Beatles Musings (& Ranking the Albums)

I love the Beatles, you love the Beatles, everybody loves the Beatles. Books, films, documentaries and blogs have already been made to excess describing why they’re awesome. So unlike say, an obscure TV show or fanfiction, there’s no need for someone like me to chime in and tell you to check them out. For this reason I’m just going to skip reiterating what we all know already and just jump right into it. I’ll start with my ranking of their studio albums.

I broke the discography into three parts, the first being the favorites that I consider near perfect and listen to often. The next tier are the ones with great moments but some noticeable flaws. The final tier are the ones I just don’t particularly care for. It just so happens I have a good bit more to say about most of the albums in the Second Tier, so be sure to check those out as well..

First Tier
(Replay Frequently/No Skips)

1. Rubber Soul One of my top ten favorite albums by anyone, and among the first three I ever bought with my own money as a teenager (along with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and MJ’s Off the Wall.) I think it’s a perfect album as I never feel compelled to skip a track on repeat listens. More importantly, the songs all have the same aesthetics so they sound as though they belong together. For me this is the main criteria of what makes a great album–great songs they can stand alone but are enriched when taken as a group. I can’t pick a favorite track because they’re all more or less on the same level for me.

2. Revolver I think it has higher peaks but lower valleys than RS. The songs push production boundaries and lyrics delve into the surreal, so it’s a more interesting album than anything which came before. However, the trade-off is that the tracks don’t “gel” as well as RS and some of the band’s other albums. It contains what might be my two favorite Beatles tracks (“She Said She Said,” “Here There and Everywhere”) but also one of my least favorite (“Yellow Submarine.”)

3. Abbey Road When I was growing up, the two Beatles CDs my family started out with were the Red album and this, so it has a lot of nostalgic value to me. Since I was 9 or 10 years old at the time, “Octopus’ Garden” never bothered me. (I don’t know why some people have such a hangup with that song, as though no other Beatles track ever had a childish whimsical flair.) My favorite though was always “Oh! Darling.” The passion with which Paul sings that song was like nothing child-me had ever heard before and it left a big impact. I remember listening with my parents in the car and feeling overcome with emotion, sometimes even singing aloud along with it. (Yeah…)

4. A Hard Days Night This was the first “new” Beatles album we bought, after my mom got me invested and begging for more. We got it just before taking a cross-country trip to visit some faraway relatives, so this one always reminds me of that. It’s a surprisingly timeless and consistent album considering how early in their career it was made. Picking a favorite track is tough, but I would have to go with “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You.” I really like how it’s a simple love song without any melodrama or presentation of love as the end-all-be-all of life (which maybe contradicts my praise of “Oh! Darling” but I digress.)

Second Tier
(Replay Sometimes/Skip Few Tracks)

5. Sgt. Pepper It was the first album I ever really loved, where everything before–even other Beatles albums–were just arbitrary collections of songs. (Good collections to be sure, but I never saw any of them as a “work of art” until Pepper.) As a kid, if I was listening to anything in my CD player it was almost certainly this or the Shrek soundtrack. I would listen to it most nights before going to bed. In high school, I was a firm believer in the hype that it was the best album ever made.

Since discovering SMiLE in my senior year of high school however, it’s like the spell has been broken. I still like it, but I can admit it has significant flaws. Since expanding my musical horizons I also find it kind of insulting this gets so much ridiculous praise heaped upon it when contemporary albums just as great if not better go unnoticed outside niche audiences. Anyway, my favorite track is “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” largely for the brilliant production of George Martin; sorry but I don’t think copying phrases word for word off a circus poster is that creative or enlightened. Speaking of which, I’m still waiting for someone to tell me what’s so deep about “A Day in the Life.” (If I had a larger audience for this blog, my comments section would probably be very angry at me right now.)

6. White Album In my opinion, this has the best and worst songs of their entire career. The problem is that with Brian Epstein’s unfortunate passing, there was no one around to tell them “sorry, that song doesn’t make the cut” and egos got in the way. There’s little rhyme or reason between track sequence either; everything just drudges on and I find myself getting bored until another George track (or occasional highlight from John/Paul) comes on. If they got rid of the obvious filler (“Me and My Monkey,” “Revolution 9,” “Ob-La-Di,” etc) and narrowed it down to a single LP I believe this might have been their finest work. My favorites are “Back in the USSR,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and even “Goodnight” (which, surprisingly to some, is my favorite closer on a Beatles album.)

7. Magical Mystery Tour It’s not really an album, just a beefed up EP. I actually really enjoy the original EP tracks; they’re the most psychedelic tracks the group ever made, and have a slightly down-beat, scary overtone to them which is really interesting. Unfortunately, the tacked on singles kill that fascinating aesthetic and then we descend to random, feel-good tracks like “All You Need is Love.” My favorite tracks are “Bluejay Way” and “Flying.” A whole album done in that style, as a darker counterpart to Sgt Pepper could have been really cool.

8. Let It Be As I’ll get into later in this post, LIB is a very flawed album both in terms of production and track sequence. Why they didn’t just use George Martin I will never understand. If they had, this would almost certainly be a few slots further up my list. The actual tracks are mostly good, they just suffer from obnoxious overproduction in the official release and underproduction on the Naked rerelease. My favorite is “Don’t Let Me Down.”

Third Tier
(Almost Never Replay/Skip Multiple Tracks)

9. Help!
10. Please Please Me
11. Yellow Submarine
12. With the Beatles 
13. Beatles for Sale

^I don’t really have much to say about any of these. I heard them, they’re okay, but a few highlights aside I don’t really like them that much.

“Strawberry Fields Forever” & “Penny Lane” on Sgt Pepper?

I think they should’ve, though I expect that to be an unpopular opinion. Let me just say upfront that normally I consider an album to be a work of art, and editing one (even just as a fan) is akin to messing with a director’s intended cut of a film, or painting over an artist’s canvas. However, I consider Sgt Pepper to be one of the rare exceptions to this rule. Why? Because an album about childhood was the goal of the band before the release of the SFF/PL single forced them to abandon the concept. And in the years since, George Martin has called leaving these two tracks off the album as a monumental error. In these circumstances, I don’t think it’s disrespectful to wonder “what if.”

Despite its legendary status among most music critics, I’m not shy about criticizing Sgt Pepper. I consider it to be a very good but very overrated album. Pepper is very uneven in my opinion, with some tracks that I think would have been better served as B-sides or on the cutting room floor. “Within You, Without You,” “Good Morning,” “When I’m 64” are good examples. At least two of these tracks could easily have been subbed out for “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” to great success. It would have made an already great album 100x greater in my opinion. Of course, there’s the chance that had this been decided upon early on, it would have influenced the writing process and the finished product could have been much different.

Here’s my mock tracklist for this idea:

1. Sgt Pepper
2. A Little Help From My Friends
3. She’s Leaving Home
4. Fixing a Hole
5. Getting Better
6. Lovely Rita

7. Strawberry Fields Forever
8. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
9. Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite
10. When I’m 64
11. Penny Lane
——–You can throw Good Morning in here if you really want. I go back and forth on it.
12. Reprise
13. A Day in the Life

This way, the first side is about overcoming a loss with your friends and eventually meeting a new woman. Then the second side is reminiscing about the past (even Lucy fits if you interpret it as a child’s drawing/dreamscape) and looking towards the future of adulthood.

Alternate White Album Sequence

Everyone has favorite tracks from the White Album and those they skip almost every time. Every fan has considered how they’d edit it down to one vinyl at some point. So, this playlist was my attempt.

01. Back in the USSR
02. Dear Prudence
03. Happiness is a Warm Gun
04. Bungalow Bill
05. Piggies
06. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

07. Helter Skelter
08. Martha My Dear
09. Savoy Truffle
10. Revolution
11. Rocky Raccoon
12. Sexy Sadie
13. Goodnight

Let It Be or Let It Be…Naked?

Which do you prefer, the Phil Spector production or the bare bones demos? 

I have to agree with John Lennon, that the raw tapes from the Get Back sessions really pull the curtain back on the band and “breaks the illusion” so to speak. It really shows how instrumental George Martin was to their success and the image so many fans have of them as this perfect group. Without his careful hand, I think both versions here are significantly flawed though (obviously) not without merit.

Let It Be Naked starts off really interesting, but for me, after 15 or 20 minutes it starts to grate a little. I have nothing against an acoustic or “rough around the edges” style, but I don’t think it particularly suits the Beatles, or at least these particular songs. Maybe it’s just the takes used, but some overdubs would have helped a lot. I know this will rub people the wrong way, but the Beatles weren’t a good enough band (or if you prefer, not a good enough live band) to release a “raw” album.

With Let It Be, I agree with the consensus opinion that Spector went too far in at least a couple tracks. In doing so, he defeated the whole point of the album, which was supposed to be “back to basics.” His version of “Across the Universe” sounds off to me. I would prefer this version of “Let It Be” were it not for the unnecessary guitar solo–Paul’s right that this song works better as a simple ballad at the piano. Same with “The Long and Winding Road”–I prefer the simpler version, though Spector’s mix isn’t too bad until the ending when I just want to vomit. If you dropped the vocalists and trimmed that saccharine ending it would be fine. I don’t know what’s going on with “For You Blue” in this version. The arrangement is just so weird, and for no discernible reason either. “Get Back” doesn’t have the energy or loudness that it desperately needs. It should have been (and is, in the demos) the Beatles’ last great rocker. In Spector’s cut, it just sounds way too quiet, slow and subdued to my ears. It’s so underwhelming that when it ends, you’re just left mouth agape thinking “What? That’s it???” By far, it’s the weakest closing track on any Beatles album in this incarnation.

In the Spector album, I like the idea of leaving spoken chatter between the tracks, but I don’t think the execution does it justice. The only specific instance of it that works is John’s “pass the audition” at the end.

I also consider the tracklist for LIBN to be better. Am I crazy, or does “Get Back” just scream to be the opener, and “Let It Be” the closer? To me that just makes so much more sense. “Maggie Mae” is also a noticeably inferior track and does not belong in the album in my opinion. On the other hand, “Don’t Let Me Down” is one of their best later period songs and should have been included on Let It Be from the beginning.

Overall, it’s very hard to pick since they’re both about equally flawed in different directions as far as I’m concerned. But these differences in track order are the deciding factor for me–Let It Be Naked wins by a nose. The real winner here is George Martin, though. If ever you wanted proof that the Beatles’ needed George, that he was the fifth Beatle, this is it. Why they didn’t just use him I have no idea. Frankly, I’d say the definitive cut of the Get Back/Let It Be era songs has yet to be released. For me, that would be the midpoint between Spector’s over-producing and Naked’s under-producing.

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2 Comments

  1. I’m with you about The White Album. About the rest: I think that to appraise the Beatles’ genius (forgive my bias: I’m an old die hard fan) we have to compare their work with was done by others before and after. I still haven’t found a more complete band in terms of cohesion, versatility, productivity,
    complementing elements, and simplicity to name a few.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I’m glad we can agree about the White Album.

      I don’t think you’re biased for considering the Beatles to be brilliant artists. I would agree with that assessment too, but personally I don’t consider every single album they made to be perfect. Sgt Pepper in particular, as great as it is, gets a bit more praise than it deserves in my opinion.

      As for the Beatles overall discography, I also agree that they were incredibly diverse in their output. I believe that this is one of the key reasons for their enduring popularity. Whether you like folk rock, avant garde, psychedelic rock, progressive rock or even proto-metal the Beatles have a few songs or even an entire album to suit your palate.

      Like

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