My first awareness of The Beatles was in Woodlawn School in Steinbach back in the mid-1980s. I don’t remember much, but the older students were doing some kind of dramatic performance in the gymnasium and, for a brief moment, “The Beatles” made an appearance. I remember asking my teacher who or what I had just witnessed. She told me it was The Beatles. I recall her explaining that John Lennon had died a few years earlier. I’m not sure if she said he had been murdered. Probably not. I was seven.
I remember going home to tell my parents about this new discovery of mine. To my surprise, they already knew all about these Beatles. I kept listening to my Christian children’s records (Psalty, for example) for a few years after that until I discovered a cover of “Let it Be” on an old John Denver record my Dad had.
By the time I was a teenager, I was hooked. This was right around the time The Beatles Anthology was being aired on television and I remember watching it together as a family. My first Beatles purchase was the Live at the BBC double cassette. It was kind of an odd place to start considering it’s mostly out-takes and early live performances. I also got the Beatles Anthology CD from my parents that Christmas.
I think my parents were a little nervous about my Beatles obsession. I was a pastor’s son, after all, and there were a few fundamentalists in the congregation who would not be too keen on finding out the pastor allowed his son to listen to rock music. Yes, this was the 90s and, for most of the world, conversations about rock music had ended decades earlier, but I guess my father’s congregation had a few hold-outs from the good ol’ days. Anyway, I kept listening and my parents never did make me burn my albums on a bonfire like some members of the congregation would have expected. I think this experience gave me, in some small way, the sense of youthful rebellion that accompanied rock music in the 60s.
I’ve always preferred the music made in the decades before I was born (60s and 70s) to the music of my teenage years (90s) or the music of today. Don’t get me wrong, I listened to a lot of 90s music in the 90s. My favourite bands were Counting Crows, Radiohead, and Oasis, but even then my attraction to these particular bands was because, to my ears, they reminded me of the sounds of the 60s. Counting Crows like Van Morrison or The Band. Oasis like The Beatles. In Radiohead you can hear the influence of everything from Charles Mingus, to the Hollies, to peak Beach Boys. To this day, I listen to a lot of music made before I was born and The Beatles remain among my favourite bands.
So the other day, I was cleaning my records. It was a task that would take a while; a couple evenings. So I decided to do something I had intended to do many times before: listen to the entire Beatles discography in chronological order. Of course, I’ve listened to all these albums before, but never in order and never in close succession. Their core catalogue has just 13 albums and, if you add on the Past Masters albums (which collect the singles and B-sides (like “Hey Jude”) that were never released on a proper album) it would take you just ten hours to listen to it all.
So here is my ranking of my favourite Beatles albums. (Personal favourite, not “greatest” – there’s a difference). Also note, that I actually like them all, so even number 13 is worthwhile.
13. Yellow Submarine (1969) – Some good tracks here, including the title track and “All Together Now”, but the second half is an orchestral score by George Martin, which is good, but almost feels like an album all on its own.
12. Beatles for Sale (1964) – Contains a few gems like “No Reply”, “Eight Days a Week” and one my favourites “I’m a Loser”, but over all it has too many covers. The Beatles were one of the first bands to write a majority of their own songs, but their first few albums each contained a handful of covers. With the exception of “Twist and Shout”, their own songs are almost always superior to the covers.
11. With the Beatles (1963) – The best track on the Beatles second album is “All My Loving”. This one also contains a bunch of covers, though they’re a bit better than the ones on Beatles for Sale.
10. A Hard Day’s Night (1964) – The first album where The Beatles wrote every single song. Excellent tunes, including that stunning opening chord, and also the soundtrack to their best film.
9. Help! (1965) – This is not quite in the Beatles experimental period yet, but the vocals on the title track show a higher level of complexity and more depth in thematic content, as well. Also contains “Ticket to Ride” and “Yesterday” and, perhaps, the Beatles best cover, a country song sung by Ringo: “Act Naturally.”
8. Let it Be (1970) – I guess I can see why this received mix reviews upon release, but it contains a lot of masterful songs such as the title track, “The Long and Winding Road”, and “Get Back.”
7. Magical Mystery Tour (1967) – This is the only American-released album that became part of the Beatles official core discography. I like everything on it, especially the second half (with “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”), but it does feel like two very distinct albums.
6. Please Please Me (1963)- The Beatles first album is my favourite of their early period. The album has loads of energy, though, “Do You Want to Know a Secret”, a ballad, is my favourite song on the album, and one of my favourites of all their songs.
5. Rubber Soul (1965)- I wasn’t sure if I was going to put Rubber Soul or Revolver higher on this list and, after a re-listen, I decided Revolver was a bit stronger. Still, Rubber Soul is a masterpiece. Highlights include “Norwegian Wood” and “In My Life.”
4. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) – I know all the critics rank this as The Beatles best album. It’s, perhaps, their “greatest” album in the sense of cultural and aesthetic impact. A cohesive masterpiece with brilliant (often quirky) songs from start to finish. “A Day in the Life” alone is worth the price of admission.
3. The Beatles (White Album) (1968) – This is an album that I haven’t listened to as much as some of the others. I haven’t owned it as long and it’s two LPS, so that’s twice as much flipping. Ha ha. But upon revisiting it, I was reminded just how great it is. It’s not as cohesive as Sgt. Pepper’s, but it covers a much wider range of style and influences. “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Blackbird” and the proto-metal “Helter Skelter” are highlights. Even the much maligned “Revolution 9” is not something I skip.
2. Revolver (1966) – Every song on Revolver is excellent and some, like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” are absolutely stunning. Experimental, yet cohesive and accessible, this is an album I can (and do) listen to over and over.
1. Abbey Road (1969) – The Beatles have a few masterpieces, but this one tops the list for me. Although the startling opener “Come Together” seems kind of out of place with the vibe of the rest of the album, Abbey Road is buoyed by George Harrison’s best Beatles contributions (“Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”) and the brilliant side two medley. The album also contains some of Ringo’s best drum work. Hearing Paul McCartney do the Abbey Road medley in concert is one the live music highlights of my life.