In Yesterday, which opens Friday, all of the world has forgotten the Beatles and their songbook. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened here at The Ringer, so we decided to make a list of the band’s best hits.
Brian Phillips: I know, I know. Worst possible answer, right? “Hey Jude” might not be the least cool Beatles song—that would be “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” a song that makes “Octopus’s Garden” sound like Joy Division wrote it—but it might be the most affirmatively uncool Beatles song. Very Earnest I-V-IV piano chords plus cheer-up-sad-boy lyrics plus a singalong na-na chorus doesn’t exactly make for a groundbreaking pop object; it didn’t make for one even in 1968, when “Hey Jude” was released into a world that already had both “Strawberry Fields Forever” and The Velvet Underground & Nico in it. It’s ubiquitous, sure—nearly everyone alive has probably loved it, at least once and for a few minutes—but in a gigantic, crowd-pleasing, all-Paul vein that seems to foreclose, designedly, on the question of whether it’s any good.
And yet! Take a sad song and make it better. Listen to “Hey Jude” again and you’ll reconnect with all the reasons why you already half-know, deep down, that it’s the quintessential Beatles song. Like all great songs, it’s irresistible in a way that defies generic analysis. The type of song “Hey Jude” is might be schlocky and embarrassing, but “Hey Jude” itself, this precise combination of words and notes, is exquisite. What saves it is the mood—well, what really saves it is the fact that it has one of those melodies that seem to have existed in some deep cortex of the human brain since before time began and whose composers don’t originate so much as notice them. But also the mood. It’s so much sadder than you remember. Also more ambiguous. The song’s familiarly makes the melancholy hard to detect, maybe, but it’s in there: It’s that gentle, restless churn that you feel in the pit of your stomach. A kind of mournfulness, which the song keeps trying and failing to close around like a pearl. Most of the lyrics don’t add up to much, including the “movement you need is on your shoulder” line that John supposedly convinced Paul to keep because it sounded like Dylanesque poetry, but it’s worth noting that “Hey Jude” literally sounds like a sad song someone is trying to make better. Most piano power ballads don’t come anywhere near the depth or the uncertainty of that feeling. If they do, it’s as a cheap imitation.
The arc of the Beatles’ career was never exactly the way you remember it. The story is always something like: They went from bubblegum ’50s innocence to druggie hippie mysticism, and then flamed out, along with their whole generation. But the early stuff, if you listen with the period in mind, is always sexier and more violent than it should be. And the later stuff turns blown and sour and fame-jaded so fast. (I don’t mean in a bad way; my favorite Beatles period overall is the “Old Brown Shoe”/“The Ballad of John and Yoko”/“Get Back” phase when they’re showing up for work in puke-stained fur coats and not speaking to each other and everything they record sounds like it’s happening inside an aluminum can lodged in a rain gutter.) In between there’s this brief reaching for peace and love and understanding. Which they’re already half-cynical about even as they’re reaching for it.
That’s the sound of “Hey Jude” to me. It’s the sound of a band trying to find not innocence, and certainly not the faux-profound willed innocence in which they all dabbled then and later, but the kind of equilibrium that allows you to go on living in the world without denying to yourself what the world is like. In other words: “Hey Jude” is a song singing to itself, reminding itself what a song should do. Let the world under your skin. Let it into your heart. Don’t make it bad. Don’t make it colder. None of this will work, in the end—all the great pop songs know that pop songs never work—but what else can you do but try? Let it out and let it in. Begin.
“A Day in the Life”
Lindsay Zoladz: Let me direct your ears to one of the greatest studio outtake recordings ever: John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Beatles right-hand man Mal Evans are finishing up some Sgt. Pepper’s overdubs in late February ’67, trying simultaneously on three different pianos to hit The Chord. You know The Chord. It’s that bottomless, sonorous E-major struck at the end of “A Day in the Life,” and then left to ring out for a sublime 40 seconds. The Chord is legion. The Chord could give a dead man goosebumps. It feels both effortless and harmonically inevitable—the way it resolves the building orchestral dissonance that precedes it is quite simply one of the most cathartic moments in popular music—and yet what you realize, listening to these outtakes, is that it took them nine tries to get it right, to all hit their notes at the very same time. It’s easy to forget, listening to this song, but the Beatles were human after all.
The haunting coda to Sgt. Pepper’s isn’t a Lennon-McCartney song so much as a Lennon/McCartney song. On most of their best collaborations, the pair could achieve some kind of mind-meld, but it’s pretty clear here where John’s part ends and Paul’s begins—that strange, jaunty bridge atop which McCartney narrates, “Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…”
“A Day in the Life” is a drug song, make no mistake (the BBC banned it until 1972, assuming the lyric “I’d love to turn you on” was a Timothy Leary–esque call to arms) but Lennon and McCartney sound like they took two different substances. The song tries to do so many things in five and a half minutes that it’s a wonder it hangs together at all. But this song represents the moment that everything the Beatles did best came together in rich, glorious harmony—studio innovation, pop sensibility, and avant-garde ambition all struck at once and left to ring out like the most stirring chord imaginable.
“Strawberry Fields Forever”
Andrew Gruttadaro: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” written in 1966—the band’s Mustache Phase—is the Beatles’ yin and yang wrapped into just over four minutes. It’s nostalgic, as John Lennon sings about a place that reminds him of home and childhood, but also forward-thinking. It’s melodic, but also dissonant. It’s wistful, but also hopeful. It’s traditional, but also avant-garde. It’s gentle, but also a little angry. The song is everything the Beatles were in 1967 and everything they would go on to become. It’s the song that most represents who they were. And maybe most importantly, it’s the song that had so much reverse-playback that it inspired the band to make a Michel Gondry music video before Michel Gondry was even old enough to know how to spell “Strawberry Fields.”
Golden Slumbers” / “Carry That Weight” / “The End” (the Abbey Road medley)
Kate Knibbs: When I was little, my dad used to sing “Golden Slumbers” to me as a lullaby. I assumed it was something very old, like “Hush Little Baby” or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” When I was in elementary school, I heard the song on the radio show Breakfast With the Beatles and felt astounded—this ditty I’d thought of as a traditional standard, archetypical and belonging to everyone, was actually younger than my father, and a rock ballad. (It was, in fact, based on an old British “cradle song” that Paul McCartney knew as a child.) Choosing the “best” Beatles song is impossible, but Abbey Road’s finale medley—soothing and surprising, elegiac and hopeful—feels like a last, grand thesis statement from the band. It starts simple and childlike and builds to something much more sophisticated and unexpected, reprising the beginning of another song (“You Never Give Me Your Money”) in its middle and using a signature George Harrison guitar motif—and, most poignantly, all four Beatles singing in unison, something they rarely did. “The End” then shifts into ecstatic solos, as if to showcase the joy the group felt in finally breaking away from each other, before closing with one of its most-frequently quoted lyrics—which, yes, is trite and overused now, but it’s only trite and overused because, like so much The Beatles did, it feels fundamental, basic in the best way: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
“Let It Be”
Rob Harvilla: For the serenity of the piano intro. For the gentle disruption of the guitar solo. For the markedly less-gentle first blast of horns on the second chorus. But mostly for Paul McCartney’s delivery of “And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me,” my favorite collection of syllables in rock ’n’ roll history, serene in the most disruptive possible way, which is to say the line still makes my eyes well up, every time.
Jack McCluskey: When I was younger (so much younger than today), I didn’t realize how important the lyrics to “Help!” are. Written relatively early in the band’s superstardom as John Lennon’s natural response to being thrust into the spotlight in such an overwhelming way, the song is basically a cry for compassion, for openness, and for friendship. It’s also a capital-J jam, propulsive and catchy as can be. What a feat.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
Katie Baker: When George Harrison brought his “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” composition to his bandmates in 1968, they weren’t all that impressed. This wasn’t long after the Beatles had returned from their transcendental travels, and Harrison’s woo-woo inspiration—the song was influenced by The I Ching, he said—was wearing a little bit thin. Early attempts to record “WMGGW” were unenthused and uninspired. (Even later on, when Jann Wenner praised the song in Rolling Stone as one of Harrison’s “very best,” he called the lyrics “slightly self-righteous and preaching.”)
So you have to admire Harrison’s subsequent petty flex: He brought in Eric Clapton to play guitar on the track, forcing the rest of the Beatles to step up their game, and one of the all-time great “…and friends” songs was born. In 1987, Harrison and Clapton performed “WMGGW” with their lateighties hair and their rolled-up blazer sleeves and oh, just Phil Collins and Ringo Starr on the drums, no biggie. At the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, where Harrison was posthumously honored, Tom Petty sang and Steve Winwood strummed and Prince appeared from the shadows with a bone-chilling extended outro. It doesn’t get much more transcendental than that, I think.
Ben Lindbergh: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is my real favorite Beatles song, but Bakes beat me to it, so I’m taking the only Harrison song to be chosen as the A-side of a Beatles single, and the second-most-covered composition in the Beatles catalog. At his late-’60s/early-’70s peak, when he was churning out classics like “While My Guitar,” “Something,” and “Here Comes the Sun” and stockpiling material for what would become the solo triple album All Things Must Pass, George may have been the Beatles’ best songwriter, and “Something” is the best song on the band’s best album. A straight-up love song from a phase when those were a relative rarity for the disintegrating group, “Something” features elegant, deceptively simple lyrics, one of the band’s best guitar solos, and what may be the best combination of drums and bass in a Beatles song. Seriously, listen to just those two tracks—and then the nine-minute bootleg version in which George workshops a line that didn’t last: “Something in the way she moves / attracts me like a pomegranate.”
Julie Kliegman: “It’s gobbledygook,” John Lennon once said of Abbey Road’s opening track, which he wrote. The song, originally intended as a campaign anthem for a pro-psychedelics California gubernatorial candidate, includes such astute observations as “He wear no shoeshine, he got toe-jam football.” When the Beatles’ catalog finally hit Spotify on Christmas Eve 2015, “Come Together” was immediately the most streamed. It’s gobbledygook that’s catchy as hell. Shoot me.
“In My Life”
Shaker Samman: In my youth, I could have charitably been described as a nerd. I was slow, loved history, and my jump shot changed form each time I released the ball—something still true of my game today. The first rap song I heard probably came from a Kidz Bop album, and the first time I paid for a popular song on iTunes was when I snagged Lil Jon’s hit “Snap Yo Fingers” for a cool $0.99 because the girl I had a crush on in grade school told me it was her favorite. While everyone else was busy being “popular” or “interesting” or “invited to birthday parties,” I was at home, listening to the Beatles.
I say this not to elicit some sort of pity, but to acknowledge my lifelong awkwardness. The B-side of Revolver was my favorite set of Beatles tracks for a time. Then it was Help!. And eventually, Rubber Soul, and its breakout track, “In My Life.” Lennon once called the song his first real piece of work, as it meandered through a world of sentimentality and personal nostalgia he’d never before dealt with. The lyrics are haunting, and beautiful, and deeply human in a way very few of the Beatles’ preceding songs about love ever were:
But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these mem’ries lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
There are hundreds of tracks that wade through the murky water of lifelong emotion, but none match this. I know I often stop and think about this song. In my life, I love this more.