of the chaos and the madness emerges a single, clear note on the piano. And we have emerged on the far side, the far side of life, of death, of love and pain, of all that we have ever known. Here, the only thing left to say is “and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” John later described this as one of Paul’s best, a “cosmic line,” and so it is.

This is the conclusion to their final album, and it is a fitting end. Soon after, John would declare “the dream is over” but he was wrong. The dream is still alive in every who has a copy of Abbey Road, who can listen to the conclusion to the greatest album by the greatest band in history–a band splitting apart at the seams, but who held it together long enough to create their masterpiece, and to give us all one last goodbye.

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It was fifty years ago today: Sgt. Pepper and the Rise of the Counterculture

Today is the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the United States. In a country as large and diverse as this one, there will never be a true moment of national unity. But June 2, 1967 is about as close as you can ever hope to get.

In honor of the anniversary, I’m re-posting something I wrote back in college, on the relationship between The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper, and the rise of the counterculture. Apologies for the roughness of the prose; I was only 20 when I wrote it!

Sgt. Pepper and the Rise of the Counterculture

When the magazine Rolling Stone published its 20th anniversary celebration issue ranking the top 100 albums of that period, it came as no surprise to anyone that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was given the top billing.[1] The album “tops polls time and time again”[2] as the greatest album in rock history, even as many Beatles aficionados consider it to be, at best, one equal among many in the group’s output. But for the wider audience, there is less question. It’s Sgt. Pepper first, and all others second. Understanding why requires digging beneath the surface, to explore the album as a phenomenon, not simply as a collection of songs. In particular, one must be attentive to the cultural milieu in which the record dropped, a milieu that both shaped the experience of the album, and was also shaped by it.

As the role of hippies slowly grew in American society, the Beatles were increasingly drawn to the values of the counterculture, experimenting with drugs and promoting love. Sgt. Pepper reflected this change of perspective. Its songs were about expansion of the mind and soul, rejection of materialism, and dropping out of mainstream society. In this sense, the record marked a change in popular culture. But it was no mere passive observer. We still hail this record today less for what it reflected than for what it made possible. By exposing the mainstream to the values of the counterculture and by breaking all the rules about what a ‘rock album’ could do, Sgt. Pepper opened up whole new worlds.

The effect was only possible because a society existed against which the record could be placed–a society marked by a powerful postwar liberal consensus, which was beginning to stretch and fray. The Beatles did not initiate any of these changes. And yet, by dropping this transformative record at a moment of peak transition at the start of the ‘summer of love’ in 1967, they gave voice and expression to a diverse set of interests. Perhaps the blaze would have begun inevitably, but at the very least, Sgt. Pepper was a match thrown onto the waiting fire that helped to set it off.

Its release has been described as a “decisive moment in the history of Western Civilization,” and this is only modest hyperbole.[3] Its release, the fanfare, the wild anticipation, the joyful promulgation…these all finally clued in millions around the world to the changes that were underfoot. And in doing so, the record permanently expanded the cultural horizons of modernity.

The early 1960s: From Camelot to Candlestick Park

On February 9, 1964 one of the most important events of the first half of the decade took places in millions of homes across America simultaneously. Approximately 73 million people watched the Beatles make their American debut on the Ed Sullivan show.[4] Within the next few months, the country had progressed from never having heard of the band to near obsession. The adulation evoked by these four young men from Liverpool is evident in the screaming girls who drowned out the music in concerts and in the immediate integration of the mop-top haircut into contemporary fashion, but is most clearly evident in record sales. By April of 1964, “their records filled the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth positions on Billboard’s singles chart. Meet the Beatles, their first American album on Capitol, quickly became the fastest- and largest-selling LP in the history of the United States.”[5] Critics claimed that the Beatles were merely a fad, but their popularity increased with the summer release of the movie A Hard Day’s Night and the accompanying album. All told, the Beatles charted six number one singles and an astonishing seventeen top 25 songs during 1964.

Still, while the chart statistics are interesting, they tell only a small portion of the story. The Beatles were not merely the most popular band of the year.  Their emergence into the collective consciousness of America in early 1964 signified a qualitative change, as well as a quantitative one. In the words of Greil Marcus, it was a “pop explosion…an irresistible cultural explosion that cuts across lines of class and race.”[6] At another time, perhaps this effect would have been muted. But at the moment in which they arrived, the country was primed. Moreover, this pop explosion quickly transcended the boundaries of social interactions and became inextricably tied to the shifting currents of political change, both influencing and being influenced by politics.

In early 1964 the country was facing political divisions of an unprecedented scope. Civil rights protests were nearly at their peak, students around the country were beginning to think about activism, anti-nuclear groups like the Women’s Strike for Peace had leveraged their muscles to ensure ratification of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and had begun pushing for constrains on the nuclear arms race. Amidst all these tensions, Americans had their dream of Camelot shattered with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, an event which bordered on cataclysmic. The presidency was incredibly important at the dawn of the sixties. As Hodgson explains, “The years of consensus were also the high summer of the cult of the presidency.”[7] The youthful John Kennedy, in particular, embodied and exemplified the optimistic spirit prevalent at the beginning of the decade. He stood for change, the perfectibility of America, and unlimited potential. Of course, it is important to remember that the myth of Camelot only truly came into existence after Kennedy’s death. Kennedy received only 49.7 of the vote, but after his assassination, 65 percent of those surveyed claimed to have voted for him. In death, he became a martyr, who even his political opponents could not help but grieve.[8] His death forced the citizens of America to confront the possibility of breakdown of social structures. Kennedy had been a figurehead for America. When he was taken away, many Americans were plunged into disquiet.

It was in this atmosphere that the Beatles appeared. To a society searching desperately for something to unite the nation, they became a lifeline. Collective anxiety over race tensions and the loss of Kennedy “made American youth uniquely vulnerable to Beatlemania…. what Beatlemania achieved for many young people was a restoration of the feelings of hope and sheer intensity that many feared had died forever with John Kennedy.”[9] The arrival of the Beatles demonstrated that an overwhelming sense of optimism still reigned supreme in America. In fact, it reached its true height in the years following during the Johnson administration. Kennedy’s death had tempered that optimism but not destroyed it. Having looked into the abyss, most Americans still felt secure in the future of America. Many were simply waiting for an excuse to discover something positive, to end the time of mourning. The Beatles provided that excuse.[10] Like Kennedy, they embodied charisma and the triumph of youth. Also like Kennedy, they quickly were placed on a pedestal and their fashion choices were emulated. The Beatles were the new role models and recipients of undying adulation. A reporter for the Berkeley Barb who attended a Beatles concert compared the event to a virgin sacrifice in its intensity. The girls pelted the band with jelly beans, which they had mentioned liking in passing. The band members seemed “aware of the danger and were being careful not to look at any group for too long—for fear of a rush.”[11]

This political and cultural symbolism of the Beatles was important, but it was only made possible in conjunction with the musical revolution they initiated. No matter how cute Paul McCartney looked on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles would have lived out the promise of being nothing more than a flash in the pan if they had not been capable musically. Indeed, they were more than capable; their arrival in America signaled a sea change on the face of popular music virtually unprecedented in history.[12] Several factors contributed to this effect. First, the music itself was a level beyond almost anything else available. It was both more complex and more catchy, “and like nothing we had ever heard. It was joyous, threatening, absurd, arrogant, determined, innocent and tough, and it drew the line of which Dylan was to speak: ‘This was something that never happened before.’”[13] Second, the Beatles wrote almost all of their own music, something few rock bands had even attempted before. Not only did they write their own music, all four sang. For the first time, rock and roll experienced a group dynamic that lent power beyond the individual capabilities of each member.

Third, and most importantly, they appealed to everyone. The group dynamic was a primary factor contributing to this universal appeal. As Greil Marcus explains:

the sum of the Beatles was greater than the parts, but the parts were so distinctive and attractive that the group itself could be all things to all people, more or less; you did not have to love them all to love the group, but you could not love one without loving the group, and this was why the Beatles became bigger than Elvis; this was what had never happened before.

In addition, the broad range of music played by the Beatles meant that they were the most popular ‘boy band’ in history, without losing the more intellectual audience. The music was catchy which brought the young on board, but it was also the most sophisticated fare offered in popular music at the time. The ability to unite fans of multiple genres around one band gave them tremendous power to incorporate traditionally excluded elements into rock and roll. As they did so, the genre itself was forced to grow. After all, the Beatles exemplified rock music. If they played a 12-string guitar (George Harrison’s main instrument on A Hard Day’s Night) or sitar (“Norwegian Wood”), or if they released a traditional ballad accompanied by strings and one acoustic guitar (“Yesterday”) the public simply concluded that rock music had to be expanded to include these facets. Bob Dylan was popular but it wasn’t until John Lennon began experimenting with Dylanesque music (“I’m a Loser” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” for example) that it became clear folk music could also be rock music.[14] Moreover, the band did not rest comfortably with their dominance—the name of the game was constant innovation and exploration. Rubber Soul and Revolver, released in late 1965 and mid 1966 respectively, possessed a sound and coherence that would have been virtually unimaginable two short years earlier. The Beatles were “mak[ing] history by anticipating it”[15] and the rest of the world was along for the ride.

However, even as they were on top of the world, cracks were beginning to show. After more than two years of being constantly on the road, recording, and writing, the members of the band were exhausted.[16] Touring had become a chore. They had begun creating music that could not be easily reproduced in concert, particularly not when the screaming fans drowned out every other sound so that even the Beatles themselves could not hear their own instruments. Indeed, they did not play a single song from Revolver in any concert, despite the fact that it was released in the midst of their final tour.[17] Adding to their problems, before the tour Lennon made a comment that the Beatles had become “more popular than Jesus”[18] sparking outrage and backlash, particularly in the Christian South, where Beatles records were burned en masse and their shows boycotted. The Beatles were beginning to recognize the price that accompanies status as a cultural icon—they were misinterpreted, misunderstood, and hounded for interviews. The summer tour of 1966 was played almost entirely in stadiums not designed with any thought to the acoustics of a rock concert. The tour culminated in the show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29, 1966. It was the last concert they would ever play.[19]

From that point on, the Beatles’ music was “sculpted in the studio, with little thought as to whether the songs could be reproduced in concert.”[20] The album that emerged from these studio sessions was quickly deemed sacred ground, an album that almost transcended criticism.[21] In the three decades since, it has held its place at the center of rock and roll. This cannot all be attributed simply to the music. Sgt. Pepper is a superb album, certainly, but divorced from its cultural context it would be a stretch to declare it the best the Beatles had to offer. Indeed, most critics now admit that both technically and musically, Sgt. Pepper does not stand up to other sections of the Beatles catalog (Revolver, the “White” Album, Abbey Road, and Rubber Soul all declared superior by many).[22] Nevertheless, Sgt. Pepper maintains its place on the pedestal. To understand why, it is necessary to appreciate the Beatles not only as a musical group, but also as a cultural phenomenon. As the myth of Camelot began to fade from the American cultural imaginary, a new movement had begun to assert its hold on the minds of Americans, particularly young Americans: the counterculture. Just as the Beatles had tapped into the power of culture in 1964, they let the force of changing values carry Sgt. Pepper further than any album had ever been. Music and rapid social change converged in the Summer of 1967. In terms of its sound, its lyrics, its artwork, and its themes, Sgt. Pepper captures a very particular moment of transition in American history. Divorced from a recognition of this historical context, Sgt. Pepper would have been only have been an excellent album. Instead, it was a phenomenon.[23] In order to understand the album, therefore, one must examine its context. Similarly, if one desires to comprehend the full scope of counterculture, one cannot afford to ignore Sgt. Pepper.

The Crumbling of Consensus and Rise of the Counterculture

The dominant myth of the post-war American society was the liberal consensus. As Hodgson writes: “it is impossible not to be struck by the degree to which the majority of Americans in those years accepted the same system of assumptions.”[24] Among these assumptions were a shared belief that America had achieved the perfect society and all major arguments over ideology had been resolved, an overwhelming confidence in “the omnipotence of American power,”[25] and faith in continued growth as the solution to all potential domestic problems.[26] Parallel to this mood of domestic optimism ran a deep anxiousness about communism in the outside world. If America had achieved internal perfection, the only threat could come from outside. These fears were compounded by the increasingly prevalent belief that Communism was inherently expansionary, explained clearly in George Kennan’s Long Telegram. Kennan argued that the Soviet Union, as a dictatorship, needed continual external conflict to convince the people they were in danger. Out of this fear of the Soviet Union grew the Cold War. [27]

Terry Anderson connects the liberal consensus and ideology of containment to social values in American society by focusing on the overarching notion of security: “The desire for security…created a chilling climate in the nation during the first years of the 1950s—a cold war culture.”[28] The single uniting theme for all aspects of cold war culture was conformity.[29] American society during this time placed a premium on the acceptance of authority in exchange for security, resulting in the privileging collective security over individualism.[30] The specter of McCarthyism quelled virtually all criticism. Even more important than fear, the cultural obsession with removing all square pegs who did not force themselves into round holes gave Americans little room to even discover alternative lifestyles or political choices. The majority of students in college simply did not care about the issues, or if they did care, knew better than to criticize openly for fear of retribution.[31] Those who did not fit into the mold were ignored, passed over for jobs, promotions, and social benefits. The cold war culture infused every layer of society. The parents of the ‘baby-boom’ generation placed unprecedented importance on finding the good life for their children. Having lived through the depression, they saw the new liberal consensus as a means for giving their children chances they had never been offered. Anything that called into question consensus was therefore construed as a threat to the family, the building block of American society.

While these issues played out socially, cold war culture, as the name implies, was created by a particular set of political circumstances. While the feminists would not coin the phrase ‘the personal is political’ until 1969, the concept was well understood much earlier. Indeed, the most important cultural changes of the 1960s were closely tied to the important political changes. Moreover, the opposite side of the same coin—‘the political is personal’—demonstrates how the liberal consensus was able to infuse the entire American society with notions of conformity and authority. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that when the political factors underpinning the consensus began to unravel, the cultural foundations of consensus also frayed.

Probably the most important legacy of the early sixties was the growth of activism, particularly the civil rights movements. By highlighting social inequities, poverty, discrimination, and violence, the civil rights movement called into question the myth of the liberal consensus. A huge portion of America began to reveal themselves as manifestly unable to gain the supposedly universal benefits of growth due to social and political structures. Making this dispossession visible contributed a great deal to the eventual cracking of consensus. Liberals were able to incorporate civil rights in the short term, describing it as a temporary aberration that could be repaired with legislation and government spending on poverty legislation (Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programs). In the long term, however, the civil rights movement’s unwillingness to accept partial solutions in the form of legislation and their demand for equality upset the stable balance that had secured consensus. Authority no longer held sway.

The civil rights movement also played an important role in the formation of the counterculture by providing an outlet for student activism. Civil rights protests taught students that dissent could be effective in creating change, and “served to make them more sensitive of their own civil rights. Problems in society had to be confronted and resolved, not blamed on imaginary subversives or outside agitators, and that called for student activism.”[32] Students who participated in the Freedom Summer in Mississippi returned home with messages of activism and rebellion. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley is the most famous example of the dissemination of dissent throughout mainstream American society. Mario Savio’s famous speech makes these connections clear: “Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the struggle there for civil rights. This fall I am engaged in another phase of the same struggle, this time in Berkeley….The same rights are at stake in both places—the right to participate as citizens in democratic society.”[33] By the mid-sixties, the baby-boom generation had swelled the numbers of students in college to never-before-seen levels. The children of the cold war culture were becoming adults and discovering millions in a similar position. For the first time, they began to recognize the collective power of students to create political change.

While the importance of civil rights and student protests that grew out of the early sixties should not be underestimated, the counterculture did not achieve many gains until the Vietnam war began to take hold of the national consciousness. The first wave of civil rights criticized the liberal consensus to a certain extent, but it also relied on several of consensus’ tropes: optimism for the future, the belief that equality is achievable, the hope that government action could alleviate social problems. Despite a decade of struggle, the liberal consensus was still the defining characteristic of American society in 1965. By 1968, the mood of the country had fundamentally shifted.[34] This rapid change could only have come from the interference of an outside force—in this case, Vietnam.

The first casualty of the war was economic in nature. The cost of funding the war began to take its toll as the engagement dragged on. The air war alone cost thirty billion dollars a year by 1966, and the economy could not keep up, despite promises by economists that Johnson would be able to fund both guns and butter.[35] The rising threat of inflation promised an end to the purportedly infinite growth, even as it required cuts in Johnson’s Great Society programs. It soon became clear to many activists that the gains they had achieved only a year or two before were not set in stone. The recognition that rights were transient and reliant on political tides led many activists to question whether protest or activism had really accomplished anything more than a short reprieve.

Also contributing to disillusionment was the continued escalation of the war. In the eyes of many, the war was immoral and inhumane, waged against a third world country who posed no threat to the United States. An activist wrote: “What’s happening is that a whole generation is starting to say to its parents, ‘You can no longer get us to kill & be killed for your uptight archaic beliefs.”[36] However, despite countless protests, anti-war marches, and demands for change, more troops were sent over every month and violence continued to escalate. For the first time, activism had failed to produce any noticeable response. Many began to question whether the system could be changed. Young people who opposed the war were therefore faced with a choice, “A young man could either go along with the establishment and join the military, fight the machine by protesting and resisting the draft, or drop out. The first two had not stopped the war.”[37] A small but important minority changed tactics, abandoning protest, and instead electing to ‘drop out’—rejecting mainstream values in entirety.[38] While the number of dissidents was small, their defiance posed a significant threat to the consensus of mainstream values. These few formed the basis for the counterculture which eventually grew to affect all of American society.

Even those who did not entirely separate themselves from the mainstream were forced to reconsider their tactics and the purpose of their struggle. The war made clear the interconnections between violence in the third world, violence in Mississippi, and the suppression of participatory democracy throughout the country. Criticism began to focus on broader questions. Instead of protesting about single issues, activists called into question the entire structure of American capitalism and democracy. Youths were increasingly alienated from liberal values. In The Making of a Counter-Culture Theodore Roszak, both a participant in and a reporter on the counterculture,[39] documents this time. A complex combination of social, economic, and political factors together formed the technocracy, “that social form in which an industrial society reaches the peak of its organizational integration.”[40] As young people began to see these interconnections and the system behind them, a new consciousness began to emerge, uniting students and hippies in their common distaste for the technological and material obsession that dominates industrial societies.

These cultural forces were not entirely new. The Beats in the 1950s rejected rampant conformity and the loss of individualism. However, the beats were oppositional and reactionary, opposed to particular components of American society. In contrast, members of the counterculture in the late sixties were opposed to the central and essential nature of cold war culture and proposed an entirely new set of values and social arrangements. For example, rather than protesting Vietnam, hippies were concerned with shantih, “the peace that passes all understanding, and fills in the psychic dimensions of the ideal. If investigating the life of shantih has little to do with achieving peace in Vietnam, perhaps it is the best way of preventing several Vietnams from happening.”[41] In response to the alienation inherent in mainstream society, they proposed that individuals search within themselves, claiming that “the greatest battlefield of them all is right within you, in that treasure-room called consciousness.”[42] The effort to expand consciousness led many to experiment with a variety of mind-altering substances.[43] Drugs also served a means of blocking out modern society. Hippies often adopted a much more open conception of love and sex, claiming that traditional prudery inhibited “free love out of wedlock, any time, without guilt.”[44] In contrast, they proposed a simple model for making decisions: ‘if it feels good, do it.’ Unable to find an atmosphere conducive to these ideals, many began to flee their parents, and “by the end of the decade about 800,000 young Americans were traveling in Europe while over a million were thumbing throughout the nation.”[45] Of course, the counterculture cannot be pigeonholed. Many people considered themselves to be participants in the counterculture without adopting all, or even most, of these ideas. Indeed, a defining characteristic of the counterculture was its defiance of easy categorization and fluidity of membership. Still, the common theme that ran through all countercultural experiences was an “emphasis on recapturing direct, immediate, and uncontaminated bodily and sensory experience.”[46] For these people, contemporary existence was not genuine. Too mediated by consumerism and cold war culture, Americans were unable to experience life to its fullest.

The emergence of the counterculture took place gradually—there is no date on which one can declare that the counterculture was born—but it is clear that by the beginning of 1967, the tensions had reached a fever pitch. Amidst one of the most tumultuous years in American history, the political and cultural foundations of consensus began to crack. For many in the sixties generation, 1967 was “the moment when their own youth reached a dazzling and careless apogee. Nineteen sixty-seven may have been the year of napalm and sudden death: it was also, for an entire generation, the year of “love,” “peace,” and “flower power.”[47] The counterculture first gained national attention less than a month into the year at the ‘Human Be-In’ in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Nearly twenty thousand hippies, anti-war activists, activists, and other interested parties gathered together to discuss various countercultural themes including love, peace, life, and unity.[48]

This event paved the way for a variety of events and happenings in San Francisco helping to cement that city’s status as the place to go for those interested in the counterculture. The run-down Haight-Ashbury district was settled by hippies and as its fame grew, it was “swelled with the arrival of draft-dodgers, disaffected stu¬dents and social drop-outs by the thousand.”[49] On April 5, Grayline Tours began touring the Haight-Ashbury scene. On April 15 in New York, over 400,000 people gathered for a march from Central Park to the UN protesting the Vietnam war, marked by speeches from Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael and Dr. Spock. The force driving these events was similar: dissatisfaction and frustration with the military-industrial complex. Meanwhile, the United States began air strikes on Hanoi and inflation began to seep into the American economy. Like water piling up behind a damn, the pressure of alienation and discontent in America continued to grow. Still, the counterculture were hardly national news. The pressure may have been building but the dam had not yet burst. A final push was necessary.

Coming to Terms with the Counterculture through Sgt. Pepper

During the chaotic months of early 1967, anticipation over the upcoming Beatles album continued to grow. The double sided “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Fields Forever” single was released on February 17 to critical and popular acclaim. Both songs were introspective looks at Lennon and McCartney’s childhood. “Penny Lane,” a pure pop gem that continued to push musical boundaries with a piccolo trumpet solo, was filled with strange characters: a banker so wedded to his stolid image, he refuses to wear a raincoat despite the taunts, a fireman washing his engine, and a nurse “selling poppies from a tray/And though she feels as if she’s in a play/She is anyway.” “Strawberry Fields Forever” modeled its sound on the ‘heavy’ music which had begun emerging from San Francisco and was filled with psychedelic sounds and imagery overlaid onto cosmic musings. As Lennon later explained: “What I’m saying, in my insecure way, is ‘Nobody seems to understand where I’m coming from. I seem to see things in a different way from most people.’”[50] Both songs were pure brilliance, exemplifying the Beatles movement towards music of the counterculture without abandoning their ability to produce universally popular music. Seeing the single as an example of what was to come, fans waited with baited breath for an entire album.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Sgt. Pepper produced the most hype about a rock album in musical history to that point. The Beatles, the pioneers of the new wave of rock and roll, the band that consistently pushed the envelope, were devoting six months to produce a new album. “Stories began to appear not only in the pop press but in the daily papers. The record, unheard, was everywhere.”[51] When Sgt. Pepper was finally released on June 2 (June 1 in the United Kingdom), the hype only increased. The album more than lived up to its promise, catalyzing millions of people across America and around the world to question their most fundamental assumptions about music, politics, and culture. America was given, for the first time, a sympathetic assessment of countercultural values from prominent spokesmen.

The Beatles had included references to drugs in their previous work but the issue had never received nearly as much attention as was given to the songs on Sgt. Pepper. Drugs took on increasing relevance when Paul McCartney admitted only two weeks after the album’s release that he had taken LSD, shocking the world. Once the announcement was made, people began searching for places on the album where the drug’s influence could be seen. While drugs were mentioned explicitly several times (“I get high with a little help from my friends” and “I’d love to turn you on,” for example), many listeners claimed to have ‘discovered’ dozens of additional allusions. The furor over “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” demonstrates this self-fulfilling prophecy. After the album was released, people noticed that the first letters of the main words in the title spelled LSD. Combined with the psychedelic sound and imagery, many were convinced it was an intentional drug reference. However, Lennon has stated on multiple occasions that it was simply lifted from a drawing his son Julian had shown him. The images were “from Alice in Wonderland. It was Alice in the boat….It was purely unconscious that it came out to be LSD. Until somebody pointed it out, I never even thought of it.”[52] McCartney has confirmed the story, pointing out that he even saw Julian Lennon’s drawing with the title.[53] A host of other drug themes were purportedly discovered including stories “about Henry the Horse being heroin”[54] (despite the fact that Lennon had never even encountered heroin at that point) and claims that “fixing a hole” meant getting a fix with a needle.[55] While no concrete evidence existed that these were ‘drug songs,’ many fans saw them as such. Indeed, since a song only has cultural meaning insofar as it defined by its listeners, they became drug songs regardless of whether they were supposed to be. The Beatles became a vehicle for transmission of the counterculture’s emphasis on drugs, providing an excuse for a cultural revolution even if they had no intention of starting one.

While drug references were important, they often serve to obscure the far more important message of Sgt. Pepper: expansion of the mind. Drugs were one mechanism for personal development, but they were not the only one. When Lennon sang “I’d love to turn you on” what he “really wanted was to turn you on to the truth rather than just bloody pot!”[56] Indeed, if the album has any ‘theme’ it is this: turning their listeners on to the truth of alienation and the destruction of identity in modern society. It was a deliberate provocation intended to call into question the entirety of modern society, the Vietnam war, and people’s refusal to understand reality. “Fixing a Hole” was not a drug song; instead it was about finding the strength to say no to “all those pissy people who told you, ‘Don’t daydream, don’t do this, don’t do that.’ It seemed to me that that was all wrong and that it was now time to fix all that. Mending was my meaning. Wanting to be free enough to let my mind wander.”[57] Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” spoke to a reality existing beyond the individual that could only be reached by spirituality. Denying the Western vision of the individual as a consumer and possessor of property it declared: “And to see you’re really only very small/And life flows on within you and without you.”

Implicit in this attempt to expand the mind were the quintessential counterculture messages: love, happiness, and fun. Spontaneity was privileged over ordered life. Order was seen as little more than condemnation to drudgery. The Beatles drew out these values by painting everyday objects, people, and values in magical terms. As McCartney says: “We always liked to take those ordinary facts of northern working-class life, like the clock, and mystify them and glamorise them and make them into something more magical.”[58] Fixing a leak, going on a date with a meter maid, and heading to the show to see Henry the Horse dance a waltz all took on a supernatural quality under the influence of the Beatles lyrics and sound. As Allen Ginsberg stated: “After the apocalypse of Hitler and the apocalypse of the Bomb, there was here an exclamation of joy and what it is to be alive. . . . They have decided to be generous to Lovely Rita, or to be generous to Sgt. Pepper himself, turn him from an authority figure to a figure of comic humor, a vaudeville turn.” [59]

No countercultural idea was left untouched. Free love and decreasing inhibitions about sex were dealt with in “Lovely Rita,” a song about lust for a meter maid who is “an easy lay,”[60] closed with the sounds of a simulated orgasm. In addition, it called attention to changing gender roles (Rita pays the bill). The thousands of children who ran away from home and dropped out were given center stage in “She’s Leaving Home.” McCartney wrote the song after reading in the newspaper about a girl who had left home, a perfect example of art imitating life. The poignant “lyrics struck a particular chord at a time when unprecedented numbers of young people were running away from home, heading for communes and squats, setting up home together with lovers, going on the hippie trail.”[61] The “suburban torpor”[62] of everyday life in the technocracy was skewered in “Good Morning, Good Morning.” The first line casually writes off a man on death’s door. The theme continues to develop as the song “casts a jaundiced eye on the banalities and everyday tragedies of modern urban life.”[63] Few songs have better drawn out the numbness of modern life. However, the pulsing sound and sly irony in Lennon’s voice suggests that even amidst the drudgery of the depersonalized modern life, one can find hope. Each verse concludes with the line, “I’ve got nothing to say but it’s okay,” a message that the problem is not middle class life, but rather people’s obsession with finding order.

This theme was continued in the wide range of ‘rules’ broken and new ground explored by the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper. Because they had abandoned touring, the members of the band could experiment with studio tricks to a significantly greater extent than ever before. Sounds that had never been heard before on a rock album included the 24 bar pastiche on “A Day in the Life” where an orchestra was invited but given virtually no guidance—they were merely instructed to start with their instrument’s lowest note and end up with its highest note.[64] “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” sounded like a circus, an effect generated by snipping the master tape into pieces and randomly reassembling it.[65] Spoken words and sounds also adorned the album including the laugh track on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the montage of sounds from the end of “Good Morning, Good Morning.” For the first time, avant-garde art became intertwined with popular music. In addition, a variety of genres was meshed together. “Within You, Without You” drew from Indian music, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)” was a good old-fashioned rocker, and “When I’m Sixty-Four” hearkened to the music of the 1920s. McCartney has described the tune as “very tongue in cheek,”[66] but if anyone other than the Beatles had released the song, the humor would have been difficult to see. The genuine love McCartney felt for old-fashioned schmaltz shone through even as he winked. Before Sgt. Pepper it would have been unimaginable for a rock and roll band to include such music. It soon became clear to those who listened that the ‘rules’ no longer existed and rock music was whatever could be made of it. When the Beatles released the album, it forced the entire country to pay attention to what could be done with music.

The album also paved the way on other fronts. It was the first to run straight through without pauses allowing every song to flow into the next, facilitating the myth that it was a ‘concept’ album. It was the first to come with lyrics printed on the sleeve forcing people to recognize that the words in songs could be genuinely meaningful. The cover itself has become one of the most famous pieces of pop art created in the 20th century. Peter Blake was commissioned to produce it, adorning the record jacket with a mélange of popular figures, political leaders, and counterculture visionaries rubbing elbows with each other. The mass of people invoked the countercultural ideal that everyone could exist together, establishing connections through music. In the corner, one can even see the Beatles themselves (circa early sixties) attending Sgt. Pepper’s concert. With the cover the Beatles declared that they had taken on a new identity: they had become Sgt. Pepper’s Band. This suggested an entirely new conception of identity to listeners. Regardless of social background, race, gender, class, or any other line, one’s identity was alterable and fluid. One need only decide to join the counterculture and it was done. To a generation that had been raised on the notion that background established one’s place and questioning was not allowed, this was a tremendously empowering idea.

Sgt. Pepper and The Catalysis of the Counterculture

Sgt. Pepper was more than a reflection of the counterculture, however; it also became a focal point for the rapid expansion of the counterculture. As Lennon explained, “In a way we’d turned out to be a Trojan Horse….The Fab Four moved right to the top and then sang about drugs and sex.”[67] The Beatles knew they had tremendous power and used that with the direction purpose of trying to “wake up as many people as we could.”[68] Accordingly, the release of Sgt. Pepper was an event of almost unprecedented scale, partly an accident of converging cultural forces, but also coordinated by the Beatles, Brian Epstein, and EMI. By tapping into the tremendous force of alienated youth culture, they created an album capable of changing the world. Aware of the breathtaking achievement they had accomplished in producing Sgt. Pepper, they released the album as a challenge, announcing that it would be made available for airplay a week before the official release date at midnight on Sunday. However, any station which played it even a minute early was threatened with the revoke of all future rights to play the disc. Moreover, Sunday at midnight was hardly an ideal time to attract listeners, especially since most stations traditionally shut down for service at that time. Nevertheless, they played it over and over, many for hours or even days straight. Greil Marcus goes so far as to claim that “Sgt. Pepper, as the most brilliantly orchestrated manipulation of a cultural audience in pop history, was nothing less than a small pop explosion in and of itself. The music was not great art; the event, in its intensification of the ability to respond, was.”[69]

Put simply, the album blew its listeners away. During the summer of 1967, Sgt. Pepper was ubiquitous. Langdon Winner put it well, saying: “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released…For a brief while the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”[70] Everyone was listening which generated, perhaps for the first time, a common ground for discussion about the values and goals of the counterculture. In doing so, it created an outlet for all the pent up energy that had been contained in San Francisco to burst into the national consciousness. Suddenly, the counterculture was not just something that happened to other people, it was the Beatles and therefore it was on the radio all day every day and fused into the mainstream American cultural imagination. A voice had emerged from the chaos to speak for the counterculture, and what had only a month before been nothing more than a loosely affiliated group of fringe youths dissatisfied with mainstream values became a national force.

Inspired by what they learned of the counterculture, hundreds of thousands of people took the opportunity to travel to San Francisco. The Beatles promised enlightenment, love, happiness, and understanding, and their “music became a mirage, receding like the horizon, its myriad sounds crystallized in the need to travel, and keep traveling, westward.”[71] Like a siren song, Sgt. Pepper drew these dissatisfied youth toward San Francisco. This created another shared cultural event—the journey across America. Langdon Winner was one of the many weary travelers: “In each city where I stopped for gas or food—Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend—the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fl. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.”[72] With the help of the Beatles, a variety of social and cultural factors coalesced, and the ‘Summer of Love’ was spawned.

This was possible only because the Beatles were genuine participants in the counterculture. McCartney had visited San Francisco in early 1967, each of the Beatles had been turned on to the drug culture, they had begun to speak out against Vietnam, and they were truly concerned with peace, love, and happiness. Sgt. Pepper could not have existed divorced from its cultural and historical grounding. It was intimately tied to 1967 and the shifting patterns of American and British consciousness. Precisely because it was so dependent on those currents, it became a powerful symbol. As Starr pointed out, “Sgt. Pepper seemed to capture the mood of the year, and it also allowed a lot of other people to kick off from there and to really go for it.”[73] The album and the counterculture were locked in a mutually constitutive embrace—each fed the other, making the combination far more powerful than either would have been alone.

Sgt. Pepper was so useful as a symbol of the counterculture because it stood for radical revision to conventional thinking. No longer could rock and roll be scoffed at as just a trend of the young. Sgt. Pepper was the final proof that the young people won their “biggest bet ever against the supposedly better judgment of [their] elders….[The album] forced even the most skeptical adult critics to admit that rock and roll could be art.”[74] This transformation of the scope of popular music facilitated broader changes in two ways. First, the rapidity of change in a popular medium was staggering. The stagnant arena of popular music had transformed into the cutting edge of creative art in a few short years. For many, this implied that other cultural and political institutions could be fundamentally altered to the same degree. Second, after Sgt. Pepper the working class was able to participate in cultural formation. Sgt. Pepper was a sign that art no longer had to be boring or inaccessible; it could be fun. Nothing could lend more support to the counterculture than the idea that the pursuit of personal development could be achieved without sacrificing pleasure. The line between high and low culture became hazy or disappeared entirely, a landmark accomplishment for alternative lifestyles and cultures.

It should come as no surprise that art ended up playing such an important role in America during the Summer of Love. The line between culture and politics is far more indistinct than often understood. This has been true throughout history, from the role of the bard in Medieval cultures through the racial politics triggered by the infusion of jazz into white culture. However, in the late sixties, the connections became so clear that everyone in America could see the power of music at work. John Sinclair, one of the primary defenders of rock and roll as revolutionary, wrote: “Rock and roll music is one the most vital revolutionary forces in the West—it blows people all the way back to their senses and makes them feel good, like they’re alive again in the middle of this monstrous funeral parlor of western civilization.”[75] If cold war culture and the liberal consensus were intrinsically linked, the damage done to conformity by rock and roll could not help but implicate the political manifestation of consensus. The counterculture spread by music because music was, quite simply, the most important factor in shaping the identity of many baby-boomers. As Morris Dickstein argued, “Though changes in the other arts reveal the sixties and expose its sensibility, rock was the culture of the sixties.”[76] A few quotations from those within the counterculture should demonstrate this point:

“Rock music…is responsible more than any other single factor in spreading the good news”
“Sound, like sex and the magic weed, is a turn-on”
“For our generation music is the most vital force in most of our lives…It’s most beautiful aspect is that it gets to millions of people every day, telling them that they can dance and sing and holler and scream and FEEL GOOD”[77]

Unlike any other revolution in history, the explosion of the counterculture was made possible by the desire to have fun. There was no need to entice followers with talk of class struggle or racial justice. Those were factors, certainly, but for the most part they followed naturally from the desire to feel good. As a band like the Beatles began to instill rock and roll with a political conscience, their listeners were already receptive to the message. Rock and roll was also important insofar as it became a concrete example of what counterculture visionaries strove for. It was not enough to drop out, they argued. Instead, they were interested in what could be created to replace the technocracy. As Lennon explained, “It’s not drop out, it’s drop in and change it.”[78] In the rapidly changing world of popular music, the participants in the counterculture could see alternative futures playing out before their eyes.[79]

The brief flare that was the countercultural revolution was intimately tied to the ebbs and flows of popular culture. The Summer of Love was made possible by the growth of Edenic myths which were by ephemeral and dissipated almost before they had time to form. The Beatles were exemplars of utopianism, “for the sixties were a period that believed in magic and innocence…[and] the Beatles were its most playful incarnation.”[80] This utopianism reached its crest in Sgt. Pepper so it should come as no surprise that this coincided perfectly with the first explosion of the counterculture. The latent power in hippie culture helped shape American culture in a profound way, but, like the Beatles, had mostly dissipated into bickering and lost dreams by the time the seventies began. “I was the dream-weaver but now I’m reborn/I was the walrus, but now I’m John/And so dear friends you’ll just have to carry on/The dream is over” John Lennon sang in 1970 on his first solo album, and the world understood. The dream ended almost before it began, but for a brief moment, the cultural power of the Beatles was able to fundamentally shift the foundations of American culture.

Sgt. Pepper, then, was very much a product of the counterculture, but it also became the impetus for the radical expansion of that culture from a fringe group to mainstream America. This dialectic generated a positive feedback loop, where the counterculture gained power from popular art and art gained relevance from its role as a recorder of change. This feedback reached a fever pitch in 1967, creating a tremendous well to be tapped. At this historic moment the most popular band in the world had just produced their masterpiece, a timely reaction to the events swirling around them. Sgt. Pepper was not entirely unique. In a sense, it merely echoed the values, assumptions, shared notions of identity felt by tens of thousands of people in the mid-Sixties. However, it was unique in the effects it generated. Before Sgt. Pepper was released, the forces building in San Francisco were primed but lacking the spark to start the fire. With its release, an entire generation recognized the magic of the era captured for eternity in 45 minutes of music. Hundreds of thousands were then inspired to live out the Beatles vision. The movement grew into a profoundly political role, but many of its roots can be found in the profoundly cultural act of listening to a rock album. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that because of the Beatles, millions were able to encounter alternative cultures and thus find their political selves.

[1] “Rolling Stone Lists,” no date listed, <>
[2] Gary Finn, “This Week’s List Of The Top Albums Of The Century,” The Independent, December 30, 1999, 5
[3] Philip Norman, Shout: The Beatles in Their Generation, (New York : Simon and Schuster, 1981), 290
[4] Mark Hertsgaard, A Day in the Life : The Music and Artistry of the Beatles, (New York : Delacorte Press, 1995), 66
[5] Charles Kaiser, 1968 In America : Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation, (New York : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988), 197
[6] Greil Marcus, “The Beatles,” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by J. Miller, (New York: Random House, 1976), 175
[7] Godfrey Hodgson, America In Our Time: From World War II to Nixon What Happened and Why, (New York : Vintage Books, 1976), 99
[8] Hodgson 5
[9] Kaiser 197
[10] Paul Kohl, “A Splendid Time Is Guaranteed For All: The Beatles As Agents Of Carnival,” Popular Music and Society, Winter, 1996
[11] Patricia Oberhaus, “Artist Tells of Virgin Rites at Beatle Bacchanal,” Berkeley Barb, Vol. 1, No. 5, September 10, 1965
[12] The only event remotely similar is the growth of rock and roll in the early 1950s. That, however, was not controlled so completely by a single person or band. Even Elvis only popularized the genre but did not fundamentally alter it.
[13] Marcus 175
[14] Marcus 178
[15] Marcus 176
[16] Harrison points out in the Beatles Anthology that after Candlestick Park, the Beatles had played over 1400 shows in the previous five years. The band was exhausted and simply looking for relief. Beatles Anthology, (San Francisco : Chronicle Books, 2000), 229
[17] Steve Turner, A Hard Day’s Write, (New York : HarperCollins, 1994), 99
[18] Lennon, Beatles Anthology 223
[19] excepting, of course, the concert from the rooftop on January 30, 1969. Beatles Anthology 321
[20] Turner 99
[21] Robert Christgau, “Secular Music,” Esquire, December, 1967, 283. Christgau felt it necessary to defend Richard Goldstein’s choice to give Sgt. Pepper a bad review, describing the universal castigation Goldstein had faced for daring to criticize.
[22] Carl Schonbeck, ““STATING POINTS OF VIEW”…SGT. PEPPER AT 35,” 2002,
[23] Schonbeck
[24] Hodgson 67. For a detailed discussion of the liberal conensus, see Hodgson 67-98
[25] David Halberstram, “To Achieve a Victory” ” in Major Problems In the History of the Vietnam, McMahon (Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1995), 226
[26] David Schmitz, “LBJ and the Liberal Consensus,” in Lecture Notes, 10/6/00
[27] Schmitz, 10/6/00
[28] Terry Anderson, The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee, (New York : Oxford University Press, 1995), 15 (italics in original)
[29] Schmitz 10/6/00
[30] Anderson 17
[31] Anderson 18
[32] Anderson 100
[33] Mario Savio, “An End to History,” Humanity, no. 2, December, 1964, quoted in America in the Sixties: Right, Left, and Center, A Documentary History, edited by Peter Levy, (Wesport, Conn. : Praeger, 1998), 131
[34] David Schmitz, Consensus Crumbles: The Antiwar Movement, in Lecture Notes, 11/1/00
[35] For example a report from Gardner Ackley, the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, concluded, “Our economy has lots of room to absorb a defense step up.” (Gardner Ackley, letter to Lyndon B. Johnson, 30 July 1965)
[36] Keith Lampe, “From Dissent to Parody,” Liberation, December, 1967, 20
[37] Anderson 247
[38] Schmitz, 11/1/00
[39] Indeed, many credit Roszak with coining the term ‘counterculture’ in the first place.
[40] Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition, (Garden City, New York : Doubleday, 1969), 5
[41] Roszak 66 (italics in original)
[42] Anderson 263
[43] Timothy Leary, The Politics of Ecstasy, (New York : Putnam, 1968)
[44] Anderson 260-261
[45] Anderson 264
[46] Philip Slater, The Pursuit of Loneliness, (Boston, Beacon Press, 1970), 90
[47] Norman 280
[48] Ralph Gleason, San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 1967, 41
[49] Norman 281
[50] John Lennon, quoted in The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, edited by David Sheff, (New York : Playboy Press, 1981), 140
[51] Marcus 176
[52] Lennon, quoted in the Playboy Interviews 161
[53] Paul McCartney, Beatles Anthology 242
[54] Lennon, quoted in the Playboy Interviews 163
[55] Norman 293
[56] Tim Riley, 1988, “A Day in the Life Examined,”
[57] Paul McCartney, quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, edited by Barry Miles, (New York : H. Holt, 1997), 314-315
[58] McCartney, quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now 305
[59] Ginsberg, quoted in Kohl
[60] McCartney, quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now 320
[61] McCartney, quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now 317
[62] McCartney, quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now 320
[63] Hertsgaard 220
[64] Paul McCartney, Beatles Anthology 247
[65] Hertsgaard 218
[66] McCartney, quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now 319
[67] Lennon, quoted in Hertsgaard 198
[68] Harrison, quoted in Hertsgaard 199. That the Beatles knew their strength is made clear in a variety of interviews. For example, Lennon stated, “Changing the lifestyle and appearance of youth throughout the world didn’t just happen – we set out to do it; we knew what we were doing.” (quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now 293)
[69] Marcus 176
[70] Langdon Winner, quoted in Marcus 176
[71] Norman 293
[72] Winner, quoted in Marcus 176. This experience hits close to home. My own family, moving from New England to Seattle, drove across the country during the summer of 1967. My father tells me that he can remember stopping at gas stations all along I-90, from busy metropolitan streets to the dusty plains of Montana, and hearing Sgt. Pepper playing.
[73] Ringo Starr, Beatles Anthology 253
[74] Richard Corliss, “A Beatle Metaphysic,” Commonweal, May 12, 1967, 234. Also see Thomas Thompson, “The New Far-Out Beatles,” Life, June 16, 1967, 100
[75] John Sinclair, “Rock and Roll Is a Weapon of Cultural Revolution,” The Fifth Estate, December, 1968, quoted in Taking it to the Streets: A Sixties Reader, edited by Bloom and Breines, (New York : Oxford University Press, 1995), 301
[76] Morris Dickstein, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (New York : Basic Books, 1977), 185
[77] Anderson 245-246
[78] Lennon, quoted in Hertsgaard 197-198
[79] Sinclair 302-303
[80] Dickstein 210

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To Defend the Rule of Law, Democrats Should Filibuster

I wrote an Op-Ed for the Austin American Statesman about Gorsuch, Garland, and why the Democrats should filibuster.

The presidency of Donald Trump poses significant questions about core principles of American democracy: checks and balances, and the separation of power. A number of lawsuits have already been filed challenging his expansive interpretation of executive power and his administration’s apparent willingness to resist direct court orders. At a moment, when our core Constitutional values may soon be trusted to the care of the Supreme Court, Democrats must challenge the idea that long-standing normative protections against abuse of power can be broken without consequence.

Judge Gorsuch is an excellent jurist, and deserves a fair hearing. If another vacancy opens on the Court, Democrats should give him all the respect and due consideration that he deserves. Until that day, however, they cannot and must not permit a vote.

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The Democratic Party at a Crossroads: Practical Advice for Rebuilding American Democracy

The Democratic Party is at a crossroads . The first two weeks of the Trump administration have catalyzed a powerful wave of protest and political action—the likes of which  haven’t been seen in decades. There was a lot of talk over the past couple years about the possibility of a ‘Tea Party of the left,’ and a lot of doubt that such a thing was possible.

Those doubts are starting to fade. It remains to be seen precisely what this action will actually produce, but there’s no denying the level of energy, or the success it’s already had.

That compares with the institutional Democratic Party, which is agonizingly close to exercising real power, but the distance of just a few votes in the Senate looks like a thousand miles right now.

This disconnect—between a rising movement ready to flex its muscles and an institutional party that simply has no meaningful access to meaningful power—is inevitably going to cause tension. The question for the party is how it wants to respond to that tension.

Option One: Muddling Through

One impulse—one grounded in frustration with the accusations of spinelessness and cowardice—will be to lash out. I sympathize with this impulse. After all, it must be incredibly frustrating to narrowly lose an election of such significance, and to lose partly because your own base simply didn’t turn out in the numbers of the previous cycles. Then, after being stripped of all capacity to affect events, to be called cowards for not doing anything.

To this point, it’s important to note here just how limited the Democrats are. Many people are calling on them to ‘block’ Trump’s nominees, but they simply can’t do that. Even a fully united Democratic caucus would simply watch each nominee sail through on a 52-48 vote. Others are proposing that they utilize the techniques of obstruction to grind things to a halt. There is something to this, but it only goes so far. All of the rules that make such obstruction possible are amendable. Abuse them, and Republicans will simply change the game.

Given these limitations, you can make a real case for trying to muddle through in the majority of cases—saving your powder for a few choice efforts when it might actually be possible to move the needle. A policy of complete rejectionism, after all, might communicate to moderate Republicans: ‘we cannot be negotiated with,’ and would likely drive a permanent wedge between Congressional Democrats and Republicans.

So, rather than huffing and puffing nonstop, why not try to build connections with those on the other side of the aisle who are distrustful of Trump? These are the McCains and Grahams and Sasses of the world, who might ultimately be willing to switch sides on some important votes—but will only do so if they can position themselves as a voice of unity and reason.

The final argument for restraint is a concern that simply mimicking the nihilistic antipolitics of the Tea Party will do irreparable harm to the structure of political legitimacy. Things are already dire, but so far the Democrats have remained a party committed to the premise that governing norms are possible, that comity is possible, and that pluralism is a viable condition for governance.

All of these points deserve serious consideration. It’s not crazy for the Democrats to consider this. But in spite of these concerns, I can’t endorse ‘muddling through.’

The game has changed, and Democrats are going to get burned—and burned badly—if they fail to recognize it.

The Politics of Normative Disorder

We live in tumultuous times. The normative systems that bound together our political community have been fraying for decades, and each new crisis only heightens this effect. This crisis is not simply about Trump, the Republican policy agenda, Steve Bannon, or growing nationalist fervor. Each of those are important, but ultimately would be containable if our political system still functioned at full strength.

After all, political norms are quite powerful—and far more durable than you might expect. Those who violate them may win individual battles, but they rarely survive long enough to win wars. Conditions of stability and order are ultimately re-imposed, either by casting out the challengers or (quite commonly) by coopting them—drawing them within the fold.

However, this system of legitimacy depends on a complicated linked structure of normative expectations. One norm alone is quite weak; it can easily be violated or (more commonly) reinterpreted to the point of indeterminacy. But many norms together are a powerful corrective force.

What we have seen over the past several decades is a corrosion of normative expectations as such. We tend to pay most attention to the individual cases, where longstanding habits are cast aside—the filibuster is weaponized, the debt ceiling is held hostage, a candidate brags about sexual assault, etc.—but the underlying structure is also being weakened.

This does not mean that we have entered a death spiral—and that political norms are irrecoverable. That point may come eventually, but we aren’t there yet. But the escalating crisis in political legitimacy does mean that we need to have a serious conversation about how the wounds are going to be sutured. Failure to engage that problem means sleepwalking over the cliff.

When facing exceptionally dangerous challenges to the long-standing structures of American politics, it is not only acceptable but necessary to employ extraordinary measures. That means that where Trump is trying to dislodge the basic workings of American democracy and rule of law, resistance by any means possible is a good watchword. Buy contrast, where Trump is simply pushing for a conservative political agenda, radical rejectionism is dangerous. Separating these two may be difficult in some cases, but is absolutely necessary.

At the end of the day, there is no going back to the previous generation. Things have changed, and not in a good way. If Hillary Clinton were president right now, I’d be far more sanguine about the possibility for a mid-course corrective and a resuscitation of political faith from within the confines of politics-as-usual. But Clinton is not the president.

And when the ship of state is being steered by a man who wants to crash into icebergs, it’s time to either start shifting your priorities, or else start searching for lifeboats.

Option Two: Happy Warriors

So this brings us to the other possible strategy for regaining power: the ‘happy warrior’ approach. In this world, Democrats pound the airwaves and the pavement talking up a counter-agenda to Trump. They take a page from the Bernie Sanders playbook and speak loudly for a set of values that prioritize working people, which make concrete and aggressive promises to secure equality for minorities and socially excluded groups, which draw a sharp line between themselves and crony capitalism.

This strategy will obviously appeal to their base—who have long been calling for such things. But it obviously carries risks as well. First, and most obvious, is that many of these positions are not especially popular with the median American voter. Second, many of these commitments would be extremely difficult to fulfill, even if they regain power. Third, moving in the direction of affirming ‘the Tea Party of the left’ risks reproducing the same toxic effects generated by the original Tea Party: ever-heightening partisanship and ever-weakening party control, growing distrust for any and all normative restrictions.

These risks are real and should not be dismissed out of hand. But the risks of not acting are even worse.

The question for Democrats is not whether they should seek to mobilize a multicultural populist movement. The movement is here. It was evident on January 21st when the women’s march produced the biggest single day protest in US history. It exploded a week later with spontaneous mass demonstrations across the nation to challenge the anti-Muslim refugee exclusion act. The slumbering beast of leftwing political action has been awakened, and it will not go gently into that good night. The only question left for Democrats, then, is how they will relate to this fact.

Do they serve as force multipliers, amplifying voices, lending logistical and organizational assistance where necessary, and leaning hard on the instruments of our political institutions in the limited places where it is possible? If they do, they may find that this is a powerful vehicle for enhancing their own authority within the halls of power. The Trump administration is engaged in a war—and for now, the Republicans in congress have decided that it’s safer to go along and get along, as long as it keeps the guns pointed outward. A truly mobilized political opposition, one that draws aid and comfort from a mass movement of engaged citizens, will make that calculation much harder to sustain.

Is this a scary proposition? Of course it is. But we live in terrifying times. The sooner the Democratic Party accepts this reality, the sooner they’ll be able to contribute positively.

Fail to side with the people and they’ll quickly find themselves attacked from all sides. And most damagingly, they’ll have chopped off the legs of the burgeoning movement before it even got the chance to fully form. A groundswell of public action mobilized in favor of equality, justice, and tolerance has a powerful chance to transform the nation. The single least productive thing that could happen to this movement would be to descend into intra-left bickering of the sort that has often defined ‘progressive vs. liberal’ arguments (see: the 2016 Democratic primary).

The left has captured lightning in a bottle this week. This happened as a response to a deep crisis in American politics, but such is often the way. Moments of crisis also create opportunities. We would all be far better off if things had been otherwise. But this is where we are. The Democrats have an opportunity to catalyze this movement. They would make a huge mistake if they allow themselves to become its enemies.

Practical advice for the Democratic Party

Okay, so let’s assume the Democrats take my advice. What should they actually do? Here is my 8-point action plan.

1. Maintain a united front, even if when feels like you’re under attack. Many on the left distrust the Democratic Party, for some good reasons and for some reasons that are (in my opinion, and likely yours as well) nonsense. The nature of this thing means that you’re going to get a lot of pushback, a lot of distrust. Snide remarks will be made. Doubts will be raised about your commitment. You will feel the urge to respond. Resist this impulse. Remember: you are a Happy Warrior. You will demonstrate your bona fides through action. You will grin and get on with the next task.

2. Symbols matter. Most of your actions over the next few months and years will have very little legal consequence. If zero Democrats vote to confirm Tillerson, or if 48 do, it probably won’t matter. Even if a few Republicans are willing to side with you on minor points, the Congressional leadership is not going to disentangle from Trump absent a sea change in the political landscape. So: your actions will have little material consequence. But this doesn’t mean they don’t matter. People will be watching closely to see what you do, regardless of its ultimate effect. This may feel frustrating, but see #1 above.

3. Rejectionism is preferable to collaboration. Given the two previous points, the strategy on Trump’s appointments is clear: obstruct, refuse, reject. Employ whatever tactics are available to gum up the works, refuse to allow quorums, do not accede to unanimous consent, do not vote yes for people who are clearly unqualified. Trump doesn’t need your votes, but they offer some small evidence of normalcy. You do not have to provide this to him.

4. Rejectionism must be grounded in a broader argument in favor of norms. As you employ the techniques of resistance, however, it’s important to keep your eyes on the prize. The goal is not simply to resist Trump. The goal is to restore a sense of optimism and faith in the American people. If Democrats regain control of power in two or four years, but attempt to govern over a people even more fractured and disillusioned, it will be to very little good purpose. So: you should constantly be clarifying the reasons for your obstruction, and offering clear and fair offramps to Trump and the Republicans. Your message is “run this government in a normal way, and we will play the role of a loyal opposition. Behave like budding authoritarians, and we will resist.”

5. Filibuster any Supreme Court nominee.  As I write this, Trump is promising to unveil his choice to fill Scalia’s seat. You must filibuster this nominee. This is one of the only actual points of leverage the Democrats still hold, and it would be madness to give it up. It is likely that McConnell will eventually break the filibuster by invoking the nuclear option. Accept this as an inevitability, and fight anyways. There is absolutely nothing to gain from waiting. Your message is ‘we will consider the qualifications of any further nominee for a different vacancy. But we cannot in good conscience permit the unprecedented obstruction of Merrick Garland to be rewarded.’

6. Your primary job right now is to be a community organizer.  The clearest and most powerful way to resist authoritarianism is to perform its opposite. If the message of the left is going to be ‘the power of the people,’ its actions should be an operationalization of this idea. Demonstrate your willingness to work for the people by actually doing it. Organize rallies, help build call lists, facilitate coordination, provide avenues that make it easy for people to get involved. A huge part of the Congressional job is constituent service, anyways. This is just an extension of that existing role. The key point here is that the country is full of people who desperately want to help, but feel powerless to do so. They will show up to rallies, if they exist, might make some calls, donate to the ACLU. But they want more chances. Your job is to create the opportunities for all of them to play a role.

7. Overpromising is okay. Democrats are particularly sensitive to the dangers of over-promising. This was a big part of the Clinton/Sanders fight, and obviously there is a real sense in which Trump took power simply through the power of repeatedly lying about what he could do. So the party has a tendency to speak in terms of the possible, rather than the true goal. But there is no better time than now to reach for the stars. The party is out of power, and has just as much chance of achieving a comprehensive carbon tax as it does of achieving modest restrictions on oil drilling. So: shoot for the moon. Tell people what you really want. Give them a reason to believe in the power and importance of an active, well-run, engaged government. You don’t want to make promises so impossible that it will provoke backlash once you achieve power and then utterly fail to keep them. But you do want to articulate a real vision, a comprehensive picture of significant transformation. Many agenda items of the left are not especially popular, but ideologies are not set in stone. Get out there. Speak, persuade, incite, mobilize. If you make the case and make it well, people will join you.

8. Look to California. And New York, and Massachusetts, etc. But especially California. Democrats are out of power at the national level, it’s true. And they’re not in great shape in many states. But they are absolutely dominant in California—a state that is large, rich (with a GDP of $2.4 trillion – it’s one of the 10 largest economies in the world, all by itself), and quite diverse. Now is the time to experiment, to push the margins of political possibility. The country as a whole may be retrenching significantly, but there’s no reason why California couldn’t aggressively pursue a Western European style of democratic socialism. We’re already seeing California challenging the national government on issues like sanctuary cities. They should do a lot more, and the Democratic Party should devote some of its substantial institutional and intellectual heft to helping them.

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Top 100 songs of all-time: the top 10

two headed boy

Kurt Vonnegut said that “a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.” I think that’s exactly right. And these are the songs that make me appreciate being alive. My existence would be darker without them. They are lanterns, staked out in the dark night to mark my way, ensuring that my steps always lead back home. These are the songs–of all the millions that we humans have brought into this world–that bring me the most joy.

Spotify playlist with (almost) every song from this project.

1-10, 11-20, 21-30, 31-40, 41-50, 51-60, 61-70, 71-80, 81-90, 91-100

10. Realiti (demo) – Grimes (2015)

Her voice is ethereal as she weaves her way through a woozy forest of synths and tightly clipped percussive lines. It feels otherworldly, but also strangely familiar–like stepping inside a Van Gogh painting.  The title is fitting, since this song–more than any other I have ever heard–communicates the strangely madness that comes from grasping the world in its unadulterated form. If it feels unreal, it’s only because our whole lives are spent building the artifice that encloses us.

It came out less than two years ago, and is probably already one of the 20-30 most listened songs of my life.

9. Elevator Love Letter – Stars (2003)

Shimmering, tender, lovestruck, and just about the prettiest thing in the entire world, even as it’s breaking your heart. No part exemplifies this more than the bit where he says “I don’t think she’ll know that I’m saying goodbye” and her voice comes right over the top, with eyes fixed upward and the purest sound of hope and wonder: “My office glows all night long, it’s a nuclear show and the stars are gone. Elevator, elevator…take me home…”

8. Trailer Trash – Modest Mouse (1997)

The song contains one extended verse which bleeds into something of a chorus, and is then repeated. Over this, the pace slows and while Isaac initially sounds emotional, maybe even a little tortured, by the end, he is just speaking the lyrics over a drum beat, and the guitars have almost disappeared. You can almost feel the burden of life pressing down. But then, that weariness reaches its snapping point, and the entire world shatters around it. The drums go crazy, and the guitar riff dances around. There are no lyrics, just the commotion of the music. All weariness is forgotten, and if you’re not quite sure where things are going, you do know that it is exciting. I like to think that’s sort of how life works. Frustration, fear of stagnation, and discontentment can be shattered. It’s a back-and-forth thing, but there’s still some reason to hope that you can learn from your mistakes and be a better person. I’d like to believe that.

7. You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve – Johnny Boy (2004)

It begins with the drum beat from “Be My Baby,” and right away you know it’s going to be something special. Then in come the guitars, the background starts to swirl, and then: “I just can’t help believing, though believing sees me cursed…” After one time through the verse, it explodes and she sings it all again, this time accompanied by the Wall of Sound. Before the next verse, the “oh baby baby”s fly back and forth. And then, at the 2:01 mark, the whole song is set on fire. The fireworks go off (literally), and all she sings is “Yeah, yeah! Yeah, yeah!” but it sounds like poetry. There’s the smallest respite as it cuts back into the last verse when the music recedes, apart from the occasional burst of fire and light. The verse ends, there are a couple more “yeah, yeah!”s, and then, before you know it, the song is over, and you realize you’re about to pass out because you haven’t breathed in three minutes.

6. Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen (1975)

It’s an entire movie in four minutes and fifty seconds. And not just any movie, this is the Casablanca of rock and roll. All the tropes, all the references, all the things that you’ve heard in hundreds of songs since then…this is where it all comes from. If it sounds tired or worn down, it’s only because you’ve replaced the real thing in your imagination with the imitation.

As the credits roll and the kids drive away into the sunset, we know deep down that bad times will come to them, and probably sooner rather than later. But that doesn’t matter for the song because he’s not asking us to believe in the objective truth. He just asking us to believe that the characters in the story really believe it. And to remind us of when we believed, too.

The kid sits there with hand outstretched, and asks her to share his dream. But the dream is not the magic of the highway. The dream is the dreaming itself. The finding out, the testing, the endless faith in the possibility that there must be something more. And if we can’t find it here, then we just have to keep looking.

5. Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2 – Neutral Milk Hotel (1998)

Wittgenstein famously closed his Tractatus with the line: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” That’s how I feel about this song. I love it, but I’m hesitant to say more – in fear that my futile attempts to explain that which can’t be explained will somehow ruin the magic. It’s sui generis, an impossibility, a revelation. And it contains what might be my single favorite lyric in the history of music:

And when we break we’ll wait for our miracle
God is a place where some holy spectacle lies
And when we break we’ll wait for our miracle
God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life

I wrote about seeing Mangum perform live a few years ago. It probably the closest I’ve ever come to a true religious experience.

4. The House That Heaven Built – Japandroids (2012)

The sound of it all. Oh god, the sound. The drums are insistent, marching along with implacable resolve. There is a single stomping beat that drives everything forward faster and faster. And then there is a backbeat, the clashing of cymbals, and the ever-rising sense of explosive potential. This is a song to build empires around.

And it’s the greatest rock and roll song ever written, with all apologies to the Boss.

3. Abbey Road Medley – The Beatles (1969)

This is the conclusion to their final album, and it is a fitting end.  The Beatles were a supernova, a flash of light and power that exceeds all possibility of measurement. But it could only last for that brief moment. A year later, John would be singing that “the dream is over.” But it’s never truly over. Because the dream survives in the hearts of everyone who has a copy of Abbey Road, who can listen to the conclusion to the greatest album by the greatest band in history–-a band splitting apart at the seams, but who held it together long enough to create their masterpiece, and to give us all one last goodbye. Starting with You Never Give Me Your Money and finishing with The End, this is everything The Beatles had to offer, condensed into fifteen glorious, impossible, earth-shattering, joyous, beautiful minutes.

It should be pretty obvious that there would be plenty more Beatles songs on the list if not for the one-song-per-artist rule. In fact, my rough estimate is that they probably account for somewhere around 12-15 of my 100 favorite songs. I really like this band is what I’m saying.

2. Romeo and Juliet – Dire Straits (1980)

I can’t think of a single thing in the world that forces me to catch my breath, that causes a bigger lump in my throat, that incites more tears than the chorus of this song. When Knopfler sings “I love you like the stars above, I’ll love you til I die” it’s an earth-shattering thing. The way the guitars and drums rise up like a tidal wave and then crash down. The way you can tell that his heart is breaking at the memory. The way the music recedes into the background for the final verse, while his voice remains, echoing out into the darkness:

I can’t do everything, but I’ll do anything for you
I can’t do anything except be in love with you
And all I do is miss you and the way we used to be
All I do is keep the beat and bad company
All I do is kiss you through the bars of a rhyme
Julie, I’d do the stars with you anytime…

We struggle, we strive, we fall deeply in love and give up slowly, if at all. We love because we must, because it is what gives us our humanity, our purpose, and our joy.

1. All Apologies And Smiles, Yours Truly, Ugly Valentine – Carissa’s Wierd (2001)

I simply do not have the words to express how deeply I love this song. It’s my favorite song in the entire universe, and honestly, nothing else is really even that close.

Listening to it today, it feels just as fresh as it did on that late-summer afternoon in 2001 when I first heard it. It sings to me of who I was then, who I am today, who I could someday be. It is my pain, my moments of despair, my wishes unfulfilled. It’s emotionally ragged, hesitant, fearful. It knows everything that haunts me, every dream lost. And yet it still lifts me up. It shows me all those things in the bright light of a morning sun. It is falling in love. It’s long evenings with friends, and a soft shoulder to lay my head on at the end of the day. It’s a warm blanket and a fire on a cold night. It’s tears running down your face, unspeakable loss, all the joy and pain of a life held together. It’s the tender love shared by two people at the end of a long life together. It’s the tolling of bells that calls us home.

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