No one has ever done this before, right? I don?t know how to start this off; the lore and mythology of the most influential band of all time has been covered ad nauseam for nearly 60 years. The Beatles, although they are not my favorite band, are probably in fact the greatest band of all time, in the classic sense of the word ?great.? They loom larger than life, and revisiting the span of their discography within just two days was a hefty experience, to say the least. And to qualify that discography: I revisited Paul, John, George, and Ringo?s ?canonical? 13 albums, which doesn?t take into account the numerous American albums and EPs that repackaged and rearranged in various combinations the songs and singles released from the original British LPs, a practice that confounds me whether it was applied to The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or the Kinks. Revisiting The Beatles and writing this piece felt right, for some reason, as I?ve listened to a copious amount of records in the midst of COVID-19 isolation. Why not go back to that greatest band of all time?
While we?re here, for posterity?s sake, The Beatles ranked from best to worst: George, Paul, Ringo, John.
#13 ? YELLOW SUBMARINE (1969)
Favorite track: ?Yellow Submarine?
YELLOW SUBMARINE is tricky as a canon Beatles album. Released between the self-titled ?White Album? and ABBEY ROAD, YELLOW SUBMARINE was an obligatory soundtrack to the animated film of the same name, based on a track from REVOLVER. And of the album?s 13 tracks, only six are actually by The Beatles: the aforementioned ?Yellow Submarine,? ?All You Need Is Love? (a single that ended up on MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR), and four new songs written for the soundtrack. The rest of the album is made up of instrumental music by The Beatles? producer, one of the Fifth Beatles himself (besides manager Brian Epstein and original drummer Pete Best and other early bandmates), George Martin. So YELLOW SUBMARINE doesn?t feel fully fledged, and the new tracks from The Beatles are pretty underwhelming. We all know ?Yellow Submarine,? so it stands apart on the record. As is common with these ranked lists of bands I really like, I should point out that The Beatles never made a bad album.
#12 ? A HARD DAY?S NIGHT (1964)
Favorite track: ?Tell Me Why?
A HARD DAY?S NIGHT, The Beatles? third album, may have indicated a forward step for their artistic development (all 13 songs on the record were by Lennon-McCartney, as opposed to the covers-augmented track list of the group?s previous releases), but it?s not quite as fun as their early records. Sidebar: it?s so crazy how often the popular discourse around The Beatles refer to their different eras, when they were only together for ten years, seven of which were spent in megapopular status and with 13 albums released during them. So for A HARD DAY?S NIGHT to herald the start of a new ?era,? as a record that came out only 16 months after PLEASE PLEASE ME, is kind of a crazy statement. And yet it?s true; The Beatles changed music and pop culture almost overnight, and continued to do that ?every night? for the rest of the 1960s. A HARD DAY?S NIGHT was one of those changes, but ultimately a minor work, even as an ingenious tie-in with the film of the same name (The Beatles? first). ?Tell Me Why? is one of The Beatles? best, but I don?t think I could say the same for any of the other songs on the record. And for a Beatles album to not produce at least a couple of their best, for me, puts it at nearly the bottom of the list. And yet, A HARD DAY?S NIGHT is probably better than 90 percent of albums released at the time, or really any time.
#11 ? HELP! (1965)
Favorite track: ?Help!?
HELP! felt like a step back from the moodiness of BEATLES FOR SALE, but perhaps that was to be expected as the soundtrack to another film starring The Beatles. HELP! is more upbeat than its predecessor, and its pop songwriting hooks are of course on display, but in a little less daring way. ?Yesterday,? apparently the most-covered song ever written, is overrated in my opinion, but the title track on HELP! is jangling and fun. Harrison?s contributions, in the form of ?I Need You? and ?You Like Me Too Much,? are the album?s next best songs.
#10 ? LET IT BE (1970)
Favorite track: ?The Long and Winding Road?
Perhaps because of the ubiquity of its title track, its status as the final Beatles album, and its connection to the documentary film of the same name and the famous rooftop concert, LET IT BE stood in my head as one of The Beatles? best albums. And yet, revisiting it in 2020, 50 years later, much of its compositions don?t measure up to the greatness, or the fun, of most any of their other albums. Maybe it?s because it was completed after the group was already disbanded, and ABBEY ROAD was indeed meant to be the final artistic statement. McCartney famously disliked Phil Spector?s post-production of the recordings, and LET IT BE? NAKED (2003) was his attempt to correct the mix. Nevertheless, the original release of LET IT BE contains one of my favorite Beatles? songs, ?The Long and Winding Road? (although The Beach Boys ended up doing it better), its title track is iconic, and ?Across the Universe? is good but not as good as I always think it is. ?Get Back? is electric, and one could have done much worse with the final track on the final Beatles album. But LET IT BE does feel like a sort of half-hearted end, perhaps because it was.
#9 ? PLEASE PLEASE ME (1963)
Favorite track: ?Twist and Shout?
I think PLEASE PLEASE ME is underrated? As The Beatles? first album, it of course gets overshadowed by the original and groundbreaking work to follow. But this is bold, sprightly rock and roll and pop. Their cover of ?Twist and Shout? is one of my favorite Beatles songs (that qualification may come up a few more times throughout this list); Lennon?s scream is radical. The band not only wrote some great original songs (?I Saw Her Standing There,? ?Misery?), but they approached covers with an ingenuity that wasn?t exactly standard for the early ?60s music industry. PLEASE PLEASE ME is quite simply a tight, bright spot of great music. Like all of The Beatles albums, it is delightful comfort food; don?t let my criticism of the above records stand in the way of that.
#8 ? BEATLES FOR SALE (1964)
Favorite track: ?I?m a Loser?
BEATLES FOR SALE is often cited as a maturation of The Beatles due to its somber cover art and its deeper lyrics and production tone, a reflection of the influence of Bob Dylan and folk music on the band. Still, it is of a kind with the band?s early albums, (by which I mean pre-RUBBER SOUL), and its covers are rendered with creativity once again. The original tracks, like ?I?m a Loser,? do have a slightly different groove to them, while staying lively in a new mode. If I sound vague, it?s because I?m not really a trained music writer in spite of my recent work and because BEATLES FOR SALE is kind of a curious, generally overlooked album in the band?s discography. It?s hard for me to point to any one reason why the record feels different than, say, the albums it?s sandwiched between (A HARD DAY?S NIGHT and HELP!), besides that it?s better.
#7 ? WITH THE BEATLES (1963)
Favorite track: ?Please Mister Postman?
The Beatles? second album, WITH THE BEATLES, continued the energy of PLEASE PLEASE ME. It wasn?t a radical departure from that template, even as A HARD DAY?S NIGHT would take a slight but relatively important step into new territory. Nevertheless, WITH THE BEATLES is even richer than those releases, while staying quite simple. ?Please Mister Postman? is positively undeniable; I have to move while listening to it, in some way. And nearly every other song on the record has that effect, whether it?s ?It Won?t Be Long? or ?You Really Got a Hold on Me? or ?Money (That?s What I Want).? WITH THE BEATLES is phenomenal pop rock, even within a vacuum of The Beatles? ultimate contributions.
#6 ? ABBEY ROAD (1969)
Favorite track: ?I Want You (She?s So Heavy)
This is the part of the list where the albums going forward are each variably exchanged as The Beatles? absolute best record, or indeed some of the best albums of all time (with one notable exception). Of these, of course, ABBEY ROAD is my least favorite. But don?t let that imply that I don?t love it. By this time, The Beatles were on the precipice of dissolution, and as with the ?White Album,? that is reflected in the eclectic sound across its tracks. But even though the industry at large had been seeded with The Beatles? influence, and was starting to flower with music that kind of sounded like The Beatles? most groundbreaking work, still nothing quite sounded like the Beatles, ya know? ?I Want You (She?s So Heavy),? often referred to as an influence on prog rock, is better than anything it could have spawned in that genre, and stands as ABBEY ROAD?s best song. Ultimately, though, the variance on the record perhaps led to its inclusion further down the list. It just doesn?t fully congeal like #5 through 1.
#5 ? THE BEATLES (1968)
Favorite track: ?Dear Prudence?
Well, maybe that?s not quite true. The Beatles? sole double album, and indeed their only record to deviate from the perfect 30-to-40-minute run time, is essentially comprised of a few solo records. Well, most of the songs are credited to Lennon-McCartney, and Harrison had a number of contributions as usual, even Ringo had a songwriting credit, but their self-titled THE BEATLES, also known as the ?White Album,? runs the gamut of genre influences and styles, and was recorded by the band at different times. It?s perhaps what keeps it from ultimate domination of this ranked list, but the scope and weight of THE BEATLES cannot be understated. This is a phenomenal record with some unfortunate filler (cough ?Revolution 9? cough), but with tracks like ?Dear Prudence,? ?While My Guitar Gently Weeps,? ?Happiness Is a Warm Gun,? and ?Helter Skelter,? the album would already stand as a brilliant example of The Beatles? continuing, but slightly decaying, excellence. But THE BEATLES is also supplemented by a host of other admittedly decent to great songs, and I can?t imagine not commending the record at least within the top 5, hence its placement here.
#4 ? SGT. PEPPER?S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1967)
Favorite track: ?A Day in the Life?
In spite of its place at #4, I think SGT. PEPPER?S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND may be slightly overrated?but ?over? just to The Beatles? best. Although it doesn?t, in sheer quantity, contain the greatest number of great songs within The Beatles? discography, I can?t ignore its complexity and cohesion. That stands to reason, since it was the band?s great contribution to the subsequent concept album, well, concept, with tracks blending into each other to simulate a live performance from the titular, fictional band. It?s high art, blah blah blah, it revolutionized pop music, blah blah blah, it made music critics reevaluate their coverage of pop, blah blah blah (these are all important considerations, by the way), but SGT. PEPPER?S just puts me in a good mood. It?s transcendent.
#3 ? MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967)
Favorite track: ?The Fool on the Hill?
This might be a dark horse pick. The sole U.S. album to be considered part of The Beatles? core catalog, MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR is the soundtrack to the maligned television film of the same name. But I don?t quite get why the record is maligned as well. Expanded to album length from the ?double EP? release in the British market, MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR, to me, is just as transcendent as SGT. PEPPER?S. It?s not a concept album and it?s not as important, but at the end of the day, I?d rather listen to MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR. But the comparison still stands, because I think it continues some of the ideas and sounds of its predecessor. A number of the tracks on the record are derided, like ?The Fool on the Hill,? but I think it is meditative and ?perfectly loud.? ?Strawberry Fields Forever? is in similar territory, but ultimately, I think MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR is greater than the sum of its parts. It somehow cohered in an ethereal place outside of the context of the rest of The Beatles? albums while I listened to it, a perfectly enjoyable record without consideration of legacy or revolution or ground breaking.
#2 ? REVOLVER (1966)
Favorite track: ?For No One?
And yet I must contradict myself, because above MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR I put probably the most commonly cited linchpin in the artistic transformation of The Beatles: REVOLVER. Reflecting the group?s experimentation with psychedelics, the record is much more than a ?drug trip? album. To repeat a cliche, REVOLVER used the studio as an instrument, as The Beatles had previously done on RUBBER SOUL and Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys had done on PET SOUNDS (1966). Recorded just before their retirement from live performance, REVOLVER is an incredible capsule of the promise of the 1960s, ahead of the ?refinement? of SGT. PEPPER?S and The Beatles? own baroque period with the ?White Album? and ABBEY ROAD. But besides its place in history, REVOLVER is just a really good pop album. If I sound like I?m repeating myself with this sentiment, it?s because it bears repeating. The Beatles have become subsumed in their own legacy, with their very importance acting as a barrier to the youngest generation?at least, that?s my observation anecdotally. But just listen to the songs, man. ?For No One? is my favorite Beatles song, a wistful, short, and bittersweet tale with all the potency of a romantic epic. And literally all 13 of the other songs on REVOLVER are bangers that feel just as modern as they did, presumably, in 1966.
#1 ? RUBBER SOUL (1965)
Favorite track: ?Girl?
And yet, The Beatles had done their best work just before REVOLVER. A staggering leap forward from their other 1965 album, HELP!, RUBBER SOUL is an even more perfect album than the other two top spots on this list. Now understood as the 1.5 version of The Beatles that REVOLVER took to 2.0, RUBBER SOUL too has 14 straight bangers?they?re just slightly better bangers. Picking between REVOLVER and RUBBER SOUL was truly a Sophie?s choice, but ultimately, RUBBER SOUL feels just a bit more ?down to earth? as compared to REVOLVER?s trippiness, a bit more solid and consistent. I feel like I?m splitting hairs, but if I can chalk up why I put RUBBER SOUL above REVOLVER, that?s as close as I can get. RUBBER SOUL is the introduction to The Beatles, and moving backwards or forwards from there is fair. The essence of the world?s greatest band is contained in RUBBER SOUL, which is also coincidentally, then, one of the world?s greatest albums.