With The Beatles: Rock Band and the much-hyped stereo/mono remasters coming out this week, the Beatles are getting more press than they have since 1964. I haven’t heard the remasters yet, so I can’t comment on them, but I thought this would be a good opportunity (perhaps excuse is a better word) to indulge my Beatle-obsession and run down my list of top twenty Beatles tracks. Yes, everybody else at every newspaper, magazine, website and blog on the planet is doing something similar, but, hey, it’s the Beatles.
A word of warning: these are my top twenty selections today. The Beatles treasure chest is so deep, and filled with so many musical jewels, that I could probably compile another list, with twenty different songs, tomorrow.
20. “Please Please Me”
Their first number one single. As fresh, as exciting, as filled with humor and energy, as anything that followed. Right out of the gate John Lennon proved he had one of the greatest voices in rock and roll. And he kept getting better.
19. “Don’t Let Me Down”
As honest, and emotionally naked, a song as the Beatles ever recorded. No surprise that the wounded, desperate voice at the center of the song is Lennon’s. “Don’t Let Me Down” provides the blueprint for much of John’s solo career: autobiography, straight from the heart.
18. “Come Together”
“Come Together” isn’t the greatest Beatles song, but it’s one of the most brilliant recordings the band ever made. Abbey Road may have been the group’s last album—with tensions high and everyone pretty much desperate to get out—but you’d never know it from the way they played together on this track. McCartney’s bass and Ringo’s drums alone are worth the price of admission, with Harrison’s guitar work not far behind—and it’s all topped with a snaky Lennon vocal that manages to be as inspiring as it is sinister. But the real hero here may be producer George Martin, who gives the track an incredible polish, without ever obscuring the song’s down and dirty roots.
17. “If I Fell”
According to myth, John was the acerbic rocker and Paul was the melodic, tender-hearted balladeer. In reality, McCartney was one of rock’s great screamers and Lennon’s hard shell masked an incredibly soft center. Here John offers up one of his most beautiful, and honest, love songs—with Paul'’s harmony offering perfect support.
16. “We Can Work It Out”
I still remember hearing this come over the radio in 1965. It didn’t sound like any other Beatles song I’d ever heard—especially the middle section, with that funereal harmonium pumping away and Lennon and McCartney—sounding more desperate and anxious than two rich, happy rock stars should—telling us all that life was very short and there was no time for fussing and fighting. The Beatles were clearly changing and that fact was as thrilling as it was disturbing.
15. “Tomorrow Never Knows”
Psychedelia went into labor with “Rain,” but it was born with this extraordinary track: Lennon channeling Timothy Leary channeling The Tibetan Book of the Dead. “Lay down all thought, surrender to the void...it is shining, it is shining...” Still great advice, if you ask me.
14. “A Hard Day’s Night”
The essence of Beatlemania—all the joy and wit, euphoria and lunacy—boiled down to two minutes and thirty-three seconds. Once again Lennon and McCartney are in perfect balance—you could write an entire book about the blending of those two incredible voices—and George Harrison offers up a glorious opening chord that musicologists are still dissecting.
13. “All You Need Is Love”
There are some who dismiss this song as so much hippie claptrap. Me, I’m of the opinion that it’s one of the wisest, truest songs ever written. The message is so clear a three year old could understand it, but listen to the lyrics and they open up a whole universe of meaning. Not a hint of claptrap to be found.
12. “Here, There and Everywhere”
As perfect a love song as has ever been written. If McCartney had retired immediately after recording this, his place in the songwriter’s hall of fame would still be secure.
11. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”
John Lennon saw this strange, tortuous collision of imagery, angst and varying musical styles as a mini-history of rock and roll—and it certainly is that. It’s also one of the oddest, most disturbing and exhilarating songs in the Beatles catalogue. A journey down the rabbit hole that was the Mind of Lennon, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is, even after forty years, a continual revelation.
10. “Let It Be” (single version)
McCartney at his most soulful and introspective. The album version, produced by Phil Spector, is a bad mix, with the drums clomping all over the place, the lead guitar noisily intruding and poor Paul stranded in the middle. The single version, produced by the impeccable and brilliant George Martin, is in perfect balance.
A gorgeous melody, a flawless lyric, and a performance as honest as any McCartney—who sometimes hides his art behind artifice—has ever given. This is the song “Yesterday” wishes it could be.
8. “In My Life”
For years McCartney claimed that Lennon wrote all the lyrics while he supplied the melody. Then Paul changed his story, claiming that he actually co-wrote the lyrics with Lennon. Lennon insisted that he wrote all the lyrics and most of the music, with Paul helping out with the melody. I tend to believe Lennon, who spoke about this song with great passion, and in great detail, during his last interviews; but, however “In My Life” was composed, this Rubber Soul track remains one of the Beatles’ greatest achievements. It’s not surprising that a Mojo magazine panel of professional songwriters selected it as the greatest pop song of the twentieth century.
7. “Across The Universe” (Let It Be...Naked version)
One of the (many) wonderful thing about the Beatles is the fact that their songs evolve in the listening, the tracks continually revealing new layers and levels, and, because of that, “Across The Universe”—a cosmic cry from John Lennon’s heart—grows closer to my heart every year. There have been several different versions released, but the version on the otherwise unnecessary Let It Be...Naked brings out all the song’s magic and transcendence. No wonder NASA beamed it into space.
6. “I Am The Walrus”
A surreal, psychedelic masterpiece—with a fierce Lennon vocal (there’s some raw anger beneath the druggy haze) and insanely brilliant George Martin orchestration that perfectly matches John’s equally insane, and equally brilliant, lyrics.
5. “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End”
Paul McCartney at the peak of his powers, leading his band-mates through a memorable finale that manages to wrap up not just one of the Beatles finest albums—Abbey Road—but their entire astonishing career.
4. “Here Comes The Sun”
Optimism, cosmic consciousness, shimmering guitars and gorgeous harmonies entwine in George Harrison’s greatest Beatles-era composition: the best Lennon-McCartney song that John and Paul never wrote.
3. “Strawberry Fields Forever”
The first song recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions, this is Lennon at his most dreamy and introspective and the Beatles at their most brilliantly experimental. “Strawberry Fields” was yanked from Pepper—along with the wonderful “Penny Lane”—to be the Beatles first single of 1967. Had both those songs been included on Pepper, the album might have lived up to its hype.
2. “A Day In The Life”
Lennon’s vocal is one of the most magnificent in the history of popular music—so cold, it’s hot; so emotionally removed that it becomes extraordinarily intimate—and the collision of John’s cosmic alienation with Paul’s down-to-earth everyman persona detonates an ending that Lennon, accurately, described to producer George Martin as “a tremendous build-up from nothing up to something absolutely like the end of the world.” Yes, Sgt. Pepper is brilliant, a work of genius and blahblahblah—but it’s also the most over-rated album in the Beatles catalogue. (For my money, Rubber Soul, A Hard Day’s Night, Abbey Road and The White Album are all superior efforts.) “A Day In The Life” is the place where 60’s mythology and musical reality meet.
1. “Hey Jude”
Is this the Beatles’ best song? Who knows? Is it my favorite? Absolutely. When I was a teenager, lost in adolescent angst and misery, I’d sit for hours feeding my dour mood, listening to the most depressing music in my collection. Then, when I was ready to get over myself, I’d put on “Hey Jude” and, instantly, hope was back. The song is honest, heartfelt and, by the end, downright majestic. A brilliant, moving—and utterly unpretentious—work of art.
© copyright 2009 J.M. DeMatteis