On New Years Eve, I attended a party and ended up in the basement with thirteen year-olds. The cellar consensus was that the Beatles are the best pop/rock group ever; of course, this made the conversation more interesting than anything upstairs, and refuted the coincident media firestorm about how young people today (Kayne West fans in particular) have no idea who Paul McCartney might be. And so, for my new teenaged friends, my favorite Beatles tracks. In descending order – discussion welcomed.
10.The Fool on the Hill (UK: December 8, 1967)
I read once that McCartney included the recorder solo part of this song as an homage to his grade-school music teacher, which has always seemed right to me. This is my earliest “favorite” Beatles song – it’s always appealed to me, with its elemental melody, basic rhythmic construction, and otherworldly nostalgia.
9.Please Please Me (UK: January 11, 1963)
An extended double entendre with a literal climax (“whoa-yeah,” in beautiful harmony). It was the third song the Beatles recorded with producer George Martin, and legend says that after their final take he said, “Congratulations, gentlemen, you’ve just made your first Number One.” In the United States, Capitol Records still didn’t get it – they refused to release the single in America. Some say the sound was too raw for a white group, while others say the issue was with lyrics that obviously referred to fellatio. (If so, they certainly refer to the equivalent act, as well.) Subversive in the best way – with the joke lost on subsequent generations who regard their parents as square.
8.Norwegian Wood (UK: December 3, 1965)
A song I used to sing with a jazz band (jazz and folk players love this tune.) Often credited to Lennon, although Ian MacDonald makes a good case that it’s probably a 50/50 composition. Bob Dylan parodied this song as 4th Time Around, from his Blonde on Blonde album. (Dylan reportedly liked Lennon and couldn’t stand McCartney, whom he regarded as a sellout.) This single also included the first Beatles use of the sitar (it had been used on the soundtrack of their movie Help!; its introduction on this song post-dates that.)
7.Something (UK: December 26, 1969)
The second most-covered song in the Beatles’ catalog, after Yesterday. Frank Sinatra called it “the greatest love song of the past fifty years.” George Harrison lifted the first line from James Taylor’s Something in the Way She Moves (not vice-versa – Taylor recorded for Apple Records, which was founded and owned by the Beatles.) John Lennon called it the best song on the Abbey Road album. Over the years, many have criticized McCartney’s bass part of the arrangement (including Harrison) – I find it lovely.
6.Blackbird (UK: November 22, 1968)
This takes the place of McCartney’s Yesterday in this list; the music is as beautiful, but the lyrics are less on-the-nose. McCartney says he was inspired to write the song (in 1968) by increasing racial tensions in the U.S. The music was inspired by J.S. Bach’s Bourrée in E minor. I remember studying the words as poetry in 7th grade English – I’d say I got nothing out of that, but I must have; 7th grade is when I bootlegged a tape of the “Blue Album” from the LP on file in the music room at school. Gorgeous and soul-satisfying.
5.She Loves You (UK: August 23, 1963)
Many pin the start of Beatlemania to the release of this single. Ian MacDonald calls it “one of the most explosive pop records ever made,” to which I would add (I must have read this someplace, but I can’t find the reference) that this is the first glimmer of what would become punk rock – two years before The Who cut My Generation. Ringo’s drums start the song , followed by those infamous “yeah, yeah, yeah”s. MacDonald points out that McCartney’s harmony on the verse is unusual; Harrison adds a jazz sixth the final “yeah;” and Starr (at the reported advice of George Martin) added tension with tom-toms on the offbeat during the chorus. All of which is to say that what seems straightforward has a lot happening under the hood, even if the young musicians who wrote and recorded it didn’t fully get it. She Loves You is a perfect pop single that can be enjoyed on the surface, yet (like so many Beatles songs) stands up to more sophisticated analysis.
4.Eleanor Rigby (UK: August 5, 1966)
A musical short story that’s not just about the lyrics, but the music, too. Once again, George Martin’s contributions are essential – it wasn’t Paul McCartney hiring, arranging and conducting those strings. Still, this might be McCartney’s peak as a lyricist – if Lennon’s best work was psychoanalytical, this song is imaginatively empathetic.
3.Come Together (UK: September 26, 1969)
The most timeless of Beatles productions – the sophistication of its sound makes the released single difficult to place in any of the modern pop era’s decades. The lyrics make no sense in the best way – most pop/rock lyrics are stupid, so why not go for sonic impact? With that said, these are fantastically insipid lyrics.
2.A Day in the Life (UK: June 1, 1967)
For the “tune-up to the apocalypse” alone, this one is special. George Martin instructed a 40-piece orchestra to begin at their lowest note, and traverse to their highest note over 24 bars. The entire single took 34 hours to record, compared to 10 hours, 45 minutes for ALL 14 SONGS on the Beatles’ first LP. A Day in the Life is a mash-up of two different songs that have real synergy – Paul McCartney was rarely able to write a cohesive single piece after this (many of his singles repeat the same idea over and over), although Band on the Run showed that he retained an affinity for linking shorter songs together in an interesting manner. The nihilistic Lennon and the poppy McCartney were never as well matched as they were here.
1.Strawberry Fields Forever (UK: February 17, 1967)
A magnificent sound experiment (probably the most listenable of Lennon’s experiments) that was aided by producer George Martin’s tireless efforts to realize what was in Lennon’s head (the released version is a combination of at least two different speed-matched tracks.) Lennon wasn’t satisfied, but he never delivered a single as good as this after, which points to the impact the right production can have. Still, the bare music and lyrics have a hallucinatory power that McCartney’s comparatively straightforward Penny Lane lacked (both were originally slated for the album that eventually became Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.)