Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Top Ten Things: Beatles Albums

Welcome to another Top Ten Things!  Today I'll be talking about one of the most celebrated, universally beloved bands of all time, The Beatles!

The Beatles were possibly the first music group I was ever introduced to as a kid.  My parents played me some of Sgt. Pepper and I was hooked instantly.  By sixth grade I began making mix tapes of their tunes (Yes, this was when mix tapes were still a thing), and thanks to the Compleat Beatles documentary I became an expert very quickly.  In 1987 my parents bought a CD player (I felt so ahead of the curve), and The Beatles' entire catalog was one of the first available in that format.  I devoured their music like crazy and for a couple years they were one of very few bands I listened to (until I discovered metal that is).

Today, along with Metallica, The Beatles are my favorite band in the universe, and when I fire up one of their albums on the ol' iPod it's a ceremonious moment.  I tend to listen to their whole catalog front to back, over a period of several days.  Yeah I'm a dork.  Shut up.

Anyway, here's a list of what are, in my opinion, The Beatles ten greatest albums.

10. A Hard Day's Night

In 1964 The Beatles had conquered both the UK and the US, becoming such pop culture icons they were tapped to star in a feature film.  Directed by Richard Lester, A Hard Day's Night starred the Fab Four as themselves, in a "day in the life" kind of story.  The band travels by train to an auditorium where they'll perform for a live TV special, and in tow is Paul's troublemaker grandfather who tries to turn everyone against each other.  The soundtrack album featured numerous classic early Beatles songs, like the energetic title track, the bittersweet "If I Fell," the instantly catchy "I Should've Known Better," the bluesy "You Can't Do That," and the morose "Things We Said Today."  A Hard Day's Night followed up The Beatles' first two pop albums with slightly more mature content and showed a band beginning to temper their signature sound.

9. Help!

After the huge success of A Hard Day's Night, a second Beatles film was inevitable.  This time it would be a big-budget James Bond-inspired screwball comedy about a Far-East cult hunting down the band in the hopes of recovering a sacrificial ring mailed to Ringo.  The movie featured numerous action-comedy set pieces, plus seven brand new Beatles tunes.  The music showed a bit more depth and some instrument variation, and the album boasted probably the first major departure - a somber guitar ballad of Paul's called "Yesterday."  Paul was the only Beatle on the recording, and would be accompanied by a string quartet, a first for the band.  Other highlights included the mellow waltz of "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," the urgent "The Night Before," and the anxiously bouncy "I've Just Seen a Face."  Help! showed the band continuing to expand their musical range on their way to arguably the most creative period in their career.

8. Let It Be

Originally intended as a live concert film entitled Get Back, Let It Be eventually morphed into an album/documentary that showed The Beatles coming apart at the seams.  Their interpersonal relationships were in shambles and the live recording sessions were filled with palpable tension.  So unpleasant was the experience that the band opted to shelve the album and move on to Abbey Road, as a way to end their career on a high note.  As the band dissolved, producer Phil Spector was hired to sort through the dozens of songs and takes, and whittle everything down to a concise record.  The result was a solid-if-inconsistent album that would serve as the band's denouement.  Side 1 is full of good-to-great songs, like John's strangely lyriced "Dig a Pony" and his existential ballad "Across the Universe," and Paul's iconic piano-driven title track.  Inexplicably Spector also included a one-minute snippet of "Dig It," a ponderous go-nowhere jam, and their brief take on the traditional ditty "Maggie Mae."  Side two's highlights were both contributions from Paul; the optimistic "I've Got a Feeling," and the energetic "Get Back."  Despite Spector's orchestral embellishments on songs like "The Long and Winding Road," Let It Be features a stripped-down, intimately live snapshot of The Beatles at their lowest point.  Yet even as the band crumbled they managed to churn out some undeniably great songs and cement their legacy as a transcendent rock group.

7. Magical Mystery Tour

The final album from The Beatles' psychadelic period, Magical Mystery Tour originated as the soundtrack to a television special, where the band gathered with friends for a wacky bus tour across the country.  The script was loosely constructed and they hoped an interesting story would emerge.  But it didn't; Magical Mystery Tour was an awkward, ponderous film consisting of several uninteresting episodes and skits interspersed with music videos.  Still the accompanying album contained some decent songs, and the US version tacked on five excellent singles as the B-side.  The result was kind of a less compelling Sgt. Pepper sibling.  The main standout song from the film was of course John's surrealistic "I Am the Walrus," the lyrics of which are infamously peculiar and showcase his penchant for bizarre word combinations.  Side B contains the classic double-single "Strawberry Fields Forever" (another Lennon "word-imagery" song) and "Penny Lane," Paul's ode to his childhood.  The album closes with Lennon's anthemic "All You Need is Love," which remains as poignant today as it was in 1967.  Overall, while not as strong as its two predecessors, Magical Mystery Tour caps off a magnificent trilogy of psychadelic rock albums from the band who pioneered the genre.

6. Beatles for Sale

Beatles for Sale was the first album on which the Fab Four showed hints of cynicism.  The album's mood was much darker than on their first three records; from the jealousy-driven "No Reply" to the self-pitying "I'm a Loser," to the defeatist "Baby's in Black," the first few songs set a pretty gloomy tone.  This album was the first not to focus on themes of youthful romance and rock n' roll anthems, and aside from an excellent cover of Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music," the lyrics are far more sardonic and self-reflective than anything they'd written previously.  Beatles for Sale in many ways foreshadowed the disillusionment the band would soon feel about playing live concerts and feeding the BeatleMania craze, and I consider it the best of their early records.

5. Rubber Soul

If Revolver and Sgt. Pepper marked a major turning point in The Beatles' stylistic evolution, Rubber Soul was the transition album that got them there.  With Soul, The Beatles fully dropped the jolly mop-top British Invasion identity and became serious musicians.  Gone were the energetic teenage love anthems and dance tunes, and in their place were contemplative, mature songs about life and relationships.  Inspired by bands like The Byrds and The Beach Boys, The Beatles loaded Rubber Soul with intricate three-part harmonies, and thanks to the growing influence of Bob Dylan many of the songs had a folk-rock feel to them.  Standouts include the opening innuendo-laden rock song "Drive My Car," the Eastern-flavored "Norwegian Wood," and Lennon's meditative "In My Life."  Rubber Soul shows a band coming of age and striving to create more thoughtful, grown-up music for an increasingly complicated era.

4. Revolver

A precursor to Sgt. Pepper, and a major groundbreaking album in its own right, Revolver was released just as The Beatles were transitioning from being a live, touring band to being exclusively a studio act.  Their compositions were becoming more and more complex, aided by studio innovation and dense vocal harmonies, and were therefore increasingly difficult to reproduce live.  Besides which, their concerts had devolved into tawdry spectacle, as the live crowds simply screamed over the music, rendering the performances inaudible.  Thus The Beatles opted to cease touring shortly after Revolver's release.  This album included several major departures from the trademark Beatles sound, including the orchestral "Eleanor Rigby," the childlike anthem "Yellow Submarine," and George Harrison's sitar-heavy "Love to You."  For me though the two biggest standouts are George's resentful album-opening rocker "Taxman," and John's experimentally psychadelic "Tomorrow Never Knows," which remains one of my very favorite Beatles tracks.  Revolver was their first album to make use of backwards tracking, tape loops, and various other sound effects, and for many people it's aged even better than Sgt. Pepper.  I still prefer Pepper slightly, but both albums are iconic rock n' roll milestones.

3. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

At a time when pop music was considered little more than "product" to be consumed by young people, and the radio single was king while albums were merely sold as collections of B-material, The Beatles changed the music industry (as well as pop culture, fashion, etc.) with the release of Sgt. Pepper.  One of the earliest examples of concept rock, Pepper depicted the four Beatles as a fictional band whose songs bookended this colorful, inventive set of diverse tunes and more or less introduced the concept of a rock n' roll album as a cohesive work of art.  While Paul's primary contributions for me don't rank among his best tunes, three of John's four songs are all-time benchmarks: the surrealistic, Lewis Carroll-esque "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," the fairground anthem "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," and of course the haunting news headline-inspired "A Day in the Life," which broke sonic ground like no other rock/pop tune had before.  Sgt. Pepper's tracks contain so many auditory advancements and imagery-conjuring lyrics we now take for granted it's hard to fathom how mindblowing this record must've been at the time of its release.  This is one of those records I wish I could go back and experience contemporaneously (and preferably high).

2. Abbey Road

The Beatles' final hurrah was this beautifully-produced set which featured two wildly divergent sides.  Legend has it that John wanted to play simple, straightforward rock n' roll songs, while Paul wanted to further experiment with big production concepts.  The result was a first side boasting such classics as George's sweet ballad "Something" (Incidentally this was my wedding song), Paul's vulnerable, soaring breakup song "Oh Darling," and John's epic blues dirge "I Want You (She's So Heavy)."  Side 2 featured the brightly optimistic "Here Comes the Sun" and the existential three-part harmony-infused "Because," before launching into an amazing extended suite beginning with the fantastic "You Never Give Me Your Money" and ending, appropriately, with the succinct guitar-solo-laden climax "The End."  Abbey Road was the final Beatles album recorded (the disastrous Let It Be sessions were shelved before their resurrection at the hands of Phil Spector), and it shows a band determined to go out with a bang, summing up their world-altering career with the beautiful sentiment "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

1. White Album

Yup, I know their eponymous double-disc is a sprawling, unfocused mess by a band hardly collaborating on any of the material.  But I don't care, I love every minute of this album.  The variety is spectacular and so many of the songs on here rank among my favorite Beatles tunes.  From Paul's lively opener "Back in the USSR" to John's darkly self-referential "Glass Onion," to George's mournful "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," to John's unconventionally-structured classic "Happiness is a Warm Gun," Disc 1 is pound-for-pound one of my all-time favorite standalone records.  Disc 2, while not as stacked, still has a lot of "deep cuts" to like, such as John's slowed-down acoustic version of "Revolution," Paul's folky "Mother Nature's Son," John's denouncement of the Maharishi, "Sexy Sadie," George's saxophone-heavy "Savoy Truffle," Paul's brutally vicious "Helter Skelter" (which could be considered the earliest heavy metal song), and yes, even John and Yoko's avant-garde sound collage "Revolution 9."  I love it all.  The White Album to me is a perfect example of art born from adversity; the four members were sick to death of one another and each Beatle treated the others as backup musicians, yet they delivered a double-album full of diverse, classic songs spanning an incredible array of genres.  It's been suggested that this 30-song set could've been trimmed down to a single, perfect album, but for me the eclecticism is what makes The White Album such an extraordinary experience.  It's simply the best album The Beatles ever recorded.

That concludes our list - comment below with your top ten picks.  Thanks for reading!

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