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…
10. Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
Runtime: 36:35, 11 tracks
Let It Be: We’re counting the American LP release as canon here, which means the B-side filled with the best singles of 1967 (from this or any other band) is fair game for inclusion. Each of those tracks has a solid case, but we’re giving it to John Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love”, a brassy valediction that might be the most joyful album closer in the band’s entire catalog. As far as the original EP: “Fool on the Hill” by a landslide.
Should Have Known Better: With a lopsided B-side filled with the best singles of 1967, it was inevitable that the worst song on Magical Mystery Tour would come in the first half. That dubious honor goes to “Flying”, an inoffensive-if-unnecessary bit of languid tape-loop experimentation. Part of the issue comes down to sequencing; “Flying” might be a welcome breather later in the record, but as the third track, it’s just a momentum killer.
The Word: “I am the egg man/ They are the egg men/ I am the walrus/ Goo goo g’joob” — from “I Am the Walrus”
A Little Help from My Friends: George’s dalliance with Eastern music continues on his sole contribution to Magical Mystery Tour; “Blue Jay Way” floats along in a droning Hammond haze made even more disorienting by punctuations of flanging, backwards tape replay, and other studio trickery. For a song about being lost in a metaphorical and literal fog on a sleep-deprived wander through the Hollywood Hills, it’s spot on.
Carry That Weight: If you only had one song with which to introduce someone to the concept of psychedelic rock, “I Am the Walrus” would be it. For better or worse, John Lennon’s acid-casualty freak-out became a blueprint for bands looking to introduce a little weirdness for weirdness’s sake. He’d probably approve of that; stories from inside the studio indicate that Lennon wrote the song as a tweak to listeners looking for deeper symbolism and meaning within a goofy rock song.
Do You Want to Know a Secret? Magical Mystery Tour was produced as a soundtrack for the television film special of the same name, a messy psychedelic road comedy that’s one part Monty Python and one part Merry Pranksters. Although The Beatles were the film’s main musical attractions, they weren’t the only featured band; during the film’s striptease interlude, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band appears as a sleazy lounge act for a performance of their song “Death Cab for Cutie”.
Across the Universe: The inclusion of The Beatles’ scorching run of 1967 singles bumps the uneven Magical Mystery Tour up into the top 10, but just barely. Despite being borne up by undeniable hits like “Strawberry FIelds Forever” and “Penny Lane” the rest of the album succeeds by showcasing each member’s signature charms: sharp psychedelia from John, soulful mysticism from George, and some music-hall charmers from Paul. Though it’s rightly derided as an unfocused sequel to Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour is filled with plenty of lesser charms; it may be mish-mash, but at least it’s a pleasant mish-mash. –Tyler Clark
09. Please Please Me (1963)
Runtime: 32:15, 14 tracks
Let It Be: First impressions mean everything. Though The Beatles had released singles prior, the first line from the first song from their first album had to connect. Not only does “I Saw Her Standing There” connect with its perfect opener, but it remains one of the greatest songs of the last century — a rambunctious, blues-based masterpiece that will probably keep partygoers on the dance floor for the next century, too.
Should Have Known Better: It’d be easy to choose Ringo’s contribution with his cover of The Shirelles’ “Boys”. However, he deserves credit for keeping the album’s energy alive. Late album cover “A Taste of Honey”, on the other hand, is misplaced and distracts from the album’s carefree tone with an unwelcome dollop of over-solemnity.
The Word: “Well, she was just 17/ You know what I mean/ And the way she looked was way beyond compare” — from “I Saw Her Standing There”
A Little Help from My Friends: Perhaps the most famous of The Beatles’ covers, “Twist & Shout” is, simply put, one of the greatest dance songs of all time. Written by songwriting duo Phil Medley and Bert Russell and made famous by The Isley Brothers, the Please Please Me closer is packed with so much energy that The Beatles burst in the song’s iconic harmonic crescendo — a rock & roll motif that has been copied by countless musicians.
Carry That Weight: While Please Please Me is chock-full of influential moments, being the first Beatles record and all, “Love Me Do” was the single that started it all. Released five months prior to the album, the harmonica-fueled love song took The Beatles to No. 17 on the UK chart in its initial run, setting the stage for their breakout moment.
Do You Want to Know a Secret? The Beatles recorded “Love Me Do” three separate times with three different drummers. The first, recorded with early Beatle Pete Best, was used as an audition for producer George Martin. The second, recorded after Martin was unsatisfied with Best’s work, features replacement drummer Ringo Starr. The third, the version which appears on Please Please Me, features session drummer Andy White, who also played on the song’s B-side, “P.S. I Love You”.
Across the Universe: While success came very quickly for The Beatles, John, Paul, and George had been performing together in clubs incessantly for three years before their recording debut. The experience shows on Please Please Me, where the three plus new addition, Ringo, are so effortlessly in sync that you forget how loose and free they’re playing. Harmonies bounce and soar, guitar riffs chime and chug, and the Fab Four sound like they’re having the time of their lives on every single song. The Beatles would go on to produce much greater works, but never would they recreate the purity of that first record—a record unburdened by the pressures of the fame that was to come. –Christopher Thiessen
08. Let It Be (1970)
Runtime: 35:10, 12 tracks
Let It Be: Given the bad vibes associated with the Let It Be recording sessions, it’s not terribly surprising that the best song on the record comes from a happier time. Sourced by producer Phil Spector from a take recorded in 1968, “Across the Universe” encapsulates the best parts of all The Beatles’ eras: the guileless jangle of their debut singles, the spacey vastness of their psychedelic years, and the bittersweetness that began creeping in around the time of The White Album. It may not pack the schmaltzy big-finish energy of the title track, but its evocation of floating cosmic dispersal is an even better match for The Beatles’ ascent from life to legend.
Should Have Known Better: There’s a sense of senioritis throughout Let It Be, and nowhere does the band sound antsier than the record’s two Phil-Spector-included throwaway transitions that sandwich the title track at the end of side one. Of the two, “Maggie Mae” is more interesting by virtue of its mugging scouse accent work and smirking nods towards the group’s early R&B and skiffle days. That leaves the meager jam “Dig It” as Let It Be‘s weakest entrant.
The Word: “When I find myself in times of trouble/ Mother Mary comes to me/ Speaking words of wisdom/ Let it be” — from “Let It Be”
A Little Help from My Friends: George Harrison’s Beatles swan song comes in a pair tracks on Let It Be. Of the two, the melancholy organ kiss-off “I Me Mine” is the most fitting for the occasion; alternating between chanted prayer and raging rock tempest, the track radiates the emotionally complicated ambivalence at the heart of the band’s impending breakup.
Carry That Weight: Much of the fun of listening to Let It Be now involves spotting the signposts that would guide each of The Beatles’ early-’70s solo efforts. With that in mind, the most influential moment on the record might come from the unassuming “Two of Us”, a jaunty Paul anti-ode to his and John’s rapidly diverging paths that sounds like a dress rehearsal for the pastoral domesticity soon to emerge on 1971’s underrated RAM.
Do You Want to Know a Secret? Phil Spector’s production work drew the ire of many within The Beatles’ camp; Paul felt the choral overdubs on “The Long and Winding Road” sapped the song of its emotional heft, and original session producer George Martin apparently told EMI, “I produced the original, and what you should do is have a credit saying ‘Produced by George Martin, over-produced by Phil Spector.'” In 2004, Paul finally righted the 34-year-old wrong with the release of Let It Be… Naked, which removed Spector’s filigree and replaced clunkers “Maggie Mae” and “Dig It” with previously omitted B-side “Don’t Let Me Down”.
Across the Universe: Marred by tempestuous back-to-basics recording sessions, a disputed production style, and the slow-motion dissolution of the band in the runup to its release, Let It Be was always destined to produce complicated feelings from fans. Taken on its own merits, the record contains its share of lovely moments; in particular, the trio of “Get Back”, “Across the Universe”, and “Let It Be” offer a sense of peace and finality to the band’s parting. Still, for an act of The Beatles’ stature, a more grandiose closing statement was both desired and deserved. –Tyler Clark
07. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Runtime: 30:10, 13 tracks
Let It Be: It’s hard not to pick the title track as the best; it’s even harder to deny the greatness of “Can’t Buy Me Love”. It’s the kind of endearing love song multi-millionaires shouldn’t be able to pull off, yet when Paul sings, “I don’t care too much for money,” you believe it.
Should Have Known Better: Late in the album, The Beatles decided to perform back-to-back songs about vague conversations between lovers. “Things We Said Today” reminisces on the past while “When I Get Home” looks forward. Neither is particularly inspiring, but we can’t let Lennon get away with the line “I’m gonna love her till the cows come home” on the latter.
The Word: “I don’t care too much for money/ Money can’t buy me love” — from “Can’t Buy Me Love”
A Little Help from My Friends: Lennon and McCartney penned every song on A Hard Day’s Night, the first record devoid of cover songs. They also split lead vocals on every track except one — the Harrison-led dance song “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You”. Though McCartney later called the song formulaic, Harrison’s charm shines through as he hopes to sweetly woo his love.
Carry That Weight: If “A Hard Day’s Night” isn’t the best song on the album, it certainly has the greatest singular moment. The song’s opening dissonant chord has been debated for decades, as the four plus George Martin all deliver different notes and timbres, which combine in musical glory. It’s the album opener bands have been trying to top ever since. None have succeeded.
Do You Want to Know a Secret? The craze surrounding A Hard Day’s Night evoked intense reactions from nearly everyone in America. You’ve seen footage of screaming girls, but the angry anti-Beatles regiment was just as loud. In a prime example of “Old Man Yells at Cloud,” writer John Bull of The Greenwood Commonwealth wrote, “Not since the locust ravaged crops to utter devastation years ago has the United States been so plagued by insects.”
Across the Universe: If Side B of A Hard Day’s Night was as good as Side A, it would be the greatest pop album of all time. As it stands, it’s still one of them. The Beatles had indeed been working like dogs, and that fatigue wears into the album’s final tracks. The Beatles, however, fueled their fame-born discontent and sorrow into post-breakup songs like “I’ll Cry Instead”. Even love songs like “And I Love Her” carry a sense of melancholy. Despite their disillusionment with fame, The Beatles managed to craft a blast of a record to make us all “feel alright.” –Christopher Thiessen
06. The Beatles “The White Album” (1968)
Runtime: 93:33, 30 tracks
Let It Be: It seems unfair to compare songs like “Helter Skelter” with “Blackbird” or “Dear Prudence” with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. But if one essential song must be chosen from The Beatles’ most sprawling album, the piecewise surgery that resulted in “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” must be honored. Like The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, it’s a perfect lesson that small scraps of unfinished songs should never be discarded.
Should Have Known Better: Potential for great success lies in the path of experimentation and artistic uncertainty; so does potential for great failure. The latter befalls Paul McCartney’s “Wild Honey Pie” — a strange 52 seconds of Paul banging on acoustic guitars and drums and yelling, “Honey pie.” It gets old after about 10 seconds.
The Word: “When I hold you in my arms/ And I feel my finger on your trigger/ I know nobody can do me no harm / Because happiness is a warm gun” — from “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”
A Little Help from My Friends: A strong contender for best White Album song period, Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” will draw tears every single time. If Harrison’s haunting lyrics don’t do the trick (they will), Eric Clapton certainly will with the most mournful guitar playing ever recorded.
Carry That Weight: While competition with The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones was essential to The Beatles’ drive to be the greatest, it was The Who’s unfiltered rage that inspired McCartney to write “Helter Skelter”. The driving hard rock classic became a prototype for the heavy metal genre, which would officially be born a year later.
Do You Want to Know a Secret? Speaking of The Beach Boys, The Beatles intentionally parodied their hit “California Girls” on album opener “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, with other reference points including Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.”, Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind”, and Jerry Lee Lewis’ vocal style.
Across the Universe: The longest and most experimental Beatles record is also their most divisive among fans. Some find it an overly bloated, indulgent affair, while others find it perfectly flawed. I’ve transitioned from the former to the latter, finding even the most off-the-wall songs of The White Album (“Wild Honey Pie”, “Revolution 9”) entirely intriguing. At its best, it’s the greatest piece of rock experimentation in history. At its worst, the sound of a band falling apart. Either way you see it, it’s worth listening to over and over again until your love and hate for the album mold into one. –Christopher Thiessen
Click ahead to see our very favorite Beatles albums…