You Say You Want A Revolution
The Beatles Albums Ranked Worst To Best
by Benjamin Ray
14. Yellow Submarine (1969)
This is really more of a soundtrack but was released as an album, with four new actual songs, two previously released ones and some instrumentals from the film. It was never destined to hold together as an album, but it helped buy some time between the White Album and whatever would come in 1969. Completists and George Harrison fans would do well to check out “It’s All Too Much” and, to a lesser extent, “Only A Northern Song.” “Hey Bulldog” both snarls and chuckles without consequence – it’s a strange song, but a fun one. “All Together Now” is typical cute, slight Paul, and that’s it for the originals, with the title song and the legendary, out-of-place single “All You Need Is Love” bookending the first side. This is really the only Beatles album that never qualifies as essential listening.
13. Beatles For Sale (1964)
This is a dark, depressing pop album reflecting the band’s state of mind at the time. Exhausted from touring, Beatlemania and the lack of privacy, the Fab Four were questioning themselves and turning to outside forces (drugs, Dylan, Indian music), showing the first signs of cracks in what had been a self-contained unit for many years. The album still relies on several mundane covers - including “Honey Don’t,” “Everbody’s Trying To Be My Baby” and the Godawful “Mr. Moonlight,” easily the band’s worst song to that point – while the originals trade in lyrical despair (“I’m A Loser,” the breakup song “No Reply,” “Baby’s In Black”) with only the latter being essential. The best songs sparkle as much as anything on A Hard Day’s Night, especially “Eight Days A Week,” the cover of “Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey” and “What You’re Doing,” but it was clear that things had changed, and this documented transition, while fascinating in spots, does not make for a very good album.
12. With The Beatles (1963)
The boys hit a sophomore slump here, most notably because the best songs from this era were released as singles (“She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand”) and because of the continued reliance on subpar covers. It’s obvious that the best songs here were still far ahead of the band’s peers, particularly the propulsive “All My Loving,” the rocker “It Won’t Be Long,” the underrated pop gem “Hold Me Tight” and the excellent “I Wanna Be Your Man.” It’s the covers that drag this down; “Money” is sung with fierce conviction by Lennon, but “Til There Was You,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “Devil In Her Heart” and “You Really Got A Hold On Me” are dated, stiff and clearly beneath what this band was capable of (the latter is a fine Motown song, but the guys just can’t pull it off).
11. Help! (1965)
Beatles For Sale was the first step in the band’s eventual evolution and Help! simply continued that album’s approach, although without the weariness. Only two covers appear this time, the cornball “Act Naturally” and the balls-out rock of “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” an underrated Lennon jam, with the rest being Lennon-dominated originals. Many of these songs, while solid, fall in the gray area between the band’s sparkling early work and the flat-out brilliance of everything from Rubber Soul forward, and in light of what was to come much of this sounds like little more than pleasant British Invasion popcraft, albeit of the highest order. The first side of the album is the strongest because it was part of the Help! movie (the album, in America, originally was a soundtrack release) and the first half of the second side is pretty dull, although it ends on a high note with the superb folk song “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and the fantastic “Yesterday,” which shows a growth and maturation in the band’s sound.
10. Please Please Me (1963)
All of the band’s hard work – the rough stage shows in Germany, living together in a cramped Hamburg apartment, playing the Cavern Club – came together in a joyous blast of rock, pop and Merseybeat that showcased all of the band’s influences while establishing their unique voice. It’s hardly an album that suggests the legends the band would become, let alone the objects of a double-continent mania, simply because it is relatively simple and straightforward, like the band’s stage show at the time. The album was recorded in one day, with the sublime “Twist And Shout” recorded on the first take, and the enthusiasm is infectious even if some of the songs (mostly the covers) aren’t all that great, especially all these years later. “I Saw Her Standing There” is a killer way to kick off a recording career and both “Ask Me Why” and “Please Please Me” establishes the Lennon/McCartney songwriting gift early on, contrasting light and dark, melody and pop power, in a way that had not been done before.
9. Let It Be (1970)
This is the most stripped-down and basic the Beatles had been since the debut, which was by design, since Paul was trying hard to keep the band going in 1969. It’s an approach that could have worked had John Lennon been invested in things, but outside of the dull B-side “Don’t Let Me Down,” he was busy with Yoko and Two Virgins and his own budding solo career and his heart just wasn’t in it, for the most part (nor was Ringo, but he hung in there). Paul’s confident, very mature, rather dull title track and “The Long And Winding Road” were the requisite No. 1 singles, but the heart of the album is the moments where the band stops trying so hard and just rocks like the old days, such as “One After 909,” “Get Back,” the lovely duet “Two Of Us” and George’s fun “For You Blue,” not to mention the two snippets on the first side that bookend “Let It Be.” Lennon also turns in the moving acoustic piece “Across The Universe,” and even if the words don’t really say much upon close examination, they work in context. The band would shelve these recordings and release Abbey Road instead, after which producer Phil Spector revamped some of the songs with a chorus and string section and released the album anyway in 1970, right around the same time all four members were working on their own solo albums. It’s a flawed album, of course, but an interesting one.
8. The Beatles (1968)
The White Album is a truly fascinating, entertaining, frustrating work of art that is all over the map. It’s also the work of four men who were only held together by loyalty and a brand name at this point. They were still friends, of course, but they had grown up and sort of grown apart, pursuing their own interests, and so few of the songs here are unified in any meaningful way. Others have referred to this as the work of three solo artists with the world’s best backing band. One can get whiplash going from the hard rock of “Helter Skelter” to the cutesy “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” to the country twang of “Don’t Pass Me By” to the mumbling acoustic folk “Long, Long Long,” and that’s only four of the 30 songs here. There is simply too much underwhelming material here (not a surprise, given the quality of the band’s non-album singles in 1968) to put this in the upper echelon of Beatles albums, but nobody wanted to leave their songs off, and so for every moment of transcendent genius (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Julia”) there are two that elicit little more than a shrug (“Rocky Raccoon,” “I Will,” “Sexy Sadie,” “Cry Baby Cry.” On a song-by-song basis, Harrison comes off the best here – I’ve always enjoyed “Savoy Truffle” and the satirical “Piggies” – with Lennon a close second, forgetting the dreadful “Revolution 9.”
7. Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
Originally released as a six-song EP to coincide with the misguided movie of the same name, the official Beatles canon now uses the American version, which tacked on four fantastic singles and one B-side as Side 2 while keeping the first six songs intact. It was a fantastic choice from a marketing aspect, especially on the heels of Sgt. Pepper’s, but the fact is that the first five songs are a watered-down version of what came before, and people knew it. To be fair, following up a watershed album is tricky for any band, and the Beatles were a bit lost, latching on to Paul’s idea of the bus tour because, hey, why not? But “Your Mother Should Know,” “The Fool On The Hill,” “Flying,” “Blue Jay Way” and the title track try just a bit too hard while having very little to say. It’s not until John’s fractured “I Am The Walrus” and Paul’s melodic, perfect “Hello, Goodbye” that this thing kicks into gear, followed by “Penny Lane” and the band (and ‘60s) anthem “All You Need Is Love,” a reminder of a time when people were more hopeful and less cynical, including the Beatles themselves.
6. A Hard Day’s Night (1963)
Leaps and bounds ahead of the first two albums, the Beatles’ third album and first soundtrack is a pop triumph. For the first time, and the last until Rubber Soul, all of the songs are originals, and they run the gamut of emotions in both lyrics and music but all feature an infectious energy. The band had the world by the tail and they knew it, and along with the singles from this time period the songs here are fast, melodic gems, from “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Tell Me Why” and the title cut (banged out in one night) to slower, acoustic-driven songs with depth and emotions (“I’ll Be Back,” “Things We Said Today,” the jangly “If I Fell”). The band would not reach these consistent heights again on record until they fundamentally changed their approach on Rubber Soul.
5. Revolver (1966)
Every single reviewer gives this the highest grade possible; a VH1 countdown from a while back had this as the greatest album ever made. But the truth is that the midsection of the album has a number of inferior songs that keep this from cracking the top three, although again, many Beatles fans would disagree. What makes this one revolutionary is that nothing else sounds like it, not only in 1966, but in many years after. While their British Invasion peers and acolytes were still doing basic three-minute garage rock raveups, the Fab Four had moved well beyond that into experimental territory (John’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one of his weirdest and best songs to date, while Paul’s “Eleanor Rigby” is backed by only strings), and the songs bleed together in a colorful burst of noise that shows the band having fun again after the somewhat dour Rubber Soul and Beatles For Sale. Plus, the sequencing on the first side is perfect; using George’s “Taxman” is brilliant, not only because it’s a great song and slice of social commentary, but because the first notes you hear are his skronky guitar stabs, proof that this was going to be something different. Where the album suffers is in the middle; George’s “Love You To” is difficult to get through, “Yellow Submarine” is pretty darn corny unless you actually lived through that era and are fond of it, “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Doctor Robert” are fine but not up to the level of the rest and “Good Day Sunshine” is too cute by half. But even they are part of the experience of this work, the moment that the world stopped thinking of these guys as moptop teen idols and started thinking of them as actual artists.
4. Rubber Soul (1965)
This is the one that wiped out the Beatlemania image and propelled the Beatles into new territory and maturity as songwriters. It’s a pretty radical shift from Help! but one that makes sense, showcasing the band absorbing new influences (Dylan, the Byrds, folk) to replace their old R&B/rock influences and writing more complex songs with the first hints of deeper subject matter than girls. Lennon, in particular, seems invigorated by this and turns in his best work in a while with the sitar-driven “Norwegian Wood,” the fun “Drive My Car,” the deeply personal “In My Life” and the non-album singles “Rain” and “I Feel Fine,” both recorded around this time. Paul’s “Michelle” is lovely and “I’m Looking Through You” is a fine rocker that bridges the gap from Beatlemania to whatever comes next, and even George’s “Think For Yourself” fits the theme of the album while offering political commentary, something he would continue on successive albums. Sure, there are a couple of missteps (“What Goes On,” the lyrics of “Run For Your Life”), but they hardly dull the intoxicating, individual nature of this album.
3. Past Masters (1988)
Perhaps this is cheating, as it was never an actual album, but it is truly essential listening. Both Past Masters, now collected on one handy double-disc, simply round up all of the Beatles’ non-album singles in chronological order. What makes it so fantastic is that the Beatles were the first band to offer some of their best work in singles only, and the songs that have truly endured from the band – the classics, the legends, the ones we all remember and that helped define their name – were never actually on an album, just on a 45 and the radio. Consider this: “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “From Me To You,” “Hey Jude,” “Revolution,” “Lady Madonna,” “Rain,” “Day Tripper” and “We Can Work It Out” never appeared on a Beatles album. So, you need this one…arguably, this is probably the first CD I would give to someone unfamiliar with the Beatles and not sure where to start digging (#1 would be a good choice as well, I suppose). As with any collection of singles, the listening isn’t always cohesive, and some of the B-sides and alternate takes that actually did end up on an album (the longer “Get Back,” an older version of “Love Me Do,” a faster version of “Across The Universe” with overdubbed bird noises, and the German language take of “She Loves You”) are superfluous at best. Of special note is the inclusion of the Long Tall Sally EP, proof that the boys were having fun when they were covering their idols…and that they really could rock.
2. Abbey Road (1969)
One of the great farewell records in rock history, Abbey Road is the final statement from a band that had grown up together and grown apart, torn between the bonds of brotherhood and the responsibilities of being an adult thinking about the future. After the disaster that was the Let It Be sessions and the Beatles’ spare time being taken up by business meetings and attempting to run Apple, Paul got everyone together for a last-ditch effort to do things the way they used to be, with George Martin producing and everything. The exuberance of seven years ago is gone, inevitably, replaced with a sort of weary optimism in the music. But the melodies are utterly fantastic, the characters created (Maxwell Edison, Pam, Mr. Mustard) are as indelible as ever, and George’s two songs are arguably the two best he had written to that point (“Something,” “Here Comes The Sun”). John’s apocalyptic blues “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Come Together” were very different from his previous work but both mesmerizing, while “Because” plowed new territory (harmonized vocals and harpsichord) and “The End” brings it all back to where it started. One can argue over the merits of the medley, and on a song-by-song basis it sort of falls apart, but strung together it sustains a momentum that doesn’t fade until the final fade-out of “The End” (well, technically, the nose-thumb of “Her Majesty,” the boys’ final anti-establishment joke).
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
The big one, the one that not only helped push forward all the boundaries of what rock music even could be but that gave birth to the notion of rock as art and discussion of rock music a viable pursuit. From start to finish, the album is stunning, a studio creation from four fertile minds who wanted to push the envelope and create something everlasting and, perhaps, antithetical to rock and roll in general. Parts of the album seem quaint in 2016, of course, and surely the air of preciousness can be off-putting, but those are negligible concerns when faced with the magnificently beautiful “She’s Leaving Home,” the snarling “Getting Better,” the melodic, thoughtful “Fixing A Hole” and “Lovely Rita” and George’s ultimate exploration of Indian music, “Within You Without You.” John’s bonkers “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” and “Good Morning Good Morning” help lend the carnival atmosphere to the show – introduced in the title track – but the real triumph, and the best Beatles song of all time, is “A Day In The Life,” which turns the mundane into the epic while going where no rock song had gone before it. The album is a triumph.