Get Beatles vinyl, including the new 'Let It Be' super deluxe 4LP + 12" EP box set, in the BV store.
No matter how many times you listen to The Beatles, there's always something new to discover. They're the most popular, acclaimed, and influential band of all time, and it's impossible to overhype them; all the praise they've been given for the past 50+ years is deserved and then some. It's still astonishing what they achieved with just seven years worth of studio albums, from the countless hit songs to the massive evolution they underwent to their groundbreaking innovations in both songwriting and technology. They've released their fair share of best-ofs, but when it comes to The Beatles, you really don't need one. They really don't have songs that aren't well known; even many of the songs that were never released as singles feel more popular than plenty of bands' biggest hits. Every single one of their studio albums are essential (as are several of their other records, like the Past Masters compilations, which include many of their most iconic non-album songs), and it's actually kind of hard to talk about the "best of" their catalog. The easiest answer is: "all of it."
That said, lists are fun, and so is a little competition, especially when it comes to a band like The Beatles, who you can talk and debate about for hours and hours without ever running out of things to say. For that reason, I've decided to attempt the extremely difficult task of picking the best song from every Beatles album. This is entirely subjective, and the opinion of just one person, and there are so many good choices on each album that I fully expect your picks to be different than mine. Hopefully the list is a fun conversation starter, even if the conversation is about how clueless and wrong I am.
Read on for my picks, and leave your own picks in the comments...
"I Saw Her Standing There" (Please Please Me)
It didn't take The Beatles very long to prove how special they were; they did it with the first song on their first album. The opening lyric hasn't aged so well, but the song epitomizes the thrill of Beatlemania in under three minutes. There was already a whole lotta shakin' goin' on in rock and roll before The Beatles arrived, but this song arrived like a shot to the heart for the genre, and it's no wonder people couldn't stop screaming and moving when they heard it. The rhythm goes straight to your bones, the words and melodies come pouring out of your mouth, and the "ooooooh!"s are electric. The Beatles would go on to break ground in ways that no one in 1963 could've ever guessed, but even back then, they were writing timeless songs that can get any age group dancing and singing when they hear it over half a century later. This was the best of them.
"It Won't Be Long" (With The Beatles)
The Beatles really knew how to kick off an album, as they proved once again on their second album of 1963. Louder and harder than "I Saw Her Standing There," "It Won't Be Long" helped push pop culture towards rock and away from roll. Already, it was clear that this was a band who evolved fast. The song is early Beatles at their most energetic, and it's a just a little bit darker and edgier, matching With The Beatles' more serious-looking album artwork. It also pushed The Beatles' songwriting away from typical rock and roll chord progressions towards something a little less conventional, and The Beatles' talent came in when they were able to turn those atypical patterns into pure pop bliss.
"And I Love Her" (A Hard Day's Night)
The Beatles' knack for opening albums with a bang continued with A Hard Day's Night, which accompanied The Beatles' first film of the same name and opened with its larger-than-life title track. But even with songs as iconic as "A Hard Day's Night" and "Can't Buy Me Love," the award for best song on A Hard Day's Night goes to "And I Love Her," one of the first songs to prove The Beatles' music could be even more impactful when it wasn't pure pop. John Lennon considers it Paul McCartney's "first 'Yesterday'" and Paul says "it was the first ballad I impressed myself with," and to this day it stands out as one of Paul's most hauntingly gorgeous compositions. It stood in contrast to most other songs on A Hard Day's Night, and it proved that The Beatles were starting to outgrow the bubblegum of their earliest hits.
"I'm A Loser" (Beatles For Sale)
In the summer of 1964, The Beatles would finally meet Bob Dylan, which -- as legend has it -- quickly changed the course of both artists' careers. Dylan not only inspired the Fab Four musically but he also allegedly introduced them to marijuana, and you could immediately hear the impact on that same year's Beatles For Sale. (The Beatles also purportedly influenced Dylan to "go electric" the following year.) One of the most overt Dylan-influenced songs on Beatles For Sale is also the album's best, "I'm A Loser." You can feel Dylan's impact in the acoustic guitars, harmonica, and what were some of John's most personal lyrics yet. Beatles For Sale still had a foot in "early Beatles," but a song like this would've fit right in two albums later on Rubber Soul.
Rubber Soul gets all the credit for marking The Beatles' transition into "mature," album-oriented music, but Help! was like 95% of the way there. It's nearly impossible to pick a favorite song ("Ticket To Ride"! "I've Just Seen A Face"! "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away"! the title track!), but the winner has to be "Yesterday." It was the Beatles' first song with a string section, which marked a milestone in the career of a band who would soon help define baroque pop, and it holds the record for most covered song in history, but more importantly, it's just one of the most gorgeous songs ever written. No matter how many times you hear it, its power never wanes. It's the true definition of timeless; it could've come at any point in the past half-century of pop music, and it would've had the same impact.
"In My Life" (Rubber Soul)
Ask me on a different day, I might say "Norwegian Wood" -- which popularized the usage of sitar in rock music and was pre-Revolver Beatles' deepest foray into psychedelia -- but maybe that's just because I'd be taking for granted how perfect a song "In My Life" is. Like "Yesterday" is for Paul, "In My Life" is one of John's sweetest and most timeless ballads. It's a deceptively simple song that reveals its complexities over years of re-listens (including its sped-up piano solo, which was one of producer George Martin's many innovations), and it manages to feel small and intimate while towering over the history of pop music. Not to get all Yesterday (the movie), but it's impossible to picture a world without this song.
"I'm Only Sleeping" (Revolver)
The most culturally significant song on Revolver is the baroque pop masterpiece "Eleanor Rigby" and the alternative music fan's song of choice is the groundbreaking psychedelia of "Tomorrow Never Knows," but my pick is "I'm Only Sleeping." It utilizes the same innovative backwards guitar technique as "Tomorrow Never Knows" and it's just about as overtly drug-induced, but this one also manages to be a beautiful pop song. When it's done right, psychedelic pop is such a beloved style of music because it offers brainy experimentation in the form of accessible music, and that's no easy feat. The Beatles did it right tons of times; "I'm Only Sleeping" was one of their very best.
"A Day In The Life" (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)
In the early days, The Beatles roped you in by kicking the album off with its strongest song. By the time they reinvented themselves with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, they saved the best for last. With its multiple parts, it rivaled the song cycle approach that The Beatles' friends and competitors The Beach Boys had done a year earlier with "Good Vibrations," and it really captured everything that The Beatles were about in this era. It starts off with John delivering the same kind of folky, floaty psychedelia that he perfected on "I'm Only Sleeping," before Paul takes over with his more down-to-earth piano pop, and it managed to show off the contrast between the two songwriters while serving as a reminder of their unmatched chemistry. Then there's all the weird noises and arrangements and that legendary final chord, all of which would've turned this song into a mess in a lesser band's hands. In The Beatles' hands, it remains one of the single most important accomplishments in pop music.
"Strawberry Fields Forever" (Magical Mystery Tour)
I'm sure there are some purists who only count the EP-length UK release as the true Magical Mystery Tour, but the LP-length US release (which tacked on five non-album singles from that year, 1967) is the one US version of a Beatles album that became the definitive version internationally. That's a good thing, because the best song on this album is on side B of the LP version, "Strawberry Fields Forever." I mentioned above that "A Day In The Life" rivaled what The Beach Boys were doing at the time, but it was "Strawberry Fields Forever" (which came out as a single before Sgt. Pepper's) that made Brian Wilson feel convinced that The Beatles had beaten him at his own game. (This led to one of pop music's greatest tragedies, Brian Wilson abandoning Smile.) Brian shouldn't have given up, but he wasn't wrong about how monumental this song was. It channelled everything The Beatles were experimenting with at the time into one song: baroque pop string and horn arrangements, Indian music, experimental recording techniques, vivid psychedelic imagery, blissful pop melodies - it's all there in one song, and it's some of the best-sounding music this band ever made.
"Happiness Is A Warm Gun" (The White Album)
For their self-titled 1968 double album (aka "The White Album"), The Beatles moved away from the cohesive album-oriented style of the previous few albums and decided to try out all kinds of disparate ideas. How the melancholic folk of "I'm So Tired," the bouncy ska-pop of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and the proto-metal of "Helter Skelter" could all work in the context of one album is anybody's guess, but this is The Beatles we're talking about. They made it work. With 30 songs, it's very hard to pick a favorite (and I'm sure a lot of people would pick George Harrison's masterpiece, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"), but I have to go with the creepy, crazed psychedelia of "Happiness Is A Warm Gun." With its erratic structure and fuzzed-out guitars, it's a deeply weird song by any band's standards, but as they always did, The Beatles made it feel like pop music.
"It's All Too Much" (Yellow Submarine)
George Harrison and his love of Indian music made for some of The Beatles' trippiest moments ("Love You To," "Within You Without You," "Blue Jay Way"), and on the soundtrack album for Yellow Submarine, that led to "It's All Too Much." The Indian influence comes through on the droning harmonium, but what separates this song from those other George compositions is the lengthy run-time and screeching guitar solos and feedback, which suggested George was taking some influence from the jammy San Francisco acid rock scene. Whenever The Beatles tried out a new sound, they made it their own, and this song was no exception. It has an almost total lack of structure and it isn't really a pop song or a pretty song, but it still manages to work in those trademark George Martin string arrangements. It's an outlier in The Beatles' discography, and a true gem.
"I Want You (She's So Heavy)" (Abbey Road)
Even at their weirdest and trippiest, The Beatles remained a pop band at heart, which is what made it so unexpected when they released nearly eight minutes of hard rock/progressive rock with "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." It's even more of a proto-metal moment than "Helter Skelter" was, and its doomy guitar riff is one of the most hypnotic moments in all of Beatles history. (Billy Preston's creepy organ and Paul's bass noodling aren't too shabby either.) Just to prove how hypnotic they knew "I Want You" was, they gave the song an abrupt ending where they cut the tape mid-riff. Even when you know it's coming, you catch yourself zoning out and being jolted back to reality by the song's ending every time.
"Across The Universe" (Let It Be)
Abbey Road really feels like the true conclusion to The Beatles' career. The music on Let It Be was mostly recorded before Abbey Road for the abandoned Get Back album, and it wasn't released until the band had broken up, after Phil Spector assembled the album and added overdubs. (Phil Spector's production has been heavily criticized over the years by Paul McCartney and George Martin, and in 2003 Paul McCartney released Let It Be... Naked, which omitted Spector's contributions.) It doesn't always feel like a "Beatles album" the way the others do, but it has plenty of great songs. The best of them is "Across the Universe." It's cut from the same style of dreamy psychedelic folk that gave us "I'm Only Sleeping" and the first half of "A Day In The Life," but it feels wiser, not as overtly drug-induced as "I'm Only Sleeping" or as whimsical as "A Day In The Life." It hints at the John Lennon we'd see throughout the '70s, the John Lennon who put Beatlemania behind him.
BONUS: Best Non-Album Beatles Song - "Rain"
So many of The Beatles' best songs were never included on albums, so it only feels right to include their best non-album song, and that song is "Rain." It's from the Revolver sessions, and it's on par with any of that album's best songs. It's psychedelic pop in its truest form: hypnotic, kaleidoscopic, and eerily catchy. It completely captures the feel of the mid 1960s, but it's such an influential song that it has never become dated. From shoegaze to Britpop to the psych-pop revival of the late 2000s, bands have dedicated entire careers trying to capture what The Beatles perfected on this one song.
Get Beatles vinyl, including the new 'Let It Be' super deluxe 4LP + 12" EP box set, in the BV store.