Barring the collapse of the space-time continuum, this was bound to happen at some point, but it’s still a shock: The first Beatles album, Please Please Me, turned 50 years old this year.
We celebrate musical anniversaries all the time around here, but 50 years of the Beatles feels especially significant — and especially mortifying. Decades after its release, this music continues to saturate modern life. Pretty much every living human in the Western world has grown up with the Beatles — whether you love them (the correct position, come on), hate them (who are you people?), or pretend to hate them to get a rise out of people (you probably don’t care for pizza either, right?), you certainly haven’t escaped them — and as that golden anniversary reminds us, we’re all getting a lot older. Even today’s lovable moptops will weaken, wrinkle and wither away someday. Consider yourself warned.
Anyway, the Beatles: As a kid in the ’90s, my personal understanding of pop culture dated back to the ’60s, and more specifically to the Beatles. Rock ’n’ roll had a storied history before this, but thanks to the abundance of Fab Four documentaries on TV, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan might as well have been the Big Bang as far as I was concerned. Their influence has been so subsumed into pop culture, their career trajectory from teeny-boppers to serious artistes and countercultural apostles so fundamental to shaping the media-approved rock ’n’ roll canon, their supremacy so assumed among all but the contrarians, that everything before them seemed inessential. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and so many others would have something to say about that, but hey, I was ignorant and naive. And even now, in my slightly less ignorant and naive state, they’re still the obvious choice as the most influential musicians of their century and the greatest rock band of all time. Neither their ridiculous batting average nor their sheer scope of ambition can be denied. They’re the best.
As for the best of the best, well, that’s been debated and debated and debated for decades. Everyone has their ideas about what’s the greatest iteration of the Beatles. Most list-making types lean toward the back half of the band’s career, when they rewrote the rock band rulebook several times over without abandoning the pop instincts that nabbed them the spotlight in the first place. But a vocal contingent prizes those simpler, more raucous early works, when they seemed to be both the catchiest and loudest thing going, when they could (and did) send entire stadiums spiraling out of control. Somebody out there probably even considers Yellow Submarine their pinnacle! It would be difficult to find a music fan who doesn’t have some kind of opinion on this matter.
So yeah, the Beatles catalog has been ranked and ranked, and for good reason. Not only are these albums among history’s most wondrous composites of popular music, the Beatles also almost singlehandedly established albums as rock’s dominant format and the popular musician’s definitive statement. Before the studio war with Brian Wilson that yielded Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper among other classics, rock was a singles game and LPs were mostly tossed together. From then on, the album ruled, at least until Napster and iTunes and SoundCloud came along to arguably turn popular music a la carte again. So when we’re shuffling through Beatles albums, we’re shuffling through the formative history of the album as we know it.
Thankfully, that’s far from a chore. There’s so much magnificence to behold here. We’ve all lived with this music so long that we take it for granted, but every time I go back for another Beatles binge, I’m taken aback by what this band accomplished in less than a decade. They could never have so thoroughly changed the shape of popular music if their music hadn’t been so powerful. (To paraphrase a self-professed black Beatle, no one band should have all that power.) Life is short, so we might as well wring as much joy as we can from its finest fruits. Half a century later, let’s revisit the Beatles catalog one more time together and have a blast dissecting and dissenting in the comments.
A brief clarification before we begin: Because Capitol released a number of Beatles LPs that reshuffled or stitched together Parlophone’s original British releases, and because even some of the more purposefully sequenced latter-day Beatles albums had different tracklists in America, we’re considering the British versions canon for this Countdown as has become standard practice. Thus, most of the early American releases have been omitted, including Introducing… The Beatles, Meet The Beatles, The Beatles’ Second Album (though All Music Guide makes a good case for it), Something New, Beatles ’65, and Beatles IV. The countless repackaged retrospectives and rarities comps, from Past Masters to The Beatles Anthology, are excluded too.
OK, let’s do it! The Countdown begins here.