Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Top 50 Beatles Songs

So a few years back we decided to compile a few "best of" lists, starting with our favorite artists. After more than a little bloodshed, we finally decided to start with the Beatles. Winnowing the list down to what we considered their 50 best songs was...well, it's shocking we're still talking to each other. (Actually, we don't. But we do still type to one another. Sometimes. When the lawsuit settlement gives us no choice.) 

Because we're gluttons for punishment, we then decided to do brief write-ups on each song and post them on Facebook. Which at the time had a character limit of 420, I believe. Thus you'll note that these lil blurbs are not terribly expansive—although after a while we found we liked having to figure out what the one or two essential nuggets we wanted to say about each song was. 

So. There you go. The Top 50 Beatles Songs, now with opinionated factoids. 

“A Day in the Life” — A logical place to start, with the greatest tandem in rock-n-roll history at the height of their games, fusing together two completely different pieces of music so seamlessly you can’t imagine one without the other. The perfect ending to an album lauded for decades as rock-n-roll’s greatest innovation.

“A Hard Day’s Night” — No guitar song—from “Satisfaction” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — can surpass the opening G7add9sus4 chord for sheer uniqueness or power. John’s vocals sound exhausted and lascivious, while Paul’s are so exuberant. And the transition from second bridge to final verse, where John comes in with a simple, remarkable “mmm…”is the greatest vocal handoff in rock-n-roll.

“All My Loving” — A simple upbeat love song, right? One of thousands just like it, right? Find us one better. Find one with an opening as sweetly perfect as, “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you.” Add a rollicking guitar and great harmonies by not John, but George! This was one of their earliest announcements to the waiting world of what was to come. And darling, were they ever true. 

“And I Love Her” — No idea if a Latin-inflected acoustic love ballad surprised fans in 1964, but it’s still something to hear today. Such a departure from what they were doing, and still so successful. Paul’s vocals are perfect—his single-tracked “Bright are the stars...” line is stark and gorgeous, Ringo gives the song a backbone and a conscience and George’s solo is sweet simplicity. 

“And Your Bird Can Sing” — The Beatles rarely rocked harder, and never more perfectly, than this masterpiece. George’s unusually lengthy but gorgeous melodic lead, Paul’s perfect bassline, some interesting syncopation from Ringo. Add John’s magnificent vocal and pristine Beatle harmonies and you’ve got a highlight from their finest album-which is to say the finest album. All in under 2 minutes.

“Blackbird” — The era of singer-songwriter ballads that dominated the early 1970s wasn’t here yet, but Paul got a great headstart in 1968. Said to be inspired by racial strife in the UK, his lyrics are both melancholy and uplifting, and his own harmonies hang over the chorus like a Chagall angel. Tucked seamlessly into the sprawling mad artistry of The White Album, this is Paul at his finest.

“Come Together” — “Shoot me,” John eerily whispers. He claps as he sings, laying so much echo on top that it’s hard to understand what he’s saying. Paul’s stormy-sea bassline, Ringo’s unprecedentedly orchestral drum arrangement and John’s surreal, disturbing lyrics give you a composition unlike any previously in rock. This would be where grunge was invented, if they hadn’t already done so.

“Day Tripper” — Few Beatles compositions have an opening guitar riff this memorable, conceived by John and performed by George. Other highlights are John and Paul’s vocals, where they effortlessly switch parts on the chorus, and the delectable falsetto they hit on the final chorus. One of their earlier entries into edgy, rapscallion lyrics and subject material, and one of their best, too.

“Eleanor Rigby” — None of the Beatles contribute anything but vocals on this, one of the only songs John and Paul disagreed about who did what: John took credit for most of it, Paul said it was all his. What it is is their most brilliant non-rock rock song, a complex and haunting and groundbreaking look at loneliness, a lightyear away from rock musically and yet utterly rock and roll in spirit.

“Eight Days a Week” —Jaunty, breezy pop fun at it best. Supposedly based, like “A Hard Day’s Night,” on a Ringo malapropism, it starts with a rare fade-IN. Bookended by George’s great chord progressions, the bop-a-lu swing of the verses grinds down to a capella harmonic fun at each bridge, with the band again lost in the moment of sheer rock-n-roll splendor. Who cares if they didn’t like it much?

“For No One” — In Paul’s brilliant canon of love songs, none top this 2-minute bit of perfection embedded in the marrow of the peerless Revolver. The melody is simple and gorgeous. Paul’s vocals rival “Here There and Everywhere” for his best ever. And Alan Civil’s epochal horn drifts down to earth from some magical place, attaching an ethereal level of sadness to this sweet, mournful masterwork.

“Get Back” — Three chords, two verses, one guest, no bridge. A slightly unusual drum part, hints of drug use and sexual ambiguity. (Lyrically, that is). Called a return to rock-n-roll basics, but while it was clearly rock—and basic—rock had never quite sounded like this before. And yet it was instantly familiar. The last song the boys ever performed live, fittingly and ironically. (In the Alanis sense.)

Got to Get You Into My Life” — This wasn’t released as a single for 10 years and it still went Top 10...6 years after they broke up. Rolling Stone considers “If I am true I will never leave and if I do I know the way there” Paul’s funniest line. Great melody, a horn section, killer vocals and Ringo’s typically perfect drumming brings it home. No wonder John thought this one of Paul’s finest ever.

“Happiness is a Warm Gun” — In which the Beatles invent prog. Or would have, had they not already with “A Day in the Life.” 5 sections, multiple time signatures and polyrhythms add up to Paul’s favorite song on The White Album, even though it wasn’t his. And with the doo-wop chorus of “bang bang, shoot shoot,” we get yet another eerie John reference to gun violence.  

“Help!” — Title track of their gleefully absurd 2nd film is an early John foray into confessional writing. (He even admits, “I’ve opened up the door.”) Supposedly John wanted it to be slower, given the glum subject matter. The upbeat melody is wryly juxtaposed against the downbeat lyrics, John’s voice is ragged and revealing, and Paul’s responsive harmonies are sunny and perfect.

Helter Skelter” — In which the Beatles invent grunge.

“Here Comes the Sun” — And to think George was give little opportunity to write songs! Gorgeous arpeggios, lush production and shining optimism that belied the band’s tense final years make this one of the sweetest songs ever written. He captures exactly where they were in those waning days, and maybe what allowed them to still find gold: “Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting.”

“Here, There and Everywhere” —It’s almost unfair this and “For No One” appear on the same album. Unfair to every other artist, that is. For the Beatles, one of them (in this case Paul) took a genre(in this case the lovely love song) and did it better than anyone ever had. Neat touch: the first verse centers around the word “here,” the second “there” and the bridge “everywhere.” And John was the word guy?

“Hey Jude” — Paul wrote this for Julian, of course, upset over his parents’ divorce...but John first thought Paul’d written it for him. Ah, the power of music (and self-importance). The longest song ever to hit #1 in the US and UK, Paul’s ad-libbing in the extended outro has always seemed curiously overlooked. A textbook example of simple not equaling simple-minded. 

“I Am the Walrus” — Mellotron and orchestra mesh with an unspeakably catchy melody and the best of John’s oddball lyrics. Fusing together broken bits of nursery rhyme, Lewis Carroll and (shocker!) a smidge of LSD, this song gave us phrases like “crabalocker fishwife” and “expert textpert.” And it wraps with a romp of noise that is left for the ages to figure out. “Goo goo ga joob!”

“I Feel Fine” — The Fabs clearly loved rock’s country roots, as evidenced by several Carl Perkins covers. Here they introduce “country rock,” building a bridge from Carl Perkins to Gram Parsons to alt-country. After the raunchy feedback that tees is up, John/George drive it down the fairway with an edgy jangle, paced along by some fine Ringo drums. And the harmonies are among their most gorgeous ever.

“I Saw Her Standing There” — Paul shouts “One two three fah!”...and rock-n-roll is changed forever. The original lyrics: “Well she was just 17, never been a beauty queen.” But John knew that wouldn’t do, and suggested themuch naughtier, “Well, she was just 17—you KNOW what I mean.” When listeners touched the needle down on the first song on the first album the Beatles ever made, this is what they heard. Perfection.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” — The shot heard ‘round the world, kicking off the (good) British Invasion. The irrepressible ebullience, the propulsive drums, the little blue notes George bends in there. Most of all the melody which grabs your heart and never lets go and hell if you want it to. As Dave Marsh said, they got more sophisticated but they never got better...because you can’t improve perfection.

“If I Fell” — John sounds so alone as he sings alone at the start; vulnerable, exposed. The song then soars on the most intricate, taxing harmonies John/Paul ever created—as Tim Riley said in his book, “Both lines are so lyrical it’s hard to say just which one is the melody.” The doubt in the lyrics provides an elegiac quality, while George’s guitar trails the vocals like a watchful spirit.

“If I Needed Someone” — George’s first great song shows him solidifying his standoffish persona. John and Paul are mixed so high that at times their harmonies appear to be the melody. Heavily influenced by the Byrds who, of course, were heavily influenced by the Beatles, the vocal line is completely syncopated without the normal resolution and yet rather than feeling unsettled, it feels absolutely right. 

“I’ll Be Back”—A dark close to the effervescent A Hard Day’s Night album. Propelled by acoustic guitars with a razor’s edge, the arrangement is unusual, avoiding repetitions, instead relentlessly moving forward with two different bridges and a circle chord structure which goes back and forth between major and minor, leaving the listener uneasy...but entranced.

“In My Life” — A John masterpiece, but also the last song he and Paul wrote together. Bathed in nostalgic glow, this is his first attempt to tell his story, as his delicate vocals play against the lush backdrop of guitars, electric piano, and some of Ringo’s most subtly unique drumming. It succeeds brilliantly, balancing between whimsy and melancholy without ever lapsing into sentimentality.

“I’ve Just Seen A Face” — Perhaps the simplest song of our list, Paul reaches back to his skiffle days, with a dash of country and sprinkling of folk. But the sunny tone and infectious melody craftily disguise that this delightful love-at-first-sight tune is maybe just the tiniest bit overzealous, bordering on stalker territory? Or maybe we’re just jaded...

“Julia” — Deep in The White Album lies John’s most tender vocal ever. Spare yet complex as a Japanese koan, it’s a tribute to the women who shaped him. The title character, of course, to whom he sings “this song of love” is his late mother, killed when he was 17. But “ocean child” literally translates to “Yoko” in English. A bouquet to two strong women, from a man who changed music forever.

“Let It Be” — Oddly, our countdown brings us—back to back—the band’s only two songs written for/about deceased mothers, this one from Paul. What more can really be said about it? It’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written, with sentiments of optimism and patience that will last forever. That it was written at a time when the band was all but broken up? Staggering.

“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” — In the hands of any other band this piece of psychedelia, inspired by a drawing young Julian Lennon brought home, would have been laughably dated 18 months later. Instead it’s genuinely magical, its surreal lyrics carried along on yet another amazing melody, wonderful keyboards, great bass and, oh yes, those untouchable Beatles vocals. Follow her down. 

“Nowhere Man” — More early(ish) confessional writing from John, with perhaps the most pristine 3-part harmony the band ever produced. Another example of their paradox-laden approach to songwriting: George’s jagged guitar solo adds a foreboding offshoot to a somewhat (and ironically) cheery melody, while the sensitive lyrical plea in the chorus pulls hard against the biting words of the verses.

“Norwegian Wood” — They’d already recorded a Dylan-influenced song, but this may be their finest; fine enough, in fact, for Dylan to pay homage with his own “4th Time Around.” The only song on this list in 6/8 time, it’s notable for John’s inability to not write about an affair, as well as George’s sitar accompaniment, and the ambiguous final line: does he get stoned, or burn the house down? 

“Paperback Writer” —Irony alert: a band with the Midas Touch writing about the dire need for a big break. It’s a key transitional song in their history—the unreal harmony calisthenics John/Paul/George perform (including the background “Frere Jacques”), George’s astounding lead guitar and Ringo’s power drumming create a gaudy sound in a baroque arrangement, forecasting the astonishing things to come.

“Penny Lane” — Such an elegant song, pure and lovely, nothing tricky or complex. It takes us to a long-ago place, vivid with memorable characters. Years after last hearing it, we can quickly recall the banker without a mac, or the pretty nurses selling poppies.  Paul gives us a snapshot of a beautiful place a person goes to in his head to feel fine again.

“Rain” — In their spare time, the Beatles invent psychedelic rock. Noted for the dreamy lyrics and innovative studio techniques, including the famous backwards looping at the end, it’s John’s favorite B-side.  Ringo calls it a favorite, too, with his fascinating drum breaks injecting a level of chaos. It spawned 1,000 pale imitators in the late-60s psychedelic haze, but still stands alone.

“Revolution” — First a guitar so shrill it makes your sinuses hurt. Then a piercing John scream. Then we’re awash in the pros and cons of revolution, and how when it comes to destruction you can count John out (in). It adds up to the iconic song of 1968, evoking police riots and Vietnam and all the turmoil of the era. Maybe their most vitriolic single, yet customarily flawless. All right! 

“She Loves You” — The tumbling drums at the start was the sound of America falling head over heels in love. The lads stake their turf—an unusual direct address, odd final 6th chord and implied threat: she loves you, so love her back...or I will. (And with their looks and talent...) Most of  all, the vernacular “yeah yeah yeah” heralded an inescapable changing of the guard. Nothing was ever the same.

“Something” — Before she looked wonderful tonight, before she was Layla, there was "something” in the way Patti Boyd moved. A bit schmaltzy? Maybe. But every inch is lovely—the splendid guitar lead-in, Ringo’s pitter-pat drums resembling a fast-beating heart, and George’s tender, hushed vocals. Frank Sinatra hailed it, Ray Charles devoured it, and in the band’s twilight, it was one more gem.

“Strawberry Fields Forever” — Jackson Browne cites this an example of not just a great song or great performance, but a great record, something to which he always aspired. He’s one of the all-time greats...but he’s never going to match this, a John lyric both confessional and surreal, sung sublimely, and paired with perhaps George Martin’s most unbelievable magic. You’re right, John: no one was in your tree.

“Taxman” — The lads took openings seriously, so for George to kick off their finest album ain’t no small thang. Showing more generosity than the taxman himself, George lets Paul play the guitar solo (and the bassline which anchors the tune?) which, oddly, has a slightly Indian bent to it. Appropos the eternal Beatles v Stones/pop v rock argument: in which universe is this not rock and roll? 

“Things We Said Today” — The B-side to “A Hard Day’s Night” finds Paul in a rare gloomy mood (for him, anyway), lamenting—at the ripe old age of 22—love losing its spark. An interesting arrangement, with minor key verses that change to major at the bridge. The rumbling guitar augments the tense mood, as do John’s sparingly used harmonies. It’s nostalgia turned on its head—Don Draper would be proud.

“Ticket to Ride” — First a loud, jangly guitar with an edge that could cut glass. Then Ringo kicks in with a great syncopated drumbeat. Soon enough, John thinks he’s going to be sad, because the girl he’s nuts for is leaving him. Filled to the top with uber-bravado, sexuality, and even double entendre, with a wild double-time refrain to close it out, this was bold move for 1965. And it worked.

“Tomorrow Never Knows” — One of the trippiest, spookiest songs the lads would ever record. Although obviously a John song, Paul had a major hand in producing the amazing loops (with a clear Indian feel: thank you, George) which constitute so much of the song. John’s incredible lyrics float atop a drone which stays, more or less, a C major chord throughout, predating even “Cold Sweat” in its minimalism.

“Two of Us” — For hardcore Beatlemaniacs, this unplugged(ish) performance is perhaps the most emotionally overwhelming recording in the band’s catalog. George plays bass on the electric guitar, Ringo mainly kicks the bass drum on all four, and John and Paul pull out their inner Everly Brothers for the last and best time. “You and me chasing paper, getting nowhere on our way back home.” Paul claimed it was written for Linda. We know better.

“When I’m Sixty Four” — Paul supposedly began writing this when he was 17. He finished it for the immortal Sgt. Pepper album when he was 25. And now he’s well past 64, and it’s still here. Sweet, corny, lovable and silly, it’s proof that there’s no set formula for writing love songs. Driven along by woodwinds and a jaunty piano, this is one for the ages. Literally. And of course we still need him.

“Yellow Submarine” — What’s this one doing here? Simple: it’s the finest novelty song ever—no mean feat, that. A crazy catchy kid’s song which, incredibly, manages to get under your skin and yet you don’t mind. Charming and whimsical with delightful sound effects and madcap backing vocals, the lads conjure up an utterly ridiculous world into which it’d be delightful to sink. Climb aboard.

“Yesterday” — Two minutes and four seconds from Paul and Paul alone says it all about loss and longing. Famously called “Scrambled Eggs” at first, all it did was become part of the soundtrack to our lives, as well as the most covered song in music history. Beautiful chord changes, subtle strings that accompany the simple guitar, and the sad, wistful words add up to a song for everyone. Forever.

“You Never Give Me Your Money/Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through the Bathroom Window/Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End”—It seems the perfect way to end this perfectly arguable list is with this almost indescribably perfect creation, the varying styles and disparate selections all mashed together to end Abbey Road...and with it the Beatles perfect career.

  • “You Never Give Me Your Money”—The solo piano which kicks off their final masterpiece gives no hint of the complexity to follow. Paul’s soft, plaintive vocals, lamenting the triumph of business over art, is soon belied by the entrance of the band, with John and George’s gentle backing vocals, George’s incisive lead and myriad stylistic shifts, passing through boogie-woogie and into rock before drifting away with the toiling of church bells. “Soon we’ll be away from here—step on the gas and wipe that tear away. One sweet dream came true today.” Yes it did. 
  • “Sun King”—Dreamy and atmospheric, in lesser hands this could have turned into a snoozefest, especially on the heels of the rockin’ “Money” outro. Instead, it sucks the listener in and sends him down a river of peaceful nonsense, buoyed by insanely lush vocals from all three, and John’s trademark gibberish. 
  • ‎”Mean Mr. Mustard”—Up next is a lovely glimpse of the British folk that very possibly only John could see, Also, you gotta really dig the crunchy guitar/piano combos that fill in the gaps between the later verses. Nice and sinister, just the way John liked it. 
  • “Polythene Pam”—And then we meet Mr. Mustard’s sister. Pam Mustard. Also known as Polythene Pam. Power chords and vocals that sound like John’s been gargling sand make this so much fun. Oh, and where have we heard that “Yeah Yeah Yeah” before? 
  • “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”—Then suddenly we are in the middle of a soap opera found somewhere in Paul’s mind, which, yes, could be just a adventurous as John’s. A funky little backbeat features some nice George moments, and the terrific harmonies prove to be the penultimate turn from the band that practically invented them. Oh yeah! 
  • “Golden Slumbers”—Who else but Paul could make a lullaby sound cool? Of all the transitions that appear in the joyful noise of this suite, this may be the most impressive, going from the hip swagger of “Bathroom Window” to this muted piano opening. Did it work? If you have to ask, you haven’t been paying attention these past few months. 
  • “Carry That Weight”—Ringo’s drums provide the intro to the last sections of the medley, nicely echoing his role kicking off “She Loves You” so many centuries before. Then, for almost the only time in their history, all four Beatles provide vocals, calling out the ever so prophetic line. George Martin adds some orchestration which hearkens back to the melody of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” setting up Paul’s vocal return to the same song. One short verse before the lads concede that, indeed, he’ll—they’ll—be carrying that weight a long time. 
  • ”The End”—And it all comes to this. Paul wonders if there’s a dream ahead. Ringo answers with the easiest and most melodic drum solo in the history of rock. Then Paul, George and John trade solos, thrice each, each wonderfully capturing the essence of its composer: Paul’s the most melodious, George’s the most virtuosic, and John’s the most nasty. For a medley widely considered largely Paul’s baby, it’s fitting that John takes the final guitar solo, spitting out the same note 13 times in a row, stunning everyone to silence, leaving nothing but a single piano note stuttering over and over.

    “And in the end,” Paul says, and pauses. But old feelings die hard and the rest of the lads have his back. They join in, summing it all up, harmonizing about love one last time. All good things must end, and there’s no more perfect ending in musical history. Thank you, boys. Yes, you passed the audition.

No comments:

Post a Comment