Anyone who knows me knows I am a huge Beatles fan. I believe John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr recreated popular music in their own image and pushed the self-contained rock and roll instrumental line-up of drums, bass and guitars to its limit. In addition to their innovative music, they also changed the music business itself, and how rock and roll was perceived by the culture at large. The band's greatest strength was the songwriting. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were among the best composers of the 20th century, and their junior partner, George Harrison, also managed to come up with some classics on his own. The Beatles as songwriters were also well served by the Beatles as singers.
I suppose I never grow tired of the band because of their profoundly different "periods." Sometimes I focus predominately on their psychedelic period, only to surrender to more raucous rock and roll on The White Album. Then I return to the harmony singing of their earliest days, only to yield to the studio perfection of Abbey Road. I can always find a perfect place to match my mood in their recordings. Additionally, with each musical instrument I have learned to play, I have gained a new level of appreciation for their work.
If my list is a little heavy, proportionally, on George Harrison numbers, it might be because those songs remain fresher to me today. In my foolish youth, I gave them little regard. Now I appreciate them.
Here's the list (which, on another day, could be entirely different!):
(20). FREE AS A BIRD - 1995
A sentimental favorite that edged out a number of more worthy songs. However, I will never forget the excitement surrounding the release of this song along with Anthology television series and albums. I waited in line at a record store in Towson at 12:01am to buy the album. I do like the song, too. Ringo is a bit restrained because of the nature of the recording, but, overall, it succeeds better than it should. Still waiting for Paul to release the third song....
(19). OLD BROWN SHOE - 1968
I first remember really hearing this song, originally the flip side to The Ballad of John and Yoko single, on The Beatles 1967-1970 compilation (aka The Blue Album.) My first thoughts were: Why is this song on the album? If it were on a CD instead an album, I probably would have hit skip every time it started. It wasn't until I started playing the bass that I really started appreciating this nifty number. The vocals might be mixed back a little too far for my taste, but, instrumentally, the song is a little wonder.
(18). I'VE GOT A FEELING - 1970
I bet you this is the only Top 20 Beatles song list featuring this song. Most people would place this track in the throwaway category. Lyrically, it isn't much, but the song has tremendous energy. The band really seems to enjoy playing it on the roof top concert. More than any track, this song captures the spirit of their original concept for their Let It Be album and film. (Too bad that version isn't available on YouTube.)
(17). I WANT TO TELL YOU - 1966
The lyrics express George Harrison's frustrating inability to describe the insights he received while taking acid. But you don't need to be on drugs to enjoy with complex, dissonant composition that opens with a pretty cool, descending guitar riff. George apparently even invited the E7b9 chord while writing the song. This was his best song to date, and one of my favorites on the album Revolver.
(16). REVOLUTION - 1968
When he recorded the original slower version for The Beatles (aka The White Album,) John hadn't decided whether people could count him in or out when it came to destruction. When they recorded the faster version, which was the flip side to Hey Jude, he decided that you could count him out, an attitude that angered the radicals of the time. Politics aside, this is one of the Beatles' best rockers and they are ably aided by the fabulous Nicky Hopkins on the piano.
(15). DEAR PRUDENCE - 1968
This gentle ballad was written by John while the Beatles were in Rishikesh, India, as a plea to Mia Farrow's sister Prudence to join them rather than spend all day in her cottage meditating. I love the intricate layered guitars and bass. Paul played the drums because the song was recorded after Ringo had quit the band. Fortunately, he soon returned (and fans have long debated whether he overdubbed the drums on the coda.)
(14). I SAW HER STANDING THERE - 1963
This energetic Chuck Berry pastiche would prove to be one of Paul's best rockers ever. I'm surprised they dropped it from their live set list as early as they did. Tellingly, it was the song John chose to play live with Elton John at Madison Square Garden.
(13). I AM THE WALRUS - 1967
The nonsense wordplay was reportedly written by John to befuddle English professors who were treating Beatles lyrics as literature. But was it nonsense? Or a piercing but oblique protest song? I'll let you decide. Musically, it is a masterpiece. One of their best productions.
(12). HERE COMES THE SUN - 1969
George Harrison wrote this classic track in Eric Clapton's backyard on a respite from the chaos of the late-period Beatles. A truly lovely and uplifting song, even if I have a hard time clapping along with it.
(11). TICKET TO RIDE - 1965
This is a really tasty mid-period Beatles single. Great instrumentation, particularly Ringo on the drums, and singing. Tried playing this one with my band The Atomic Enema. We sucked, but I always liked singing the middle eight.
(10). HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE - 1966
Paul was the Beatle ballad king and I believe this song was his best ballad recorded with the band. His partner John, who was notoriously stingy with his praise, called it one of Paul's best compositions. Thoughtful lyrics, perfect instrumentation and wonderful harmonies lift this song to the top tier of Beatle compositions.
(9). NOWHERE MAN - 1966
The lyrics of this song really resonated with me upon my first hearing of the song. I also liked that John introspectively pointed the finger at himself and not society in general, as he was wont to do later. The song features fantastic three part harmony and a great, trebly guitar sound. Really loved the simple but effective guitar solo played in unison by George and John on their dual Fender Stratocasters.
(8). ELEANOR RIGBY - 1966
Yesterday didn't make this list because, although it is a great song, it just never felt like a Beatles song to me. The track always felt out of place regardless of what album it was placed on. I do not feel the same way about Eleanor Rigby. Although none of the Beatles plays on the track, it has the right attitude. A great lyric with a sad but satisfying conclusion and scored to perfection by producer George Martin.
(7). SOMETHING - 1969
George lifted the title of a James Taylor song for the first line of this song. James didn't seem to mind. Neither did the world. John said it was the best song on the album Abbey Road, and Paul said it was the best song George ever wrote. After Yesterday, it is the second most covered Beatles. A beautiful song and performance.
(6). IN MY LIFE - 1965
This is one of the rare songs that John and Paul disagree about. John says he wrote it entirely. Paul says he wrote the melody. It's easy to see why they both want to claim it. It is a fully-realized, thoughtful song. It was one of John Lennon's first true forays into personal songwriting. What surprises me is the depth of nostalgia he felt at the tender age of twenty-six.
(5). HELP! - 1965
John described this song as a genuine cry for help. Quick and to the point, this song features no middle eight and no guitar solo. Instead, George provides a number tasty little hooks. Also, rather than employing their normal stacked vocals, Paul and George provide an amazing counterpoint backing track. It is one of my favorites.
(4). SHE LOVES YOU - 1963
Although I Want To Hold Your Hand was the song that finally broke the Beatles in America, this song always epitomized the Beatlemania period to me. Starting on Ringo's toms, the song is manic energy from start to finish with their trademarked the stacked vocals piled on top. There was nothing like this song on the Top 40 charts in the United States when this single was released. No wonder they took the country by storm.
(3). HEY JUDE - 1968
I am old enough to remember when the Beatles released this single. It was all over the radio and I didn't like it. Not at all. Although the song expresses a hopeful message, I always gloomed on the "sad song" aspect of the opening. (I seemed unusually susceptible to melancholy songs in my youth.) It wasn't until I was much older and had experienced some serous loss that I came to appreciate the therapeutic nature of the song. This is Paul's masterpiece, but, unlike some later singles such as Let It Be and The Long and Winding Road, it feels like a true band song.
(2). STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER - 1967
This dreamy ode to childhood is one of John's most personal songs, but expressed in a universal enough manner to speak to a kid in Baltimore. This is a great composition and vocal married to great production and imaginative instrumentation. Plus, it was scary as hell, too. I remember listening to this song late at night with my head between the speakers listening for the "I buried Paul." It was quite an experience. And the flip side was Penny Lane.... What an amazing single that showed the abundance of riches within the band.
(1). A DAY IN THE LIFE - 1967
The song, part matter-of-fact recounting of the news/part rock and roll apocalypse, is perhaps the high water mark of rock and roll music in general. From the gentle acoustic guitar open to the chaotic orchestral swirl and the final, resounding piano chord, this track presents the band and producer George Martin at their best. Great teamwork with John and Paul as songwriters, with Paul's woke up bridge melding perfectly with John's song. Anyone dismissive of Ringo as a drummer should pay attention to his playing here. A masterpiece.
Speaking of masterpieces, be sure to check out my memoir: