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.