Obviously, the entire idea of picking the 10, 20, 50, or -- as Rolling Stone recently did -- 100 "best" Beatles songs is not simply an exercise in futility, it is as stupid as every other "top" list that has been generated by radio stations, TV stations, and magazines. Even if the primary criterion is not sheer "popularity" (as with many of these types of lists), there are still quite a number of factors to consider. Are we talking about historic importance? The influence a song had? Songwriting? Musicianship?
Giving some serious thought to this, I decided to do the "stupid" thing and compile my own top 50 list of Beatles songs, based on a variety (or combination) of these various criteria. However, rather than rank the songs (probably the stupidest aspect of creating this kind of stupid list), I provide them alphabetically, with my comments on why each was chosen.
That said, if I had to choose a single "greatest" Beatles song, it would be "All You Need Is Love." It not only has every element of a great Beatles song (writing, musicianship, harmonies, etc.), but it includes an orchestra and chorus. But perhaps the single most important aspect of the song is its message: it is the distillation of what "The Beatles" were about. In my opinion, there is simply no song that comes even close to its historic importance vis-a-vis The Beatles.
So, without any further ado, my list of the top 50 Beatles songs:
Unquestionably Lennon's best "late period" song. The combination of thoughtfulness, wistfulness and spirit (as well as the music and lyrics) make this a no-brainer. Stands alongside "Two of Us" as the best songs on Let It Be.
I would probably choose this as runner-up to "All You Need Is Love" as their second greatest song overall. (It was #1 on the Rolling Stone list.) If you don't understand the many reasons -- musical, lyrical, production, socio-cultural, etc. -- you can hardly be said to understand The Beatles.
In addition to my comments above, it pretty much defined the rock "anthem."
This one gets included both for its musicianship (ignore everything else and just listen to Lennon and Harrison!) and because it represented the segue between Rubber Soul and Revolver -- arguably the most important segue they would ever have.
Among their most underrated songs. Not only are the harmonies among the best they ever accomplished (if you have never heard the a cappella version of this song, you are missing something truly spine-tingling), the quasi-classical musical approach is wonderful, and the "mood" is all but unique in their canon. An astounding piece of writing.
From virtually every standpoint -- music, lyrics, effects, production, atmosphere, and sheer chutzpah -- this song may well belong in their top 10 greatest.
They really did, didn't they? Simply one of their best, most important and, arguably, most influential songs they ever wrote. A polished gem.
Huh?! I'm kidding, right? Nope. Unquestionably the single most underappreciated, misunderstood Beatles composition ever. Although "Yellow Submarine" preceded it, this is The Beatles' truest "children's" song. The songwriting and storytelling are deceptively brilliant, the change in tempo between the verses and chorus (and the inspired "all the children sing" used as the segue) is great, and more than any other song on the album you can tell that the group is having a great deal of fun. As an aside, the title has always been among their most clever. ("Continuing" from where?)
Simply among the most superbly constructed songs John ever wrote. And the guitar part is among the most copied of any of their songs.
What need be said? This broke as much ground as any song they ever wrote and produced. And the fact that the entire song is about death makes it all the more eerily brilliant.
Another dangerously underrated song, and possibly Paul's greatest ballad. Another great use of alternating time signatures.
Another sadly underrated Paul composition, second only to "Eleanor Rigby" in its superb use of classical elements and approach.
The most deceptively complicated song on Revolver, and tied with "She Said She Said" for best song on the album. Three different time signatures, amazing chord progressions, fabulous harmonies -- all done in what seems on its face a very simple way. And truly fun to listen to.
Perfect in every way, including (again) alternating time signatures, great lyrics, superb musicianship, and one of Harrison's most aggressive guitar performances. As well, the "raw" production really does give an "outdoor" feeling to it.
Along with "All You Need Is Love" and "A Day in the Life," the top three Beatles songs of all time. Again, if you don't know why, you simply don't "get" The Beatles and what they were about, or what they were doing or accomplished. This one simply hits it so far out of the park that they ran the bases twice! LOL.
Even without the film, this would probably make the list as one of their most representative early period songs. But add the film connection, and this becomes the very definition of Beatlemania.
That immediately recognizable opening "open strum" chord, John's vocal, the harmonies, the chord progression, the melody -- what's not to like? And it doesn't hurt that it is unarguably among the greatest movie themes ever written.
I was shocked not to see this on Rolling Stone’s list. If there were ever a historical, influential composition, this is it. The most aggressive (and wild) song they ever wrote, and its historic importance cannot be overstated.
Harrison's masterwork. The lazily shifting time signatures add panache to a song that already has everything in spades. If any single "George" song is going to make the list, this is the one.
Along with "All You Need Is Love," this helped define "anthem rock." And it doesn't hurt that it is among Paul's most inspired, catchy, and emotionally expressive songs.
This could be #4 or #5 overall. (Although "Strawberry Fields Forever" gives it a run for its money.) Very little prepared even Beatles fans for this lyrically esoteric, musically brilliant, and overall eerie/spooky production. Never duplicated -- or even approached -- by anyone. (Well, maybe Zappa...LOL.)
Although "She Loves You" preceded it (and was better and more "important"), historically, no list is complete without this. Their second American single, and their first to top the Billboard chart. After the success of "She Loves You," this absolutely cemented both their musicality and success -- and their appeal not simply to the screaming teenagers, but even to some of their parents.
Yikes! That opening series of key-defying chords, and the best two-part harmony ever written. Period. Doesn't need anything else.
I'm allowed one or two simply for fun. The piano part has always given me goose bumps, as has Paul's vocal. And the "ha ha ha"s are just plain great.
Yes, please do. Among Paul's best, and certainly among the best of their late period.
#5? #6? Simply defines the term "psychedelia." The best song on Pepper? Hmmm...here's an interesting thought. If Pepper "defined" psychedelia, and "Lucy" defines Pepper, and Pepper is their greatest, most important and influential album, then "Lucy" is, if not the "greatest" song they ever wrote, arguably the most important and/or historic.
This may be more "acid-ic" even than Lucy. Indeed, Lucy may say, "Hey, we take acid," but this one says, "Hey, come with us on one of our acid trips!" LOL. Those phased vocals, that middle eight, and of course the impossibly gorgeous production all help us do that.
Along with "Lady Madonna," my other "personal" choice. In addition to being beautifully constructed and performed, I have always felt that there is something really eerie about this superficially non-eerie song. (That eeriness was enhanced even further by how it was placed in the film: they were playing in an open field, for no audience, surrounded by tanks and military personnel!!!)
Dylan's influence, George's first sitar use, opaque lyrics, wonderful acoustic guitar -- all help make this a "signature" Lennon composition. And along with "Yesterday" and "Something," one of the most-covered Beatles songs.
Definitely a "bridge" song, it certainly offered many new elements in their songwriting, both musically and lyrically. (Wikipedia claims it to be their first song "not about romance or love" and John's first "philosophical" song.) Indeed, it is almost unbelievable that this was written and recorded while they were still a touring band!
The Beatles do hard blues -- and nail it in a way that only they could. Paul's voice is at its absolute strongest, Lennon's "sharp" rhythm guitar part is masterful, and that middle eight is simply spine-tingling. Truly one song that simply never gets old or boring.
Originally meant for Pepper (!), this superb piece of trippy esoteric existentialism was the best song on Yellow Submarine. (And George's other, "It's All Too Much," was second best.)
The jaunty nostalgia, interesting chord progression, Paul's delivery, and those infectious horns make this a perfect counterpart to John's "Strawberry Fields Forever." Never has there been such an extraordinary double-A-sided single.
No more fooling around. John gets serious with his politics -- and his fuzz guitar. As catchy as it is socio-politically astute (and brave); if "All You Need Is Love" is, as I posit, "what The Beatles are about," then "Revolution" is what John was going to be about from that point forward.
Like "Bungalow Bill," a dangerously underrated piece of writing and performance. With utterly brilliant storytelling (and Paul's wonderfully off-key opening line), The Beatles’ homage to the American West is done in metaphorical style. And if this is another "children's" song (like "Bungalow Bill" and "Ob-la-di Ob-la-da"), it is an awfully edgy one.
Although the reprise is actually edgier and more powerful, this thumping rock tribute to a fictional band is the ultimate come-on: "We'd like to take you home with us, we'd love to take you home." Given that the band had stopped performing over a year earlier, the irony of this sentiment could not have been lost on their fans. Simply one of the best straight-ahead rock songs ever written or produced.
Like "Yesterday" -- but even moreso -- the number of ways that this song broke ground musically and socio-culturally cannot be overstated. As much as any song before it (by Berry, Perkins, et al), it changed rock and roll forever. It was the song that lifted The Beatles way out of the league of the other British Invasion bands (of which there were at least a dozen), and it remains the best early-period Beatles song.
Although Rubber Soul had its quasi-trippy moments, Revolver cemented them. And as I noted in my review of Devin McKinney's Beatles book, it was the first album on which the lads started thinking, and writing, about death (no less than eight of the songs mention it). The opening line, "She said, I know what it's like to be dead," reflects this new obsession, and the obvious trippy quality of the lyrics and writing make it abundantly clear that the band was no longer "hiding" anything. As with Pepper and "Lucy," if Revolver defined their new image, "She Said She Said" defined Revolver.
I might even put this in a top ten. An astounding composition, with that harp, strings, superb harmonies, classical elements, etc. No list of truly important Beatles songs is complete without it.
Frank Sinatra covered it. What more need be said? And no, I'm not kidding. Along with "Here Comes the Sun," George's masterwork. Even Paul and John called it the best Beatle song of their later period. Oh, and many others covered it as well. (As an aside, you are probably aware that it also holds an interesting distinction: it is one of three #1 songs -- along with "Layla" and Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" -- that were all written about the same woman.)
Definitely top ten. This was the segue between Revolver and Pepper. (It was actually the first song recorded for the Pepper sessions.) This was a serious breakthrough for the Beatles, even given some of the stuff on Revolver. And nothing would ever be the same.
It took John over another year to openly express his politics ("Revolution"), but George got there first. And although Rubber Soul started the band writing things other than "love and romance" songs, Revolver virtually put the nail in the love song coffin. (There are only two love songs on the whole album.) It also shows George's growing "power" that both John and Paul agreed to open the album with this vicious anti-tax screed. Unquestionably George's greatest middle-period work.
An early example of something the Beatles would do at least a few times: alternating between minor and major in the verses (and/or using minor or major verses, and reverse choruses). And the best of them by far. Also the rhythm (and, indeed, entire "feel") change between the first part of the verse and the second. And then that fabulous ending on a major chord after going back to the minor. More radical than anyone caught at the time, and one of their truly great early period songs.
How this could be left off any list like this, I don't know. Unquestionably their best, most complicated early harmonies, and possibly their best-ever ballad.
This is the song for which one can say, "Here comes prog rock." True, there are no shifting time signatures, or even anything other than 4/4. But the overall sound and effect of this song was the most progressive thing that The Beatles had ever done, even given "She Said She Said" and "Good Day Sunshine."
Wistfully, many like to think this was John and Paul singing about themselves. No such luck. Still, it is a phenomenal piece of writing, standing proudly alongside "Across the Universe" as the two best songs on Let It Be, and the only two in which the entire band actually "feels" right.
What can be said? Although the Am-G-F-E progression had been used before ("White Room" comes to mind), George all but made it his own with this truly sensational composition and production. According to Rolling Stone, Clapton's presence had an amazing, positive effect on the band, at a time when there was growing tension. George Martin describes this as "the best, most cohesive recording the band made during these sessions."
Number 96? Out of 100? Out of a total of only 220 Beatles' songs? Rolling Stone must be kidding! If there was ever a groundbreaking and influential Beatles composition (in this case, of course, virtually solo Harrison), I'm not sure anything else even comes close. It can be argued that "Within You Without You" "made it safe" for everyone else to use not only sitar, but "non-standard" instruments, as well as to create compositions that were not strictly "Western" in structure.
The Beatles' first "children's" song (and deliberate sing-along) is simply brilliant. Indeed, every aspect of it is brilliant - from the composition itself, to the effects, to Ringo's perfect delivery, to some of the most deceptively difficult harmonies the group ever composed. Maybe not top ten, but darn close.
Saying anything here is redundant: the number of ways in which this song broke ground -- both for The Beatles and others -- is legion, and has been described by better writers than me.
So, if I HAD to do a Top 10:
Ian Alterman is a founding moderator of Progarchives.com, the number one progressive rock website in the world. He writes there under the name Maani. (Don't ask.)