What’s the best Beatles album? That’s like picking your favorite child. There are too many to name, and to choose one would be tantamount to treason. The Beatles have four — count ’em, four — albums in Rolling Stone‘s Top 10 Albums of All Time, and 10 in the Top 500. That’s tied with the Rolling Stones and second only to Bob Dylan.
So how does one choose from such jewels as Please Please Me, A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club?
Some people are Beatles purists, liking everything they’ve done from the first album all the way through Let It Be. Others prefer one Beatles over another — the one before they smoked pot with Bob Dylan (before Help!) and the one after they smoked pot. One can definitely sense a change in their songs; they became more mellow, more complex, with more obscure lyrics. I definitely prefer the stoned Beatles, especially after they discovered LSD (about the time of the Revolver sessions). Even Rolling Stone agrees, for three of the four Beatles albums in their Top 10 are in this era, and all four of their selections were ones after the Beatles smoked marijuana.
Enough about drugs. I focus my selection on the late Beatles recordings. From there you have, in order of recording, Revolver, Sergeant Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album, Yellow Submarine, Let It Be and Abbey Road. Let’s go through each album from worst to best:
Yellow Submarine is a soundtrack that was needed for a cartoon, and the four had to rush to get something together. There’s nothing really here except if you don’t have a copy of “All You Need Is Love.” “Hey Bulldog” has its moments, but the rest is thrown together, with George Martin providing almost all of the songs on Side 2. John Lennon later called Martin’s orchestral songs “all this terrible shit.” I’ve deleted them from my music library, and Yellow Submarine is now a mediocre EP.
By 1969, Paul was firmly in control of the band, and a mutiny was starting to occur. The Get Back sessions showed outright feuds between some of the members, and a camera crew was there to capture it all. As a result, Let it Be, their final release (not the final album recorded) sounds disjointed and phoned in. The production is terrible, made worse by Phil Spector’s orchestration on some tunes, and songs such as “Let It Be,” “The Long and Winding Road” and “Get Back” suffer. It sounds like a demo session — which is what it really was.
Some Beatle historians believe The Beatles (a.k.a. the White Album) would have been much better as single disc than a double album, and I agree. That way we could get rid of such trash as “Revolution 9,” “Wild Honey Pie,” “Piggies” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.” George finally brings it with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and Paul and John’s acoustic endeavors make it worthwhile. But the cracks are showing on this one.
Sergeant Pepper was ranked as Rolling Stone‘s Greatest Album of All Time, but it sounds the most dated. It’s the Beatles at their psychedelic peak, and it shows. It’s almost too eclectic, with circus music, more sitars, harps, and yes, even some filler. “A Day in the Life” ranks up there as one of the greatest Beatles tracks ever, as does “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but it’s brought down by George’s “Within You Without You,” “Fixing a Hole” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”
No, wait. Magical Mystery Tour is the Beatles at their psychedelic peak. Originally a six-song EP, the CD actually has the makings of a superb album, with “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” exemplifying their creative zenith. “I Am the Walrus” is about as weird as it gets for a Beatles song. Unfortunately, George still isn’t carrying his weight; “Flying” and “Blue Jay Way” are just awful, bringing the whole album down right in the middle of it.
Revolveris definitely a finalist — probably their second greatest album. From the opening biting guitar chords of “Taxman” to the sweeping orchestral touches of “Eleanor Rigby” and the psychedelic “Tomorrow Never Knows,” it’s almost perfect. “Here, There, and Everywhere” may be Paul McCartney’s most beautiful ballad. John Lennon’s at his poppiest with “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Doctor Robert.” The only blanks are George Harrison’s droning sitar on “Love You To” and Ringo Starr’s droning on the popular but childish “Yellow Submarine.” That brings it down a notch or two.
Abbey Road is a sweeping masterpiece. Everyone is on their “A” game: John’s spooky, acerbic “Come Together,” Paul’s plaintive screaming on “Oh! Darling!,” George’s perfect “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something,” and even Ringo’s “Octopus’ Garden.” The medley takes pieces of songs that they hadn’t finished and incorporates them into a fitting epilogue for the band, and Paul’s fitting “The End” is a perfect ending. I love this album.
You’ll gripe. You’ll complain. I expect you to. But that’s my top Beatles album of all time.