Meet (and Rank) the Beatles’ Albums, Part 2: The Top Five

5) Rubber Soul, 1965

John S (3): Rubber Soul is the band’s first truly great album; it features the beginning of the band’s more sophisticated songwriting (“You Won’t See Me,” for example, was the longest song the band had recorded to that point, coming it at a whopping 3:22), both in terms of lyrical depth and musical arrangements, and them finally finding the right equilibrium of their wide-ranging sensibilities. The first four songs (“Drive My Car,” “Norwegian Wood,” “You Won’t See Me,” and “Nowhere Man”) may constitute the best balance of Lennon and McCartney’s different styles in The Beatles’ entire oeuvre—at least until the “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Fields Forever” double A-side. Both of Harrison’s songs, “Think For Yourself” and “If I Needed Someone” are great, and even the token Ringo song (“What Goes On”) is an exciting stylistic change of pace (though Josh disagrees). The album’s finale, “Run For Your Life,” is maybe the most underrated song in the Beatles’ canon. Also, the vocals at the end of “In My Life” are beautiful.

Josh (7): This is my most controversial rank and—frankly—I feel a bit badly about it. I have a bias towards later albums largely because I love the Beatles’ more psychedelic work: that’s why I ranked Magical Mystery Tour higher in my own rankings. There is no doubt that this was a huge leap for the Beatles, shifting from a more lighthearted pop style in Help! to a more sophisticated style in Rubber Soul. But I think Side Two is a bit weak. With the exceptions of “In My Life” and “I’m Looking Through You,” all of the side two songs are mediocre (once again, by Beatles’ standards) at best, bad at worst (“What Goes On” comes to mind). Side One is very good though: “Think For Yourself” is the most underrated George Harrison song and the harmonies in “Nowhere Man” are beautiful. But, the fact that it’s fairly brief and contains a number of subpar songs gives Rubber Soul its relatively low rank.

4) The Beatles (The White Album), 1968

Josh (4): The White Album was very difficult to rank because it is more variable from song-to-song than any other Beatles’ album, which makes sense given the discord among the Beatles’ at the time of recording. Nonetheless, the White Album is carried by its multiple phenomenal songs: I’d put “Back in the USSR”,  “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (probably my favorite Harrison song),  “Everybody’s Got Something Hide…,” “Sexy Sadie” and “Revolution 1” in this category. But, it has some very subpar songs that drag its ranking down including “Piggies,” Why Don’t We do It in the Road,” “Julia,” “Honey Pie,” and “Revolution 9.” This may be the only Beatles’ album where I feel it is necessary to skip songs. While the White Album doesn’t have the flow or consistency of other top Beatles albums, it is able to compensate for it by sheer length. In fact, the length and diversity of the White Album can certainly put it into the taking-it-to-the-island conversation.

John S (4): Josh is right that the main failing of the White Album is that it doesn’t really stand up as a one cogent album, but rather as a vast array of stylistic exercises. The only cohesive element of the album seems to be the desire to take every style the band had experimented with to its extreme. The result is couple of misfires (“Revolution 9” and “Wild Honey Pie”) that wouldn’t be tolerated in anyone but The Beatles, but a lot of the band’s most interesting, and enjoyable, songs. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” are classics, “Blackbird” is touching and “Cry Baby Cry” has a unique sing-songy quality. This album is also the hardest rocking Beatles album, with McCartney quickening his pop sense for songs like “Back in the USSR,” “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” “Birthday” and, of course, heavy metal forerunner “Helter Skelter.” I disagree with Josh’s claim that the album has many “bad” songs (other than the two indulgencies listed above), but the album doesn’t really flow well as a whole.

3) Abby Road, 1969

Josh (1): Abbey Road is the Beatles’ best album. It’s essentially two albums in one, both phenomenal. Side one consists of fairly unrelated singles, all of which are strong on their own. McCartney’s “Oh! Darling” has incredibly powerful vocals  and the long guitar riff combined with the white noise added to end “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is ridiculously good. Side Two propels Abbey Road to the top: The medley starting with “You Never Give Me Your Money” is the best 16 consecutive minutes within any Beatles’ album. Abbey Road as a whole, and especially Side Two, flows better than Sgt. Pepper’s, lacks weak songs, and contains more phenomenal ones. In fact, I think an argument can be made that Side Two alone would rank higher than Sgt. Pepper’s: It has two excellent singles that stand on their own (“Here Comes the Sun” and “Because”) but are also enhanced by their connection and, of course, the incredible Medley. If I were stuck on an island for a year with only one album, I’d have to select Abbey Road over Sgt. Pepper’s (and the numerous other albums John ranked above it): It just has more depth.

John S (5): The best thing about Abbey Road is the cover. There I said it. I’ve never really drank the Kool-Aid on this one like a lot of others, including Josh, have. Side One has a great opener (“Come Together”), but the rest of it is just ok: None of the other songs really stand out or have the lasting power of any of the band’s real classics. As for Josh’s unadulterated praise of Side Two….eh. “Here Comes the Sun” and “Because” are both very good (the latter is particularly haunting and probably the best song on the album), but that medley—I’ll put the first six songs on Sgt. Pepper’s up against that medley for “best 16 minutes” any day of the week. I’d also put Side One of Revolver above it for good measure. I’m not saying it’s not good or innovative or lacking in depth, but I never get hooked on it the way I get hooked on the truly great Beatles albums.

2) Revolver, 1966

John S (2): Revolver is just a home run, an album clicking on all cylinders, some other cliché that means it’s good. It really is the quintessential pop album: Every song works as a single, yet gains more from being listened to as a whole. “Eleanor Rigby,” for example, is about as deep and beautiful as a two-minute pop song gets, and it is only enhanced by coming after an angry, rebellious diatribe against taxation. The album also showcases The Beatles’ innovation, both lyrically (as in the quick, conversational format of “She Said She Said”) and musically (as in the way the melody of “I’m Only Sleeping” actually evokes feelings of dreaming and waking). This album also features Harrison’s songwriting incorporated well into the Lennon/McCartney dynamic. Not only does Harrison contribute the opener, but also “I Want to Tell You,” which fits seamlessly between Lennon’s “Doctor Robert” (which I like imagine is about Bob Dylan) and McCartney’s “Got to Get You Into My Life.” Together, these three songs form a nice pop segue into their experimental closing “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Revolver is really what a pop album should be: A little dose of everything—experimentation and straight rock, ballads and singles, fast and slow, feel-good songs and downers—with no missteps.

Josh (3): If I were ranking based on innovativeness, Revolver would place a rank higher. The alternative sound and amplification in Revolver are incredible, especially on Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.”  But, it stands on its own even without the context of music history. This is one of the most upbeat Beatles albums, starting with “Taxman,” one of George Harrison’s best songs on a musical and philosophical level. The sound of the strings produced in “Eleanor Rigby” is incredible and rightfully praised. I also think the combination of the horns and Paul’s incredibly strong vocals on “Got to Get You Into My Life” makes it the most underrated song on the album. The only weak song I can point to on this album is “Good Day Sunshine” but this may in large part due to the negative personal connotation this song has (it was blasted over the sleep-away camp loudspeakers to wake us up every morning during my formative years).

1) Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967

John S (1): While Revolver is a more or less perfect album, and I am confident that it appeals to more tastes than any other Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper’s is still #1 for me. It was my first favorite Beatles album and will probably be my last—it’s the only album I cannot listen to the beginning of without listening to the end. Josh criticizes particular songs on the album, but what separates this one for me is that it is almost impossible to evaluate the individual songs outside of the album’s context. Unlike Revolver, on which nearly every song could function as a single, Sgt. Pepper’s takes songs that are uninteresting on their own (“Fixing a Hole,” “Within You Without You,” and “Good Morning Good Morning”) and elevates them to a new height. The opening’s introduction, combined with the showmanship of Ringo’s singing (as Billy Shears) on “With a Little Help From My Friends,” followed by the self-conscious experimentation of “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” create such a powerful atmosphere for the album that it is impossible for me to turn back. I understand that some people see pretentiousness where I see brilliance, but I think “A Day In the Life,” by far the best ending to any album ever, should erase any doubts about the poignancy and power of this album.

Josh (2): Again, if we were to rank the albums in terms of innovativeness, Sgt. Pepper would place at the top for me. Since Sgt. Pepper was the first album recorded after the Beatles stopped touring, they had newfound flexibility to employ techniques in the studio that would not be reproducible live, such as the use of an orchestra in multiple songs and produced transitions between songs, giving birth to the concept album. “A Day in the Life” forces this album into the top two: It’s the best Beatles’ song (in my opinion) and I can’t help but to feel moved every time I hear it. I couldn’t rank Sgt. Pepper first because I think it has some weaker songs (by Beatles’ standards) like “Fixing a Hole,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” that don’t necessarily flow with the album (I expect to get censured for this remark). Nonetheless, Sgt. Pepper is a revolutionary album that deserves a place in the top two.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Doc on July 27, 2009 at 9:44 PM

    George Martin still rues the fact that he left Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields off Sgt. Pepper’s. They were recorded during the same sessions and released as singles, and were ultimately placed on Magical Mystery Tour CD. That may have made Pepper’s number one for me. But IMHO, Revolver is number one as it was so innovative in the mid ’60s. The Beatles not only changed the music culture with this album, but had a dramatic impact on Western society in general, good and bad. They were open about their drug use (go on youtube to see Paul McCartney talking about LSD, which was legal then), their spirituality, sexuality, as well as their fashion. Almost single handedly the Beatles ushered in the hippie, psychedelic era. Check out the top albums and hits in 1965, then in 1967 and you will see a dramatic difference in music. The Beach Boys Pet Sounds was a direct response to Revolver. I agree with John about Sgt. Pepper’s in that it is a whopping album that requires a total listen. I also agree with Josh about the second side of Abbey Road, unparalleled in it’s beauty, originality, and its statement of closure for a great band. For those of us who grew up with this band, it was a sad day indeed when they broke up. We knew that we would never hear music this consistently good and influential ever again, and we were right.

    Reply

  2. […] obviously pleased with the conclusion here and exhilarated by the kudos to the Beatles and Chuck Klosterman. But we’re not so sure about the gratuitous shot at Saved by the Bell. […]

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  3. […] Cama and Apsara form the band VTO (it doesn’t stand for anything), and become bigger than The Beatles: “VTO’s Quakershaker (How the Earth Learned to Rock & Roll) invariably beats Sgt. Pepper […]

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  4. Posted by James Schneider on August 20, 2009 at 1:12 AM

    I think that Sgt. Pepper’s is the greatest album ever, not just beatles’ album. I also just can’t get over that Brian Wilson(of the beach Boys) went crazy after hearing it, thinking that he couldn’t compete with it, even though his band had released Pet Sounds the year before.

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  5. […] you’re a Beatles fan (John S and I are), this book is awesome. Even if you’re not, it’s still interesting. Emerick was the sound […]

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  6. […] who wrote Pet Sounds? Sure. But am I proud of Lady Gaga? Hell no. And other countries have had some good bands and good writers and good TV shows as well (though nobody can really touch American […]

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