Music

25 Classic Beatles Songs

These are not necessarily the “best songs" in the Beatles' storied catalogue, but these are the songs through which we might gain the deepest appreciation for their popular genius.

We all know that compiling a list of the "best" Beatles tracks is a fool's errand. For a band that has more admirers than Jesus (zing!), coming up with a list of 25 tracks that doesn't overlook about 150 others is clearly impossible. A more fruitful endeavour might have been to try to compile a list of 25 lousy Beatles tracks -- at the very least, we might have stumbled upon something approaching consensus. Anyway, we decided instead to go with a list of "Classic" Beatles tracks -- this means to say that they are not necessarily the "best songs" in their storied catalogue, but that they are the songs most closely associated with the band, and the songs through which (perhaps) we might gain the deepest appreciation for their popular genius.

Of course, we left off some screamers -- there's no sign of "Yesterday" anywhere, for example -- and this is because, frankly, no one suggested that they wanted to write about them. The list was comprised of the songs most often voted for when we asked 30 PopMatters writers to propose the top ten Beatles classics. Enjoy.

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1. A Day in the Life

"A Day in the Life" is without a doubt among the finest and most ambitious songs the Beatles recorded. If there's a single song that exemplifies how good the Beatles were, and how gifted McCartney and Lennon were as songwriters, it's this one. I've always been taken by it, not only for its sonic depth but for its profound emotional insight into the radically different viewpoints of McCartney and Lennon. Furthermore, the song demonstrates not only the intellectual and musical discord that always underlined McCartney and Lennon's efforts, but also the incredible music that resulted from their collaborations.

The song is the result of McCartney and Lennon fusing two separate songs into one. Lennon's song is based on of a number of recent newspaper accounts: an article on how there was 1/26th of a pothole for every resident of Blackburn, Lancashire called the "4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire", a series of articles on the film How I Won the War, and an account of Tara Browne, a friend of the Beatles who was killed in a car accident. McCartney's song fragment, which sets a decidedly different mood than Lennon's, is placed between the second and third verses of Lennon's song and serves as a warm remembrance of his youthful school days.

Due to the numerous references to dreaming, smoking, and turning-on that run throughout the song, the song was banned from radio play in various parts of the world. While the two songs function as separate entities, they provide a measure of depth to "A Day in the Life" and a sense of sweeping consciousness and epic human drama, which is particularly impressive given the relative shortness of the thing, and the fact that it was the product of two relatively independent and, at least at the time, opposed songwriters. Lennon's sections of the song offer a narrator who is seeking to understand the principles upon which human reality operates, while McCartney's bit is narrated by someone who appears to live moment to moment, for the day.

These narrators, then, can be understood as representing McCartney and Lennon's radically different understandings of the world, and the song, in turn, offers some measure of insight into the radical discordance between the two. The song resists any sort of simple or ready-made meaning, which is part of its appeal. Lennon claimed the song was simply about a car crash and its victim. McCartney claimed that this was a "turn on" song, one which aimed to turn people on to the "truth", particularly in terms of his information is conveyed and how society, time and consciousness operate. The song offers a view of a day in the life of not one consciousness but, instead, two separate consciousness.

Ultimately, the song serves to remind us of our intrinsic alienation, of the lurking imminence of death, and of the passing of time. What the song details then is not only the stuff of high drama but also the various moods, daily happenings and different viewpoints that make life what it is. -- James Fleming

2. Hey Jude

Some years ago I was attending a middle-school talent show. The performances were earnest but few, and the show sparsely attended, most people presumably having found other ways to spend their leisure hours. Following the grimly-prancing ballerina, the breakdancer, and the Bach etude aspirer, the final performer took the stage. The student, a notorious wise-ass and irreverent slacker, strode to the front and center of the stage and, without preamble, launched into an a cappella, unmiked performance of "Hey Jude". His voice was unremarkable but steady and on-key, and he sang with clear-eyed conviction, his voice gaining strength as he went. The sheer audacity of the performance was fascinating -- and the song was galvanizing. When he reached the long outro, first a few, and then everyone in the audience rose to their feet spontaneously and began to sing along, the cavernous, three-quarters empty auditorium ringing with the sound and thrumming with the power.

"Hey Jude" is an anthem, but it's more than that: it's an invocation of the magic that lies at the very heart of the Beatles' timeless appeal. At his best, Paul McCartney is the lyric voice of unquenchable optimism, and in this song, he achieves his most gorgeous rendering of his faith in the human heart. The song itself is simple, driven mainly by John's spare, syncopated, always-underrated rhythm guitar as well as Ringo's tambourine (and surely that instrument is the least-appreciated of the many that the Beatles played). John claimed that Paul had written the song for him; the truth of the matter is that each of us feels that he wrote it for us -- and so we stand and sing. -- Steve Leftridge

3. In My Life

"In My Life" is a work of shimmering beauty, a poignant testament of love all the more moving for being, in essence, contrary, as was the author himself in so many ways: in the song John dwells largely on his affection for others, past and present; only at the end of each verse and the beginning of the second does he so much as mention the current object of his ardor, and yet this very omission heightens the impact of the declaration of love when it finally arrives. The spare instrumentation gives rise to a typical Beatles masterpiece in miniature, from George's haunting signature lick to George Martin's half-speed-recorded baroque piano solo. Paul's bass playing is the model of restrained, melodic economy, though his contrapuntal figures lapse into straight rock time for a couple of measures in the second line of the bridge, adding a subtle but effective impetus.

The song represents the Beatles at their best in that each added what he was best at: John, the trenchant insight into his own heart; Paul, the ever-innovative melodicism; George and Ringo, the subtle musical flourishes that complemented the song and brought its shine to a high luster. More than anything, though, it's the indescribably gorgeous combination of John and Paul's voices wrapping themselves around lyrics that capture the very essence of true love that propels this song into majestic territory. -- Steve Leftridge

4. You've Got to Hide Your Love Away

Taking a cue from his newest associate, John Lennon created the consummate break-up song in "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away", a Dylanesque masterpiece that contrasts sharply not only with its Help! trackmates, but also with his band's entire catalogue thus far. A slice of stark, raw emotion, this forlorn ballad plunges the listener into a storm of romantic anguish, triggering an instant and impenetrable connection with the narrator and his doleful revelations.

In standard folk fashion, no electrical instruments were used; instead, muffled acoustic guitars, reminiscent of rain or fog -- the din of dejection? -- and a steady, deliberate tambourine replace the ever-popular Beatle backbeat. Charging and repetitive, the combination wordlessly reflects the solemnity of a lover scorned. Lennon's earnest vocals, in turn, are filled with subtle, nuanced movement, and George Martin clearly downplays the usual overdubs to highlight an unusually honest performance from the often-facetious singer.

The defeated lyrics are sung with ireful exhaustion as if our narrator is challenging himself to follow the imagined advice. Echoing (or perhaps deflating) his cries is a piercing yet husky combination of tenor and alto flute, played unaccredited by in-demand Abbey Road musical arranger Johnnie Scott and making it the first Beatles recording to bring in an outside musician to fulfill a designated purpose. The effect is a haunting, aching testament to the power of heartbreak, real or invented, to inspire a truly indelible work of art. -- Carole Ann Wright

5. Strawberry Fields Forever

When the music video for "Strawberry Fields Forever" aired on American Bandstand in early 1967, the studio audience response was muted. Some liked the song well enough, but others were dismayed about the changes wrought in the Beatles' sound and image (not the least the band's new fondness for mustaches). Even today, long after psychedelic rock has become an easily copied set of clichés, the song seems a little off. There is a sense of unease that permeates it due to elements such as John Lennon's winding vocal phrasing, the noticeable change in mood and tempo created by splicing two takes of the song together, and the cacophonous ending. As a result, "Strawberry Fields" often sounds more like a surreal dream than a rock song. It's not a standard pop song, but it is a great one nonetheless.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" is Lennon's ode to his childhood neighborhood in Liverpool, England, and his sadness and affection for his boyhood memories are palpable throughout, from the lonely mellotron introduction to the disembodied tone of Lennon's voice. Instead of offering a straight biography of Lennon's youth, "Strawberry Fields" opts for the rock 'n' roll equivalent of expressionism, conveying Lennon's fondness and longing for the past through sounds that act like watercolors, blotting and blending to create something wondrous. "Strawberry Fields Forever" is more than just one of the Beatles' definitive psychedelic compositions: it stands as the band's most evocative (and in a way, most revealing) glimpse into Lennon's own heart. -- AJ Ramirez

6. Revolution (Single Version)

While the Beatles were busy producing some of their most wildly divergent and experimental material, they continued to issue non-album singles, often containing some of their most immediate and accessible material. Hence 1968 saw the release of both the self-titled "White Album" and the "Hey Jude" single with "Revolution" tagging along on the flipside.

Kicking off with a buzzsaw of distorted guitar and an electrifying Lennon scream, "Revolution" gallops along with a surprisingly tempered message for such a raucous song: we know you kids want action, but let's not burn the world down. To counteract this maturity, "Revolution" features some of the most delightfully noisy guitar work the band produced, and an energized Lennon vocal, his repeated cries of "all right!" bringing to mind the shredding vocals of his take on "Twist and Shout".

The electric version became the one most closely associated with the title, but the "White Album" version, with acoustic riffs bumping up against those familiar buzzing electrics and the ambiguity of the almost parenthetical "in" on the heels of "count me out", has an off-kilter charm all its own. A kiss off to the New Left, or merely a kiss? -- Jesse Hassenger

7. Norwegian Wood

One of the most important songs in any discussion of the creative development of the Beatles, "Norwegian Wood" is a sly little song, built on an ambiguous narrative and some innovative flourishes. The sitar, cleverly mirroring the main guitar line, was perhaps no surprise as an Indian influence had already been seeping into the band, but this song is the first time the instrument was deployed in a Western rock band context.

The wonderfully vague story originated with John Lennon and seems to have been autobiographical, commenting on an affair he had had with a journalist. Affection is in short supply as the song has a to and fro aspect more akin to fencing than courting, but which gives the song its edge: the terse exchanges between the protagonists say more than any empty romantic platitudes would have. Wry humour also underwrites the track, from Lennon's surprising resting place of a bathtub, to the dark interpretation of the final refrain possibly alluding to setting the poor girl's flat on fire.

There's a whole world conveyed through the slightest of details, and some ingeniously coy phrasing. This was something both deeper and more elliptical than previous Beatles songs; and while that may make the thing sound awkward and contrived, the melody is so strong and airy, the song so well constructed, that the audience can't help but be seduced by (and therefore complicit in) Lennon's extra-marital proclivities.

A huge leap forward for the band, the song proved so influential it may have led to a controversial parody in Bob Dylan's "4th Time Around". The exact origins of that song remain in dispute and the timelines frustratingly muddied (Dylan claims to have shown it to Lennon before he wrote "Norwegian Wood"). My gut, as much of a Bob fan as I am, seems to side with Lennon on this one. Regardless, when the "voice of a generation" is made to seem like a "Bobby- come-lately", one can't deny the power of a song. -- Emmet O'Brien

8. Something

If we take the Beatles to be a family, Paul and John would be bickering twins (alike in ambition but so divergent in style and mood), Ringo would be the youngest brother (given moments to shine but mostly left in the background). Enter George: the middle child. Whereas Paul sweetened his songs with mildly contrived optimism and John cloaked his extreme angst in black humour, George was direct, honest and usually over earnest. His songs just weren't as sophisticated or fun. Obsessed with Eastern Philosophies, his songs were often weighed down with solemnity and self importance while nurturing a sensitive, thoughtful exterior.

"Something" leaves behind any philosophical agenda and succumbs to pure unadulterated feeling and it's this directness that is its greatest strength. Always inscrutable and aloof, this was the closest we got to a confessional George in more ways than one. It obviously conveys a deep reservoir of affection towards Pattie Boyd but it also sees the Beatle being something else: a fan. The first lines mirror those of a James Taylor song and while only meant as filler while the melody was worked out, these lines have stuck. It's homage, not theft; the song is all the better for it. So naked is the emotion and so perfect the execution that it couldn't fail -- rather, it remains a worthy addition to the Beatles A-Side output.

Indeed, it stands as his finest shot across the bow of the Lennon/McCartney partnership. Frank Sinatra described it as the greatest love song ever written. High praise indeed, but he was not alone in his regard for the track. Lennon himself once conceded it as the finest song on Abbey Road. Something was definitely not amiss. -- Emmet O'Brien

9. I Am the Walrus

What is it about four-and-a-half minutes of Carrollian nonsense that makes "I Am the Walrus" so enduring? It's deceptively simple, repetitive, and full of absurd references designed to induce a lifetime a head-scratching -- John Lennon wrote the words in response to a lesson plan at his former primary school that involved dissecting his often meaningless verse. Feckless (though delightfully alliterative) lyrics aside, the real standout here is the complex orchestration, filled with "enough little bitties... to keep you interested even a hundred years later", that creates a vice-like grip on the audience and begs for repeated plays.

Every distinctive piece is also indelibly fused, and vitally important to the whole: the fluttering heartbeat of the rhythm section; the familiar but imposing nature of the waltzing strings; the playful, taunting vocals backed by a choir of mad jeers. Lennon and George Martin's elaborately constructed musical Jabberwocky is brought to delightfully menacing life by the live radio feed that fills the shallow gaps with increasing prevalence before swallowing the song whole.

Though the BBC Third Programme performance of King Lear is arguably the most memorable, it's Ringo's channel-surfing that remains the most eerily current and adds an air of perplexing mystery to an already overtly surreal experience. It's a masterful use of production as an instrument, rather than simply quality control, helping to keep the listener interested despite all of the so-called nonsense it readily admits to. If it's all a joke, it's a damn brilliant one, at the very least. -- Carole Ann Wright

10. Ticket to Ride

If nothing else, "Ticket to Ride" serves as Exhibit A that Ringo Starr is one of the greatest rock 'n' roll drummers of all time. Compare the stuttering, off-kilter drumbeat on this single to the work of any of the great pre-Beatles British rock (Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, the Shadows) and the value of Ringo's attitude towards the drums -- that each song should have its own distinct beat, as unique as the lyrics -- becomes truly apparent. The syncopated snare and tom hits serve double duty, echoing the rhythm of the main guitar riff and driving the song forward. It's not like the rest of the band isn't pulling its weight, though.

"Ticket to Ride" was released on the Help! soundtrack, and it was on the set of that movie that the Beatles were first exposed to traditional Indian music. While later songs like "Within You Without You" and "Norwegian Wood" are more celebrated for fusing Indian instrumentation and western pop melodies, this song deserves consideration in its own right as one of their first successful experiments in this vein. The Indian influence is subtle but noticeable in the droning, single note bass part and shimmering, repetitive riff.

The band's beat group origins are apparent in the bouncier, straightforward middle eight, and the double-time fade-out. The mix of these disparate elements makes for one of the best singles of the Beatles' career. That they thought to combine them at all as early as 1965 makes it even more remarkable. -- David Gassman

11. I've Just Seen a Face

Most love songs are all about the yearning, inspiring soulful, longing melodies. At a short and galloping two minutes, "I've Just Seen a Face" tosses aside torchiness and really captures the giddy feeling of infatuation. Though the country- and bluegrass-inspired tune was written by Paul McCartney, and he does his own vocal harmonies on the recorded version, there's none of his signature bass on the song, giving it the lightweight quality it needs to go sprinting to its conclusion.

Nothing is wasted in the song, and McCartney is barely given a spare moment to breathe between lines -- there's even some humming between the verses to propel the melody forward. The result replicates the fluttery, excited feeling of a new love (or at least the experience of listening to a friend gush on about a new interest); you can almost hear McCartney's face flush as he admits, "as it is I'll dream of her tonight".

The song has been covered by everyone from the String Cheese Incident to Lucy Kaplansky, but one interpretation of the song rises above the others: Julie Taymor's. Though many of her choices for her film Across the Universe can be debated and picked apart, she thoroughly nails the spirit of "I've Just Seen a Face". As her characters bounce around a bowling alley, they goof off, steal each other's balls, slide down the aisles in their bowling shoes, and do practically anything but toss the balls so they knock over the pins. That's how an infatuation feels: joyful, lighthearted, energetic. How McCartney packed such euphoria into so few lines and stanzas is a mystery, but it makes the heart race just to hear the opening guitar-picked arpeggios. -- Marisa LaScala

12. Help!

It is often said that the Beatles matched the sweet with the salty better than any other band. This is too often reduced to a Lennon v. McCartney explanation -- the "Hey Jude" a-side, "Revolution" b-side (or "Strawberry Fields"/"Penny Lane", "Hello Goodbye"/ "I Am the Walrus", etc) thing -- but this clearly misses the point. At their best (at least in the pre-"White Album" era) it was their startling, collaborative, juxtaposition of the dark with the light that lifted the material, neatly avoiding schmaltz (most of the time) while still remaining grounded in attractive and harmonious pop structures.

The alienated man singing songs that refused to alienate the listener -- this was the certain genius of the pre-Revolver Beatles. "Help!", perhaps the finest example of this quintessential songwriting approach, fuses a brave admission of anxious disaffection with an inescapable melody. The result is disarmingly gorgeous even as it is quietly devastating. Imagine, a few years after "The Twist" and we're singing along with such sentiments as: "Now and then I feel so insecure" and "My independence seems to vanish in the haze". To re-imagine the popular song as a venue for confessions of dread, of anomie; to replace the constructed idea of the pop star as vulnerable and tragic by actually admitting to feelings of vulnerability and tragedy... From Neil Young to Kurt Cobain to Jeff Tweedy, this tune has had an indelible effect. -- Stuart Henderson

13. I'm Looking Through You

I'd known "I'm Looking Through You" for awhile, never paying it much mind, when I read that it was filmmaker Wes Anderson's original choice to play his film The Royal Tenenbaums into its end credits. Rights issues scuttled his plan for a mostly-Beatles soundtrack, and his end-credits replacement, Van Morrison's "Everyone", is a lovely grace note in a lovely film. But this bit of trivia spurred my revisitation of this Rubber Soul gem, and, hey, that Anderson kid was on to something: the song is jaunty yet rueful, its lyrics ("you don't look different, but you have changed") made bittersweet by a jangling melody and a great little up-tempo riff punctuating McCartney's observations. "Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight," he sings, and it all sounds so casual from a band that just a few years earlier displayed a mastery of unabashed love songs. It may not inspire the deep love of its lovey-dovier album neighbors ("Girl" on one side, the incomparable "In My Life" on the other), but it's the kind of album cut that makes the Beatles the best rather than merely great. -- Jesse Hassenger

14. Dear Prudence

"Dear Prudence" is like the perfect gift -- based on thoughtfulness and wrapped with beauty. It's about Prudence Farrow who, along with sister Mia and the Beatles, traveled to Rishikesh, India to meditate under the spell of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Prudence had had enough this day, but in this song, her friends try to convince her to mobilize her mantra one more time.

"Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play, greet the brand new day, the sun is up, the sky is blue, it's beautiful and so are you": such childlike lyrics sung by an emotional John Lennon. In the background a hypnotic, repetitive interval -- starting out as a major third -- set against a thrashing descending bass line. There's an absolutely beguiling balance between Lennon's heart-felt plea of friendship and the slowly unraveling sounds that serve as counterpoint. And, the chorus (simply: "look around round round…") is sung by the other lads in a stark, low, growl much like a Gregorian chant (or, perhaps, an offering of Om). But, the starkness surprisingly jetstreams into some angular guitar work. As it returns, Lennon's voice evokes innocence and the raw hope of true friendship. By this point, we're absolutely dying to see Prudence "open up her eyes", burst out of the door and join her alpha-state seeking friends. Now, if we could only reach nirvana. -- Lisa Torem

15. Eleanor Rigby

It is almost absurd to consider a song to be a form of literature. But if any song could be thought of in such a way, it would be this one: a Beatles song that no Beatle played an instrument on. The song tells a story of loneliness and isolation. It paints vivid characters, evoking empathy and pathos. Paul McCartney tells us of the sadness and melancholy in the lives of Eleanor and Father McKenzie in a two-minute pop song; many authors can't reach this kind of depth in 300 pages.

The foregoing of conventional rock instruments in lieu of a string arrangement only adds to the power to the piece. The lives on display might be sad and a bit pathetic, but the music shows that there is dignity and resolve there as well. This is an important story that needs to be told, and stands as an example of McCartney at his finest. It broke the boundaries of what a pop song should be and set the bar higher for those who came after. It deserves its place in the pantheon of the Beatles finest songs. -- William Gatevackes

16. Across the Universe

"Across the Universe" is among the most widely covered Beatles tracks, with versions recorded by David Bowie, Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright, and Cyndi Lauper, among others. It is easy to see why the song is so appealing to other artists, given its musical simplicity and poetic depth. It is a song ripe for different interpretations and musical arrangements. John Lennon felt that this was among the purest and most poetic songs he ever wrote, but believed it worked best as a poem rather than a piece of music per se.

Lennon said the lyrics for the song came to him after a fight with his then wife, Cynthia. Sometime shortly after the fight, the phrase "words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup" came to him upon reflecting on whatever it was Cynthia had been saying to him. Lennon couldn't get those words out of his mind for the entire night. And from there the song was born and became something of a commentary on the creative process and the artist's impulse to make meaning.

The song was also heavily influenced by Lennon's interest in transcendental meditation; hence he added the chorus lines of "Jai guru deva om" to the song, which can be translated from Sanskrit to "hail to the divine guru". The syllable "om" is used by monks during meditation and represents the cosmic noise of the universe. The true or ultimate meaning of the song, then, is left open for interpretation. The song seems to be about the mysteries behind artistic creation and the strange mix of cosmic and domestic forces that can influence such.

The refrain of "nothing's gonna change my world" complicates this idea, suggesting perhaps that even artistic creation will not change the social or domestic circumstances of the artist or, perhaps, that there is ultimately a fundamental and irreconcilable divide between the cosmic and domestic forces that influence the artist. The song, then, might offer us some insight into the frustration and anger building in Lennon's consciousness, frustrations, and anger that would come to full fruition in his later contributions to "The White Album".

For all of its relative musical simplicity, "Across the Universe" had quite a complex and convoluted production history. The first recording of the song, set against a variety of background bird sounds, was included on a benefit album for the World Wildlife Fund. Feeling uncertain as to how the song should be recorded or handled, the Beatles wrestled with it for some time. The first complete Beatles version was mixed by Phil Spector for inclusion on 1970's Abbey Road. Then, a stripped down "psychedelic" version of the song was recorded in 1968 and appeared on 1996's Anthology Two. Another minimalist version of the song can be found on 2003's Let It Be... Naked. -- James Fleming

17. She Loves You

It was the initial British Invasion blast that got American parents up in arms (and teens standing on their feet, screaming). Critics and TV commentators mocked the supposed songwriting team of Messrs. Lennon and McCartney for their less than artful, almost primitive application of the plaintive "yeah, yeah, yeah" as a lyric. Comedians got a lot of mileage out of those amiable exclamations of joy. It was also a simple love song that hinted at a lot more than some syrupy Moon/June sentiment.

From its rollicking call-response bass/drum byplay to the chiming guitar lines that mimic the melody, the Beatles introduced the world to the wonders of pure power pop -- and from that moment on, there was no looking back. While "I Want to Hold Your Hand" became their first Number One, this sensational celebration of youthful passion would be the initial volley in an aural assault where everyone, including the listener, was the winner. -- Bill Gibron

18. Here Comes the Sun

The "Get Back" sessions had been a false dawn of sorts. The tensions within the Beatles weren't going away and as the "White Album" had shown, each member of the band had begun to explore his own path anyway. Abbey Road was an attempt to go out strong as the Band had no delusions about where they were heading. This created a lot of bad feeling and some of that permeates the music of the album, which is at turns chaotic, experimental, cathartic, and, in the case of George Harrison's second most popular song, oddly hopeful.

Increasingly frustrated with the business side of the band, and feeling it was detracting from the music, George escaped to his friend Eric Clapton's house and wrote this shimmering beauty. The line is lovely and perfectly conveys the thaw so vital to the song's theme. Hopeful listeners at the time might have felt he was referring to the cold wars raging amongst band mates and that the sun was coming again to rescue those relationships -- but that didn't happen. Those skies remained forever overcast.

There's a wistfulness and preciousness to the song that has been derided in certain corners, but with its universal and direct metaphor (and some truly wonderful playing), "Here Comes the Sun" is the gem of Abbey Road. George was always seen as a dour songwriter and while some of his other songs may plod when they should soar, his emotional complexity always allowed for different shades and moods. This song is an aural sunrise, and is every bit as comforting, as soothing and as inspirational as the visual thing. -- Emmet O'Brien

19. Let It Be

Though they had an obvious counterculture following and did their share of drugs and rabble-rousing, there's another thread that runs through some of the most famous Beatles songs, one of surprising pragmatism, maybe even (for lack of a better word) conservatism. Not political conservatism, mind, but an understanding that rock and roll will not necessarily lead a life-changing revolution. In fact, "Revolution", mentioned above, warns against the dangers of extremism, while the lovely "Let It Be" goes even further with the sentiment of its up-tempo cousin: "you know it's gonna be all right" becomes, a few years later, "there will be an answer: let it be".

But it's not an anthem of indifference; rather, the song provides crucial comfort and the best kind of uplift: unforced and plainspoken. The simple sentiment keeps McCartney's occasional treacle in check and delivers the kind of emotional wallop he could summon at his best. There are a lot of versions of this song floating around, from anthology takes to a single edit with an earlier, slightly more muted guitar solo to the unadorned mix from Let It Be... Naked. The album version, with Harrison's guitar as a ringing, rousing counterpoint to McCartney's vocals, carries the most immediate power, but the song's weary inspiration transcends the different deliveries. -- Jesse Hassenger

20. Penny Lane

We're impacted greatly by our childhood environment -- the barrio, ghetto or tree-lined cul-de-sac -- we form our identities around these beginnings which we embrace or rise above. This summer I saw that Liverpuddlian suburban turnabout, Penny Lane, which inspired Sir Paul McCartney's famous ballad. This song is unforgettable, and even if you've never visited this industrial town you will visualize the jovial barber's face and gloat in the fireman's pride.

Believable, universal characters greet us within the first few measures -- staples of our community who keep us spiritually afloat day after day after day -- “and the banker never wears a mac in the pouring ran" -- even some idiosyncratic behaviours wander through the symmetry of the structure. "Then the fireman rushes in, from the pouring rain, very strange" -- McCartney brings humour and human irony to this steady, compassionate community. As the tale progresses, the melody's sparkly bright major stance subtly creeps into minor passages, evocative and yet always with a stately bounce. The piano background chugs along steadily (as working-class folks do?).

Throughout, McCartney's voice is warm with a tinge of sadness -- a French horn plays a slightly mournful, unforgettable, solo. “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes" and in my soul. -- Lisa Torem

21. Two of Us

By the time "Two of Us" came out, the Beatles were basically finished. There was so much discord within the group that both Lennon and McCartney claimed to have written it, though McCartney is typically assumed to be the primary songwriter. Pushed to the brink by pressure both financial and emotional and, yes, possibly by Yoko Ono, the Beatles could have taken Let It Be in so many different directions. They could have discarded it, could have over-worked it, and in some ways, they did both.

But now that the dust has settled and the hearts have healed, it's possible to look at "Two of Us" and see something remarkable. That the band decided on a number like "Two of Us" to open the album just reminded us how the world's biggest band got so big: defying expectations. "Two of Us" doesn't sound like a farewell. It's still so simple, so straightforward, almost sweet, nostalgic for a time that never really existed, a time of chasing paper, of "wearing raincoats in the sun". It's the perfect memorial for a writing partnership that became so much more -- a bond that outlasted drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll -- for a few years at least. If the Beatles couldn't make it, if they had to split (and it certainly seems like they did), then there are few more fitting elegies.

The revisions done by McCartney on Let It Be... Naked, unfortunate title aside, did a great deal to return the album to its back-to-basics concept. And that's perfectly fitting for "Two of Us", a song that always sounded its strongest at its simplest. With John and Paul playing only acoustic guitar, "Two of Us" sometimes sounds feather-light and insubstantial, as though it could simply float away. But its staying power is in knowing the men behind it, in realizing that the simple pleasures described within the song led them to this point. It was the highest they could ever reach, and it's no wonder that they had to fall.

While both Lennon and McCartney attributed the song's inspiration to their respective spouses, Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney, its warm-hearted depiction of a troubled but irrepressible youth sounds more like an ode to the friendship lost between the Lennon and McCartney themselves. It's so evocative in conjuring up that image of two boys, just starting out on a journey yet still "on our way home", that it seems almost impossible to see anyone else in their place. It's that slightly sad awareness of where "Two of Us" (and its creators) came from, and where they would go, that makes it so impossible to forget.

Of course, as is always the case with the Beatles, the music doesn't hurt either. Lennon and McCartney couldn't help but write a hook -- even at their most melancholy (and "Two of Us", despite its sepia-toned aura, certainly doesn't fall into that category), they knew how to keep your toe tapping. Some might ask for a more dramatic statement -- or any statement for that matter. But that's not what "Two of Us" is trying to do.

It's a moment captured, a memory that will last "longer than the road that stretches out ahead". Maybe it's in those twin vocals, just John and Paul again, but "Two of Us" is, even now, strangely affecting. And that closing chant, both wistful and hopeful, finished off with a gentle whistle, is the perfect testament to letting go. -- Emily Tartanella

22. I Want to Hold Your Hand

An epochal release, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was the Beatles' first number one hit in the United States, helping to break the band internationally, kicking off the British Invasion, and acting as one the first shots that announced the start of Beatlemania. For a song that was quite possibly the most important of the Beatles' career, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is a bit unassuming compared to the rest of the band's canon. There's nothing ambitious about the song structure, the lyrics are kind of dull, and the recording techniques of the day reduce the band to a tinny racket on record.

What made the song such a monumental hit in the first place, and what makes it worthy of praise as a piece of music nearly 50 years later? It's simple: the voices. In the group's early days, its three-part harmonies were the band's secret weapon honed to pop perfection. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" uses these harmonies to maximum effect, turning every line into an irresistible hook. There are scores of great vocal moments, from the way the band jumps up an octave to hit the word "hand" right before the chorus, to the ecstatic utterances of "I can't hide!" in the bridge.

The melodies are so strong the Beatles recorded a German-language version that also became a hit. It didn't matter what words the group sang, or in what tongue. What mattered was that the group delivered those words wrapped around melodies any singer would kill for, proving that great hooks have no political or language barriers. -- AJ Ramirez

23. For No One

Don't our darkest days magnify our desire to connect with other lost souls, to feel comfort in the kinship expressed by those who have experienced similar grief and powerlessness? It's a paradox that when we feel most vulnerable we want to hear melancholia -- odd that we don't want to hear "happy" stuff when we're "blue". Losing at love stimulates universal waves of emotions, and though many try, few artists can actually map out how love evaporates before our eyes.

"Your day breaks, your mind aches" is the devastating opening line. But it is the bridge which cuts most severely: "and in her eyes you see nothing/no sign of love behind the tears cried for no one/a love that should have lasted years." McCartney's voice is contemplative and full of yearning. The piano backing is slightly choppy and uneven -- like thick heartache pureed through a blender -- a string section enhances the upper register of Paul McCartney's sorrowful voice and a kind of clumsy, flailing French horn solo drives home the point that love has missed its mark yet again.

"Your day breaks, your mind aches, there will be times when all the things she said will fill your head, you won't forget her." I suppose the subliminal message here is grief plus time will heal? Romantic escapades don't come with how-to books. But, when sadness and disillusionment replace joy, "For No One" is astonishingly redemptive. -- Lisa Torem

24. The Ballad of John and Yoko

It's the familiar story of boy meets girl and the obstacles they must face along their way to happily-ever-after. Though not quite a fairy tale, "The Ballad of John and Yoko" follows the well-publicized courtship of a member of rock royalty and his polarizing muse. Their eccentric saga is complimented by a bright, lively melody and voluminous orchestration, recorded in a swift eight-hour session by Paul McCartney (on bass and drums) and John Lennon (on everything else) and suiting the scale of the adventure described.

Engagingly rhythmic, with emphasis on handclaps (actually Lennon slapping his acoustic and a lot of high-hat), the focus is as much on the strange romance being recounted as on the double-lead guitars that appear in glistening cameos throughout. Every so often, a bouncing piano sneaks in, almost as an afterthought; this is most pronounced in the Yoko-centric bridge, with it's "THINK!" conclusion illuminating their initial intellectual attraction.

Each piece plays its part well, like a rock 'n roll Peter & the Wolf, and the pace doesn't let up from the opening crash of harmony to the reverb-soaked exit riff. And though its "Christ, you know it ain't easy" chorus (and certainly the mention of crucifixion) made it another easy target for controversy-hungry critics worldwide, none could easily dispute its intrinsic charm, so reflective of the joyful newlyweds themselves. -- Carole Anne Wright

25. Blackbird

Tucked away in the depths of side two of the first disc of The Beatles (1968) is “Blackbird", a quiet, unassuming acoustic number that in truth ranks as one of the album's best songs. Like many tracks on “The White Album", “Blackbird" is a showcase for one Beatle instead of the entire group. In fact, Paul McCartney is the only band member to perform on the track at all, aided only by the gentle ticking of a metronome and the occasional bird chirps.

“Blackbird" serves not only as a great example of a lone Beatle carrying a performance on his own, it acts as a showcase for McCartney's playing ability. Unlike the archetypal McCartney acoustic ballad “Yesterday", “Blackbird" underplays McCartney's fine singing voice in deference to his instrument. Here, McCartney demonstrates his dexterity as a guitarist, combining melody, harmony, and rhythm parts by utilizing a blend of plucked double-stops and intermittent strumming. The fluidity of his playing is wonderful; not once does it feel like McCartney is simply outlining chord changes to support his words. Instead, his playing entwines with his singing, creating a beautiful ode of encouragement that's understated in its joy. -- AJ Ramirez

* * *

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on 12 November 2009.



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