Anyone who has spent a great deal of time with me knows I’m obsessed with the Beatles. Although I love a wide variety of music, there will never be another Beatles in my mind. My dad has always been a huge Beatles fan. He remembers vividly watching their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and he was instantly hooked. He passed that love for all things Beatle to me basically from birth. He played Beatles records and 8-tracks (kids, you’ll have to google those terms!) all the time, and sang Beatles/Paul McCartney tunes whenever it was naptime. My dad would buy blank 8-tracks to make mix tapes from his records. I was 3 or 4 and I always wanted him to make me a mix tape, too. Half of mine would contain various kids songs (probably at the behest of my mom) and the other half would be Beatles tunes. I always liked the Beatles songs better (sorry, mom!). As years went by, the obsession just grew. Even though my dad had all the records, I wanted my own copies and by the time I was 10, I pretty much did (although I had now graduated to cassettes and CDs). I have bought their catalogue a few times over, buying everything again when they remastered it in 2009 in both the stereo and mono box sets. I’ve even got most of the American albums on CD (through the first half of their career, Capitol Records issued different albums in the United States than in Britain, including non-album singles and mixing and matching tracks from the original albums to the disgust of the band). So as we celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the Beatles landing on our shores, I’d like to rank their 13 albums. Please note that all 13 albums are recommended. Give me the Beatles talking in the studio over anything released by Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and the endless cesspool of ineptitude that passes for popular music these days. Here’s to the days when bands actually played instruments and wrote timeless songs. And now, the album rankings:
1. The Beatles (White Album, 1968)
A bit of a controversial choice here, since these sessions are referenced as the beginning of the end for the band. In early 1968, the group convened in India to study transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. While in India, the band wrote a wealth of material for their next album. By the time they got back to England, they had more than 30 songs ready to record. When they got to the studio, tensions began to mount. John Lennon had just left his wife for the conceptual artist Yoko Ono, and the pair were inseparable. Yoko’s presence in the studio didn’t sit well with the others, since nobody’s wife or girlfriend had ever spent an extended period of time in the studio while the group was recording. The fact she would make suggestions made things worse. But to blame the band’s breakup on Yoko is extremely short-sighted. There were other problems. George Harrison, who had played second fiddle to the dynamic Lennon-McCartney songwriting team, was becoming a prolific songwriter in his own right. Since he was usually allotted two songs per album (three on Revolver, four on the White Album), he began to feel creatively stifled, a situation which would lead to his temporary leaving of the band in early 1969 during the contentious Let It Be sessions. During the White Album sessions, the Beatles seemed more a group of four individuals at times than a band, and that’s because they often recorded tracks individually due to the sheer wealth of material and the deadline to produce the album. But I’ve always loved the White Album. Through the course of two discs, the Beatles tackle just about every style of music and do it well. You’ve got beautiful acoustic ditties like Mother Nature’s Son and Julia on one hand to the heavy-metal menace of Helter Skelter on the other. There’s a country tune penned by Ringo (his first-ever songwriting credit) in Don’t Pass Me By. The old-western, sitting in a saloon feel of Rocky Raccoon shares album space with the caterwauling Yer Blues. A doo-wop, slowed down version of Revolution (titled Revolution 1, since it was the take Lennon wanted to put out as a single before the others vetoed it, saying it was too slow, which led to the faster, classic heavy version issued as Hey Jude’s B-side) segues into the vaudeville/music hall leanings of Honey Pie. And there’s the controversial avant-garde sound collage Revolution 9, which some people hate, but I love (even though it scared the living hell out of me when I was a child) just because the band was pushing the boundaries of pop music as always. And I haven’t even mentioned one of my favorite tunes Dear Prudence yet. Over the years, some critics have opined the band should have made this a single disc, ripping it for it’s sprawl. But I tend to side with Paul McCartney who said during the Anthology series in the 90s ‘It sold, it’s the Beatles bloody White Album, shut up!’ Couldn’t have said it better myself.
2. Revolver (1966)
The album where the Beatles shed the lovable moptop image for good. Their most concise effort, and again, an eclectic one. The band was growing tired of touring (they’d stop for good in August 1966), partly because no one could hear them play and also because they were beginning to really stretch out in the studio. No touring would allow them to devote more time to experiment, and even though they hadn’t yet quit the road, Revolver is where you can really see them branching out. Harrison was now fully devoted to Indian music, taking lessons with sitar master Ravi Shankar. Harrison had introduced the sitar in Norwegian Wood the year before, but he brings a full-on Indian tune here in Love You To, one of three Harrison songs included (the biting commentary Taxman and the excellent I Want to Tell You are the others). McCartney had incorporated a string quartet for Yesterday in 1965, so he brought in a full-orchestra treatment for his classic Eleanor Rigby, one of the greatest tunes about loneliness ever written. Lennon was now into his LSD period, delivering mind-bending tunes like She Said, She Said and the trippy Tomorrow Never Knows, full with tape-loop effects and backwards guitar. The band completely on the top of their game here.
3. Rubber Soul (1965)
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Beatles’ career is how far they came during a short period of time. Their early singles (She Loves You, Please Please Me, I Want to Hold Your Hand, etc.) exuded an effervescent charm and real knack for hooks, but they were love songs lyrically, mainly dealing with boy-girl relationships. In late 1964, that began to change with songs like No Reply and I’m a Loser off Beatles for Sale, as the band delved into more mature subject matter. That’s completely evident on Rubber Soul, or what many refer to as the Beatles’ folk album (although that’s stating it way too simply). Here, Lennon churns out the standard ‘In My Life,’ reminiscing about the people and places that were important to him. McCartney’s love songs now had a bit of bite to them, as ‘You Won’t See Me’ and ‘I’m Looking Through You’ chronicle the problems he was having with girlfriend Jame Asher. The previously mentioned ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird has Flown)’ not only introduced the sitar to rock music, but told a story about an affair Lennon was having at the time, except in this tale, he burns the woman’s house down at the end of it. Even deep album cuts like ‘Run for Your Life’ and the Ringo-led ‘What Goes On’ are executed with aplomb.
4. Abbey Road (1969)
Oh, what a sendoff! The Beatles were falling apart at the seams in 1969, plagued by money issues caused by their ill-advised company, Apple, and personality issues. Their previous attempts at recording an album that year sat on the shelf because nobody wanted to deal with the endless reels of tape and what they viewed as uninspired performances (those sessions would later come out as Let It Be in 1970, the last album the band released but not the last one it recorded). Somehow, maybe because they didn’t want to go out on such a whimper, the Beatles put aside their differences enough to come up with a grand closing statement. Abbey Road qualifies as perhaps their most polished effort. The vocals are immaculate (especially on breathtaking tracks like ‘Because’ and ‘Sun King’), showing the three-part harmony of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison at the absolute peak of its powers. Harrison again showed he was being under-utilized by delivering the classics ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ Ringo contributed his second Beatles track, ‘Octopus’ Garden’ and McCartney showed his pop craftsmanship by putting together the brilliant closing medley on Side Two from fragments of songs the band had lying around the last two years. Lennon gave the album a proper kick-off with the swampy blues of ‘Come Together.’ He also contributed the pleading ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy), a song with simplistic lyrics but gut-wrenching vocals, and an almost apocalyptic guitar/synthesizer workout at the end. McCartney deals with some of the money problems the band was having at the time with ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ and also brings to mind old 50s rock with ‘Oh Darling.’ And the ending statement “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make’ is such an awesome line and should have been the final words the band sang. Instead, that came in the form of ‘Her Majesty’, a 23-second snippet taken out of the Side 2 medley but accidentally spliced at the end of the tape. When the band heard it, they decided to leave it because it sounded cool. Oh, those Beatles.
5. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
For many, this is the crown jewel in the Beatles’ catalogue. Now free from the rigors of touring, the Beatles had ample studio time and they used it wisely here, crafting a psychedelic pop masterpiece and the soundtrack for the Summer of Love. It’s often called rock’s first concept album, although as Lennon would later admit, the concept doesn’t really go anywhere beyond the first two songs and a reprise of the title track later. Nevertheless, it feels like a grand statement or thematic concept, as the songs blended seamlessly and the entire work seems connected somehow, even if it’s not lyrically. Lennon was in a bit of a songwriting slump volume-wise, but oh did he make up for it in quality. The psychedelic trip ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ contained some of his most far-out and vivid imagery, while the album closer ‘A Day in the Life’ is quite simply one of the greatest pop achievements of all time. McCartney came up with the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ theme and song as an idea to dress the band up as a different group (hence the colorful band outfits and the mustaches they had grown during the time), and the elaborate artwork featuring many of the band’s heroes was ahead of its time.
OK, I’ve been at this an hour and a half. My wife is getting antsy so I’m going to do the rest of the albums in a rapid-fire capsule form:
6. A Hard Day’s Night (1964): The first Beatles album to contain no cover songs, and it’s brilliant. Many songs featured on the band’s first film (of the same name), including the title track and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love. Other key tracks: If I Fell, And I Love Her, I’ll Be Back (ah the whole damn thing).
7. Magical Mystery Tour (1967): Title of band’s ill-fated U.K. TV special and the first critical backlash they ever received (for the show, not the album). The music here is phenomenal, although it’s a hodgepodge effort. The first side featured songs from the film, and the second side rounded up their non-Pepper singles of 1967. But my oh my were those singles awesome. Key tracks: Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane, The Fool On the Hill, I Am the Walrus
8. Help! (1965): A transitional album and also the last one to feature cover songs. Still, the songs from the Beatles’ second film are awesome, especially the title track and Ticket To Ride. The non-soundtrack side is also great, featuring Yesterday. Other key tracks: You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, The Night Before, It’s Only Love
9. With the Beatles (1963): The album Meet the Beatles, Capitol’s first U.S. release, was based on. Only thing is, Meet the Beatles was superior (only time this really happened) due to the inclusion of the classic single I Want to Hold Your Hand/This Boy and I Saw Her Standing There. Still, With the Beatles contains an outstanding collection of cover songs and originals. Key tracks: It Won’t Be Long, All My Loving, Money (That’s What I Want), You Really Gotta Hold on Me
10. Please Please Me (1963): The Beatles’ opening salvo. The product of a monumental 12-hour recording session, in which the band replicated their club set under the helpful guidance of producer George Martin (can’t believe I haven’t mentioned his genius yet). Key tracks: Please Please Me, Twist and Shout, I Saw Her Standing There
11. Let it Be (1970): Lennon and Harrison brought uber-producer Phil Spector in to clean up the early 1969 tracks, sessions which were being filmed in the hopes of showing the Beatles getting their act together to produce a live show. The live show’s location couldn’t be agreed upon, and with tensions coming to a boil (Harrison left the band temporarily), they decided to film a short show on the Apple Records rooftop, their final live performance. During those sessions, the Beatles wanted to ‘get back’ to their roots, meaning no overdubs and takes recorded live. By bringing in Spector, who put orchestral and choral flourishes to tracks like ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and ‘Across the Universe’, this didn’t happen. And McCartney was pissed. He announced his departure from the band a month before this was released. Key tracks: Two of Us, Dig a Pony, I’ve Got a Feeling, Let it Be, Across the Universe
12. Beatles for Sale (1964): The originals here are first-rate early Beatles, with Lennon especially showing songwriting growth in tunes like No Reply, I’m a Loser and Baby’s in Black. Just gets a bit bogged down with covers, as the band’s relentless touring and promotional schedule that year caused a dip in songwriting productivity. Other key tracks: Every Little Thing, What You’re Doing, I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party, Eight Days a Week
13. Yellow Submarine (1969): Album really should be credited to Beatles and George Martin, as the first side collects songs from the band’s animated film and the second side featured soundtrack offerings orchestrated by Martin. Of the six band songs, only four were new (Yellow Submarine and All You Need is Love were previously released). These tracks were basically holdovers from previous sessions, but the Beatles’ scraps were still more interesting than others’ best efforts. Harrison’s psychedelic showcase ‘It’s All Too Much’ is the best of that group. Other key tracks: Hey Bulldog, All Together Now
And here’s a few others to check out:
Anthology 1, Anthology 2, Anthology 3 (1995-96): The three double-disc volumes of Beatles outtakes released in conjunction with the documentary of the same name. Anthology 1 and Anthology 2 contained the ‘reunion’ tracks Free As a Bird and Real Love, as the three surviving Beatles cleaned up old Lennon demos provided by Yoko and released them as singles to promote the project. They’re actually quite good and would be even better today, as technology has advanced where Lennon’s vocals could be further cleaned up. But the outtakes throughout this collection are fascinating, showing the Beatles tinkered with songs’ arrangements constantly. And while they always picked the best one, early versions are pretty damn entertaining.
Live at the BBC, Volumes 1 and 2 (1994, 2013): Since there are no live Beatles albums in print (1977’s Live at the Hollywood Bowl was never put out on CD), this is about the close we can get to hearing the band recorded live. From 1962 to 1965, the Beatles recorded a series of shows for British Broadcasting, taping many songs they never put down in the studio, including oodles of rock covers from the 50s.
Meet the Beatles! (1964): The album that started it all for the Beatles in America. A bastardized version of their November 1963 release With the Beatles, this was one case where the American version was better. Only one cover here, and the inclusion of the I Want to Hold Your Hand single makes this one essential listening (as all Beatle recordings are).
Past Masters Volumes 1 and 2 (1988): A collection of all the tracks released during the band’s career but not included on the official British albums, i.e. singles and B-sides. If you included this in the album rankings, it would place in the top five easily with presence of great singles like Day Tripper, Hey Jude, Paperback Writer, Lady Madonna, etc.