The Beatles are one of my four favorite bands, but I hadn’t kept tabs on my favorites of theirs in a while. Albums, well, that’s easy. Right now, it’s Revolver, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Abbey Road, A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, With The Beatles, The Beatles (The White Album), Beatles For Sale, Please Please Me, then finally Let It Be.
But songs! Gosh. The fact that there were so many great ones inspired my recent substitute to March Madness, The Beatles’ (When I’m) 64 contest, with song selections and seedings sourced from Acclaimed Music, a bracket hosted on Challonge, and polls hosted daily on my Twitter. It was great fun (please click on the bracket above if you weren’t part of this, I’m sure many results will have you feeling some type of way), but it also got me to re-ponder what exactly my allegiances are.
To be clear about those allegiances: John is (musically) my favorite Beatle, to the extent that I even prefer the sound of his voice to Paul’s. You might see that reflected in my picks.
For your convenience, I’ve linked a Spotify playlist of these 25 songs at the very bottom of this post. Hope you have fun.
Most notable absence to me: “Revolution,” an incredible recording with John showing off some clever rhymes, but too politically headass for me to include at the expense of my #25. I also never feel comfortable either cutting up the Abbey Road medley or including the whole damn thing.
25. “A Hard Day’s Night”
What can I really say? Deceptively complicated, so simple yet so musically deep that the world’s finest Beatles academics couldn’t figure out how to even play its first moment until recently.
24. “All My Loving”
I confess, I was swayed a bit by the outcome of my own tournament. “All My Loving” was the tournament’s 62nd seed out of 64, a true underdog, yet it dispatched of juggernaut “Hey Jude” and far-better-known “Can’t Buy Me Love” to make the Sweet Sixteen. “All My Loving” finds the perfect balance of sweetness that so frequently eluded the band on Please Please Me.
23. “Paperback Writer”
Yeah, it’s just a bit of a joke, a lesser known counterpart to “Day Tripper,” but gosh, the ferocity of that guitar. No one and I mean no one else rocked that hard in 1966, and “Paperback Writer” is one of the band’s best displays that their talents for recording and arrangement could lift a relatively ordinary song entirely skyward.
22. “It Won’t Be Long”
Is it even better than “All My Loving”? YEAH! (YEAH!) YEAH! (YEAH!) YEAH! (YEAH!!!)
21. “I’m Looking Through You”
It remains so stunning how the straightforward songs of Rubber Soul are served up with entirely perfect presentation, but it’s never exemplified better than that little breakdown after each verse in “I’m Looking Through You” right after Paul gets into a lovely shout.
Yes, this might be where The Beatles started becoming a little too aware that they were the greatest band in the world, which started to have effects both positive and negative on what exactly they imagined such a band should sound like. “We should make slow, mournful ballads” is one of the worse answers they ever came up with, but “Yesterday” is still completely immortal.
19. “Let It Be”
“Hey Jude” is absent from this list. So often in need of an editor, Paul gets a little carried away, though the song gets great once everyone gets carried away with him. Here, though, it’s a paint-by-numbers sequence, grounding Paul’s grand display for his long-dead mother (we’ll get to John’s such display later). It can often seem as if Paul is constantly trying to will big, important songs into existence, but here the obviousness of the work he’s put in shines through the record. Listen to that guitar solo. Man.
18. “Can’t Buy Me Love”
Rather ordinary, but that’s the virtue. Next to other top-of-the-class 1964 Beatles entries like, say, “You Can’t Do That,” it has fewer peculiarities, just a ruthlessly efficient display of the ebullience the band was capable of at Beatlemania’s height.
17. “Got To Get You Into My Life”
The horns are unbelievable. And this is a good demonstration that Paul should have shouted far more often.
16. “Getting Better”
Let’s get it out of the way: John’s bit in the bridge about “[his] woman” is startling, and even more startling is that the song isn’t about a character, it’s confessional. It’s distracting and alarming every single playthrough. I considered leaving “Getting Better” off this list for that reason. But, no, it’s too great, the brightly chirping guitar in the intro standing tall as one of the band’s all-time most wowing moments. If it had less baggage, it’d likely be top ten.
15. “Don’t Let Me Down”
John screaming. Yes, good.
“I need you” is and was a well-trodden sentiment in popular music, but The Beatles tearing the romance out of it and outright making a song about depression was, while certainly not a first, adventurous. The dissonance of the fun of so many late-early Beatles songs with the song’s pleading makes it wondrously unique.
13. “I’ve Just Seen A Face”
Pop music is about taking the simplest, most relatable feeling in the world and expanding just a bit. And there’s no better expansion herein than the acoustic guitar, which makes you regret that they hadn’t tried the instrument a bit earlier than 1965.
12. “Eleanor Rigby”
Yes, Paul’s writing here is indulgent, but he doesn’t too brazenly indulge his indulgence, at least not on this song. He gets in, fucks around, and gets out in just over two minutes. He keeps only his most striking images.
11. “A Day In The Life”
Not perfect. Paul’s part is stapled on. I’m never fond of claims that this is the best Beatles song, a conflation of “greatest” with “grandest.” But the melodies (especially John’s wordless bit after Paul goes into a dream) are sublime and carry the enormous weight of the composition. Also: immortal words about roadwork!
Even as his songwriting released his absolute apex, George would still sometimes have to end his refrains with “you know I believe, and how!” Anyway, listen to that bridge. Are you kidding me? My goodness.
9. “I Want To Hold Your Hand”
A song built around the most innocent of all romantic gestures? By these rascals? Gotta be code for something.
8. “In My Life”
George Martin’s (beautiful!) piano solo always felt a hair out of place to me, but otherwise this is perfection, the best of their slightly-too-sweet songs.
Too often The Beatles’ quiet songs (“Yesterday,” “In My Life”) can ring a little hollow because it sounds like they’ve just set out to make something profound. “Julia” is the big exception, a song perfectly comfortable to remain understated and, if need be, forgotten. John only sings it to reach one person, after all.
6. “And Your Bird Can Sing”
Tricky, opaque lyrics. Dual guitars tying themselves in knots. Vocal harmonies. An oddity John himself didn’t much care for, but moreso than most any other Beatles song, its legacy is left up to its (confused) audience. There’s so much to make of this nothing.
5. “No Reply”
A petulant anthem for paranoid boyfriends everywhere, yes, sure, but the force of impact of this delivery! The guitars! John! I SAW THE LIGHT. I NEARLY DIED!!! The band’s most cleanly landed punch.
4. “Ticket To Ride”
Ringo’s greatest moment, “Ticket To Ride”‘s drums frequently bring up mentions of (very very very early) heavy metal. But unlike “Helter Skelter,” there’s more to it than that. “Ticket To Ride” is an empathetic (though frustrated) window into the motives of a young woman, getting across so much in so few words.
3. “Tomorrow Never Knows”
Genuinely bold, inventive, and experimental in the way that many Beatles fans claim to appreciate. But the formlessness of it all is still a bit much even to this day. Lines like “listen to the color of your mind” were lifted from Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience in an earnest attempt to sonically recreate the effects of LSD. Whether or not that particular goal was a success, “Tomorrow Never Knows” has such a genuine sense of wonder, tethered just enough to some semblance of form to guide us as we wander through it again and again.
2. “Strawberry Fields Forever”
Not just any Beatles drug song. The Beatles drug song, a powerful combination of nostalgia for childhood locations with freeform trains of thought, just together enough to feel coherent as the waves pass over you. Living is easy with eyes closed. No one I think is in my tree.
1. “She Loves You”
Some are unwilling to even entertain the idea that this is the greatest Beatles song. One wonders what they make of “Dancing On My Own” on best of the 2010s lists or “I Want You Back” and “Be My Baby” on best of the sixties lists. Nothing in popular music really tops the more simple songs, and “She Loves You” is a quick and dirty display of The Beatles doing the two things they actually did best: writing efficiently and executing immaculately. For the former, for once their narrator isn’t involved in the romance but is on the outside looking in, brilliantly transforming the song into one not just of reassurance but of camaraderie. Meanwhile, there are simply too many musical high points to make time for each. But the way the Beatles of 1963 always put their guitars just a hair too high in the mix, Ringo’s aggression (feeling himself enough for a little intro), and John/Paul/George shouting their throats out, the whole thing builds to a roar at YEAH, YEAH, YEAH. Nothing like it.
If you need a damn “November Rain” to show someone why The Beatles were great, that’s missing the point. It’s rockism for songs that rock less.