Almost everybody has a Beatles moment. Mine came when I was 10 years old, riding in the middle row of a 1994 Dodge Caravan on a family road trip from Indiana down to the Great Smoky Mountains. My step-brother had just gotten cassette copies of 1962-1966 and 1967-1970, better remembered as “The Red Album” and “The Blue Album” by anyone who grew up with parents who’d spent the ’60s as teenagers.
We played those tapes non-stop from Kokomo to Gatlinburg and back again, the sounds of “Love Me Do” and “Ticket to Ride” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” on a continuous week-long loop. I remember tears welling in my eyes during “In My Life”, the hairs raising on the back of my neck at the start of “Eleanor Rigby”, the strange kaleidoscopic friendliness that radiated off of “Penny Lane” and “All You Need Is Love” and “Paperback Writer”. I remember thinking that “A Day in the Life” sounded like the end of the world. Mostly, I remember coming home with a new favorite band.
Think about it. You probably have a moment like that, too, a moment where the music of the most important rock band of the 20th century went from abstract to personal. Maybe you fell in love with Across the Universe or played The Beatles: Rock Band until your knuckles bled. Maybe you saw Yellow Submarine as a kid or spun import 45s in your bedroom during one of those turbulent ’60s summers. Every moment is different, but the soundtracks are the same.
And yet … Although they’re formative and important and life-changing, these moments are often fueled by singles. The Beatles wrote great songs, and you could easily go through life with the same two anthologies I had almost three decades ago and be no worse off. There’s nothing wrong with being a singles person. And yet, those same impeccable singles can also become gateway songs, moments of musical perfection that lead you on a chase towards the deeper cuts found on The Beatles’ 13 studio albums. That’s where we’re spending our time today, because, though their names are familiar and their covers iconic, those albums get reduced to shorthand after a while, a shorthand that makes you forget their weirdest corners or their smallest charms. That’s what happens with familiar things. So, today, we’re approaching these records with fresh ears and a classic question at hand: how do you rank the records of the most legendary rock band that ever played?
The answer? Carefully, reverently, and like this…
13. Yellow Submarine (1969)
Runtime: 39:16, 13 tracks
Let It Be (Best Song): Ironically, the best songs on The Beatles’ least essential work had already been released elsewhere — “Yellow Submarine” on Revolver and “All You Need Is Love” as a single two years prior. However, the Lennon-led rocker “Hey Bulldog” delivers a bark and bite equal to most any of The Beatles’ more raucous cuts with its spy-film guitar riff and signature Lennon rasp.
Should Have Known Better (Worst Song): One of the greatest parts of the film Yellow Submarine is how non-Disney it feels in an era when they essentially held a monopoly on animated film. Unfortunately, Sir George Martin’s thematic reprise, “Yellow Submarine in Pepperland”, imbues a certain It’s-A-Small-World-ness, which is too sentimental for the soundtrack.
The Word (Essential Lyric): “Some kind of solitude is measured out in you/ You think you know me, but you haven’t got a clue” — from “Hey Bulldog”
A Little Help from My Friends (Best Non-Lennon-McCartney Song): George Harrison penned two songs for Yellow Submarine, the better of which, “It’s All Too Much”, is a delightfully noisy show of pop maximalism that explores and exudes the overwhelming brightness of love as only George could.
Carry That Weight (Most Influential Moment): Not only did “All You Need Is Love” influence the entire ethos of the Yellow Submarine film, but its simple message at once summarized the flower power movement and encouraged future generations to rally around what unites us. Though positive anthems from global superstars often come off overly sentimental and contrived (looking at you, Gal Gadot, et al), The Beatles’ boyish sincerity always warranted a smile.
Do You Want to Know a Secret? (Fun Fact): The Beatles were never afraid to draw on music’s rich history, including their own past. Of course, the refrain of “She Loves You” is heard near the end of “All You Need Is Love”, but you can also hear quotes of other songs, including Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”. The musical quotations continue on soundtrack piece “Sea of Monsters”, where George Martin references Bach’s piece “Air on the G String”.
Across the Universe (Verdict): It’s unfortunate that the greatest Beatles film was coupled with the most unnecessary album in their discography. The album delivered just four brand-new songs, two previously released hits, and an entire side of George Martin orchestrations for the film. Still, Yellow Submarine is a more enjoyable listen than some bands’ greatest albums. Sandwiched between behemoths The White Album and Abbey Road, the soundtrack’s songs are simplistic (it is a kids’ film, after all). There’s something about them that never ages, never grows up. And that’s perfectly fine. –Christopher Thiessen
12. Beatles for Sale (1964)
Runtime: 33:43, 14 tracks
Let It Be: Beatles for Sale begins with energy and excellence that simply aren’t matched throughout the rest of the runtime. On “No Reply”, a hooky walkdown melody, Paul’s powerful harmony in the chorus and a deeper grasp of lyricism than many early Beatles songs combine to once again argue Lennon & McCartney are the greatest songwriters of the 20th century.
Should Have Known Better: I’d love to not pick on Ringo, who seems to always get the short end of the stick. But unfortunately, his uninspired cover of Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t” is the low point on Beatles for Sale. It’s not just Ringo’s fault, though here he sounds like your middle-aged father on the karaoke machine after exactly one Bud Lite; the other three, especially George, squandered an opportunity to do anything interesting musically on the song, opting to paint by numbers instead.
The Word: “There’s nothing for me here, so I will disappear/ If she turns up while I’m gone, please let me know” — from “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”
A Little Help from My Friends: Neither George nor Ringo wrote a song for Beatles for Sale. However, the album’s most essential cover comes courtesy of Paul, who performed a medley of Leiber and Stoller’s “Kansas City” and Little Richard’s “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey” to close out side one. Here we get a taste of Paul’s powerful soul voice, which later shined on songs like Abbey Road’s “Oh! Darling”.
Carry That Weight: Though still fairly simple in its lyrics, “I’m a Loser” is a breakaway from the dance-and-romance lyrics that pervade The Beatles’ early albums and a harbinger of more introspective works to come. Lennon, inspired by the melancholy of Bob Dylan, turns inward on the album’s second song as he considers his own pride and sorrow with the utmost sincerity.
Do You Want to Know a Secret? The Beatles’ No. 1 hit “I Feel Fine” was recorded during the Beatles for Sale sessions and is a better song than any that made the album. The song’s opening featured the first intentional use of feedback in rock and roll, a happy accident that would echo across scores of rock’s subgenres to come.
Across the Universe: Beatles for Sale arrived a short five months after the wildly popular A Hard Day’s Night. Fatigue from Beatlemania and the endless road-studio-road-studio cycle was setting in; it’s visible on the somber album cover and audible in the album’s songs, six of which are covers. Ironically, Beatles for Sale marks the beginning of a shift away from The Beatles’ most crowd-pleasing music, toward introspection — a shift that would only intensify as more time passed. Though lacking the maturity of Help! and the adolescent fun of A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale marks an important step in The Beatles’ story and still holds up almost 60 years later. –Christopher Thiessen
11. With the Beatles (1963)
Runtime: 33:07, 14 tracks
Let It Be: Although it wasn’t officially released as a single, “All My Loving” has all the hallmarks of an early Beatles hit: an all-hook melody, wide-eyed declarations of young romance, and deceptively sophisticated guitar work. The first major songwriting triumph for Paul McCartney, the song might be the sweetest two minutes of 1963. Also: those double-tracked self-harmonies on the last verse rule and rule hard.
Should Have Known Better: Of the contenders here, the monotonously lunk-headed “I Wanna Be Your Man” takes it over the merely unmemorable “All I’ve Got to Do”. Ringo catches plenty of undue flak for his vocal performances, but between this and Please Please Me‘s mush-mouthed “Boys”, he definitely didn’t get off to an auspicious start.
The Word: “Close your eyes, and I’ll kiss you/ Tomorrow I’ll miss you/ Remember I’ll always be true” — from “All My Loving”
A Little Help from My Friends: George Harrison’s first songwriting credit with The Beatles is a good one; the moody “Don’t Bother Me” adds an appealing storm cloud to an otherwise sunny record. Of the covers, the only one that approaches essential status might be John’s bluesy rave-up take on Barrett Strong’s 1958 Motown hit “Money (That’s What I Want)”.
Carry That Weight: Speaking of covers: if you’re looking for the moment when Paul McCartney realized that it was cool to indulge his love of music hall and showtunes, it probably came halfway through his mellow, bongo-aided take on “Till There Was You” from The Music Man. Straying to the sweeter side of rock’s influences has been a McCartney trademark ever since.
Do You Want to Know a Secret? On November 25, 1963, With the Beatles became the first Beatles LP released in North America when it arrived in Canada under the name Beatlemania! With the Beatles. It would be six more weeks until the songs started arriving in the United States in two batches: the originals and “Till There Was You” on Meet the Beatles! and the rest of the covers on The Beatles’ Second Album.
Across the Universe: Released just eight months after The Beatles’ debut, Please Please Me, With the Beatles shouldn’t be nearly as good as it is. Although it was pretty clearly intended as a quick cash-in on the tidal wave of Beatlemania kicked off earlier in the year, it’s still a decent (if not terribly essential) listen today. On spins in 2020, With the Beatles is probably best appreciated as an artifact of a band moving rapidly toward better things. The covers capture just enough of the band’s early Cavern Club days as a raucous no-frills rock band, and the originals point to the growing songwriting talents that would only get better on future releases. –Tyler Clark
Click ahead to see how your favorite album stacks up…