Thursday, August 22, 2013

The 50 Greatest Beatles Songs.

There isn't much I can say about the Beatles that hasn't already been said, so I won't even try.

Here's a list of their best songs.

1. Strawberry Fields Forever (A-Single, 1967). Pop-Art in the most literal (& successful) sense—a place in which pop music & artistic ambitions meet together in a decidedly unreal field in a childhood reminiscence-turned-daydream. While first & foremost a John Lennon masterpiece, all of the Beatles get a chance to shine—Lennon's alluring vocal & vision, Paul McCartney's soft Mellotron playing & bass underpinning, George Harrison's scribbly guitar fills across the sprawl, & Ringo Starr's heavy, fill-fulled drumming—all of which is further embellished by producer George Martin (the REAL "Fifth Beatle") strings & horns. By the time the song fades away & comes back in its surprising, backwards coda, Art seems to win the day, but only because the Pop set it up so perfectly. For one brief, shining moment in the months leading up to Sgt. Pepper, all of the Beatles' contradictions are resolved in a very real way—in a song where nothing is real.

2. I Want To Hold Your Hand (A-Single, 1963). The Song That Introduced The Beatles To The World. After 4 major singles—the self-centered "Love Me Do" & "Please Please Me," followed by "From Me to You," & then the more external "She Loves You"—they came up with this, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," writing to a still-unknown American audience by shattering the wall between performer & listener in a gesture of innocence that held far greater implications. "Hey Jude" may have been bigger & "She Loves You" may have been better, but "I Want To Hold Your Hand" captures the spirit of Beatles' initial promise like no other—a rock & roll version of JFK's inaugural speech, arriving just in time to lift the spirits of a nation still stunned by his recent assassination. Plus, Bob Dylan misheard it as a drug song & started to think about getting his own band together...

3. Yesterday (Help!, 1965). The most covered song in the history of recorded music. When McCartney first crafted it (substituting "scrambled eggs" for the still-unknown titular word), he spent the next little while playing it for friends, unconvinced that he had actually written it. For "Yesterday" is the rare song that seems to have appeared all but fully-sprung, instantly familiar in a way that was nearly obvious, but ultimately singular. Millions of songs have been written about breakups, but few have put it so simply or elegantly as "Yesterday"—a tale of love being transferred from a person to a memory. It is also the first real "solo" "Beatles" song, with McCartney playing it on an acoustic guitar backed by Martin's strings. Presumably for this reason, it remained a title track in their home country, but America knew better & released it as a Beatles single, where it became a major #1 hit.

4. Hey Jude (A-Single, 1968). The biggest hit of the Beatles career. Slated as a single from the moment it was written, "Hey Jude" has become so overplayed that it's easy to lose sight of what a great song it is. Lennon once reckoned it his partner's greatest song—& even made a few touches of his own, such as telling McCartney to leave the meaningless but effective line "The movement you need is on your shoulder." Rarely has The Beatles as an interacting band been so fully on display which, Lennon's incompetent bass-playing aside (you can hear him say "bloody hell" at one point), cashed in on their exuberance & charisma. & then of course, there's the famous "Nah-Nah-Nah" chorus (running a minute longer than the song itself), which would cement the song's legend & marks the point at which the Beatles found their way back from the diamond sky of psychedelic rock.

5. A Day In The Life (Sgt. Pepper, 1967). The pinnacle of their most towering achievement, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Rarely had the Lennon/McCartney partnership at the heart of The Beatles been on such display, as Lennon's haunting folk dirge gives way to McCartney's carefree pop morning narrative, held together by Martin's storming strings on one side & an effective dreamlike reverie on the other, as gestating chord changes lower the song until it finally lands back into Lennon's now-hurried fragment. An apocalyptic crescendo of strings follows, before scurrying up into dead silence, broken by all four Beatles hitting all of the strings on four separate pianos. As some like to tell it, it's the most accomplished work ever produced by the Beatles—& by extension, rock & roll music itself.

6. Something (Abbey Road, 1969). The second-most-covered Beatles song, & George Harrison's masterpiece. Unconsciously borrowing a phrase from then-Apple artist James Taylor's "Something in the Way She Moves," Harrison spun his best-known Beatles song, a stately appreciation of love & affection. Once seen as "the eager younger brother" of the Beatles, by this point he had more than blossomed into his own, & with songs such as this, was quickly rivaling the songcraft of Lennon & McCartney. Tellingly, the song became the only Harrison song to be released on a single in the UK, as its sly mix of ballad verses & a rocking bridge were held together by Harrison's searing guitar work. As McCartney has noted, it would become a favorite of Frank Sinatra, who called it his "favorite Lennon/McCartney song."

7. In My Life (Rubber Soul, 1965). If you ever wondered if John Lennon was an old soul, look no further than this song. Although he was only about 25 when he wrote it, "In My Life" is one of pop music's finest ruminations on life, love, & loss—at once tentative & searching, while also serious & resolute. The way in which the song resolves on the singer's lover only helps it to come into focus & land smoothly, anchoring the entire performance with an earnestness that belies Lennon's usually-tough persona. Throw in Martin's harpsichord rendition of a Bach fugue (sped up to match the song's pitch) as a break, & you have a song that unites past, present, & future in its music just as much as its lyrics.

8. She Loves You (A-Single, 1963). The Song That Launched The First Wave of Beatlemania. Before "She Loves You," The Beatles were a lucky band with one number-one song ("From Me To You"); after "She Loves You," they were the most famous people in England, had played for the Royal Family, & were primed to take on the world. They also did some legendary phrase-making as "Yeah, yeah, yeah" became the rallying cry of rock fans everywhere. But it's the smaller things—the clever double-rhymes in the verses, the drum roll that sets up the excitement of the refrain, the chiming lead guitar that plays cat-&-mouse with the melody—that make it effortlessly combine into as big of a thrill as would be heard in '60s pop music. Even if "I Want To Hold Your Hand" would become the more iconic song internationally, this is the song that made everything possible in the first place—& it packs the cooler rush.

9. Let It Be (A-Single, 1970). The Swan Song. The closest The Beatles ever came to gospel was this, written at a time when the band was fracturing beyond repair & inspired by a real-life dream McCartney had of his mother, Mary. Much of The Beatles' finest music had an uncanny ability to mirror the feeling of the time in which it was released in the 1960s, & 1970's "Let It Be" was no different—providing a spiritual comedown for what had been an often fast & tumultuous decade. Meanwhile, the song itself was one of the most beautiful the group would ever record, effortlessly blending a confessional ballad with Harrison's hard-rock solo, which in turns leads to everything being stripped down for the final verse. Like The Beatles themselves, it wasn't just a song—it was an epic.

10. Come Together (Abbey Road, 1969). Perhaps the finest example of The Beatles' late-period ability to make hard rock music on their own terms, "Come Together" has become one of their most-enduring anthems. Built around Lennon's stream-of-conscious lyrics & McCartney's slippery bassline, the song worked not just as a record but as an idea—come together—that some say was conceived as a presidential campaign theme song for Timothy Leary. & at the top of it all are those eerily prophetic two words that summed the chaos of the late-'60s with one of rock's greatest tragedies a little over a decade later: Shoot me.

* * *

11. Penny Lane (A-Single, 1967). The flipside of "Strawberry Fields" (both literally & figuratively), in the form of McCartney's boyhood memories, which become more & more surreal with every listen—& though she feels as if she's in a play, she is anyway.

12. Can't Buy Me Love (A-Single, 1964). The crown jewel of A Hard Day's Night mature Beatlemania sound's contagious joy; also the first song in history to be #1 simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic.

13. All You Need Is Love (A-Single, 1967). Beginning with the French national anthem & ending with a reprise of "She Loves You," an advance thesis on the hope of the '60s, laid out with a singular logic that felt as essential then as it seems dated now.

14. While My Guitar Gently Weeps ("The White Album," 1968). The meditative Beatle's heaviest meditation—with an uncredited assist on weeping guitar by God (good buddy Eric Clapton).

15. Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver, 1966). The most radical song of The Beatles' career, which marked the beginning of the modern '60s in backwards tape loops & epic voices paraphrasing The Book of the Dead from on high (spiritually & chemically).

16. Help! (Single, 1965). The title track of their second film & the song that kept Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" from reaching #1—& yet, there's an astonishing amount of sound & confession that rushes by in its two minutes, all centered around Lennon's central plea, which epitomized what he would later dub his "Fat Elvis" period.

17. Here Comes The Sun (Abbey Road, 1969). An invocation of optimism conceived, written, & recorded just as The Beatles could hardly speak to each other—but you'd never know it from the sound.

18. Norwegian Wood (Rubber Soul, 1965). Featuring rock's first sitar, it was such a breakthrough in artsy production & deadpan mood that it was easy to miss the punchline at the end where the singer burns down the girl's house.

19. Revolution (B-Single, 1968). The central founding document of Lennon's radicalism that would define the rest of his career, some two decades before it was infamously licensed to sell sneakers.

20. I Saw Her Standing There (Please Please Me, 1963). Introduced to most Americans as the flipside to "I Want To Hold Your Hand," this was an early masterpiece of the early Beatles' sound & vision, as McCartney's earnest enthusiasm ("She was just 17...") was balanced by Lennon's sly wit (" know what I mean").

21. Ticket to Ride (A-Single, 1965). A plodding, almost uncommercial song that helped signal the change from light pop to heavier rock, held in place by Starr's off-kiltered yet on-point drumming.

22. Eleanor Rigby (Revolver, 1966). McCartney full immersion into classical music & themes—a tale of a spinster who "wears a face that she keeps in a jar by the door" & received McCartney's sharpest set of lyrics to date.

23. I Feel Fine (A-Single, 1964). A perfect single to cap a perfect year &—with the buzzing feedback that kicks it off—The Beatles' first step into experimentalism.

24. Yellow Submarine (Revolver, 1966). The best "Ringo song" in The Beatles' catalog because it's fun like a novelty, charming like a children's song, & a natural #1 hit (in the UK, at least).

25. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (Sgt. Pepper, 1967). Lennon's psychedelic period in full-blossom, & for many, the most quintessential acid-rocker of them all.

26. A Hard Day's Night (A-Single, 1964). Spinning one of Ringo's signature expressions into a pop song, the group simultaneously provided the perfect exciting counterpart to their first feature film.

27. Here, There, & Everywhere (Revolver, 1966). McCartney balladry at its finest—sophisticated, mature, earnest.

28. I Am The Walrus (B-Single, 1967). Lennon's farthest, darkest, & final fully-psychedelic masterpiece is one of his finest—& weirdest—rockers, as haunting strings bend & bow for confounding yet perfect abstract lines like "Corporation T-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday."

29. Eight Days A Week (Beatles For Sale, 1964). Hailed by some as their most beautiful pop song, Lennon apparently hated it & refused to allow it to be issued as a single in the UK; their loss is our gain, as it hit #1 for two weeks on the US charts in early 1965.

30. Please Please Me (A-Single, 1963). Their first #1 hit (on 2 out of 3 of the UK music charts—unfortunately the third would become the official one) & the most shrewdly-disguised argument for oral sex in rock & roll history.

31. You Never Give Me Your Money (Abbey Road, 1969). One bookend of Abbey Road's "long medley," this caught McCartney at his best—crafting songs like a patchwork quilt of ideas, holding them together with good humor & sincerity.

32. All My Loving (With The Beatles, 1963). With its infectious walking bassline & sophisticated modulations, one of the earliest signs of The Beatles' hidden potential as songwriters; is it any wonder they chose it as the first song they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show?

33. Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! (Sgt. Pepper, 1967). Lennon gets high, crawls into a circus poster, & asks Martin for a circus sound so real that you could smell the sawdust. Mission accomplished.

34. Taxman (Revolver, 1966). Harrison's sardonic wit comes to the core of this, his first (& only) album-starter; although it's Harrison's show, McCartney nearly steals it from him with that front-&-center bassline & his startling, sizzling lead guitar solo.

35. Happiness Is A Warm Gun ("The White Album," 1968). Proof that "The White Album" was more than just a preview of their solo careers—here was a working band making sure that Lennon's disparate song pieces flowed together naturally, effortlessly, & somehow, logically.

36. Nowhere Man (Rubber Soul, 1965). Taking a cue from Dylan, Lennon writes a "finger-pointing" song of his own, helping to etch the "us vs. them" line that would define the counterculture.

37. I've Just Seen A Face (Help!, 1965). One of the finest from McCartney's sudden burst of songwriting towards the end of the Help! project (& surely would've been included in the film if completed earlier), but best known to American audiences as the lead cut off of the US Rubber Soul.

38. Blackbird ("The White Album," 1968). I recently learned that McCartney's stark ballad was to show solidarity with the American Civil Rights movement, but its beauty transcends any one specific purpose or inspiration.

39. Rain (B-Single, 1966). The flipside of "Paperback Writer" that is generally held in higher esteem, in part from the freshness guaranteed by its obscurity & in part from its innovation—featuring the first backwards tape in rock (upon first hearing the technique by accident, Lennon reportedly wanted to release the entire song backwards before compromising with just having it at the coda).

40. We Can Work It Out (A-Single, 1965). An invocation of good-natured compromise, just on the brink of when the '60s would become an all-or-nothing game.

41. Back In The U.S.S.R. ("The White Album," 1968). The greatest Beach Boys parody ever executed—& rock's smartest song about the Soviet Union.

42. Drive My Car (Rubber Soul, 1965). The original rocking kickoff to what is generally considered the "mellow & folky" Beatles album.

43. I'll Be Back (A Hard Day's Night, 1964). The closer of The Beatles' first album of entirely self-composed songs & a stunner, charting the course towards the following year's Rubber Soul.

44. I'm Only Sleeping (Revolver, 1966). A lovely, lazy shuffle celebrating the wonders of falling asleep—with a little help from production values & a newfound psychedelic perspective.

45. Get Back (A-Single, 1969). A raucous two-chord wonder about life, home, & transvestitism.

46. Got To Get You Into My Life (Revolver, 1966). The Beatles' exuberance makes the jump into psychedelic rock in seven words or less: "I was alone, I took a ride..."

47. Lady Madonna (A-Single, 1968). McCartney's ode to motherhood wrapped in a Fats Domino sound so infectious, the Fat Man himself enjoyed his final Top 100 hit with a cover of it.

48. If I Fell (A Hard Day's Night, 1964). The stellar 3-part harmonies of "This Boy," applied to a song that was actually worth listening to.

49. Paperback Writer (A-Single, 1966). A study in production values built around a song that was so trivial even Lennon & Harrison can be heard singing "Frere Jacques" over the last verse.

50. Across The Universe (Let It Be, 1969). Lennon's cryptic beauty centered around an even more cryptic refrain "Jai guru deva om," which roughly translates to "glory to the shining remover of darkness."


  1. Fantastic analysis & writing of Beatles tunez m'man.. very nice stuff. I landed here searching RCA Placidyl Promo LP & Acid Rock verzionz of Hank Williams songz, complete with a country chick feeding a multi-colored sugar cube to a horse on the cover. Also, entry where yer list goez from Hendrix to Henry Mancini & Nirvana to Sinatra... never thought I'd see a list az schizophrenic az my tastes run, nice.. really nice.

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