Monday, September 25, 2006

Beatlemania, Part 1

After a brief commercial break, we're back and better than ever. Well, we're largely improved, though not exactly in one piece. We've certainly been working out. We're back, anyway.

A few weeks back, I had a conversation with a friend of mine that went something like:

"Hey friend!"
"Hallo, chapman."
"Say, what's your favorite Beatles album."
"Aren't you going to comment on my new haircut?"
"Don't be ridiculous--of course not. Why would I do that?"
"Because it's a navy mohawk."
"So it is, old sport. So it is."
"But back to your original question..."
"...which was?"
"What IS the best Beatles album?"
"Actually I asked about your favorite."
"Aren't those the same?"
"No. Kelly Kapowski was never the most beatiful woman in the world. But she was my favorite."
"Gotcha. Right. Moment of silence."


Well, I'll do us all one better. Over the next week, I'll countdown all major original Beatles albums from worst to best. We'll call this Milam's Beatlemania!

A few fair warnings:
1) Neither With the Beatles nor Yellow Submarine will be included for consideration. With the Beatles was an an album mostly of covers, and Yellow Submarine was a project to score their animated movie. So, not exactly "Beatles albums" in the most conventional sense.
2) I understand and invite disagreement--with a band like the Beatles, everyone has their own opinion. None of these albums are duds, and all have legitimately great songs. So, let's get after it.

11) Beatles for Sale
The fourth Beatles LP, Beatles for Sale followed Hard Day's Night late in 1964. Of course, listening to these two albums successively illustrates that Beatles for Sale was a rushed album of second-tier material that the label wanted as a follow up to Hard Day's Night's historic popularity. It does feature what is arguably the Beatles' blandest #1 single ("Eight Days a Week"). It's hard to call any songs on this record bad, but only a few truly stand out. It's clear that the boys outdid themselves on Hard Day's Night and hurriedly wrote Beatles for Sale as an afterthought.
Best Song: "I'll Follow the Sun"
Sleeper Favorite Song: "No Reply"

10) The Beatles (aka, The White Album)
I know, I know. I'm likely catching hell for this. Mods and rockers and ardent anti-snob snobs everywhere sleep with the White Album under their pillow. But after all its eccentricities and excesses and self-indulgences, this double album is little more than a glorified put-on--the only time in the Beatles' career that even they didn't take themselves seriously. The result is a mixed bag of humor, energy, grasping failures, beautiful successes, and crippling self-awareness. If Sgt. Pepper was the first concept album, the White Album is the anti-concept album. Maybe after five years (this came out in 1968) of musical brilliance and pop cultural dominance, they just needed a good laugh. Maybe after creating such a highly intellectualized album (Sgt. Pepper in 1967), they needed to blow off some cognitive steam. Maybe they just needed everyone--themselves included--to take their music less seriously. That's fine. But nobody's joke album (see: Dylan's Self-Portrait) was ever their best.
Best Song: "Dear Prudence"
Favorite Song: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

9) Please Please Me
The first Beatles record, Please Please Me debuted in 1963. Many have said that the Beatles were two bands--one before their recording career, and one after. This album suggests why the Beatles were such an exciting rock band at their outset. From the live energy of "I Saw Her Standing There" to the melodic brilliance of "Love Me Do," to the flawless execution of "P.S. I Love You," to the definitive cover of "Twist and Shout," Please Please Me encompasses what made the Beatles such a strong band at such a young age: attention to detail, facility with melody, and an unparalleled passion for rock and roll's purest roots.
Best Song: "Please Please Me"
Favorite Song: "Please Please Me"

8) Let It Be
Although Abbey Road was recorded last, Let It Be (1970) was the last original Beatles album to hit the public. This is a tough call, as it is one of my favorites. Unfortunately, the cluttered production (half of the takes were done by Phil Spector, some of the takes from the famous "rooftop concert" actually made it to the album) audibly holds the album back, and the result is something engaging but disjointed. This album, originally entitled Get Back (after the hit single), seeks to revisit the band's roots, to make something new out of the oldest rock standards. Just like in Please Please Me, it is evident that John, Paul, George, and Ringo are never more happy or unified than when in the shared musical space of straight rock and roll. There is true greatness here alongside some errors and indulgences (mostly authored by Spector himself), but all of it is so incredibly listenable and inviting that Let It Be stands above some of the other, more famous Beatles albums.
Best Song: "Across the Universe"
Favorite Song: "I Dig a Pony"

(Side note: Legend has it that Lennon and Spector recorded "Across the Universe" almost entirely independent of the band, as they didn't think much of the song. Nearly forty years later, it remains one of their most relevant, poignant, and universal compositions.)

Part Two Tuesday!

Nothing's gonna change my world,

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