If you grew up in the ‘80s, you were told Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was the Beatles’ best album. One reason for this was the “It Was 20 Years Ago Today” nostalgia factor when the album celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1987. But other more intangible factors also elevated the album to the top. The ‘80s saw the emergence of the compact disc, a medium that boasted enormous sound quality and enabled bands to record almost twice as much material for an album.
In order to harness the sound quality of the compact disc, bands were encouraged to use every advanced source of technology possible to create an album. This affected big-named artists like Def Leppard (Hysteria) and Metallica (their self-titled album) and even underground artists (e.g. Sonic Youth’s opus Daydream Nation). A high-quality CD became the prized possession salespeople would use to showcase a new car stereo or home theater system. Sgt. Peppers fit this trend perfectly. The album took the band nearly a half-year to record. That may be typical for major-label bands nowadays, but to a band who was used to releasing two albums a year, it was like a five-year stint in the studio. As for technology, The Beatles went as far as getting people to invent certain recording devices and processes just for the purpose of recording the album. In the ‘80s, where studio excess was mostly celebrated, Sgt. Peppers was a great representation of studio wizardry at its finest.
Then Nirvana came.
The movement had been growing. If it wasn’t Nirvana, then Pearl Jam would have made the initial splash. If Pearl Jam failed, then Alice in Chains, Soundgarden or the Smashing Pumpkins would have opened the floodgates. But Nirvana was first and Nevermind, despite its six-figure recording budget, helped usher in a more stripped-down approach to recording for many artists. A decade later, bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes would take this renewed appreciation for more stripped-down productions even further with their releases by recording albums with musical equipment that sometimes predated the ‘60s.
It was around this time in the mid-‘90s to the better part of the ‘00s when Revolver gradually began to overtake Sgt. Peppers as the critical all-time favorite album from The Beatles. While the album still is no slouch in terms of studio finesse, tracks like “Taxman”, “Got To Get You Into My Life”, and “Here, There And Everywhere” actually sound like they could be made by most any band with access to a halfway decent studio. The reality is, of course, just the opposite. However, the scruffy, live sound Revolver at least gives bands a glimmer of hope that yes, these sounds can be produced in a studio in your city. There are exceptions on the album; namely “Yellow Submarine” and the swirling closer “Tomorrow Never Knows.” But Revolver captures the DIY spirit of the best material of the ‘90s and ‘00s just like Sgt. Peppers captured the “too much is not enough” wonderment of the new advances in recording technology in the ‘80s.
Sgt. Peppers is still the album used when describing any band’s best work. But Revolver looks to be the current favorite for people to name drop when referring to their favorite Beatles album. But just as popular music drastically changed from the ‘80s to the ‘90s, we are undergoing a seismic change in popular music right now. Could this result in a different Beatles album overtaking both Revolver and Sgt. Peppers as The Beatles’ best album?
Stranger things have happened. As downloads are overtaking the physical product, more emphasis has been placed on singles than actual albums. This could mean a dark horse like A Hard Day’s Night could be considered since it’s arguably the strongest collection of singles on an album. An argument can also be made for Abbey Road since it represents one of the hardest accomplishments that any band can achieve: make a final album that stands alongside a band’s finest achievements. Or it could be the perpetual fan favorite The White Album, an album that represents the best and worst of unrestrained studio freedom.
The fact that any band could release a library of material that could effortlessly fit into most every change in popular music in the past 40 years is a testament to the brilliance of The Beatles. The fact that after all this time, we still can’t make up our minds about which is the best Beatles album is an even greater testament.