The Beatles' twelve studio LPs and various singles and EPs are packed with so many seminal moments of Western popular music as we now know it that it's hard to believe they were released in the space of just over seven years.
Please Please Me (1963)
The "one, two, three, FOUR!" at the beginning of "I Saw Her Standing There" alone makes it the perfect way to open the Fab Four's first LP, but the raw energy of Paul's voice and George and John's guitar work give us a song to remember.
"Well, she was just seventeen, you know what I mean..."
"Please Please Me", their second single and first UK #1 as well as the title track of their first album, is pure 1960s-brand garage-punk of the 'Nuggets'/'Pebbles' etcetera variety, and sits comfortably (as does the better-known "She Loves You") within the 'original punk' genre.
"Twist and Shout", the famous throat-shredding single take, is as close as we're likely to get to the sheer adrenaline of the Beatles' live performances in 1963, when this was their preferred closing number. John's voice held out for just long enough to give us an absolute classic.
With the Beatles (1963)
"All My Loving", the song with which the Beatles opened their first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, boasts a catchy tune and a great lead vocal from Paul.
The closing cover of Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy's "Money (That's What I Want)" was, like "Twist and Shout" before it, recorded at the end of a lengthy recording session, and John's throaty performance once again comes close to capturing the sheer energy of a live performance, punctuated by George Martin's double-tracked piano performance of the song's familiar guitar riff.
The opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night" is perhaps their most memorable opening to any song, and still confounding guitarists who try to replicate it to this day. The rest of the song is just as memorable, and represents an early successful synthesis of two song fragments that didn't quite stand on their own (the verses and the bridge were originally planned for separate songs) but fit together like a hand in a glove.
Some exquisite vocal harmonies and delightful melodies make the hopeful "If I Fell" a standout on the soundtrack side of the album.
"And I Love Her" is a wonderful ballad with hauntingly beautiful and sparse acoustic instrumentation. The 2009 remasters in particular, since they bestow upon it a warmth and clarity that previous mixes simply lacked.
The high-energy and just plain fun "Can't Buy Me Love" accompanies one of the most iconic sequences in the film, a sequence to which almost every music video ever made owes an indirect debt of influence, but the song itself stands up very well on its own.
"You Can't Do That" was recorded for the film, but the performance was ultimately left on the cutting room floor. A shame, as the song - John's self-confessed attempt to emulate Wilson Pickett - is incredibly catchy and memorable.
"I'll Be Back" is written with not one, but two different bridges - "I love you so / I'm the one who wants you..." and "I thought that you would realise..." - which combines with the sudden shifts between A minor and A major at the beginning and end of the verses to create one of their most complex early songs.
Beatles for Sale (1964)
The first three songs on this album are indicative of the darker tone set by this album, and all three are awesome in their own way:
"No Reply", in which the singer tries unsuccessfully to get through to the girl he loves but who is giving him the brush-off, has the anguished cries of "I saw the light!" and "I nearly died!" in the verses, brilliantly rendered by John and Paul.
The upbeat melody of "I'm a Loser" creates an interesting case of Lyrical Dissonance in this song mourning lost love and lost opportunity, but said melody and John's performance of it add up to a classic lover's lament.
The bluesy guitar riff that opens "Baby's in Black" is a winner, coupled with the colour imagery of its refrain ("Oh dear, what can I do / Baby's in black and I'm feelin' blue / Tell me oh, what can I do") and the plaintive vocal performances.
The cover of "Mister Moonlight" is one of their more polarising tracks, but there's something gloriously primal about John's opening cry of "MISTAAAAAAAAEHAHAHAAAA MOOONLAAAIIITTT!!!"
The fade-in at the beginning of "Eight Days a Week". Although it does not quite fade in from total silence, it was still a bold move for its day. The rest of the song features more catchy vocal melodies from John and Paul.
Although "What You're Doing" is one of the lesser known songs on the album, its punchy vocal performance by Paul and folk-like guitar ostinato make it well worth a listen.
"Help!" is one of John's most personal songs - his impassioned vocal performance in this literal cry for help stems from his own wavering faith in his independence and ability to tackle everything life throws at him by himself, and helps make the song one of their all-time classics.
"You're Going to Lose That Girl" takes the message of "She Loves You" and turns it upside-down - instead of the singer trying to help the object of the song mend his troubled relationship, he is planning to swoop in and steal the girl when she inevitably leaves the uncaring object of the song. One of the most inventively-structured songs the Beatles had written to date (the verses and chorus are in E major but the bridge is in G major), and with great vocal and instrumental performances all round. It also accompanies one of the film's most memorable sequences, showing the Beatles recording the song in a smoky studio, lit in reds and purples, with Paul and Ringo playing different instruments in different shots - as close as the films ever came to chronicling the magic that happened when the Fab Four were in EMI's Abbey Road Studio 1.
"Ticket to Ride" is another example of a song in which a singer mourning a broken relationship is nevertheless singing an almost upbeat melody. As well as a great lead vocal by John, it features some excellent guitar work from George.
"Yesterday" came to Paul in a dream. He literally dreamt up the most covered song ever. The melody came so easily to him that he felt the need to play it for almost everyone he met to make sure he wasn't just remembering a song he already knew. If any songwriter could have five minutes in the mind of Paul McCartney, they'd be very lucky indeed.
Rubber Soul (1965)Rubber Soul is widely considered one of the best albums not just by the Beatles, but by any artist, and with good reason.
The album gets off to a flying - or driving - start with the opener, Paul's darkly comic "Drive My Car", with its humorous vocalisations of car horns ("Beep beep m'beep beep yeah!") and the revelation that the girl asking the singer to drive her car doesn't even have a car - "But I've found a driver and that's a start!"
John's just plain dark "Norwegian Wood" features lyrics so good they later appeared in a volume of English verse and a memorable sitar riff from George. "So, I lit a fire, isn't it good, Norwegian wood..."
John's "Nowhere Man" stands out not just for the lyrics - the first by the Beatles not to explicitly address love between two people, but rather an attempt to reach a lonely man who lives in a world of his own (often interpreted to refer to John himself) - but for the rich, double-tracked three-part vocal harmonies in the verses.
George's "Think for Yourself" is given an effective shot in the arm with Paul's use of a fuzz bass to add extra heft, and features some outstanding vocal harmonies (which apparently took much rehearsing to perfect).
The bittersweet "Michelle", with its plaintive lead vocal by Paul, deservedly won the Grammy for Song of the Year for 1966.
"Girl" is another great example of John's wicked sense of humour - amid the laments by the singer about the girl who made him miserable yet whom he cannot get out of his mind, the refrain features John, Paul, and George breathing in as though smoking a joint, while the backing vocals in the bridge consist of the word "Tit" repeated over and over.
"In My Life" is one of John's most deeply personal songs, with memorable lyrics about past and present loves, exquisite vocals from John, Paul, and George, and a double-speed piano solo intended to sound like a harpsichord by George Martin.
"If I Needed Someone" is arguably George's first truly great moment as a songwriter. When you've got a standout track on an album like Rubber Soul, you know you're going somewhere. Spine-chilling chorus harmonies and Paul's hypnotic rising bassline makes this one an absolute keeper.
Revolver (1966)Revolver stacks fourteen awesome songs together, one after the other, to craft what numerous critics have declared the greatest album by any artist, ever.
Like Rubber Soul before it, Revolver hits the ground running with George's bitingly satirical "Taxman", featuring a great guitar solo by Paul and wickedly funny lyrics. "My advice for those who die / Declare the pennies on your eyes..."
The heart-rending "Eleanor Rigby" is one of the Beatles' all-time classics. A double string quartet has seldom sounded this awesome, and then there's Paul's Grammy-winning rendition of the doleful lyrics. "All the lonely people, where do they all come from / All the lonely people, where do they all belong?"
John justifies his lifelong laziness in the laid-back "I'm Only Sleeping", with its backwards guitar solo and almost otherworldly slowed-down lead vocal.
"Love You To" marks George's first attempt to completely cross over western rock music with Indian music. The pseudo-improvised sitar solo in the opening is a particular highlight.
"Here, There, and Everywhere", Paul's musical homage to The Beach Boys (similarities to "God Only Knows" are not coincidental), features some of his best lyrics, melodies, and vocal work.
Ringo delivers his best vocal performance to date in the just plain fun "Yellow Submarine".
John took a bizarre conversation with Peter Fonda about what it's like to be dead and turned it into the memorable Side 1 closer, the hard rock "She Said She Said".
Side 2 opens with the irresistibly catchy "Good Day Sunshine", Paul's musical homage to the Lovin' Spoonful (again, similarities to their song "Daydream" are not an accident).
John's "And Your Bird Can Sing" boasts classic performances from John on vocals and George on guitar.
This is followed by Paul's devastating "For No One", one of the biggest Tear Jerkers in the Beatles catalogue, featuring a French horn solo by classical virtuoso Alan Civil.note Although Civil often resented that he was better known for his work on this song (as well as "A Day in the Life") than for his classical career.
"Doctor Robert", John's rocking homage to a famous hard drug-dispensing physician.
George gets a third songwriting credit in the angst-ridden "I Want to Tell You", the first Beatles song to have a fade-in and a fade-out.
Paul's boisterous, upbeat "Got to Get You Into My Life", ostensibly a love song but actually an ode to marijuana, is memorably backed by a chorus of trumpets and saxophones.
Finally, "Tomorrow Never Knows", the perfect conclusion. Lyrics adapted from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and some of the most captivating studio wizardry found in any Beatles track. A perfect representative of their middle, "psychedelic" era.
The title track is a rocker guaranteed to get nearly any audience on their feet, ready for the great music and fun to follow. It leads straight into "Billy Shears" performing the classic "With a Little Help From My Friends"note originally titled simply "A Little Help From My Friends", another of Ringo's best vocal performances.
The surreal yet serene "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" is a hallmark of the psychedelic era (even though it was not itself drug-inspired). Memorable lyrics, a very catchy tune, and a great vocal performance by John backed by a keyboard riff and sitar drone.
The qualified optimism of "Getting Better" ("I've got to admit, it's getting better / A little better all the time (Can't get no worse)") is set to a fun melody by Paul and the spiky sound of piano strings being hit with metal hammers rather than the felt-covered hammers usually found in a piano.
"Fixing a Hole" ranks as one of the best uses of a harpsichord in a rock and roll song. Listen to the song and you may find yourself wanting to join Paul in the room he has painted in a colourful way to which he can repair when his mind is wandering.
Although the lyrics of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" are essentially paraphrased from an 1843 circus poster, they are set in such a way that we can, as John hoped for when he wrote the song, "smell the sawdust" as the usual guitars and drums blend seamlessly with Hammond and Wurlitzer organs, harmonicas, and randomly-cut-and-pasted calliope recordings to create an unforgettable atmosphere.
The animal noise cacophony that closes "Good Morning Good Morning", as well as the ever-shifting time signature of the verses decrying the emptiness of suburban life, make for a great "closer" to Sgt. Pepper's band's performance, leading straight into a reprise of the title track and a truly outstanding "encore".
The final chord of the "encore" in question, the album closer "A Day in the Life", is possibly the ultimate moment representing the band at the height of their creativity. The four minutes leading up to it also feature some of the best work of each Beatle (bar George, as the song has no lead guitar; George was put on maraca duty instead) - John and Paul's vocals, Paul's bass playing, Ringo's drumming, not to mention George Martin's orchestral score for the slowly building wall of sound before the middle eight and again before the final chord. The song is ranked in many surveys as the best ever written by the Beatles.
"I Am the Walrus" is another hallmark of the Beatles' psychedelic era, and a hilarious deliberate Mind Screw to music critics who had been overanalysing the Beatles' music, featuring some of the most elaborate studio wizardry found in any song in their catalogue as well as bizarre lyrics that stick in the memory from the very start.
"Hello Goodbye" may have a simple lyrical idea (relationship disagreements stated as simple opposites), but the melody is so catchy that it's hard not to sing along.
"StrawberryFields Forever". One of John's best, and a masterstroke of arrangement by George Martin to join the two very different arrangements together - even if the join is impossible to miss, the musical flow of the song still sounds very natural.
"Penny Lane" paints the portraits of its quirky characters with just a few verbal brush strokes, set to a great lead vocal by Paul and a piccolo trumpet performance by David Mason.note Mason also performed on "A Day in the Life" and "All You Need is Love".
"All You Need is Love" more than justified the trust the BBC placed in the Beatles when they were chosen to represent the United Kingdom in the worldwide Our World broadcast in 1967.
The song's message may seem like wide-eyed optimism today, but it still stands as one of the anthems of the Summer of Love during which it was written, and John sings the lead vocal with real conviction - it was a message he firmly believed in. The whirlwind of other melodic fragments in the song - "La Marseillaise", Bach's Two-Part Invention No.8, Glenn Miller's "In the Mood", "Greensleeves", and the Beatles' own "She Loves You" and "Yesterday" - make for one of their most universal songs.
The backing vocalists for the song include Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Jagger's then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, while Keith Moon played brush drums alongside Ringo (both Jagger and Moon can be seen in the Our World broadcast). In other words, the song features performances by members of perhaps the three most influential bands of The British Invasion. (Further backing vocals are provided by Eric Clapton and The Hollies' Graham Nash, among many others.)
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps", with its heartfelt vocal performance by George and brilliant guitar solo by special guest Eric Clapton.
"Happiness Is a Warm Gun", which plays out like a medley of four or five shorter songs but in a way that makes the progression feel natural, and which has a great vocal track from John.
"I've got blisters on my fingers!!" anyone? The fact that they kept Ringo's cry of exasperation into the song is Awesome on its own, too. Some people went as far as to call "Helter Skelter" "The first proto-Metal roar" or even "The first Heavy Metal song".
All of Abbey Road is Awesome Music. You have the individual works of four different musicians with differing styles all mixed into one album, that if you truly listen to it you can see it is all one song. "The End" just adds the final touch, as it fits its placement and usage. It is the last song on their last album, and it sums up the message they've been spreading their whole career, and all four Beatles have a solo. It is no wonder many consider it to be their greatest work.
Side 1 of Abbey Road contains one classic from each of the four Beatles - the enigmatic "Come Together" by John, the sublime "Something" by George, the bluesy "Oh! Darling" by Paul, and the fun "Octopus' Garden" by Ringo. Meanwhile, in addition to the medley, Side 2 boasts George's infectiously optimistic "Here Comes the Sun" (play hookie from work, hang out in Eric Clapton's garden, write a sunshine and flowers ditty, and get covered by everybody, forever) and the outstanding triple-tracked three-part harmonies of "Because". (The remaining tracks, John's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and Paul's "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", are perhaps more divisive, but still have their fans.)
The medley on Side Two of Abbey Road, starting with Paul's "You Never Give Me Your Money", easing into the Lennon-penned triptych of the laid-back "Sun King" and the acerbic "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Polythene Pam", followed by the straightforward rock of Paul's "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window". After a short break (the only mid-medley "ending" as such), the medley turns to Paul's bittersweet "Golden Slumbers", then takes it up a notch at "Carry That Weight", which contains all four Beatles singing loudly in unison (with Ringo at the lead), then segues into a epic-sounding reprise of the first part of "You Never Give Me Your Money". The "You Never Give Me Your Money" ending riff leads this time into "The End", charged with a drum solo from Ringo, guitar solos from Paul, George, and John, and capped off with the simple line "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make," flourished with a beautiful harmony of their voices and a last guitar tune. Knowing this was their final album as a band makes it all the more epic.
And then, well after the fadeout, they toss in "Her Majesty", ending things with a laugh.
In a startling subversion, if you view it as such, The Beatles: Rock Band starts this medley—which you can play as a package from "You Never Give Me Your Money"—with all four Beatles in a studio, performing each song. As "The End" fades out, there is a pause and then "Her Majesty" fades in. At the end of the song, the camera zooms out and Paul is alone in the studio. It's open to interpretation but once you compare how this songlist starts, and then how it ends, it's rather saddening.
Fittingly, "The End" is the last song in Story mode in The Beatles: Rock Band.
The dreamlike "Across the Universe" features some of John's best lyrics as a Beatle. "Nothing's gonna change my world..."
"Let It Be". A sublime vocal and keyboard performance by Paul, coupled with a brilliant guitar solo by George (whether in the single or the album version).
"I've Got a Feeling" perhaps epitomizes the back-to-basics rock 'n' roll approach they were going for with the ill-fated Get Back sessions. One of Paul's best rock and roll vocal performances (and that's saying a whole damn lot right there!) and memorable instrumentation from all four lads. But most of all, it's one last collaborative effort between Paul and John, having combined three separate song ideas of theirs into one.
The immediately catchy "From Me to You", a true Lennon-McCartney collaboration (most songs credited to "Lennon-McCartney" were largely, and often entirely, written by one or the other), was the first Beatles song to top all major UK record charts. The shift to a Gmin7 chord at the beginning of the bridge is a particular standout moment.
Although the "yeah, yeah, yeah" refrain from "She Loves You" was (and still is) much parodied by the band's detractors, the fact remains that the song is a classic true Lennon-McCartney collaboration, and noteworthy in that, for the first time in the Beatles catalogue, the singer is not singing about his own past, present, or future relationship, but about that of a friend whom he is trying to help.
The stuttering open to "I Want to Hold Your Hand", the third UK chart-topping true Lennon-McCartney collaboration in a row, as well as the catchy lyrics, tune, and vocal performances by John and Paul. No mystery why this became the group's first chart-topper in the USA. And turn the UK release of the single over, and you would find the beautiful three-part harmonies of the plaintive "This Boy".
The feedback and guitar ostinato on "I Feel Fine", and also the upbeat lyrics, tune, and vocal harmonies.
The melancholy "Yes It Is", the B-side to "Ticket to Ride", features more lush three-part harmonies from John, Paul, and George, and more colour imagery ("Red is the colour that will make me blue") in the style of a slower, even sadder "Baby's in Black".
"I'm Down", the B-side to "Help!", shows that while Paul was often derided for writing silly love songs, he could also write some outstanding rock and roll patterned after such classics as "Long Tall Sally".
Both sides of their late 1965 double A-side single: "Day Tripper", led by an awesome guitar ostinato from George and its sexuality-laden lyrics, and "We Can Work it Out", with a great lead vocal from Paul and optimistic lyrics about working out a couple's differences.
Both sides of their early 1966 single: Paul's hard-rocking "Paperback Writer", anchored by another great guitar riff from George, some tight, crunchy drums from Ringo and humourously topped with falsetto choruses of "Frère Jacques" by John and George, and John's philosophical "Rain", slowed down from recording speed to give it an even more dreamlike atmosphere and featuring some of Ringo's best drumming, as well as the lads' first use of reversed tapes.
"Lady Madonna" is livened up by a driving piano line from Paul and tenor and baritone saxophones; one of the bridges features a sax solo from renowned jazz musician and club owner Ronnie Scott.
Little more needs to be said about "Hey Jude" – the song Paul wrote to help Julian Lennon cope with his parents' imminent divorce – except that the video for the song features a crowd coming onstage to join John, Paul, George and Ringo during the closing "Na Na Na Na" coda. Even more awesome: Despite its seven-plus minute length, no single edit was ever made ... and radio stations routinely played the entire song, in an era where songs rarely topped three minutes. And, the song was played as the finale for the segment where Paul was honored by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2010 ... with dozens of performers in all genres, including jazz, rap, country, mainstream pop and R&B and anything else joining in on the "Na Na Na Na" coda (including Ringo, taking his customary place on drums), causing Paul to visibly be moved as he graciously accepted the honor.
Turn over the single version of "Hey Jude", and you'll find one of John's greatest achievements as a songwriter: "You say you want a revo-LUTION?" The hard-rocking guitars and John's intense vocal performance make "Revolution" a classic.