All together now

Beatles

Hierarchy of albums by The Beatles

The Beatles were the first band I really liked. I can’t remember when I first heard them, but memories of being given a compilation album as a present, watching all their films one Christmas, having the 1964 Royal Variety poster on my wall and singing Yellow Submarine and When I’m 64 on family holidays between the age of 6 and 12, are lodged firmly in my memory.

Several Beatles albums became favourites, although I owned few of them. That is until recently. When Apple re-released their entire catalogue in 2009, remastered for CD  and download, I started to buy them one by one. I began with those that I either had on vinyl in the loft or on tape in a cupboard somewhere—Rubber Soul, Revolver, The Beatles (The White Album), Abbey Road—and then worked through some that I didn’t know so well such as Help, other soundtracks and their early releases. The earliest, I didn’t know at all as albums, and these were the last of my purchases.

That is, excepting Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. My father had oddly bought himself a copy circa 1973, and I can clearly remember him bringing it home, (this was odd because my father never bought LPs for himself). And over the years, I grew to first love, then hate that album. The songs you sing in the car as an eight year old with your family can quickly become toxic to the ears of a teenager discovering punk rock. It further grated with me when it was played every day back to back from the pyramid stage the one and only time I went to Glastonbury Festival, (1987 and the LP had just been released on CD for the first time).

So now I owned the set, I decided to experiment and listen to them one by one, in order of release, as an exercise in hearing a band develop and grow. And boy, what an interesting experiment it was.

The image above visually ranks the albums, in my opinion, in order from best at the top to worst at the bottom. The list, for those that don’t know the album covers is:
01. Rubber Soul
02. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
03. The Beatles
04. Magical Mystery Tour
05. A Hard Day’s Night
06. Revolver
07. Abbey Road
08. With The Beatles
09. Help
10. Beatles For Sale
11. Let It Be
12. Yellow Submarine
13. Please Please Me

Lots of people will disagree with my list, so I ought to explain my judging criteria, (not that I think that will convince any music/Beatles purists reading this). Outside of personal enjoyment and taste, my analysis boiled down to an albums consistency and the band’s exploration/developmental leaps.

My first choice, Rubber Soul, has always been the Beatles album I’ve loved more than any other, so it is of little surprise that it remains my favourite. But nostalgia aside, to me, it is the sound of a band in transformation, on the verge of breaking new ground and is utterly of its time. Here they were breaking away from purely being a pop band, into recording artists who commanded their sound and their songwriting. It is the promise of what is to come, and therefore in my mind, better than what followed.

What did surprise me was that Sgt Pepper’s should come second, having anticipated that I would put Revolver in that spot and considering my previous contempt for The Hearts Club Band. But on listening to the albums in order, while Revolver probably contains one of the greatest songs ever in Tomorrow Never Knows, and also hosts probably one of the best opening tracks to an LP in Taxman, the rest of it lacks the consistency of Rubber Soul and Sgt Pepper’s. It feels like an album of extremes; they weren’t brave enough to jettison the frankly shit Yellow Submarine and sickly pop songs which sit awkwardly alongside the more pioneering experimental moments. It is still an astounding record, but doesn’t deserve second place based on my listening rationale. Where as Sgt Pepper’s, on listening to again after so many years of avoiding it, was a delight. It hung together really well, and I could even forgive When I’m 64, (just). In many respects, not listening to it as a concept album, and rather, thinking of it as a collection of songs helped. The distance helped as well, but just how soon I’ll get around to listening to it again, I don’t know. Now I’ve discovered it again, I don’t want to lose it straight away.

I’m not going to go through the rest of my choices here, although the big surprise to me was how good A Hard Day’s Night is. It isn’t an album that I previously knew, although I obviously knew most of the tracks on it from the film and various compilations. But for me, it was their first truly great record. It maintains some of the gritty rock n roll vibe from the previous albums, especially in Lennon’s vocal delivery, (although it must be said that McCartney can scream for England). All tracks were penned by the band themselves—a rarity in 1964—and the more feisty tracks are balanced with their delicate crafting of tender ballads and joyous pop songs. It was a gem to discover.

You could almost say that The Beatles didn’t make any bad albums, although Please Please Me isn’t great, Let It Be is the sound of a band that had run out of ideas, and Yellow Submarine is only half an album, (and it has Yellow Submarine on it). Regardless, they all have their moments, and to listen to them all from start to finish, in order, was a really interesting musical journey to witness. Especially considering that these 13 albums were all released within the space of seven years.

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3 comments
  1. You’re very hard on Yellow Submarine, and yet Octopus’s Garden passes without comment! I’m surprised at the high ranking you give for Magical Mystery Tour, as I didn’t think this had been conceived as a proper album, more a compilation of recent singles. You’ve got me interested now to give some of these albums a (re)listen.

    What next? All the Beatles’ solo albums?

  2. Although Magical Mystery Tour was only released as a 6 track EP in the UK in 1967, the LP version was released in the USA at the same time. The latter wasn’t officially available in the UK until 9 years later, but it is currently regarded as an official album release by Apple and sits between Sgt Pepper’s and The White Album [sic]. I suppose I was interested in listening to their output in context to when they were recorded, and I was also focussing on the 2009 remastered rereleases—revisionism isn’t something that overly bothers me.

    I bought a Wings compilation from a charity shop last year. McCartney’s early work after The Beatles wasn’t that bad—Another Day is a great track. But, then it went oh so wrong. I blame the drugs, (lack of them, that is). Lennon’s output is patchy, to say the least, and I never got Harrison’s solo work. And the fact that Yellow Submarine and Octupus’s Garden were Ringo songs, well, need I go on? (Would I also have to watch Thomas The Tank Engine as well? Probably the most psychedelic thing he has ever done!)

    This whole exercise was started by winning the first 3 remastered Wire albums several years ago from a 6music phone in. Although I obviously knew them really well, I had never listened to them in order, back to back. On doing so I realised what a transformation there was in such a short space of time. You could hear a band in transformation. Since then, I’ve been looking out for this in other bands, and it often shows itself over the stretch of 3 albums. I’m not talking about when bands radically change, but when they develop what they already have, so you can hear where they’ve come from AND there’s hints of where they are going in the middle album. I would argue Rubber Soul through to Sgt Pepper’s demonstrates exactly this, although on listening to all these albums, you can hear gradual development across all of their albums from Hard Day’s Night to Abbey Road.

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