No matter who you are, you’re not going to like this post.
The Beatles are surely the most influential and culturally omnipresent band in pop music history. Even people who don’t consider themselves Beatles fans per se will usually have at least one Fab Four tune that means something personal to them. And those Liverpudlians were extremely prolific, churning out 13 albums (by my count—international distribution muddles that number somewhat) and way more singles than I want to bother counting. The Beatles canon is generally considered to include 217 songs, all of them produced in just under a decade.
So, when considering coming up with a Top 10 list of Beatles songs, there are a couple of things to consider. First: It’s really fucking hard. My homeboy and fellow blogsmith Juan Alvarado Valdivia and I both consider ourselves rock connoisseurs, and we’ve written complementary Top 10s about Led Zeppelin, breakup songs, album openers and album closers, and songs about drugs. But we’d never done a Beatles list. So when Juanito was in Brooklyn for a visit last month, while we were sitting at a dive bar enjoying a tasty mid-afternoon libation, I said, “Let’s do this. Beatles Top 10s. Right now.” And we wrote them out on the spot, on cocktail napkins—because there’s nothing cooler than a note written on a cocktail napkin.
As you can see from the picture, our lists—which we’ve both altered a bit since then—had almost nothing in common with each other. This is the other great thing about evaluating such a productive, culturally important band. And of course, once our lists were written, we had no choice but to compose blogposts about them. I can’t wait to read Juanito’s (here it is!), and mine is below.
In no way is this an attempt to say I think these are objectively the “best” Beatles songs. They’re simply my favorites. I’m sure you’ll disagree with some of my choices, but try doing this yourself, and you’ll see just how tough it is. I’m not even going to do Honorable Mentions, because that list is just every Beatles song that isn’t ennumerated below.
10. Here, There and Everywhere
Paul McCartney wrote this mainstay of Revolver in 1966, after attending a listening party for the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. This period of the mid-’60s saw the two bands involved in a friendly anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better back and forth, which ended when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band broke Brian Wilson’s brain and sent him to his infamous sandbox. Still, Wilson deserves some credit for this particular tune, as Paul has noted that Here, There and Everywhere was heavily influenced by God Only Knows. It’s pretty simple ballad, lyrically, but it’s one of the loveliest songs in the Beatles catalog, especially notable for the background harmonies, which John, Paul, and George spent several days recording. Paul, John, and producer George Martin have all cited this among their favorite Beatles songs, and obviously I agree.
9. Ticket to Ride
I think most Beatles Top 10 lists would lean toward the later songs, and with good reason—it was after Rubber Soul that the band quit touring because they were sick of trying to play over the top of screaming teenagers and ratcheted up their studio production to become the revolutionary act we think of today. But there are still some bitchin’ good songs on those early albums, and Ticket to Ride, from 1965’s Help!, has always been a favorite of mine. It’s another pretty simple tune—a classic breakup song, but here’s the thing: All the little pieces of the composition are perfect. The ringing opening guitar riff, the harmony on “I think it’s todaaaaay,” the way George’s lead guitar cuts through on that killer lick at the end of the bridge, and that high pitched, double-time coda, “My baby don’t care.” It’s a sad song, but also one with an energy that brings a smile to your face.
8. Dear Prudence
Okay, here’s a song that’s not simple. John wrote the second track on The White Album while the Beatles were in India, in an attempt to coax Prudence Farrow out of a deep, extended meditation session. There are so many things I dig about this song—the droning finger-picked riff, the melodic lead, the weird psychedelic background sound effects, and the wonderful lyrics of the coda: “The sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful, and so are you.”
7. Happiness Is a Warm Gun
Here’s another staple of John Lennon–penned White Album psychedelia. It was inspired by a coverline John saw on a gun magazine, and it is one of the weirdest Beatles songs. It’s not long—just 2 minutes, 43 seconds—but it’s split into three sections that are so distinct as to each almost be its own song. There’s the soft, piano inflected “She’s not a girl who misses much” intro, which gives way to a heavy, fuzzy lead guitar and John’s incantatory “I need a fix ’cause I’m going down” verse. (Lots of Beatles songs are about or inspired by drugs, but this is one of the few that’s nakedly about heroin, which John developed a problem with.) This second section is my favorite—I just love the way John sings those lyrics, along with “Mother Superior jumped the Gun”—there’s something so menacing, so un-Beatles about it. And then of course there’s the outro, with its double entendre “When I hold you in my arms and I feel my finger on your trigger”—it could be a reference to a gun or to Yoko Ono, who John had just started an affair with—and of course the weirdly upbeat “Bang bang, shoot shoot” backup lyrics. It all seems so weird and incongruous, and yet it comes together perfectly. Think about it: Has anyone else ever recorded a pop song that sounds like this? Nope.
6. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
This one should be pretty obvious: The Beatles, at their creative peak, got Eric Clapton, at his own “Clapton Is God” apex, to play lead guitar on one of their songs.
The story behind this track is pretty interesting. George wrote it as a soft acoustic piece, but John and Paul, who always treated George as a bit of a kid brother, didn’t like it and refused to record it. So George went and got his buddy Slowhand (who later stole George’s wife from him), and essentially said “Eric wants to play on this song.” That convinced the guys, and the result of the session was a howling, epic guitar-driven lead over a descending A-minor progression that every guitar player learns early in his studies.
5. You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
Back to Help! for this deeply personal favorite of mine. It’s a pretty simple song—there’s not a whole lot of lead guitar or percussion, and John confirmed that he basically wrote it as a folk tune, with his lyrics and acoustic playing inspired by Bob Dylan. Instrumentally it’s of course most notable for the flute solo in the outro, but to be honest, this song rates so highly for me not because of any sort of musicological analysis. I love it because I’ve had my share of lonely and lovelorn periods in my life, and this song has always, always been one that I can turn to for solace. “Gather round, all you clowns, let me hear you say: Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away.”
4. Let It Be
The last sentence I wrote about You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away applies to Let It Be as well. Paul famously wrote the song after having a dream about his mother, and it doubled as a sort of plea to the members of the band to put their squabbling to rest as things were beginning to come apart. (Let It Be was the last single the band released before they broke up.) For me, personally, it’s just a song that I can always listen to when I need some comfort—much like Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry. And it doesn’t hurt that the album version of Let It Be may have my favorite Beatles guitar solo (which I can’t find—what the fuck, YouTube?).
3. Here Comes the Sun
Okay, here’s the part where I say that George is my favorite Beatle, and that he doesn’t get enough credit. All Things Must Pass is the best solo album any member of the Fab Four put out, and it greatly pleases me to get two of his tunes on this list. (For the record, I’ve got two from George, three from Paul, and five from John.) Here Comes the Sun opens Side Two of Abbey Road—arguably the greatest album side ever—and it’s just a perfect acoustic guitar composition. As you’ve surely picked up from this list (and any other musical list of mine you may have read), I like really fucking depressing music. But Here Comes the Sun is an exception to that rule. It’s an unfettered expression of joy, and that’s something we can all use a bit more of in our lives.
It’s funny, I don’t consider The White Album to be my favorite Beatles album at all. On my album rankings, it would be below Rubber Soul (which I chose for my Desert Island Albums list), Abbey Road, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper, just because I feel like there’s a fair amount of filler on it, and it’s not as cohesive as those other records. But fully half of my list comes from The White Album! Probably that’s because there are 30 songs on it, but at any rate, The White Album’s highs are awfully high, and none stand out more for me than Blackbird, my personal pick as the most beautiful Beatles recording. Paul’s fingerpicking is tasty (“Macca” was pretty clearly the best musician in the group), and while the lyrics seem uplifting, they have a dark edge: He wrote it after watching footage of the race riots that exploded across the U.S. in 1968. It’s yet another example of finding beauty in tragedy—and isn’t that what all great art is?
1. In My Life
In My Life is a love song so honest and tender that many fans believed it had to be Paul’s song—though McCartney himself has always insisted it was John’s. As to why it’s my personal favorite, there’s not a lot to say that I didn’t already write here, but in brief: When my best friend and ex-girlfriend Lara died in 2011, we sang this song while scattering her ashes on Sands Beach in Santa Barbara. I’ll never hear it again without thinking of her. It always hurts a little bit, but it’s better to hurt than to forget, and In My Life helps me remember.