Since I’ve been listening to The Beatles constantly of late, due to both the latest T5R Survivor and the Across the Universe movie, I felt it time to do a list I’ve been intending on doing for some time now. I’m going to admit right now that this is a list that’s constantly in flux, and other than #10 and #1, you could probably swap any other song on this list up or down a few spots and it would probably still accurately illustrate how I feel about these songs. In other words, I didn’t kill myself deciding what would be #7 and what would be #6. Instead, I focused on what were the ten best songs by the most important band in modern music history.
Honourable Mention: “Twist and Shout” from Please Please Me (1963)
I decided to throw this in as an honourable mention. It’s not my 11th favourite Beatles song, but rather the first Beatles song that I really loved. I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off about once a week after I recorded it on VHS back in the day, and thought the scene where he lip-syncs this song atop a float was the coolest. It still holds up as an excellent pop song today, powered by John Lennon‘s manic vocals. At the end of a 10-hour recording session that filled out most of Please Please Me (recording 11 songs in that period), Lennon blew out his voice singing this song while suffering from a cold. They did two takes of the song, but Lennon’s voice was already gone by the second.
10. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from The Beatles [The White Album] (1968)
The last spot on a list is usually the hardest to decide on, as picking it means you’re excluding others. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” ended up beating other contenders to make the list both because of its excellence, and also to get a George Harrison song on the list. While recording the song, Harrison was having trouble making it work, so he brought in a guest guitarist to help him out. Of course, when you’re one of the greatest guitarists in the world, there’s not a lot of people out there that you can bring in to make things better. Luckily, Harrison was friends with some guy named Eric Clapton, who took over the lead guitarist role allowing Harrison to concentrate on his layered vocals and rhythm guitar.
9. “Glass Onion” from The Beatles [The White Album] (1968)
I might be the only person in the world that would rank this song as one of The Beatles ten best. Even Lennon saw it as a throwaway track. I can’t help it; it’s a personal favourite. I think I really took notice of it when Danger Mouse used it along with “Savoy Truffle” mixed with Jay-Z‘s “Encore” on his Grey Album. It was a great sample, since the uptempo style of “Glass Onion” fits perfectly for a hip-hop song. The hip-hop connection goes further when you consider how self-referential the track is, and the “oh yeah” refrain at the end would fit in perfectly in a hip-hop song. Thinking about it like that, it’s one of the more modern sounding tracks in The Beatles catalogue.
8. “Come Together” from Abbey Road (1969)
This might be on the list solely for the bass line, easily one of the most famous in rock history. When Paul McCartney‘s riff kicks off, I’m instantly immersed in the bluesy-cool of the song. If I were scoring the movie of my life, this track would play when I wanted a slow motion, entering the building vibe. The rest of the song is more Lennon lyrically craziness, which you’ll see from the rest of the list is right in my wheelhouse.
7. “Strawberry Fields Forever” from Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
Sure it’s the psychedelic Beatles at their most prominent, which some people reject as silly hippy stuff. But beyond the psychedelia, it’s a phenomenal achievement in musical composition. It features extensive overdubbing, prominent use of reverse tape effects and tape loops, and extensive audio compression and equalization. In addition to the standard guitar-bass-drums backing, the arrangement also included piano, Mellotron (played by McCartney), trumpets, cellos and some unusual instruments including the swarmandel, an Indian stringed instrument which provided the sitar-like sound at the end of each chorus. I just love peeling back the layers while listening to it. I also love it when Lennon struggles to keep up with the melody with the lyrics “I think I know I mean a ‘Yes’. But it’s all wrong.” It’s one of my favourite parts of any Beatles song.
6. “In My Life” from Rubber Soul (1965)
I rank “In My Life” alongside The Beach Boys‘s “God Only Knows” as two of the most pleasant pure pop songs of the era, or ever. Like that track, it illustrates how much more full and intricate pop songs used to be, especially George Martin‘s bridge section. Also like “God Only Knows”, it’s heartbreakingly poignant. Personally, I love how Lennon makes the word “my” multi-syllabic. It’s my favourite part to sing.
5. “Revolution” from Hey Jude 7-inch single (1968), found on Past Masters, Volume Two
Not to be confused with “Revolution 1” from The White Album, a slower version than the far superior one released as a B-side on The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” single. The better version of the song is one of the band’s most raucous, featuring distorted guitars and Lennon’s aggressive howl to begin the song, reminding me a bit of The Stooges. Lennon’s snarling delivery of politically-charged lyrics make this track a precursor to later bands like The Clash. “Revolution” was punk before punk was cool.
4. “I am the Walrus” from Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
I said earlier that I’m a big fan of Lennon’s lyric craziness, with this track probably the craziest of them all. A beautiful mess of gobbledygook, one shouldn’t really put too much work in trying to figure out what the lyrics mean, because other than a mixed up allusion to Lewis Carrol‘s The Walrus and the Carpenter, most of it is intentionally meaningless. Meaningless, but brilliant nonetheless.
3. “Helter Skelter” from The Beatles [The White Album] (1968)
The first McCartney track on the list, and it’s the least McCartneyesque song on the list. Easily the most fierce and dirty rock track in the group’s catalogue, and one of the fiercest, rawest songs in rock history. Hard to believe this came from the same guy who wrote “Yesterday”. A proto-metal track, “Helter Skelter” is yet another musical innovation by the lads from Liverpool. Oh, and since I haven’t mentioned him yet, the highlight of the track is probably at the end, when Ringo Starr shouts out “I’ve got blisters on my fingers”, a great ending to such a hard-rocking song.
2. “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
If you’ve ever questioned why The Beatles get so much hype, and think they’re just a sappy band making dad rock songs like “Hey Jude” or silliness like “Yellow Submarine”, listen to the top three songs on this list and you might start to get it. Possibly the most innovative song in a career of musical innovation, “A Day in the Life” would probably still be a great song if it were just Lennon’s lyrics. But it became a masterpiece with the inclusion of Paul McCartney’s verse, his jaunty tune mixing with Lennon’s haunting observations, until everything collapses with the crashing crescendos of pianos. It’s bloody brilliant.
1. “Eleanor Rigby” from Revolver (1966)
The number two song on my Top 5 Songs of the 60s list, “Eleanor Rigby” is a haunting song employing strings to fill McCartney’s lyrics with gothic atmosphere. George Martin employed four violins, two cellos, and two violas to create the composition, without any instrumentation from the band themselves (Lennon and Harrison contributed background vocals). Listening to Rigby, you can hear the foundation that would lead to bands like The Cure or Echo and the Bunnymen. It’s one of the more unique songs in rock history, and a large leap from the band that performed simple pop tracks like “I Saw Her Standing There” or “Love Me Do”.