10 Jan 2019

We Can Work It Out: The best and worst of The Beatles

From Summer Times, 10:30 am on 10 January 2019

Now there's not much that's more subjective as taste in music. But is there a way to place an objective lens on the comparative merits of a band's efforts? 

RNZ Music's Nick Bollinger is on a writing sabbatical at the moment but he's snuck back in this morning to outline a manifesto of sorts about how to rank albums by The Beatles. 

We Can Work It Out: The best and worst of The Beatles

Which was the best Beatles album? Which was the worst? Nick Bollinger has devised a highly subjective method to work it out.

The Beatles

The Beatles Photo: screengrab

Now here’s something to argue about. What’s the best Beatles album?

I once came across a poll that ranked The Beatles’ studio albums from 1 to 13.

But the result didn’t seem quite right to me - at least it didn’t correspond with my tastes. So I did my own.

Admittedly my method was highly subjective. First I made a list of Beatles tracks that immediately sprung to my mind as essential: the songs I'd offer up if I were to argue a case for the Beatles as having created the greatest songbook of the past 50 years. (This came to 92, though anyone else’s list might have more, or less). Then I ranked those thirteen albums (compilations don't qualify) according to which had the greatest number of those essential tracks.

Simple. Though of course it turned out not to be.

For a start, many of the Beatles’ essential songs were only ever released as singles, not on those original 13 albums. To compensate for this, I grouped thirteen essential non-album tracks in a category of their own.

Then it struck it me that some tracks might be more ‘essential’ than others.

For example, I’ve always loved ‘Act Naturally’, Ringo’s Buck Owens cover from the Help! album. I think it captures the country element in The Beatles’ music better than anything they ever did. And yet I’d never argue that ‘Act Naturally’ has the imaginative genius of ‘I Am The Walrus’ or breathtaking beauty of ‘Blackbird’.

The Beatles, 1968

The Beatles, 1968 Photo: screengrab

Another problem was that several of the albums threw up exactly the same number of essential tracks. To compound my mathematical challenge, albums like The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) or Abbey Road have more tracks than any of the other albums, giving them an advantage by sheer numbers.

In an attempt to address these issues, I allocated myself twenty-two essential essential tracks, which you’ll find marked with an asterisk * in the lists below. These asterisked tracks are, in my scoring system, worth two un-asterisked tracks. (Why twenty-two, you may ask? Why not?)

Naturally all of this is based entirely on my personal preferences, of which you may learn something by studying the list. If your tastes run more to ‘When I’m 64’, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and ‘Octopus’s Garden’, then obviously your list will look quite different from mine.

And if you find it surprising that the albums Help! and Please Please Me rank higher by my criteria than Sgt. Pepper’s, well that surprised me too. But it turns out those albums have more of what I consider essential Beatles' songs than the sainted Pepper, and I'll stand by that.

I was also surprised how highly Magical Mystery Tour scored in my poll-of-one, given that it was not conceived as a proper album but rather cobbled together by Capitol Records from the soundtrack EP and the group’s 1967 singles. And yet it has so many of what I consider to be essential tracks.

If there’s one thing my system doesn’t address it is that what makes The Beatles’ albums great is not just the songs, but also the sequencing; the way they are constructed as albums. My system doesn’t acknowledge, for instance, how beautifully Abbey Road flows as a listening experience, irrespective of the quality of the individual songs; or conversely, how disjointed the Magical Mystery Tour album is in spite of the high quality of so many of the tracks.

Oh, well. Someone else can come up with a way to judge that.

So what have I overlooked? What have I overrated? Who cares? And where’s yours? Here’s mine.

 

The Beatles albums: from worst to best

Yellow Submarine

Yellow Submarine Photo: supplied

13. YELLOW SUBMARINE

Essential songs:

Only A Northern Song

Hey Bulldog

 

 

 

 

Let It Be

Let It Be Photo: supplied

12. LET IT BE

Essential songs:

Across The Universe*

Let It Be

 

 

 

 

 

With The Beatles

With The Beatles Photo: supplied

11. WITH THE BEATLES

Essential songs:

It Won’t Be Long

You Really Got A Hold On Me

All My Loving

All I’ve Got To Do

Money

 

 

Beatles For Sale

Beatles For Sale Photo: supplied

10. BEATLES FOR SALE

Essential songs:

I’m A Loser*

I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party

No Reply

Every Little Thing

Eight Days A Week

 

 

Rubber Soul

Rubber Soul Photo: supplied

9. RUBBER SOUL

Essential songs:

Norwegian Wood*

I’m Looking Through You

The Word

Drive My Car

Girl

In My Life

 

Abbey Road

Abbey Road Photo: supplied

8. ABBEY ROAD

Essential songs:

Something

Come Together

I Want You (She’s So Heavy)

Here Comes The Sun

O Darling

Because

You Never Give Me Your Money

 

 

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Photo: supplied

7. SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND

Essential songs:

With A Little Help From My Friends

A Day In The Life*

Within You Without You

She’s Leaving Home

Getting Better

Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite

 

 

Help!

Help! Photo: supplied

6. HELP

Essential songs:

Help!*

Yesterday*

You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away*

Ticket To Ride*

You’re Gonna Lose That Girl

I’ve Just Seen A Face

Act Naturally

 

 

Please Please Me

Please Please Me Photo: supplied

5. PLEASE PLEASE ME

Essential songs:

Please Please Me*

I Saw Here Standing There

There’s A Place

Love Me Do

Baby It’s You

Anna

Twist and Shout*

 

 

Magical Mystery Tour (NZ)

Magical Mystery Tour (NZ) Photo: supplied

4. MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR

Essential songs:

The Fool On The Hill

I Am The Walrus*

Penny Lane

Strawberry Fields Forever*

All You Need Is Love*

Baby You’re A Rich Man

 

 

A Hard Day's Night

A Hard Day's Night Photo: supplied

3. A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

Essential songs:

A Hard Day’s Night*

Things We Said Today

I’ll Be Back

If I Fell

I Should Have Known Better*

Can’t Buy Me Love

Any Time At All

And I Love Her

 

 

The Beatles

The Beatles Photo: supplied

2. THE BEATLES

Essential songs:

Dear Prudence

Happiness Is A Warm Gun

While My Guitar Gently Weeps*

Blackbird

Yer Blues

Long Long Long

Revolution #1

Revolution #9

Sexy Sadie

Mother Nature’s Son

 

 

Revolver

Revolver Photo: supplied

1. REVOLVER

Essential songs:

Taxman

Eleanor Rigby

I’m Only Sleeping

Love You To

Here There & Everywhere

She Said She Said*

And Your Bird Can Sing

For No One*

Tomorrow Never Knows*

 

 

NON-ALBUM ESSENTIALS

(Funnily, if you were to find all of these on one album it would beat all the others, hands down.)

 

Hey Jude*

Revolution*

She Loves You*

I Want To Hold Your Hand

This Boy

We Can Work It Out*

Day Tripper

I Feel Fine

Paperback Writer

Rain

The Inner Light

Old Brown Shoe

You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)

 

* denotes an essential essential song