John, Paul, George, and Ringo were only together for eight years, but in that short span of time, they managed to record thirteen unforgettable albums that showcased the different stages of their inventiveness; not a whole lot of artists can boast that kind of feat. I mean, their discography covers everything from Merseybeat, standard rock and roll, pop, psychedelic, baroque pop, art rock, and experimental rock/pop. The entire state of popular music wouldn’t be the same without The Beatles’ forward-thinking edginess that made it okay to take risks while still being able to retain a permeating appeal.
Before I talk any further about the topic at hand, I’d like to dedicate this to my mother. I can remember a time when I was little kid, just driving around with her while we’d listen to the 2000 compilation “1;” a memory I’m quite fond of, because it introduced me to the wonderful music of The Beatles, and instantly made me a fan. But enough of this prolix introduction; it’s time to get straight into our top 10 greatest albums by this fantastical group of four Liverpool lads.
# 10 – Please, Please Me
This is an important album just due to the fact that it’s the very genesis of The Beatles’ introduction to planet Earth. Released in 1963, Please, Please Me is an archetypal rock and roll record that started the whole British Invasion with classics like “I saw Her Standing There,” “Please, Please Me,” “P.S. I Love You,” “Love Me Do,” and the Bert Berns and Phil Medley-penned song “Twist and Shout.”
This is pretty much your run-of-the-mill Merseybeat album, with a large fraction of it being comprised of cover songs, but it’s got so much raw energy and early glimpses of their stellar songwriting, that there’s a reason it’s still held in high regard more than 50 years later.
# 9 – Beatles For Sale
By 1964, the year this album was released, the band was exhausted…literally; in just over a year, they had already recorded three albums and were touring incessantly. So naturally these men were quite fatigued and despondent about the worldwide success they had abruptly accumulated; what better way to accentuate those downbeat emotions than by recording an album that was just as gloomy.
Of course, there were the standard rock and roll renditions of Chuck Berry, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly, but underneath all of that was a more mature and ruminative essence with songs like “No Reply,” I’m a Loser,” “I’ll Follow the Sun,” and “Eight Days a Week.” This was The Beatles in their second stage of transmutation.
# 8 – Help!
When John Lennon was writing the lyrics for the immortal title track back in 1965, he claimed that he was dissatisfied with himself and the way he was living his life at the time at the height of the band’s fame and fortune, and that song was basically him crying; it actually gives you some perspective of its overall theme, in view of the fact that it is a pretty minor-key pop song.
But in spite of that tidbit of information, the rest of the album is pretty upbeat, and houses many of their classics such as “Ticket to Ride,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “You’re Going to Lose That Girl,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” and the most covered song of all time, “Yesterday.” This was the band’s second soundtrack for a movie they all starred in, and boy, is it one of their best.
# 7 – Let It Be
The recording sessions for Let It Be was a tumultuous period that inevitably led to the break-up of the band; their long-time manager, Brian Epstein, had died, Lennon was addicted to heroin, McCartney was assuming creative control, and Harrison had temporarily left due to heightened tension among everybody. But the result was a more “back-to-basics” approach that was reminiscent of their earlier rock and roll. They also brought in legendary producer Phil Spector to add his signature embellishments to this sloppy conglomeration of great tunes; you can really hear his “wall of sound” orchestration shine through in the cracks and crevices of the record.
When you listen to songs like “Two of Us,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and “One After 909,” it doesn’t sound like a group falling apart; they never lost their precision to create fun and toe-tapping compositions. But the true high points of Let It Be are the inspiring piano ballad of the title track which was inspired by a dream Paul had involving his deceased mother, the poetic “Across the Universe,” “the driving rhythm of “Get Back,” and the beautifully poignant “The Long and Winding Road.”
This is one fantastic album, even if it was created out of spite and malice.
# 6 – A Hard Day’s Night
By 1964, Beatlemania was in full swing the moment The Beatles arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport to zillions of screaming fans. That’s what makes their comedy musical, A Hard Day’s Night, so great; it pretty much portrays the band as a fictionalized version of themselves being chased around London by hordes of obsessed girls. The movie properly punctuates the frenetic escapades John, Paul, George, and Ringo had to endure on a day-to-day basis because of their inescapable popularity, and this soundtrack album is further proof of what made all of this Beatle hysteria quite understandable.
This is classic early Beatles before they ventured off into their more boundary-pushing musicality. A Hard Day’s Night was also significant, because this was the first time the band had written all original songs that weren’t covers. This was also the album where George Harrison played a 12-string Rickenbacker; a guitar sound that would go on to influence the jangle pop of artists like The Byrds.
Every song on here is timeless; from the title track, “And I Love Her,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “If I Fell,” “I’ll Cry Instead,” all the way to the perfect album closer, “I’ll Be Back.” This is a record I always go back to when I want their more innocent and easy listening sensibilities.
# 5 – Rubber Soul
Musical prodigy Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys once said that after he listened to Rubber Soul for the first time, he was so blown away by it that he wanted to outdo The Beatles, so he went in his studio and recorded what would be The Beach Boys‘ best album, Pet Sounds; isn’t that funny? One of the greatest albums of all time inspired another artist to make one of the greatest albums of all time. But that isn’t what makes Rubber Soul such a monumental piece of music. What makes this record so important is that it marked a turning point in the band’s career and the state of pop music as we know it.
Inspired by the folk musings of Bob Dylan, who had also introduced The Beatles to marijuana back in 1964, Rubber Soul rejected the sugar-coated jingles that made up the majority of the early ’60’s in favor of more introspective lyrics and elaborate song structures; it basically pioneered a bold new way of turning the album into an art form and not just a processed amalgamation of top 40 singles and filler tracks. This was also the moment the band were beginning to find their psychedelic roots; I mean, “Norwegian Wood” was first mainstream rock song to incorporate the sitar…it wasn’t The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” contrary to popular belief.
Everything that inhabits this record is nothing short of perfection. “Drive My Car,” “Norwegian Wood,” You Won’t See Me,” “Nowhere Man,” “Michelle,” “The Word,” “Girl,” “In My Life,” “Wait,” “If I Needed Someone,” and “Run For Your Life;” this is truly one of the most highly regarded albums in popular music.
# 4 – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Just about every Beatle fan and music journalist hails this one as the best album they every did; hell, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the number one best album of all time. Now, is that a fact? Absolutely not, but it is one of their best and a highly influential album that pretty much changed the entire landscape of rock, as well as pop. And to add on to the Brian Wilson anecdote referenced above, The Beatles were directly inspired by Pet Sounds after listening to it and wanted to create an album even more aesthetically sublime than that one by recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967; these two groups, trying to upstage each other, ended up producing some of the most important and celebrated albums that still sound as organic and genre less today as they did five decades ago. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is also one of the earliest known examples of the “concept album,” and features our four lads taking on the alias of a fictitious band of the aforementioned title.
To even begin to condense this album’s monstrous legacy and historical relevancy into a few paragraphs just wouldn’t do it justice. This may not be number one on this list, but that’s not denying it’s long-lasting impact on music. I mean, The Beatles not only utilized their state-of-the-art production techniques they perfected on Revolver, but they took it one step further and launched this acid trip psychedelia into the stratosphere of art rock brilliance that marked the genesis of “the album era,” a period in the mid-1960’s that saw artists employing the album as an apparatus for artistic expression and technique; other notable albums that were the progenitors of this movement include Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, Aftermath by The Rolling Stones, Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, A Quick One by The Who, Freak Out! by The Mothers of Invention and Otis Blue by Otis Redding, among others.
I just can’t say enough positive things about this album; this is another one of my favorites that inspired me to look at music from a more creative standpoint. And there’s no point in discussing the tracklist; I’m sure you’ve all heard the Sgt. Pepper’s intro that segues into “With a Little Help From My Friends,” as well as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Getting Better,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” and the epic “A Day in the Life.” It just doesn’t get any better than this one.
# 3 – Revolver
I would’ve placed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a lot higher on this list if 1966’s Revolver didn’t precede it, because let’s be frank, Revolver is more revolutionary in that it pushed the boundaries of studio and musical experimentation in ways that made it possible for them to advance their eccentric and nonconformist style and make the music that would define the counterculture of the 1960’s; seriously, they were not only exploring the sounds of Motown, Indian music, classical orchestration, and musique concrete, but they were incorporating innovative studio practices such as artificial double tracking, backwards recordings, tape loops, and even vocal tracks being fed through a Leslie organ speaker. This was The Beatles at their most audacious; they were taking a ton of drugs and looking for new and exciting alternatives to making music that was so complex they wouldn’t even be able to perform them live, and boy, did they achieve just that.
Nothing against Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but Revolver is just superior in every way imaginable; it’s just as cohesive, and it offers a more adventurous listening experience with a more palatable smorgasbord of classic songs. You not only have the funereal and droning “Eleanor Rigby,” as well as the exuberant lullaby “Yellow Submarine” and the political “Taxman,” but you’ve got quintessential psychedelic rock classics like “I’m Only Sleeping,” She Said She Said,” and the wildly groovy and avant-garde “Tomorrow Never Knows.” But then you also have other gems like “Good Day Sunshine,” the raga rock of “Love You To,” “For No One,” “I Want To Tell You,” and “Got To Get You Into My Life.”
There’s a reason why more and more people these days are praising this one as their crowning achievement; this would honestly be my number one pick if these next two weren’t so damn Utopian also.
# 2 – Abbey Road
I’ve probably listened to Abbey Road more than any other Beatles record, and it would almost be my all-time favorite album, period, if it wasn’t for our number one pick on this list. This was technically their last studio album together before they would go on to break up just a year later; what a way to go out as a band than ending your career on a high note with Abbey effing Road. There’s something quite special about this 1969 masterpiece; maybe it’s the fact that they collectively composed each song with their own individual styles in mind, showcasing a hodgepodge of different sub-genres melded into a singular classic rock sound. Or maybe it’s that iconic cover of the four of them walking across the zebra crossing in front of EMI Studios and that eponymous street; EMI Studios would later rename themselves “Abbey Road Studios, in honor of The Beatles.
None of that stuff even matters, though; this is the most fully realized work The Beatles ever extracted from their divergent personalities, and it features some of the most overplayed songs you’ve ever heard on the radio, like John Lennon’s bluesy “Come Together,” and Harrison’s sparkly fresh “Here Comes the Sun” and beautiful love ballad “Something;” the latter being the second most covered Beatles tune. But then there are a ton of other deeper cuts that are just as wonderful, like “Oh Darling,” Ringo Starr’s “Octopus’s Garden,” John Lennon’s precursor to doom metal, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and Paul McCartney’s bouncy pop fare that’s literally about a serial killer who murders his girlfriend and others with a hammer, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
Side two of the album, however, is where the true magic lies. The fifteen minute medley, mainly Paul McCartney and producer George Martin’s creation, is a musical odyssey that taps into every orifice of human emotion and could technically be construed as one of the earliest known examples of a progressive rock song suite. “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,” and “The End; ” how can this album be any less than divine when you’ve got a medley like that? And what makes this album even more moving is the final line in “The End:” And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” It just brings Abbey Road to a sad, but cathartic close knowing this would be the last piece of music they would ever bless the world with.
# 1 – The Beatles / The White Album
Abbey Road would easily be my number one favorite album of all time, and number one on this list, but sadly it doesn’t get to hold that title. Mainly because The Beatles had to go and travel to Rishikesh, India to study Transcendental Meditation under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, where they got the inspiration to start recording a collection of songs that would ultimately end up on their 1968 self-titled magnum opus, or The White Album; aptly named for its plain white album sleeve with just their band name embossed on the front cover.
This is really a polarizing album; it’s a double LP that consists of 30 songs with a run time of over 90 minutes. Many people either like it, love it, hate it, or worship it; some feel as though it’s the best music the band ever did, while others find it to be pretentious and overly bloated with enough filler to trim it down to a single album. Well, all of the above is pretty much factual, and that’s what makes it so great. This is when tensions were running extremely high between the band, so most of their creative output was done either against the others’ best wishes, or in separate studios; that’s why many refer to The White Album as just a collection of solo songs by each member.
That doesn’t stop it from being a bona fide classic though; in my eyes, there’s no filler on here, and even the songs that do seem like filler still have their own individuality. I mean, you’ve got all of their most critically-acclaimed hits like “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Helter Skelter,” “Birthday,” and “Revolution 1,” but scattered in between those are other gems like “Dear Prudence,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Blackbird,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “I Will,” “Julia,” “I’m So Tired,” “Long, Long, Long,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and “Cry Baby Cry.”
A lot of people also find their Stockhausen-inspired sound collage “Revolution 9” to be the worst thing they’ve ever done, and I used to feel the same way the first time I heard it, but after years of re-evaluation, I’ve grown to appreciate it as a daring path of sonic experimentation on behalf of a group who were known early on in their career for their mop tops, tailored suits, and teenybopper love longs.
I know this list is subjective, and it may seem like I’m choosing The White Album because it’s the one album I’d take with me to a deserted island, but I honestly feel as though this is their masterwork; they took ever sound, influence, and genre they could, and turned it into a messy pastiche of musical postmodernism. This is what makes The Beatles the most important band of all time, and why they’re fingerprints are still left on contemporary music to this day.
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