Beatles Albums From Worst To Best
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.
Yellow Submarine (1969)
This barely counts, but it seems relevant. The soundtrack to the cartoon movie Yellow Submarine cobbles together two previously released songs ("Yellow Submarine" and "All You Need Is Love"), George Martin's film score, and four previously unreleased Beatles originals. Think of it as an EP if you like -- or just don't think of it at all. Other than "All Together Now," one of their abysmal traditionalist British marches, the originals are actually worth your time: Lennon's great piano rocker "Hey Bulldog" might have secretly invented Spoon. And the two Harrison tracks, the keyboard-drenched "Only A Northern Song" and floaty, fuzzed-out "It's All Too Much," reveal as usual that being in a band with John and Paul blocked George's shine, though no sensible person would call those songs peak Harrison. The other two originals fare better in their original context, and Martin's score doesn't qualify as Beatles even though he was as essential to their studio presence as Nigel Godrich to Radiohead. Suffice it to say this one's for completists only.
With The Beatles (1963)
The Beatles hadn't yet helped to cement the concept of the album as a band's predominant artistic statement when With The Beatles dropped in 1963. Rock 'n' roll was still a singles-driven enterprise. That said, With The Beatles follows the standard sophomore LP template of the album age: It repeats the first album's formula almost verbatim, with slightly lesser results. Of course, in this context "lesser" is nothing to sniff at. Opener "It Won't Be Long" rollicks with the best of them, and "All My Loving" is one for the canon. "Till There Was You" is an early example of Paul's fondness (and knack) for old-timey balladry, and "Don't Bother Me" is George's first songwriting credit/lead vocal on a Beatles album. But there's more filler this time around. "I Wanna Be Your Lover" in particular seems like a castoff, which might be why they let Ringo sing lead on it. And the covers, which again comprise about half the record, are hit or miss; their versions of "Please Mr. Postman" and "You Really Got A Hold On Me" are aces, but rock standards "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Money" feel like sleepwalks compared to the originals.
Let It Be (1970)
This is where the magic runs out. If Please Please Me is the Beatles' Big Bang, Let It Be represents the heat death of their universe. The last Beatles LP to see release, it's an underwhelming conclusion to the greatest discography in rock, playing more like an odds-and-sods collection than a grand finale. Take heart, then, Beatlemaniacs, that Abbey Road was actually the last thing they recorded and that it sends them out on a triumphant note rather than a sad trombone. Like any Beatles album, Let It Be has plenty of canonical material. "Let It Be" and "The Long And Winding Road," for all their schleppy schmaltz, are power ballads for the ages. Even if "I've Got A Feeling" and "Dig A Pony" helped to invent every marginally talented bluesy bar band in the Western world, the original versions slay. "Across The Universe," covered enchantingly by Fiona Apple for the Pleasantville soundtrack, is as celestial as its title suggests. "Get Back" makes for a decent epilogue at least, and minor ditties "Two Of Us," "I Me Mine," and "For You Blue" would all pass muster buried somewhere deep on the White Album. So why am I spewing so much vitriol for this record? The impossibly high bar set by so many consecutive classics, sure, but also the apparent lack of care and camaraderie that went into this one. And I just really hate "One After 909."
Beatles For Sale (1964)
They say success ain't all it's cracked up to be, and Beatles For Sale might as well be Exhibit A. After a year-plus of all-out Beatlemania, what do the Fab Four have to say for themselves? "I'm A Loser." That one's sandwiched by the rejection anthem "No Reply" and the intensely morbid "Baby's In Black" (which scans as especially ironic in the context of an ecstatic Shea Stadium). More than any other Beatles album besides Let It Be, it's a bummer! Then comes an aggressive spin through Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" which, like the trifecta of negativity before it, is spearheaded by the ever sardonic John. He keeps up the gloom-and-doom later in the form of the miserable "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party." Paul is just as rowdy but not nearly as salty (naturally) on the raging covers medley "Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!" and even he's feeling blue on "What You're Doing," a thematically downcast number buoyed by George's exceptionally bright 12-string guitar lead. Ringo's Carl Perkins cover "Honey Don't" keeps up the mood of disenchantment.
But there's also the placid Buddy Holly cover "Words Of Love" (the one that just got a video) and "I'll Follow The Sun" and "Every Little Thing," mild-mannered tunes that contrast sharply with Beatles For Sale's initial dark tone. The ebullient "Eight Days A Week" is in there too. On balance, it's evidence of a maturing band but also one that's growing tired of its shackles. You can hear it when Lennon addresses the crowd in that Shea Stadium clip: Even he couldn't keep track of all the repackaged and reshuffled Beatles LPs on the market at that point. He had reason to be irritated; Beatles For Sale suffers from that slapdash, label-assembled approach. Later on they'd stitch together wildly disparate songs with panache, but on this early offering, the variety only makes a disjointed mess of some otherwise excellent songs.
Please Please Me (1963)
"Well she was just 17," were the first words on a Beatles LP, and frankly the Fab Four were spring chickens themselves at that point. Youthful vigor runs rampant on Please Please Me, from the first vibrant seconds of "I Saw Her Standing There" to the final chime of "Twist And Shout." It sounds like a revolution even without the backstory: With Please Please Me, the Beatles pioneered the concept of what Rolling Stone later dubbed "the self-contained rock band," writing their own songs and playing their own instruments. They were their own hit factory, and business was booming; Please Please Me is stuffed with smash singles. Some of those were covers, yes -- the aforementioned "Twist And Shout" included -- but most the stunners here are mostly the originals. "I Saw Her Standing There," "Love Me Do," and "Please Please Me" are all foundational rock 'n' roll essentials, and album cuts like "There's A Place" and "Misery" (that piano splice!) ensure the album is padded out with more than just filler.
There's this guy in my hometown named Joe Peppercorn who, armed with his trusty backing band, performs every Beatles album consecutively in a single day every year the week between Christmas and New Year's. In the three years he's done it, I've never stayed for the whole thing, but witnessing even a couple hours of the spectacle last year ensconced it on my calendar as an annual commitment. (See you Dec. 28, Joe!) Undertaking that herculean task every year makes Peppercorn the foremost Beatles authority in my vicinity, and his favorite Beatles song is "Ticket To Ride," so that's gotta count for something when figuring out where to rank Help! And "Ticket To Ride" is surely a masterpiece. So is "Yesterday" (obviously!) and you could make a case for "I've Just Seen A Face." Trouble is, the wheat is so much better than the chaff on this record. The Beatles were starting to grow up, as was evident in the implicit sex of "The Night Before" or the restraint of the spare, mid-tempo "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away." And whether it manifests in the top-of-your-lungs maximalism of the title track or the easy glide of "I Need You," that mature perspective was paying off in their songwriting. But Help! is as uneven as any of the other early Beatles LPs -- most of the middle of the record is skippable -- so it will forever remain on the second or third tier of their canon.
Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
One of my favorite nerdy fanboy exercises is exploring the parallels between Radiohead's catalog and the Beatles discography. Like most analogies, it's highly imperfect, but it's at least a little instructive. The most egregious stretch is lumping everything before Rubber Soul into one amorphous teeny-bopping mass and comparing that to Radiohead's half-baked debut Pablo Honey. After that it starts to hang together: The Bends is Rubber Soul (a huge step forward, but still a straightforward guitar-pop record), OK Computer is Revolver (the game-changer), Kid A is Sgt. Pepper (the epochal ostensible concept album), Hail To The Thief is the White Album (the overstuffed epic), In Rainbows is Abbey Road (the joyous curtain call), and The King Of Limbs is Let It Be (the less-than-joyous curtain call). This all assumes that Radiohead won't make another album -- and I certainly hope they will, at which point the the comparison will fall apart for good. In the meantime, i's remarkable how well that all lines up in a Dark Side Of The Moon/Wizard Of Oz type of way. So where does that leave Magical Mystery Tour? It's Amnesiac, the forgotten stepchild of the canon. Just like Amnesiac isn't exactly a Kid A sequel, Magical Mystery Tour isn't exactly a Sgt. Pepper sequel, but both Pepper and Mystery are built around a colorful conceptual conceit, and both of them boast the blending of traditional and forward-thinking influences. They also came out just a few months apart, so like Amnesiac, it's hard not to see Magical Mystery Tour as leftovers from what came before it -- albeit exceptionally tasty leftovers.
Where the analogy breaks down (or, if you're feeling skeptical, where it's especially forced) is the fact that Magical Mystery Tour was originally issued as a six-song EP, to which five contemporary singles were tacked on for the American release. And voila! We have ourselves an LP. For being the result of label meddling, though, the final product is remarkably cohesive. Actually, I'll go a step further: The addition of those singles is what makes Magical Mystery Tour magical. Think about it: What would we be left with if not for the tunefully bombastic "Hello Goodbye," the dual nostalgic triumphs "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," the barstool singalong "Baby You're A Rich Man," and the dumbfoundingly wonderful romantic climax "All You Need Is Love"? A couple mood pieces, a handful of Sgt. Pepper retreads and the original EP's one shining moment, the psychedelic gobsmack "I Am The Walrus," the sound of the universe bending into a crooked smile. So yeah, not a perfect album, but perfectly imperfect -- kind of like Amnesiac.
A Hard Day's Night (1964)
It all begins with a single chord. It's the sound of heaven condensed to a single robust strum. Get Luther Vandross in here and call it "One Chiming Moment." People debated the identity of that solitary majestic jangle for decades, literally, before George Harrison confirmed it as Fadd9 during his final months on Earth. That chord announces that the Beatles are in this for the long haul, that they're more than just teen idols, that there are galaxies of musicality buried deep within those haircuts. From there, the title track to A Hard Day's Night unfolds like any other rambunctious rocker of the early Beatles era -- that is, it's a total adrenaline rush -- and it's business as usual for the rest of the record. Bring on the head-bobbing pop songs engineered to inspire maximum screaming and the ballads with harmonies expertly triangulated to induce maximum fainting. You can practically see the matching suits. But there's a twinkle of what's to come in these songs; they're a cut above the filler that fleeces the Beatles' first two albums, in part because this time they dispense with the covers altogether and get busy being the greatest songwriters of their generation. "Can't Buy Me Love," "I Should Have Known Better," "And I Love Her," "Any Time At All"... you gotta be kidding me! They're all stupendous, every one of them. Here, disguised as the soundtrack album to the One Direction: This Is Us of its day, is the Beatles' first masterpiece.
Rubber Soul (1965)
The Beatles' evolution from straightlaced pop-rockers to boundary-decimating musical pioneers was subtle and gradual, but changes that had been germinating below the surface started to break through to the light of day on Rubber Soul. For all intents and purposes, this is the fulcrum between the traditional Beatles and the experimental Beatles. It also kicked off a string of all-time classic LPs that, without even a pinch of hyperbole, changed rock 'n' roll forever. From here on out, there'd be no more covers (40 seconds of "Maggie Mae" notwithstanding), and every album would be recorded as a standalone project rather than cribbed together from disparate sessions. The band also tried out a new array of forms, arrangements, and chord progressions here, so those who have trouble telling the early hits apart should have no such trouble with Rubber Soul. "Norwegian Wood" alone would be a quantum leap even if George hadn't taken up his sitar for the first time. Thematically, it's darker, more ambiguous, and highly unsettling for anyone expecting more doe-eyed romance; structurally it trades the sound of prom slow dances for the influence of the young folk rabble-rouser Bob Dylan. (And, OK, they also included the ultimate prom slow dance with "In My Life.") But it'd be selling this record's advances short to limit them to just one song, or even just to focus on the typically progressive John Lennon's contributions. Sheesh, Harrison has one sarcastic little ditty called "Think For Yourself" and another one that declares his independence from the ladies, so stick that in your shrill, shrieking kisser. Even Paul isn't entirely stuck in his old ways if singing in French counts as broadening your horizons. Just kidding; Macca jams like "I'm Looking Through You" and "You Won't See Me" are highly advanced specimens on an album full of them.
Abbey Road (1969)
As mentioned in the Let It Be blurb, I take great comfort in the fact that Abbey Road was the last album the Beatles recorded together. The band was obviously over, but rather than go out on a depressingly half-assed note, they pulled it together and gave history one more masterpiece, without which we would all be far poorer. From the iconic cover art on down, Abbey Road is a sacred text, a tour de force, a jaw-dropping reminder of the limitless weapons in this band's arsenal. Every song is a classic -- even "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," the first Beatles song I remember from childhood -- and each one comprises its own distinct part of the big picture. Ornate love songs, frisky old-fashioned rockers, cartoonish goofs, psychedelic sprawls, and classicist pop ditties share space, reflecting each other's glory. It's the audio equivalent of one of those mosaic posters where a bunch of smaller snapshots of the band form the larger whole. To narrow the scope a bit, I can't think of a better way to go out than with the infamous medley that carries Abbey Road home, the one the Beastie Boys imitated on Paul's Boutique 20 years later. Zoom in even closer and pay tribute to "The End," a masterfully pointed exclamation point on a legendary career. (And yeah, secret track "Her Majesty" is a fitting fake-out from a notoriously playful band.) Not sure if the Beatles left the Abbey Road sessions feeling warm and fuzzy -- if, in fact, the love they took was equal to the love they made -- but millions and maybe even billions of us did come away from this album all aglow, so I'm forever grateful they set aside their differences long enough to bring it into this world.
Rubber Soul inched toward the idea of a Beatles record without rules, but that one was staunchly traditionalist compared to what came next. Revolver has probably topped more all-time greatest albums lists than any other Beatles LP, and a lot of that has to do with its historical significance: They really blew the doors off with this shit. The Beatles became the biggest band in the world partly by participating in the highly systematic big-budget teenage music industry. There was a procedure to be followed. Even though they broke the mold by writing most of their own songs, they were still part of a musical assembly line of sorts. In look and feel, sound and spirit, there was an underlying uniformity in their output. They were easily digestible. Even a square could wrap his head around the Beatles.
That all changed with Revolver -- just ask Don Draper. This is where they got weirder and more sophisticated, where all the drugs (hello, "Doctor Robert"!), world travels, and spiritual seeking congealed into something entirely unique. Away went the matching wardrobes and the cookie-cutter songwriting. Not only is every track on Revolver its own beast, some of them are incredibly strange (albeit character-appropriate) beasts. John's acid-fried tape loop "Tomorrow Never Knows" is, to paraphrase Primal Scream, far more than five years ahead of its time. "Love To You" tumbles all the way down George's sitar rabbit hole. Ringo sings "Yellow Submarine," the first of many Beatles songs that could (and did) double as cartoons. "Eleanor Rigby" dispensed with the rock band entirely, setting Paul's mournful croon against a string quartet.
Speaking of "Eleanor Rigby," it's one of several remarkably traditional moments on this record, all of which can be traced to Paul. (Other culprits include "Here, There, And Everywhere," "Good Day Sunshine," and the heart-stopping French horn ballad "For No One.") Paradoxically, in the context of the rock revolution, those blasts from the past are among Revolver's weirdest moments. Those songs did as much as the mind-benders to reframe the possibilities of rock 'n' roll. In turn, "Taxman," "She Said She Said" and "And Your Bird Can Sing" deploy wanton psychedelic fuzzbombing the likes of which had never been heard on a Beatles song, forging new frontiers in an entirely different capacity. Anyhow, here's why Revolver rules even if you don't know the first thing about its circumstances: No matter how the band chose to dress them up, these were just tremendous pop songs through and through. "I'm Only Sleeping"? "I Want To Tell You"? "Got To Get You Into My Life"? Unfuckwithable, one and all.
The Beatles (The White Album) (1968)
How's this for generosity: Two LPs stuffed to maximum density with every possible conception of the Beatles, "important" social and personal statements and puerile gags and unstuck-in-time rock songs rubbing shoulders in crowded space, all of them scattered (splattered?) across the tracklist with minimal regard for cohesive flow (unless the "Blackbird"/"Piggies"/"Rocky Raccoon" triad passes for thematic consistency) as if George Martin haphazardly dumped the masters on the listening public to make sense of them ourselves. For a band on the verge of disintegration, the Beatles sure were productive in 1968. On the other hand, the personal and artistic tensions that were pulling the group apart yielded legendary songwriters working in parallel, each member freed up to follow his muse with minimal interference from his bandmates' competing visions. That it still feels like a group effort is a testament to enduring chemistry and Pavlovian association; these voices together on the same record will always sound like the Beatles.
In hindsight, of course twin spine-tinglers "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" are preceded by some of the silliest Beatles songs ever. Of course the band's loudest, most rabid moment ("Helter Skelter") brushes up against its quietest and tamest ("Long Long Long"). Of course there are two seemingly unrelated versions of "Revolution" and "Honey Pie," all four of them kind of ridiculous. It's gospel. It was written. When you first encounter the White Album, though, before it becomes an inextricable part of your own personal canon, it's easy to hear all the parts you don't like and wonder at the carefully edited opus they might have pieced together. No matter how you like your Beatles, it's possible to construct an album for the ages out of the material here -- and indeed, one of the all-time Beatlemaniac pastimes is narrowing the White Album down to one disc. (If you would dare cut "Dear Prudence," I don't know if we can be friends.)
But that exercise, for all its geeked-out appeal, misses the point. It's innately, perversely right that this unruly batch of songs would be this band's self-titled release. If every individual human being contains worlds, the Beatles as a unit contained universes. There is no way to effectively encapsulate everything they accomplished but with such a rangy, slapdash set. As Paul put it in the TV special The Beatles Anthology, "It's great. It sold. It's the bloody Beatles White Album. Shut up."
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
By 1967, the Beatles were tired of being the Beatles. They had given up touring to work full-time in the studio, where they were undertaking an arms race with Brian Wilson to surpass the Beach Boys' auditory advances. (Wilson, for his part, had also moved on from the teeny-bopping hits of yore; while the other Beach Boys toured, he stayed home to record.) With their next project, the Fab Four would aim to trump Wilson's defining achievement Pet Sounds with an even more impressive marvel of composition and production. What's more; they'd do it in the guise of another band entirely.
On Rubber Soul and Revolver, the Beatles inched toward establishing the LP as rock's preeminent format. As opposed to the legions of mere pop stars with their singles and filler, serious musicians looking to make an artistic statement in the rock genre would do it by presenting a set of songs to be consumed and considered as a unified whole. But if any album entrenched this precedent once and for all, it was Sgt. Pepper, widely considered rock's definitive concept album. (Never mind that John swore he never paid any mind to the concept.) Paul had already written a song called "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" about a fictional ensemble led by one Billy Shears when the idea struck him: If the Beatles adopted a different identity, they could do away with rules and expectations associated with being the Beatles. They could set themselves free. So he pitched the idea to his bandmates and producer George Martin, and they ran with it.
Rather than send the Beatles sprawling into their least coherent collection, though, the assumed identity streamlined the band in a way they never achieved otherwise in their longhaired, free-range period. Like any latter-day Beatles album, there are many different kinds of songs on Sgt. Pepper: finger-snapping rockers, acid trips, trad-pop romps, future-pop delights, an Indian mantra, a tearjerking ballad for the ages, and an awe-inspiring grand finale that masterfully stitches two disparate songs into arguably the most stunning composition in pop music history -- Paul's feet on the ground, John's head in the clouds. As with any truly great work of art, each component part is an achievement unto itself; to revisit this record is to be continually surprised and inspired, to find your face paralyzed in a wide-eyed smile. But no matter how many ingredients they threw in the mix, everything sounds of a piece on Sgt. Pepper; the songs all bear a faint red glow, each of them gliding along in the same lucid dream state. Upon its release, Time called this album "a historic departure in the progress of music -- any music," and 46 years later its genius is only magnified. I've got to admit it's getting better; it's getting better all the time.