We’re getting very close to the end now. Trying to choose which song to keep low is growing more and more painful. A lot of the famous ones are on the list today, but there are at least a couple that might be a little bit more under the radar. You’ll notice that a group of 10 songs from 22-31 come from only three albums (Rubber Soul, Help!, and the White Album). Not really sure why that happened.
My discussion on a number of these is a lot more personal than I have been before. That’s what happens when we get into my very favorite songs by my very favorite band. These songs have been the soundtrack to my life for the last 15 or 20 years. For my happiest moments and my saddest moments, these songs were there, keeping me company, helping me along.
By the way, I’ve finally caught up to myself on the comments. When I started, I had a good 3 or 4 day buffer of comments on the songs completed. The gap has been narrowing each day and now I have nothing written for the last 10. Frankly, the task is a little daunting. How can I possibly explain what makes these songs so great? But I’ll get it done, I hope, and tomorrow will come the top 10.
30. 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. I don’t think they’re terrible, and when I’m in the right mood, I even appreciate the texture they add to the song. But I do think it 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. And just in case we were wondering, John lets us know that his monkey has nothing to hide.
29. Nowhere Man from Rubber Soul
Amazingly enough, this is the first time they wrote a song that wasn’t about love. 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.
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. 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.
26. I Will from The White Album
There’s a run on White Album songs, with 5 of the last 6 coming from it. This is the last one, and it’s a bit of a surprise to find at the top of the heap. Still, 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…
25. You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away from Help!
Last winter, I went through a pretty tough time which included several weeks alone in Hanover, New Hampshire. During that time, I listened to this song a LOT. It’s not a common feeling for me, but there are times when you just cannot even imagine trying to face the world because you’re so busy trying to keep yourself from falling apart. This is John at his folky (is that even a word?) best. I’ve talked a lot about his 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.
24. 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 my all-time favorite moments in any song.
22. I’m Looking Through You from Rubber Soul
23. I’ve Just Seen a Face from Help!
These songs come from two different albums, one of which was supposed to be the “breakthrough” but to my ear, they sound to be cut from very much the same cloth, showing once again that the best moments of Help! are everything that Rubber Soul is meant to be. Acoustically driven, these show Paul at his folk-rocking best, with an ever-so-slight bit of blues influence. Thematically, I also see them as connected. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is 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 that ephemeral feeling. “I’m Looking Through You” is on the far side, when you have seen your dreams fall through. Yet it is also about a single moment of realization, when everything that once made sense finally is revealed as false. It rocks a little bit harder because, as we all know, the fall from the heights is a lot more devastating than the climb.
21. 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.
20. 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 YourBird 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?
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. That blackout across the Northeast back in 2003? Yeah, it was caused by me playing this song too loudly–it overloaded 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? The magic of this song is amazing: you can really understand 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. Fine, I admit it, 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 or off track. 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 was one. 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. 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 a while. 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.
Funny story about this song, it features prominently in a movie I made in college: The 30-Minute Return of the King. For reasons not worth getting into now, a friend and I decided that we should show Peter Jackson how it was MEANT to be done, and produced a movie without all the Hollywood silliness like “special effects” and “acting talent” and “a script that goes longer than 25 seconds between penis jokes.” Needless to say it was a smashing success, though for some reason our invitation to the Academy Awards seems to have gotten lost in the mail. Anyways, this song plays over the scene where Frodo and Sam struggle on toward Mt. Doom (the long and winding road that leads to Mordor…get it? Hahaha. Oh I slay me sometimes). The rest of the soundtrack is similarly awesome, including such classics as “I Whupped Batman’s Ass” by Wesley Willis, “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler,” and the Mortal Kombat theme.
Hmmmmmm, I seem to have gotten a little off track here, so let’s just move on to the next song…
15. 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. Way way back on “One After 909” I commented that the Let it Be Naked version of that song was the only one to be superior to the original. I have no idea how I forgot about this one. I fell in love with the Spector-ed version, but this is one case where the lush orchestration is UTTERLY 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 here 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.
14. 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.
13. She Said She Said from Revolver
There was a time not all that long ago (5 or 6 years, perhaps) when this one wouldn’t even have been in the top half of my favorite songs from Revolver. If you’ll pardon the pun, I should’ve known better. Everything that made the middle-period great is here to be found, including but not limited to: the almost overpowering lead guitar, great drumming, pyschedelic 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.
12. 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.
11. A Day In The Life from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
How in the world is this song not number 1? What more can we expect from music? If I was doing a “best of” list, it might very well be at the top, but as it’s just me and my tastes, this one somehow gets bumped out of the top 10. Doesn’t really seem right, but there it is. It’s the quintessential song from the quintessential album. I cannot possibly do justice to it, so I will 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.
Beatles from worst to first 11 (the top 10)
Beatles from worst to first 10 (30-11)
Beatles from worst to first 9 (50-31)
Beatles from worst to first: Interlude
Beatles from worst to first 8 (75-51)
Beatles from worst to first 7 (100-76)
Beatles from worst to first 6 (120-101)
Beatles from worst to first 5 (140-121)
Beatles from worst to first 4 (160-141)
Beatles from worst to first 3 (175-161)
Beatles from worst to first 2 (190-176)
Beatles from worst to first 1 (206-191)
Beatles from worst to first: Introduction