What can be said about The Beatles that hasn’t already been said? Probably nothing, but I'm going to try anyway, focusing exclusively on their music rather than the many myths surrounding the band (this is a record review site, after all). Simply put, The Beatles changed everything, and I mean everything, about popular music and pop culture, and rock n’ roll as we know it today would be completely different without the band's tremendous impact and influence on everybody else. Largely recorded in a single day, Please Please Me, the Beatles’ first album (note: this page only contains reviews of the band's U.K. albums, not their bastardized U.S. counterparts, though I do have a fondness for some of them such as The Beatles’ Second Album which I grew up with), was a revelation upon its release, and its best songs still stand tall today. It’s a simple, stripped down affair that features eight John Lennon/Paul McCartney originals and six cover songs. Aside from their rowdy remake of “Twist And Shout,” an Isley Brothers song that they forever made their own, the cover songs are all inferior to their own compositions, though their strong singing (particularly Lennon’s) lifted Arthur Alexander’s “Anna (Go To Him)” and The Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You” above the ordinary. The band also tackled Goffin/King's "Chains," which is solid but nothing special, and "Boys," another song popularized by The Shirelles (The Beatles were big fans) and which is here given a doo woppy bent, with drummer Ringo Starr handling lead vocal honors. Meanwhile, a simple melodicism marked their own romantic compositions such as “P.S. I Love You” (a Latin-tinged number that's clearly primarily a Paul composition) and “Do You Want To Know A Secret” (which Lennon wrote but let lead guitarist George Harrison sing, and which was a #2 U.K. hit for Billy J. Kramer), while “Please Please Me” and “Love Me Do” were early classics (particularly the former) that were helped by unforgettable harmonica hooks and the band’s great vocal harmonies. Paul McCartney’s “I Saw Her Standing There” is another standout rocker that showed off the band's love of raucous r&b, while “There’s A Place” is an underrated album track due to its thoughtful lyrics and more superlative harmonies (elsewhere, “A Taste of Honey,” another cover, and their own remaining originals, "Misery" and "Ask Me Why," are also enjoyable but are hardly what I consider standouts). This album saw The Beatles at their most basic, showcasing terrific singing, catchy melodies, and sparse but effective instrumentation. More than anything, this debut had an unbridled energy and enthusiasm going for it, as The Beatles (who were then relative unknowns) were just playing their own simple songs and trying to make a name for themselves. That they did (to put it mildly), and Please Please Me became the first shot fired in what would become a full-fledged British Invasion. Rock n’ roll would never be the same again.
With The Beatles (Capitol ‘63) Rating: A-
The stark cover photo meant to convey the increased seriousness of the band, and indeed With The Beatles is a slight step forward in terms of sophistication from Please Please Me. This is partially because the album was recorded in three months rather than (mostly) in a single day, and Martin often double tracks the band's vocals to achieve a slightly more robust, richer overall sound. Again consisting of eight originals and six covers (three of them Motown songs, lest you had any doubt about that label's massive influence on '60s music), the album peaks immediately with four strong originals. "It Won't Be Long" is a fine example of the band's simple but effective early sound, which was all about energy, excellent vocals (including those peerless harmonies), and catchy melodies. "All I've Got To Do" continues with an appealingly moody, mellower pop rocker, but the band really hits paydirt on McCartney's "All My Loving," what with its wonderful melody, impeccable vocal, and some lovely ringing guitar from George. Speaking of Harrison, he composes his first song for the band with "Don't Bother Me," and it's actually quite good, a forgotten gem of sorts in fact. Less impressive but still fun is "Little Child," a short fast-paced piece that has cute harmonica riffs and catchy harmonies going for it. Next comes three covers in a row. "Till There Was You," a Latin-tinged pop ballad taken from the Broadway musical The Music Man and sung prettily by Paul, is an early example of the type of schmaltzy ballad material that McCartney would soon master. And I've always loved their cover of The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman," mostly because of the band's wonderful harmonies, but the Chuck Berry cover ("Roll Over Beethoven") lacks energy and seems perfunctory, in part because George sings it instead of Lennon, who would've been the wiser choice. The best of the rest of the album includes a pair of contrasting Motown covers (a slow, passionate update of the Smokey Robinson ballad "You Really Got A Hold On Me" and an energetic, rambunctious reading of Barrett Strong's "Money"), the down tempo "Devil In Her Heart," (previously done by the Donays), on which the band's vocals could melt butter, and "Not A Second Time," a catchy, melodic, melancholic mid-tempo Lennon composition. The fast and fun "I Wanna Be Your Man" (written for and previously recorded by The Rolling Stones) is notable for being another in what would become a slow but steady diet of lightweight "Ringo songs," and even on a lesser track such as "Hold Me Tight," another girl group inspired number, the band is well worth listening to. Short of (and maybe even including) singing the phone book that's always been the case, and though With The Beatles is short on truly classic material (it would've helped had superlative early singles such as "She Loves You" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" been included), it was an impressive second step towards even greater things.
A Hard Days Night (Capitol ‘64) Rating: A
By now The Beatles had conquered America, with their triumphant appearance on The Ed Sullivan show and "Beatlemania" running rampant. In fact, in April 1964 the band occupied the top 5 slots on the U.S. singles charts, a display of dominance that's likely never to be repeated. This was the first Beatles album composed entirely by the band, and track for track it remains the finest early Beatles album. An amazing feat, really, considering that the band totally rushed to put these 13 songs together as the soundtrack album to their movie (a classic in its own right) of the same name. For the first and last time, every song here, almost all of which have received radio airplay over the years, was penned by Lennon or McCartney (or both). Though in reality his songwriting contributions were few (despite joint credit on all compositions, as per usual), McCartney’s songs shined brightly, including the lovely “And I Love Her,” which featured some beautifully plucked Spanish guitar and Ringo on bongos, the haunting “Things We Said Today,” and the energetic rocker “Can’t Buy Me Love,” which also provided words to live by (it’s the antithesis of “Money,” basically). But this album was mostly Lennon's triumph, and his songwriting sparkles on the instantly recognizable, classic title track (though Paul sings the best part on the chorus, showing how he often shined in that role even on so-called “John songs”) and the gorgeous ballad “If I Fell," which features wonderful harmony singing. In fact, this whole album is a treat for those of you who (like me) love their harmonies; "I'll Be Back" is another sterling example even if the song on the whole isn’t a highlight. Granted, the album lacks their later sophistication, but such was Lennon's talent in 1964 that he could take even routine rockers such as “I Should Have Known Better” and “Tell Me Why” and turn them into irresistibly catchy gems (actually I adore the former song due to its hooky harmonica, great vocals, and short but sweet guitar solo), while “Any Time At All” and “You Can’t Do That” rocked with a fierceness that McCartney's songs largely lacked. Which is why they were the greatest songwriting team of all-time (plus they were both adept at adding to or enhancing songs started by or primarily written by the other), and though the album at times betrays the trying conditions under which it was recorded, even comparatively weaker entries such as “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You,” "I'll Cry Instead," and "When I Get Home" (the latter probably my least favorite song here) are enjoyable. After all, the performances are all ace for the most part (though George's lead vocal is a tad faceless on “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You”), and any complaints, such as the fact that "Any Time At All" is similar but inferior to "It Won't Be Long," are minor amid the high overall quality of the songs. Simply put, having an entire album of self-composed songs was unheard of for a rock group in 1964, and all the songs are good (no mediocre covers this time) and quite a few are great, making A Hard Day's Night the best pop rock album ever released to date.
Beatles For Sale (Capitol ‘64) Rating: B+
The band was contractually obligated to release two albums per year, and their absurdly prolific work rate and the pressures of Beatlemania took its toll this time. Given that the band were short on self-penned material, the covers are back this time, but most of them are by-the-numbers interpretations of songs by early rockers such as Buddy Holly ("Words Of Love"), Carl Perkins ("Honey Don't," "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby"), and Roy Lee Johnson ("Mr. Moonlight"). Only the Leiber and Stoller/Little Richard ("Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey Hey") and Chuck Berry covers ("Rock and Roll Music") are inspired, and the band's original material is likewise a slight notch below their usual high standards, though of course there are a fair amount of impressive songs, several of which could be classified as "overlooked gems." For example, "I'll Follow The Sun" is a short, pretty Paul vehicle, "Every Little Thing" is another melodic McCartney marvel (though Lennon sings lead) that was later improbably covered by Yes, and "What You're Doing" is another catchy Paul cut whose jangly guitars likely influenced The Byrds. Whereas Paul's songs were optimistic and not all that stylistically different from what had come before, Lennon's songs are far more serious, introspective, and pessimistic than previously, in large part due to his recent discovery of Bob Dylan. For example, "No Reply" moodily begins the album with memorably heartbroken lyrics and a dramatic John vocal (to paraphrase what music publisher Dick James said to John: “that’s the first complete story you’ve written, the first song that resolves itself”), while Lennon's self-loathing "I'm A Loser" likewise showcased his increasingly mature, self-reflective lyrical style. Elsewhere, "Baby's In Black" is a solidly bluesy, sullen co-composition, while "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" is another winner that showed off Lennon's increasingly dark and personal self-lacerating lyrics along with a nice melody and more marvelous harmony singing. The album's best known song is "Eight Days A Week," a catchy harmony-laden sing along that's also notable for its phased in intro and chiming guitars, but truth be told, fine though many of these songs are, that's the only one that would definitely make my "Best Of The Beatles" mix tape (or playlist in this iPod era). So, the lads from Liverpool were human after all, but such was their talent that even this comparatively weak album is still plenty good, it's just not quite as good as the rest of their (mostly great) catalogue.
Help! (Capitol ‘65) Rating: A-
Written and recorded as the soundtrack to the band’s much less inspired second film, Help! has more filler than one usually expects from The Beatles, though about half of the album is fantastic and it's superior to Beatles For Sale on the whole. Filler-ish tracks include an obligatory Ringo vocal (“Act Naturally”), a rather anonymous Harrison song ("You Like Me Too Much"), and “It’s Only Love,” which simply isn't up to Lennon's usual high standards. Elsewhere, McCartney adds a couple of good but not great songs in "Another Girl" and "Tell Me What You See," as well as the fast-paced, sparse, country-ish "I've Just Seen A Face," which is damn good if not quite classic, as is Harrison's “I Need You.” Now to the great stuff, and the best songs here are truly timeless, particularly the desperate, hauntingly personal pop of Lennon’s tortured title track, the chiming “Ticket To Ride,” and “Yesterday,” the standard of all Beatles standards (it’s been covered countless times and recently won an admittedly dubious Rolling Stone critic poll as the greatest pop song of all-time). Framed around an acoustic guitar, a string quartet, and Paul’s crystal clear voice, “Yesterday” is both beautiful and sad beyond words, and more than any song here it points to the great leap forward the band would take on Rubber Soul. “Yesterday” proved that McCartney could go beyond brilliant ear candy to produce music of lasting importance, while his more modest “The Night Before” was another melodic marvel performed as only The Beatles could. For his part, the r&b/'50s doo-wop-based “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” proved that John could also write an irresistibly catchy pop song, while on “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” (about gay manager Brian Epstein’s crush on him) Lennon reversed Bob Dylan by going folk just as Dylan was going electric. Finally, the raw, raucous rock n’ roll of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” the last cover song the band would ever record, exuberantly closed the first phase of The Beatles career. The band then embarked on a string of albums that are still startling.
Rubber Soul (Capitol ‘65) Rating: A+
A significant step up in class, Rubber Soul was easily The Beatles most mature and complete album statement to date. This is largely due to the fact that this was their first album that was thought of as being its own self-contained world rather than being merely a collection of various unrelated songs. Experimenting to a then unprecedented degree (for a pop group, anyway) and occasionally using uncommon instruments, such as the exotic sitar on the wonderful “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” the influence of Bob Dylan has also helped The Beatles dig deeper lyrically than the innocent “boy likes girl” concerns that had characterized many of their earlier songs. As usual, almost everything they try works, because they were simply peerless songwriters and singers who had the energy and charisma to match. The rocking “Drive My Car” starts things off with a satisfying Paul rocker best known for its memorably cheesy “beep beep beep beep yeahs,” but overall Rubber Soul shows a mellower, more reflective and folksier side to The Beatles. McCartney’s excellent “You Won’t See Me” is a prime example of the band’s chemistry that includes delicious “la la la” harmonies, a facet of the band’s arsenal that's reprised for Lennon’s lonely but lovely classic “Nowhere Man,” as this album is another superb showcase for the band's terrific harmonies. “Think For Yourself” is merely a good Harrison song notable for its innovative fuzz bass, but the Byrdsy “If I Needed Someone” was a giant leap up in class that announced Harrison's emergence as a songwriter of major potential. Elsewhere, “The Word” is simple but effective (flower power, baby!), "What Goes On" an obligatory Ringo (country) song that's quite pleasant for a filler track (as was “Act Naturally,” actually), and “I’m Looking Through You” delivers a strong melody and Paul lead vocal, as well as confessional lyrics alongside some stinging lead guitar from Harrison, whose guitar playing throughout the sessions rarely satisfied Paul, as the first cracks in the band's armor were beginning to show. Anyway, George also props up the insubstantial but enjoyable finale “Run For Your Life,” another primitive rocker that harks back to their earlier days, while "Wait" is quite singable if often overlooked; I for one love its dual lead vocals. As for the other highlights, McCartney’s lovely “Michelle” was an instant standard that's essential if only for Paul's wonderful bass playing, and Lennon himself regarded his (* see Note) contemplative “In My Life” as his first major work; his sitar-enhanced “Girl” was a breathy ballad that likewise presented acoustic folk of the highest possible standard. Even taking into account the few lesser tracks, all of which are still eminently listenable, it’s not an understatement to suggest that with this thoughtfully planned artistic statement (along with Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited released earlier that year) rock n’ roll as a genre grew by leaps and bounds, and it greatly influenced artists such as The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, who desperately sought to keep pace. Wilson’s own resultant masterpiece, Pet Sounds, would catch the eye of Paul and in turn inspire Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Note: "In My Life" is one of two songs, the other being "Eleanor Rigby," where Paul and John strongly disagree on who wrote what; Paul insists that he wrote the music, John disagrees, though both agree that the lyrics are Lennon's. Also, on a personal note, one of the most moving funerals that I ever attended was when a pair of guys broke out acoustic guitars and started singing this song in tribute to their fallen friend; there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
Revolver (Capitol ‘66) Rating: A+
One of the Beatles strangest and most beloved albums, Revolver was the natural outgrowth of The Beatles digesting a number of outside influences. In particular, the band’s fascination with Eastern mysticism and copious intakes of acid resulted in psychedelic experiments that made it clear that The Beatles were not merely the loveable mop tops they were previously perceived as being. In addition, producer and de-facto fifth Beatles George Martin proves himself invaluable, as the band used the studio to a then unprecedented degree, using tape loops, instruments played backwards - basically doing whatever it took get the sounds that they sought. This is most famously done on the psychedelic classic “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which is more a brilliant collage of sounds than a song proper. Revolver has its own distinct flavor, and it proved that, when properly conceived, albums could be greater than the sum of their parts. That said, Revolver contains some spectacular parts! George Harrison takes on an increased role by penning the catchy, clever rocker “Taxman” (that’s Paul who plays the impressive guitar solo, though), the strange sitar-led droner “Love You To,” and the propulsive piano pop of “I Want To Tell You,” while Ringo gets one of his most memorable showcases in “Yellow Submarine,” a slight but catchy children's song that more than anything is a George Martin tour de force. For his part, Lennon’s acid visions dominate the lazily magical “I’m Only Sleeping,” whose hypnotic effects came from a guitar played backwards. Speaking of guitars, they sound absolutely fantastic on “She Said She Said” and “And Your Bird Can Sing," two more terrific Lennon penned tracks, though his repetitive riff rocker “Doctor Robert” (about a real life drug doctor) pales amid such stellar company. Still, fine though John and George's contributions are on the whole, the best songs here bear the distinct Paul McCartney stamp. Remember, Paul and George were a bit younger than John so it took them awhile to catch up, but whereas John was clearly the band's early leader, by this point Paul was at least his equal. Anyway, Paul delivers the lonely, strings-laden “Eleanor Rigby,” an almost classical sounding classic, while the propulsive horn push of “Got To Get You Into My Life” showed off McCartney’s ever-increasing mastery of pop ornaments. Following a more straightforward path, Paul also penned the feel-good pop of “Good Day Sunshine” and the superb ballad “For No One,” while “Here, There and Everywhere” is simply one of the prettiest songs ever. The band had so much fun messing around in the studio on this one that they then stopped touring altogether, believing that this was where their future lie. One can hardly argue with the decision's results, as it gave The Beatles the time to really push the envelope on subsequent recordings, resulting in the kind of “anything goes” mentality that punk would later embrace (however briefly). Revolver is unlike anything else in the rock spectrum and is arguably the band’s most rewarding recording, having in recent years supplanted Sgt. Pepper's as the album of choice by winning several “best albums of all-time” critic polls. If you don't like Revolver, then you probably don't like rock music. Note: Although Lennon has claimed to have written a fair amount of the lyrics to "Eleanor Rigby," Paul disagrees and most people who were there seem to back up his version of events.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol ‘67) Rating: A+
This has often been called the greatest rock album of all time, and for many years I found it lacking, failing to live up to the grandiose expectations I had set for it in my head. Truth is, song-for-song I still find it inferior to its two predecessors, Rubber Soul and Revolver, but then again Sgt. Pepper's is less about actual songs and more about layered sounds and an overall presentation. Don't get me wrong, the songs are really good, sometimes great, and the album's flowery good vibes, though dated at times, always invariably lifts my spirits. So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that this album is great but it's also flawed and you therefore should have tempered expectations when approaching it. Anyway, more than any other Beatles album, with the possible exception of Abbey Road, this one belongs to Paul McCartney, who came up with the loose album concept and wrote the majority of the songs, and George Martin, who took production work to a whole new level here (with help from engineer Geoff Emerick and others). The production was busier, more exotic, and more flat-out creative than any other rock oriented outing to date, and the (at times pretentious) orchestral arrangements, brassy horn punctuations, and weird experiments were arguably this album’s primary contributions to the rock n’ roll cause. Of course, this was also rock’s first concept album, and the thematic unity of an album of shared concepts (synopsis: Sgt. Pepper's were a fictional band, ostensibly The Beatles' alter egos, and the album is presented as a concert by said alternative band) proved highly influential and was slavishly imitated (never mind that the concept, particularly on Lennon's songs, doesn't really hold together). Anyway, the album starts off well with the energetic title track, which serves to introduce the band before famously segueing into the Ringo sung “With A Little Help From My Friends” (which Joe Cocker would later totally rework into a far greater classic of his own), thereby providing a perfect marriage of blistering rock n’ roll with the catchy sing alongs they excelled at. Lennon’s dreamy, surreal “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” thought to be a drug song by many people who pointed at its “LSD” initials, is where the band first strikes gold with their grand productions, while the whimsical “When I’m Sixty Four” and the more substantial “Lovely Rita” are modestly catchy and enjoyable pop songs that bear the distinct McCartney stamp. So does the sad teen drama “She’s Leaving Home,” a lyrically excellent (actually the album has some of the band's best lyrics in general) and musically lovely if somewhat dull ballad that's hindered by its droopy string arrangement (handled by Mike Leander because Martin was busy and Paul didn't want to wait, much to Martin's everlasting chagrin). Elsewhere, McCartney’s moodier “Fixing A Hole” is an underrated entry and a personal favorite, and Lennon’s strange, carnival-esque “Being For the Benefit Of Mr. Kite” (whose lyrics were grabbed from a poster) is also great fun but is more of a grower, while “Within You Without You” is another strangely mystical effort by Harrison (and Indian session musicians) that amounts to interesting filler (as usual, even their lesser songs are worthwhile). “Getting Better” and “Good Morning Good Morning” are repetitive but enjoyable rockers (especially the former) where they finally let George, John, and Paul (who plays lead on the latter) loose on guitar, and a brief reprise of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" then seems to end the show. But every great show deserves an encore, right? Sure enough, for all the album’s fine songs and genius layering of sounds, not to mention its clever concept, the only individual song here that all by its lonesome is truly worthy of immortal status is the epochal “A Day In The Life” (ok, that's a debatable statement, but it does tower over every other song here). Splicing together two distinctly different sections, this true McCartney/Lennon collaboration features two brilliantly dizzying orchestral buildups, a chill inducing Lennon vocal spotlight, and arguably the most dramatic chord in rock history closing the curtain; simply put, the song's unforgettable last bar announced that rock n’ roll would never be the same again. As such, this album deserves its essential rating for historical reasons alone, as it’s probably the most famous and influential rock album ever, and is the one most responsible for rock music gaining respectability with the snobs who had heretofore ignored it (for whatever that’s worth). Even the elaborate cover art, later famously (and amusingly) parodied by Frank Zappa, took rock to a whole new level, and when the album was released after (a then long) 10 months, it was a major event that defined the so-called "Summer Of Love." So, although I was disappointed by this album at first, and it's still not my favorite Beatles album, I've eventually come to appreciate and even love it, as no other Beatles album sees them have quite such a "kids let loose in the candy store" kind of mindset, and the band had the talent and vision to largely pull off what was then an unprecedented accomplishment.
Magical Mystery Tour (Capitol ‘67) Rating: A
Although this album was harshly criticized at the time, in part due to the disappointing T.V. film it was linked to and the extraordinary expectations that The Beatles generated, this was another great album containing many classic songs, several of which are all time classics, even though it sounds less like an album proper than a collection of individual songs, a la their early albums. Actually, this was originally released as an EP in the U.K., and this is the band's only album where the American version (which appended 1967 singles) is regarded as the definitive version of the album. McCartney starts things off with the memorably upbeat, horn-heavy title track, while the wonderfully melancholic “Fool on the Hill” was one of his most exquisite creations, with unforgettable flute. “Flying,” the first song co-composed by all four band members, is a short (mostly) instrumental that qualified as pleasant, interesting filler, while “Blue Jay Way” was another enjoyably mystical Eastern experiment by Harrison that was strange (the vocals are heavily treated on this one), catchy, and had a cool story behind it (George penned it while waiting for a friend to arrive at his house, hence the repeated "please don't be long" refrain). Continuing, “Your Mother Should Know” delivers a slight but effortlessly singable McCartney ditty of the type he would later whimsically bring to Wings on a regular basis. Then Lennon kicks in with the utterly classic but bizarre beyond words “I am The Walrus,” which pits his venomous vocal and wacky lyrics (“I am the eggman?”) against an inspired orchestral arrangement and strange studio effects, before McCartney’s decidedly lightweight but undeniably catchy “Hello Goodbye” provides a momentarily mindless break in the action (Lennon was furious when this song, which he hated, beat out "Walrus" as the a-side of the single). The album’s absolute highlight then commences with the dazzling 1-2 punch of Lennon’s image filled, musically rich “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the brilliantly upbeat, horn-filled pop of Paul’s “Penny Lane.” Never were the alternate strengths of the Lennon/McCartney partnership put on better display than here, and George Martin himself felt that these two songs, when released as a flip-sided single, represented the peak of their achievements together. Ironically, despite their obvious quality, these turned out to be the band's first singles not to hit the top spot in the U.K. charts in four years; can you name the inconsequential crooner who kept them from the top spot? (e-mail me the answer). Almost anti-climatic by comparison, “Baby Your A Rich Man” is a simple, sarcastic sing along whose catchy Clavioline synthesizer makes the song, before “All You Need Is Love” closes things out with arguably the anthem of the Summer of Love. It's hard to hear this song and not picture them all sitting around with their famous friends on that legendary "Our World" T.V. special, and though its message is overly naive and idealistic, the song is such a grand feel good anthem that it's hard not to be won over by it. Likewise, this album has over time been rightfully reappraised as a classic, as the band overcame the sudden death of manager Brian Epstein and their sidetracking dalliances with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to produce another timeless release that contains some of their very best songs.
The Beatles (Capitol ‘68) Rating: A
Officially called The Beatles but known to everyone as The White Album, this double album contains some filler but is still an endless reservoir of great '60s rock music. This was the “tension album” where it became obvious that The Beatles were a highly fragmented unit, as most of these songs were clearly the work of individual band members rather than collaborations. Basically, the three band members who didn’t write the song simply backed up the other band member who did, and in some cases (John on “Julia,” Paul on “Mother Nature’s Son”) none of the other band members even played on the track. Individually, John plays more lead guitar than previously, and Paul plays more of everything, even drums as Ringo became so fed up during the album’s recording sessions that he briefly left the band. Musically, the album was a more straightforward, bare-bones rock album than recent efforts, perhaps in part because some of the sessions were overseen by Chris Thomas rather than a vacationing Martin, who was more likely to gussy up the arrangements. The songs, a whopping 30 in all, contain some of the shortest and longest ones in the band’s repertoire, and the harmony singing of years past unfortunately appears here only in rare instances. Fortunately, though there are times when I miss the band’s earlier collaborative spirit and more experimental bent, the album’s staggering diversity and the overall quality of its songs overwhelms its obvious flaws. After all, even though each band member was working solo, they were all at the top of their game. Among other songs, Paul produced classics such as the rollicking Beach Boys’ inspired rocker “Back in the U.S.S.R.," the silly but fun sing along “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” (the song here that most brings me back to my youth), the whimsical Western tale “Rocky Raccoon” (a prime showcase for Paul's storytelling skills), several simple but pretty pleasures ("Martha My Dear," “Blackbird” “I Will,” “Mother Nature’s Son”) that showed his mastery of melody while pointing the way towards his more whimsical solo career, a raucous “Birthday” song (with Lennon), and the wildly frenetic “Helter Skelter,” which approached heavy metal and became infamous as one of serial killer Charles Manson’s favorite songs. Lennon was also in fine form, delivering the wonderfully laid-back “Dear Prudence,” the moody self-referencing rocker “Glass Onion,” the darkly atmospheric, several-songs-in-one, heavily doo-wop inspired “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” which culminates with a spine-tingling falsetto finish, “I’m So Tired,” on which he sure sounds it (most memorably so), the simple but beautiful ballad “Julia” (his mother’s name, though the song was also dedicated to his new love, the widely detested Yoko Ono), the raw, miserable blues rocker “Yer Blues,” the simplistic but rocking “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey” (another paean to Yoko, whose constant presence contributed to much of the simmering tension within the band’s ranks), the Maharishi bashing “Sexy Sadie” (with a great vocal and a strong melody that Radiohead stole for “Karma Police”!), and “Revolution 1,” the tame version here of which is unfortunately blown to bits by the subsequent hard rocking single version (available on Past Masters (Volume Two)). For his part, Harrison wrote “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” arguably the album’s best song and clearly his best song to date, helped in no small part by a guest appearance from friend Eric Clapton, whose monumental guitar solo is easily the most famous on any Beatles song. Clapton also inspired another strong Harrison song here, or more accurately Clapton’s love of chocolate inspired “Savoy Truffle,” a horn heavy rocker with piercing dual lead guitars. Less impressive is the socially conscious “Piggies,” which has intriguing harpsichord-led verses and a ridiculous chorus, but the pretty religious ballad “Long, Long, Long” is something of an overlooked gem. Finally, Ringo penned the slight but catchy country/carnival song “Don’t Pass Me By” and sang Lennon’s pleasantly lush (too lush, many would say), lullaby-like album closer, “Good Night.” Anyway, some of the songs here seem sub par, are obvious throwaways, are inconsistent ("Piggies," for example), or are flat out failures (specifically, “Revolution 9,” the album’s longest song at 8:21, is excruciating garbage that represents the height of ‘60s self-indulgence). Maybe Martin had a point when he felt that this should’ve been edited into a single album, and I for one could live without several songs (“Wild Honey Pie,” “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” “Honey Pie,” “Cry Baby Cry”), including much of the second side of disc two. However, even the lesser songs here generally have something worthwhile going for them (the guitar on "Wild Honey Pie" and the fiddle on "Don't Pass Me By," for example), and the album's gloriously flawed sprawl is part of what makes it so much fun. After all, ask 20 people to pare this album down to a single cd and the odds are good that you'll get 20 different answers, and for all its flaws The White Album contains some of the band's prettiest and hardest rocking songs on one exemplary package.
Yellow Submarine (Capitol ‘68) Rating: C+
This soundtrack album to the highly regarded cartoon movie of the same name isn’t really a proper Beatles album, as it contains only four new Beatles songs along with two previously released songs (the title track and “All You Need Is Love,” the latter given a slightly different mix) and a host of mediocre George Martin instrumentals. The fact that Harrison contributed two songs to Lennon and McCartney’s one apiece shows the band’s tossed off approach to the album, though in truth I quite like three of the four original compositions. On the downside, Harrison’s “Only A Northern Song” is a hazy psychedelic dud whose horns and effects are distracting more than anything, though graspable melodies occasionally slip through. McCartney’s “All Together Now” is pretty much the very definition of lightweight, but at least this sing along children’s song is extremely catchy and like “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” I have a soft spot for it since I remember singing it at camp way back when I was but a wee lad (don’t you just love British lingo?). It may not mean much, but I really like the guitars and the overall performance on Lennon’s simple but satisfyingly rocking “Hey Bulldog,” and Harrison's “It’s All Too Much” is arguably even better, being a truly stellar psychedelic epic (6:28). This ode to Mrs. Pattie Harrison may not be “Layla,” but it has a majestic horn-heavy surge that’s powered by a layered dual guitar attack and big beats from Ringo; the end result is a real treat given that it’s a rare great Beatles track that many people have never heard before. Alas, that’s pretty much it, as Martin’s orchestral instrumentals, which take up about half the album, are pleasantly forgettable at best and quite boring at worst, making Yellow Submarine an album that’s only for the true diehards or completeists among you. Note: When the movie was released on DVD in 1999, they also re-released the soundtrack as Yellow Submarine Songtrack. Not only was this version of the album remastered, but Martin's instrumentals were removed in favor of almost all the Beatles songs that appeared in the movie (except for "A Day In The Life" lest there be too much overlap with Sgt. Pepper's), making for an entertaining 15-track compilation that's a much less obvious "best of" than what one usually expects.
Abbey Road (Capitol ‘69) Rating: A+
Recorded after but released before Let It Be, Abbey Road is one of rock music’s grandest statements. Amazingly, though the band was on the verge of splintering for good, they managed to put aside their differences during tumultuous times for one last run at glory. They succeeded brilliantly, and Abbey Road, the band's most polished and professional album, offers something for everyone, from the utterly sublime (all of side two) to the enjoyably ridiculous (McCartney's “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and Ringo's “Octopus’s Garden”). In addition, the flawless “Something” (Frank Sinatra: "the greatest love song of the past 50 years") and the gentle, elegant, beautifully optimistic “Here Comes The Sun” constituted George Harrison’s finest hour, as both songs were remarkably melodic and touching testaments that were equal to anything that Lennon or McCartney had ever done ("Something" even became Harrison's first single to be granted A-side status). Not to be outdone, Lennon checks in with the strange, funky, and quite catchy swamp rocker “Come Together,” the plodding but powerful blues epic (7:49) “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” which is heavy and features memorably churning riffs and a menacing overall atmosphere that overcomes its numbing repetitiveness, and the simple but beautifully sung “Because,” a stellar showcase for the band’s brilliant three-part harmonies. Ultimately, however, this album is primarily Paul McCartney’s triumph. Although “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is one of his "ditties" that's almost irritatingly infectious (at least I like how its admittedly catchy, sing songy melody contrasts with its murderous lyrics), and “Oh! Darling,” a 50's r&b, doo wop inspired piano rocker with a raw Paul vocal, are relatively minor McCartney efforts (fond as I am of the latter song), these songs, indeed all of side one, are mere appetizers for side two. Simply put, the 15-minute medley that occupies all of side two features a grandly epic sweep that is as majestic as any popular music that has ever been recorded. Comprising 10 tracks of varying duration, seven of which were penned by Paul, these songs come together (pardon the pun) as a seamless whole that far exceeds the sum of their individual parts, some of which are still admittedly spectacular. "You Never Give Me Your Money" superlatively opens the proceedings with several distinctive sections within a mere four minutes before Lennon takes over with his three songs, starting with "Sun King," a pretty, dreamy mood piece that leads into a pair of shorter numbers, the sing songy "Mean Mr. Mustard" and the rocking "Polythene Pam." The spectacular segue from "Polythene Pam" into Paul's "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window" (later notably covered by Joe Cocker) is among the album's most memorable moments, and "Golden Slumbers" is a lovely, majestic ballad whose lyrics Paul partially cribbed from a centuries old Thomas Dekker poem. Last but certainly not least, the band all join in on the chorus to "Carry That Weight," an epic sing along to rival "Hey Jude," and Ringo even takes his lone drum solo on "The End," which rocks exceptionally hard and well until its gorgeous fadeout. Obviously anticlimactic, "Hey Majesty" ends the album with a 23-second bit of fluff, but by then this album's classic status had already been achieved and then some. A glorious last gasp before the band broke up, Abbey Road rivals Revolver as my favorite Beatles album, and its inclusion is almost mandatory on any meaningful “greatest albums of all-time” list.
Let It Be (Capitol ’70) Rating: A-
As previously mentioned, this album was actually recorded before but released after Abbey Road. What happened was that the band recorded these songs but then basically gave up on the project. Deeming the songs unworthy of release, the tapes were passed along to producer Glyn Johns, whose handiwork the band again rejected. In came legendary producer Phil Spector, who salvaged the project, though his handiwork has been harshly criticized over the years. However, before this album was released the band had already moved on to Abbey Road, and Paul McCartney’s first solo album also preceded it. So the band had already broken up by the time Let It Be was released, and though the album is seen by many as being one of their weaker works, this back to basics collection (it was originally going to be called Get Back) contains several acknowledged classics and a few underrated gems as well. This album is a bit of a paradox, as several of these songs have a sloppy, tossed off feel that harks back to their more basic early sound (and let’s face it, it was good to see the band deliver some raw and primitive rock n’ roll again), while others are among the most elaborate and overblown in their entire repertoire. Paul’s “Two Of Us,” one of those underrated gems previously mentioned, starts the album off with a lovely song sung in harmony by Paul and John, and even the thump of Ringo’s drums are utterly charming on this one. “Dig A Pony” is another good one, mostly due to John’s great vocal, particularly on its hooky “all I want is you” chorus. Among the best of the rest, Spector deserves credit for greatly improving Harrison’s “I Me Mine,” on which he added strings and took the first verse and added it to the end, thereby making it a more complete song, and a good one it is (George thought enough of it that he named his autobiography after it), highlighted by some rough guitar outbursts. Unfortunately, George’s “For You Blue” is a forgettable acoustic blues, and John’s “One After 909” is unremarkable as well, though at least it has a raucous rock n’ roll energy going for it. It should be noted that Billy Preston’s organ is quite prominent on that tune and several others, and his presence adds to the rootsier feel that this album has from its recent predecessors. Anyway, another underrated gem is the soulful Paul/John co-write “I’ve Got A Feeling,” on which Paul in particular shines on an extremely powerful vocal, and though songs such as “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae” are the very definition of filler, at least they’re extremely short, and the album’s most famous songs rank among their finest ever. Though I personally find it a little overrated, “Get Back” (which ends the album with the famous “I hope we passed the audition” quote) is obviously a strong track possessing a loose rootsy feel, and the hymnal “Let It Be” is even better, being a timeless ballad led by a sublime McCartney vocal and a great Harrison guitar rip. Simply put, “Let It Be” is one of the band’s best songs ever, and though Lennon’s beautifully sleepy and poetic “Across The Universe” and especially McCartney’s “The Long And Winding Road” have been heavily criticized (even by McCartney himself) as having been ruined by Phil Spector’s over elaborate production, they’re two favorites of mine as well. On “Across The Universe” Spector slowed the song down and added strings from its original incarnation, while the melody of “The Long And Winding Road” is practically drowned in a sea of strings, horns, and a backing choir. However, it’s simply too good of a song to be ruined by an egomaniac producer, especially once Paul’s peerless voice enters into the equation, and though mine is a minority opinion, I actually prefer this version to all others, as it has a grandiose air about it that really gets to me. Anyway, hindsight is always 20/20, but let’s remember that without Phil Spector this album may not have ever been released in the first place, and the results of Spector’s work is mostly impressive. For all its faults, some of which would only come to light later when Let It Be...Naked was released, Let It Be was a memorable event (let’s not forget the rooftop concert and documentary film) that sent the boys on their own separate ways in fine style.
Past Masters (Volume One) (Capitol ‘88) Rating: A-
This compilation collects together early singles that were released between the fall of 1962 through the summer of 1965, and it neatly fills in the gaps since these songs never appeared on any of The Beatles original U.K. albums (non-album singles being a popular '60s strategy, particularly in the U.K.). Short but irresistibly catchy songs such as “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “From Me To You,” and “I Feel Fine” are classics by any measure, while the basic but brilliant “She Loves You” and their cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” feature two of their most exuberantly raucous rock n’ roll performances (McCartney's raw vocal on the latter ranks among his best ever). Their boogie woogie cover of Larry Williams’ “Slow Down” (obviously The Beatles were big fans; they also cover his "Bad Boy") and their own “I'm Down” also deliver raw, high energy rock n’ roll, while “Thank You Girl,” “I’ll Get You,” “I Call Your Name,” and "She's A Woman" are disposable pop songs but of a high quality. Granted, not everything here is first rate (the weakest links are “Matchbox,” a Ringo-sung Carl Perkins cover, and “Yes It Is,” a weak attempt to recreate the three-part harmonies that are far more successfully done on the lovely "This Boy"), and the inclusion of German renderings of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” are primarily for collectors only, as is an alternate version of “Love Me Do” that features Ringo on drums rather than session drummer Andy White, who had appeared on the original. The two German songs should’ve been tacked onto the end of the album as bonus tracks so as to not interrupt its flow, but given that the decision to sequence this album chronologically was a sensible one I won't quibble too much. What's interesting about this album is that it features quite a few legitimate 50/50 Lennon/McCartney co-written compositions, as well as quite a few dual lead vocals. On the whole, Past Masters (Volume One) contains a handful of truly classic tracks and plenty of pleasantly enjoyable but minor Beatles songs that aren't easily available elsewhere.
Past Masters (Volume Two) (Capitol ‘88) Rating: A
More stellar singles that were unavailable on the band's original albums, Volume Two ups the ante considerably from Volume One. It begins with “Day Tripper,” whose most memorable attribute was obviously its outstanding riffs, while “We Can Work It Out” continues with one of my all-time favorites. This song is simply a great example of the Lennon/McCartney partnership; Paul provides the great main melody and optimistic lyrics while John adds the moody, more cynical middle eight. Paul's “Paperback Writer” is another hard rocking winner with fantastic fuzzy riffs, a breathless rush of excitement that's palpable, and terrific harmonies, while the Revolver-era “Rain” further demonstrates Lennon’s dreamy psychedelic side in superb style; this is another simply great sounding track with some of Ringo's most inventive drumming on record. After that acid tinged peak, Paul's “Lady Madonna” simplifies things with a jaunty ‘50s-styled piano rocker with some nice sax solos, before “The Inner Light” provides another strange but beautiful Indian excursion from Harrison. The words “epic" and “majestic" were coined to describe songs such as the monumental “Hey Jude,” arguably their most famous and best song ever. Written by McCartney, oddly enough it starts as a tender ballad looking to comfort John's son Julian, but as you all know it then turns into an unforgettable, symphonic sing along. Simply put, this is the sing along to end all sing alongs, as Paul (in great vocal form) and even Ringo add periodic punctuation marks along the way. Yeah, I suppose the 4-minute "na na na" coda is pushing it, but if it's too long (7:11 on the whole) then how come I'm always sad when it ends? Another classic single is “Revolution,” which rocks like a demon, with some wicked Harrison guitar and a larynx-shredding vocal performance from Lennon. As previously mentioned, this version of the song blows away the version on The White Album, as it's one of the band's hardest rocking and most political tracks (it would become even more controversial years later when Nike used it in an ad to sell sneakers). Anyway, those songs are the main reason to own this compilation, as Past Masters (Volume Two) contains some truly timeless pop music, and as such it provides an essential complement to their original studio albums. The rest of the album is comprised of the alternate George Martin produced versions of Let It Be-era songs (“Get Back,” "Don't Let Me Down," “Across the Universe,” “Let It Be”) that in some cases are less essential today in a post-Let It Be...Naked world, though the more subdued single version of “Let It Be” is still great in its own way (even if I prefer the album version) and I have a fondness for the amateurish yet cute backing vocals on "Across The Universe." Anyway, rounding out the track list is “The Ballad of John And Yoko,” a catchy country rocker, “Old Brown Shoe,” a nondescript Harrison song notable for its propulsive rhythms and its rather loud guitar solo, and "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)," an easily skippable "joke song" that should've remained in the vaults.
1962-1966 (The Red Album) (Captiol ‘73) Rating: A+
1967-1970 (The Blue Album) (Capitol ‘73) Rating: A+
These famous "best of" collections are more for casual fans, since hardcore Beatles fanatics will want most (if not all) of their many masterful albums, and will therefore have most of the songs on these discs. However, as far as overall quality, it’s tough to top these collections for song after song excellence, and I must admit that (more than the band's original albums proper) these are The Beatles albums that most enhanced my own youthful years. The first set showcases their simple yet irresistible early singles, while the second one documents their more experimental later triumphs. It’s a pity that the band (or Capitol, or both) decided to release these as double albums when their contents could’ve easily fit onto a single cd. Still, for those with the cash, these are both excellent Beatles compilations.
1 (Capitol ‘00) Rating: A+
Bunch of Mariah Carey wannabees. Seriously, almost 40 years after they first changed the world, and several years after the vault cleansing Anthology series, 1 again proved how timeless The Beatles’ music is, going platinum twenty times over and supplanting N’ Sync at the top of the pop charts. And while true fans of the band should have most if not all of these songs (and even more than great albums The Beatles were about great songs), this album is a simple but flawless idea (albeit one that’s already been done by Mariah Carey) that jams 27 of the greatest songs of all-time onto a single cd. Listening to these #1 hits back-to-back-to-back all over again reminded me how the band had always led the way in the ever changing ‘60s, and how they’ve really led the way ever since. So go ahead and treat yourself or a loved one - superlatives simply don’t suffice, as almost forty years after their explosive arrival the Fab Four are still the Fabbest of them all.
Let It Be...Naked (Capitol ‘03) Rating: A-
By now you probably know the story. Paul always hated Phil Spector’s production work on the Let It Be album, especially on “The Long and Winding Road,” so he took it upon himself to oversee a de-Spectorized version of the album. I’m not sure why it took 30+ years for Paul to finish this project, but given that he doesn’t exactly need the money I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt regarding his motives, especially since George, Ringo, and Yoko all seemed to support the release of Let It Be…Naked. What matters more to me than whether or not this was simply a Paul McCartney ego trip is that the results are mostly worth it, as this album is a much more intimate affair than the original, with ace backing vocals and a superior overall sound. Truthfully, on most of these songs the differences are minor since many of these songs were sparse and rough to begin with, but in general I do prefer the Naked versions, the few exceptions being “Let It Be” (it just doesn’t seem right without George’s famous guitar solo, and I also prefer the single version on Past Masters (Volume Two)), “I Me Mine” (this is the original previously described in the Let It Be review), and believe it or not “The Long and Winding Road,” which I find too humble bordering on lifeless here. Still, most of the other songs are remastered and sound better as a result, some significantly so such as "Two Of Us," “One After 909,” and “Across The Universe,” which is especially luminous. The album has also been resequenced, which at least makes it seem fresher to those of you who are already familiar with the original (plus “Get Back” is a great opener and “Let It Be” seems like it should close the curtain), and “Dig It” and “Maggie May,” among the most obvious filler tracks in the band’s entire catalogue, have been replaced by Lennon's “Don’t Let Me Down,” previously only available as a single Past Masters (Volume Two). Not only that, but this grittier version also happens to be a major improvement on the single. So, is Let It Be…Naked better than Let It Be, and can it effectively replace the earlier album? I vote yes and no, because there are several songs I still prefer from Let It Be, so I guess you diehard fans need both versions of the album in order to mix and match to find that still-elusive perfect version of the album.
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