My Top Five, Desert Island Beatles Albums
The impossible task of picking up an all-time favorite
When it comes to asking Beatles fans to pick their all-time favorite Beatles album you’d probably have better luck asking them to pick a favorite child. In the barely eight years that those four Liverpool lads were together, they churned out one incredible album after another at rapid-fire speed, albums which continue to inspire and enthrall music fans of all ages. In moments of quiet introspection, I’ve often wondered which Beatles album is my favorite and as I imagine to be true with other Beatles fans, the answer usually involves the same three albums stuck in constant rotation for top billing. Because of this dilemma, I’ve decided to just list my top five favorite Beatles albums and attempt to highlight the myriad attributes which make these five so special even among a musical canon as extraordinary as the Beatles.
5. The White Album (a.k.a. The Beatles)
For me, the White Album represents the Beatles at a creative crossroad. On the one hand, it contains some of the group’s most radically diverse and iconic songs like “Back in the USSR”, “Glass Onion”, “Blackbird”, “Helter Skelter” and of course George’s amazing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. The insane variety of songs and musical styles shows a band wildly pushing their already far out boundaries even further and I admire the ballsy risk-taking, resulting in an album that’s an even more experimental departure from the carefully constructed experimentation of their two previous psychedelic albums. However, the argument can — and has been — made that this album is a good double album that perhaps could’ve been trimmed down into a fantastic single album. Much as I enjoy the album, I could’ve done without songs such as “Wild Honey Pie”, “Rocky Raccoon” and John’s crazy assemblage of noises on “Revolution 9”. Also, the White Album shows the first signs of the group’s bitter fracturing and eventual dissolution, and therefore there’s a lot more individual pieces on the album and as good as the individual parts can be, the Beatles were always greater than the sum of their parts.
4. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band
Even today, fifty years after its June 1967 release, Sgt. Pepper is still the concept album heard round the world and for many the quintessential 60’s psychedelic album, both capturing and reverberating with the flower power vibes of that Summer of Love. Listening to the music, it’s not hard to see why; from the scathing opening guitar riffs of the title track, the dreamy, kaleidoscopic swirl of sounds and carnivalesque effects of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and straight through to the orgasmic crescendo of sound and the everlasting piano chord that ends the epic closer “A Day in the Life”, Pepper exploded like a bright, dayglo grenade of psychedelic power. The two previous albums had seen the boys incorporate instruments like Sitar into their songs and experiment with tape loops and backwards guitar effects, but even after the psychedelic double punch of “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” in early ’67, no one knew what the Beatles would deliver next and Sgt. Pepper was the definitive clarion call to the flower power counterculture. Using just about every tool they’d acquired in their crazy musical toolbox up to that point, the Beatles crafted a musical experience that whisked the listener away on a splendid voyage of surreal sights and sounds, through so many musical landscapes. Even if the “concept” of Pepper collapses after the second song, fifty-two years later, a splendid time is still guaranteed for all!
3. Rubber Soul
Rubber Soul is one of the three Beatles albums stuck in perpetual rotation for the coveted spot of my favorite Beatles album. Every time I listen to it, I feel it’s my all-time favorite until I remember the two still to come on this list. However, Rubber Soul will forever remain within my top three favorite Beatles records. Released in 1965, Rubber Soul represents a decisive light speed leap forward in the creative growth and maturation of this band. Prior to Rubber Soul, Beatles albums, while containing countless classic songs, were essentially built around a collection of singles. Rubber Soul was the first true Beatles masterpiece, a flawless work of art from start to finish where each track was absolutely crucial, at once standing on its own and yet also elevating and informing each additional track, leading to an album as an entity unto itself with a distinct atmosphere and feel. Each track seems to perfectly give way to the next no matter how distinct, and distinct they are, from the sitar tinged sound of “Norwegian Wood” (the first pop song to feature sitar), the stellar three-part harmonies and innovative guitar work of “Nowhere Man” and the perfect trifecta of “Girl”, “I’m Looking Through You”, and the beautiful “In My Life”. The album was a tremendous leap forward for a band that had previously been thought of as just a pop group. In addition to experimenting with new instruments and effects, the group grew bolder in the studio, trying new recording techniques to enrich the sound. Likewise, their lyrics had grown more introspective and poetic, reflecting the mind-expanding effect of drugs on the band, particularly weed. Rubber Soul marked a critical moment in the growth of the Beatles, the moment they went from lovable pop stars to artists just beginning to explore the frontiers of their boundless creativity.
2. Abbey Road
Abbey Road is another album which shifts back and forth between the #1 slot. Whenever I listen to it, especially the incredible medley which ends the album, I always feel it’s my favorite. Although released before the band’s official last album, the melancholy Let it Be, Abbey Road is technically the last album the band recorded before they broke up and shows the band at their collective best, letting them go out on top with a proper and perfect farewell. Abbey Road proves beyond a doubt that even when they were at each other’s throats, they could still come together (sorry), and turn out an absolute gem of a record. Each Beatle shines throughout the album’s seventeen tracks (as on John’s stellar opener, “Come Together”, Paul’s amazingly soulful “Oh! Darling”, Ringo’s catchy “Octopus’s Garden” and of course two of George’s (if not the Beatles’) most beloved songs, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” The magic continues with the breathtaking three-part harmonies on the achingly beautiful “Because” which is followed by the awesome “You Never Give Me Your Money”, beginning the absolutely flawless medley where each song perfectly rolls into the next in an increasingly spectacular musical feast. As the album cascades towards its inevitable conclusion, we get the perfect trifecta of “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight” and “The End”, featuring Ringo’s one and only drum solo followed by John, Paul and George trading off slashing guitar solos back to back until there’re just piano and three beautiful voices singing “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”, the perfect sign off for the world’s greatest rock band.
Before I reveal my #1 Beatles album of all time, here are a few honorable mentions which would’ve been included if the list went past five.
Magical Mystery Tour: The second of the psychedelic one-two punch that began with Pepper, this album is included because it contains perhaps John’s craziest psychedelic song, “I am the Walrus”,and the gems “Strawberry Fields”, “Penny Lane”, and “All You Need is Love”, an anthem of the flower power movement. While not as strong as Pepper as a whole, this album is still pretty great.
Let it Be: Although the making of Let it Be was fraught with animosity and sadness, the album does contain several of their most cherished songs, including the powerful title track, John’s “Across the Universe”, “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “Two of Us”, and the classic “Get Back”, proving once more that even at their worst they could still bring the goods.
A Hard Day’s Night/Help!: I’m grouping the first two Beatles film soundtracks because they both deserve a shout out, but I also want to save some space. A Hard Day’s Night is notable for being the first Beatles album of all original songs with classics like the stellar title track, “Can’t Buy Me Love” and beautiful gems like “And I Love Her”, and “If I Fell”. Likewise, Help! also contains an amazing title track and many classics like “Ticket to Ride”, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “You’re Gonna Lose that Girl” and of course “Yesterday”, hinting at the group’s deepening songwriting maturity and musical creativity.
And now, without further ado, I present my all-time favorite Beatles album…#1 with a bullet…
With 1965’s Rubber Soul, the Beatles took a cosmic leap forward both creatively and musically and if Rubber Soul was a leap from Earth to the Moon, then 1966’s Revolver was a leap from the moon to Neptune and represents the Beatles at the absolute zenith of their daring creativity and experimentation. Whereas Rubber Soul changed the musical rule book for all time, on Revolver they simply tossed the rule book out the window and tried whatever styles, sounds, and effects they wanted. For any other band, this might’ve led to a musical mess, but in the hands of the Beatles the result was this stunning masterpiece, a brilliant musical collage of peak sixties surrealism as in the backwards guitar effects and wild tape loops of the fantastically dreamy “I’m Only Sleeping” and the mind-blowing closer “Tomorrow Never Knows”, with lyrics pulled from the Tibetan book of the Dead of all places. Not bad for a band that only two years earlier was singing “Yea, Yea, Yea!” and shaking their shaggy heads. Included in the mix are Paul’s haunting “Eleanor Rigby”, his beautiful ballad, “Here, There and Everywhere” and the equally great “For No One”. As if that wasn’t enough, kicking off the album is one of George’s all-time bests, the slashing rocker “Taxman”, perhaps the best album opener of any Beatles album. We get two more George greats before the album ends, including “Love You too”, featuring all Indian instruments, proof that George had come a hell of a long way since “Norwegian Wood.” The consciousness-expanding influence of LSD on the band blatantly shines through on tracks such as “She Said, She Said” and “Doctor Robert”, in addition to those already mentioned. Of course, the album has it’s lighter moments to perfectly balance the heavier tone and nowhere is this more apparent than in “Yellow Submarine”, the irresistibly whimsical sea shanty sung by Ringo. Again, in the hands of another band, this could’ve come off as a random joke song, but it somehow fits in perfectly with the seemingly random cohesion of this brilliantly far out masterpiece, perhaps the strongest proof of the enduring genius of this magic, once in a lifetime band.
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