Top Ten Beatles Songs
Here is my list of top ten Beatles songs. The difference between my list and the lists of others is that I have criteria. I have used this criteria for other top song lists, and it works to explain my thought process as a song-writer and former front man for a local band whose posters were more famous than the band itself. I’ve studied composition and written about 200 songs, mostly crappy ones that I’ve thrown away. However, that experience of failure gives me a unique perspective when analyzing songs.
A. Melody and Chorus.
Melody is the most subjective category. However, a catchy tune has some common threads and works because of intervals and surprises. One thing the Beatles were masters of in their earlier years was writing choruses that were at once surprising but expected; their musical choices made sense within the context of their songs. The chorus never seemed to be a happy accident. Few bands can say that.
B. Song Structure
Does the song have a pick up note in the beginning to jump start it? Does the song break away from the typical verse, verse, chorus, verse chorus, end. I give bonus points for songs that have a bridge, the third part that leads us away from the chorus and then returns us back to the chorus. I also give points for key changes and rhythm changes within a song.
Are the lyrics original and interesting? Do they surprise? Are the lyrics poetic? Good lyrics can make a good song great (“Short Skirt Long Jacket” by Cake) or make a good song into a no so great one (“Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys).
Are the instruments used in a clever, unique manner? Is the musicianship on the instruments top notch? Are there unique or unusual instruments in the song? Do they incorporate unusual styles into their songs. The Beatles did this well with their use of Mellotrons, sitars and various horns and strings.
Top Ten Beatles Songs
10. I want you (She’s so Heavy)
If rock and roll never goes extreme, it’s not rock and roll. “I Want You” is a different kind of love song. Throughout the song, George Harrison gets soulful on his guitar in way Clapton only dreamed of. With George, it was in the bones. What is also great about the song is that the sweet “Here Comes the Sun” starts the second side of the LP or starts right after the glorious noise of “I Want You” on CDs. They get bonus points for stretching the envelope with the noisy section at the end.
9. Eleanor Rigby
The song talks about loneliness, isolation and pain: all the elements of a great song! It starts with the chorus like many Beatles songs. And it works to glorious effect. The strings dominate the song and gives it a slightly baroque feel. It’s classical pop/rock before Yes or ELP even formed. I feel slightly bad for Ringo though, who was out of a job during this song.
This song is the hardest to rank. It could be 9, it could also go at number 2. I put it here for its foundation can be seen in earlier songs, thus, it’s not as groundbreaking as some of the other songs on the list.
8. Only a Northern Song
“I Want You” rocks; this track is the most psychedelic of their catalogue. Moreover, the instrumentation is incredible. "Only a Northern Song" is an unusual choice for a top ten list, but what made the Beatles great was not just their song writing acumen, it was their ability to break though rock and roll convention and succeed. “Only a Northern Song” does just that.
This is yet another Beatles song with self-reflective under-pinnings, “If you’re listening to this song, you may think the chords are going wrong--but they’re not, we just wrote it like that…” It features a church organ and garage band drums with psychedelic horns. The song was written by Harrison during his frustration as a Beatle.
In Harrison’s words, “Only A Northern Song was a joke relating to Liverpool, the Holy City in the North of England. In addition, the song was copyrighted Northern Songs Ltd, which I don't own, so: 'It doesn't really matter what chords I play... as it's only a Northern Song'.” Good thing he stayed a Beatle; they wouldn’t have recorded one their best, “Something”, without Harrison.
7. For No One
Talk about your painful break ups. The hook on this track almost makes you forget that the man featured in the song was left by his lover who doesn’t care about him one lick.
You want her, you need her
And yet you don't believe her when she says her love is dead
You think she needs you…
You stay home, she goes out
She says that long ago she knew someone but now he's gone
She doesn't need him
The baroque clavichord, french horn, and other instrumentation works wonderfully here. The song starts with one clavichord chord and then the verse. In classic McCartney style, the verse beautifully sets you up for the chorus, and the chorus brings it back down to the verse. Whether this song was McCartney expressing his feelings, or him manipulating the feelings of his audience (as he was a master of), the song can cut if you relate to the tale of lost love.
6. Strawberry Fields
The songs gets high marks for the keyboards, the pick up note into the chorus, then the verse, and the philosophical lyrics. And Ringo’s drums stand out beautifully. I originally put this song at number 2. The reason for the move is not that I like this song less, but I gave 1-5 a longer listen and decided on the move based on their quality. As for lyrics, this is one of their best. And the backward sounding instrument track is innovative. Did they influence Pink Floyd or vice versa, or was it just time for backwards instrument track sounds?
This song is one of the most popular on top ten Beatles lists for its undisputed quality of recording and musicianship.
5. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
The song features sitar, irony, drugs, prostitution (or extra marital affairs), a lovely tune, lines like “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me…” What’s not to love?
Here’s what makes me think it might involve prostitution, though Beatleheads claim its about an affair, “She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh; I told her I didn’t and crawled off to sleep in the bath…” Well, prostitutes work in the morning, and news that he picked up a pro. might lead a guy to sleep it off in the other room. Whatever the case, this song could reasonably be number one on any Beatles list.
It has great guitar parts, great transitions between verse and a kind of half chorus, and one of the best bridges ever. This song has something all right; it has been covered by over 150 artists.
Some people call this song sentimental and like a “shampoo commercial” and don’t like it. I’ll stick with Lennon and McCartney’s feelings on this, thanks.
“John Lennon and Paul McCartney both rated the song highly. Lennon said, "I think that's about the best track on the album, actually," while McCartney said "For me I think it's the best he's written."”
3. A Day in a Life
With lines like “now we know how many wholes it takes to fill the Albert Hall” and the transition “into a dream”, this song is a wonderful journey and way to end the Sgt Peppers album. The song starts beautifully with the acoustic guitar and piano, then describes a deadly car crash. Few bands could get away with this clash of lyric and music. The song has been covered by The Fall, Neil Young, Jose Feliciano, and many more. It could easily be number 1 on a list without any whinging from me.
Let me add that the ringing phone in the song pre-dates Pink Floyd’s song “Time.” Take that Mr. Waters!
“Just as it sounds: I was reading the paper one day and noticed two stories. One was about the Guinness heir who killed himself in a car. That was the main headline story. He died in London in a car crash. On the next page was a story about four thousand potholes in the streets of Blackburn, Lancashire, that needed to be filled. Paul's contribution was the beautiful little lick in the song, 'I'd love to turn you on,' that he'd had floating around in his head and couldn't use. I thought it was a damn good piece of work.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
I have two words for you. Are you listening? Are you listening to me? Are you?
His guitar throughout the song would make even Hendrix turn his head. Okay, perhaps not Hendrix, but most guitarists. It’s also why I rank Harrison as one of the best rock guitarists. And remember, this was in 1966 before all the overdubs and effects of current music.
Yes, this is a Harrison heavy list, even if I thought his solo career weaker than that of the other three Beatles. My one critique is they should have had more cowbell. Listen to it in the chorus.
The Beatles in 1966 were very successful. So successful that they were paying the top tax bracket in England, 95%. “There’s one for you, nineteen for me.” Those lads were good at their math too. I’m for a progressive tax, but 95%? That’s enough to get you to write a song, play more guitar and turn it up to 11!!
1. I am the Walrus
It has the best bridge of all the Beatles songs: “Sitting in an English garden, waiting for the sun…” The words are enlightened gibberish. “I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob”?
Lennon wanted this song to be the single after “All you Need is Love”, but their producer George Martin and Paul McCartney thought “Hello Goodbye” was a more commercial song.
While Martin and McCartney may have been right at the time, who today thinks “Hello Goodbye” is a better song than "I am the Walrus"?
Their argument about what single to promote highlighted the difference between the two master songwriters. While Paul wrote great songs, he would lean to choices for the more commercial. Lennon didn’t seem to care about writing hit songs as much as doing something different.
“The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend, the second line on another acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko.”
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
All you Yoko haters need to rethink your dislike of her. If she influenced the writing of lyrics like “...man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allen Poe” and “see how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly…”, then Yoko must be forgiven! And to Roger Waters: John beat you with the flying pigs by at least seven years.
The violins and other instruments fit in seamlessly into this masterpiece. In the opening of the song, the descending minor key on the electric piano turns slightly dissonant as the violins take over. It makes the song a wonder right from the start. Then you hear the lyrics, "I am he as you are me…", and you think, “WHAAAT?” Acid trip John does it again. Who else would have the balls and influence to sing, “Yellow matta custard dripping from a dead dogs eye” and make a hit song out of it?
Honorable Mention: All of the Beatles songs are quality with a few exceptions that includes “The Word”, “Run for your Life” and Dr. Robert.”