Didn't think it would be a trilogy, did you? Didn't think I'd hit you with a Return of the Beati, did you? Didn't think I'd come back on the fifth day and finish you off, Mortal Kombat style, did you?
Well, it is. And I am. And I am.
Here they are, the Top Three Beatles Albums in descending order:
3) A Hard Day's Night (1964):
The decision of whether to place HDN in the third or second spot was the toughest of the list. This is likely my favorite Beatles album as a listen, and it certainly captures them at the absolute apex of Beatlemania. It's hard to imagine now (or really from the vantage point of ANY era), but five of the first six tracks were Top 10 hits (excluding George's infectious "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You"). This is an album of subtle anomaly--infinitely catchy and accessible, although lyrically disjointed and at times surreal. An album of John Mega-Hits when Paul was supposed to be the pop songbird. An album of hugely influential shifts in theme ("Things We Said Today," "I'll Be Back") nestled, almost subversively, between uberpop standards (the essential "Tell Me Why" being my favorite). Perhaps nowhere else were John's prodigious talents so fearlessly showcased, as he took on almost the entire songwriting load. And what a load: "If I Fell," and "I'll Cry Instead" specifically are two songs of enormous complexity, cleverly packaged with a pretty melody and a dulcet arrangement. Hard Day's Night, ultimately, marks the last time that the Beatles were the best rock and roll band in the world, and forecasts the phase in which they would redefine rock as a genre and artistic medium. It is the sound of a band at the absolute top of the game--right before they changed all the rules.
Best Song: "If I Fell"
Favorite Song: "Tell Me Why"
Sleeper Favorite: "I'll Be Back"
2) Abbey Road (1969):
Though a chief advocate of pop songwriting--and a champion of Hard Day's Night's pop songwriting--Abbey Road tops HDM because of the successes of its risks. Borrowing something from two-headed albums like Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, Abbey Road gives two extraordinary halves that form a transcendent whole. Not only is John at his experimental best here ("Come Together"), but Abbey Road features George's greatest work. "Something," and "Here Comes the Sun" are two rock classics, and mark the moment that George went from good songwriter to great. Of course, Abbey Road remains largely Paul's album (both in conception and composition), and the medley of related numbers on the back side is one of pop music's finest half-hours. Plenty has been written about this medley's technical nooks and crannies (I HIGHLY recommend Tim Riley's Tell Me Why), but maybe it's not enough. Several lucid listens reveal what has been alarmingly evident all along: at some point, the Beatles stopped being clever songwriters and started being unparalleled composers of pop music. From the opening cadence of "You Never Give Me Your Money," to the fast-paced vignettes of the Sun King, Mr. Mustard, and Pam, to Paul's key manipulation in the final run, to the sheer impact of "Golden Slumbers," to the triumphant reprisal of "You Never Give Me Your Money's" opening theme, to the extended jam that features each member, one last time, noodling over the foundation, to the penultimate refrain of "Carry That Weight" and the climactic coda of "The End," Abbey Road's concluding half simply transcends criticism and scrutiny. It's worth mentioning that Abbey Road was the last album the Beatles recorded, although Let It Be was released last. Given its successes, it is the way the Beatles should have gone out.
Best Song: Have to take the medley as an entirety here
Favorite Piece: "Golden Slumbers"
Sleeper Favorite: "Polythene Pam"
1) Revolver (1966)
Though fans have always championed Sgt. Pepper as the Beatles' greatest achievement, critics have recently leaned towards Revolver. Rightly so. Revolver is, to me, the greatest Beatles album because it is the most encompassing Beatles album. It is great for having Rubber Soul's consistency. It is great for having A Hard Day's Night's pop sensibility and energy ("Taxman," "Got to Get You Into My Life"). It is great for having Sgt. Pepper's experimentation ("Eleanor Rigby," "I'm Only Sleeping," "Tomorrow Never Knows"). It is great for having Abbey Road's supreme musicality ("Here, There, and Everywhere," "Good Day Sunshine"). The only thing even close to a dud here is George's sitar lesson "Love You To," but even that only appears weak relative to the enormous strength of John's sitar-laced closer "Tomorrow Never Knows." This is an album that tackles huge themes (death, loss of innocence, joy, uncertainty) in a way that was at once of its time and of any time. This is a quintessential album of the sixties because of its inescapable musical context, but it remains as vital and relevant today as ever. Who, forty years later, doesn't curse the Taxman in the same way, or worry about the accessibilty of his own local "Doctor Robert," or recognize on a crowded street a thousand lonely faces that belong in the landscape of Eleanor Rigby? Who that has ever felt the joy of love or the wonder of loss or the anxiety of a compromised relationship can deny the universal power of "Here, There, and Everywhere," "For No One," or "Got to Get You Into My Life"? Revolver isn't a great album because it contains great songs that run the entire emotional spectrum; Revolver is the best Beatles album because it contains definitive songs for the entire emotional spectrum. And, to my ear, it's never been topped.
Best Song: "Eleanor Rigby"
Favorite Song: "Tomorrow Never Knows"
Sleeper Favorite Song: "And Your Bird Can Sing"
I'm only sleeping,
P.S. I'll be in Arkansas next week, so expect a Lucero review from "across the river." Or maybe I'll write it when I'm "that much further west." Or maybe...when I stop making arcane references and just write the dern thing.