Editors note: This piece was originally published in December of 2020. We’re republishing it this week in conjunction with the release of Disney+’s The Beatles: Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson, as we consider it perhaps the most definitive ranking of songs by The Beatles ever published. Enjoy.
The Beatles broke up 50 years ago this year. Which is strange, because they’re still one of the most popular rock bands on the planet. By now, the number of Beatlemaniacs who weren’t alive when the band was together likely outnumbers the fans who were. Even in the context of classic rock, this is an incredible phenomenon. The world keeps turning round and round, and yet we remain eternally stuck on The Fab Four.
The Beatles are so famous that their “hits” extend well beyond the songs that were technically released as singles. “Blackbird” has been streamed nearly 200 million times on Spotify, and it was never released as a single or even played on the radio that much. Neither was “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Nor were “Drive My Car,” “Good Day Sunshine,” or “The Fool On The Hill.” Even their deep cuts are very well-known. Virtually nothing about them is obscure.
This can make writing about The Beatles a challenge, particularly if you’re foolish enough to rank your favorite Beatles songs. There is very little about them that is not already overly familiar; there are also very few Beatles songs that the public doesn’t have passionate opinions about. We know everything about The Beatles, and also never tire of rehashing old Beatles arguments.
With all of that in mind, here is my list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs. Keep in mind that there are more than 100 great Beatles songs, so I have definitely left off some winners here. (I learned while writing this that one of my best friends considers “Long, Long, Long” a top-five Beatles tune, and it is not here. I hope we are still friends after this.) But I think I have most of the crucial bases covered here. If you disagree, please remember that I am neither a mod or a rocker, but a mocker.
100. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
Let’s begin with the Beatles song that is easiest to clown. Even The Beatles themselves — Paul, the songwriter, excepted, of course — hated this track, mainly because Macca made them play it over and over again during The White Album sessions. (An extremely stoned John Lennon famously came up with the song’s distinctive mock-music hall piano lick as a way to make fun of how corny it was.) And yet … “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is actually pretty good! It’s catchy, harmless fun and most likely the lamest song you’ve heard at least 200 times. The point is that the weakest of The Beatles is still pretty damn strong. If this song is the floor, most artists never manage to get above ground.
99. “Love Me Do”
Their first single, and a good example of how The Beatles (from the very beginning!) could write something so simple that a baby could understand it upon first listen, while also adding some unusual twist that made it unique and even nonsensical. In the case of “Love Me Do,” it’s the odd phrasing of the chorus — what in the world does “love me do” mean? The style of language apparently is derived from Lewis Carroll, who will eventually loom large in the band’s psychedelic era, though it also points to the tuneful nonsense that McCartney would embrace full on during his post-Beatles, “Bip Bop” period.
98. “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”
My favorite Beatles LP — and one of my favorite LPs by anybody — is The White Album, which is an opinion that (1) seems to be shared by most of my Beatles-loving friends and (2) not shared by most of the people whose Beatles books I have read. The issue with The White Album comes down to whether you appreciate or disapprove of that LP’s excesses — was The Beatles’ relaxation of their artistic discipline a fascinating diversion or a bad sign of things to come? Really, then, it boils down to a question of whether they should have put “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” — an uber-primitive coitus-blues performed alone by McCartney — on the record. The band that made Rubber Soul and Revolver wouldn’t have even considered it. But if you love Rubber Soul and Revolver, aren’t you also interested in hearing the sorts of songs that happened around the many unimpeachable classics this band has produced? If you are, the many detours on The White Album will always be worthwhile. It’s one of the great “lifestyle” albums, built for total immersion. The loopy, horny energy of “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” added considerably to The White Album singularly magnetic atmosphere of debauched, failed utopian anarchy.
97. “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey”
The dishiest and all-around bitchiest Beatles book is Here, There, And Everywhere by Geoff Emerick, the legendary studio engineer who worked on Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, and Abbey Road, among other albums. Apparently in his studio days he had to keep his opinions to himself, because in his book Emerick unloads his hot takes like a man whose brain is positively scorched from prolonged containment. As the book title suggests, Emerick is definitely a Paul guy, which means his thoughts on John (jerk), Yoko (jerk), George (poor guitarist), and Ringo (non-entity) tend to be withering, unfair, and pretty funny. As for Beatles songs, he especially hated this acidic John rocker from The White Album, which is as shrill and harsh as Sgt. Pepper (Emerick’s baby) is lush and soothing. As for me, I think it slaps.
96. “Don’t Bother Me”
I never get sick of hearing Beatles songs, and I especially never get sick of hearing The Beatles story. I own about a dozen books that rehash their career, and about a half-dozen documentaries (including one that is over eight hours long). Millions of you dorks care about every iteration of a Marvel comic — these guys are my superheroes, and I remain forever interested in thinking about their rise and fall. One of my favorite subplots involves the dynamic between Lennon/McCartney and George Harrison, and how the latter was never invited to participate in their collaboration. The years of implicitly (or often explicitly) being treated as a second-class citizen in The Beatles had an incalculable psychological effect on Harrison. (It’s why I excuse the extra disc of jams on All Things Must Pass — the man needed to put as much music on a record as he wanted without anyone telling him no.) Early on, however, Harrison pulled the familiar trick of insisting that his unwitting isolation was a deliberate choice, to the point of making his songwriting debut on a Beatles album, “Don’t Bother Me,” about that very subject.
95. “Act Naturally”
In one of his final interviews, collected in the indispensable book The Playboy Interviews With John Lennon And Yoko Ono by David Sheff, John remarked that The Beatles might have still made it had it been him and Paul and two other random guys. (“Let’s say, I think it’s possible for John and Paul to have created the same thing with two other guys. It may not have been possible for George and Ringo to have created it without John and Paul. OK?”) While that Lennon quote is true as far as it goes — John and Paul were obviously the least dispensable — it underrates the reliable “younger brother” tension that George provided and the comic relief that was endemic to Ringo. In what other band does the drummer — who otherwise rarely writes songs or acts as a frontman — have such a clearly defined persona? While everyone in The Beatles was witty, Ringo always had the best sense of humor about himself, particularly after they became hugely famous. It made him seem normal, in the same way that a point guard who is 6-foot-4 suddenly seems short on a basketball court. While “Act Naturally” is a Buck Owens cover, it is the best expression of Ringo’s unique “I can be self-deprecating without looking pathetic or otherwise sacrificing my dignity” charm.
94. “The Ballad Of John And Yoko”
On this track, John and Paul really proved that they could’ve been The Beatles by themselves. They knocked out this topical single when Ringo was filming The Magic Christian and George was on holiday, and the result is bright, punchy, and surprisingly fun given that The Ballad Of John and Paul had long since turned into a dreary dirge by this point. (The ups and downs of the John and Paul friendship, without question, is the top subplot of the Beatles story that we’ll be revisiting on this list time and again.)
My first favorite Beatle was John Lennon, as it should be for anybody who becomes a Beatles fan during their teen years. He’s the rebellious one, as we all know, and also the Beatle must hung up on his parents. Though “Julia,” like “The Ballad Of John And Yoko,” is so specific to Lennon’s own life that it doesn’t slot comfortably as a Beatles track. On “Julia,” he sings a love song to the ghost of his dead mother, emoting with such naked vulnerability that it’s almost uncomfortable to hear. Contrast “Julia” with “Let It Be,” inspired by McCartney’s own vision of seeing his late mother in a dream, and it’s obvious how far Lennon was straying from writing approachable pop anthems by the end of the ’60s. While he was physically still in the band, he had already moved forward emotionally and intellectually with his solo career.
92. “Got To Get You Into My Life”
John Lennon loved this song, perhaps because he interpreted it as a Paul McCartney “acid” song, which shows that even The Beatles read way too much into Beatles songs.
91. “Lady Madonna”
My current favorite Beatle is Paul McCartney, as it should be for anybody who is still a Beatles fan in their 40s. He’s the reliable one, the survivor, the Beatle who figured out how to depend upon craft once his youthful energy and inspiration made their natural exit. That McCartney is still putting out albums regularly as he nears the age of 80, in spite of having absolutely zero artistic or financial imperative, speaks to his confounding work ethic. But he had that in The Beatles, too, essentially putting the band on his back and carrying them through their final years. In the case of “Lady Madonna,” this is precisely the sort of “hit” single that McCartney could will himself to write during this period. I would never argue that this is an outstanding Beatles song, but I have heard it at least a thousand times and it’s always likable. You could almost take it for granted, but to me “Lady Madonna” is a testament to the “doin’ work” side of McCartney’s artistry. He had a job to do, and he did it well.
90. “Hello Goodbye”
In that Playboy interview, “Hello Goodbye” is one of about 47 Beatles songs that John Lennon refers to as “a piece of garbage.” But this, again, is more “doin’ work”-mode McCartney, and one of the better examples of him working in a proto-kiddie music style. Anyone inclined to roll their eyes at “Hello Goodbye” hasn’t spent enough time with “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
89. “Eight Days A Week”
Another “piece of garbage” in Lennon’s estimation, and I kind of see what he means. On some days, “Eight Days A Week” can be a little cloying. But I don’t blame the song for that; I blame my own crappy mode on that particular day. In fact, “Eight Days A Week” is a good barometer for determining whether you’re a hopeless crank — if that ringing guitar intro and the infectious handclaps on the chorus fail to lift your spirits, consult a doctor immediately.
88. “You Can’t Do That”
One of the least comprehensible factoids about The Beatles’ career is that John Lennon didn’t like the sound of his voice. This was among the driver of their studio innovations; Lennon was always game to transform his vocals into something strange and alien. But Lennon, obviously, was in fact a tremendous singer, and more often than not his vocals elevate pretty good songs to new heights. That’s certainly true of “You Can’t Do That,” a southern American soul pastiche that showcases the harder, more rock ‘n’ roll timbres of the younger Lennon style. (The backing vocals by McCartney and Harrison are also excellent.)
87. “I Should Have Known Better”
Of the early (pre-Rubber Soul) albums, A Hard Day’s Night is the best. It’s also dominated by John, who took the lead on the band’s first release to not feature any covers. On “I Should Have Known Better,” his early fascination with Bob Dylan is also apparent in the wailing, one-note harmonica riff. (Freewheelin’ was a big hit in The Beatles camp a the time.) While Lennon would later dismiss songs from this period as pop fluff without any greater meaning, “I Should Have Known Better” does seem like a pivotal moment in the creation of folk-rock. Among those who saw the film A Hard Day’s Night were members of The Byrds, who would infuse Dylan into jangly British Invasion-style rock more obviously the following year while also wearing capes.
86. “There’s A Place”
By now, even casual fans know that Lennon and McCartney wrote most of their hits apart, only giving each other relatively minor notes on their partner’s latest songs. But the power of Lennon/McCartney as an idea nevertheless manifests in Beatles songs when they sing together; on this early original from the debut Please Please Me, their perfectly blended vocals practically burst out of the speakers, so full of youthful yearning and spirit. They’re singing about finding a special place where they can go to escape the world, but they’ve found that place in each other.
85. “Baby You’re A Rich Man”
Critic Ian MacDonald, in the essential Revolution In The Head: The Beatles’ Records And The Sixties, called this song “The Beatles’ first full-blown ‘feel’ record.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment — he marks “Baby You’re A Rich Man” as the start of a decline from the band’s formal discipline and careful technique toward druggy indulgence. But in this case the indulgence was the point — “Baby You’re A Rich Man” is one of the earliest critiques of the ’60s counterculture’s “beautiful people,” and how revolutions have a way of simply installing outsiders into positions of power and making them slightly hipper cogs in the establishment machine. About 40 years later, David Fincher used “Baby You’re A Rich Man” to make a similar point about nerd-turned-mogul Mark Zuckerberg at the end of The Social Network.
84. “Glass Onion”
The Beatles themselves went from being lovable upstarts to omnipresent signifiers of western culture in the space of a few years, creating a tragic paradox: They became incredibly popular, and improbably despised. How is it possible that a group that “everybody” loves also happens to have two members who were violently attacked by fans — one ultimately murdered, the other maimed in the final years of his life when he was also battling cancer? With The Beatles, the line between manic love and maniac hate is precariously thin indeed. For MacDonald, “Glass Onion” typifies how reckless The Beatles could be with that love — Lennon’s mocking references to the fan-made conspiracy theories that were already running rampant in the late ’60s only served to goad the band’s least stable followers into “decoding” their songs. It’s like Trump tweeting about QAnon in order to secretly make fun of his followers, which (who knows?) he might actually be doing.
83. “Your Mother Should Know”
Magical Mystery Tour is commonly cited in Beatles’ histories as their first major failure, a warning sign after the death of Brian Epstein that they were on the road to ruin. But as is the case with so many Beatles’ “failures,” Magical Mystery Tour also falters when held to The Beatles’ own high standards. Yes, the movie is a muddle of acidhead road-movie nonsense, and the soundtrack album is no Sgt. Pepper. But the tunes are still undeniable. “Your Mother Should Know” could be dismissed as Macca on autopilot — it resembles two superior tracks from the same period, “Good Day Sunshine” and “Penny Lane” — but we should all aspire to coast at the level of 1967 Paul McCartney.
82. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
The story of the Sgt. Pepper album in recent years has been one of declining influence. Rolling Stone‘s most recent greatest albums of all time list put it at No. 24, a pointed recalibration for a record for which the No. 1 slot on that magazine’s list was a given for decades. Many Beatles fans are now inclined to view it as somewhat overrated. I took that position in my classic rock book, Twilight Of The Gods, though I’ve since had a renaissance of appreciation for The Beatles’ self-conscious studio-bound masterpiece. Perhaps the skepticism comes from Sgt. Pepper adding up to more than the sum of its parts; there are Beatles albums with a more consistent set of songs, though most don’t have the same cumulative impact (because they don’t happen to climax with the greatest album closer ever, “A Day In The Life”). But I appreciate that “cumulative” aspect of Sgt. Pepper, which carries over to it being rock’s most famous concept album, even though it’s not really a concept album. The title track — which segues cleanly into “With A Little Help From My Friends” and is reprised toward the end — was crucial in selling that illusion.
81. “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!”
Another knock on Sgt. Pepper is that, for the first time on a Beatles album, the production often outclasses the songwriting. You can’t really imagine “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” being performed on an acoustic guitar, or in any other context other than Sgt. Pepper. It’s pretty much all production, though that’s hardly a knock when the record-making is this dazzling and creative, incorporating everything from pipe organs and glockenspiels recorded at half-speed to a mini-orchestra of bass harmonicas. For all the bands that have imitated the sound of Sgt. Pepper, nothing has ever quite made the same sonic impression as “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!”
80. “I’ll Cry Instead”
Toward the end of his life, John Lennon tried to make amends for the anger of his younger years. “I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite,” he told Playboy. “But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence.” This anger was so inherent in Lennon that it came out in seemingly innocuous songs like this pop-country ditty I’ve always loved from A Hard Day’s Night, which goes to a surprisingly dark place in spite of the bouncy music. In every verse, the threat of violence exists just below the surface: “I’ve got every reason on earth to be mad / ‘Cause I just lost the only girl I had / If I could get my way / I’d get myself locked up today / But I can’t, so I’ll cry instead.”
79. “If I Needed Someone”
The Beatles inspired The Byrds, and by the time of Rubber Soul The Byrds were influencing The Beatles, most noticeably on this jangly George Harrison deep cut. In his episodic memoir I Me Mine, Harrison is charmingly self-effacing about the genesis of the song. “That guitar line, or variations on it, is found in many a song,” he writes, “and it amazes me that people still find new permutations of the same notes.” Yes, “If I Needed Someone” sounds like a lot of ’60s folk-rock songs, but it’s a very good execution of the formula.
78. “All You Need Is Love”
There are certain things that being the biggest band in the world allows you to do, and one of them is writing and performing a song called “All You Need Is Love.” Who else would even attempt to write an anthem this broad and triumphant about the transformative power of love to change the world? U2, maybe, though even Bono probably wouldn’t declare that putting all of your stock simply on the concept of love is “easy.” Only The Beatles — with John Lennon on a daily regiment of LSD for breakfast — could dare work up a song like this and not come off as megalomaniacal.
77. “Across The Universe” (Let It Be version)
John Lennon once accused Paul McCartney of sabotaging some of his greatest songs by playing “experimental games” with them. He famously trashed “Strawberry Fields Forever” — considered by many to be among the band’s greatest studio achievements — as “badly recorded,” and similarly felt that “Across The Universe” was stymied by an “atmosphere of looseness and casualness and experimentation.” While his take on “Strawberry Fields Forever” is pretty bonkers, “Across The Universe” does seem like a song that The Beatles couldn’t quite nail down. The version released as a single for the Wildlife Fund Of Great Britain is marred by bird sounds and weirdly sped-up vocals, while the take included on Let It Be has the overdone choirs and string parts endemic to that LP. Whether this was due to “experimentation” seems like pertinent than The Beatles simply lacking the energy or attention to really do the song justice. But even in its not fully realized state, “Across The Universe” ranks among Lennon’s standout “childlike” ballads.
76. “Twist And Shout”
This cover of the Isley Brothers classic is the first Beatles song I remember loving, after it was featured in the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While the Isley Brothers version is superior, “Twist And Shout” remains an essential Beatles recording because it’s closest they came on record to conveying the energy and excitement of their live show before they were famous. By the time they were superstars, they had been performing live for almost eight years, and their interest in concerts as a creative outlet had all but evaporated. (The Beatles are the greatest rock band without any real cachet as a live act.) The world missed seeing The Beatles at The Cavern, but “Twist And Shout” — recorded live at the end of the marathon one-day session for Please Please Me — almost re-makes that experience.
75. “I’ve Just Seen A Face”
The most underrated Beatles album is Help!, which falls in the no-man’s land between “early” Beatles — which peaked with A Hard Day’s Night — and “later” Beatles, which begins with Rubber Soul. Help! is a transitional LP that sticks mostly with the boy-girl themes of the early records (with some notable exceptions that we’ll address later on in this list) while delving into the introspective folk style that will eventually define Rubber Soul. The most overt folk move on Help!, “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” actually is more of a folk standard than anything on the next record; its jaunty pace and appealingly light melody makes it a natural for open-mic nights.
74. “I’m Looking Through You”
If “I’ve Just Seen A Face” points toward Rubber Soul, then the imagery of “I’m Looking Through You” from Rubber Soul hints at the druggy psychedelia about to emerge on Revolver. A McCartney number apparently inspired by a fight with his then-girlfriend Jane Asher, “I’m Looking Through You” also has a slightly trippy vibe that suits Rubber Soul‘s slightly trippy album cover: “You don’t look different but you have changed.” The robust acoustic guitar riff resembles the strummy hits that Neil Diamond wrote for The Monkees a few years later.
Peak folkie Paul. Also one of Charles Manson’s favorite Beatles songs; he took Paul’s sunny civil rights message as an invitation to start a race war in Los Angeles. As for McCartney, he said “Blackbird” was also inspired by Bach, one of The Beatles’ favorite composers because “we felt we had a lot in common with him,” he once said. Likening themselves to Bach, again, is something only The Beatles could get away with.
72. “I’m So Tired”
Part of loving The White Album is appreciating the drama of The White Album. It’s their “reality TV” record, an unflattering portrait of a beloved band trapped by fame and their disdain for each other, and pouring out those feelings in songs about sheepdogs and piggies. In that regard, “I’m So Tired” is one of The White Album‘s most pivotal tracks. You don’t need to know much Beatles history to detect what is making John Lennon tired; his vocal is one of the finest expressions of mental and emotional anguish ever put on record. Lennon’s cracked voice is really what sells “I’m So Tired”; it’s not necessarily a great song, but it is a wonderful, riveting performance.
71. “Within You Without You”
By all accounts, George Harrison was mostly checked out of the Sgt. Pepper sessions. He had actually threatened to walk out on the band in 1966, and though he ultimately returned to the fold he didn’t seem all that invested in The Beatles’ ambitious new project. The first song he offered, “Only A Northern Song,” was soundly rejected, eventually showing up as an afterthought on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. (Beatles critics are normally dismissive of “Only A Northern Song,” a not-so-veiled attack on the band’s song publisher Northern Songs, but I appreciate its organ-driven surliness.) Now under the gun, George stepped up with his most successful raga-rock experiment, “Within You Without You,” which sums up his worldview as well as any of his songs: “Try to realize it’s all within yourself, no-one else can make you change / And to see you’re really only very small / And life flows on within you and without you.”
70. “Doctor Robert”
Their funniest drug song, and one of the most evocative and satirical portraits of mid-’60s Swinging London in rock. (It’s more like a Kinks song than a Beatles track, if only Ray Davies had been deeper into psychedelics and quack physicians.) Musically, “Doctor Robert” is the hardest rocking Beatles song of the era, its snarling two-guitar attack pointing toward the Mick Taylor years of The Rolling Stones several years later.
69. “Baby’s In Black”
Along with Help!, the 1964 album Beatles For Sale is part of the band’s “not quite early period, and not yet late period” era in the mid-’60s. This is where negativity and bad vibes were allowed to ever so slightly creep into The Beatles’ worldview, though what stands out most about the waltzing “Baby’s In Black” is the vibrancy of Lennon and McCartney’s harmonies, which are exquisite throughout the record.
68. “No Reply”
Another “dark” Beatles For Sale track, as well as another peek into the profound fury that lurked even in Lennon’s relatively straightforward pop songs. “No Reply” brings to mind another Liverpudlian songwriter who was in grade school at the time this song was released — the sudden intro to the first verse, the impassioned chorus, and the barely restrained atmosphere of violence hinting at profound male insecurity are all hallmarks of Elvis Costello’s work. (Ladies: Beware of Liverpudlian exes.) This is John Lennon’s “No Action.”
67. “Oh! Darling”
This ’50s-style rocker from Abbey Road was yet another source of tension between John and Paul — the latter wrote it, and the former believed that he should have sung it. For years afterward, nearly up until the moment that he died, Lennon insisted that he would have sung “Oh! Darling” better than McCartney, and was kept from doing so due to their ongoing (and in this case presumably misguided) competition. While it’s interesting to contemplate what a John version of “Oh! Darling” would have sounded like, Paul really does slay the song, summoning all of the scream-y mojo from years of singing of Little Richard covers back in the band’s club days.
66. “Two Of Us”
Paul McCartney’s line on the wistful opener from Let It Be is that he wrote it about his burgeoning romance with Linda Eastman, soon to become his first wife. But nobody believes this: “You and I have memories / Longer than the road that stretches out ahead” hardly seems to describe what was at the time a relatively young romance with the daughter of a prominent entertainment lawyer. Fans have long viewed “Two Of Us” as an autobiography about rock’s most celebrated partnership, rendered in tender two-part harmony at the moment when it was coming undone. It’s like “Tangled Up In Blue” if Bob Dylan had let his wife Sara sing on it.
65. “Fool On The Hill”
This song is singled out as one of the best examples of Paul McCartney applying himself as a lyricist, which is not something he appeared to do all that much once he left The Beatles. (All due respect to legit Wings bangers like “Mumbo” and “Big Barn Red.”) “Fool On The Hill” resembles “Eleanor Rigby” as well as Lennon’s “Nowhere Man,” in that it’s about an outsider who is alienated from mainstream society to the point of invisibility. The difference is one of perspective — unlike Lennon, McCartney isn’t lecturing the protagonist (“Nowhere Man, please listen”); he also isn’t playing this story for tragedy, as he did in “Rigby.” The “fool” in this case is the sort of starry-eyed dreamer that was deified by rich baby-boomer rock stars.
64. “Fixing A Hole”
For years Beatles fans hilariously thought this song was about heroin, which would have put Macca on the same level as Lou Reed in 1967. In fact, as McCartney explained to biographer Barry Miles, “Fixing A Hole” was about “pissy people” who tell you not to daydream, putting it squarely in the “Fool On The Hill” zone. (Even a band as busy at The Beatles were in the ’60s just wanted to sit around and stare at walls.) On Sgt. Pepper, “Fixing A Hole” stands out as a rare instance of them playing together as a band, and knocking out a track relatively quickly.
63. “Mother Nature’s Son”
While Abbey Road is frequently cited as The Beatles’ “FM rock” record, hitting upon the trends that would come to dominate ’70s AOR, you can also trace a lot of that sonic ponderousness back to The White Album, the so-called back-to-basics move in which “minimal production” is a construct requiring significant production. “Mother Nature’s Son,” for instance, resembles the spacey psych-folk that would soon become the stock and trade of Pink Floyd, the most overtly Beatlesque outfit of the post-British Invasion generation of U.K. bands. It’s pastoral, a little stoned, and somewhat proggy, though McCartney is too pop to let “Mother Nature’s Son” drift too far into outer space.
62. “Martha My Dear”
Another White Album track that helped to invent ’70s rock, “Martha My Dear” proves that Jeff Lynne wasn’t merely exaggerating Beatles cliches in Electric Light Orchestra. He was studying the original texts and trying to hit upon the poppy, pompous magic of a cute bass player lionizing his dog. (Later, Lynne wisely added synthesizers and disco basslines because the rock audience had stopped dropping acid every five minutes and instead starting snorting cocaine every five seconds.)
61. “Good Day Sunshine”
This is the sort of perfectly crafted pop song that can easily seem a little blasé if you spend a week only listening to The Beatles. “Good Day Sunshine” wasn’t a hit, and I’m not sure it’s among the five best songs on Revolver. But in the ’80s and ’90s, a whole generation of bands whose aesthetic was dressing like Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and making vaguely kitschy retro music made hours upon hours of songs that attempted and failed to achieve what The Beatles pull off with minimal apparent effort in just two minutes and nine seconds on “Good Day Sunshine.”
60. “It Won’t Be Long”
Recorded after The Beatles had their first British hit with “Please Please Me,” but before the release of “She Loves You,” which really kicked them eternally into the stratosphere. They were now consciously trying to write hits with the belief that they could be actual hits, and therefore weren’t above recycling themselves. But the “yeah yeah yeah’s” in “It Won’t Be Long” aren’t exuberant like they are in “She Loves You,” they’re more desperate and hectoring. Another one of Lennon’s early “angry stalker” pop songs.
59. “I’m A Loser”
As an influence, Lennon had a love-hate relationship with Bob Dylan driven by his envy and sense of competition. (On a personal level, they were bros who enjoyed getting stoned and listening to Procal Harum’s “A White Shade Of Pale” in the back of limousines.) “I’m A Loser” is his most blatant Dylan homage, though Dylan (1) was rarely this declarative in his self-hatred and (2) was not playing rock music at the time this song was released. In his attempt to rip Dylan off in 1964, Lennon predicted what Dylan would sound like in 1965.
58. “Hey Bulldog”
Yellow Submarine is the second most beloved Beatles movie after A Hard Day’s Night, which is pretty amazing considering that the band had minimal involvement and looked upon the project with barely disguised contempt. The soundtrack became a dumping ground for Sgt. Pepper/Magical Mystery Tour castoffs like the dreadful “All Together Now,” the one Beatles song that might be as lazily written as Paul McCartney’s infamous 9/11 anthem, “Freedom.” But the soundtrack does include one undeniable winner in “Hey Bulldog,” which has a smokin’ guitar solo and a killer groove that music critics today would classify as “motorik.”
57. “Please Please Me”
The hook of The Beatles’ first hit — the “come on, come on” bit — is Patient Zero for every power pop band that came after. It’s welcoming, and has serious momentum, and dudes with shaggy haircuts and Rickenbacker guitars still can’t get enough of it nearly 60 years later.
56. “Things We Said Today”
McCartney has called this beautiful, driving A Hard Day’s Night deep cut an exercise in “future nostalgia” — it’s about a young guy thinking about a time when he’s old and feels wistful about the moment the guy is currently in — which means he anticipated Dua Lipa nearly 50 years early.
Of all the dead rock stars who never had the chance to be on social media, Jim Morrison unquestionably would be the most obnoxious. But John Lennon would probably be right after him. Instead of tweets, Lennon wrote songs like “Revolution,” which expresses ambivalence about youth movements in politics that resort to violence. In 1968, The Beatles were excoriated as rich, out-of-touch rock stars for putting out “Revolution,” and I imagine that if The Beatles were a contemporary band in 2020 they would have also been dragged on the same grounds. But messages aside: This is the dirtiest, noisiest single they ever released, and also the first to be featured in a Nike ad. That just about sums up this song’s contradictions perfectly.
54. “Helter Skelter”
Even The Beatles suffered from the “Losing My Edge” syndrome in the late ’60s — they kept close tabs on younger, edgier bands and did their best to stay current. “Helter Skelter” was famously inspired by Paul McCartney reading about The Who and essentially trying to do outdo them in the “dirty and loud rawk” department. (It’s their version of R.E.M.’s Monster.) Now this song is known mostly for its negative mojo — not only did it provoke Charles Manson to command his cult of hippie burnouts to murder affluent Angelenos, but it also inspired U2 to “take it back” from Manson via a incredibly dull cover on Rattle & Hum.
53. “With A Little Help From My Friends”
This is mostly a McCartney song, though Lennon added the most quotable line: “What do you see when you turn out the light / I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine.” The best dick joke outside of an AC/DC song in rock history.
52. “And Your Bird Can Sing”
A prime example of the blessedly thick and gloriously chunky guitar sound Revolver, the best all-around Beatles album for riffs (and perhaps the best all-around Beatles album, period). Lyrically, this is one of Lennon’s “no one I think is in my tree” songs — the person he’s addressing thinks he’s hip, but John is here to point out that this guy hasn’t seen me, which means he knows nothing. (It’s the opposite of McCartney’s “You Won’t See Me” from Rubber Soul, in which the protagonist blames himself for not being seen, rather than turning it into a humblebrag.) Once again, this would be unforgivable megalomania if it weren’t forwarded by 1960s John Lennon.
51. “I’m Only Sleeping”
This is a song in which sleeping/dreaming is used as a metaphor for the acid experience. It’s blissful and floaty, whereas “I’m So Tired” is merely exhausted. It also describes the inevitable sensation of having smoked weed all day long and not being unable to keep your eyes open. (In contrast, Bob Dylan was deep into speed around this time, which informs the extremely wired Blonde On Blonde.) A highlight is George Harrison’s backward guitar solo, a sound that became standard for a million hacky dream sequences afterward.
My favorite Beatles-related thing that wasn’t made by The Beatles is the brilliant parody band The Rutles fronted by the late, great Neil Innes, and featured in the classic 1978 film All You Need Is Cash. Weirdly (or perhaps appropriately) Innes eventually fell out with his creative partner in the project, Eric Idle, over issues of control and money.
But I’ll never get sick of hearing “Cheese And Onions.”
50. “I Feel Fine”
Supposedly the first instance of deliberate feedback on a rock recording. But this John Lennon song doesn’t so much make me think about Sonic Youth as it does Paul McCartney. “I Feel Fine” is really a Paul song that happened to have been written by John — like “Can’t Buy Me Love” or “Eight Days A Week” it seeks only to make the listener feel supremely good (or fine, as it were). This, of course, ranks among the noblest pursuits for music, and “I Feel Fine” is highly noble indeed.
49. “She’s Leaving Home”
One of the most perceptive things ever said about The Beatles — I think it was Allen Ginsberg — is that they were the rare ’60s youth phenomenon that set out to close rather than exacerbate the generation gap. Their most zeitgeist-y album, Sgt. Pepper, is also the one most nostalgic for the bygone culture of their parents. With “She’s Leaving Home,” they actually empathize more with the hard-working parents than the ungrateful child lighting up for greener pastures, presumably London or even San Francisco. (Apparently the real-life woman who inspired “She’s Leaving Home” coincidentally met the band three years prior— once you literally meet The Beatles, it’s hard to go back home.)
48. “Paperback Writer”
John Lennon once chided Paul McCartney for writing so many character-based songs in The Beatles, preferring his own autobiographical approach. But Macca’s literary style frequently paid off in the mid-’60s, when he specialized in songs about people on the outskirts of society trying and failing to become insiders. “Paperback Writer” is his take on the low-rent, cynical side of show business; it’s a slightly less obvious version of The Byrds’ “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” with a slightly better guitar riff.
47. “All My Loving”
In terms of purely exciting song intros, it’s hard to top “All My Loving.” “Close your eyes,” Paul McCartney sings right before the band comes crashing in, and it’s just about the greatest expression of teenage carnal excitement ever captured on record. As the band’s most overt and least embarrassed sex symbol, Paul was ruthlessly precise about presenting himself as the ultimate cute boyfriend in The Beatles’ early singles. He’s sweet, yes, but on “All My Loving” he’s also foxy as hell.
46. “I Saw Her Standing There”
“Well she was just 17 / and you know what I mean” obviously isn’t a lyric that’s aged all that well, though you could say the same about 80 percent of Chuck Berry’s discography. Setting aside the statutory rape implications, “I Saw Her Standing There” is an expression of pure rock ‘n’ roll energy, which is conveyed via the still potent energy of the recording. George Martin at the time had virtually no experience working with rock bands, and yet his ability to capture the power that The Beatles had as a live act on Please Please Me remains impressive. (Ringo’s drum sound is especially zesty here.) Not bad for a guy who definitely didn’t know what Paul meant in the first line of the song.
45. “Getting Better”
This is the other most cancelable song in the Beatles catalogue, with the offhand reference to beating your woman and keeping her from the things that she loves. Hearing those words (written by John) come out of Paul’s mouth on an otherwise characteristically bouncy and upbeat track is extremely disconcerting and incongruous, like Joker if the Joaquin Phoenix role had been played by Ed Sheeran.
44. “Here, There And Everywhere”
One of McCartney’s personal favorites, and an impossibly gorgeous and gooey love song. But as a recording, it doesn’t quite land for me. The band sounds distant and muted, because they don’t really need to be there. Having McCartney play the song on an acoustic guitar — either by himself or very modest backing — would have worked better, which is confirmed by the MTV Unplugged version from the late ’80s. Of course, I am not George Martin, but rather just some idiot online, so what do I know?
43. “Nowhere Man”
As an overt “message” song about the ignorance of mainstream society, “Nowhere Man” has no right being as good as it is. But Lennon’s vocal is magnificent and the rhythm track swings. Weirdly, Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen both lifted the concept of this song for tracks called “Nothingman” (Pearl Jam) and “Nothing Man” (Springsteen).
An anti-government song that resembles the Batman TV show theme, “Taxman” is The Beatles’ Daily Wire track, taking a firm stance against taxation while also implicitly endorsing vigilantes. Lennon assisted Harrison on this track, and many years later he vented his frustration over not being mentioned a single time in Harrison’s book, I Me Mine, which he took as a pointed gesture of disrespect and a sign that George didn’t appreciate him. I guess admitting that you need help does not fit with the libertarian ethos of “Taxman.”
A B-side recorded at the time of Revolver that didn’t end up on the album but somehow signifies that period as well as anything that actually did make it on the record. For me, the superlatives for “Rain” begin and end with Paul McCartney’s incredible bass playing, which is busy in the best possible way (a classification that applies to most McCartney basslines recorded between 1966 and 1970). While The Beatles recorded more obvious “drug” songs than this, “Rain” is the single most inviting track for the psychedelic experience. Listening to it feels like staring intently at a lava lamp and then realizing that the lamp somehow cogently explains the meaning of life.
40. “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party”
Among the most under-appreciated Lennon-sung Beatles songs. I love everything about it, starting with the wonderfully passive-aggressive title. But what really makes this Beatles For Sale deep cut so killer are the wonderful two-part harmonies. Did any two people in a rock band who weren’t related sing as perfectly together as John and Paul? The high lonesome lilt of the “I still love her!” part in the chorus gives me a 2 a.m. after-bar contact buzz.
39. “If I Fell”
At their best, John and Paul sang so close to each other that their voices actually melded into a single entity, which made John and Paul a single entity. You really hear that on this song, which was written by John but retains a Paul vibe. Again, the high harmony on the chorus — “‘Cause I couldn’t stand the pain!” — will murder you.
38. “Dig A Pony”
Yet another song that John Lennon called a piece of garbage — presumably after he revised his opinion on small horses — but this is one of the best and most kinetic riffs in the Beatles’ canon. But don’t take my word for it, please listen to this excellent cover by St. Vincent.
37. “Day Tripper”
Another monster riff. The Beatles monster riff. The joke about the supposed Beatles vs. Rolling Stones rivalry in the ’60s is that whatever The Beatles did, The Rolling Stones would do something similar three months later. But in the case of “Day Tripper,” I wonder if John Lennon was subconsciously trying to write a Stones song. It was recorded not long after the summer of 1965, which was dominated by “Satisfaction.” (The riff also resembles “The Last Time.”) The message is clear — The Stones can try to be us, but The Beatles can be them whenever they wish.
36. “A Hard Day’s Night”
The theme of their first movie, “A Hard Day’s Night” is The Beatles in James Bond mode. The point of this song is to convey how awesome it was to be in The Beatles in 1964 — you’re constantly working because everyone wants a piece of you, but at the end of the day there’s always a beautiful woman waiting to make you feel better. The pacing is appropriately brisk, almost breathless, but also in complete control. At this point, The Beatles weren’t yet interested in showing the world how pressure-filled their lives could be. “A Hard Day’s Night” is rock star aspirational porn.
35. “Cry Baby Cry”
I might be overrating this song a bit, as I am a professed fan of The White Album and inclined to go for relatively minor deep cuts that have that distinctive White Album atmosphere of strung-out glamour. If I were a Rubber Soul person, I would probably have “The Word” in this spot.
34.”Let It Be”
The knock against this stately standard from some Beatles aficionados is that it’s a little obvious and tries a little too hard. These are criticisms that could be levied against most Paul songs — except for the ones where he clearly isn’t trying at all — but in the case of “Let It Be,” it does sound a bit like McCartney attempting to write another anthem in the form of “Hey Jude.” (It also feels like a rip-off of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which was released as a single two months before “Let It Be,” though “Let It Be” was actually recorded one year earlier. Maybe Paul Simon ripped off McCarney.) In the end, however, “Let It Be” is a profoundly moving song about your dead mother reassuring you that your post-Beatles solo career will be extremely successful.
This isn’t technically part of the side two Abbey Road medley, even though it feels like it. The most beautiful ever showcase for The Beatles’ harmonies, “Because” was labored over in the studio, with five hours spent on vocals alone. It was among the last times that Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison huddled together and worked in such close proximity. Never in the history of the toxic workplaces has there been a more incongruously harmonious product than “Because.”
32. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”
Based on numerous reports, John Lennon lapsed into heroin addiction in 1968, and it’s impossible to hear this song and not think about that. I have no idea if this song accurately conveys the experience of feeling strung out, as I have never taken heroin in order to confirm my suspicions about Beatles music. But it’s certainly evocative of what I imagine that experience to be like. Basically, being addicted to heroin according to “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is sort of like hearing a series of musical fragments that have been stitched together in a manner that shouldn’t make sense but absolutely do.
Lennon later claimed that “Help!” was a literal cry for help in the midst of Beatlemania, though the other Beatles don’t recall him ever stating that outright when they were recording it. “Help!” certainly has a manic edge that their previous movie theme, “A Hard Day’s Night,” does not. The mile-a-minute allure of the previous track is amped ever so slightly toward something more manic and terrifying. The Beatles revolutionized so many things in rock music; subtweeting about the awfulness of your own fame is among the tropes they invented.
30. “Get Back”
In the Paul vs. John drama, this Paul song was interpreted (by John) as being about Yoko. Paul, meanwhile, conceived it as a mission statement for the ill-fated Get Back project, in which The Beatles returned to playing live as a band. This is all Beatles 101, though nobody knows for sure what the truth is. Personally, I think John and Paul were both right — Yoko was JoJo, and “Get Back” would’ve cooked as a live Beatles staple had the band followed through on performing a formal concert with an audience. Instead, we have the famous rooftop concert from early ’69, a spontaneous concession to the fact that The Beatles despised each other too much to plan out a real live performance. It’s also one of the coolest things any band has ever done. Even their screw-ups turned out brilliantly. No one has ever failed more successfully than The Beatles.
It’s a testament to how good this song is that it can been beaten and abused by so many sleepy Muzak renditions (plus a 2019 film that I can’t bring myself to watch because I can’t stand cringing for 120 minutes straight) and still stand as one of The Beatles’ finest recorded achievements. Their quintessential ballad, and the one Beatles song I probably never need to hear again.
28. “In My Life”
Like “Yesterday,” this is a beautiful ballad that’s been marred by years of abuse at the hands of industry hacks who seek only to exploit its most treacly, sentimental aspects. “In My Life” took on a different dimension after Lennon died, though what’s incredible about the song is that he was able to write a song called “In My Life” when he was only in his mid-20s. It typifies the weird nostalgia that sets in around the time, when people who are extremely young start lamenting that their 26th birthday signifies impending decrepitude, annoying all of the actual old people in their vicinity. In Lennon’s case, he really had lived a lifetime or two of extraordinary circumstances, so it was justified.
27. “She Said She Said”
The last song recorded for Revolver, “She Said She Said” is a rare Beatles track that Paul McCartney does not play on. (He apparently stormed out of the studio over a disagreement concerning the song’s arrangement.) In the Beatles’ world, accidents of circumstance always end up having greater significance; John Lennon jokingly uttering a nonsense phrase like “cranberry sauce” can mistakenly convince millions of people that Paul McCartney was secretly killed in 1966. But for “She Said She Said,” it turns out that the Lennon-Harrison-Starr power trio is precisely what this paranoid drug rocker needed. Without Paul’s careful and pop-conscious eye, “She Said She Said” came out delightfully raw and heady.
26. “Sexy Sadie”
If you read this song superficially, it appears to be about an arrogant scenester who is called out by John Lennon for committing some unspoken transgression. But as any Beatles fan knows, Lennon actually was talking about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi after he supposedly made a pass at Mia Farrow during The Beatles’ famous India retreat in 1968. Given that the vast majority of people learned about the Maharishi via “Sexy Sadie,” this song is probably the most famous act of character assassination ever. George Harrison was among those who called the Farrow accusation “total bullshit” in later years. That, however, did not prevent George from laying down some truly excellent guitar in the outro of this song.
25. “We Can Work It Out”
Stevie Wonder’s version is one of the all-time Beatles covers, along with Joe Cocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” and Wilson Pickett’s “Hey Jude.” (Meanwhile, all disrespect intended to Jim Carrey’s “I Am The Walrus.”) But as good as Stevie’s “We Can Work It Out” is, it doesn’t have the tension of Paul and John playing off each other in their respective sections — Paul’s bouncy, optimistic verses, and John’s more measured and downtrodden middle eight. Yes, they’re playing to type, but “We Can Work It Out” helped to define those types.
24. “I’ve Got A Feeling”
By the time of Let It Be, John and Paul were just singing their “type” parts over each other, like they do to wondrous effect at the end of this song. The Lennon part — “Everybody had a wet dream / everybody saw the sun shine” — would not work on its own, and yet it’s the best part of this song. In the film — which was pulled off the market years ago, and will presumably be replaced by the forthcoming Peter Jackson documentary, sadly — “I’ve Got A Feeling” is a breaking point for Paul and George, with Paul’s constant needling over the descending guitar part in the middle causing George to famously snap, “I’ll play whatever you want me to play. Or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.” Fun fact: In terms of cheeky Liverpudlian slang, “whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it” actually means “fuck you.”
23. “Here Comes The Sun”
The essential aspect of The Beatles story that is so interesting to me — and I’m guessing many other people, perhaps subconsciously — is that it’s really about how friendships forged in your teen years are in many ways the strongest you’ll ever have, and also the ones you most have to get beyond in order to realize your full potential. As the Beatle who came to hate being in The Beatles before anyone else, George Harrison seemed to understand this about the band better than the rest. Unlike Ringo, he resented being a subordinate to Lennon and McCartney, while at the same time thriving on the negative energy that powered his creativity. As The Beatles grew weaker interpersonally, George’s music got stronger, culminating in his twin classics for Abbey Road, “Here Comes The Sun” and “Something.” (Once The Beatles were fully behind him after the triumph of All Things Must Pass, his work got significantly worse.)
22. “Come Together”
With apologies to “I Saw Her Standing There,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and “Taxman,” this is the greatest Beatles side 1, track 1. Chuck Berry’s publisher sued after Lennon lifted some lines from “You Can’t Catch Me,” and John later recorded the Rock ‘n’ Roll album as part of the settlement. But the real heart of the song is Lennon’s electric piano solo, the most legitimately bluesy moment in all of The Beatles’ discography, and Paul’s iconic bass playing, which was given additional heft with Giles Martin’s remix in 2019.
21. “I Am The Walrus”
One of the all-time great Beatles productions — take a bow, George Martin — and an absolutely nightmarish set of lyrics by John Lennon. The imagery here is as grotesque and seductive as any Lou Reed song: “Yellow matter custard / Dripping from a dead dog’s eye / Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess / Boy, you’ve been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down.” This song was later covered by Oasis, who never sounded like The Beatles but managed to make them louder and drunker in a way I think Lennon would have appreciated.
20. “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”
John’s best Dylan homage, and a much improved rewrite of “I’m A Loser.” If Dylan had written “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” in 1965, it would have been eight minutes long and be fashioned as an accusation at some unnamed hipster (probably a woman) that Bob was pissed at on that particular day. Lennon’s song, however, is directed outward and breezes by in just two minutes and nine seconds. When Dylan delved into this thematic territory — self-doubt, romantic longing, spiritual confusion — he usually drifted off into (brilliant) poetic obscurity. When Lennon did it, it sounded like a barroom sing-along.
19. “And I Love Her”
Paul’s first great love song, which is sort of like talking about Babe Ruth’s first home run. The addition of the word “And” in the title always makes me chuckle — it makes “I love her” sound like an afterthought, though as a writer Paul meant to put his own feelings about this goddess in the context of all the wonderful things about her. In that way, the song carries surprising philosophical insight — in terms of the universe (bright stars and dark skies, etc.) my feelings for you might be highly melodic but they’re still relatively insignificant, which is a very Beatlesque way of looking at the world.
18. “I Want To Hold Your Hand”
As a person born seven years after The Beatles broke up, I suspect I’m underrating this song. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is the track that made them a phenomenon in America, setting the stage for their historic Ed Sullivan performance. For that reason, it must certainly rank among the most world-changing pop singles ever. But I wasn’t around for that, so it’s hard for me to appreciate it as much as I should. As a latecomer Gen Xer, however, what I respond to is this song’s unbridled joy. There are no “down” parts to “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” It starts on a high note, and then the chorus goes even higher, and then the handclaps come in on the second verse which somehow take it even higher. The Beatles became stars, first and foremost, because they made people feel good, and this song still has the capacity to do that.
17. “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”
Rubber Soul was the first “adult” Beatles album, as well as their original “weed” LP. You can feel both of those attributes in one of the record’s standouts, “Norwegian Wood,” a song that countless adults have played while smoking weed. This isn’t about holding a girl’s hand or likening your feelings to the shining stars in the sky. The characters definitely have sex during the instrumental break in the middle, and then part ways without having any particularly strong feelings for one another. Depending on when you hear “Norwegian Wood,” the encounter it describes seems either thrilling and cosmopolitan (teenager) or lonely and sad (non-teenager). Either way, a rich short story set to innovative sitar licks.
16. “For No One”
Anyone looking to make a “Paul is a great lyricist when he wants to be” argument needs to start here. This is his “Norwegian Wood,” and it actually goes even deeper and darker than John’s song. “For No One” became one of my favorite Beatles songs when the scenario Paul describes — a couple falls out of love, they know it’s over, but for now they’re now stuck in the same apartment until one of them can move out — happened to me in my mid-20s. “You stay home, she goes out / She says that long ago she knew someone but now he’s gone / She doesn’t need him.” It really is the best-observed song ever written about a very specific break-up situation.
15. “Eleanor Rigby”
With the possible exception of John Prine’s “Hello In There” and about a dozen Ray Davies songs, “Eleanor Rigby” is the most notable “senior citizen” song in rock history. Another fantastic McCartney lyric, and another example of The Beatles empathizing with old people at the precise moment when the generation gap was exploding. Though the point of The Beatles wasn’t “old people are cool,” but rather “anybody, with a little care and patience, can be cool, so let’s celebrate that.”
14. “Ticket To Ride”
John Lennon once called this the first heavy metal record, presumably because of the loud, ringing guitar and Ringo’s absolutely titanic-sounding drums. Counterpoint: In 2004, Ozzy Osbourne listed three Beatles tunes in his personal top 10 favorites songs ever, and the earliest of those tracks — before “A Day In The Life” and “Hey Jude” — was “Yesterday.” Therefore, “Yesterday” is the first heavy metal record.
13. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”
John complained later about the production on this song, which is an opinion that’s definitely not shared by the approximately 127,000 psych-rock bands that have attempted to rip off “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” Personally, I (along with most right-thinking people) believe that “LitSwD” sounds incredible. But John’s lyrics are what really put this song into the upper Beatles echelons for me. You won’t find better childlike acidhead evocative nonsense anywhere: “Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain / Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies / Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers / That grow so incredibly high.”
The most famous song that George Harrison ever wrote, which is probably why he hated Paul’s bass playing on it so much. George finally had his chance in the spotlight on his first Beatles A-side, and here’s Paul playing notes like Chris Squire after downing a case of Mountain Dew. Even when George steps forward for a lovely guitar solo, Paul is melting faces with some seriously melodic lines. Now, as a person who loves Macca’s bass playing and pretty much every George Harrison song released between 1968 and 1973, “Something” is a total masterpiece for me. The tension is palpable, but it comes out sounding tuneful and blissful in typical Beatles fashion.
11. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”
There are two kinds of Beatles fans: Those who feel that “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” goes on for too long at the end, and those who wish that the end of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” went on and on (and on) for another 10 minutes. I am in the latter group. (I assume Noel Gallagher feels the same, as Be Here Now sounds like a man listening to the end of “I Want You” on repeat with a shipping container full of cocaine.) The main guitar riff is what I plan on having echo in my head when I’m on my deathbed, barely coherent and reaching for the light, and reveling in the most extreme heaviness known to man.
10. “Don’t Let Me Down”
In the annals of heartbreaking John Lennon vocals, I have a special place in my heart for the bridge of “Don’t Let Me Down,” when he sings: “I’m in love for the first time / don’t you know it’s going to last / It’s a love that lasts forever / it’s a love that had no past.” This is another late-period song that seems to comment on the band’s impending break-up; John is singing about falling in love with Yoko, and expressing his preference for a relationship that doesn’t have the kind of baggage that his union with The Beatles has. It’s why “Don’t Let Me Down,” though technically a love song, feels more like a farewell. He’s not asking that Yoko not let him down, but rather his bandmates as he moves on with his life.
9. “She Loves You”
This is a love song, obviously, but it’s about feeling happy that other people are in love. She loves you, not me, and you know you should be glad. It’s a voyeuristic kind of love, but it’s also kind and supportive voyeurism. People loved The Beatles because they were the ultimate “rock band as gang” archetype, and they latched on to “She Loves You” specifically because this song makes you feel as loved by The Beatles as they loved each other. This song invites you into their inner circle, indulging the common fantasy that The Beatles might actually come to know you. In “She Loves You,” they’re looking out for you, and like any true pal they’ll even tell you when you’re acting like a jerk. And when you win, they’re happy for you, yeah yeah yeah.
8. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
We have reached a moment in our culture in which it is required when discussing Eric Clapton to contextualize him either as (1) an impeccably bearded white supremacist or (2) a woefully boring dad-rock blues guitarist. However, on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” it must be said that Clapton did a beautiful job with the solo until Prince came along 36 years later and stole it from him.
7. “Hey Jude”
I recognize that I read too much into Beatles songs because I’m obsessed with the relationships between the band members. But The Beatles themselves did this, too. John thought “Hey Jude” was about him, whereas Paul insisted that it was about John’s son Julian. But after John died, Paul sort of agreed that it was about John, at least the line about how the movement you need is on your shoulder, as that was the lyric that Paul wanted to cut but kept in because John liked it. If the back story here is messy and incoherent, it’s only because the deepest and most meaningful relationships of anyone’s life typically unfold in strange and unpredictable ways. You love each other, but you’re destined to drift apart. You hate each other, and yet your family-like bond makes it impossible to stay mad. I think about all of this during the last verse, when John gingerly sings with Paul about taking a sad song and making it better. For me, it’s the tear-jerkiest moment of The Beatles career.
6. “Penny Lane”
Is there a happier song about childhood than “Penny Lane”? My childhood was sort of terrible and spent in the upper Midwest, but this song somehow makes me nostalgic for an imagined upbringing in Liverpool, filled with kind barbers and finger pies and clean fire engines and bankers who don’t wear macs, whatever “a mac” is. It’s The Beatles taking their biography and elevating it to myth without being the least bit insufferable; this again was The Beatles welcoming you into their world, which seems so much cozier and all-around better than this one. Musically, “Penny Lane” is as exquisite as any Beatles song, from Paul’s elegant yet chunky piano playing (apparently performed without a click track) to David Mason’s transcendent piccolo solo.
5. “Dear Prudence”
The guitar lick on this song is so quintessentially Lennonesque that you can hear infinite variations in the bands that have aped The Beatles, from Pink Floyd to Tame Impala. While “Dear Prudence” wasn’t a hit, it signifies what the band was about in their “late” stage better than any song I can think of. It’s pretty and has a great melody, but it’s also looser and spacier than their pre-Rubber Soul work. It exhibits all of the craft that you would expect from a Beatles tune, but it also benefits from some happy accidents. (Like Ringo not being around to play drums, allowing for Paul to step up with some show-offy fills at the song’s climax.) “Dear Prudence” sounds a little like a lot of other bands, but nobody nailed this specific vibe of English hippie pastoral pop-rock as well as them.
4. “Strawberry Fields Forever”
“Penny Lane” is the childhood I wish I had; “Strawberry Fields Forever” is closer to the one I actually experienced. There is awe and wonder in this song, but also fear and psychic danger, that feeling that something out there is unknowable and frightening and just waiting for you. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is also about John realizing that he was at the absolute center of the world when he wrote it — 1966 in Spain while filming How I Won The War with Richard Lester — and unlike virtually every other rock star who has ever felt that way, he was actually correct. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is the apex of The Beatles realizing any crazy ambition that came into their heads, even if it meant melding with ancient equipment two different takes recorded at different tempos. Whatever they imagined, they made real. A masterpiece of mellotrons and Cuisinarted Ringo beats.
3. “Tomorrow Never Knows”
John Bonham’s Godzilla stomping in Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” is the greatest drum track in rock history. Ringo’s part in “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a close second. If Bonzo typifies straight-forward, in-the-pocket rock drumming at its best, Ringo showed what it meant to surrender to the void. Special attention should also be paid to Paul McCartney (who told Ringo what to play) and engineer Geoff Emerick, who pioneered close-miking drums at the start of the Revolver sessions to make Ringo sound positively God-like. Emerick also was charged with making “Tomorrow Never Knows,” at Lennon’s request, sound like a thousand Tibetan monks chanting on a mountaintop. I suppose he was using the chanting monks as a metaphor for “epic-sounding.” Whereas now the handy short-hand for epic is simply “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
2. Abbey Road Medley (“You Never Give Me Your Money” > “Sun King” > “Mean Mr. Mustard” > “Polythene Pam” > “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” > “Golden Slumbers” > “Carry That Weight” > “The End” > “Her Majesty”)
Is it cheating to count the nine-song Abbey Road medley as all one track? I never give you my number, I only give you my situation, which is this: I have always considered this album’s side two as one piece functioning as a closing statement for The Beatles’ career, and I’m not about to change my thinking now. This is rightly seen as Paul’s finest achievement — he pieced it together, he wrote the most crucial songs anchoring the piece with emotional gravitas (“You Never Give Me Your Money” and “Golden Slumbers”), and he topped it off with a perfect Beatles epitaph (“The love you make is equal to the love you take”). But the medley also feels like a true group achievement, in that it once again shows that The Beatles could spin genius out of what most bands would regard as a calamity. A mortal might hear song scraps assembled by a band on its last legs. But the gods made it a centerpiece of one of the most popular albums ever.
1. “A Day In The Life”
There’s a reason why this song always tops Beatles songs list. Everything comes together here — John and Paul wrote together brilliantly, George Martin heard their zany ideas (a chord that lasts forever!) and found a way to execute them, Ringo laid down some sick drum fills, the mundane details of everyday life were put through The Beatles extraordinary lens and made to appear mind-blowing, and some backward vocals were laid down for the conspiracy theorists. Beatles haters (who I guess exist?) also have much to relish here — “A Day In The Life” is self-consciously ponderous, compositionally busy, and proudly druggy. If you resent baby boomers, you’re probably sick of hearing how great this song is. It is the peak of the ’60s, and the beginning of the end of that generation’s virtues. But The Beatles truly transcend all that. I didn’t grow up when The Beatles were together, but I still grew up with The Beatles. People still grow up with The Beatles. Paul once said he felt kinship with Bach, because The Beatles are Bach. (The Bachles?) When all of The Beatles are dead, and we’re all dead, “A Day In The Life” will live just as “Cello Suite No. 1 In G Major” lives now. Getting up, getting out of bed, dragging a comb across your head and listening to The Beatles — these are the things that make us human.